“Just keep looking straight ahead,” the woman said as she fed the cotton-tipped stick up my nostril, through my brain, and into my soul.

It was my first time being tested. I told her so before the prodding began.

Credit: United Nations COVID-19 Response/Unsplash

“It’s not fun,” she had warned me — and she spoke the truth. It was uncomfortable, it brought tears to my eyes, and it went on forever.

But the same could be said of the year leading up to it.

Since last March, our once-expansive worlds have shrunk down to ever smaller, ever more frustrating spaces. First, we lost our theaters and dance floors and lecture halls. When it grew too dark, too chilly, and just too dangerous for even a socially distant backyard happy hour, we shuffled indoors, confined to our homes by walls that keep friends and viruses equally at bay. Now as I await test results, my universe has shriveled to a single isolated bedroom for days on end, where I’m not even supposed to let the dog in to snuggle.

I’m lonely. I’m bored. And I have waaay too much time to think about the hot-sprawling-mess of a country that I’m not allowed to wander. Though I’d rather receive 2,020 consecutive COVID tests than relive the past dozen months, I did learn something valuable in that time: that I’ve spent my entire life overestimating our government’s ability to protect us from harm. From mutating, continent-hopping viruses. From self-serving tyrants with personality disorders. From feces-wielding mobs of Nazis. All of whom have waged war with us on our very own soil, with astonishing degrees of success.

I used to believe that despite our considerable faults and the more hideous crannies of our history, America’s irrefutable ingenuity, vigilant gatekeepers, and boundless resources could vanquish any problem that vexed us. But tell that to those who lost jobs and businesses this year. Lost loved ones. Lost their lives.

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And those dazzling red, white, and blue virtues seem useless at reconciling citizens who loathe one another’s politics. And values. And ways of life.

It’s like President Biden said during his inaugural speech last week, the January wind whipping his snow-hued locks from his scalp: “… we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities. Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build — and much to gain.

“Few people in our nation’s history have … found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we are in now.”

I’m a cynic. A skeptic. An eye-rolling scoffer who checks out and checks her phone when speeches start sliding toward the grandiose or mawkish. I often joke that I’m dead inside — and as a writer, I know words are cheap. Plus I have a hard time watching Joe Biden try to inspire anyone; he’s a clumsy orator who always looks like he’s trying to read a menu without his glasses.

But I found myself weeping as I watched him speak at the Capitol. Sobbing with gratitude for a leader who’s so clearly and genuinely committed to doing right by the republic. To restoring dignity, empathy, and humility to the Oval Office. And to giving us a hope — however tenuous — to hang onto.

I’m not itching to jump on the unity train that Biden called for, but when he insisted, “We will get through this together — together” … well, those promising final words pierced this lonely COVID hermit’s heart like a Q-tip jabbing at my nasopharynx.

It’s funny. Days later, I can’t even remember what the test truly felt like. But I haven’t forgotten the nurse’s words — which may prove more pragmatic than the president’s preachin’s as we continue to face the unpleasant stings of our imperfect Union:

Just keep looking straight ahead.

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