Okay, remember back in early March when everything was still normal? That was a short three and half months ago. We were looking forward to spring, the stock market was making history, Virginia basketball had a shot at pulling down its second national championship and the lacrosse team was on its way to another great season. People went to movies, ate at restaurants, went to church and hung out in bars.
Then a microbe snuck up on us and changed everything. We went from not even thinking about going out to cowering in our houses, scared to death about getting exposed to the virus. If you went out and happened to run into droplets, you could be looking at being put in a coma and having a tube shoved down your throat. Going on a ventilator for three weeks is not what you call a party.
So for the longest time we stayed home, only venturing out a couple times to get groceries or go to Lowe’s, always wearing our masks and carefully dodging around fellow shoppers to maintain distance, always dreading that someone would cough up a cloud of droplets that would put us in the ICU. Strange phrases like “social distancing” and “sheltering at home” cropped up in our conversation and grocery stores put circles and marks on their floors to remind you to stay six feet apart.
We’d been to Lowe’s a couple times as well as the Giant and Wegman’s, wearing our masks and dodging around fellow shoppers to maintain distance, but always fearing some shopper would cough up the haze of droplets that would give us the dread disease.
We hadn’t considered going to a restaurant since that could be like putting your life on the line. Only picking up lunch at Bodo’s or dinner at Orzo or Public through the car window.
But after two months, sick of being cooped up like caged animals, we decided to take a walk on the Downtown Mall and see if we could find a restaurant that would seat us outside.
No such luck, it was Father’s Day and the best we could do was a table inside at Hamilton’s. “We’ll take it,” I said, knowing that we could be signing our death warrants.
“I’m not sure we should be eating inside,” my wife said.
“C’mon,” I joked, “this is a restaurant, not a gas chamber,” trying to make light of the situation.
Taking off our masks, we sat down at the table with a bit of trepidation—in the back of our minds was the question: would we recall this experience as the one that finally deported us to the ICU?
Fortunately, our table was isolated from the others and the other diners in the restaurant were all wearing masks. But we kept our eyes peeled for clouds of droplets. If someone had sneezed, it would have sent us diving under the table.
Now these thoughts and feelings don’t make for a pleasant lunch so we struggled to pretend everything was hunky-dory.
“The menu looks good,” I said, “what are you thinking of getting?”
Just then, the waitress approached, pulling up six feet away from us, “Good afternoon,” she mumbled through her mask, “how are you folks?”
“I was tempted to say, “Scared s**tless,” but I bit my tongue.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
I ordered a rum cocktail, the wife a Prosecco.
“So what do you think?” I asked her.
“About being here.”
“It’s a little uncomfortable, I must admit.”
“C’mon, it feels like being in London during the Blitz, you never knew when you were going to get blown to bits.”
“It does feel risky.”
“Imagine that–here we are sitting in a nice restaurant about to get our drinks and we’re talking about feeling like we’re living in a horror movie, never knowing when a zombie is going to jump out of a wall and start eating your face.”
“That’s what this damn disease has done, taken normal everyday actions like touching your face, shaking hands, air kissing and going to restaurants and turned them into taboos. It’s made us into a bunch of scaredy cats.
The waitress was hovering a social distance away, her pad at the ready. It was time to order.
“I’d like shrimp and grits and my wife will have the beet salad.”
“Thanks, I’ll be right back.”
She was and the food, as always, was good. A second round of drinks made us almost feel normal, like there was nothing wrong with eating in a restaurant.
But after we finished and took care of the check, as we walked out the door I felt a sense of relief. Like we’d escaped from a threatening situation and lived to tell about it. We hadn’t parachuted out of a plane or faced off against a hissing rattler, all we’d done was have lunch in a restaurant.
As we walked down the Mall snapping our masks behind our ears, I reflected on how otherworldly the experience had been, how a mundane and routine event like eating out had been transformed into something disquieting and foreboding. My wife summed up the situation perfectly, saying, “Maybe we won’t do this again for a while.”
And I couldn’t help but recall Dorothy’s statement to her dog, “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”