Ali’s Well That Ends Well: Tales of Desperation and a Little Inspiration
One frigid March afternoon, I took Cooper to the beach to exhaust him. An impossible feat. As I stated, this dog could sprint from Cape Cod to San Francisco, stopping only to pee on a trash can or a stranger’s leg. And then he would jump up and down like a winner on The Price Is Right to do it all again. He brings me an incredible amount of unconditional love (when I feed him) and emotional support (when he’s in an enclosed environment). But when his soundtrack is “Fly Like an Eagle,” he can cause me a tremendous amount of distress.
We had just made it down the sandy path to the dunes when Cooper froze. Right paw up. Gaze straight ahead. A statue. Beat. Beat. Beat. And then he took off, spraying sand in his wake. In a matter of seconds, he was a black speck in the distance racing a seagull one hundred feet in the air above him.
My ears ached, and my cheeks burned in the bitter wind. “Cooper!” I screamed into a chilly vacuum. I trudged toward him. My Ugg boots were so heavy. I felt like Ninoshka of the North.
“Cooooooopppppeerrrr!” I yelled again.
I was suddenly aware of my breath, or lack thereof. I could not take in a full, deep breath. Not that I ever climbed Everest (or the stairs in the subway, for that matter), but I was conscious of a lack of oxygen. I assumed it was the weather. Or that bully in my head who whispers, You’re old and out of shape. I pushed away that ridiculous thought as I marched on. Was it possible the sand had gotten thicker?
I felt like a ninety-year-old woman with emphysema. Okay, I’m not a skeletal New Yorker who lives on skinned green apples and SoulCycle, but the fact that I couldn’t hoist my ass up a two-foot dune was upsetting.
“Cooper!!!!!! Come . . .” My voice trailed off.
Damnit. I felt weak. Like the beloved Beth in Little Women. The beach was empty. Why wouldn’t it be? It was a wretched afternoon that felt like the prologue to the film Fargo. A day that only stoned teenagers or heartbroken widows come out for. I suddenly had the frightening thought that I had become so winded I would pass out. The rising tide would pull me into the surf, and I would disappear into the crashing waves, swept out to sea. Gone forever without a trace. Because my fucking dog had decided that a seagull, which was impossible to catch, was worth chasing for five miles. They would have to punch that up for my obituary.
So I sank down into the wet, gritty sand and prayed Cooper would make his way back to me before I became shark chum. I hoisted my down coat over my head and buried my face in my hands. Even when I was motionless, my breathing was labored. I was the soundtrack to the antismoking commercials with sad people hooked up to oxygen machines, gasping for air. Which wasn’t such a far-fetched image given that I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for twenty years.
A slimy nose nudged my back. I jumped. Not that serial killers scour abandoned beaches in late winter . . . but I had just watched the Ted Bundy tapes on Netflix.
“Cooper!” He was soaked, slimy, and had that fetid stink which could only mean he had rolled in dead fish. Someday I would like to meet a scientist or biological behaviorist who can explain two things about the animal kingdom that I just can’t fathom. One—how a boa constrictor can swallow a deer whole. And two—why my dog feels the need to baste himself in anything dead, rotting, or defecated. What other dog is going to take a whiff of that and want to make puppies?
Thank God, we could go home. I untied the leash from my waist and secured it on his collar. I couldn’t risk Cooper taking flight after another bird. It was freezing. I was starving. I’d only had a glop of raw cookie dough and a cinnamon doughnut for breakfast (maybe that’s why I couldn’t walk far?) and the wheezing was becoming louder. Could a piece of doughnut have gotten lodged in my lung? Is that even possible?
As I staggered up the path to the parking lot, I promised myself I was going to start eating mostly plants—no more sugar!—and join a Broadway musical dance class. Sure, I was middle-aged on paper, but I was convinced I could turn back time with a healthy new regime of green smoothies. I wished I was more obsessed with my looks. I wish I were born with that chip that makes one cry at the mere sight of cellulite or go on spirulina-and-bone-broth fasts that allow me to shit twenty pounds in a single hour. My husband probably wishes he could buy that chip on Amazon for me.
There was something about my labored breathing that had me concerned, though. Ego aside, it just didn’t feel normal.
Cooper pluckily jumped into the car, no doubt anticipating his next adventure in the grassy backyard, where the squirrels declared war on him every single day, throwing nuts and Cirque du Soleiling through the pine trees to taunt him. But he loves it. And runs, frothing at the mouth, secure in the knowledge that someday a squirrel will lose its grip and tumble into his jaws.
I blasted the heat and turned on NPR. I couldn’t tell which of us was breathing (or barking) harder. At least he had an excuse, having run five miles in less than twenty minutes. Starting Monday I would embark on a rigorous workout regimen. I would row or climb or run and pick up huge kettleballs or -bells and lunge. Every woman I know who has an enviable body does lunges.
My mind quickly meandered to its favorite distraction: dinner. In cold weather, food needed to be draped in a blanket of sauce. Tonight felt like a roast-chicken-with-parsnips kind of night. It was healthy. Except for the part where I boiled the parsnips in heavy cream.
When we reached the house Cooper started scratching at the car window. Just in case there was a deer or a basket of baby rabbits waiting for him in the backyard. He has a habit of jumping over me before the car has completely stopped, digging his nails into my thighs as he vaults across my lap. But this time he just sat panting in the passenger seat. I sat too. Trying to find air. I couldn’t muster the fortitude to skip into the house like a hypercaffeinated Mary Poppins and whip up a magical evening as usual. I still couldn’t breathe properly. So there Cooper and I sat. In a muddy Mini Cooper, listening to the chirping of birds as dusk settled in.
