In early 2020, preventative measures to contain Covid-19 failed. A lack of information and understanding propelled the coronavirus on its journey from sea to shining sea. This is a short story that depicts those missteps that led to the coronavirus journey.
March 30th, New York City
“Hello, Dr. Palmer’s office, how may I help you?”
“Hi… this is Gavin… Gavin McLoed, I think I have the coronavirus. How can I get a test?”
“Hi Gavin, could you tell me your symptoms?”
My heart is pounding with fear, fear of the virus, fear of being turned away, but I keep that to myself.
“My chest is tight. I have a headache.”
“Do you have a fever? Are you coughing?”
“Have you been traveling internationally of late? Do you know anyone who has the coronavirus?”
My voice falters. “No, I haven’t been traveling. I don’t know. This is New York…”
“Gavin, I’m sorry. Dr. Palmer won’t be able to refer you for Covid testing. Testing is limited at this time, and your symptoms don’t fit the criteria. It’s probably a cold. Take some rest, self-isolate, and monitor your symptoms.”
My eyes water. I am so alone.
“Gavin, if your symptoms get worse, call an urgent care facility.”
I press the hang-up icon.
Reflexively, I inhale and the air rushing in to lungs burns. My mind spins, searching for an exit from my ordeal, and finds none. I don’t need to be a doctor to know I have pneumonia, but without a cough, no one will test me.
Will I die?
The dam breaks. Self-control is lost. Tears drip down my cheek.
I miss my mom. I miss my family. I should never have left Vermont. I look around me, at my walls. I am in a four-hundred square foot prison cell.
A month ago, I was at the pinnacle of my life. My theater company was signed for a month’s worth of shows on Broadway. My life was all about bouncing from rehearsal to bars and back. Money was coming in and my group was spending like kings.
Then the whole world fell apart.
New York City is a trap, and I fell for it.
The walls are constricting around me. A yellowing stain mars one corner of the ceiling. I’m sure it was smaller yesterday. Two tiny cockroaches scurry across the dining table. I am too exhausted to hunt them down.
And now I’m going to die alone. My studio is my coffin.
I take a piece of toilet paper and wipe my eyes. I’m on my own. I have to suffer through this on my own. Nobody is going to take care of me.
Nobody. And I can’t go out.
After what seems to be an hour but probably is more like ten minutes, I go into survival mode. I have to take care of myself. I reach for my phone, my lifesaver, my only real property, and open the app Instacart. I make my order, and that is all the effort I can muster.
My eyes close.
My lungs ache as the air wheezes in. I am exhausted.
I nod off and dream about drowning.
The buzzing sound of the apartment intercom breaks into my sleep. Five hours have passed, and I still feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.
“Hi. I’m here to deliver your Instacart order.”
The groceries have arrived. Too exhausted to go down, I press the button to let him in. After a long extended minute, the knock on the door comes. I stagger to open it. There is this young black guy, holding two bags of groceries.
I look at him for a long time. I’m just too tired to talk.
“Are you Gavin?”
“Yeah,” I manage to say. “Could you bring them in?”
“Sure,” my shopper says. He seems like a nice guy. He puts the bags by the fridge. “Enjoy the day.”
I give him my best strained smile. “You too.”
April 9th, New York City
My head is killing me. My damn brothers can’t keep their mouths closed. They’re all hollering as they smack into the chairs while they criss-cross underneath the table with their toy cars. Grandma’s on the rocking chair, coughing up a storm in front of a television blasting news about the pandemic. I want them all to shut up.
I rub my temples and stare at the plate of an omelette, hash browns, and bacon.
Mom is peering at me from the kitchen where she’s washing dishes. She’s going to complain about my frowning, I know it.
“Boys, go play in your room,” my Mom says crossly.
“But, there ain’t nothing to do there.”
“Go. Grandma don’t want to hear all your banging. Go.”
Mom puts her dishes down. “Dameon, you hardly ate any of your breakfast.”
It tastes like cardboard. I don’t have the heart to tell her. She’s sensitive.
“Why don’t you take a day off?”
