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Pandemic Problems

Submitted for Reedsy Contest #84 - Prompt: Set your story in a post-pandemic world, where the effects are still felt even as your character attempts to move on.

Anthony Fauci was smiling on the television in a large crowd of people who were gathered in an enclosed space. It was the perfect TV moment. The president gave a short speech about the strides they’d made globally with the pandemic and a new, adaptive vaccine that is effective against all SARS viruses, but the star of the show was Fauci, whom the camera followed as though he were the bride at a wedding. He shook hands and leaned in to speak in people’s ears.

Jenna didn’t look at her phone. She knew she’d be flooded with texts. Fauci said it’s over! Come out to dinner! Come to my wedding! For a year she’d been telling everyone that when Fauci says it’s safe to congregate again, she’ll congregate. He was her final barrier. When the vaccines came out and she qualified to get one her mother asked her to come visit, but she refused, saying it was still possible to spread the virus. Then cases started to plummet in New York and the governor lifted restrictions. “If I come out now and we see a spike in two weeks then what?” Finally, Jenna settled on, “When Fauci says it’s over, I’ll come out.” And here he was, telling everyone it’s over. She felt betrayed.

It’s not that she hadn’t been outside at all. She took short walks around her block every day with two masks on, crossing the street when people passed. She went to a doctor’s appointment in March, but he sent her home when she collapsed from panic in the waiting room. In the pandemic summer, a few friends invited her to picnic with them in Central Park and she was all packed up, ready to go when she felt her arm simply weighed too much to open the door. She didn’t even bother canceling that time, just didn't show up. The CDC said it was safe to meet indoors with other vaccinated people and she abruptly called things off with a Tinder guy she’d been virtually seeing for months.

She knew it wasn’t rational, that she should see someone. Every time she logged on to Facebook there was a BetterHealth ad. She’d start the sign-up process and then stop when she got to the submit button. Part of her reluctance was that she was embarrassed, she couldn’t stop thinking of those chud types who called people taking precautions sheep who were too afraid to live. The other part was that she knew that any therapist’s goal would be to get her to stop being afraid to go outside and she didn’t want to go outside.

She shut her laptop. It was time for her daily walk. She donned two fresh masks, popped some hand sanitizer into her purse, and headed out. People were packing the street, dancing and singing. A shirtless man with a trombone was playing an off-key ‘Celebration’. A guy from down the block was handing out red Solo cups to passersby and filling them with tequila. A beat-up old Honda was inching up the block and a woman inside with wild, grey hair was screaming, “FAUCI SAYS WE’RE FREE!” Jenna froze at the street’s tableau, terrified. So many droplets, so many touching hands. A group of teenagers at the small park across the street were burning masks. She resisted the urge to go save them from the fire as though they were rare books.

Jenna turned to go back into her apartment, but several of her neighbors were barreling out with noisemakers that said ‘2021’ on them, leftovers from New Year’s celebrations. “Jenna,” her neighbor Tobey shouted, “come on Jenna! Dance with us!” Tobey’s boyfriend Derek (or was it David?) started singing, “So if you care to find me, look to the western sky” and pointed dramatically at the Hudson. A woman from the third floor grabbed Jenna’s hands and twirled her around. Jenna almost fell off the stoop. She was starting to hyper-ventilate. She made to put her hands to her ears to make sure that both masks were still on, and then remembered that her neighbor had touched her, so she aggressively applied hand sanitizer all over her hands, forearms and elbows.

Jenna managed to get inside the front door, but couldn’t make it to the stairs because the family that lived in 1D was making its way out, baby in the stroller, toddler running along, wiping his fat hand along the dingy wall. Jenna swore she could actually see the spores encircling them and being left behind on the wall. The toddler looked up at Jenna saying, “Mommy says no more bi-rus.” As soon as they were out of the door, Jenna went over to the stairs and collapsed on to them. Everything was spinning, so many germs, spores, droplets, everywhere. She reapplied the hand sanitizer to her arms and the outside of her purse. This calmed her for a moment, enough for her to make her way back into her apartment.

Once she had finally closed the apartment door, she took all of her clothes off and ran to the shower. She wiped down all surfaces with loving care, each crevice of her bookshelf, every door handle. Tobey and Derek/David were having a house party now, the floor shaking from the bass of their music. Jenna started googling whether viruses could spread from apartment to apartment. She was grateful for a pre-war with radiators. She fell asleep, face planted on the keyboard of her laptop, occasionally jolting awake to the sound of the fireworks until she managed to drag herself to bed.

Jenna woke up to a loud knocking on the door. “Jenna? Are you in there?” She rolled over to her alarm clock, 9:30. What day is it? Saturday. “Jenna? It’s me, Rosie. Are you in there?” Jenna sat up on the side of the bed, heart pounding in her throat. “Please Jenn. Your mom and everyone are worried. Are you in there? No one has heard from you.”

