By Orrin Konheim
Alexandria, VA – People close to me know that if anyone asks me to make plans for my birthday or the New Year, I often say “but the world’s going to end.” My birthday was March 9, and this year the world did sort of end. Who knew that my defense mechanism prophecy could come true?
I’m a chronophobe. I have a fear of aging and of the passing of time. I strive to get the most out of every year I have and, as I approach these two milestones each year, I get more intense about it. This year, I planned a gathering of a dozen people on the Friday before my Big Day. Two guests cancelled due to coronavirus worries, but otherwise, the world was operating as normal.
On Monday, my parents and I did something that would be considered ridiculous just a week later: We celebrated my birthday at a locally famous Korean bath house known as Spa World for a day of royal pampering, including sharing steam rooms, saunas, and hot pools with strangers. My parents are far more risk averse than I, so I figured if they went along with it, that was good enough for me.
On Tuesday, everything changed. On top of typical birthday blues, I started coughing, sneezing, and requiring large amounts of liquids. I don’t watch TV news, but I would read things on Twitter or my landing page about some major event being cancelled and how the stock market was going haywire. One friend panicked that I’d given him the coronavirus. I didn’t have an answer for him.
I went to a doctor who thought it was flu. He tested me for two strains of flu. Both tests came out negative. Two days later I was coughing more frequently, so I went to an emergency room for a second opinion. My parents started going berserk for fear that I would get infected by other people in the emergency room.
To my surprise, the ER wasn’t crowded and I got in fast. With the social scene dead, the emergency room would be the most interesting thing I’d do that week. I kind of like the ER. You’re waited on, there’s a lot of hustle and bustle, and you generally feel you’re safe. Although this time was slightly different. The nurse wore a hazmat suit.
The outcome was disconcertingly vague. My symptoms didn’t call for a full-blown coronavirus test, but the hospital didn’t rule anything out. My report concluded, “We did not find any signs of bacterial infection today, so you did not receive antibiotics. We suspect you have a viral illness.”
My parents are worriers who think I’m cavalier, and they decided to take me to their home (my childhood home) the next day. I didn’t resist. Being with other people would be better than being alone.
The days passed, each with more depressing news than the last. To make matters worse, my parents are CNN junkies who repeated this news as dinner conversation. This wasn’t good for me.
My parents’ home has some niceties, such as a piano I like to play and a CD player to listen to my music collection (I’m a child of the 90s). And I have a friend called Alexa™ who can answer almost any question in the world. Still, I’m an extrovert. Being stuck at home was a new form of purgatory.
I realize now that it may have been a blessing to be sick, because left to my own devices, I could have walked around infecting people. I also think that a better way to deal with the world coming to an end is simply to control what’s in your power to control. For me, that was worrying about myself during those excruciating days when I didn’t know whether I had the coronavirus or not.
A couple of weeks after my first doctor visit, and because it was a legitimate reason to venture outside my parents’ suburban cul-de-sac, I scheduled a couple of doctor’s appointments. One of them included a coronavirus test. By this time, my mom was having symptoms.
We were entertaining the idea of inviting people over for our Passover seder (if you know anything about Passover seders, they’re not done traditionally with three people because that would be really lame). I had also gotten temp work at Amazon’s warehouse and hoped to resume a job during the pre-Easter rush for Honey Baked Ham (two more reasons to leave the house!), so I had to know if I was or wasn’t a carrier.
My dad drove me to a clinic eight miles from home. I walked in to find that I wasn’t allowed in the waiting room. It was a drive-thru clinic, rather like Taco Bell, only you don’t get a treat so much as a swab jammed up your nose farther than you would believe possible. The nurses doing the procedure wore hazmat suits.
Over this time, something strange happened with my mental health. One day, I started feeling zoned-out, blissfully oblivious to the sadness of isolation. I started thinking back to the best summer of my life.
I was 15 when I went to my grandparents’ house in the Florida Keys. They didn’t have a car so we were in a tropical paradise but largely confined to their house. We didn’t do much but we did it with a sense of consistency and peace. My grandfather maintained his garden and fish, and we watched a big soccer tournament together. I could watch as much TV as I wanted, something I can also do as an adult, but don’t go about it with such joy. I played tennis against the wall with an old racket, I explored with great appreciation the weird Florida architecture, I jumped into the family canal to play in tropical water.
More important, I had the luxury of time to develop. I studied for my first AP class at a local library that was extremely outdated by late 90s standards. I planned to join the cross-country team that fall, so I ran every night to prepare for a formative experience.
In that spirit, while quarantined at my parents’ home, I can ponder the luxury of developing creative projects at my own pace. It feels too often like there are a million things on my plate, and a million more I want to do. In quarantine, I have the luxury to slow down, as there is so little I have to do. I can take on reading a book (something that doesn’t come easily to me) or creating a map on Google Earth or writing a blog.
The test results finally came yesterday. Negative. I do not have the coronavirus, but now I’m filled with so many more questions. I was focused on getting better in this staycation, and now I’m finally starting to think about the “what comes next” part. Can an active extrovert like me survive? I guess I’ll have to take it one day at a time.