“I told you already. I tell you every day. The job I got, nobody gonna pay me if I call in sick. Nobody cares if I miss a day. It’s just paid by the job.”
“You ain’t looking good. Take a day off. We’ll manage. Mrs. Thomas said she’ll give us an extension on the rent.”
“For how long? That bitch will want her rent.”
“Dameon… watch your language.”
I get up.
“Sorry, but she is,” I say. “I gotta work.”
Mom’s worried, like really worried, the same type of worry I saw when Dad was arrested. I don’t like seeing it.
Outside in the fresh air, I feel a bit better as if the vice grip pressing on my head has been loosened. Streets are empty. Everyone’s terrified of the virus, and it’s easy to make money. I scroll the batches, looking at the tips. An order of organic foods from the nearby gourmet market seems easy enough. I do the shopping and deliver. I’m fast. The dude increases his tip by five dollars.
I try to stay safe. Grandma has diabetes. I don’t want her getting that virus. Some of my friends’ grandparents got it and died. This virus is serious, and now everyone is saying masks are needed, which is all messed up. A couple weeks ago the same damn officials were saying that masks were not needed. But I change with the times. It makes sense. Hospitals use masks to keep doctors safe. Why not me? So, I wear a bandanna, which makes me look like a gangster, and I wear my gloves, which make me look like a pussy. I’m a pussy gangster. In these times you gotta keep your humor about you. The company’s promised to send a health kit, but it hasn’t arrived. Mail’s been shit. I don’t know if it’ll ever arrive.
I’m driving back from another order. Headache’s kicking in again. I park my car next to Stop & Shop and flip through the possible batches. I’m suddenly feeling battered, and I shouldn’t be. It makes me remember my first day of freshman football practice. Coach thought we were a bunch of pussies and had us smacking into poles for hours. When I got home, I had so little energy I couldn’t even open the apartment door. I’m feeling that now.
Paranoia’s wearing me thin. I check that CDC site, looking at the list of symptoms: fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Headaches aren’t there. I’m probably okay. Damn migraines. My head is throbbing and I’m thinking that Mom’s right. I should be home resting.
Then I see someone post a fifty-dollar tip for deli sandwiches and fresh fruit. Headaches or no headaches, it’s worth it.
In no time, I’m already at the store. I get the food and pack it all up. It’s a ten-minute drive to Evergreen Apartments. The place is nice, like a hotel, all clean and shiny. The lobby has all these vases filled with tropical shrubs at every corner. A coffee shop faces this indoor miniature waterfall. I wish it were open. I could use some coffee, a hell of a lot of it. A masked receptionist calls the room and gives me a temporary pass for the elevator. I reach the 14th floor, find the room, and press the doorbell. A woman’s voice tells me to place the bags in front. I thank her for her business and leave without seeing her face.
I am dragging, and I take a breather on this nice, soft armchair laid out in front of a hallway window. I don’t know how long I’m there. When I realize I’m nodding off, I get up and move to the elevator.
I’ve got a knack for math. Maybe I’ll be an accountant one day if I can get some money to go to a community college. I like adding up all those tips I make. It gives me something to look forward to. I look up my last order. The tip’s been cut. It’s down to five. Bitch baited me, and I’m feeling faint. My hand slips the bandanna down so I can get more air.
I want to curse. I want to run back to the room and pound on the door, but I can barely walk. And I’m finding it hard to breathe. The elevator comes and I stumble in. Vertigo is setting in. I’m not in good shape. I need to lean against the wall for support.
“Are you doing deliveries?”
I turn. I didn’t realize I wasn’t alone. A girl is inside, one of those Kendall Jenner types. She’s all dressed up in a sequined miniskirt with a sparkling blazer. Lips are full of pink gleam. I might think she’s pretty if I wasn’t feeling so sick.
It takes me a little while to answer,‘Yep.”
“Glad it’s you, not me.”
April 28, New York City
Butterflies are fluttering in my stomach as I touch up my mascara. I check my eyes and double check. I want to look the best for him.
“You’re breaking quarantine….” Each time Melanie speaks, her words end in a spasm of coughs and then gasps of air.
My eyelashes are full and lush, as perfect as I can get.
