the Before Times

the Before Times

Is there life after covid-19? The latest reports say we’ll never be rid of it. Every week In the past two months at least two people I know have come down with the virus. All fully vaccinated.

When a friend recently revealed that she can’t remember what the shutdown was like. I reminded her she’s still working from home. Working remotely could be on the life-after-covid list if your definition of life-after isn’t back-to-normal. I recommended Elly Griffiths latest novel, “The Closed Room.” In that book, the protagonist, Ruth Galloway, receives a voicemail from a prime witness coughing up an urgent message to call her. When the call came in, Ruth was stocking up on toilet paper and cat food at the supermarket. By the time she returned the call, the witness had died of covid.

At the beginning, March 2020, dramatic shutdown rules came on too fast. As I sauntered toward an afternoon celebration at my neighborhood church, I waved to one of the pastors dashing toward the redline.

“Headed home! The church is shutting down,” he shouted.

“What? Everything? Even the exercise classes?”

“Everything. Starting tomorrow.”

I whispered the news to a circle of friends, as if it were a secret.

“All our classes will be on Zoom,” one said.

“What’s Zoom?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

After covid, conversations are peppered with “before covid” and “before the pandemic.” My favorite, “in the Before Times” sounds like an era. The Before Times. There’s a definite marker.

Before covid I attended church and had spontaneous lunches with friends. During covid and now after covid, Sunday is a day like any other. No church. No ad hoc “let’s grab a bite”. Time, no longer marked by ticking off a schedule of events that includes travel, is measured by brushing my hair before I click on my Zoom square.

Indoor group amusements proliferated for a time until the phrase “super-spreader” caught fire. I felt immune for life after triple vaccinations and a mild case of covid. But these days I read my immunity has waned  and a new variant is out to get me.

At my first indoor group event post-shutdown, a lovely friend aimed her big red pursed lips at my cheek.

“Nooo! I can’t do that!” I said.

Partiers who had bragged incessantly on Zoom chats for the previous two years about mask-wearing, lining up for vaccinations and social distancing, embraced and kissed as if covid had been eradicated. In order to protect myself from this affectionate mob, I sat down. It worked for a while until latecomers greeted me with a drapey hug.

I left the party when I could no longer muster up the necessary social graces to keep friends at arms’ length.

At the Goodman Theater recently I had a slight panic attack when the usher said they no longer require vax cards, only masks. I didn’t fear catching the virus. I feared theater bosses were presuming vaccinations don’t matter. Or, don’t work.

Oh for the simple worries in the era of the Before Times!

Without Being Contagious to Others

Without Being Contagious to Others

Uh-oh. When I home-tested positive for Covid after a few casual lunches with different friends over the holidays, I knew I had to tell them about my infection. 

I had accumulated four Covid home tests to use between Christmas and New Years and self-tested before each gathering of five to seven people—not exactly a crowd, but I worried. After a rousing lunch of laughs and stories at the History Museum atrium Cafe, I went home and used my last home test. Gulp. Positive.

Immobilization glued me to my bed. What do I do? The slight cough and runny nose I’d had for a few days was seasonal allergies, according to the doctor. One friend told me the self-tests are not accurate. Really? Is she right? Is the CDC wrong?  How do I report it? Do I tell people? Will they panic? Am I responsible if they get it? Will they blame me? 

Fortunately I wasn’t with the friends who panic, blame, and generally indulge in open disapproval and silent scorn. That crowd is busy interrogating their other friends with positive Covid tests: Where did you get it? Who were you with? Were they wearing masks? Were you? Were they boostered? 

There are so many cases of Covid now that it’s impossible to trace the source of who, what, where, how, when. Last week people talked about their friends and relatives having Covid. This week they’re talking about themselves having it. 

Henry, Social Distancing

My course of action was 1) text Mark with the news and ask if he’d walk the dog for two days. Two days. That’s what I gave myself to be symptom-free. I was right. And really, how much dog-walking can you ask of your friends in the first snowstorm of the winter? 2) Turn on the kitchen exhaust fan to move the Covid air out. 3) Wipe all the surfaces with bleach, and 4) close myself off in the bedroom with Tylenol, electrolytes and Kleenex. Mark ran in and out with Henry. No lingering. No chit-chat.

The Northwestern Medicine patient portal has no apparent section for reporting Covid. I wrote my doctor through the online messaging system (who reads those?). “I tested positive for Covid. What should I do?” Twenty-four hours later my symptoms had subsided.  I’d read the CDC stuff and thought I knew all I had to know. But no. Northwestern has a lengthy standard reply, some of which surprised me:

Retesting is not recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) because you may continue to test positive for three months or more without being contagious to others.

What? For the first time in almost two years, the weight I didn’t know was so heavy, lifted from my mind, body and soul! No more frantically scouring shelves for Covid tests? No more fear of infection, the ER, hospital, death? No more worry that I might give it to you!

It’s like June 2021!

Shutdown Holiday

Shutdown Holiday

Years from now, publications will appear describing what happened during the pandemic year 2020. Mystery books will include courtroom dramas defending murderers who snapped under the influence of cabin fever. Memoirs will be riddled with hours-long drives to grandma’s care center, only to wave to her from the parking lot. Chapters headed “Thanksgiving 2020” will describe ongoing feuds stemming from last-minute cancellations to the traditional family dinner. All stories will include descriptions of face-coverings and condemnations for and against mask-wearing.

In the Zoom gatherings I joined over Thanksgiving weekend, I could already see these stories brewing (ok, maybe not the cabin-fever murderer). In fact, I have my own who-done-it idea percolating.  It’s about a family trying to kill off the nonagenarian wealthy matriarch by insisting on a twenty-person no-masks-allowed family gathering. 

When my old friend, Abe, called and said, “let’s have dinner at Gibson’s,” I welcomed deliverance from Zoom socials. I forgot that I promised the mayor I’d stay home when she shook her finger at me on the TV. The last time I had dinner with Abe at Gibson’s, the Irish Rovers marched around to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The next day, Governor Pritzker got mad at us and shut down all the restaurants in Illinois. Eight months later, after a slight reprieve in the summer, indoor dining is shutdown again, but outside?

“Yes!” I answered. 

Abe is the kind of man who doesn’t talk on the phone. He’s such a good storyteller that he must see you in person, get your reaction, dangle unfinished vignettes that tease questions from you (“what happened next?”). Once he’s tantalized your curiosity and aroused your receptivity, he comes in with a big punch line that leaves you craving for more. This kind of storytelling cannot be done over Zoom.

Gibson’s has opened its second floor for diners. The steakhouse gets away with it by removing all the windows and calling it outdoors. The heat is turned way up. The first floor is sealed off, forbidden territory. I felt guilty enough about ignoring the command to stay home that I insisted on sitting at a table on the sidewalk terrace, outside, surrounded by umbrella-like flaming gas heaters.

I never removed my deep purple full-length down coat and hood with matching face covering. Abe notoriously underdresses for Chicago winters. He wore a windbreaker and wool beanie and brought a blanket. Our body heat swatted away the forty degree cold, at first.

The aroma of grilled steaks hovered around our table like a sizzling dust storm. We ordered a fast-cooking black and blue sirloin to split. Abe ordered a salad.

Forty minutes later Abe was still forking around in the arugula between his stories. My fleece-lined pants, wool socks and snow boots failed me as my body heat dissipated. I whined. Abe called the waiter.

“Could we have the steak now?”

“Oh, I was waiting for you to finish your salad before I put it in.”

That vaccine cannot come soon enough.