(This article also appeared at The Express)
When I closed up the cafe the afternoon of July 12, even the deadbolt on the front door felt heavy. I had slogged through my shift, trying to keep my head high for those eight hours. But the moment that I turned the sign from “Open” to “Closed,” I was forced to face the dire reality that I had dreaded and expected for far too long: I was symptomatic.
When I started my shift that morning, I felt normal—or at least the modified normalcy that I’d been living in since the pandemic descended in mid-March. Being a barista in Sacramento County meant that I was considered an essential employee of the food service industry, and my continued interactions with the general public and my co-workers put me at an increased risk of contamination.
I’d gotten accustomed to wearing a mask, washing my hands so often that they were dry and cracked by the end of the day, smelling bleach every 30 minutes while I wiped down high-contact surfaces and visualizing how far away 6 feet really was. I thought I was doing everything right to keep me and the people around me safe.
In the desolate cafe, the espresso machine pump hummed as I tried to run through what to do next. There was no user manual for the type of scenario I had found myself in—I started feeling feverish and short of breath halfway through my shift. But was I imagining things? Was I being a hypochondriac?
I began running through every other possible explanation: maybe it was something I ate, perhaps it was allergies or maybe it was just an exhausting day. Perhaps it really was COVID-19. I’d gotten my car serviced earlier in the week, and no one at the shop was wearing a mask—was the receptionist an asymptomatic carrier? What about Daniel, a young regular at the cafe, whom I had to remove from the cafe for refusing to wear a mask? Or maybe it was the spring rolls I got from the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op the previous weekend.
Every answer was Schrödinger’s diagnosis—simultaneously plausible and definitely wrong—even after I called and spoke to a nurse.
The nurse set me up with a video visit with a doctor the following morning and gave me seemingly straightforward instructions: Go home, isolate and get tested. But because my wife is immunocompromised, that was easier said than done.
Since 2014, my wife has been battling a myriad of incurable autoimmune diseases—especially Hashimoto’s disease, where the body actively attacks and tries to destroy the thyroid gland—that put her at an increased risk of heart failure. The prospect of her contracting COVID-19 was not a gamble we were willing to take.
In late March, my wife began isolating herself in our 600-square-foot apartment, and any excursion I made to the outside world—whether it was the cafe or Trader Joe’s—required me to decontaminate like a doctor prepping for surgery upon returning home. My soiled clothes would go into a sealed bag, I’d shower and then meticulously clean and sanitize anything I’d touched along the way. I quickly learned to stop wearing my baseball cap and wristwatch, to leave my wallet at home and leave my shoes outside. Some people might have thought that we were going overboard, but, if they did, they never said so.
When I called my boss to explain, he was sympathetic. I’ve worked for him for almost five years, but my wife and I have known him much longer—and he knew how devastating contracting COVID-19 could be for my little family. He reassured me that I could get sick pay and unemployment benefits so that I wouldn’t have to worry about the financial burden of not being able to work until I was better.
The hardest part was calling my wife. Our 11th wedding anniversary and 20th year together were on July 14—a mere two days away. While we didn’t have much planned, we expected to spend that day together watching old movies and cooking dinner. As we started to formulate a plan to keep her safe, those options quickly came off the table.
We decided that I would quarantine in our living room. I would sleep on our lumpy IKEA couch and stockpile shelf-stable snacks to prevent me from potentially contaminating other parts of the apartment. I could still access my computer to continue taking my summer class, and I had a couple of video game consoles to occupy me. My wife would have access to the remainder of the house—the bedroom, the kitchen and the connecting hallway. It wasn’t perfect, but nothing about the situation was.
Any time I needed to venture outside of my bubble, I wore a mask and toted a bottle of bleach solution, like a cowboy from an alternate universe.
I tried talking with my wife over FaceTime a couple of times each day, but, as my shortness of breath became worse, doing so became more difficult. My primary care physician prescribed me a steroid inhaler to help my breathing, which I think helped keep me out of the hospital.
We spent our anniversary watching “October Sky” in opposite rooms. We queued it up on the same streaming service and counted down—“3, 2, 1 and play!”—over FaceTime. We spammed each other with text messages over the next two hours, commenting about the plot’s ups and downs, how young Jake Gyllenhaal was and where we remembered some of the supporting cast from.
For the next several weeks, we spent most of our nights like that, and most of the days we focused on just subsisting. After about 10 days, I got my test results back—which was negative. I was still symptomatic and getting worse, so I took another test, which also came back negative. At that point, the tests I took had about a 40% false-negative rate, and the potential for two tests to be false-negatives was still around 25%. So, once again, we decided to play it safe.
After a month, most of my telltale symptoms were beginning to subside. I was glad to be rid of the chills and exhaustion, but the shortness of breath and a dry cough lingered. I’d read that some people had experienced lasting symptoms for up to three months after their onset, so I called my doctor to see how I could determine when I could go back to work and stop isolating from my wife.
“Since your major symptoms have resolved, you can go back to work, but I would suggest that you continue wearing your mask around your wife,” I recall her saying.
I was baffled—I was potentially contagious enough to infect my wife, but not contagious enough to infect my customers and co-workers? Her response might as well have been a living embodiment of the shrug emoji, but, as we had been doing, we decided to keep isolating from one another, even as I returned to work.
I eased my way back into the cafe—I brought my inhaler with me every day to work hoping that I wouldn’t need to use it. I started off only doing a couple of easy shifts each week. Slowly, I needed my inhaler less and less, and, by late September, I felt well enough to start leaving it at home. Soon after that, I was able to experience the strange sensation of sleeping in my own bed next to my wife.
As much as I had longed for the comfort of sinking into our plush memory foam mattress with my body sandwiched between the cool, cotton sheets and the warmth of my partner beside me, I couldn’t enjoy it. For the next several weeks, after we said our goodnights without a kiss, I would stare into the darkness, carefully counting my breaths and holding out hope that I could keep her safe.
So far, I have.