I rolled out of bed just before midday on Saturday, driven to the bathroom by a coughing fit. Saturdays are the only days in the month I permit myself the delight of complete mental barrenness; the days where I ignore emails, watch old episodes of Gummy Bears on YouTube and eat Kit Kats for breakfast. There was no such vacuousness of mind on this particular day, however.
As I stood over the sink, my body convulsing with every litre of phlegm I hoarse-hacked into the waiting porcelain, a singular thought raced through my mind – a curse, to be precise. If this b*tch has given me COVID, I hope God, T’Challa and all the ancestors punish her without mercy!
You’re probably wondering how I got here…
Like all tragi-comic tales of our pandemic age, this one began with good intentions. Last week, I received a last-minute invitation to a friend’s birthday celebration. The brief missive sent via WhatsApp and punctuated with an abundance of rainbows promised that the affair would be held outside with plenty of social distancing and would only last for 90 minutes. “We want to keep everyone safe. I hope you will be able to come!”
My family and I have been very cautious during the pandemic, but even the most vigilant of us slip up at times. I accepted the invitation, masked up and walked the short distance to the venue to celebrate with said friend, forgetting two beliefs and quirks that she makes no apology for and embraces fully: That the virus is not at all as dangerous as the media has made it out to be and that she WILL greet everyone with a hug and a kiss on the lips, as is South African custom.
When I arrived, she proceeded to do just that. I turned my face to avoid full on contact, laughing nervously as she reintroduced me to old faces and pulled me by the arm to meet new ones. The public venue was a popular one in town and was bursting with patrons of all ages, from toddlers to the elderly.
“You remember Sofi*, don’t you?” she said excitedly. I did and said as much as I got closer to say hi.
Sofi quickly threw her mask on her face and extended her elbow to me in greeting.
“Not too close!” she said, her voice tinged with alarm. I was taken aback by her reaction, but found it comforting. Perhaps she had as much anxiety (maybe more!) about the pandemic than I had. I extended an elbow and began small talk.
“Can I sit here?” I asked, pointing to a space on the bench next to her.
“Yes, you can,” she said reluctantly. “But you can’t sit too close. Please keep a 1.5 meter distance.”
I scootched down and ordered a chai, watching the birthday girl waltz around, regaling guests with this tale or that. Eventually, I relaxed, sipping my drink and catching up on all the mom happenings from the group. I made fast friends with a woman who invited me to go fishing on her estate. It felt SO nice to be out. I turned to Sofi, who was telling the group about how she’d spent the past few days waking up at 9:30am and drinking Smirnoff for breakfast.
“Are you on holiday?” I asked, knowing that she worked in the medical field.
“No,” she said, sipping on her white wine. “I’ve had COVID. I’m in day 9 of my recovery.”
My blood ran cold. I felt my eyes widen in horror (maybe even disgust), so I tried to compensate by expressing concern.
“Are you alright? How are you feeling? That must’ve been tough. You’re looking well…”
I didn’t ask the one question that was burning in my heart, “WHY THE F*CK ARE YOU HERE?!?!” I tried to move back another few inches from her to no avail. By now the bench we were seated on was at full capacity. She started yammering on about isolation, and her kid, and how happy she was to be out at this birthday party…
“And I would’ve postponed it just so you could be here!” shouted the host from the other side of the table, raising her glass in salutation. “I love you, Sofi!”
“I love you too!”
They kiss on the mouth.
I die and wait for the Holy Ghost to show me where He wants me to put my luggage on this bus, because surely, I have died and am on a ride into the hills of Armageddon!
I watched the two women, their lips locked in mutual affection. What would have been a heartwarming display of platonic affection in normal times looked like something quite different to me:
I watched my friend, so pleased with herself and felt a cornucopia of emotions jostle for dominance. How could she invite someone to a public event, knowing that they not only had COVID, but had not cleared the recommended 14-day threshold for spreading the contagion and not tell any of us there about the potential risks? Was I disappointed? Absolutely. But more than that I was angry; a fury provoked by the fear I felt rushing to the fore.
Not too long after the revelation, I made my farewells explaining that I had to jump on a work call that I was already late for (which was true) and that I would see them all soon (which was a lie). I have no intention of mingling with that group of people (or any others) for the foreseeable future. I still feel sullied by the experience.
As a sex blogger, I talk about consent often – generally in the context of sexual interactions. I know the trauma of having your body touched in a way that you do not approve of or give permission for. Furthermore, when we think about the transmission of disease, we often think of it in terms of sexual contact, either via exchange of fluids or genital collision. In those cases, and armed with foreknowledge, one can take precautions and therefore some measure of responsibility for outcomes. In the case with my interaction with Sofi, I had that choice ripped from me. I did not consent to having contact with a person who knew her positive status and chose not to disclose it in advance.
What I learned as I stood in my bathroom, eyes bloodshot and praying that whatever was expelling itself from my lungs was not the first vestiges of a bout with this virus, is that there are many different ways to experience violation, and selfish gain is the motive for all those who inflict injury. I live on the Garden Route which has now been identified as a hot spot for the virus. My sister has always maintained that the spread of this disease is driven by social behavior, and can be curbed if we just exhibited basic respect for others. I’m here to testify.
*NB: I’m fine. Turns out my lungs don’t react well to brisk walks in cold air.