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Breaking up with Fear

Issue 263

Nicholas Powers Apr 23

The Walgreens nurse jabbed me with the needle and it felt like a key opening a jail cell. After a year of being locked inside the apartment, locked inside fear and guilt, I was free, free, free.

“You gave me my life back.” I smiled.

He gave me a fatherly pat and said to wait 15 minutes, in case of a reaction. I paced the aisles and when time was up, sprinted outside, and thrust hands to the sky. On an empty street I ripped off the mask and leaned on a fire hydrant. The sunlight held my face like a pair of hands. A great relief cleansed me. I no longer worried about accidentally killing people.

In that moment, I realized the toll of grinding, relentless fear. The vaccine was the first step in relearning how to live in the aftermath of a pandemic. It threw out the future we took for granted. Now, we have to reimagine the 21st century.

THE CORONATION

Last year, COVID-19 blew over the planet like fatal pollen. First Wuhan, China, reported a virus but from a distance, it seemed more crazy news in a year of Hong Kong protests, Amazon rainforest burning, and President Trump impeached. But headlines blared loud panic. On CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta was grim.

Each day the coronavirus spread to more places, killed more people and, like an invisible army of microscopic spiky balls, tinier than the width of a single human hair, it floated through the air. Rolling down the esophagus, the virus inflamed lungs and cut off oxygen. Most who got it became sick and then recovered. But a lot died.

The deaths electrified our conversations. At the bar, we drank as overhead a TV blared more COVID-19 news but disbelief won against fear. I sat with my friend Gabriel, we sipped on beers and asked each other if liberals were hyping the virus to defeat President Trump. I mean Russiagate didn’t work. We laughed and clinked glasses.

“To the coronavirus,” I said.

“To the coronavirus,” he said.

The jokes lasted until the lockdown. A funeral pall hung over New York. I stood at my window and watched ambulances pick up the dead and dying. The flashing red lights painted the neighbor- hood blood red.

My downstairs neighbor died. My friends got sick. My best friend said his mom texted photos from the ICU of her on a ventilator. And then I got a message from him, “My mom died.” I pressed the phone to my heart and blinked back tears.

Later, we met at an outdoor café. His eyes were filled with grief. He said he killed his mom. His marriage was a cold war and, hungry for love, he took up with a younger woman. They met at hotels. They did not get tested and weeks later his family got COVID-19.

I wanted to tell him it wasn’t his fault. I wanted to say, don’t let guilt transform a far-fetched chance of infection into a murder verdict. His hands shook. I squeezed them as if pumping his mother’s heart back to life.

LOSE YOUR ILLUSION

The coronavirus stole from us our bodies and our innocence. We could not take for granted a touch or kiss or hug. We could kill those we loved just by loving them. In order for us to save our lives, we had to suffer in the most difficult way, we suffered alone. We walled ourselves in apartments, binged on Netflix and porn, ate too much, worked out too much, got stimulus checks, and tried not to collaborate with the virus.

No matter how hard we tried, we lost loved ones. We lost jobs. We lost homes. We lost whole futures. We lost dreams. We lost fresh air.

We also lost illusions, like who kept our cities running. Turns out it was not the CEOs, hedge fund managers or Wall Street. It was the invisible workers. It was the delivery men, who rode scooters with boxes of steaming takeout. It was the nurses with dark bruised faces from wearing masks at the hospital, who broke down in their cars after their shifts because they could not stop people from dying. It was the immigrant bodega men, teachers, the truck and train and bus drivers. It was the Mexican farm and meat plant workers. They put themselves on the line so we could sit at home on our laptops writing articles like this one, or make business deals or bitch about the hike in the minimum wage.

One day, I went to the bodega and saw Louis, the Mexican sandwich maker, leaning on the wall, smoking a cigarette. We tapped elbows. He looked sad. I asked him what was wrong.

“My best friend,” he said. “He went to the hospital for pain, caught the COVID and died.”

“I’m so sorry, hermano.”

He looked at me as if trying to speak from under water. “It’s real, amigo. This thing is fucking real.”

COLLABORATORS

Even as COVID killed and killed, some collaborated with it. Nearly a third of America, under the sway of President Trump, Fox News, Brietbart and Newsmax, thought the quarantine was a Democratic coup attempt, a Silicon Valley power grab, or a plot by Satanic pedophiles to sell the United States to alien lizards.

Republicans stormed capital buildings without masks, hoisting signs to “free Michigan” or “free Oregon.” They brazenly shoved naked mouths and noses into the camera because in their ideology the mask was a sign of emasculation. Only a spineless liberal jellyfish wore it. “Live Free” was a common phrase on the signs they shook. “Give Me Liberty or Give Me COVID-19” was a particularly odd one.

