I wrote this short story in hopes that it would help to illustrate the incredible changes our society is currently going through due to this quarantine period and the lasting effects of it. Our definition of a “normal day” has completely changed. Parents have now added “teacher” to job titles, university/college students are forced to end the semester through Zoom meetings, and cities across the country have by and large closed down. The Day After will hopefully encourage the reader to think about whether a sense of normalcy will be regained after the quarantine period or if there will be a “new normal” in our social settings.
Three distinct images came to mind as I laid in bed and thought about the day ahead of me. My mind conjured up an image of diseased people slowly making their way around the streets, coughing up phlegm, and greeting each other with a stern handshake. Their hands were cold and clammy. Option two was far more sanitary: everyone made use of the warm summer weather and went about their business. However, the thin yellow PPE gowns that doctors wear before entering a surgery room replaced the flowery summer dresses and easy-breezy t-shirts that are typically worn during this time. Instead of sunglasses, people wore goggles, and nails painted with the vibrant colours of summer: pink, red, yellow, are covered by gloves. The third option was a murky one. One that hovered between the other two. Despite everyone, young and old, wearing pieces of PPE equipment, COVID 19 still spread from person to person. Images flashed in my mind of individuals wearing gloves only to sneeze into them. They then used that hand to press the crosswalk button, before they crossed the street to enter the public bus where they would steady themselves on a bar.
I shook these pictures out of my head.
“Tomorrow will be fine – great even!” I would tell myself. “I’ll go over to Lauren’s house to celebrate her birthday and everything will be fine.” I fell asleep with this in mind.
Excitement and apprehension greeted me in the morning as I got ready to go over to Lauren’s house. The news echoed from the television in the living room as I brushed my teeth.
“Well, today’s the day that many have been waiting for. According to the plan set out by the Ontario government, all businesses will be reopened and groups of up to 15 people can convene together,” said the reporter.
In a strange way, the reporter’s voice calmed any sort of anxiety I had previously had about the day ahead of me. I would be fine. The government was being informed by a knowledgeable medical team. If they said up to 15 people could spend time together then they must have taken into account factors like the infection rate of COVID-19.
I quickly changed into a pale blue summer dress I purchased on one of my more irresponsible days of quarantine. School was finished and I, to my shock and dismay, had grown bored of movies and TV shows that I found on streaming sources. Right when I was about to read “The Great Gatsby” for the umpteenth time, an email notification popped up on my phone. In big bold letters, the email read, “ALL DRESSES 40% OFF! $25 OFF ON SHOES.” When I scrolled down the email I clicked on the hyperlink and began shopping.
After slipping into the dress I grabbed Lauren’s gift and headed into the living room.
“Despite the success of the last two phases, Torontonians are still anxious about things going back to normal,” said the reporter. “John DeBouse is here with that report.”.
I paused for a moment to hear what was about to be said.
“There’s definitely an increased level of awareness I feel walking around downtown,” said one young woman.
She had a nervous energy about her and would spend the majority of her interview staring at the ground. When she did look up it was to take in everything around her, almost like the closeness to other people was foreign to her.
“It feels like the sidewalks aren’t wide enough for all the people walking around. We’re all trying to avoid bumping into each other,” she finished.
I turned off the TV before the rest of the report was complete.
“Maybe, I should carry my mask with me,” I thought to myself.
Over the course of the quarantine, there’s been an evolution of sorts when it comes to masks. Instead of the traditional pale blue medical ones, retail companies began selling ones that took a more fashion-friendly approach that also adhered to the governmental standards. I purchased one a couple days prior: it was a matted black mask that had yellow daisies all along the front as well as along the loops. I rushed into my room to grab it. It would be my safety blanket in the outside world.
It was one of the more picturesque summer days. The sky was clear from any clouds and the sun was high. A slight breeze would pass by. Out of curiosity, I took the long way to the bus stop so I could stop at the local park. When I reached the park, I saw children, no older than 7 years old, running around, happily enjoying the weather. The children all had little masks, some with pictures of superheroes plastered on the front others with cartoons I could not recognize. It covered most of their tiny faces so I couldn’t quite see their expressions, but from the way they ran excitedly from one end of the park to the other, they appeared happy.
When I decided to head out to the bus stop, I noticed a line up at the jungle gym area. The children stood in a line, about 2 metres away from each other, to wait to go on the slide. One parent was at the end of the slide while another was at the monkey bars, armed with hand sanitizer to squirt into the hands of the children. Checking my watch, I decided it was time to leave and catch the bus.
I hadn’t taken the bus for a good 5 months and I missed it quite a bit. It wasn’t so much the bus itself, the traffic that you would inevitably get stuck in, or the lack of personal space during rush hour that I missed — it was the fact that taking the bus meant you were going somewhere. Maybe to catch a movie and dinner with friends, or to go to the concert you were waiting to attend for months, or maybe just to head to work. Taking the bus meant you had something to do and today I was going to go see my friend.