“I’m coming! Coming.” She kicked around inside her drawer for something that would cover her more and applied her two masks.

“Oh, thank God. Jenna,” Rosie said from the doorway. “I thought something had happened to you. Are you ok?”

“Yeah, I’m ok.” She was actually on the verge of panicking. Rosie wasn’t wearing a mask and she was standing only two feet away.

“Can I come in?”

Jenna tried to find an excuse to refuse.

“Jenn, please?”

“You need to wear a mask.”

Rosie let out a long sigh but accepted the two masks Jenna handed her. Jenna pulled her armchair as far away from her loveseat as she could without dragging it out of the room.

“How are you feeling, Jenn?”

“I’m ok.”

“You’re not taking any calls. Your phone’s off. What’s up?”

Jenna didn’t say anything.

“Have you been talking to anyone? A therapist.”

Jenna shook her head, tearing up.

“My therapist told me about someone. She’s been seeing a lot of pandemic cases.”

“I’m not a pandemic case,” Jenna said bitterly. “Just because I’m being more cautious than you doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me.”

Rosie nodded. “No, you’re right, Jenna. It’s just, objectively it is safe to see people again and you won’t see anyone.”

“Have you considered that maybe I just don’t want to see you?” Jenna asked. She instantly regretted her cruelty.

“Yeah, actually, I have.” Rosie tucked a piece of her curly brown hair behind her ears. It was her turn for her eyes to well up.

Silence passed between them for a few minutes until Rosie stood up and dropped a creamy pink business card on the coffee table.

“Look, I’m happy to tell your mom you’re ok. I’m not trying to intrude or force anything on you. But that woman comes highly recommended. Bye, Jenn.”

With Rosie gone, Jenna picked up the business card. It read “Dr. Eloise Harrington, Ph.D.” There was a phone number and a website, which turned out to be themed the same color pink as the business card. There was a link from the top menu for “Pandemic Problems.”

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, job loss, illness and personal loss, the therapist community has seen an enormous increase in cases of anxiety, agoraphobia, OCD, and depression. If this sounds like you, you are not alone. Dr. Eloise has been working with experts in the field to come up with the best treatment plans to face the emotional and psychological challenges posed by the pandemic. Call the office or submit an inquiry online today to learn more.

Jenna slammed the laptop shut. She’d seen enough. The doctor was probably going to offer something stupid like hypnotics and charge an arm and a leg. She turned her phone back on and saw two hundred text messages and thirty voicemails. There was no way she was going to read through all of them, so she prioritized calling her mother.

“Oh my God, Jenna. I thought you were dead.”

“Hi, mom.”

“Jenna, please, let me come visit you.”

“What? No. Mom, don’t come.”

“Jenna, please. I’m scared. I’m afraid I’m losing you.”

“Mom, I am FINE. Just relax and leave me alone.”

“We’re all worried sick. We’re seeing reports on the news of people partying in the streets of New York City we were afraid you got hit by a car or something.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, mom, Jesus.”

Jenna could hear her mother weeping quietly.

“Listen, mom. I’m fine, ok? I’ll call you later.”

Two days later, Jenna got a phone call from her boss who hinted strongly that she was expected to return to the office within a month.

“I hope you understand,” he said, “that it’s getting difficult to not have you here when everyone else on your team is in the office. Every time someone needs to ask you a question or needs your expertise in a meeting, we have to stop what we’re doing to message you.”

Jenna’s stomach dropped. “Yeah, ok. Understood. Yeah of course.”

When she hung up, she went back on Eloise Harrington’s website. With her eyes closed she hit “submit” under the inquiry form. To Jenna’s horror, she got a call just five minutes later. A woman with a thick New York accent was on the line.

“Hi yeah, Jenna? It’s Theresa DePiano from Dr. Harrington’s Office.” She said her name ‘Treesa’ and ‘doctuh’ and ‘awffice.’ “You filled out our information form?”

Jenna cleared her throat. “Um, yeah, I did.”

“Whatch’ya lookin’ for hun? You need a therapist?”

“Um, yeah, just hoping to book an appointment with the doctor?”

“Okay, Dr. Harrington is free in thirty minutes. Can you do an intake call with her then?”

Jenna’s heart was racing now. She really did not want to talk to this doctor, but she knew if she tried to reschedule, she’d never go back. “Ok, yeah, that’s fine.” She gave all of her insurance information to Theresa and thirty minutes later, like clockwork, she got a call from a cool-voiced woman.

“Jenna? This is Dr. Harrington.”

“Hi, doctor, it’s nice to meet you.”

“You too. Do you want to tell me what made you reach out?”

“Um,” Jenna swallowed hard and began pacing her apartment. “I um, can’t like leave the house, since the pandemic. And uhm, my friends and family and stuff are getting really upset and I think my boss wants to fire me because I haven’t come back.”