Mathematically, my sister is correct. Fourteen days have passed since her first symptoms; ten days since she tested positive. We isolated ourselves in separate rooms and separate bathrooms, but she was too sick to do anything herself. I had to deck myself out in gloves, a double mask, and face shield just so I could deliver meals and clean up after her. It’s only been the last couple days that she felt well enough to brave the living room. So, if I follow the guidelines, I guess I should be self-quarantining for another twelve days, but there is a limit to how much someone can take.
I love my sister. I do. But I was only supposed to be visiting her for a week. Lockdown happened. My parents told me to stay put in New York, and one week became a month and a half.
I powder my cheeks and gloss up my lips. I know my lipstick will wear away under the mask, but I can’t stop myself. It’s a habit.
“You should wait….” Cough. “Another two weeks.”
I turn to her. Her cheeks are sunken; her skin has an unnatural paleness to it. My sister was a model. It’s sad to see how far her body has deteriorated. Still, she’s doing better. Last week, I was on the verge of taking her to the emergency room.
“Don’t worry about me,” I say. “I told you, I took the antibody test and tested positive.”
It’s funny. I didn’t even have any symptoms. There’s talk about asymptomatic carriers in the news, and I’m feeling a little guilty. I’m sure I’m the one who got Melanie infected, but at least she’s getting better, and I did my time taking care of her.
“Antibody tests have false positives.” She coughs again. “Didn’t you read that New York Times article?” Now she’s gasping for air.
I don’t know what she’s talking about. I wish she wouldn’t be reading the New York Times so much. It’s so sensational and just plain depressing. I believe that it’s important to be optimistic and always keep a positive mood. I prefer lighter topics.
“Listen, when I get home, I’ll quarantine myself for two weeks.”
I’m lying, of course. Why should I quarantine if I know I have had the virus? You can’t get the same virus twice.
I check my makeup one more time and grab my mask. I’m feeling nervous. It’s been too long. I’m imagining my fiance’s face as I exit Louis Armstrong Airport. A month and a half is a long time for a man. He wouldn’t be checking out other women, would he? Thinking about it is turning my stomach.
Melanie shakes her head with consternation.
“I’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. The refrigerator’s stocked up. I bought like twenty frozen dinners. Eat some of them please. I’d give you a hug, but I know you won’t let me. Love you sis!”
I snap on my designer mask. It has a picture of red lips on it.
I grab an Uber in front of Evergreen Apartments. The driver has set up a plastic sheet behind him. He ascertains that I am going to the airport and then goes silent. The roads are eerily empty all the way to the airport. When I arrive, I pull out my suitcase, and my Uber drives off without a goodbye.
As I get into the terminal, the butterflies in my stomach are getting angrier, more like birds. I’m feeling an unquenchable need to find a bathroom and fast. I rush in and find an empty stall. I barely manage to slip off my panties before runny shit shoots into the bowl. Damn. As I wait for my rectum to stop spasming, I wonder what I ate to cause such problems. I almost want to blame the ketchup, but I haven’t heard of anyone losing their shit on old ketchup.
The episode leaves me shaken. Melanie’s words echo in my head, and I start wondering if the diarrhea is the effect of the virus. But even if it is, I am not going to let myself feel guilty. Airlines are committed to maintaining social distancing, and the middle seats will be empty.
I do my self check-in. Next to the monitors, a sign detailing the Covid symptom directs anyone experiencing these symptoms to report to a quarantine area. Diarrhea is on there. I just have food poisoning, I tell myself. Security comes and goes. They have a screen showing temperature gradients with numbers, but nobody is stopping me. I must be fine.
The inside of the terminal is eerily barren. Shops are closed, and those that are open have no people in them. I easily find a seating area where I can sit in isolation.
My intestines are rumbling again, and I rush off to the restroom for another bout of the runs. It’s draining me, and I’m getting scared now. I keep on telling myself that it will be okay. The airplane will be just as empty as the terminal.
I’m about to get up and then I have another attack, and now I’m getting scared that I’ll miss the boarding time.
Sure enough, when I’m finally out, the boarding gate is open, and a line of socially distanced passengers extends out. One by one, our tickets are checked and our temperature is taken. We are informed about mask guidelines for the flight and we walk the jet bridge to the plane.
