When you left I kissed you goodbye, which was both stupid and the last time I touched someone unprotected. You were very warm. I haven’t thought about that for a long while
The tile of the old school’s bathroom is quite cold. Chilly, actually, not cold, and there’s a strange sort of distance between it and my skin. Like when you wash your hands in gloves? Only I’m just wearing my underwear, they take your kit from you when you head back in.
I’ve been on the job for a year, give or take a few weeks. It’s Friday and the sun came up before seven this morning. I remember one of the first things I noticed about Oregon was the light. Everything felt bright. You started wearing sunglasses again.
I’ve just finished my water. I toss the plastic bottle across the bathroom, it clatters hollow across the tile and bounces off the far wall. It comes to a stop by my crumpled up lottery ticket. I crack open another bottle, press the plastic to my lips. The water is warm. Feels stale.
There’s a little cut on the back of my hand, the one holding the water bottle to my lips. It’s going to be another six months at the soonest before the next vaccine lottery and ah god I can’t wait that long.
There’s this thing, this thing we talked about once, back when we were talking about kids. A chicken pox party.
A single, pale dot of blood wells up from the cut. I lick the blood, swallow it with a gulp ofstale water.
We weren’t the only team at the edge of the Pit today. It’s a big job.
“Stiff” Pete Nguyen is still my partner. He was a garbageman before, I guess that made him more qualified than me. He was nice enough. We stood in our processing area, Pete with his arms crossed and me with my hands on my hips, watching the dump truck back towards us. Pete had the sun rising behind him and cut a lumpen figure in his PPEs. I looked about the same in mine, stiff and alien. .
Pete waved the truck to a stop, flashed a hand sign. I stepped asideto give the truck a little more room to unload, habit after a year of this work. Air brakes hissed, hydraulics engaged, the bed lifted and I closed my eyes but I could still hear the sound, a little muffled through my hood.
A load of bags tumbled out. I could smell them.
A little over twenty thousand interred at the Pit alone, one of four processing centers on the Eastside, the last one before 205. I think I work for FEMA under the auspices of the CDC as tasked by the federal government, but as long as someone pays off my student loans I don’t mind who signs the checks.
Every now and then we’ll get a bag that splits open, especially if we get a load in from one of the old clinics east of 82nd. It’s been four years but FEMA can only train and outfit S&R teams so fast. They’ve got to be careful, the S&R teams. We’ve got it rough at the Pit but at least we don’t have to hump it through blackout ruins full of feral dogs and sharp edges. Stiff Pete said they carry guns just in case they get attacked by a gang or a last-man-on-earth prepper, but I don’t buy that. He just talks them up since he’s waiting to hear about his application.
Most of the time the S&R teams find bodies in situ. Those ones we get in the new blue bags, but on occasion they’ll find little clusters of bodies already bagged. Early victims, found in abandoned ad hoc clinics set up before anyone knew what we were dealing with. They come from churches, school auditoriums, community centers, small public parks. Black bags with white stencils warning QUARANTINE or EVIDENCE.
A few months back I tried to get real quantitative with it, tried to keep count as I went through the day but the work gets numbing after the first few hours and I spaced out. It’s not important. A bag split is one of those routine SNAFUs, you know? Like back when I used to get panic attacks and you’d hold me until they passed. I knew that the tight feeling in my chest, that shortness of breath, that creeping pins-and-needles tingle blooming out from my heart wasn’t actually a heart attack, that it was really just a cluster of perfectly terrifying psychosomatic symptoms triggered by stress or worry, but that didn’t make it any less of a wrench in the routine of an otherwise unremarkable day. Regularity can still be alarming.
The body today, I only saw its arm. Pete and I were halfway through the load and this bag must’ve held a real heavy dude because we were struggling, eventually resorting to just dragging the bag to the lip of the Pit. It split and this arm flopped out, slapped my leg. I freaked a little, stepped back and dropped my end, maybe gave a little yelp, slipped to the ground and landed on my ass. Pete was unfazed, “Stiff” Pete and all that. We checked to make sure nothing sharp on the arm had cut the bag — something sharp to cut the bag would probably be sharp enough to puncture our suits — and stuffed it back in best we could. It was just sun damage, degraded the plastic to the point where it tore. No big deal.
