It wasn’t until he hit the highway that he realized he had no mask. His thoughts ran frantically through his head, trying to figure out what to do. Should he turn back home? It was ten minutes behind him now, and there was a lot of construction that would hinder his ability to get home quickly. But surely, he couldn’t go anywhere without it, could he?
He considered where he was going, what he was doing. He only needed to get to the grocery store. He just needed a few supplies to carry him through the week. And the store sold masks, didn’t they? But they wouldn’t let him inside without one, not even to buy one.
He continued to drive down the highway, his eyes scanning every exit sign as he got further and further from the house. He knew he should turn back, but the more he drove, the more time it was going to take to get back home and find a mask. And then, would he have enough willpower to go back outside? It had taken enough just to force himself into the car the first time.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to leave his house; he loved driving places and doing things. But his anxiety always got the better of him; it was safer to stay at home. There was more risk every time he stepped outside, every time he entered a store, breathed their recycled air. Every time he walked near someone who’s mask was too loose or wasn’t covering their nose. Enough risk that he never felt entirely comfortable outside of his own walls, even if he was wearing a mask.
Wait! He had a spare mask in the glove compartment. Keeping his eyes on the road and trying not to swerve into the next lane, he reached over and popped open the glove compartment to find- it was empty. His wife had used it the last time they went to pick up food, and they’d never replaced it.
He was approaching the exit for the store. It was too late to turn back. Not knowing what he could do, he mechanically got off the highway and pulled into the parking lot of the store. He stared at the building, at the throngs of masked individuals who were maneuvering between the parked cars and shopping carts. He was contained within the car for now, but he felt so exposed.
Maybe someone at the front door would be handing out masks. He remembered seeing some stores doing that, but he wasn’t sure if this was one of them. He couldn’t see clearly into the store’s front doors to see if someone was positioned there with a table full of masks, and even if they were, he’d have to wade through the waves of customers to get there. That would be too much exposure, wouldn’t it?
It was airborne, the CDC said. Social distance, the CDC said. Avoid the indoors where other people are gathering, the CDC said. He looked at the store through his windshield. Invisible was the threat, but he knew it could be there. He knew it just took one encounter.
Maybe it wouldn’t affect him; many people carried it without ever getting sick. But many people- healthy people- had died from it, too. There was no knowing how it would affect him. And even if it didn’t hit him too badly, what about his wife? His parents? What if he passed it on to them and they couldn’t survive it? What if they passed it on to other family members and friends?
Something bumped into the car, shaking it slightly. He looked around wildly, anxiety building into a crescendo until he saw- it was a nice, elderly lady; she’d bumped her cart into the rear of his car while she was unloading her grocieries into her own vehicle. She waved, smiling, mouthing the word “sorry”. Her mask hung uselessly around her neck. He waved back, nodding at her, but then she started coughing, her particulates spraying out into the air around her, unhindered by the mask she wasn’t wearing. He knew locking the doors would do nothing, but he did it all the same, scrunching himself down further into his seat.
He had plenty of hand sanitizer in the car, but what good was that to him now? He could clean his hands off, but if someone sneezed in his face, his lack of a mask would expose him. What then? Would he smother his face in sanitizer? No, that would certainly be deadly, even if the President failed to understand the severity of injecting sanitizer into your body.
The President. Every day, he heard the man downplay the virus, and every day, he became less and less trusting of their leader. This thing was killing people, and that didn’t seem to phase the Commander in Chief. But he couldn’t worry about the President right now; he was still parked at the grocery store with no mask and no clue what to do.
His phone buzzed; it was a message from his wife, asking him to pick up toilet paper. Sure, he thought. If they even have any.
He looked at his phone, and it suddenly dawned on him- he could use it to order his groceries. An employee would bring it right out to his car. His heart leapt! Shaking, he thumbed the app for the grocery store chain, and waited for it to sign him in. He spent the next several minutes scrolling through menus, searching products, adding them to his cart. Mercifully, he was even able to find the toilet paper. He tapped “Checkout” and entered his card details, and submitted the order.
He waited, all the while feeling more and more comfortable in his car’s bubble, listening to his music, scrolling through his Facebook page. After twenty minutes or so, he saw an employee walking towards his car, a full shopping cart in front of her. She stopped at his window, and he opened it a crack. With that crack, all the anxiety crept back in, but she was wearing her mask and kept the length of the cart between them.
She asked him his name and confirmed she had the correct order, and he popped open the trunk. The car shifted as the employee loaded the groceries into the car, and after a moment he heard a soft clunk as she closed the trunk again. She waved at him as she passed the passenger side door, and he sighed in relief. He started his car, ready to make the journey home.
Ding, ding, ding. He looked down at the car’s display. His gas tank was on empty. A chill dread flowed through him. He wondered if he had enough in the tank to get himself home. He might; he was only a few exits away. But what if he didn’t? He’d break down on the highway, and have to wait for a tow-truck or some good samaritan to stop and help him. And he still didn’t have a mask. Why hadn’t he ordered a mask?
He pulled out his phone and was halfway to opening the app to place another order when he stopped. It would probably take another twenty minutes for the order to be processed and brought out to him. And wouldn’t he prefer to wash a new mask before putting it on his face? If the employee- and who knows how many customers- had touched the mask, that would be just as bad as rubbing his face with their hands.
There was a gas station in the parking lot. Maybe there weren’t many people at the pumps right now. He could get there, pump enough gas to get home, and then this whole ordeal would be over and done with.
Slowly, he inched the car out of the parking spot, turning in the direct of the gas station. He turned the corner and- there was no one at the station. He pulled up to the first pump and turned off the car. He waited, but the coast appeared to be clear.