“Welcome aboard,” the flight attendant says as I enter.
I turn and am in complete shock. The rows are filled. I mean really filled. I don’t see any empty middle seats or any empty rows for that matter. Social distancing has been left at the terminal.
“It’s full?” I ask.
“Yes, Ma’am. Masks on at all times, please.”
I meander back to my seat. A gentleman assists me in putting my luggage in the overhead bin, and I sit down. The situation is not feeling right, and I can hear other passengers also expressing their discontent.
“Well, I’ll tell ya. I’ve never been happier in my life to leave a city,” pipes the middle-aged woman next to me. She is looking right at me. I wish she would just mind her own business. I wish she would just see that in these pandemic times people shouldn’t be talking to complete strangers. “I’m Beth by the way. I’m a nurse practitioner. I volunteered here in New York, but I’m happy to say that they don’t need me anymore. You from New Orleans?”
I shake my head and talk through my mask. “Baton Rouge.”
“Sorry, I’m a little hard of hearing. Say that again?”
I raise the volume level. “I live in Baton Rouge with my fiance.”
“Is that right? You gotta have some big plans coming up. Tell me about them.”
May 14, Hammond, LA
Lord Almighty, this rain has been going nonstop since this morning and it’s still coming down in sheets. I pull my blanket around me.
I don’t mind the rain. Sunny days are different. The sunny days remind me that I’m sick and suffering because on a normal day I’ll be running around and chirping away with God knows who. I’m such a chatterbox and I got so many stories that I’m itching to tell. I was gone for a month and a half, doing God’s work with the greatest non-war healthcare effort in our history. There are just so many people I need to visit with, but I can’t do that stuck in my room.
I check my temperature to make sure I’m not burning up. 100 degrees, it is manageable. These days my body has lost its thermostat control. I go from 101 degrees for three hours and then back to normal, and when I start feeling better, it switches up to 102. I can deal with the fever, but the coughing hurts, and if I sleep wrong, I feel like a demon has placed a rock on my chest. My saturated oxygen levels are holding steady, so I’m not worried. I keep on thinking that God’s given mankind Covid for some reason, but I can’t fathom his plan. I guess no one can.
I turn on my phone and scroll down a hundred Facebook posts and tell everyone I’m still here and fighting. I got so many doctors and nursing friends inquiring. I tell everyone that more people are recovering than dying, so they have nothing to worry about. God’s watching over me.
Then I take a nap and decide to watch some TV. I’ve been trying to spend my time productively, like catching up on Ozark; it’s hard, though. I’m going through the second season, but I nod off and then wake up to hear Helen talking about reparations. Lord, it’s confusing.
Two bangs on the front door jolt me wide awake, and my ears are bad, so I wonder if someone is smashing the door with a hammer.
“Beth, you in there?”
It’s my brother. I shuffle to the door without opening. I don’t want him to get sick.
“Eddie, why are you here?”
“You gotta get out. Creek’s flooding.”
Ponchatoula Creek is behind my house, and I’ve seen it flood its bank, but it’s never reached the house.
“Eddie, you know I can’t leave. I’m Covid positive. I have to stay in the house. I have at least eight more days of required isolation.”
I start walking away. My brother smashes on the door harder.
“Beth, I ain’t joking. Creek’s flooding. We gotta go.”
My mind cannot manage two disasters happening at the same time. I can feel the gears turning, and I contemplate hiding in the attic, which is a dumb idea. Hurricane Katrina taught us that it’s the flooding that kills.
Eddie bangs on the door again.
“Are you wearing a mask?” I ask.
“Of course I am; now come on out!”
I feel like I’m moving in slow motion as I shuffle back into my living room and shut off the television. I find my mask and pick up my purse and then my cat. Tabby is not happy. Then I open the lock.
Outside, the water is already up to my steps. Eddie is wading. Behind him, his pickup’s headlights illuminate the whipping rain and the lake my house is now in. I’m thinking about Noah’s Ark at this time. Is this what he felt?