Alis volat propriis. I used to see that every day, only not in Latin, and not in the looping tattoo-font cursive on the paddle flab of that pale arm. My favorite memories: how it looked when the sun came in cold through the window of our little room. How it looked damp and dappled in the shower.
Stiff Pete and I finished up the rest of that load and went on break and now I’m sitting here in the bathroom alone, just finished crying a little, thinking about you and probably talking out loud. Pete just poked his head in to check on me, then hurried off. He’s probably going to get Dr. Patel and let her know that I need to take a five.
The tile feels cool under me, against my back. I’ve stopped crying, just taking sips now from my water, staring at the ceiling. “Dehydration,”our first doctor said, “is the enemy.”
The windows are shut and sealed with clear plastic. I heard another round of the vaccine is getting pushed out soon. Hopefully I could get it before the summer, I’d like to feel the breeze again. I stand. I should get back to work. I walk to the row of sinks. I crank on the faucet. I start to wash my hands. I can still taste the blood.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve washed my hands today but I need to stop before they dry out and crack, because that’s going to take me off the line until they heal and we’re backed up already. Wet, cracked hands are perfect beds to grow the virus. My face itches, I think. I don’t know. I should go wash them again to be sure, just to be sure. How did I get cut? I checked my gloves three times before I took them off. ? The water feels nice on my hands, the tingle of the candy pink soap shipped in by the CDC is starting to hurt but that means it’s working, right?
The Pit has nice bathrooms with actual toilets, none of those chemical buckets or porta potties like over in the clinic a few blocks down on 50th. I finish drying my hands and stop for a moment, stare at my reflection in the mirror. There are no doors to the bathroom, just a privacy screen set up a little ways back from the doorway to block line of sight. The sound of trucks grinding through low gears as they roll forward, beeping as they reverse, filters in. The sharp hiss of air breaks. It’s a terrible sound, one I can’t shake. When I worked as a bartender I used to have nightmares of the ticket printer starting and never stopping, that hideous grind-and-scratch sound of orders spilling out onto my prep station, piling on, backing up, still coming no matter how fast I worked.
The sound of trucks reversing replaced that. Fatigue washes over me. I close my hands into fists, checking to see if my palms have cracked at all from repeated washing. Not quite yet.
I never told you this but I always wanted to feel a difference between your skin and the letters of your tattoo. I imagined there’d be a different texture, something like clay held in the hand. Or that the letters would be raised up, just raised ever so slightly off of your skin, so I could trace them in the dark. But they weren’t, and you were ticklish on your side anyhow.
I was always a little jealous that you got it before I could. It’s such a pretty phrase.
It’s Oregon’s birthday today. That’s why I’ve got you on my mind. You had that tattoo of the state motto on your side, high on your ribs in simple, small text. She Flies With Her Own Wings. And your eyes were such an amber color, almost gold, especially when you wore green or the light caught you in profile.
I let the water wash over my hands, cool, soothing them. I’ve already done a warm wash so cool is okay. The water shuts off on its own — one of those timed button push faucets, not a sensor one — and I shake my hands in the bowl, reach over and pluck a couple paper towels from the dispenser, careful not to touch anything but the towels. I’m in the clean area, but it never hurts to be safe. I dry my hands. They haven’t taken down the sign reminding students to wash their hands before returning to class. They give directions, three steps, water soap dry, repeat as necessary. Go Quakers.
What would I ask the person who killed you, if I had the chance? That might be too strong, “the person who killed you”. No one did it on purpose. We just didn’t think about it. I know how I’d start, though.
