You and me, babe, against the world. I recite the charm against contagion at the start of every neighbourhood walk. As my husband and I leave the yard, I reach for his hand and say the words. If I forget, he stops on the sidewalk and grins until I grab his hand and deliver the line. Our little joke as the dangers of the world rumble in the distance.
I’ve waited months for my appointment at the Thoracic Clinic, postponed twice during the lockdown. The delays blur the edges between my pockets of anxiety—my stomach polyps, his precarious health, the hazards of exposure during hospital visits. I cannot, cannot bring home the virus. My husband has chronic leukemia.
The Montreal General Hospital straddles the mountain, with a confusion of entrances at different levels. It’s my first visit and I need to get a hospital card, which means navigating a maze of pavilions in search of two destinations: the admitting office and then the clinic. I imagine a coronavirus cloud hovering in hospital corridors, all those globules with sticky pink spikes invisible to the naked eye.
Will two shorter hospital visits minimize hallway wandering and my use of bathrooms vacated by infected people? Three days before my appointment, I head downtown to get my card. This is not paranoia, I convince myself, but a practical plan based on science. The actions of a prudent woman protecting her immune-suppressed husband.
A way to keep the waves of panic at bay.
I arrive at the hospital parkade and drive up ramp after ramp in a dizzying spiral of left-hand turns until I find a spot on the 13th level. It’s open-air, and I catch a glimpse of lacy treetops and curling streets below. A breathtaking view of the city. But I focus on the necessary routine—pluck a paper mask out of the baggie in my purse and press the nose wire into place. Don a face shield, a flimsy homemade one bought at the local health food store. For a second, I forget the world’s perils and half-smile at my old-lady-self, fussing over protective gear.
After exiting the car, I click the remote, reassured by its familiar beep-beep. The mask rubs against my mouth, hot and scratchy. The General’s brick walls looming next to the parkade look fuzzy through the plastic shield. My fingers twitch, wanting to adjust the face coverings. Vigilant, I must remain vigilant and avoid touching contaminated surfaces.
A covered walkway next to the ramp leads to an entrance. Automatic doors swish open, and I step from muggy heat into the chilled air of a grey-walled passageway. A masked security guard with bored, half-lidded eyes sits behind a table. He beckons me with a squirt bottle of hand sanitizer, and I hold out my hands, grateful for gatekeepers and rules.
Do you have a fever or any symptoms?
Do you have an appointment?
Yes, I need a hospital card.
The correct passwords. He waves a gloved hand to the left toward Pavilion L, and I pass through one hallway after another, my shallow breathing warm inside the mask. I check people as they shuffle by, my silly heart thumping as I step sideways to keep 6 feet away.
In 15 minutes, a masked stranger behind Plexiglas will enter my personal details into a computer and hand me a card. I’ll tuck it into my wallet and head back to my car in the sunshine. In 15 minutes, I’ll tick off this item from the to-do list in my head, a scrap of control that will lift me back to a semblance of calm for the rest of the afternoon.
But right now, as I enter Pavilion L, the dangers of the world rumble closer and closer. I’m adrift in a long grey hallway, scanning room numbers on drab institutional walls—my chest tight with yearning for small certainties in uncertain times.
You and me, babe, against the world. On our walk the next day, we spot a rabbit in the park. It’s beside the path, perfectly still, with shiny unblinking eyes and mushroom-coloured fur. As we inch closer, it quivers and bounds away in a graceful flurry of hind legs, as rabbits do.
Long after we reach home, I hold onto that moment of quiet—our stroll together under a canopy of trees, a small wild creature running free.
Karen Zey is a Canadian writer from la belle ville de Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Her work has appeared in the Brevity Nonfiction Blog, SFWP Quarterly, The Nasiona, and other fine places. You can read Karen’s micro-musings about life and writing @zippyzey.