Eddie grabs Tabby, who starts immediately fighting. She sure doesn’t like being wet. And he runs to the truck and hands her to someone inside. I take a step, get slammed by the rain, and walk back up.
My brother comes back with a jacket, puts his arm around me, and leads me to the pickup. By the time I get inside, I am soaked and am having trouble breathing. When I can get some air into my lungs, I start coughing.
The truck’s door is closed, and Eddie turns on the light.
“Damn, we gotta get you warmed up. Charize, hand over your jacket.”
Eddie’s teenage daughter, takes off her jacket and puts it around me.
“You’re gonna be alright.”
May 20, Hammond, LA
Life sucks. Social distancing sucks. I wish there was school, but it’s been canceled statewide. And because of that flood, our old furniture got moldy; even in the house it smells.
I am totally bored. I’m sitting on our steps, flipping through TikTok videos. Last week I tried to replicate one of the dance videos and totally failed. They’re all probably going to dance studios and stuff. Dad doesn’t have the money. It wouldn’t matter anyway. Governor’s probably going to keep them closed for the rest of the year.
Covid sucks. Aunt Beth needed oxygen last week. She’s gotten better, but it gave Dad quite a scare. Dad says I’m just lucky I haven’t gotten sick because we were all together. I don’t know. Having Covid might make life more interesting.
I’m watching a TikTok video of three dogs spinning while trying to bite their tails when a ding rings out.
“Charize, you wanna meet?”
I reply with a GIF of a full cheerleading squad celebrating.
Dad’s on the driveway, tinkering with the pickup. I gotta give him the slip, which will be pretty easy. I pick up my bicycle.
“Hey Dad, I’m gonna take a ride, get some exercise.”
He looks at me as if trying to gauge if I have some ulterior motive, which of course I do. “I don’t wanna hear that you went to no friend’s house, you hear?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I don’t wanna be bringing no more of my family to the ER, you hear?”
“Yes, Dad, I know.”
“Alright.” And he goes back to fixing something. He’s too trusting. I feel a little bit guilty, but only a little.
I get on my bike and start pedaling. For whatever reason, I think it is the pollen in the air, I’m having trouble keeping my breath when going my normal speed. It’s got to be allergies. There are so many flowers blooming in May. The pollen count’s got to be downright awful. So, anyway, I ride a little slower.
I get into the neighborhood park and find our hiding place. Mike is waiting. He looks over to me, trying to be all nonchalant and stuff, trying to pretend that if I came or didn’t come, it doesn’t matter to him. But I know better. He’s as bored as I am.
“Hey girl,” he says. “Why don’t you come see what I got for you.”
“You know, remember to follow those social distancing rules,” I joke.
“Fuck that,” he says and laughs. Then he crosses the six feet, scans for any prying eyes, and grabs my butt.
“Is that what you’re giving me?” I laugh.
I throw myself at him. Our lips press together. Our tongues mingle. It takes restraint not to tear his clothes off. My boredom has been solved.
May 25, Biloxi, MS
I got this annoying tickle in my throat that just won’t go away. I slept the entire time we were driving to Biloxi and I’m still tired. I’m hoping with my sunglasses on, nobody noticed. The rest of my family seems to be enlivened by the prospect of dipping their feet in the Gulf of Mexico. I am not. But it’s a family tradition. On Memorial Day every year, we go to Biloxi.
We drive into the beach area. It seems that the whole state of Mississippi had the same idea. Lines of scantily clad bathers are making their way to claim their territory on the sand. I wouldn’t mind seeing skin, if everybody looked like Charize, but our state leads the whole country in obesity rates. There’s something that turns me off when seeing pudgy grandpas wearing speedos or sun-blotched women with cellulite hanging out of their two piece swimsuits. But I got to look good just in case. Yes, I’m a player. I take off my shirt and rub coconut oil over my muscles.
My sister, Sandy, gives me a scornful look. I smile in spite. She’s only fourteen but wearing a bikini and a sarong at the waist. If she says a word, I’ll be explaining to my parents in detail how inappropriate her clothes are.
My father’s at the wheel. I can see him squinting as he searches for a parking space. He won’t admit it, but his eyes aren’t too good these days. “Do you see any?” he asks my mom.