How many times did you touch your face today, I’d ask. Just a quick tally off the top of your head. Can you remember? Or how about this, do you wash your hands after using the bathroom? Sure, you’re a hygienic person and you washed up good, scrubbing both hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and hot water, just like the sign says. Let’s hope everyone else who used that bathroom today before you washed as well, but we both know that’s not the case. Did you touch the door with your hands on the way out? Did you have to touch the faucet to turn the water off? Hopefully not. There are worse things than the common cold that live on doorknobs and faucet handles. We know that now. I know that now. Since fall I haven’t touched my face without washing my hands first. Need proof?
I’m still alive, aren’t I?
Think about how many times you touch your face in a day, in an hour, hell, in the course of a few minutes. Your nose, your eyes — do you wear contacts or glasses? — your lips. Your forehead, your ears, your scalp. Can you count how many times? Can you remember how many times per day you touch your face? I bet it itches now. Did you touch a doorknob first? A railing? A post or a handrail on a bus? On the MAX? Did you push a button on an elevator? Pull open a door? Did someone cough next to you? Did someone brush up against you? Did someone wipe their nose and touch that pen right before you used it to sign your name on a credit card receipt? Did you just get infected tipping that barista a buck for your coffee?
Everything is a vector. The whole world is covered in blades.
Everyone can transmit — a cough, a sneeze, a finger that wiped a nose that touched a keypad, a book, a coin, a dollar. We didn’t have public phone booths anymore but we had Uber, Lyft, bikeshare, Car2Go, Zipcar, touchscreen everything. Fucking shopping carts. The list just goes on and that question always burns at the top: how many times did you touch your face today?
I hope that didn’t sound bitter or condescending. I didn’t mean it to. I meant it as caution, as a warning. I remember when I didn’t think about things like that, when none of us really did. We were happy not knowing, we lived in luxury. I want to get back to that place but also, no, because that place got us to where we are now.
The lights flicker in the bathroom and I look up from my hands. I can’t be sure if I got all of it off. They’re pink, like a sunburn. The water temperature plus the abrasive soap. The lights flicker again, actually shut off for the space of a few heartbeats, then kick back on and hold steady. The wiring in this old school was shoddy before the cascade. The campus was shut down for a few years so they could rewire the building, shore up this old brick schoolhouse against the quake that was supposed to kill us all, but that fell by the wayside when FEMA eminent domained the whole property.
The water’s stopped. I use my elbow to tap the button and get the water back on. To be sure.
Everything from back then feels like a dream.
Looking back I suppose you could say we could all feel this coming, not see it but feel it. Summer dragged on long, too long, lingering well into the twilight days of September. October came and we still played kickball in adult leagues, floated the river, went on long rides we never brought enough water for. Drank on patios as the sun took too long to set. Had barbecues and small fires because it was as good as summer and barbecues are nice, even if the world wastoo hot for this late in the season. Went to the game and cheered ourselves hoarse in nothing more than t shirts and shorts because lucky us, it was still hot and light even though kickoff was at 7:30.
That heat should’ve tipped us off, and did, but at that point our priorities were different, our reality was different: things like this didn’t happen here, they happened on the back pages of the Times, page A 20 or something like that, in a two hundred word blurb about a faraway province in China or Vietnam or Thailand.
We probably knew something was wrong after the first night we spent naked in bed trying to stay cool as October gave way to November. Outside, no breeze, the distant rise-and-fall of sirens. Dead, dry leaves piling up on walks and dying lawns. We were listless, not sleeping, sweating as the needle hovered around eighty and our little fan kicked and sputtered. We all went out to get window mount AC units that next day — most of the city it felt like — the lines were so long that the news ran a story on it. They said the heat was like a wave, the crowds thronging like Black Friday, and they laughed. The greeters at the Fred Meyer we went to passed out red cups full of ice water, joking about getting tips, charging a premium for sunscreen. Beach weather, they said. Get to the coast. Summer came early.
When people were done they just tossed the used cups on the ground. The greeters and the cart jockeys picked them up by hand and tossed them in the mixed recycling bins then went on with the rest of their day, eating, drinking, touching their mouths and eyes and noses, their children, their lovers. How many people in that line had the virus in them then, simmering, cooking.