It didn’t even occur to me that I had contracted the deadly virus that was making its way around the world and bringing the global economy to its knees. At that point, it was just this deviant thing you read about in the news that seemed unfathomable. Like fascism.
I called my husband and left a message. “I can’t breathe very well . . . I think I might be getting bronchitis.” Perhaps this was my punishment for smoking Kool menthol cigarettes in boarding school so as not to be bullied by the mean girls, but since I’d quit smoking twenty years ago, my relationship with my lungs has been fraught. I’ve had pneumonia a few times and am on an annual bronchitis cycle. On my birthday in January, I usually fall prey to a week in bed hocking up green phlegm and pleading for Mucinex and chicken soup. Extra matzo balls. But this was March! I hoped my husband wouldn’t play the you need to get healthy card. He’s so kind to me and yet so vindictive about my immune system. He always wins with that. Mostly because he’s the fittest, healthiest person I know. He knows how to swing a kettleball. Or -bell. Whatever those things are in the basement that I can’t move and once tried to use as a doorstop.
I collapsed on my bed, still trying to steady my breathing. I zoned out on an episode of Black-ish. George called me back. “You need to get tested.” That’s ridiculous, I thought. And I was too tired to drive anywhere. How could I possibly have the coronavirus? I’d been in my house for three weeks with my teenage daughters and two dogs. An image of the grocery store flashed in my mind . . . I’d worn gloves, but who knew what was on that kale? Or, more accurately, those pints of salted caramel ice cream?
But you couldn’t get it from surfaces—I had seen an entire segment on YouTube about that! I moved on to the inevitable next question: “Who got me sick?” Who had I been in contact with? Who had my daughters been in contact with? My mind flashed to a police lineup of acne-faced adolescent boys, smacking gum, knapsacks insolently half slung over their shoulders.
There was an emergency care in the next town that could test me in an hour. So I mustered up enough energy to unearth my insurance card from my tackle box of a wallet and headed out.
It all felt surreal. I had seen enough Hollywood movies like Pandemic with Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon and Contagion to realize where this was headed as I drove, double masked, into the misty night of uncertainty. I had flashes of Dustin Hoffman in a yellow hazmat suit in the film Outbreak, coming toward me with a syringe and a Polaroid of a monkey. I wished I owned a yellow kismet suit. A quick side note and something that has bothered me for years: When Rene Russo contracted the deadly disease in Outbreak, why didn’t she have the oozing sores on her face? All the extras who got Ebola were covered in them. She just looked dewy and flushed. Like she’d just had an orgasm, not a deadly virus.
I pulled into the parking lot of the emergency care pop-up. It was sandwiched between a pizza parlor and a Staples. A testing zone carved out of a bankrupt Victoria’s Secret store. I had to call the number and let them know I was sitting outside with a mask and rubber gloves and all my paperwork. But before I called, I had to rest my head on the steering wheel. I could feel the virus actively attacking every cell in my body, Pac-Man style . . .
What if I had contracted Covid-19? Up to this point, everything I knew about the disease came from hundreds of hours logged onto cable news and the internet. It was something “out there,” in nursing homes, bats, and China, not in my own backyard. Certainly not in my home, where my daughters lived. And Cooper and our obese, incontinent dachshund, Daisy. But then, as one does in times of acute fear, I decided my husband was overreacting, it was allergies, and I was just tired. I was sleeping ten hours a night.
Denial is a broken scale. You know it’s broken (you broke it), but you choose to believe you’re twenty pounds lighter.
A nurse in a blue hazmat suit and gloves waved me in. I was whisked onto a seat in a sterile room covered in plastic sheets that had been secured with blue painter’s tape. The kind of place where a tidy serial killer would entertain. A doctor entered wearing an even more elaborate suit—this one came with its own shower cap. An outfit designed for surgery on Grey’s Anatomy, not a temperature read. I have no idea what he looked like, whether he was blond or brunet, but he had a soothing voice.
He took my blood pressure; it appeared to be normal. Huge relief. I don’t have it.
Then the nose test. A miniature brush, much like the one I used to clean baby bottles when my kids were infants, was inserted up my nose. It burned. Worse than that: it felt like a rod had punctured the outer membrane of my brain. And then a sting. There would be collateral brain damage, for sure.
“What do you think?” I casually asked the doctor. He took my temperature. Fever. He listened to my laborious breathing with a stethoscope. “Oh, I think you definitely have it! Go home and get in bed.”
I got into my car and pulled off my masks. Much the way I did with a bra after an evening out—with a combination of anger and relief. How could that doctor say I definitely had it? Wasn’t it illegal or against some kind of medical code to make such a casual assertion to a patient?
I pulled out of the grim parking lot. The sky was navy, and headlights sprinkled up and down the roadway. My breathing became more labored. My mind flashed again to the antismoking ads with the woman without a face. It was getting much worse.
By the time I had passed Kmart, I could feel my body heating up. I clearly had a fever. It was happening.
I felt utterly alone as I white-knuckled the steering wheel. I didn’t really know what it meant to have the contagion. I knew it was bad. But I had no idea what the next steps would be. I just hoped Dustin Hoffman would meet me, in his yellow suit, at the staircase with a heating pad and a gallon of matzo ball soup.
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|Epub||May 13, 2022|