“I see parking, but I don’t see any spaces open.”
We drive farther away. In front of a shuttered restaurant we find a slot in the parking lot, and the family gets out. Dad hands me the picnic basket with another bag of soda bottles. He grabs a cooler full of beer for himself and gives the towels to my sister.
“You think we should wear a mask?” Sandy asks before shutting the door. “There are sure a lot of people.”
My father’s response was swift. “Listen, if this were a real thing to worry about, wouldn’t you be seeing Trump worrying about it too? It’s just a big partisan hoax that the Democrats concocted to keep us indoors.”
“Yeah, I know, but what if it’s not?” Sandy continues. She’s argued with me many times. I know she’s becoming a liberal, but she usually keeps it under wraps around my parents.
“If it’s time for us to go, you can’t stop God’s will,” my Mom added.
“It’s nothing about God. Damn leftists are overblowing a damn flu.”
I lift up the basket, which is all stuffed with food, and let out a short cough. Sandy moves away from me. My throat is scratchy. I know I’ve got something, but what I got I don’t know. Maybe I have that flu.
We walk towards the beach and eventually join the human traffic moving in. Nobody’s wearing masks. It’s as if a collective consciousness has decided that because it’s such a beautiful day, there’s no way the virus could infect anyone.
I cough a little more. When I inhale, my right lung is feeling some pressure. It’s strange and gets me a bit worried.
I change my mind. I think I do have it. I think I have Covid. Suddenly, the connection is clear as daylight. Charize was around her aunt, who was in the hospital for Covid. I was with her.
I keep walking as I wrestle with the question of what I should do next. I am at a complete loss. I probably should put on a mask, but I know my father will laugh at me. I decide that feigning that I have nothing is the best course of action, and I am doing pretty well at acting until a spasm of dry coughs comes out. The physical exertion of carrying the basket is exacerbating all the symptoms.
“You alright there, son?” my father asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “I don’t know. Maybe I got Covid.”
“Stop with that. You can’t get sick from a hoax,” my dad responds.
“Well, you’ve got nothing that some good sunlight won’t kill,” my mother adds.
We spread out the towels. I put down the picnic basket, and I lie down. It’s still morning. My father pulls out a beer and offers one to me. I cough a bit as I sit up and take the bottle. My father takes another bottle, opens it, and takes a gulp. “Isn’t that something?”
I see the mass of people around us. From horizon to horizon, people fill the beach.
“It’s a goddamn revolt against tyranny. I love America.”
June 6, San Jose, CA
I’ve been tossing and turning on my berth for the last two hours. I just can’t get to sleep. Anytime I lie down, I feel this pain in the back of my lungs that damn makes it hard to breathe. I must have a fever too. My shirt’s soaked, and I didn’t bring enough changes of clothes.
I sit up. It’s five AM, which is 7 in Mississippi. My honey’s usually up by this time, so I give her a call on Skype. She pops into the screen wearing her navy blue satin pajamas and looking like I woke her.
“Hey Baby. Tommy’s in bed?”
“He’s sleeping,” she coughs. “When are you coming home? We miss you.”
“I dropped off the load of chicken in San Francisco last night. I didn’t get any other orders. I guess I’ll be back tomorrow night or the next day.”
“Jimmy, I don’t feel too good.” She puts her hand on her chest. “My lungs are filling up. I don’t feel good.”
“Honey, I bet it’s nothing.” And even though I say that, I’m worried because I’m feeling real shitty myself. But I’m the man. I don’t want her reciprocating that worry.
She coughs. “Jimmy, everybody’s talking about how all those people at the beaches were spreading Covid. You think I caught something at Biloxi?”
“You’re alright. You just got a cold or something.”
“Jimmy, I had the Covid test yesterday. They stuck a swab up my nose and it burned like hell, but I done it. I just wanna know. I was gonna tell ya, but I know you were driving.”
“So when they gonna tell you if you got it?”
“They told me I’ll get the results in 72 hours. I’m supposed to isolate, but how in Lord’s name am I supposed to isolate myself from my own son?”