We were lucky, we got one of the last AC units in stock. It was really nice for me, since you ran hot.
I’ve touched my face three times today.
First by accident putting on my goggles, but I was in the clean room getting dressed before my shift and they were a fresh set, so I probably would’ve been fine unless the clean room had been compromised.
The second time I touched my face I didn’t really touch it. I touched the canary yellow plastic of my PPE hood to wipe some blood off, but that counts, that goes in my log. That one was okay, kind of, I did it out of reflex to check and see if I had a puncture there. I didn’t, but I shouldn’t have touched my hood at all, I should’ve followed protocol: let Pete check for me, walk to the quarantine unit slowly and carefully, pray while the hygienists on deck spray me down and try not to make eye contact with me. Instead I touched the plastic layer that sat against my skin and wiped the blood off. What if I had something sharp in my hand? What if something failed?
The third time I touched my face today was when I came back in on break, just after my decon shower. The chlorine solution we use is strong and it tingles and I thought I felt some going towards my eyes when I was waiting in the air dry room. I’ve had it happen before and it burns like a mother and I was tired, zoning out, and I reached up and pawed my eye before I could think to stop myself and that was it. That could’ve been it, at least. Dr. Patel said I’m fine, that decon does what it says it does— decontaminates whatever is in it, burns any virus or bacteria away with a chemical wash — but still, fear lingers.
Wait, I was wrong. I touched my face four times today. I licked the mud off my hand. Pox party.
The first doctor's warning on my first day here:
“All it takes is a bad roll of the dice or a moment’s lapse in vigilance and you’ve got it. From there it’s a 92% chance you die without treatment. With treatment that drops to somewhere in the twenties and since you’re here, you’re in luck, you’ll get treatment. That said, luck goes both ways.
“Look around you, pick four other people. The five of you together draw straws and whoever gets the short one, dies. Look at their faces. Those are people. Maybe one’s a mother, maybe one is a dad. There’s a janitor there, a server, a bus driver, a librarian. Everyone is a loved one. Everyone is someone’s kid. Everyone has a story. In the best case scenario, only one of them dies. It could even be you. So stay sharp, guys, please.”
That onewas kind but he drew the short straw which is why we have Dr. Patel now.
The sink turns off and I tap it back on again.
The sun takes a little too long to set, the heat of the day bleeds too much into night. The wind is too soft and warm for winter. Pete says global warming did it. Made February in Portland feel like summer, but he doesn’t say it with a smile and I don’t take it as a comfort.
I think about how hot PPE gear gets in the middle of the day. It’s around 70 degrees outside today but under two layers of disposable plastic jumpsuits, one thicker rubber shell jumpsuit sealed at the wrists with duct tape, rubber boots sealed at the ankles with duct tape, two layers of latex gloves and another layer of puncture-resistant rubber gloves also sealed with duct tape, a hood pulled tight around my face, goggles, a disposable respirator, and a splash guard, “about seventy” degrees turns into a hundred. And the work is hard, stressful. Bending and lifting, twisting, always aware, always checking my suit for tears, punctures, and Pete’s as well. My goggles fog and, vision already narrowed by the hood around my head, makes it that much harder to see. My jumpsuit twists and bunches, soaks through with sweat that pools in my boots, condenses and drips down my facemask. My splatter guard gets splashed with blood, mud, stinking fluids. My nose itches and I can’t do anything to scratch it. I work six hour shifts like this and when I stop to take a break, to stretch my back and shake out my arms, I see a line of trucks idling at the gate, snaking down the street, waiting to drop off more bags.
At least there’s no burning anymore. At least these are old bodies, for the most part. It sounds like the first round of vaccinations are working and the amount of new cases are slowing, or that’s what Dr. Patel said at least.
I wanted to know why they didn’t give us the vaccine in the first wave so I asked Dr. Patel. She shrugged and said she had the same question, seeing as she didn’t get it either. It felt like a copout but I’m not sure. No reason for her to lie.
