Who breaks their arm planting bulbs? Well, technically, I was retrieving bulbs, from a box on the other side of the low-rise-industrial-wire fence they put up around small urban gardens at street level to keep out the dogs that don’t keep out the dogs. Why build a fence just high enough for me to trip over? This question begets an annoying answer. The kind of answer that targets you, relentless as the sunrise. Most wouldn’t trip over it. The fact that I did is a visceral confirmation of aging, a steady and sure march to death, bringing with it the accidents of youth.
The virus is also on the march and the Governor has closed my pool eliminating the aquatic option to recovering my range of motion. So, here I am—albeit four staggeringly painful and miraculous-in-the-fact-my-bone-healed-at-my-age months later—in physical therapy, a risk of a different kind.
Kim, my physical therapist, announced on Tuesday I should have worn a mask. They had sent an email. One I deleted before reading as I do most irritatingly-perky missives that fill up my inbox with random products, services or advice on healthy choices I thought I wanted to make. In the wake of the virus, I’ve decided I’m healthy enough for someone who may die soon and has long planned on dying at year seventy-five. Which is the perfect age to do so, and I could tell you why but I won’t digress.
On Thursday, I arrive orange bandana-bound. I insert my disinfected credit card for the co-pay. I Purell my hands and look right. A talkative young man, without a mask, seated on the banquette adjoining the front counter, his body twisted toward the receptionist, is chattering non-stop. His way-too-low pant waist is way-too-revealing. He twists again, his white fleshy cheeks pressing against the rust vinyl cushion in cringe worthy fashion. This can’t be the hygienic standard to which they aim.
The machine buzzes. I extract my card and whisper. “He needs to pull up his pants.”
The mask-clad receptionist doesn’t make eye contact as she processes my receipt. “His therapist is speaking with him about that.”
Her response hits me as too passive but the office has lost two-thirds of their patients over the past three weeks to the paranoia of Covid-19. Patients possibly smarter than I. I tap another dab of hand sanitizer into my palm and rub, wondering how often they disinfectant the seating area and how much I sound like a crotchety old woman who doesn’t understand the sartorial choices of the youth of today. Well, she’d be crotchety too if a pandemic had her age group in its sights. I take a chair on the far side of the room and consider the likelihood of the virus spreading through flatulence.
Kim comes through to collect me. I nod toward the talker whose pants remain low. Kim appears not to notice. It occurs to me the receptionist was referring to the talker’s psychologist, not physical therapist. I wish for a couch of my own to sort out what exactly I should be prioritizing in the possibly-less-than eight good years I’ve got left that may be filled with one super bug after another. We head to the main room.
The treatment tables on the east wall of windows are unoccupied. Kim indicates a freshly wiped table and I dump my vest and phone on the chair beside it. Several bikes and treadmills line the south window bank. Kim starts me on the hand bike. Cranes dot the Seattle skyline in front of me. Density. This is why social distancing is so hard. That and the fact that the younger population thinks they don’t have to wear a mask. All those supposed influencers seem not to have any influence at all based on the untethered droves of out-of-school teenagers roving the city at will. Adolescent clumps that pass infuriatingly close to you on any given street.
A minute into the six I’m required to do, a case-in-point, a high school athlete with whom I’ve overlapped before, begins doing planks in front of the adjacent mirrored wall eight feet to my right. He has no mask either. He’s sweating. The type of sweat that could include the droplets that the CDC says—in the 3-D enactment I just saw on my iPhone—can possibly travel more than six feet. I raise my hand off the bike handle to test for a breeze.
I catch Kim looking at me. I reclaim the hand peddle and stare out the window at the storm clouds rolling in from the south Sound, imagining the sweat droplets drifting toward me. I’ll have to burn this tee shirt and legging. I dismount and wash my hands at the sink in the center island. I fill a cup with water and realize I’ve touched the lever. I wash my hands again.
Kim motions me to the table. As she works on my left shoulder—the break was very close to my socket—I close my eyes and breath into my bandana. Why is it you always need to cough when you are close to people these days and never when you’re not? I stifle it and my eyes water in response. I resist the urge to wipe my eyes with my right hand because I can’t remember if I scrubbed the tips of my fingers.
Kim manipulates my arm over my head. I breathe into the pain. The talker rings out behind me. How close is he? Is he spitting into my hair? Is that his breath or Kim’s I feel parting my hairline? I open my eyes. The talker has moved out of spittle range.
Kim smiles behind her mask, her dimples partially showing above its brim. She has me sit up and raise my arm. Kim takes a six-week progress measurement and tells me I’m improving rapidly. I nod, pleased I’ll be in good shape for my impending death. The talker, whose pants are pulled up a bit higher now, but not high enough, comes back into my sightline. I approximate the space between us and contemplate giving him a belt. Would he wear it or deem it too uncomfortable? If they can require face coverings why not belts?
Kim’s intern directs the chatterbox through his exercises, cajoling him into action when he pauses, ignoring the non-stop patter. Does the intern not realize that life-altering spit is headed his way? I speculate on the intern’s age. His ability to assess risk is probably still developing. At least he is wearing a mask, not that it will help him. The whole mask thing only works if we all wear one.