“I’m sure it’s nothing, honey, but if you got it, I’ll take care of you. Tommy, he’s strong. Just ring me when you get the results, alright?”
We say our goodnights. My bladder is full. I don’t feel like urinating into the bucket again. I open my tractor trailer’s door and tumble out of the cab onto my ass. I’m bruised, and my ego’s bruised. I bet anybody seeing me would think I’m drunk, but I haven’t had a drop of alcohol in five years. I made my promise to Jasmine, and I kept it.
The fall didn’t help my spirits. I get up and stagger to the bathroom where I take a piss. I really don’t feel well. It’s a thirty hour drive back home, and right now I don’t know how I’m going to make it the eight hours to Las Vegas.
I need some caffeine, a lot of it. The convenience store’s open. I stagger over to it. At the door, there’s a big sign, “Masks required for business.”
I curse myself for forgetting my mask in the cab. Regulations are regulations, I get it, but the cab is a good four hundred feet away, and I’m feeling like crap. I am not in the right mind to struggle back to my truck, climb up, get the mask, fall out again, and do the whole loop one more time. Hell no.
I push open the door. There’s a kid behind the cash register looking at me. I’m not sure he’s old enough to even buy alcohol, but I know he’s going to try to be the big boss.
“Sir, masks are required for service, sir.”
I walk past him without saying a word as if I’m deaf or playing dumb. I just don’t want to get into an altercation, not right now. All I want is some coffee, and I’ll be on my way.
“Sir, you have to wear a mask!”
The kid’s leaving his register and following me. I grab a styrofoam cup and fill it with hot, black coffee.
“I can’t let you buy that unless you wear a mask.” He’s in my face.
My hand is shaking. Damn. Some of the coffee spills on my hand. It freaking hurts. I put the cup down. The kid’s tag says, Miguel. He’s probably a decent kid. Just, it’s a bad time.
“Look, Miguel. It’s only you and me here. I had a long rough night, and all I want is my coffee.”
I put a five-dollar bill down on the counter.
“You’ve done your duty, but you’re not a cop. You take the change and give yourself a tip.”
His lips quiver as he struggles to form a cohesive reply, which in the end doesn’t happen. I take the cup, put the cover on, and walk out the door.
June 19, Palo Alto, CA
The foam in the armchair feels clumpy, and shifting positions doesn’t help. It just brings out sharp pains in my chest. I’m not in good shape. I give up and concentrate on my shallow breaths.
Breathe in… Breathe out.
My family is on the other side of the wall. I hear the clanks of pots moving followed by chopping sounds. My boy, James, yells at my toddler, Helen. I don’t know why. Then my wife Isabel says something soothing, and I hear my kids falling in line. I think she’s putting them to work. She’s good like that. The kids are too young to be of real help, but she makes them feel useful.
I think about getting up, but I decide not to. I’m frankly worried. My breaths are not pulling in enough, and I can hear my coughs getting weaker with every hour. Breathing is a struggle. And I hurt, but all the pains in my body seem to be trivial compared to the need for oxygen.
Breathe in… breathe out…
“John?” The door has opened. I hadn’t noticed. My wife has an N95 mask on and a face shield.
“John, we’re going to eat soon. Do you need some help going to the bathroom?”
I still got pride. I gesture to say that I don’t need help. Talking takes too much effort. And then I stand up. Or I thought I stood up.
I’m sure I didn’t because I’m in a dream state, and when I wake from the blackness, I’m disoriented. I’m strapped to a stretcher. A paramedic is attaching a sensor to my finger. I have an oxygen mask over my mouth. The cool air moving into my lungs gives some respite. Isabel is looking on, mortified, and I feel guilty.
“What happened?” I manage to ask.
My wife grasps my hand. I can tell she’s been crying.
“John, you blacked out. You were hypoxic. We gave you oxygen,” the paramedic closest me says. “We’re going to take you to the hospital. The oxygen levels in your blood are too low.”
They roll me out of the house. Red ambulance lights are flashing and illuminating the night sky. My neighbors are probably staring at the ambulance, trying to figure out what happened. I don’t know what I would say if they asked. I’m still trying to figure it out myself.
