A familiar knot of uneasiness was forming in the pit of Lilian’s stomach. A vague churning; like sounding the alarm, her body’s early warning system was begging her to respond. The flush of adrenaline meant her limbic system had activated, triggering a slightly raised heart rate, a tightness in her lungs, and a cold sweat beginning to form all over. She could name it these days – proximity-induced anxiety.
She forced her conscious mind to apply the relaxation ritual. A deep breath in for three, then out for four counts. Repeat. Repeat again. Then allow her breathing to settle into a usual pattern. She breathed normally, feeling the slightly uncomfortable trace of moisture from doing so on the inside of her mask. However, it was better to focus on these smaller, less significant things, than the actual source of her anxiety.
She drew herself further into her oversized coat, ducking her masked face below the collar. She cast a glance at the metal pole she gripped, and mentally counted the spare disposable gloves in her backpack that could replace the one keeping her skin from direct contact with the upright. Still plenty there, along with liquid sanitiser and antiseptic wipes that would be used to wipe down the zip and backpack after touching them with the current glove. These rituals were no longer exhausting – they were the fabric of life.
Lilian mentally calculated distances between the people in her train carriage. Five and a half centimetres between the couple sitting together. Forty-four, fifty-eight, one hundred and sixteen, and one hundred and twenty-two centimetres between the four people sitting in a seat quadrant. One hundred and seventy centimetres between her and the cyclist, standing in opposite doorways of the train, but he kept moving around, so she kept having to re-calculate and adjust her position accordingly, pressing herself even further back against the door. There was definitely more than one person per four square metres here.
Lilian recalled with nostalgia the ‘good old days’, the days of her childhood, when those distances were enforced. It was a time when she and her family spent all their time together, doing jigsaw puzzles, reading stories, baking bread, watching Netflix. When going to get groceries, they would line up outside the supermarket at carefully marked distances. If the queue wasn’t too long, she and her brother would try to leap from one white line to the next, candidates for the Olympics in the One-point-five Metre Jump. It was a much simpler time.
Lilian remembers being able to hear birds outside, breathing the still air on a cool autumn morning, and driving past Grandma’s window to wave on a Sunday afternoon. Growing up, Lilian and her brother, like their former friends, had abandoned the schoolrooms of their early childhoods for studying at their kitchen table, working through lessons and performing scientific experiments with pantry items and the contents of their garden shed. Their father would supervise them, peering over their shoulders, and joke about not being smart enough to help them, before returning to his own work on his laptop on the kitchen counter. In between conference calls, their mother would check that they sent their end of day emails to their teachers, those smiling video renditions of dimly-remembered flesh and blood humans, who would check their work and then provide the next tasks. Lilian remembered these gentle daily habits with warmth and yearning. She ached for that time.
The close-knit couple on the train (maintaining their five-and-a-half centimetres) stood and moved towards Lilian. They were arriving in the city, and Lilian braced herself for the proximity of the disembarking lovebirds. There was nowhere to go – every part of the train, in areas smaller than recommended, were clusters of people. Standing, sitting, reading, eating, drinking, breathing and talking petri dishes – veritable cocktails of microbiological hazards. In the last few minutes alone, she had seen one woman lick her finger to turn the page of her book, and a man bury his face in his hands. A young man talked into a microphone on his headset, holding the receiver so close to his mouth he practically tasted it. The cyclist had adjusted his bike shorts lasciviously, and the couple, now leaving the train, had exchanged saliva throughout the journey via prolonged Italian kissing. None of them wore gloves. None of them wore masks. It was lunacy.
Apart from the lack of social distance, the exiting couple were especially remarkable – Italian kissing was certainly not something you saw in public too often. BC, before Corona, such affectionate displays had been known as French kissing, for reasons no one seemed to remember. But after the coronavirus spread throughout the world, such shows of intimacy were rather mockingly rebadged as Italian, referencing both the stereotype of Italian passion and the speed of the virus’ spread throughout that country. It wasn’t the only colloquialism bred by the pandemic. Ten percent of Americans had been wiped out by the Trumpian cocktail of household bleach and fish tank cleaner. Some called it stupidity, others said it was the deliberate choice of desperate souls held in isolation too long. Either way, it was known as a ‘Doctor Donald’, and it took away the pain (after a horrific burning sensation and immediate feelings of regret). And it cured at least one health hazard, Trump having downed it himself during a press conference in a show of bravado.
But people like Lilian were the real hangover of the pandemic years. She had never really been able to overcome the metre and a half distancing from anyone other than her immediate family members. At some point, she had forgotten how to make friends with people face-to-face, so in her late thirties now, she remained not just socially distant, but emotionally distant. She had an aversion to door knobs, and crowds, and enclosed spaces. And she had no desire to change.
After years in lockdown, her parents had made plans for the future. They installed an outdoor shower so that their first forays outside could end with a full washdown and clothing change before re-entering the family home. Downloadable tracing apps had unleashed the population back out into public spaces and the virus had multiplied – contact tracing being a reaction to spread, not a prevention. Not being on the wealthier end of the spectrum, Lilan’s family had been unable to take advantage of one of the government’s generous (but costly) PPE packages, so they had begun making their own masks out of recycled materials, with charcoal inserts to absorb moisture and particles. Lilian had ended up studying biochemistry, turning her talents to modifying the charcoal inserts to kill viral particles. And as time went on and government relations with China fell apart, their family’s cottage industry grew, catering to a large market of low income families desperate for supplies they couldn’t otherwise access.
The success of their homemade masks is what brought Lilian to the city today, so many years after the first truly global pandemic. Lilian had received a phone call from a scientist friend, who was advising the government. There was a new virus in town.