Led by Trump, who said injecting bleach or high-powered light killed the virus, the maskless mob drove COVID across the nation. They collaborated with the virus because they didn’t care if it killed us. They assumed the coronavirus was a “blue state” problem, even as is spread through “red states” with a vengeance.

In New York, you saw the collaborators. On the subway, a man chomped on a sandwich with no mask, no face covering, no nothing. The rest of us relayed the same silent message with our eyes, “Yo, what the fuck is homeboy doing?” The anger in the air built and New Yorkers have a thing we do, where someone is deputized to handle business, so a man casually walked by and smacked the sandwich out of his hands, and told him, “You need to wear a mask or get the fuck off this train.” Subway justice ensued and we berated the guy until he dashed out at the next station.

We checked each other too. No one liked it. No one likes being scolded by friends to wear a mask, or to hear that snide self-righteous tone in their voice that was like fingernails on a chalk board. No one.

We stood in long lines to get tested. We clung to the negative results like a quickly expiring visa to each other’s homes. We met, tore off masks, drank and made love. All the hunger for touch had to be satiated in those brief hours like prisoners getting conjugal visits.

Afterwards, walking the street, masked again and holding hands, we saw the closed businesses and “For Rent” signs on empty buildings. A sinking feeling hit us that maybe the New York we knew was gone forever.

BREATH WORK

“Black Trans Lives Matter! Black Trans Lives Matter!”

Our voices were thunder. Our marching pounded pavement. Signs bobbed like sails on a vast river of faces that rose and fell like waves. I looked side-to-side, saw my lover passing out bright bottles of water, and my friend cupping his mouth and hollering. I checked my make-up in the reverse cellphone camera, seeing the glittery dress hugging my hips and the lipstick to honor the Black trans lives snuffed out by hate.

“Should I have worn heels?” I asked.

“Too much.” She shook her head. “Solidarity not caricature.”

In the midst of the pandemic, we saw a video of a white cop, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, for nine minutes as he begged for air. “I can’t breathe,” he repeated until he died. We saw this before: Emmet Till, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Me Too, immigrant kids in cages. American cruelty took so many shapes, so many forms that it was a mythical Hydra with a thousand snapping jaws. It bit our skin color. It bit our gender. It bit our youth and sex and paychecks. When Chauvin killed Floyd, it was another Hydra head that leered at the camera as it sniffed fresh kill. We saw the monster, picked up signs, and trampled it under our feet. Black Lives Mattered. Black Trans Lives Mattered. Black Love Mattered.

After the protest, I bicycled with friends though Brooklyn, saw activists openly drinking, playing music, sitting on curbs and handrails, smoking weed and, for the first time, passionately talking about race. Pride radiated from Black people. Whites had an easy open body language. They shared beers and under the street lights, it looked like Rembrandt had painted urban portraits of young revolutionaries.

New expressions flowed over faces. Raw empathy. Eyes mirrored eyes. Long caring stares. Trusting arms encircling shoulders. Heads touching. It was beautiful because for the first time in the pandemic, really for the first time in years, I saw strangers take off their masks.

THE LIGHT IN THE TUNNEL

“I got vaccinated!”

“You did? How?” I squinted my eyes at her.

“I’m a service provider.” She held up my coffee and muffin. “Jealous?”

“Yes.”

We laughed. Who wouldn’t be? It’s like being in jail and seeing another prisoner wave goodbye. I walked back home, thumbing my cellphone for the NYC/vaccine site, entering my name, age, zip code. Nothing. All the appointments were taken.

On Facebook, friends posted photos smiling as they got the jab. They could rejoin the world, not all at once, the vaccine was not a cure-all and we have not hit herd immunity and new variants of COVID-19 swam in the air, threatening to throw us back into full lockdown, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel and it wasn’t another train.

When I got my Walgreens appointment, I ran down the street on Cloud Nine. I waved at neighbors, the bodega men, even the police parked in front of the building with constant shootings. I was that happy.

Danny, the laundromat owner saw the glow and asked if I had won the lottery.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m going to get vaccinated.” I waited for him to say a Fox News talking point.

“Good.” He nodded. “People say all kinds of crazy stuff about vaccines but they go all the time to doctors, take all types of pills. Do they ask what’s in them? No. But a vaccine comes out and now they’re detectives. Fuck outta here.” He saluted me. “Go be a good New Yorker.”

We touched elbows. Giddy, I rode the train. Giddy, I waited at Walgreens. Giddy, I took off the hoodie, bared my shoulder and felt the quick sting of the needle.

Outside, on the empty street, I took off the mask and rubbed my face with sunlight. A year’s worth of fear peeled away. Skin tingled. What does this mean? I looked at my hands. Did I accidently kill someone? Could I have done more?

Eyelids shut, the day was an orange glow in the dark. What do we now? How do we repair a broken world?

I kept my eyes closed and followed the sun like a flower. Its light was far away but I could feel it.

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