Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Before / After

After, we sing "Happy Birthday" like a dirge. I hear it in my head with Dr. Bronner's castile soap frothing up between my fingers. Returning from the outside, an obstacle course of high-touch surfaces, I wash my hands and Clorox my phone.

What I miss from before: touching my eyes, which was always bad to do but brought so much satisfaction. That moment of rubbing away the film of sleep from the eyelids, like the lifting of a veil.

Also, the library on university campus I haunted like a ghost, the alum overenthusiastic about her library card. I went there to check out the maximum number of books before six Bay Area counties announced shelter-in-place restrictions and the library shut its doors. The jovial young student working behind the tall wooden desk wore a sweatshirt printed with a sprawling image of Kim Jong-Un. We talked briefly about how he wasn't sure yet if he'd have to keep working or if he could go home to L.A., and then I remarked, "Interesting shirt."

"Yeah, you know, I tell people, my grandpa fought in the war, I still got family in the North that I've never met because of it, so, like, my oppression beats yours," he said, with the particular bravado of young Asian-American men whose path to social capital in high school was being funny, pulling comedic fodder from parents and grandparents' ethnic idiosyncrasies. In college for maybe the first time boys like him had to defend that MO -- all the joking, no sacred cows. That was why, I thought, there'd been a slight edge to his response.

"Gotcha," I said. I'd grown up with boys like him, their own permutations of dictator sweatshirts. Sometimes it annoyed me but here, the familiarity was comforting.

I miss a coffeeshop in North Berkeley, warm and buzzy and filled with light. One Saturday I came here to nurse a latte and read Hardt and Negri's book Commonwealth. I sat in place for about six hours, flipping pages as the color of the sky outside changed. Next to me two men in their 60s talked at great volume about politics with some companionable aggression in the timeless way I imagined there were other men in their 60s talking about politics in coffeeshops around the world. Every so often, a new entrant to the cafe would forget to close the stuck door behind them and cold drafts rushed in. Each time, the two men complained volubly until one would grudgingly rise to close the door. The third time I decided to go myself. I shot them a comradely smile on the way back, looking down at my book before seeing if the smile was acknowledged or returned. I like to be on the periphery of people, sometimes.

What I miss is also not being on the periphery of people. Hugging and being in the same room with less space than 6 feet between us. The last time I shook a hand was the first week of March, a Shabbat dinner filled mostly with kindly people who I didn't know. I felt conflicted about the shaking but fastidiously washed my hands, and didn't touch my face, and ate white jackfruit wedges from a bowl. Scanning everyone's face around the long table I tried not to think about if anyone had COVID-19. My chest felt tight, as it had before at work in meetings sometimes, a feeling I ascribed to bad posture, sitting too rigidly on a backless chair; the feeling made me fidget uncontrollably, trying to configure my body into a more comfortable position. I felt warm and ungainly and wished I'd taken off my sweater, wondered if it was possible to slide off my black fold-out chair and onto the floor.

Before: not thinking so much about breathing. After: bounding up steps at the end of runs with the thought pounding my temples that This is a gift. Gratitude is good, I know, but not its cousin in my head: If my lungs turned to ground-glass opacity I couldn't walk across a room. 

Before: going to the doctor, casually, as good preventive medicine. After: risky exposure. That tightness in my chest didn't go away. A day or two after the Shabbat dinner, I was folding laundry in my bedroom. The sense that my lungs were being gripped and squeezed shut became so strong that I drifted into the kitchen and sat on the wooden bench at our dining table with my knees clutched to my chest. Thankfully, I had no cough or fever. There was no field on WebMD to put in the other symptoms: late-night doomscrolling on Twitter, my puffy eyes bathing in white-blue light, jerking awake with guilt about not messaging my grandparents on WeChat more, regarding texts from my mom -- always about COVID-19 -- with abject dread.

To the symptoms I could enter -- the chest tightness, the feeling of not being able to take a deep-enough breath -- the internet told me (famous last words) that it could be anxiety or an aneurysm or an angina or a host of other things, on webpages that all ended with "See your doctor."

I saw my doctor. She looked at me with busy sympathetic eyes and said, "Your oxygenation's 99%, that's pretty good, no one really gets 100%," and pressed the stethoscope against my skin. She spoke vaguely about trying yoga and meditation and prescribed a frightening pill, saying, "This isn't a solution for anxiety, it's more to see, you know, if it helps make the physical part go away. Take maybe half a tab -- a quarter, even -- because these are really strong." At home when I took the medication out of the wrinkled paper pharmacy bag, I marveled at how tiny the pills were, resting like breadcrumbs at the bottom of the orange prescription canister. I called my sister in a celebratory tone: I wasn't going to die. I pushed the breadcrumb pills into the bathroom cabinet, stacked alongside all the other things I've never used. Like a month's supply of ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic they give you in case you get the runs while you're jaunting around abroad. The first-aid kit from Costco that was a Christmas present from my parents (pragmatic souls), still shrink-wrapped.

I miss not inventorying the medical supplies in that bathroom cabinet to evaluate readiness for potentially recovering from a respiratory disease at home. But what I miss most about before is probably every other "before" I missed then: once, roaming the hills at night with whatever walking companion that heady year had delivered; once, tossing back mojitos in expat bars in Beijing with girlfriends from a language program; once, tearing around a friend's opulent house fueled by goat cheese on oven-toasted baguettes, making movies and binge-watching MacGyver; once, lying on Capitola Beach with summer camp friends licking a single ice cream cone, gleaming and turning sticky in our hands. Orpheus, in looking back, loses Eurydice a second time.


Post a Comment