Things have gotten interesting fast and honestly, I’m still processing how I feel about it all. Life is normal in a surreal way… like I’m walking through a dream landscape populated by Dali’s melting clocks. I’m not scared—more interested and sad.
Earlier today the library I work at closed indefinitely. I went in to pick up a few last books and say good bye—for now—to my co-workers. As I went out the door I hesitated.
Would I see all of these people again? Would we all come back in a month with great stories to tell or would we be changed. Would it be just a month? I decided those answers didn’t matter at the moment. Best to get on with things.
I needed to check Space and Time’s post box for mail and in the middle of the post office floor was a discarded surgical mask. Everyone in the post office eyed it warily and walked around it. No one wanted to pick it up, even though in reality there are probably as many germs on the door handle we all just touched as that mask, but I didn’t pick it up either.
Like everyone else, I walked around it… after taking photos. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who took photos, but its existence in my world was so foreign I felt like it needed to be documented so I’ll remember this: the first day the news infiltrated my daily life. Something… fictional… has entered my reality.
I’m not saying the COVID-19 pandemic is a made up thing, but far off in other countries and cities it hasn’t been real to me. I’ve acted as if it was real—setting aside a little extra dog and people food—but it wasn’t real to me. The mask in the floor of my familiar post office combined the dystopian world I’d been reading about on my newsfeed with my own. It was like a filter dropped over what was ordinary and made it extraordinary.
Shopping didn’t ease the feeling that I was in one of my own stories. There were big gaps in the shelves where things were sold out. All the meat was gone except one package of carne picada. I tossed it on top of my shopping.
A few minutes I wound up hiding it under some frozen vegetables after a man looked like he was going to take it from my cart when I walked away to look for something else.
I just hid a package of meat so no one will take it, I thought to myself. How unreal is that in my orderly, well-stocked world? It was about to get stranger.
An older woman was fidgeting with her cart, looking upset. “They don’t have any sanitizing wipes for the cart,” she told me as I passed. “They ran out of the sanitizer foam for our hands.” She looked lost. I had a small bottle of sanitizer gel in my pocket. I pulled it out and held it up.
“I have some. Do you want a squirt?” I felt silly for offering. I expected her to look at me like I was crazy and refuse. Instead, she held out her hands, palm up.
“Oh, would you? You are so kind!” She looked like she was about to cry, far too much gratitude for a squirt of store brand hand sanitizer. We elbow bumped at her suggestion and parted ways as impromptu comrades in a germy landscape.
In dairy, there was an older man in a wheelchair just staring at the milk cartons behind the glass. He wasn’t moving. “Can I help you get something?” I asked him. The nice part of me asked because that’s what you do when someone needs help. The human part of me just wanted him to move because he was blocking the half and half I wanted.
“I’m looking for egg nog,” he said. He was pale, bald and he had his teeth out. He slumped dramatically in his wheelchair. His eyes were unfocused. If this had been a movie I’d have said he looked too tragic to be believable, but this wasn’t a movie. He was looking at me, but he wasn’t seeing me. He was looking somewhere else, far away from the dairy cooler in our mundane local store. “I just want egg nog.”
I was reluctant to tell him the truth. I glanced up and down the glass doors but, not surprisingly, what he wanted wasn’t there. “I don’t think they sell egg nog this time of year.”
He shrugged. “I figured. I just wanted to taste it again before I die.” He went back to staring at the cooler doors and I was dismissed. I didn’t know what else to do. I backed away quietly, like from a place of mourning.
I mentioned to a store employee in the next aisle that he was there and he might need help. Pandemonium surrounded us. The store had filled up suddenly with people frenetically grabbing random items and whispering urgently. Suddenly, everyone was in a rush.
Her eyes darted to me and to the crowds that were starting to flood the aisles. “Okay,” she said. “We’ll watch him to see if he needs help.” Then she was gone. I can’t blame her. I hadn’t read the news yet.
My phone chimed and I glanced at it to see Trump Says Crisis Could Last Until July scroll across my notifications. “Oh, snap!” I said to no one. It was time to leave the store. The lines to check out were short, but the stream of people coming in was incessant. The air was tense, like a monster hid in the crowd, waiting to lash out.
This wasn’t a rush for school supplies or a Black Friday madness. This was real madness. This was a mass of people in panic. Like me they were experiencing a dystopian world for the first time. Reality had crash landed us on an alien planet. They looked around, desperate to purchase some normalcy, but America has never sold normalcy, even in normal times.
On the way home I watched the other cars, wondering if they felt panicked. Would one of my fellow travelers suddenly wig out and just crash his car? Were they in a rush to get to the store to fight for toilet paper? Or were they feeling like I was… a sudden stranger in my own world.
It didn’t matter. The last thing on my list was to wash the car on my way home. After the shopping experience, I expected the car wash to be closed, or for the workers to be running down the pavement screaming at me to get back because the hot wax sprayer had become sentient. That didn’t happen. They waved me through with a smile.
It was my last car wash, not because of the doom or gloom but because it was now summer. I’d canceled the wash membership because I’d wash the car myself with warmer weather—in theory. Because of everything else that had happened, the final car wash felt extremely final. I found myself wondering if I would ever be in a car wash again.
This is a silly thought, I know, but it is what I thought at the time. This is uncharted territory for me. I’ve never lived through a pandemic. I know I’ve experienced a recession, maybe two, but they are vague things that happen in that fictional place I call news. The stock market lives there with all the politicians, dark matter discoveries, updates about what dogs are doing and sometimes the Kardashians… for some reason. (Google, Ø not interested in Kardashians)
So here I am. I feel like a cross between the kid who said Bloody Mary one too many times and Bastian in The NeverEnding Story realizing the story is real. There isn’t fear so much as a heightened awareness that things have changed. The rules are different, this is a different game. To say I’m not excited would be a lie.
I grew up reading 1984, wondering if I would survive Big Brother. This could be my chance to face Darth Vader and defeat the Empire. This is my chance to crush Voldemort and his followers. Finally, I get to be Katniss fighting, and winning, against the odds. I’ve dreamed—and written—of just this time.
But this is real, and the consequences are real. Lives have been lost and will continue to be lost. This is not a game or a fictional revolution. This isn’t Zombieland cosplay. That new reality sat in front of a glass cooler of milk sans egg nog today and gave me his final wish—something that should be reserved for loved ones, not a casual passerby.
This is the reality that settles over the world I’d assumed I live in and changes it to something new. Will it last forever? I think so. It won’t be scary forever, but it will be different because we will be different. Whether we are different for better or worse is up to us, and how we handle the days to come.