Isabel rushes out with me. The paramedics tell her she’ll have to stay at the house. She touches my shoulder. “Stay strong, John. Stay strong.”
Her words echo in my memory. The doors close, and I realize how alone I am. I’m a suspected Covid case, and they’ll quarantine me. I look out and try to catch a glimpse of my family, but I can’t. I have seen my wife nearly everyday for the last twelve years. We’re inseparable. We were. Pathos is swallowing me whole, and I understand now what she meant.
Inside, the two paramedics continue working. They open cabinets and bags. I don’t know what they’re doing and I don’t care. I’m just trying to breathe, just trying to stay alive. I have too much to live for. I have to see my family again. The extra oxygen helps, but my breaths never seem to be enough.
I close my eyes and try to piece together how I got infected. I’m a marketing manager at a tech company. I work from home. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I’ve done my social distancing. I’ve had my mask on all times when out. But there were always risks.
My family had a steak dinner at an outside diner one day. I wanted to support the community. We hiked up Mount Hamilton. People passed us. We stopped at a gas station and I bought some tea. The only certainty is I picked up a virus from a random stranger.
When we arrive at the hospital, I am immediately placed in a sealed off, negative pressure room. The EMTs are replaced with ICU nurses and physicians. Initially, there’s a lot of commotion around me. I get blood tests and nose swabs, and I am put into a donut-shaped CT scanner. I’m put on oxygen passing through a nasal cannula. When the ICU nurses leave, though, I’m left by myself.
I feel this deep sense of sinking. The loneliness is eating me up. It’s just me and the sounds of the sensors stuck on me. And I can’t talk to anyone. I have no phone, and if I did, I wouldn’t have energy to use it.
Blissfully, I lose track of time, and finally nod off.
A nurse comes in and checks my vitals. She seems concerned. The oxygen isn’t seeming to have the effect that it had before. I’m sure that’s the reason. There are beeps and twirls. My thoughts are skipping, not making much sense. I move my fingers and find even that to be a taxing activity. I just don’t care anymore. I’m falling asleep.
“John, can you hear me?”
I look up through the fog. There’s a lady, not much older than my wife, looking at me through her face mask. Besides her, two others are waiting next to big portable pieces of equipment.
“John, I’m Dr. Valazquez. Your blood oxygen saturation level has fallen to 71%. This is after high-flow oxygen through the nasal cannula. I am recommending intubation. Do you understand?”
“Before we put you on the ventilator, we’re going to be sedating you. This is so that your lungs do not fight the mechanical ventilation. We’re not sure how long that will have to be. It could be a couple days. It could be longer.”
I shake my head. “What?”
“To give you the best opportunity, we will be putting you in an induced coma. You’re not going to be awake. We will be doing everything we can for you. The majority of our critically-ill patients do recover, but there is a chance that you won’t. Do you understand?”
“Would you like to speak to your family before we give you anesthesia.”
They pull out an iPad and give it to me. The full seriousness of the situation is dawning on me. These could be my last words. My wife and my children are looking at me. The hospital must have contacted them. My kids are sobbing. My wife is trying to put on a brave smile. I look at my wife and wish I could hold her hand. I want to hug my kids one more time.
I don’t have much strength. I manage to say the words, “I love you.”
My wife puts her hand to the screen. My kids bury their heads into my wife’s embrace.
“Are you ready?” The doctor says.
This short story on the coronavirus journey was inspired by real events. Early testing only occurred under the strictest of criteria, which barred most from getting it. In March, the CDC actively dissuaded people from using face masks until April of 2020 and then they did an about face. However, tens of thousands of essential workers had already been exposed. Covid-19 was thought to be a respiratory-based virus only. Later it turned out to be a multi-organ attacker, and this led many with atypical symptoms to go undiagnosed. Antibody tests proliferated but were plagued by false positives, giving people the illusion of being immune. When air flights resumed, many were very crowded despite the pandemic happening around. Asymptomatic spread was found out to be a real thing, and then on top of this, a sizable portion of America’s population viewed the pandemic as an exaggerated hoax. It’s through these missteps that the coronavirus journey started from sea to shining sea.