I immediately noticed a few changes when I entered the bus. For one thing, the driver still left caution tape around certain chairs in order to separate passengers. But there was also an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser installed on a poll right across from the Presto machine. The bus driver pointed this out to new passengers coming on at every stop. Some simply nodded, while others muttered that they had their own in their bags. I tapped my Presto card and immediately went to the dispenser before grabbing a window seat at the back of the bus.
It was a pretty quiet trip. No one spoke to each other or on their phones. This was pretty normal for taking the public bus. I hadn’t expected people to all of a sudden have a burst of warmth and affection towards each other. Instead, it seemed like we were all in a bit of shock. An elderly woman sitting at the front of the bus would inspect each new boarding passenger. Music could be heard through the headphones of a young man, whose gloved hands were flipping through his phone. I drifted my attention to the window, and that’s when I saw a line about a block long.
The bus continued on and I noticed that the line led up to the local food bank. People, young and old, were all waiting to get in. As the bus stopped at the traffic light, I saw a young boy and his little sister get into a bit of a fight. Both looked exhausted and each had taken the time to annoy the other. At one point, the young girl hovered her pointer finger over her older brother’s arm and said something.
I couldn’t hear but I imagined her saying, “I’m not even touching you; I’m not even touching you!” before her brother swatted the finger away.
Their mother, who had been talking to others waiting in the line, noticed this and gave the young boy her cellphone. The two children were off in a different world in front of the phone screen. As the bus went off, I rested my head against the window and tried to relax until I got to my stop.
Lauren was one of those people that everyone liked. She had an innate ability to read the room and knew when to crack a joke or to lend an ear to someone. As a result, she always seemed to know everyone and was able to turn strangers into friends.
She lived on a quiet street in one of the many bungalows that filled the neighbourhood. She greeted me at the front of her house before directing me to the backyard where everything was set up. There were some people there already that I had known. Sarah, Preity, and Mohammed from high school were all there in the midst of a conversation with people that I had never met before. I said my hellos and left my present beside one of the folding chairs before heading into the kitchen to help Lauren.
The kitchen was a mess but Lauren looked composed despite it. She was attempting to make a cheese plate and other little appetizers that she had learned from online cooking shows during the quarantine. I decided that I was best suited to help clean up and so I started gathering the dishes.
“Helen, do you mind if we have a barbecue tonight instead of Hakka?” Lauren asked. “I know you were really looking forward to it, but the others … aren’t as comfortable with it.”
“Yeah, it’s fine. Whatever you’re good with is cool with me.” I replied. “But — and this may be nosy — why are they comfortable with Hakka food? It’s this perfect meld of Caribbean, Indian, and Chinese food. Chinese noodles with Bombay chicken…” I trailed off.
I was imagining the dishes. Many of the local Hakka restaurants that everyone loved closed because of COVID-19 and so Lauren wanted to place a big order.
“We hit two birds with one stone this way. We help out the restaurants and satisfy our Hakka cravings.” Lauren explained to me over the phone.
“Well,” Lauren whispered, “Some of the guests aren’t too comfortable with having Chinese food … you know because of … well, I didn’t want to start a whole fight over some food so I just suggested we have a barbecue. Everyone likes good barbecue.”
I didn’t know what to say. While I washed some of the dishes, I debated whether or not I should try to strike up a conversation with the guests about Toronto cuisine in order to find out how people felt about Hakka food. If someone said something I thought was out of line I could possibly soothe their worries. I decided against this — I didn’t want to turn Lauren’s birthday garden party into a debate. I’d keep my mouth shut.
As I walked back to the garden, I helped Lauren rearrange the food on the table. There was a bottle of hand sanitizer at the far end of the table, tongs placed gingerly on each platter, and a box of gloves right at the start of the table. I walked over to the seating area where Preity and Mohammed were sitting. From time to time I would join in on conversations. Most were about COVID-19, what resulted because of it, but nothing incredibly fruitful.
Towards the end of the party, I found myself sitting on the patio chair by myself as I reflected on the day I had. Sure nothing terrible happened to me, but I wondered if we would all be ‘fine’ after COVID-19. I wondered if children would be more concerned about bacterial infection instead of freely playing outside with their friends. Would they all carry small-sized hand sanitizers in their book bags instead of their favourite toy or snacks? I wondered how long people would be dependent on food banks, and if one decent meal would be the norm for families. I thought of all the Chinese restaurants that were in Toronto and whether or not they would be able to go back into business. More importantly, I feared that the old ways of doing things — going about the world freely, not worrying about germs or bacteria that we come across on a daily basis — would be a distant memory.
How about handshakes? Hugs? The good kind, when loved ones are enveloped in each other’s arms in a warm embrace, and each feels a complete sense of security at least for a moment. Would they all be a thing of the past?