The inside of my mask is already moist and I haven’t even left my garage. Every droplet of possibly contaminated spittle blocked from getting on others. At least that’s the hope. The store is just down the street, not even five minutes away. Yet it’s a whole world away. I’m filled with doubt. Am I being irresponsible? Should I stay home? Breathe in. Breathe out.
My sunglasses fog up. I haven’t been in my car in weeks. Do I even remember how to drive?Did I wipe down the steering wheel enough? Can the virus live here that long, like a serial killer hiding in the back waiting to jump out and have his way with me? Calm down. Breathe in. Breathe out.
I pull out of the garage, but can’t bring myself to turn on the radio. A music station will have their early morning DJ making early morning jokes. No, I don’t care that Coachella was canceled. I don’t care that you miss going to the bars. I just have to get to the store. Get in. Get out. If I tune into NPR, I’ll be warned “Officials say these next two weeks will be the worst. They’re urging Americans to stay inside even more than normal.” Normal? That’s hilarious.
I know I’m safer at home. I also know I don’t have enough food for two weeks. I just need to do one more stock up for the month. A real-life, “Just one final job and then I’m out,” scenario. I tell myself it’s okay because I’m shopping for my immunocompromised neighbor, too. Perhaps my good deed will protect me. It’ll earn me bonus points in this scary-ass live-action video game I’m about to enter.
My gloved hands are already sweaty, my upper lip is sweaty, my hairline is getting sweaty. I picture HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS, a giant drop of sweat turned into a lake for the virus to swim. I pass construction workers. Did a piece of spit from one of them fly through my open window onto my mask that I keep accidentally touching because apparently, I love touching my face? WHY AREN’T THE CONSTRUCTION WORKERS FOLLOWING THE RULES?! I wish I were more like Neo from THE MATRIX, able to slow motion navigate as the virus whizzes past me like a bullet I dodge. Sexily of course. I wonder if I can still do a backbend. Breathe in. Breathe out.
I’m geared up in my HURT LOCKER uniform. Out of my civilian clothes, sweatpants, I’ve worn for four days straight. My hair is dirty, not that that’s new. I’ve put on the tiniest bit of concealer. That is new. There was a time I would’ve worn full-on makeup no matter what the situation, pandemic or not. But these things don’t matter anymore. Still, today’s goal is to just not look like death, a comparison that, I admit, is not funny anymore. I didn’t get a wink of sleep the night before because I was so anxious about going out into the “elements.” I just want to feel a sense of normalcy. I’m in jeans. It feels strange. It’s a strategic move because I’ll have easier access to my phone rather than risk it falling out in the loose pockets of my sweats. I’ll use one hand for scrolling through my grocery lists. “Don’t touch your phone with the hand that touches… anything,” I remind myself. I’ll use the other hand for the groceries. I can already feel the germs crawling. Breathe in. Breathe out.
The virus taunts me as I pull into Von’s parking lot. It’s 7:31 am. Is it always this busy in the morning? I step out of the car with both too many, yet too few reusable shopping bags. My sweatshirt has a front pocket, another strategic move, so I can house my backup equipment: an extra set of gloves, alcohol wipes, and homemade hand sanitizer, since you can’t find the real stuff anymore. I reassure myself, “I’m one of the good ones. I’m being extra cautious.” But is it enough? I say a small prayer to the God I haven’t believed in for years. Maybe positive energy will protect me. Maybe it’s luck. Maybe it’s karma. Maybe it’s Maybelline? I head towards the store entrance. Get in and get out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
A masked security guard stands at the automatic door. My husband texts to check how it’s going, but I quickly respond. “Can’t now. Have to focus.” I grab a cart from the grocery worker who wipes it down for me. He’s not getting paid enough. He’s masked too. I miss people’s faces. Still, I smile. Even in a pandemic, women gots to be polite! I know he can’t see my mouth, but my eyes smize. Thanks, TOP MODEL. I wish I had learned to sew. My dumb jokes, the makeup and haircuts I can’t do for people, all useless now. I think of the stupid, cutesy pandemic greeting cards I’ve been making because I can’t seem to do anything else creative. That’s not going to pay the bills. What’s even the point? Be useful, Monique. Right. Focus. Get your food. Get in. Get out.
I walk in. I avoid people like the plague. Wow, that’s an actual saying with actual meaning now. Why the hell is the Starbucks in here open? How is that essential? Maybe one bright side to all this will be people realizing Starbucks is shit coffee. I head to the produce section. It’s like a game of Frogger, only the frog is one of those exotic poisonous ones that can kill you. I navigate the minefield, my mind swirling, my feet dancing to avoid people, overwhelmed as I just need to get the basics. How is that person not wearing a mask? They work here! Breathe in. Breathe out.
