April 10, 2020
I’m doing fine, standing in line outside Trader Joe’s, until the woman in front of me coughs.
It’s not a rattling, Grand Canyon type of cough, like the ones that burst out of my daughter’s mouth after dinner these days (she’s recovering from something — bronchitis? COVID-19? It’s anyone’s guess). But it’s also not an airy thing. There’s some mucus in there. There’s some force.
The woman doesn’t blanche. She doesn’t cast an apologetic look around or slink back to her car or smack her own face with her own hand so hard she draws blood. No. She just turns to her boyfriend, and keeps on talking.
About a week and a half post what-very-well-could-have-been-the-coronavirus, I take a long suck on the cough drop in my mouth, and wonder if I heard it wrong.
Meanwhile, they’re giggling. She leans on him, squeezing his arm. They’re both wearing surgical masks, those flimsy contraptions of blue and white paper that gape open on the sides. I think about the news reports of aerosol contagion, how the virus can windsurf the air for up to three hours after someone expels it from her mouth.
She’s more than six feet away from me. More like eight, or ten. But then the line moves, and now I’m standing where they were.
You’ve had this thing, I tell myself. You are the Invincible Woman. But the test was negative. And my husband didn’t want me to do this shopping trip at all. “Let me go,” said my physician spouse, whose career has largely depended on taking test results at face value.
But he’s had plenty of quality face time with the coronavirus these past few weeks, both in suspected and confirmed form. After three weeks of venturing no further from home than I can walk (with the exception of an emergency trip to the vet), I thought it was time to suit up and deal with the grocery store.
Now I stand here, trying not to think about her cough. Usually I would scroll through my phone to pass the time. But it’s drizzling and the screen sparkles with pricks of water. My next impulse is to talk. But the line is silent. This confuses me. If we’re all in masks — we are — and we’re at least six feet away from each other — we are — is conversation with a stranger dangerous? What harm could talking actually do?
It’s like we’re all mad at each other, for something no one did on purpose, and everyone’s trying their very best to avoid.
The line inches forward. The woman coughs again.
I did not imagine it. I did not exaggerate it. It is the same damn hacking noise as before. This time, she follows it up by dancing a little jig for her lover. Literally, she executes a two-step, right there on the sidewalk in front of CVS.
No one yells. There’s zero momentum for any kind of attack, or even protest. So I stare at her, wondering. Is she post-infection or pre-? Could someone who’s spent the last two weeks hovering near or lying on her bed cough with such insouciance in public? Then she must be pre-illness. But isn’t she just the tiniest bit worried?
Or maybe — this occurs to me now — she’s calling it allergies and believes she poses no threat to anyone.
Okay, believe that. But look, you have a boyfriend. Would it be too much to ask to send him to the market for you, so the rest of us don’t have to listen to your cough ring in our ears the rest of the day?
Another five minutes, and I’m in the store. Patti — a Trader Joe’s clerk with whom I’ve spent hours over the years lingering in aisles, trading stories of her kids and mine — smiles behind a black mask and hands me a cart she’s cleaned off herself with alcohol wipes. The store itself is quieter and emptier than usual, but otherwise the same. There are my pomegranate seeds. Here is the chicken I’ll cook tonight for Shabbat. There is the pancake bread I’ll return to buy after Passover. The line outside was so strange, so disconcerting and nerve-wracking. But this I know. I’m fine again.
And yet, when I finally get to the checkout line, and stand on the fluorescent orange tape that says, “PLEASE WAIT HERE UNTIL READY TO PAY (CUSTOMER #1),” and the checker takes my full cart away from me, I see my hand is vibrating. So is my shoulder. And my knees. But there’s no earthquake. It’s only me, so stressed by a trip to Trader Joe’s that I’m shaking.
Later, finally home, I sit in my front seat in the driveway, looking for some reason I can no longer remember at the stories on the New York Times app. I start reading one about looming disruptions to the global supply chain (for the sake of everyone’s sanity, I will not link it here, and I advise you not to go looking it up).
I picture a future in which the virus recedes, but now it’s not only toilet paper I can’t find at the store, but food itself.
This is no way to think. Not when there’s frozen berries warming in the trunk. I take the coughing woman and the empty aisles and all the masks and the orange floor tape and the supply chain article, slide them all into a box, shut it tight, turn the key in the lock, and throw it with all my might into the far reaches of my mind.
Then I start to unload the car.