One of my ghostwriting clients told me she’s lost two friends to Covid-19. “And I can’t even begin to count how many followers…”
My jaw dropped as I typed and backspaced through a few different versions of “OMG I AM SO SORRY OMG OMG ARE YOU OKAY?!”
“They’re not dead!” She added a few lol emojis. “They’re just pissed because we aren’t Covidding the same way.”
I advised her to never workshop that phrasing on her blog. “Let me handle your crisis pivot,” I emailed back, instantly regretting the use of pivot. My clients are comforted by terms du jour, though, and this one hit the spot.
“Cool. Chat later. Headed to Botox.”
Mostly everyone I know IRL and URL is thriving by this point. They schedule beauty appointments and support their local restaurants and they’re back at their gyms. I’m not doing anything but buying Parker Thatch masks and Googling superspreaders. Botox? My daughter cut my hair with kitchen shears last night. I have a bowl cut.
One of my pals started an Instagram Live series, but it’s religious so I know I’ll never be a guest. Another friend is taking a social media break and touring the South with her kids, visiting colleges, renting beach houses with family members they haven’t seen in years, and connecting with a long-lost biological sister she didn’t know existed.
“Just…you know,” she told me. “Hunkering down.”
The best way to protect a brand and a reputation these days is to crop out the Covid. Bloggers and besties I’ve loved for years vague-post their weekends and workouts, zooming in tight to miss instructors and other sweaty strangers, pretending the newly-opened restaurant is their own dining room. Do you honestly believe they’re wasting that Retrofete robe dress on date night at home? I’d liketoknowit.com. And, seriously. How many of us make Manhattans with a black cherry garnish for movie marathons in our basements?
You-know-whos escaped from their Covid-heavy towns in the dead of night, deleted comments bashing their decisions, and hoped like hell they didn’t get socially shamed on Get Off My Internets. No such luck, dears.
I’ve never been the guy who criticizes other people’s decisions, and I’m not going to start now. But guys like us are getting lonely and feeling weird. It’s uncomfortable to create a whole new set of rules that make us comfortable, especially when no one agrees on the rules.
Followers and friends with completely disparate distancing practices are having a rough time. I get it. One of my favorite people in the world lives two miles away. She still hugs, invites us to her home, and rolls her eyes at social distancing.
“We…” she asserts, waving her hand in an inclusive air circle, “are our own community.”
I love what she’s putting out there, but we don’t live together and everything I’ve read warns me of merging exposure and remember that family who met up one random Tuesday for dinner and mostly all got the virus and a bunch of them died? I do. Plus, my youngest has asthma and scoliosis, which I only mention so you understand my obsession with flattening curves and curving spines. It’s chaos inside my brain.
I am dying to see her, but I don’t want to see her and die. Or, worse, get her sick and then she…I can’t even write it.
She shakes her head at me on FaceTime. “I refuse to live in fear.”
Well, there’s the difference. Fear is my hometown.
A short list of things I fear:
- Hippos. They look cute, but they’re actually really aggressive and unpredictable and can run 19 mph. I can’t run 19 mph. I could’ve ended that sentence at run.
- Turkey neck. Iykyk.
- When I’m leaning over the sink, brushing my teeth, and then I look up at myself in the mirror and there’s a killer in a balaclava standing behind me.
- Waking up from a long coma and discovering no one tweezed my upper lip.
- Killnesses that make doctors say, “Huh. That’s a new one.”
I was born with this panic, a sick little kid allergic to everything fun. It didn’t help that we lived on a farm specializing in hay, pastures, and cows. I was even allergic to my goat, and couldn’t pet her good-bye after she was attacked by a pack of Dobermans. I was probably allergic to them, too.
When I caught a cold, it traveled straight to my lungs, ensuring I’d be home and in bed for at least a week or two, trying to catch my breath. I was the only one in my family with her own room; no one wanted to sleep with the kid who woke up sneezing seventeen times at 4:00 am, hisspering, “Aren’t you going to say God bless you?!”
