We’d gotten a notion that things were gonna be a little off on the plane down to Florida.
It was our first vacation with my family in years, and one of Emily’s student’s parents gave us two N95 masks “just for the plane because of the new virus going around.”
The new virus. Some bullshit about about people eating bats in China or something? We’d joked around the kitchen about it, and gently teased a hypochondriac friend of mine. I said I’d get to the airport and lick someone’s eyeballs on the way back, catch it and get a bit more time off.
On the plane, there were a few older folks in masks. I’d been asked at a doctor’s office earlier in the year if I’d recently been to Wuhan China or was in contact with anyone who had. “God I wish,” I half-jokingly told the receptionist. “Anything to travel for a bit and take some time off of work!”
At Disney, there were hand sanitizer and washing stations sprinkled around the property. My parents switched on the news in the mornings, and we heard that it had spread on the West Coast. The day after we left, Disney closed it’s properties and sent everyone home. When we arrived in the late afternoon, PDX- one of America’s best airports- was nearly deserted.
This was no joke. It’s still not one year later.
Early in the pandemic, for nearly two weeks after returning from Florida, I had a constant tightness in my chest. With all the speculation about symptoms of COVID, I thought that maybe this was one. That I needed to go to a hospital, that I’d have to quit my job, and that I’d already put Emily in danger. As it was, chest tightness was not a symptom of COVID- it was a symptom of Acute Anxiety.
We stayed home. I checked in on industry friends that lost their jobs, and I mused about what I’d do if I lost mine. We washed our hands obsessively. I got used to wearing a mask at work- Em got used to wearing pajamas for hers. Cleo got used to getting a lot more snuggles and playtime.
I knew people were actually dying, and the stupid jokes about it being “the Boomer Remover” stopped. It wasn’t because the American people suddenly decided they weren’t funny- it was because America had turned into the biggest joke of all. On my lunch breaks, reeking of butter and flour and trying to figure out how to carefully itch my nose through a spandex mask, I watched grown men and women throw tantrums.
People were pissed about staying home for four weeks. They were mad at the masks. They were mad about not getting haircuts. They demanded more, more, more, more, and refusing the comparatively small costs being asked of them. “Stay home as much as possible, wear a mask if you are out, and please be patient” was compared- sans irony- to totalitarianism. From my workbench at the cafe, making scones and muffins for the people who yelled at my friends making them coffee because “masks are a mind control device-“ I watched angry people attack government buildings.
Then the summer happened. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered. As I vented my frustrations and sadness into batters and blog posts, people protested and demanded accountability. Americans are no better at accountability than they are at responsibility, though- and those people mad about masks had new targets, even better than the conspiracy bogeymen they created for themselves. It’s no good being mad at the disease actually stalking them.
Nazis and white supremacists marched in my city. They injured my friends. A few people thought both sides are as bad as the other… and I wondered just how many people on “both sides” they actually talk to.
I kept a boot knife in the car and asked Emily to keep one in her purse. A knife and an N95 mask- one because of the new virus, the other because of an old one.
One year later, and I’ve gotten used to the ambient anxiety. Wearing a clean mask every day is a nuisance on par with finding a clean pair of socks. I’ve switched off the news, and the kitchen is more empty more often. We are too tired to be scared anymore. Anger, lashing out, and bitterness from our countrymen is met with the same impatience as a slow driver taking 20 minutes for a lane change- “Shit or get off the pot, will ya?!”
Granted, some folks DID go for it on January 6th. I’ve stopped cracking jokes about that section of the populace too- not because the jokes aren’t funny, but because I’m afraid they’ll consider it advice and take notes.
Vaccines are being dispensed. I will get one as soon as possible. We will “get back to normal-“ we’ll finally have space to breathe, and grieve, and reconsider ourselves and our world after this year in a hell of our own minds.
It won’t be the “normal” we want though. We know too much- about ourselves, about our country, and about our fellow citizens- to forget it like a bad dream in the face of the morning sun shining in through locked windows.