I calculate the ages of fellow shoppers. I think of the older members of my family. How unfucking fair that they have to go through this. They should be carefree, spending time with their grandchildren, not stuck isolated by themselves. I’m so proud of my 85-year-old Aunt who learned how to set up a Zoom meeting. I’m proud of my friends and neighbors who are showing nothing but love and support for each other. I question myself again. Is shopping at 7:30 in the morning stupid? Am I putting this old man scooting through the store on his Rascal at risk? Why aren’t his kids doing his shopping for him? Maybe he’s just stubborn. Why doesn’t that woman have a mask on! The germs come towards me like giant flowers in that old allergy commercial. Bonus point! I level up by skipping the soda aisle. Too many people.
Each time I round a corner, I’m thrust into a game of virus chicken. Who will move out of the way first? I think of my mom, who when I got the chicken pox at the age of eight on Halloween, did a last-minute costume change and dressed me up as a chicken. Clever. I gave the entire neighborhood chicken pox. Not so clever. The neighborhood moms were pissed. Rightly so. Is that what I’m doing now? Breathe in. Breathe out.
“After you.” Is the sadness in my eyes as obvious it is in everyone else’s? When do they issue the rest of the THE HANDMAID’S TALE uniform? Did the dude picking out Doritos vote for Trump? What about this white woman comparing white-people “spices” in the seasoning section? “Just pick something!” I scream in my head. “It’s your fault the villain from THE INCREDIBLES is in charge of our infected country.” I dance around another shopper. I squeeze up against a wall of canned goods. I’d climb on top of the shelves if I could. I probably could. I’m very good at climbing. I think of just weeks earlier when I could still go hiking. Before the gym rats who are unable to go to their usual classes overran the trails. Canned green beans again? Sure. It’s a vegetable and it’s all that’s left. The two mandates. Just get in. Get out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
My cart is piled high. I’m self-conscious about how much food I have. I try to will the others to read my mind. “I’m shopping for a neighbor too. I’m not one of the hoarders. I have the appropriate amount of toilet paper at home.” Frozen pizza isn’t even something I’d normally buy. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Sometimes frozen pizza just makes you happy. Happy? When will that happen for our world again? Flour! I find flour! That’s a sense of happiness. A power-up move. As if learning to bake bread will help. The FOMO of not performing enough or not saying yes to enough parties has been overtaken with the FOMO of not baking bread. “Am I doing my pandemic right?” I’ve never baked bread in my entire life. I’ll probably never do it again after this. If there is an after this. Don’t touch anything you don’t have to. Breathe in. Breathe out.
The line to the register is spaced out, each shopper 6 feet apart, going all the way down the candy aisle. Our new norm. I remember the days of waiting until after Easter to buy the candy because it was cheaper. Now I buy it to soothe the sads. Full price. I want to hug the cashier. She’s behind glass. She asks if I’m playing the Monopoly Game. Umm… no. I can only handle one “game” at a time. Who knows if the concept of money will even be a thing in The After. I wipe down the credit card machine with an alcohol wipe. The least I can do is show that I am not irresponsible. “I‘m one of the good ones.” It’s my penance for the embarrassment I feel over the overflowing grocery cart. “I’m helping a neighbor” I want to yell. But it doesn’t matter. Just finish. Pay your big grocery bill. Pretend you’re not panicked at spending almost $400 when you don’t have a job anymore. The enemy is surrounding me. The enemy might be me. Breathe in. Breathe out.
I walk out of the grocery store, load up the trunk, the backseat, and the front seat. All the elements of this war zone are now in my car. The virus could be sitting on any one of these “essentials.” Is it going to follow me home? Will it get my husband sick? Will my need for cookie dough (yes, a need) come back to bite me in the ass when the germs jump to the door handle, then to my 72-year-old building manager, who then gets sick and passes it along to everyone in our apartment building? I put the cart back. I peel off my gloves and toss them in the trash, swapping them for new ones. “It’s okay. I’m responsible.” I drive home. Heart racing. Adrenaline pumping. Breathe in. Breathe out.
My husband meets me in the garage. He’s gloved up. He’s in a mask. It makes me sad. We bring the groceries up so we can disinfect each and every item. This new world sucks. If 9/11 brought bullshit airport screenings as part of our national PTSD, what will COVID19 bring? For now, it brings exhaustion. We deliver the groceries to our neighbor. Bonus points for being a good person. I quote the Queen of England. I WILL “be able to take pride in how I responded to this challenge.” Wow, Olivia Coleman really did sound just like her in THE CROWN. I’ve never quoted the Queen of England in my life. Then again, there’s a lot of things I’ve never done before all this. I immediately jump in the shower. It’s so hot, my skin burns. It feels good to feel again. To not numb out in survival mode. I turn off the shower, but on second thought turn it back on. I have to pee and don’t want to waste toilet paper. Remember, I’m responsible. I stand under the hot water for a second shower. This level complete. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Then, I sleep. It’s a hard, three-hour sleep. I made it home safely. Or at least I hope did. I won’t know until after the 2-week incubation period. And even then, I may never know. This new kind of enemy is one we can’t see. Am I infected? Does the virus know I’m a good person? Does it know I donated an extra $3 at the cash register to help families in need? Does it matter? For now, I rest. At least until the next time I have to go out and play the worst game of Frogger ever. Breathe in. Breathe out.