Shhh is the first word I remember learning. My mom’s cool hand on my forehead, sliding to my cheek, checking for fever, is one of my gentlest memories.
I’d hear life happen from my bed as my brothers and sisters came home from school or practice or work or a date, my mom starting off their hushed conversations with, “Shhh, Karey’s sick.”
Sometimes, if I was awake and desperately seeking company, my older sister sat on the other side of my open doorway and told me scary stories about the girl who dared cross the thin gold bar holding down the carpet between my bedroom and the hallway. Shit got real when she got to the part about the hippo waiting on the other side to chase and trample her.
Shhh. Let her sleep. Pray the medicine works. Stay away. That was my family’s approach to sickness.
Years later, when our combined happiness depended on CT scans and MRIs of my dad’s lungs and brain, I learned to tiptoe, too. If I didn’t wake him from his corduroy La-Z-Boy nap, I wouldn’t have to talk to him. If I didn’t go near him, I wouldn’t give him my cold. I didn’t have a cold, but you can never be too careful. And if I didn’t go near him, he wouldn’t be able to pull me in for a hug and I wouldn’t stop breathing and melt into him, choking on all the things I wish I was brave enough to tell him. Like, I’ll miss you terribly. Please don’t leave me. Don’t go to the hospital. They might keep you forever. And then what would I do.
I tiptoed past him for his last two years.
My sister got the same sort of cancer — the kind that ends poorly — and I learned something new and even more heart-breaking about illnesses. Sure, we all still tiptoed and shushed, making mashed potatoes when she couldn’t chew anymore, heating blankets in the dryer to warm her brittling bones, effusively pretending her bedroom looked SO MUCH CUTER on the first floor in her living room.
But my sister? Man, my sister taught a Master Class on Living Until the Very End.
Her last few weeks were packed with activities. She put on eyeliner before she took her Oxycontin, wrote thank you notes to all the people who had loved her, said yes to every unexpected guest, smiling sympathetically when they complained of summer colds and backaches that were killing them, and showed up with the sun on the back patio for one last morning swing.
A few days before her ending, she asked me if her hair looked okay. She didn’t have much by this point, but her husband was taking her into Chicago to Greek Town for some gyros and she wanted to look pretty. He loaded her wheelchair in the back of their Jeep and lined the passenger seat with blankets while I assured her she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. I wasn’t even looking at her hair.
There’s a page in my memories with her being carried out the door that day, looking back at me with one of those goodbye smiles you never want to see…but you’d give anything to see it just one more time.
I knew the hippo was waiting for her out there, but she sure didn’t.
When things go south, I promised myself, I’m going to be like her.
I am nothing like her.
I wish I had my brother-in-law’s confidence. He’s been traveling two or three times a week since January, and doesn’t own a mask. He persuaded a bartender at O’Hare to pour him a beer in April despite Governor Pritzker’s shutdown. His epitaph — not that I want a world without him in it — should read “Loved beer. Hated rules.” And then something about jamokes. He has the best stories about jamokes.
On his most recent flight, the attendant provided him with a mask and asked him to wear it. He pretended he was on the phone, and hooked it casually over one ear, holding up his “Just a second. Hold…” finger until she left him alone. He hasn’t been sick once.
My friend texted me last week: “Are you up for a social distancing happy hour in our driveway?” I replied in all caps YES, adding the echo effect to highlight my enthusiasm. Yes. A hundred yesses. At least.
What I really meant to tell her is NO, sent with fireworks. (Explosives. Another fear I forgot to list.)
I straight-up can’t say no to an invitation during the time of Covid-19, which is odd because all my online friends have overposted some version of the phrase “No is a complete sentence.” I should be more comfortable with it by now. By that logic, I should also realize my worth is not tied to my weight, but I am feeling very overpriced lately, nonetheless.
