It was six-thirty AM, and I was getting a front-row seat to the sunrise from the parking lot of County Urgent Care. It was the only clinic in town offering same-day-result testing and it didn't even open until eight AM. Yet, already there was a line wrapped around the building, clear out to the sidewalk. You would have thought it was 1998 and this clinic was selling tickets to an N'Sync concert or something. Unfortunately, it wasn't the nineties. This was the 2020's. Boy bands were out and viral illnesses were very much in.
As we got in line, we were each given a little red slip of paper with a number on it. I was number fifty-eight. These nurses had to swab fifty-seven noses before I could go home and get back to my Doctor Who marathon, the way a sunday was intended to be spent, thank you very much.
“Name?” A clipboard-brandishing nurse came up and asked me.
“Reason for getting tested today?”
“My job requires weekly testing.”
Apparently, my good word alone wasn’t enough because before I knew it she was sweeping my fringe out of the way and holding a beeping thermometer to my forehead. It chimed with the results, which she checked with an approving nod before scribbling onto the clipboard.
“Just hang tight, we’ll be with you shortly,” she said before walking away.
I smiled politely, having done this enough times to know "shortly" meant anything but. I let out a heavy sigh, put in my bluetooth earpods and started the playlist I put together the night before in preparation for braving this line. As I tapped my heel to the beat of How's it Going to be by Third Eye Blind, I watched a mom and her little son a couple spaces ahead of me in line, still in their pajamas and slippers. As they stood in line, the mom fishednher her phone out of her purse. The two of them tucked their masks under their chins before grinning big toothy grins into the camera for a selfie.
The sight sort of stopped me in my tracks. When I thought about what on earth you would even caption a photo like that, I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing out loud.
Found out the kiddo got #covidexposed at school. Getting tested to do our part and #flattenthecurve. Also, we live with grandma who's a diabetic antivaxxer, so #prayersup for a negative result 😬.
God help us all. The whole world is on fire, and what do people do? They take selfies in front of the flames. A robotic voice cut through the music.
Battery low. Please recharge headphones.
"Dammit," I cursed under my breath. I knew I had forgotten something. I had forgotten to charge my stupid ear pods.
Insufficient battery. Powering down.
"Dammit," I cursed again, taking the pods out of my ears.
I felt a soft tap on my shoulder and I spun around. A guy about my age, sporting a wrinkled up white t-shirt and some impressive blonde bed head, took a pod out of his own ear and handed it to me. As I stood there, sort of confused, he pointed to the offering with his chin as if to say; "Go on, take it". Cautiously, I reached for the gift and put it in my ear. I watched as he scrolled through his phone, looking for a song to play. He settled on one and stuck his phone in his back pocket. The track started playing and my mouth practically fell agape behind my mask. The unmistakable first chords of How's it Going to Be played into my left ear.
I was just about to exclaim how I had just been listening to this, certain that I had just found my musical soul mate. Then, just as I begin to believe the rom-com moment I had been waiting for my entire life had finally arrived - a nurse wearing bright blue scrubs walked out of the clinic and addressed the line.
"Guys, we apologize, but we've got a higher demand for rapid testing today than usual. If you have an odd number, please head across the parking lot to Trinity Hospital- they’ll complete your test over there.”
I pulled out the little red piece of paper with the number 58 on it. I turned and looked at my mystery guy. He’s holding 59.
We look at each other for a long second. I pulled the earpod out and handed it back.
“Thanks anyway,” I said.
He took it back, thought for a second, then he took the other pod out of his ear and handed them both to me.
“Keep ‘em,” he said. Before I could protest, he was heading across the parking lot to the hospital.
I wish I could say that some dark cloud of anxiety hung over me as I waited in line to get tested, but the sad truth is that these tests were becoming all too routine to carry any real weight anymore. Here I was, standing in line to get tested for a potentially deadly disease, and I wasn't even fazed. I just stood there, twirling the headphones around with my fingers and wondering if the clinic could give me mystery guy's contact info without violating HIPPA. And it hit me right there that when our great-great-great-grandkids learn about all of this in school, what will really get them isn't the tragedy and loss, although don't get me wrong, the loss has really been something. What's really going to get them is how we as a human race collectively decided to go on with our lives as if the loss wasn't happening. Most of the time, I couldn't decide whether to be in awe of us all, or horrified at us.
They called number 58 and I got my brain probed by a cotton swab for the millionth time. They shooed me away to an outdoor waiting room - the "possible walking biohazard area" is how I had begun to think of it. Fifteen minutes later, a nurse came out and announced the good news.
So I got up, slung my purse over my shoulder and headed out to my Jeep. I was humming that Third Eye Blind song when I saw him; sitting in the driver's seat of a parked Volkswagen across a parking lot. My mystery guy.
I grabbed the headphones out of my pocket and started walking over, but he shook his head frantically, signaling for me to stay back and mouthing a word that took me several seconds to register.
It felt like a punch in the stomach. I stood frozen in the middle of the parking lot- not allowed to come any closer but not quite wanting to get into my jeep and drive away. I got out the red piece of paper from my pocket and a pen from my backpack. On the back I scribbled down my phone number and underneath, a sentence in rushed cursive.
In case you ever want your headphones back.
I left the note on the hood of his car and walked away. It wasn’t the rom-com moment I had always dreamt of, but this twisted sci-fi movie we were all living in would have to do for now.