Dr. Harrington said, “First, you’re not alone, I can tell you that. We have a few options, but one of the options I’m finding most helpful to people suffering from agoraphobic anxieties is group therapy. There’s a lot of other people feeling the same things as you and it can be a lot less isolating to process them in a group. I’m starting with a new group of people next Monday over Zoom. Can you join? We meet at 6:30.”

“Um, yeah sure,” Jenna meekly agreed, and ended the call.

A week later, Jenna joined the group therapy Zoom. Ahead of time, Dr. Harrington sent out a list of questions she wanted them to reflect on, the first being, “What do you think will happen if you rejoin ordinary life” and the final being, “What’s something you’ve missed out on in the past six months.” There were about eleven people on the Zoom, a mix of men and women, mostly white. Jenna was surprised to hear so many people personify the virus like she did: the virus is coming for us, if we let our guard down it will come for us, other people are more foolish than me.

After they all shared a few answers, Dr. Harrington moved them into breakout rooms in pairs, except for one group that had three. Jenna was paired with a woman in her late sixties, Dolores, who hadn’t yet met her new grandchild, eighteen months old, because she’d been too afraid to go see her family. Dolores broke down crying and said, “At this point I’d try anything to get over this. I don’t want to lose my family.” It reminded Jenna of what her mother had said to her the week before, “I don’t want to lose you, Jenna.”

Over the next few weeks, Jenna started looking forward to group therapy and her breakout sessions with Dolores. They would laugh with each other talking about how they imagined the virus as small monsters or flying monkeys. Dr. Harrington sent out little work sheets before the sessions where they were supposed to share their goals, feelings, and fears. Dolores and Jenna started making jokes out of their worksheets, writing elaborate stories like they were now terrified that they’d be suffocated by grilled cheese. Jenna often woke up the morning after group therapy with her abs slightly sore from all of the belly laughing.

In the sixth week, Dr. Harrington told the group that she wanted them to try to meet up in a public place. Everyone on the Zoom looked petrified.

Dr. Harrington said, “Hear me out. I didn’t promise anything at the beginning of this other than that you’d be able to work through some of your feelings with others. But the truth is that I’ve been running these groups for a year now and every single group has had success reintroducing people with pandemic anxiety to public life. I want you to give this a try. Meet somewhere you feel comfortable. Stay as long as you can stand. Then report back next week.”

Jenna and Dolores agreed to meet at Madison Square Park where they’d share Shake Shack shakes. In the days leading up to the meeting, Jenna was grinding her teeth to dust and waking up every morning in a cold sweat from horrifying stress dreams. But knowing that Dolores would be waiting for her, she forced herself out. The subway was torment. Eventually, she closed her eyes because she started to visualize the germs as tiny bugs crawling all over every surface. She felt better when she emerged off of the R train and could breathe fresh air, but she was still under two masks. While she caught the occasional glance, there were enough people still wearing masks that she didn’t stick out too badly. Besides, it was New York, she could’ve been wearing a dick on her face and no one would have blinked.

Dolores was waiting, her dyed blonde hair pulled up into a ponytail. She only had on one mask.

“Ok,” she said. “It’s you. You’re here. Let’s do this thing.”

The pair of them stood in the long line to order their shakes. As they waited the conversation became easier. Dolores said her daughter was proud of her for leaving the house. They found an empty table. It was hard to sit six feet apart, the park was too crowded, but they moved as far apart as they could. The moment of reckoning came when they had to drink their shakes. They decided on quickly lifting the bottom of their masks, sipping the shake, and letting the mask snap back into place. After a few minutes of this, they started hysterically laughing at the silliness of it.

“You know,” Jenna said, wiping tears from his eyes, “we must look like we’re in some kind of cult to people.”

Dolores put her arms above her head like a preacher and said in a ringing, monotone chant, “All Hail Eloise Harrington! All Hail Eloise Harrington! All Hail Eloise Harrington!”

Jenna laughed so hard she spit out her milkshake, it started dripping down the bottom of her mask. “Oh, crap. Um, hold on.”

“Here, I’ve got something.” Dolores offered her a baby wipe. “I actually bought these when my grandson was born. I wanted to always be prepared, you know, for when I was with him. At this rate, he’ll be potty trained before I ever meet him in person.”

Jenna took the wipe, turning her face from Dolores and taking off the mask to wipe off the ice cream. Jenna tried not to cry at Dolores’ confession. A small, sweet way to prepare for a new member of the family, one more thing the pandemic took away. Jenna slipped a new mask on.

Dolores looked defeated, like she was about to give up.

“Hey,” Jenna said. “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to take this off.” She gestured to her face. “My mask.”

Dolores’ eyes became orbs. She didn’t say anything for what felt like a long time, then, finally, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath and took her own mask off. For a few seconds, neither of them could breathe and then, they both smiled. When their shakes were finished, they stood up, briefly hugged, and agreed to meet again next week. No masks.

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