Part of my panic is that I simply do not know how to re-enter society. I mean, I know how to act at the grocery store, but social rules are a little fuzzy to me. Do I wear a mask while happy-houring, or is the six-foot distance enough? My cocktail style is little sips, and lots of them. Imagine the amount of times I’ll have to touch my mask. I already have and it’s worrisome. Judging from the responses to the masks with straw holes, I know those aren’t an option. They’re like condoms with convenient pee punctures. Speaking of sips, too many and I forget the rules. What are the rules, again? Everyone has a different list.
And while I deeply, madly, truly want to return to my favorite restaurants, I’m scared of waiters holding my wine glass from the top on a normal day. When’s the last time they washed their hands? Yesterday? Add in Covid-19 on the rim, and I’m out.
And so, I make excuses. They started out strong. We’d just returned to the US from our home in Manila, so I was jet-lagged. Plus, we had to quarantine for two weeks. Three, to be sure. Then I had a cough. It was a fake cough, but it bought me another week. Then my husband flew in, transiting through South Korea and Detroit, so that gave us two more weeks. My daughter still attends school in our old time zone, which means she’s got classes from 9:00 pm until 2:30 in the morning. I open the school cafeteria around midnight. On a good day, we wake up around noon. On a great day, we’ll see you at one.
But she’s almost done with school. And the beach in front of the house we’re renting is filling up with loads of people who won’t let a little old virus stand in the way of their fun in the sun. Or burnt beer bellies, but that’s a different article.
These are frivolous concerns. I know this. You know this. Every night before I fall asleep, I thank my lucky stars I’m not an essential worker. I’m not even sure I’m an essential person these days. I don’t know what to do next. I guess I’ll Google superspreaders at restaurants.
My mother-in-law asked my husband the other day, “So, Mike.” His name is Patrick but she started calling him by his middle name when I came into the picture. He hates it. I thought you should know.
“Tell me, Mike. You think everyone’s overreacting about this flu?” She said it like anyone from Chicago would say “Would ya get a load of this guy?” I imagined her rolling her eyes at Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham or whichever Fox news anchor was spewing nonsense at the time, pointing her thumb toward the phone.
My husband responded, “No.” It took up three syllables. “I wear a mask, gloves, I wash my clothes and take a shower when I come back from the grocery store, I stay away from everyone…No.” Three-and-a-half syllables this time.
She quickly replied, “Oh, me too.”
Mike thinks she’s lying.
Is everyone lying? I know I’m not the only one isolating, but it feels like I am. Most of my friends say things like “It’s time to get back to normal,” and I know what they mean: they really, really want a haircut. My bowl cut understands.
I’m probably overthinking everything. It’s what I do. These days, I worry about everyone who died alone, those about to die alone, and those who just feel alone. I stress about what I’ve said and what I’m about to say, what I’ve written and what I’m about to write. My work doesn’t help. I told you I’m a ghostwriter, so I even worry about things I’ve written while pretending to be other people. Worse, I’m holding a lot of secrets that cause me regular panic, stomach pain, fury shakes, and an inability to stop mood-snacking.
Sometimes, old employers take credit for my things. Which is fine. It’s fine. Any ghostwriter will tell you that’s part of the gig. But after a particularly painful Instagram humble-brag pre-quarantine, I made an appointment with an ENT.
“I think I have thyroid cancer,” I told him miserably. “It could also be intestinal cancer, pancreatic, spleen, lung, or any other organ in this general area.” I waved my hand from here to there.
“Why do you think that?” he asked patiently.
“Well. Sometimes it feels like I’m choking. I sweat a lot lately. And I can’t lose weight.”
“Are you trying to lose weight?”
I tilted my head and thought about that for a second. I’m trying to lose something.
He described all the tests he could perform and all of them sounded awful, which made me more miserable. While he felt my thyroid, he asked what I do for a living.
“Not much,” I answered glumly. “I’m a writer.”
He looked at me, his face right next to mine, way too close. I hated that then, but now I miss it.
“You know,” he said. “Not every story has to have a tragic ending.”
He must be new here.
Same, sister. Living in Wyoming helps a little, but on the other hand, it makes us stick out as fearful sissies a little extra some days.
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