Navigating the Newest Abnormal

After all this time, it finally happened. 

I woke up Monday morning feeling ill, like an overzealous chimpanzee had mopped the floor with my hair, squeegeed my brain and put me away wet. My neck felt leaden, and fatigue held down my limbs with Herculean weight. I could still smell dog breath and taste toothpaste, but we all know by now the symptoms are never definitive. My intestines twisted with the fear that I’d caught—and possibly spread—the virus.

In a year-and-a-half of masking and distancing, no one in our bubble has experienced so much as a sniffle, though our family had our share of exposure scares before we all got enthusiastically vaccinated last spring. When Hospice Savannah sponsored a mass dosing of the Johnson & Johnson “one n’ done” in March, I shimmied with so much excitement the nurse could barely jab me. 

My husband actually shed tears after his first Pfizer shot, realizing that after eight months of vigilant cleaning and his *ahem* viral vow that he would not be a “vector of death and suffering,” every single one of his Strong Gym clients had remained COVID-free. (For real though, even Vanity Fair picked up Mark Lebos’ quote. We’re working on the Not A Vector of Death and Suffering Halloween costume.)

As the summer peaked, we’ve returned to life as we like it: Indoor gatherings with other inoculated folk, a romantic dinner at Common Thread. Late afternoon drinks at Lone Wolf Lounge, mask tucked in my back pocket in case I see someone I don’t like. A few weeks ago, we even went to the movies, albeit an 11am showing in a mostly empty theater. (Turns out popcorn is a delicious breakfast food, but my appetite for melty Junior Mints may be gone forever after that nasty scene in The Green Knight.

I’ve continued to mask up in the grocery store and other crowded spots, though I confess to wondering how much of it was less for necessary protection than a virtue signifier that I care about other people and am not an actual walking dead moron. I’ve shaken my head as schools struggled to open and ICUs began filling with unvaccinated sick people—as of this writing, Memorial Health is at 100% capacity. I can’t even believe half of American healthcare workers must be mandated to save their own damn lives, let alone relieve their co-workers who are so exhausted they’re staging symbolic walk-outs. At this point, it seems like the horse has run so far out of the barn that no matter how skillful the cowperson trying to rope it back in, it just wants to hang itself. 

But it’s all been at an arm’s length—six feet, if you will. Even as breakthrough cases of the delta variant began to surface in the last few weeks, I felt safe with the scientific, documented odds that it was unlikely that I would pick it up from the creeper standing too close to me at the Publix sushi display, and even less probable that I would pass it on given my truncated social life and the rapid decrease of the variant’s viral load in vaccinated adults. There have been moments when I’ve been downright lax, i.e. playing hook-and-ring on an outdoor restaurant deck on Tybee, because why wear a mask when you’re already swimming in a petri dish? 

Before Monday morning, it had been many months since it felt like COVID could hit home. After dragging myself up, I drove immediately to the Civic Center, where I’d gotten tested on several occasions pre-vax after finding out I’d been within 50 feet with someone who had tested positive. The last time was back on January 6—I remember exactly because I was watching live updates on my phone of terrorist Viking clowns swarming the Capitol as my car creeped forward into the bowels of what will soon be known as the “old arena,” my screen flashing with breaking glass as the tech conducted her nostril assault. The test came back negative, and suddenly a killer pandemic did not seem the worst of our collective problems.

Since then, democracy appears to have wrested the chew toy away from the crazies, though they still occupy the House. North Carolina-based private contractor Mako Medical now fulfills testing demands for our local Dept. of Public Health outpost, a testament to capitalism’s cheerfully relentless march. Yet even with this alacritous corporate efficiency dressed smartly in matching navy scrubs, the line of cars snaked around Orleans Square and backed up on Oglethorpe by 8:45am—apparently I wasn’t the only one who woke up feeling crappy that day. It was after noon when I finally pulled into the building to be brain-swabbed, holding my breath the entire time.  

You already know that COVID test results can take up to 72 hours, so on the way home I passed by a friend’s porch to pick up an over-the-counter rapid test, which so resembled a pregnancy stick I thought I was supposed to pee on it. Nope, more nasal invasion. An absence of pink lines meant it was negative, and while at-home tests aren’t as accurate as a PCR version sent to a lab, I was relieved to let the people who had been in my breathing space lately know that at least I’d passed the first tier of absolution. 

Then came the waiting. I still felt terrible, though now I couldn’t tell if it was actual illness or just ennui from sitting in my car for hours listening to the news coming out of Afghanistan. I sent the family away and lay on the couch swathed in a blanket for the entire afternoon, much to the delight of the dogs. As a healthy vaccinated person, I knew the virus probably wouldn’t make me any sicker than I already felt. But as I scrolled through all the tragedy—including the story of an acquaintance’s elderly father, a WWII veteran who died of COVID at his assisted living facility last week—the guilt that I might have unknowingly passed an infection to others sat on my heart like a lead gargoyle. 

This should have been over already, I cried into sympathetic fur. We did what we were supposed to do, for so many months, and people are still dying. Now what? 

The thought of isolating again depresses me deeply. The first phase of quarantine had its challenges, but my brain only allows memories of magical bike rides around a quiet city, epic Scrabble games with the kids, making meals from the garden and art out of garbage. But prolonged uncertainty and others’ unfathomable refusal to do the right thing has fried my brain (it’s scientific!), and the endless August heat has made gardening a vile and menopausally-impossible endeavor. At this point I can’t even scribble inside the lines of an adult fucking coloring book. Now what, indeed?

One bright spot is this all happened the same day the FDA announced its approval of the Pfizer vaccine, and that ought to push the needle in sanity’s favor, if you’ll forgive the metaphor. However, also that morning the answer to the New York Times’ Spelling Bee puzzle was “abnormal," which I took as an inauspicious sign. We’ve all heard so much about the “new normal,” but so far there doesn’t seem to be any such thing.

I fell asleep in tears, and the next morning, I felt fine. Well, except for the existential angst and the hot cloud of dog breath up my sore nostrils. I still stayed away from others and delayed posting this column until the Mako test results came back negative, confirming that I am COVID-free.

But the relief was brief. Cases in vaccinated folks are rising fast, and the City of Savannah has put the kibosh on public events and closed all public buildings until further notice. The crazies continue their onslaught of cognitive dissonance and flawed logic as the virus upends 18 months of sacrifice and progress towards safety.

Maybe it was a cold that smacked me down Monday or some other little influencer virus trying to make a name for itself. Maybe I just finally succumbed to the stress and sadness of living in a world of fractured realities and shifting foundations.

All I know is that the answer to “Now what?” is the same as it always was: Be careful, be kind, and trust the science. If we can avoid being vectors of death and suffering, maybe we’ll get to party again by Halloween?

Mask back on, heart wide open ~ JLL