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After watching my phone turn from 7:59 to 8:00 this morning, I called the urgent care. “Call back in three hours,” a receptionist with a nice voice asks of me.
THE WAITING ROOM
The scarlet question mark a white mask reassuringly issued. The room was empty, save one croupy child. I withdrew to an empty corner.
It was two days ago that I was administered the COVID-19 test. The urgent care is two minutes from my driveway. The test results are a lifetime away.
I wrote my will yesterday. Waiting and watching.
The morning begins with an email alert that five students at my university are mandatorily quarantined after known exposure down in Southern California. Test results to follow. I send an ‘I told you so’ text with the alert attached to my boyfriend. Earlier emails from the chancellor closing down classes for the next term were deemed “too alarmist” or “reactionary” for my occasionally irritatingly imperturbable boyfriend. I had replied, “They know more than they are saying, I’m sure of it.” His reply, “Don’t be a conspiracy theorist.”
My fever spikes. My lungs feel as though Chef Ramsey is prepping them for supper. And he’s not in a good mood.
“The First Case of COVID-19 in the County Is Reportedly an Orcutt Man in His Sixties” reads the news release. I live in Orcutt. It’s an unincorporated town of 35,000, a bedroom community. Commuters and retirees. That headline came to my email inbox via an app that aspires to bring neighbors together. The ensuing comments left by my neighbors inspire fear of what community togetherness might look like in the weeks to follow.
Someone on the television, YouTube delivered in eight to ten minute bites, said that these times will bring out “the best and worst of us.” The origin of that phrase eludes me, and I am too tired to look it up. However, I know they were provoked by grim circumstances and spoken with more constancy and faith in the goodwill of humankind than he who speaks them now.
Those neighborhood watchers, they unite in one faithless voice crying the historical cry of “witch.” They want a name. Debates of HIPAA follow. The greater good versus one man’s ability to completely recall his whereabouts. The origin of his “community transmission” unknown. Unknown man’s veracity and fidelity suspect, “…hope this guy doesn’t conveniently forget that he was out ‘drinking with the boys’ and told his wife he was at choir practice.”
The Watchers would surely identify me, distrusting a “corrupt Public Health Department.” I write my own virtual headline “Second Positive Case for County Coming from Orcutt Woman in Forties Also UCSB Student.” Petrified and paranoid, as not many women meet my demographic. I’m distinctive in our little hamlet for occupying both these worlds. Unorthodox, my choice to be a student at my age, a blip now becomes a beacon on social media radar. Would they DOX me, as the kids say. The kids; my kids.
What would the stigma of infection look like? I remember fourth grade me mockingly sterilizing my desk from Jeff Long’s cooties. His expression is haunting me now. Karma. My son, a freshman, would he bear the sins of the mother? What was my sin? Where had I been exposed to someone’s cooties? Who else had I exposed? Could I satiate The Watchers with an accurate diary of my own existence?
WE WILL CALL YOU BACK
Monday 11:52 a.m. PST
Sixty-six hours later. The results are still not in. I ask if they can inquire with the Department of Public Health, “Are you worse?”
How do I unbiasedly answer? Of course I’ve convinced myself I’m worse. However, I am not actually better either. Receptionist with the nice voice, don’t you know I’m planning my funeral, the words for my tombstone, who gets my car? Psychology is wizardry. Tell me I’m fine, and it’s another virus just like the other hundred I’ve had over my lifetime. Tell me to get rest and drink fluids. Tell me all the useless chicken soup advice for the hypochondriac that I dramatically need to proclaim to an ex-husband holding my son hostage and my sub-conscience needling my overactive imagination.
Tell me something. Anything. There is a pandemic inside my brain cells.
FROM ME TO WE
Tuesday 1:10 p.m. PST
The urgent care calls, or rather returns one of many from me, and requests I return for a new test. The first had been among several that failed at the lab. It will be another five to seven days for the results.
Exhausted with my questions, the nurse confesses that Public Health would know the results before they would.
It’s been 11 days since my first sign of any illness. I realize now that any result will come after the worst has passed, I am on the mend. But still, the Public Nurse I now am speaking with reminds me, I must isolate. We speak about false negatives, China performing CT scans on patients that prove patients are positive for the virus after swabs were negative, and how repeated serial swabbing is not being done.
A limited background in medical education allows me to understand, there are too many unknowns.
Wednesday 5:45 p.m. PST
Counting the days forward, I call my ex-husband to inform and arrange for the future return of our son. I didn’t think I could miss a 14-year-old boy so much, or he I. His one-in-the-morning texts of “how are you feeling?” proving we are more than his occasional forced hugs. Then my ex-husband told me his wife had suddenly lost her mom the night before. A heart attack.
Her name was Sandy. My son loved her, told me once she reminded him of me. When I texted the only words I knew how to text to my son’s step-mom, her response was “I’m devastated.”
One death. When the world is turned upside down, no milk or toilet paper to be found, our retirements plummeting, home-schooling our children, or isolated within our homes waiting on the results of a test that will come after the worst has come and gone, what will it take to remember the world is not made of “me’s” but of “we’s.” For me, one death.
This world is cruel in all the ways it has always been before the spore. Cancer diagnoses will be made, heart attacks will happen, suicides will occur with or without COVID-19.
This is our time to become the best of ourselves and remember to be a “we.”