I Got Back Out There


I have never thought of myself as an anxious person.

I mean, sure, I’m afraid of spiders. And of murder hornets (have you SEEN those things?) I don’t like to drive too fast or engage in dangerous sports (like snowtubing.)

But I’ve never been afraid of the world itself. I love to travel I always enjoy talking with new people, and having novel experiences.

I’ve always been relaxed about illness and contagion. I was a teacher for years. I didn’t worry about catching things.

In fact, I never understood germophobes. I used to feel superior to people who were constantly fixated on their helath. I have scoffed at hand sanitizers and those who carried them. I used to laugh in the face of the common cold.

Not. Any. More.

Since the great pandemic of 2020, I have developed a new and suffocating appreciation for agoraphobics.

My last grocery store trip was on March 7th. When I checked out and dumped the bags in the trunk, I assumed I’d be back in the veggie department within days. I barely gave it a thought as I left the parking lot.

Ha.

Since that completely unmemorable trip, I have not stepped foot inside of a single retail establishment. Not one.

Given my fixation on the news and the lack of anything else to do while stuck at home, I’ve become a walking encyclopedia of COVID facts. I know how many people are sick, how many are on ventilators and how many have died. I know about the tests and the promising treatments. I watch the experts on C-Span debating the likelihood of the virus mutating into something worse.

Naturally, the more I’ve learned the more focused I’ve become on staying safe. I have been absolutely determined to avoid any possible chance of catching the deadly plague and passing it on.

I am now the queen of handwashing and I have the hangnails and chapped knuckles to prove it. I disinfect my mailbox, my doorknobs, my phone, my purse and the bottoms of my shoes. When my husband goes out for supplies, I make him strip down in the doorway and run to the shower. I put on gloves and wash all of his clothes. We throw away the bags and packages, washing our hands while we do it. Then we put everything away with disinfecting wipes in our hands.

You will not be surprised when I tell you that in the past few days I’ve come to realize that I am now nuttier than any fruitcake.

Last week I offered to share some of my giant stockpile of food with a friend (I am not hoarding…I am buying in bulk. And sharing), but when it came time to drop the lentils off at Linda’s house, I was too scared to go.

And that scared me. I didn’t like the wimpy little chicken that I was becoming.

So I decided last weekend that it was time to get back out there. I made a plan to the grocery store on Wednesday of this week. I made a list. I put it in the order of the aisles, so I could move through the store as fast as possible. I got my mask ready.

By Tuesday, I was starting to fixate on the shopping trip. Would I accidentally touch a tiny spit speck and get the disease? What if I passed it on to my brand new grandson? Or to my daughter? Or my friend who delivers our mail?

“Maybe I shouldn’t shop,” I started to think. “We have enough food.” Sure, my sane self answered, if you want to live on lentils, rice and pasta.

I am sixty four years old. I have been married for almost 43 years, and in that time I don’t think I’ve ever missed a week of grocery shopping. And now here I was, living in fear of my local PriceChopper.

This was ridiculous.

On Tuesday afternoon, I decided to take charge of my paranoia. I knew that I waited until the next day, I’d be awake half the night worrying. So I grabbed my mask, and my list. I took a box of sanitizing wipes.

And off I went.

At first it was glorious. While I’d been safely quarantined in my own yard, the azaleas had bloomed! The magnolia blossoms were starting to appear! Life was still going on!

I got to the store, grabbed my disposable wipes and headed in.

It was horrible.

There were people without masks, walking RIGHT past me. They were BREATHING on me! My skin started to crawl. People were trying to stay apart, but when four of you want to pick out a bunch of bananas, it’s hard to stay 6 feet away from each other.

And the shelves were so bare.

This is where the toilet paper used to live.

The strangest items were missing. There was a huge amount of bread available, but absolutely no flour, baking soda, or cake mix. The meat department was fully stocked with everything in the world, but you couldn’t find a frozen pizza.

It was weird. It was scary. It felt like a very bad dream. In spite of the masks worn by every employee and most customers, I still felt those invisible microbes bouncing off of my skin.

In spite of the spacing at the register, and the way the cashier sanitized the area between each shopper, I still felt exposed. The giant plexiglass spit guard between me and the young cashier should have felt protective, but instead I just felt like I couldn’t breathe.

And the worst part of all for this chatty woman, was the lack of connection with the people around me. We couldn’t share smiles. We couldn’t casually read each other’s faces to see who was looking open and friendly.

Oddly enough, people barely made eye contact.

I didn’t chat with the bagger as I usually do. I didn’t offer to help him. I paid silently with my disinfected credit card. I practically ran out of the store and rushed back to the sanitized safety of my own little space.

I’m glad I pushed myself to get out there. I am.

I’m still scared. And creeped out. And sad.

But at least now I know I can do it, and that I have to do it more often.

Now as long as the murder hornets stay away, things might turn out ok.