Chapter 2 — COVID-19

The novel coronavirus pandemic did not become real to me until the morning of Friday, March 13, 2020. It was sometime after nine o’clock in the morning, my sons were at school, my wife was at school, teaching, and I poured myself a coffee in my kitchen, taking a break from editing a client video. Opening the refrigerator for some milk, I was once more pleased by its sparse contents. The following day we were traveling to Florida for March Break to spend the week with my brother and his family who rented a house near ours. The year before, upon returning from vacation, we hadn’t paid attention to what we left in the fridge, and came home to the stench of something having spoiled.

My cell phone rang. My brother’s phone number appeared on the screen. I answered the call.

“We came home,” he said.

I heard his words but didn’t understand them.

“What?”

By that morning, I had heard mentions in the media of the “novel coronavirus” — about bats, pangolins, and wet markets. Once a voracious consumer of daily news, I gave it up for mental health reasons in recent years, believing that Neil Postman’s prophetic “relevance is irrelevant” was never truer. Instead, I filled myself with long-form non-fiction online, along with whatever novels, plays, and poetry that crossed my path. Still, the incessant 24-hour news cycle filtered through and I caught various news items, few of which had any bearing on my life. Through the week, my family and I heard about the various theme parks in Florida closing due to the coronavirus. Far from spoiling our plans, those developments cemented the most enjoyable aspect of the trip: hanging out with my brother and his family.

“Zeke called me last night,” my brother said.

He was an ER doctor and a colleague called him in the night when the medical community understood that the shit was hitting the fan.

The increasingly hysterical rumblings in the media about the coronavirus made zero impact on me. The media was just doing its usual: overhyping a minor news story. I recalled the hair-on-fire reporting about SARS in 2003, which was quickly followed by “never mind.” When I worked for HealthCareCo, the calamity-of-the-day was the 2006 “avian flu.” When that virus receded without the bodies of dead citizens piled in the street, the media seemed crestfallen. There was the “swine flu” in 2009, and the media “ah-shucks”ing another missed opportunity at mass death. In 2012, MERS came and went. Ebola showed up in the United States in 2014, but it fizzled despite the TV talking heads’ hope for outright disaster.

Each health emergency was reported with reckless, breathless intensity, and then disappeared. Hell, I remembered sometime in the late 1990s, a channel dedicated to non-stop weather forecasts got into trouble for overhyping a snowstorm in the southern United States. Municipalities in the region didn’t have much in the way of snow removal equipment, so, taking the dire predictions seriously, community chests were raided to lease or procure plows, personnel, and plenty of salt. When the storm arrived, it amounted to little more than a light dusting of snow. No emergency. No Storm of the Century that year. Just a colder-than-usual day, a few more fender benders on the interstate. The weather channel was called to account, and I remember thinking: Can’t even trust the weather report anymore!

“We left $300 worth of groceries in the fridge and took the first flight home,” my brother said. He described the panic shopping he witnessed at the Florida supermarket. For the most part, I was unmoved. North American life had become so anesthetized that whole swaths of the citizenry looked for any opportunity to inject drama into their lives. I still recalled people panic-buying original Coke after New Coke was introduced in 1985. Or the whole Y2K panic in 1999, which saw nothing more than a few gas pumps in far-flung locales briefly malfunction. No mass collapse of “The System.” Yet, people hoped.

“It was crazy,” my brother continued. “Everybody was loading up on cases of water and toilet paper. You couldn’t believe how much toilet paper they were buying! We managed to get one pack and felt lucky to get that.”

Toilet paper?

“Anyway, I just wanted to let you know we came home,” he said.

“OK, thanks.”

I texted my wife: Tim and his family came home. I don’t think we should go tomorrow.

For all of my outward dismissal of the coronavirus new stories, my wife and I had discussed the possibility of it affecting our travel plans. The closure of theme parks didn’t matter to us — Lego Land, at that time, was still open. After all, my brother was a physician whom we trusted entirely. If he was there, it must be all right. Except, he and his family came home. We had not anticipated that happening.

OK, my wife replied via text a few minutes later. Just heard March Break was extended into April.

There was a distant stirring in me. Part of my mind repositioned itself into accepting there might be something to the media hype. I suddenly didn’t feel so great about our empty refrigerator.

The supermarket parking lot bustled with vehicles like it was Christmas Eve. The store was jammed with shoppers. The atmosphere was charged with some strain of excitement teetering toward panic. As I moved through the produce section, seeing a few people wearing medical face masks, I recalled a few years earlier when a rogue tornado thundered through our neighbourhood one August evening. I had been standing in our living room doorway, talking to my wife, as she straightened the tablecloth on the dining room table, when the blustery wind outside suddenly intensified as though a helicopter were landing in our yard. Through the patio door, I saw the netting around our deck enclosure whipping like it was in a wind tunnel. It ripped into shreds. Just as suddenly, everything settled down, again. A few minutes later, someone knocked on our front door. A sunburned neighbour, wearing a Jimmy Buffet T-shirt was there on our front step.

“I’m just checking to make sure everybody is all right,” she said.

“We’re fine,” I said. “What’s going on?”

She blinked. “Uh… we just had a tornado.”

The whole neighbourhood was out, wandering in the street, looking around. At the top of the street, a neighbour’s garage door looked as though someone had rammed it with a truck. The tornado had flung a kids’ jungle gym from across the street into it, before razing the roof. We gathered around, in the wake of the waste-laying beast like proto humans, staring at where the hammer of the gods had just struck a blow.

Moving through the supermarket, I saw shoppers’ carts laden with cases of water and packages of toilet paper. When I got to the paper products aisle, the shelves were empty. Same with the section containing hand sanitizer. I shrugged and moved on, filling my cart with our usual order.

