As a home care nurse in Baltimore, I learned years ago how to get in and out of a house without touching any surface with my bare hands. My first AIDS patient had open sacral wounds and explosive diarrhea. I was nervous, so I called my supervisor to for a reassuring pep talk.
“Are you planning to have sex with him? she asked.
I assured her that hadn’t entered my mind, or his.
“Well, are you going to share a needle with him?”
I hoped not.
“Get over yourself then and go see him. Just wash your hands.”
I’ve been stuck with dirty needles, filed the required incident reports, and gone for all the advised testing. Testing that was readily available. I’ve been in the roach-infested homes of hoarders where there was a baby rat in a potato chip bag on the dining room floor and an infant in a carrier on the table. Seeing an opportunity to model appropriate parenting behavior, I once picked up the baby. The back of his head was flat from the constant pressure of the seat. Roaches scrambled out of his diaper. Don’t even ask how many times we called child protective services. I had vivid dreams of bringing that baby home and putting him in a tub of bubbles, lathering his hair and dressing him in a clean onesie. I have disrobed in my garage and showered before I would touch my own young children at the end of my workday.
For all those years since, I’ve never touched the door handle when leaving a public rest room. If the trash can isn’t conveniently by the door, it’s literally a toss-up whether that paper towel will end up on the floor. Sorry. Not sorry. Move the damn thing. But there has been nothing, nothing like this.
For this too, I have a system. Pieces of tin foil folded into squares carried in a zip-lock bag in my purse to wrap around that shopping cart or handle. The plastic produce bag, fresh off the roll goes over my hand. I’ll turn it inside-out putting the tin-foil inside before it goes in the trash. (It’s been years since I’ve traveled with boxes of gloves in the trunk of my car). None of these efforts though, can guarantee I’m safe from exposure. A cough. A sneeze. Hands that have touched faces have touched that thing I’m about to touch. That pen. That can of diced tomatoes. That car door handle. I’m afraid of my newspaper tossed in its plastic sheath on the walk. Is it safe to touch?
So, I did what anyone would do. My husband and I went to the beach to watch the sunset. There weren’t many people there, even though schools are closed and it’s spring break. We sat far from other humans. Some boys came too close, tossing a football back and forth. I hoped it wouldn’t come near my husband who might reflexively pick it up and toss it back to them. Then spring break happened and folks partied in great numbers on the beaches until the beaches had to be closed.
Today I heard the estimate that most of us may eventually contract the virus. I miss having eggs and fresh vegetables, but I am warm and comfortable and not in need of assistance with the act of breathing. I can download books from the library. I suggest a hula-hoop gathering in our respective driveways and my neighbors show up with their hoops. In their effort, I find the hope I’m looking for.
It’s become a delicate balance, this being open to joy while not in denial of the harsh reality of the magnitude of fear and suffering and death. Someone in my old neighborhood, a condo community with an older demographic, suggests a parade. Those who want to march will wear hats and sing or dance, maybe someone will bring a kazoo. A ukulele. A coffee-can drum. The older folks can watch and wave from their balconies. My friend is chastised for her efforts. “It’s not a time for celebration,” she’s told. Others wonder, where’s the parade? They were looking forward to seeing their friends.
My neighbor set up flags, eight feet apart, and invited others to bring a chair and a drink to their lawn. We shared stories. Who has toilet paper and where they found it. Who made a big pot of bean soup. Who found a forgotten roast in the back of the freezer. I was reminded of those summer nights in Baltimore when the entire block would unfold their webbed chairs, and just “set a spell”. Neighbors coming together at the end of the day, hoping for a slight breeze and some friendly conversation. A way to put the evening news behind them, for just a little while.
–March 31, 2020
Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native living in Florida. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Ocotillo Review, Reed Magazine, and others.