“Dispatch from a Pandemic: San Antonio, Texas” by Jennifer Companik

AWP 20 Sign. Let's not shake hands. Companik 3-16-2020
Jennifer Companik

This was one of the signs at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, posted throughout the Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio, accompanied by hand sanitizer dispensers. A writer wrote that. Un-ironically. I wanted to laugh. Then wash my hands with soap and hot water for at least twenty seconds. I am already a germophobe—the kind that does not eat at buffets unless she is first in line; will not try a sip of your amazing cocktail; will not accept a handful of your M&Ms; eats sandwiches with a fork and a knife ‘cause who can keep their hands clean between the bathroom and the table in a restaurant; stores her toothbrush bristles down in a cup of hydrogen peroxide, even at home; closes her eyes and mouth and exhales sharply through her nose when someone sneezes nearby before saying “Bless you”—you get the idea. But I had taken three days off work and spent $2,000 to go to this conference—so by God I was going!

Speaking of hand-washing…there were lines not only for restroom stalls, as there always are, but for sinks, too. For the first time in my life I saw people washing their hands the way I do every day. All of us scrubbing for our very lives. And every soap dispenser contained soap. So much hygiene tickled me.

The book fair was sparsely attended—and each panel felt a little like The Decameron, where we listened and told stories while the weight of the plague swung over us like a poorly-anchored chandelier. At a poetry panel on punctuation, one poet cried out in the middle of her talk: “I’m dying to touch my face right now!” We all were. Our own, not hers.

But those alternate greetings—I never realized how integral hugging and shaking hands were to a professional networking event until they became taboo. I saw people rub elbows in lieu of a handshake. Some people, though, would not even rub elbows. Those folks took a step back and glanced at their hand sanitizer pumps when anyone got closer than three feet away. They were your “louder greetings” attendees shouting, “HI!”

I was there to make connections and I did not know a soul in San Antonio. Friends and writing-business associates who might have offered me social and professional shelter had dropped out at the last minute, out of fear of contagion. I had recently completed my first translation of a novel, and I wanted to meet other translators and learn how to get my work published. As a fiction writer, I wanted to engage with editors to see what journals might be a good fit for my work. On a human level, I wanted to be invited to offsite events in the evening and know at least one person there. Only how was I supposed to bond with strangers from a minimum of three feet away? I did not know what to do. I mostly nodded.

Or…shook hands. I accepted a few handshakes from strangers who withdrew their hands quickly, guiltily. Three people said, “I’m sorry,” after shaking my hand, as if they had stepped on my foot. I kidded one woman that we would be fine as long as we did not lick our palms. She laughed, nervously. (Note: My fear of germs had not dissolved, I just had better coping skills than these newbies. I have undergone enough therapy to learn that microbes are everywhere and that there are things I can do to minimize exposure—like hand washing, not sharing drinks.) Other folks, though, extended their hands with rebellious smiles. Mostly smokers. Smokers, I noticed, seemed the most comfortable teasing Death—which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense.

We are the only animals that ponder death. We like to pretend we are not animals. We cover our nakedness, use the toilet in private, and write articles. Still we communicate by touch, because we are animals. I like to think we are like dogs. So there we were, dogs stuck greeting each other only by barking. I did not make as many connections as I have at previous conferences. But I made a few. I was drawn to those who had extended their hands and smiled. People I could touch and smell; know and trust. Though I do not smoke, I hung out with the smokers. They were breathing the easiest.

–March 14, 2020

jennifer companik

Jennifer Companik holds an MA from Northwestern University and is a fiction editor at TriQuarterly. Her accomplishments include: first prize, The Ledge’s 2014 Fiction Awards; a Pushcart Prize nomination; and stories and essays appearing in The Evansville Review, Northern Virginia Review, The London Reader, Fresh Ink and The Bookends Review. By reading her work you are participating in one of her wildest dreams.