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I’m driving down the highway for the first time in over a month. I-40 in Amarillo, Texas, ought to be crowded at this time of the afternoon, but it’s dead as SuperBowl Sunday. Between automated songs on college radio, recorded PSAs remind me to wash my hands and stay indoors. Normally that’s what I’d be doing.
My friend’s dad died. It wasn’t from the current crisis, but his loss adds to it.
Someone put together a meal train. My wife usually handles food for the grieving, but we aren’t cooking for other people right now. I’ve already made a mess of it in my classic fashion. I used a delivery app, but the gig economy failed me. Not only did the app not offer the time delay I expected—resulting in dinner delivered shortly after lunch—my courier delivered a single burrito instead of the requested Family Pack. I told her thanks anyway because at least she no-contact delivered a gallon of unsweet tea. But now I’m on an outing, and the stress headache already started
I’m driving my wife’s car because mine has proven unreliable. I’m still keeping my eye on her temperature gauge. We took her car into the shop before the current crisis, and I just replaced another part under the hood with the help of eBay and YouTube. But I have to remind myself to unclench my jaw.
I look to the passenger seat beside me. My mask is there, the one I overpaid for online. My grandmother-in-law thinks it looks like half of a fancy black brasserie. Since I don’t need corrective lenses yet and my sunglasses make me look like a weirdo indoors, I also have my blue light glasses. They look like regular eyeglasses, but they claim to protect my eyes from a life spent typing in front of a screen. Hopefully they’ll protect my mucus membranes.
Most people don’t cover their eyes, but that’s a known entry point for the virus. Is there any point in wearing a mask without glasses? The once-clear boundary between caution and crazy went out the window months ago.
First stop is the Tex-Mex restaurant, a popular regional chain where you watch them make fresh tortillas through the glass. I remember going to one of these for the first time just before my freshman year of high school. Some members of the drumline took me during scorching summer marching band rehearsals, and I felt cool for the first time in my life. It doesn’t seem that long ago until I remember we sat in the smoking section. But all dine-in experiences feel pretty long ago right now.
The restaurant just reopened its dining area. The parking lot looks nearly empty, but parking’s still a hassle. I have to dodge other cars like the drivers forgot how to drive. Shouldn’t complain, I forgot to check my blindspot and nearly sideswiped someone on the way here. Time to put on my mask and glasses.
The door to the restaurant presents the first outside threat. I don’t wear gloves, because for some reason glasses sound normal but gloves don’t. As I build up my courage to pull open the door, someone exits and saves me the trouble. He’s not wearing gloves or glasses or a mask. If nothing else, it’s a banner year for the closet judgemental.
Inside the popular restaurant, there’s a solitary diner. No mask, because you can’t wear a mask and eat the taco special.
I’m relieved to see the employees all wear protection. Since I called ahead, my order waits for me. I feel a tiny twist of panic when I hand my debit card to the masked cashier.
Twelve burritos, two open paper bags full of chips, hot sauce, and a pool of hot queso arrive in one massive bag. At least I don’t have to worry about the gallon of unsweet tea. I balance the party carefully, dreading the thought of hot cheese all over my wife’s car. I grab the out-of-season ice scraper from the floorboard and stick it under one end of the food bag, keeping it level.
As I buckle up, I remember what I forgot: paper plates, left on the kitchen counter.
I check the digital clock on the dash. After my earlier screwups, I’ve given myself enough cushion to make one quick stop. The temperature gauge looks good, but I keep my eye on it.
A convenience store sits just off the highway. Queso hasn’t spilled yet. I consider getting gas because it’s cheaper than it was back in the days of summer band practice and smoking sections. But I don’t have my wife’s supermarket Kool-Aid points, which will make the gas so cheap we could pay for a drive across almighty Texas with change from the couch cushions.
The convenience store looks nearly as empty in the restaurant. A medical professional stands at the counter in her dark green scrubs. No mask. It seems that most of the medical workers I see outside don’t wear protection. Maybe they’re so sick of it after their shifts that they just need a break. Or maybe they used it all up and can’t get more.
There’s one option for paper plates, and there are far too many in the package. But that’s better than the alternative. The men who walk in wear no masks, but the woman behind the counter has on hers. I won’t have to hand over my debit card; there’s a reader in front of me. Cling film covers the keys, and I wonder how often they change it. Whether or not it’s effective, I know the thin sheet over the keys is meant to protect me. But I can’t help feeling that it protects the machine instead. After all, the current crisis came from animals. Maybe it could mutate again and start taking out the computers.
I put the package of too many paper plates in with the chips and the burritos and the vat of rapidly-cooling queso. I check the temperature gauge as the pleasant female voice from my phone reminds me how to find my friend’s house. I’ve been there before, but things look different now.
Off the highway, the neighborhood roads are empty. I remember that my friend won’t even be at his house, because he’s checking on his mother. But the rest of his family will be there, including his daughter’s boyfriend. My own kids are too young for all that, which is convenient during the current crisis. I can imagine a young me sneaking out my childhood window. Romeo and Juliet: The Plague Years.
I know this house is the right one because there’s a graduation sign in the front yard for my friend’s son. He’s the valedictorian of his class, but he’ll deliver his speech to an empty gymnasium.
I haven’t taken off my mask and glasses, so I grab the food and head to the door. I remember pleasant evenings spent on this porch, laughing with people I’d just met.
I feel unexpected anxiety as I press the doorbell with my bare finger. No one answers.