A yarn written during a difficult time in Canberra during 2021 (stay safe everyone) inspired by:
2021 + Lockdown + ‘Ken Behrens’
Reason One – For the first time I saw her, standing in front of me in that freezing cold queue. All of us waiting desperately to reach that mysterious, melancholy testing station somewhere in front of us. The road before us made of cracked concrete, not gold, and the quest not for an Emerald City shimmering in the distance, but the opportunity for a long stick to be inserted deep into our nasal cavities. I joined the line with great trepidation, concerned that said stick might reach my frontal lobe (wondering if this was in fact a situation where not having a brain might be useful). Yet, it didn’t take long for me to notice her. Is it possible to look cute with a mask covering most of your face? Somehow, she managed it. Bright, open, excited brown eyes darting around, taking it all in. Apparently finding, or more accurately emitting, positive vibes, despite being surrounding for hours with a group of grumpy, frustrated human beings.
One is also the number of minutes it took me to ask her name. It was the second question I asked, after an opening line that reeked of early 2020s:
‘So, what brings you to this nasal exam?”
It took her a moment to figure out that I was speaking to her and also what I was saying, through the muffled echo of my face mask.
“Exposure site,” she shrugged.
“Me too,” I answered, trying not to make it too obvious I was trying to sneak a look through potential mask openings to spot more facial features beneath. Many hours later, when the time came for our test, I would confirm that eyes like those only belong on pretty faces.
After the blathering mess I’d made of my first question, I decided to keep the second one simpler.
‘Dorothy,’ she said, smiling with her eyes. How appropriate
One and a half –The number of metres we stood apart.
(minus) Two – for the first text messages we received that showed we were negative. We texted each other almost simultaneously as those wonderful results arrived. Those were quickly followed by a zoom call that lasted hours. We talked about everything two people could talk about in 2021:
- Favourite binge show, or as she put it, what is this year’s Tiger King? For me it was Ted Lasso, for her, Loki.
- Any symptoms? None for me, a dry throat for her. But she thought it might be her imagination.
- How was working from home? Her flat mate was getting on her nerves, but otherwise okay. I was feeling lonely, living on my own since Kira had moved out.
Three – The number of times Dorothy snorted when we finally reached the testing check-in desk, and I tried to tell the check-in guy that my surname was Behrens. First name, Ken.
Four – For the desperate, pathetic number of apologies I spluttered out when the check-in guy rolled his eyes and threatened to send me back to the end of the enormous line for trying to tell him my name was ‘Ken Behrens’. Incidentally, four was also the number of people who had tried the same joke on him that day.
Five – The number of Woolworths home shop deliveries I received.
Six – The number of masks I purchased during lockdown. All eBay. All black.
Seven – The number of seconds it took for that dreaded stick to enter and exit my nasal cavity. It felt like seven hours.
Eight – The total number of glorious, painful hours we stood together shuffling along that cracked, concrete road. It felt like eight seconds.
Nine – The maximum temperature of the first day we stood in line.
Ten – I didn’t used to hate ten. I didn’t probably have a firm view on it, beyond unconscious gratefulness for the simplicity of the decimal systems of currency and measurement. Yet now, the merest hint of the digits 1 and 0 coming together fill me with anger and fear. At first, ten teased me with its positive vibes. We had organised to arrive for our day ten tests at the same time, and I was giddy at the thought of not only leaving my apartment, but seeing Dorothy in the flesh. But even as I marveled that the universe had conspired to bring us together once again, my stomach dropped.
Her eyes didn’t have the same bold excitement. Instead, they were droopy and heavy. The bright glee she had emitted days earlier was gone. Somehow she looked paler, even though there was so much of her face I couldn’t see.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked, as we organised ourselves 1.5 metres apart in the line.
She shook her head, and even through the face mask, I could tell she might cry.
‘I’m not feeling very well,’ she admitted.
I noticed the guy behind her take a step back as she spoke.
I tried to keep her spirits up as we shuffled forward, reminding her of all the people I knew who had colds, flu, measles, swine flu…..anything other than the COVID. Dorothy emitted a few half-hearted giggles, but it was clear she was fearing the worst.
Part of me was disappointed by the shorter time we spent together in that line, the testing check-in person coming into view far earlier. But I knew Dorothy had to get home to bed.
Eleven –The eleven hundred dollars I spent on stupid lockdown purchases that seemed like such good ideas at the time. Stuff I will never use again, like a dart board, chromecast, boxing gloves, yoga mats…and a stray from the RSPCA. Well, obviously I still have the cat. And the masks.
Twelve – Midday, when Dorothy texted me to say she had tested positive.
Thirteen – The number of times I ignored incoming calls from other friends and family to keep speaking to Dorothy. This number could have been far higher. Some days she was too sick to speak, barely managing the energy to bash out a text to say she needed to sleep.
Fourteen – The additional number of days I had to spend in isolation because I stood next to Dorothy in the line. Totally worth it.
Fifteen – For the increase in standard drinks of alcohol per week I consumed during lockdown. (But really, who answer answers that question honestly).
Sixteen – The number of times I nearly called 000, worried that Dorothy’s weird flat mate had forgotten about her and was lying alone, barely breathing, in her bed.
Seventeen – An underestimation of the hours I spent on the internet, searching for information about COVID. Everything from vaccine effectiveness to promising new cures. Take it from me people, that’s a dark, conspiracy laden rabbit warren you don’t want to venture down. That way madness lies.
Eighteen – On the day Dorothy told me she tested positive, the ACT recorded eighteen new cases. I’d never really thought that was eighteen people lying somewhere, wondering what comes next. Eighteen sets of family, friends… and the occasional virtual stranger hoping for the best and fearing the worst. Images of Italian emergency rooms and American anti-vaxxers swirling around their heads.
Nineteen – The approximate number of hours I stood staring at the ceiling, worrying about Dorothy and feeling hopelessly, terribly, eternally powerless to do anything about it.
Twenty – The total number of days I was in quarantine, speaking to friends and family over telephone and zoom.
Twenty-one – For Dorothy’s favourite quarantine song, ‘Level of Concern’ by Twenty-One Pilots. I finally accepted she had recovered when she had the strength to sing it to me down the Zoom line. It would be many months before restrictions would lift and allow us to sing in each other’s company.
Twenty-two – A number that evokes a faint feeling of hope, tinged with just a bit of excitement, that next year might bring a different future.
And also, the unit number Dorothy and I moved into this week, with Toto the cat.
It has an emerald-coloured door.