The water is running. I wonder if anyone is coming to get me, how long it’s gonna take Pete to get back here. The first round went out to “necessary personnel”, the second was a lottery. The third round of vaccines won’t be for months, six at the earliest.
I remembered the first doctor’swords.
I forget sometimes that I was just a student. Nontraditional, postbacc, just a few weeks in, not qualified to do much more than watch an RN pass out aspirin or draw blood. You were patient, understanding. You loved me. You smelled like coffee and always ran hot. Probably why I didn’t notice your first nights of fever when you asked me to check.
Fall was your favorite season and the water runs over my hands. They called it the Autumn Flu when it started to trend and it feels as though there is grit in this soap, this candy pink soap. If I keep washing my hands they’ll rotate me off the line. I can go to the clinic. I’ll know in three to four days. That’s what made it dangerous: the incubation period. Three to four days and then you get a fever, a degree or two higher, a little achy, a running nose. Nothing to call out sick for. You spread it by living. A 1 in 5 chance you die if they catch it fast, a 9 in 10 chance if they don’t. Count off five of your fingers. Cut off one. Which one are you eager to lose? Count off ten of your fingers. Save one. Which one do you love the most?
She flies with her own wings, Alis volat propriis, for your birthday I got you a 20% reduction in the population of healthy adults in Multnomah county. Think of how cheap rent will be now. Especially without Californians coming into town since the governor or the Feds sealed the borders. Whole states of emergency, Oregon and California. Did you hear about LA? The Bay? That’s why the sunset is always orange now. They had it bad, half the state is still burning.
I just puked into the sink but I hope that’s just nerves. It doesn’t hit that fast.
Why today, why today? Why today it’s her birthday and you had her words next to your heart and you got it first. I hope I’ll be okay. Pox parties were against the law because they were unethical, right? Because parents did them to kids. That’s why, right? Something about consent? They worked, they worked. I think they worked.
The water turns off. I shouldn’t wash my hands anymore. They’re bleeding now and if Dr. Patel sees them she’ll rotate me off the line for rest, but that would let Pete and the rest of the crew down and even here I can hear the trucks idling, waiting, full, new arrivals spilling out onto my prep station, tickets backing up.
Footsteps sound on the tiles behind me. Dr. Patel asks if I’m okay. Her voice is muffled, thick through her suit. I tap the water back on and it feels cool, good. Pete’s here too, I can see him in the mirror, poking his head around the screen. He looks concerned, I think. Can only see his eyes, his hood and mask cover the rest of his face. Two other people, hygienists by the tanks that hang heavy on their backs, wait behind.
There’re five of us here now. Which one dies. Which finger.
I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want it anymore. The sharp tucked into the paddle flab’s wrist, the old IV. I didn't realize what I'd done until after I'd ground the dirty needle into the mud under my boot and told Pete we were clear. She flies with her own wings and so do birds, the wind, a cough, the most terrible vectors. I guess I get to get it after you after all but I don’t want it, I don’t want it.
Dr. Patel and Pete grab me by the arms and haul me up, away. The trucks outside are so loud, so loud, dropping bodybags off by the hundreds. The hygienists are already spraying the tile clean, their long wands hissing and casting clouds of caustic disinfectant. Five people in the room and one short straw. Hope it’s not me, that’s not fair, I’m not that lucky. Dr. Patel holds me and shouts at Pete who holds my other arm and doesn’t look at me.
I feel fine, I feel fine, I’m not hot yet. Three to four days to see. I’m just tired.
Dr. Patel’s hands, Pete’s hands, they’re in gloves but they’re holding me and truth be told that’s all I really wanted. To be held again. I kissed you then they carried you away on that gurney. I don’t know how I didn’t get it then. Maybe I’m already safe?
They threw your body into the Pit here and since I couldn’t go in with you I could at least be close to you.
I think they buried you here. One in five chance. I’m not hot, I’m just tired.