Kim hands me a pair of two-pound weights and assigns me a set of arm exercises. Rob, the aging hippie who typically has the appointment after me, arrives. He doesn’t have a mask either. I stand my ground but turn my head, fuming, as Rob with his shoulder length grey ponytail and bad knee bob past. He mounts the recumbent bike. I finish my second set of ten in a huff and scan the room. Can I make it to the sink without threat? I chance it, refilling my water cup as Kim grabs a pillowcase.
I join her at the passageway between reception and the therapy room. I focus on the linoleum adhered to the wall. Do they wipe it down every day, hour, after every use? The pillowcase, the only barrier between me and possible Covid-19 remnants, keeps my arms at a tensioned distance that makes my shoulders burn by the second set of ten.
I sigh into the eight inches of space between me and the wall. Lap swimming is a distant dream, when it shouldn’t be. Chlorine and bromide kill any virus. Unless you pee in the pool or don’t shower. Then the chemicals combine with the urine, sweat, your personal care products and lower the chlorine’s ability to kill germs. Will virus-days necessitate post-shower-pre-swim inspections to be sure all signs of deodorant are cleansed? What if they start putting that chemical in the water that goes red with urine? And you leak? Banned forever? I shudder.
Kim returns and asks if I’m cold. I shake my head glad she is between the talker and me. He’s chattering to no one and everyone while doing a step exercise about four feet away with a thick band of silicone around his ankles. His pants are slipping again or is the band pulling them down? Someone should have thought that through. I estimate the distance between his mouth and the chair that holds my stuff. Why didn’t I bury my phone under my vest?
Kim circumvents his path, leading me to the mirror. Behind me, the athlete moves to a table next to the one I used. Shouldn’t he be in the-tables-for-those-without-masks section on the far side of the room? His leg bumps the chair where my vest and phone are. Kim hands me a rubber blade to shake. She sets a timer.
In the mirror, I can see the talker’s pants slip another notch. The athlete has his head turned towards my chair. I try to concentrate on jiggling the blade. It’s hard and my shoulder aches. Thirty seconds goes on a long time. Slipping-pants twosteps out of my sightline. The athlete turns his head the other way. The timer beeps. I exhale.
Kim guides me to the pulleys and has me sit with my back to the wall. I see her intern giving the pants his last exercise in the northwest corner of the room. I close my eyes and pull. My bandana and arms move with my breath. I count and breathe. Right arm up, left arm down. Reverse. Count and breathe. I hit twenty and open my eyes. Kim smiles and says I’m all done.
Slipping-pants has been dismissed too but he won’t go. He stands in the passageway, making it impossible to maintain a social distance if anyone else wants to exit. My vest, phone and hair clip remain hostage on the chair next to the athlete, now icing in the recline, breathing straight up to the ceiling. Is this the senior version of No Way Out? I raise an eyebrow at Kim.
“You can exit this way,” she says, pointing to an alternative route through the back hallway of treatment rooms.
I chance a grab for my things, holding my breath—do ears inhale?—and dash to the sink to wash my hands. “Is there a mirror anywhere else?” I hold up my hair clip. The mirrored wall is three short feet from Rob on the bike.
Kim nods. “Just inside the first treatment room.”
I turn my head away from Rob’s ponytail as I scurry past him into the room. I twist up my hair and zip my vest. I adjust my bandana, Purell my phone and hands and stuff a tissue into my pocket for the walk back down the hill. I glance at the exit. The talker is leaving, his ungloved hand levering the door handle down. I grab another tissue and wait in the back hall. I see Kim watching me.
I smile a goodbye through my bandana and move to the door. I put the tissue in the palm of my hand to lever the door. I realize too late a tissue is absorbent. I creep down the hall. The elevator pings. I wait. The doors thump closed. I step around the corner. I toss the tissue in the trash can and push the button with my elbow.
The elevator deposits me in the lobby. I see the back of the pants going up the stairs to the Boren Avenue exit. I wait a few seconds before following and push through the door with my back. Does everyone over sixty in Puget Sound feel like they have a target on theirs?
I walk an extra half block in the opposite direction of slipping-pants before circling back around to my route home thinking Macklemore should do a PSA on wearing a mask. Pants is a block ahead of me. I slow my pace. He trudges down the cherry blossom covered hillside and slips from my horizon.
Two groups of unmasked teens lumber toward me. I cross to the other side of the street, mulling over the merits of a fully functioning arm while attached to a ventilator.
Is it something I will need?
Kay Smith-Blum, named Woman Business Owner (NWWA) of the Year 2015 is a recovering retailer, writing in Seattle. Smith-Blum co-authored the “Every Man” series of cards & posters, published by Schurman Fine Papers.
She is the author of two novels of historical fiction, currently submitted for agent review. Her humorous essay, “Targets,” has been nominated for “Best of the Net” at Sundress Publications. Others in her “Virus Days” humor series have been published by Heavy Feather Review, Quail Bell Magazine, Bewildering Stories and Down in the Dirt Magazine. Her short fiction can be found at CommuterLit.com, Minerva Rising (late Fall 2020 print edition) and Fiction Southeast in 2021.
This essay was originally published by Heavy Feather Review