passing through the veil
a brutally honest story of COVID isolation
I wake up in the morning to the sound of the street cleaning machine, blaring at everyone to move their cars. I am achey and fatigued and congested.
This is my first full day in isolation. I grab a yogurt from the cooler in one corner of my room and boil water in my collapsible travel kettle. I have set up my room like a bunker, determined to leave rarely or not at all, in order to protect my roommate and prevent anyone else from catching what I have.
I can’t say I am the most cautious among the people I know, but I would like to think I am not the least. Over the weekend we had celebrated my boyfriend’s birthday. I felt like the universe had a strange sense of schadenfreude. I’d seen people I hadn’t seen in a long time that weekend, people I hadn’t connected with or fallen out of touch with on account of the pandemic. It was one of the few times my heart has felt truly full this pandemic. Then I discovered the Tuesday morning after that I had COVID. Certainly the incubation timeline meant that it still could have come from work or the grocery store or public transit or any number of things earlier in the week. But it was too easy to see it as a story of instant karma, of some kind of retribution I was served for being happy, especially as someone who thrives on human connection. I had bobbed and weaved for two years, only to finally get it now.
Still, there’s something about going into crisis mode that allows me to set all of that aside, at least until I get the practical matters of the situation under control. I was incredibly fortunate — my roommate was traveling and wasn’t home when I tested positive after having light cold symptoms. I decided to try do as strict an isolation as I possibly could in my room. My room had its own bathroom, a privilege that made the rest possible. I dragged my camping gear down from above our kitchen cabinets, including a butane stove, a cooler, and basic camp kitchen supplies. I put on a mask, opened all the windows, and ordered groceries to fill the cooler. I disinfected all of our surfaces while I waited for the delivery to arrive. I carried everything to my room and opened some living room windows. I turned my air purifier to full blast and blocked the bottom of my door with a towel, to prevent as little air and as few viral particles as possible from escaping. I remembered, fortunately, that I had bought a collapsible silicon travel kettle that plugged into the wall (because American hotels rarely have hot water kettles). This is what I used to boil water and for tea, to minimize time that the butane burner was on.
I never thought of myself as an apocalypse prepper but it turns out having some camping gear gets you part way there. I immediately asked my doctor’s office for a prescription of Paxlovid and set up a virtual appointment. I peppered friends who had recovered with questions. I went on what my friend N calls “the COVID apology tour”, messaging anyone I’d been in contact with over the weekend.
Then I collapsed into a fitful night of sleep.
My symptoms, though the usual culprits of a cold or flu, did feel somewhat intense compared to others I knew who had been infected. My Paxlovid prescription was filled shortly after my virtual doctor’s appointment. My roommate picked it up and delivered it to me.
It was an odd feeling, finally getting COVID. On one hand I felt strangely relieved — I’d been anxious to avoid it, primarily not to spread it, for so long. Finally it was here. I just had to live through it.
It feels a bit like passing through a veil. So many people had touched this virus since the start of the pandemic. My cousin in Ethiopia was never vaccinated, due to lack of availability. He and his family lost their sense of taste and smell. They were never tested but it was certainly COVID. My grandmother and her whole household were also infected. We waited anxiously and texted constantly for updates. Fortunately my 88 year old grandmother had no severe issues and it passed through. My aunt, a CNA in Colorado, was infected from her work at nursing homes. My friends, so many, my boyfriend at one point, many people who were more careful than I was, many people who were less careful than I was.
And here I am, finally on the other side of the veil of COVID. We still don’t know, don’t fully appreciate what this virus does to us in the long term. So many other viruses, even some that are harmless or unnoticeable, change us permanently, edit themselves into our DNA, leave marks across millennia of evolution. Now I too am marked, with my friends and my family, so many people in my close community. I am here, on the other side.
Despite being voluntarily trapped in a room, I feel useful, trying to prevent the spread of disease through my choices. This will stay with me here, I will clean it from this air, it will die in my lungs.
The bitter taste of Paxlovid was not as severe for me as I’d heard it was from others. It’s not bad when you take it — rather, after a couple hours, it is secreted by your saliva and you taste it until the medicine fades. For me it was like the aftertaste of grapefruit or a citrus rind, but not so bad that I couldn’t ignore it after a while. Others had a more severe reaction and felt it was unbearable. One friend’s advice to use cough drops to cover the bitterness was helpful.
I cooked ramen with an egg for dinner on my butane stove. I thought of everything that had prepared me for this moment — my father, atypical for an Ethiopian-American, taking us on camping trips in Colorado. He always said it reminded him of his rural upbringing. And he took us to see that too, his village, where we would fetch water barefoot and I would squat to slice onions and help my aunt make stews over open fires. In my decadent American life I forget what this is like from time to time, how resourceful people can be. And how people find softness in crises. How even when it is easy to zoom out and see everything burning up and divided and falling apart and terrible, zooming in, you still see people supporting each other, helping each other, seeing basic humanity in one another.
I draw from that today as this thing passes through me. I woke this morning feeling much better, like maybe I was past the peak and perhaps the Paxlovid was working. I could breathe easily without decongestant. I cooked a hearty breakfast of eggs and toast to support my recovery. Since my roommate was out I went downstairs for the first time since the start, masked and armed with disinfectant, to indulge in one small luxury — making a cup of coffee, leaving Clorox streaks in my wake.
People called me — people I hadn’t talked to in a while, on account of not being in the same city. We shared stories and jokes. I had forgotten that although COVID made everyone distant, it also facilitated a kind of closeness with people who were already far away, made everyone the same distance from each other.
Is it a war between humans and virus? Or has it always really been between humans and themselves. It lays bare our prejudices, our worst natures. It shows us clearly, plainly, our faults and divisions. It is hard. For most of 2020 and 2021 it was hard for me to imagine any good version of the future. Curiously now that I actually have the virus, I have a strange feeling of optimism. Is this what happens when you are in crisis? Your body fights to keep you alive.
Maybe that makes you believe you deserve life, too. That life is something worth fighting for.