COVID Day 46: Underlying Conditions

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Tara steps into the “entrance only” side of the home improvement store using the time it takes the clerk to wipe down the handle of her shopping cart to assess the store’s crowdedness. Self conscious about possibly being the only shopper not wearing a facemask, she sheepishly slips on the cloth cover her sister made as her way of dealing with quarantine manic.

In truth Tara didn’t have to escape lockdown to go grocery shopping before coming here, she still has half a dozen eggs, enough vegetables for several meals, and the bottle of vodka she’s learning how to drink is two-thirds full. But it’s been days since she talked to anyone face-to-face and at this point, even a casual conversation with a fellow customer would be a welcome opportunity.

Tara knows she shouldn’t be out but is able to convince herself that the need for carrots to complete the soup she’s planning along with getting a half-gallon of orange juice for her next attempt to remedy vodka palatable, make the risks acceptable. The home improvement stop falls into the category of “in for a penny, in for a pound.” She could of course go without a garden this year like most her neighbors, but a spring garden speaks with loud optimism about the potential for summer and she needs optimism right now. Her doctor was adamant about staying home though, “unless absolutely necessary,” he admonished her when she attempted to add provisos. But that was back in March, and now here it is, the first of May and she simply can’t stay locked up forever. On many levels, the cure’s been every bit as bad as the cause and she’s come to understand that like everyone, she’ll ultimately need to make a personal choice about how to live her one precious life.

The store clerk dutifully wiping down her cart couldn’t be more that sixteen. “How can he still be working?” she wonders. “How could his parents permit it? How could he be so brazen as to stand here at the only entrance greeting her, greeting each customer, without wearing a facemask?” Tara’s both envious and angry at the boy who seems so friendly, she does so need a friendly smile. It’s amazing how important even a smile from a total stranger can be. A stranger who’s courage you admire and who’s recklessness you despise.

She takes the cart from the carefree clerk as the cold wet disinfectant sends a cautionary reminder that it’s not to late to turn around. “What was that term the doctor used,” her rational brain taunts, “underlying condition? That people with your health need to stay home.” And she did. Five long weeks of cleaning and already of clean house, of rereading books she wasn’t interested in, of watching reruns of Jeopardy not remembering individual questions, but knowing how each match nonetheless unfolds. Weeks of lonely isolation and solitude, with little meaningful to do other than contemplate her changing world in the post traumatic era of COVID.

“Of course the doctor’s right,” she counters. “Except when they’re not, which seems to be a lot lately. What medical doctors fail to comprehend is that being healthy involves so much more than a stomach that sorts, a heart that pumps, and lungs that process. Doctors only know what they’re told and right now all they’re being told is a bunch of gobbledygook.”

Tara pushes her sterilized cart into the subdued chaos of mostly abandoned aisles that seem so peacefully filled with danger. She’s trying not to feel guilty about being out of the house, but it’s a struggle. “A pill for this,” she continues to argue her case, “a monitor for that, is that really how life is to be lived? How do you encapsulate the power of a smile, the desire to belong, the need to feel in control?”

As she starts down the aisle of cleaning products that leads to the gardening section, Tara smiles at the realization the rush to hoard toilet paper must be over, either that or her timing’s flawless. She quickly pushes her cart toward the paper towel section hoping its the later. To her happy amazement, the display is full and the sign limiting the number of rolls is nowhere to be seen. Suddenly filled with a sense of vindication, she needs only one roll but takes three, not only as a preventive measure in case hoarders return, but as further evidence justifying her decision to abandon quarantine. She grabs a fourth roll but hesitates before dropping it into her cart.

“Ya know,” a man behind her with a smooth South American accents says. “if you need them it’s not hording.”

Startled, Tara turns to face her accuser but is instead greeted instead with the warm friendly smile of a very nice looking man in blue jeans and a faded red polo shirt, who like the clerk at front of the store, has brazenly refused to wear a face mask. His thick wavy hair, stubble beard, and soft brown eyes that smile as easily as his lips speak to the fact he gets through life with little stress. In her conflicted embarrassment she’s unsure what to do, should she return the roll she’s still clutching, along with the others she clearly doesn’t need? “With all the free time,” she finally says, smiling as graciously as she can, “I do find myself in need of extra towels.”

“But of course,” the man continues without judgment. “And the good thing is, with so much extra I’m not left short. Of course for the poor folks who follow, who can say, but I guess that’s the deal everywhere for everything right?”

This strange man steps toward Tara collapsing their requisite six foot virtual barrier. If she had time to consider things rationally, she would see it’s just his friendly nature, but “underlying condition,” is all her inner voice can scream as she quickly scurries around the opposite side of her cart to reestablish a safe perimeter. Panic starts to rise as she struggles to reconcile a lifelong belief that casual conservations are okay and her current condition where talking to anyone is fraught with danger. She tries her best to smile politely, never realizing her mostly covered face conceals such friendly gestures. Suddenly mindful of the real reason she came to the home improvement store, she quietly tells the nice man, “I have to go,” but does so in a way he can’t hear.

Tara hurries her cart to the far end of the aisle before pausing to check the time. Trying her best to forget the fright she just experienced, Tara focuses on her eagerly anticipated tradition of meeting Paul at the coffee kiosk in the front corner of the store. For weeks, every Thursday at 9:37, she waited for Paul to come for his coffee pretending their chance encounter was just coincidence. Before long, they became more than acquaintances, they had their weekly moment in the coffee line getting to know each other. For example, she knows Paul drinks decaf straight but only a little, he always buys a small cup. Paul likes to tease Tara about not having a favorite, “what’s it gonna be this week?” he always asks, “you’re running out of fancy sounding drinks to try.”

“I’m a girl of many moods,” Tara likes to flirt back. In truth she doesn’t particularly like coffee, but is convinced if she tries them all, eventually one will be repeat-worthy. In early March she made the bold decision that warming weather provided an opportunity to invite Paul to sit with her outside as they shared their coffee, but then COVID happened and this is her first time back.

It’s been seven weeks since Tara last went to work and the Jeopardy host doesn’t really mind if you watch reruns in a stained tee-shirt and sweatpants. Dressing up used to be part of her daily routine. It’s important when you work in sales to always look your best and so today, she decided to be that confident woman who once worked in sales. She doesn’t even care if she’s completely overdressed for a home improvement shopper, it was more than necessary, it was a mood altering ceremony; with a smidgen of hopeful optimism mixed in. Tara is at least truthful about the real reason she escaped quarantine, it has nothing to do with carrots, orange juice for her vodka, or gardening supplies, everything to this point has been with the intention of being in the coffee kiosk line by 9:37.

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