He opened the door, unbuckled, and stepped outside. The air had a crisp October chill. It was quiet. He pulled out his credit card and went to insert it in the reader when he saw the screen. Out of Order.
He got back in the car and pulled forward until he was parked at the next pump. By now, other cars had started to show up, pulling into the other spots, surrounding him. People were getting out of their cars; they weren’t wearing masks. Of course they weren’t.
People often didn’t seem to wear their masks until they were going inside a building. They didn’t seem to notice that they were still around people in the parking lots, that they should keep their mask on until they were in their cars. Exposure could happen anywhere, anytime. At best, most treated the wearing of masks like it was a rule they were forced to follow to enter stores rather than a life-saving step they should take whenever around other people. At worst, they treated it as an affront to their liberty, as if wearing a piece of cloth over their face was horribly inconveniencing them. He didn’t get that; it was the simplest thing anyone could do to prevent the spread of the virus, and yet so many people seemed willing to ignore it. They ignored the science, ignored the warnings. Ignorance was why this plague was descending upon them, why the horror story was getting worse, not better.
He knew he needed to get the gas to get home. He knew he needed to get out of the car. Hopefully, the other people stayed on their side of the pumps and didn’t come near him. He took a deep breath and opened the door. He ran his card and picked up the nozzle, hooking it up to his gas tank. He waited as the numbers slowly increased on the screen, waiting until he had a few gallons in the tank.
He couldn’t help but pay attention to every motion of the people around him. Every time someone made an unconscious step in his direction, he made a very conscious step away from them, until he bumped into his car. He remembered the old woman coughing outside his car, wondered if her germs were still lingering on the car’s surface. The man pumping gas across from him was sniffling. Their eyes briefly connected, before the man looked away, wiping his nose on his sleeve and clearing his throat.
No one around him seemed to care that any surface could be contaminated. No one around him seemed concerned that the air they were breathing could be carrying the virus into their system. He wondered if he was the only one panicking, the only one reacting to all of this. Was he overreacting? Or were they under-reacting?
Click. The pump finished filling his tank. He put away the nozzle, took the receipt, and began the short walk around to the driver’s side of the vehicle. He was almost there when someone brushed past him.
It happened so fast that it was a blur; the other person had been walking from his car towards the gas station. It was innocent enough. Before, if someone had bumped into someone else, they would have just said sorry and kept walking. But now… He couldn’t tell if the other person had been wearing a mask. And had he heard them make a noise when it happened? Was that a cough or a sneeze? Or maybe the man had just said something as he tried to squeeze by, grumbling an “excuse me” or something.
He got into his car, trying desperately to replay the event in his head. Had the other guy looked at him? Was he facing him when he coughed or sneezed or whatever that noise had been? Had a mask been covering half of his face?
He kept glancing in his rear-view mirror, hoping to see if the person came back out of the gas station. A car had pulled in behind him, and he knew that the driver was waiting for him to move so she could get to the pump. But he didn’t move. He needed to know. Finally, the other guy came out of the gas station- and was wearing a bright blue surgical mask. He definitely didn’t remember a flash of cornflower blue from their brief encounter, a color that would have stood out against the man’s dark shirt and jacket; he must have put it on just before entering the store. He couldn’t have been wearing that when they’d bumped into each other.
The driver behind him honked her horn. He put the car in drive while putting the event out of his mind. It was over and done with, and he couldn’t change it now. He was back in his car, he was safe, and he was on his way home. But as he got onto the highway, he started to feel a tickle in his throat. He knew it was a coincidence; every time he stepped out of the house these days, he started feeling it. Just the thought of the virus was enough to make him feel like he needed to cough.
As he got onto the highway, he wondered how risky his exposure was. Should he get tested? He’d done the test twice before- both times he was negative, and both times he’d had symptoms. But the symptoms were nearly identical to the cold or the flu at first, and that’s all it turned out to be. Whenever he did get sick, a part of him wished it was the virus, just so he would finally be done with it. But then he wondered how bad the virus would be if his simple cold or flu had been bad enough to warrant a test.
The test itself wasn’t bad; it was uncomfortable, certainly, and both times he’d been concerned that it wasn’t done properly- he’d had to administer it himself while a pharmacist watched him from the safety of a drive-up window. And each time he considered that the cars in front of him were all filled with other people who thought they might have the virus, too. How many of them came back positive? How close had he come to the contagion since this had all started?
He got off the highway and finally pulled into his driveway. He unloaded the groceries into the house; as he cleaned off his purchases with one of the precious few Lysol wipes he had remaining, he saw the mask he’d intended to leave the house with still sitting on the kitchen counter.
He changed his clothes and threw what he had been wearing into the laundry. He washed his hands, counting to twenty, and finally sat down on the couch to relax.
The face of the guy who’d bumped into him flashed in his memory, but he still couldn’t tell if the guy had been wearing that mask when it had happened. His face was replaced by the old woman’s, coughing outside his car. It’s over, he thought. He was home safe. He didn’t need to go out again today. But what about tomorrow?
He turned on the TV and let the sound drown out his over-thinking and rationalizations.
He wouldn’t know for several more days whether he’d been infected or not.
2020 has not been anything like what we expected, we’ve still got a long way to go. While this story is fiction, it plays on a lot of my own anxieties that I experience when I go out and about in the COVID-19 world, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Personally, I know I overthink thinks and worry too much, but the truth is exposure to the virus can happen at any time and we just won’t know if we’ve been exposed until we or someone around us gets sick or tested.
So please, wash your hands frequently, stay home if you can, and stay distant if you can’t. And don’t forget your mask.