When I got into the checkout line, I saw the woman ahead of me left a large gap between herself and the person in front of her. For some reason, that always annoyed me in traffic: drivers stopping way short of a red light or a full car-length, or more, behind the car ahead of them. A shopper behind me asked why the woman left the space, and I made an unkind remark about the woman’s “spatial reasoning.” In that moment, however, I was the COVIDiot, thinking the woman was experiencing a lapse. Upon reflection, she was “social distancing” and I had not even heard the term yet.

As I left the store, the cart pick-up area in the entryway was empty. Vehicles multiplied in the parking lot like cell division.

On the drive home, I put on a news station. It reported that the NBA canceled its season. That was the moment the novel coronavirus pandemic became real for me: there was no way the people running the National Basketball Association would miss out on one game’s worth of advertising, ticket sales, big pretzels, and whatall revenue streams they had tapped like vampires in a blood bank, short of an absolute catastrophe. My mind flicked to the golden record stowed on the Voyager space probe that was launched in 1977, containing etched line art of naked human beings, sounds of nature, recordings of Beethoven and Blind Willie Johnson.

At least something of this world will survive, I mused, startling myself with the thought.

After returning from the grocery store, my wavering sense of uncertainty had me wondering if I should fill the bathtub with water. What if I put the tap on and nothing came out? I felt ridiculous the moment I thought that, but it was one of the few times in my life where it seemed the popsicle-stick-world of fossil fuels and fiber optics, celebrity and the-customer-is-always-right might actually be falling apart.

Water ran from the faucet as it always had.

That afternoon, I picked up my sons from their after-school program, greeting the teachers doling out snacks, exchanging uneasy quips about the newly extended March Break. I waited until my wife came home to tell the boys that Florida was canceled. They were disappointed, but took it well. Felt much as I had — what fun would it be if my brother and his family weren’t there?

It was that evening the world tilted. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau advised all Canadians traveling abroad to return home. Unprecedented announcement followed unprecedented announcement. The word “lockdown” entered our vocabulary. The coronavirus received a name — the suitably science-fictionesque: “COVID-19.”

As my family settled in the living room that evening, watching a movie, I ventured downstairs to the basement. There in the shadows cast by the stairway light, I looked at my bike, Old Red, the faithful department store beast, which sat upon an indoor trainer. I took up cycling the previous summer after being laid-off from my technical writing job at Epic MachineCo. With the arrival of winter, I continued riding, but donning three day’s worth of laundry every early morning became too onerous. Bought the trainer and rode in the basement, listening to music.

That morning, in the hour before daylight, I went downstairs, ready to ride, but instead beheld a mystery. As I cranked the resistance drum into place, I found that my rear tire was flat.

How the hell would that happen? I wondered.

The rear tire was suspended inches above the floor. The resistance drum was smooth, pristine steel and I loosened it off after each ride. The bicycle had been locked on the trainer all winter. Cursing the disruption in my routine, I went out to the garage and brought in the air pump and inflated the tire, only to hear air escaping. Rode a few thousand kilometers outside on that bike, earlier in the year without incident. Now, in the serenity of my basement, the rear tire suffered an Immaculate Puncture.

In that moment, I had no idea how important that bicycle would soon become to me. In the days and weeks that followed, a choice presented itself: What “ninety-five” do you want to be?

I could hole-up in my house during the ensuing lockdown, eating, drinking, lazing my way to 395 pounds, or I could get on the bike and pedal toward 195 pounds, a weight I had not known since my early twenties.

Only a few years earlier, I was in my mid-forties and well on my way to 300 pounds. My relationship with food was dysfunctional, devouring meal-replacement bars as dessert following over-sized dinners. Once an athlete, I retained my sportsman’s appetite, which was disastrous as my pursuits became more sedentary. A technical writer by trade, I spent vast spans of time seated in cubicles at various workplaces. An aspiring writer in my own time, I returned home in the evening to spend another few hours at my desk, working on my own work.

Physical discomfort gave way to mental misery.

Basketball had been my sport, growing up, augmented by sporadic jogging. By the time I was twenty-eight years old, basketball was a yearbook memory and I entirely lost the thread of jogging. Couldn’t get over the hump of my route. It never got any easier and finally, one overcast October evening, pounding gracelessly through the shadows of my neighborhood, I thought, Why in hell am I torturing myself? With no fathomable answer, I headed home.

By early 2019, I had whittled my weight down to the upper 220s, lapsing and crashing, and wondering if I was simply destined to live my life with a godawful paunch. I returned from March Break vacation, that year, weighing 236 pounds, rationalizing every indulgence as: We’re on vacation! Then back to real life, back to my cubicle, docked at my desk, belly in constant battle with my belt. By then I had an ascetic’s acceptance of discomfort. My belt as unremitting as a flagellator’s whip.

By the evening of March 13, 2020, months of cycling had got me down to 220 pounds. The goal throughout my uncomfortably overweight adulthood had always been 200 pounds, but year after year I grudgingly accepted that it was out of reach. Impossible to attain.

Beyond weight and vanity, blocked arteries and murder pants, I was soon to find something in the bicycle that I didn’t even know I sought. There was something in just gliding down a road on two rubber tires, my body a part of the clockwork mechanism of cycling, gathering all those missing kilometers, all that distance, movement I lost during twenty years of cubicle dwelling, as though assembling an incomplete monument.

What sat before me was a cycle-shaped syringe that, in the coming months, would addict me and deliver me in ways I could not imagine.

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Matthew St. Amand

Matthew St. Amand

Husband, father, amateur ghost hunter, online-ordained minister and writer. Learn more (but not much more) at www.mattst.biz