A year ago, I might have been shoulder to shoulder with people, a backpack in my face or hot breath on my neck, stretching my arm up to grab the strap on the rail for stability.
Now, I wear my mask and sit in my own seat, four or five feet away from other passengers. This is rush hour; the train is only half full, and it still feels like too many people.
Someone gets on the train and sits in the seat directly behind me.
Shots shots shots, I tell myself as my world starts spinning. You have all your shots. You’re fully vaccinated. My mask tents in and out with my rapid breaths; most people have moved on from wearing them. But I’m glad to have this layer of protection from the warm, breath-heavy air inside the train car. I try not to think of all those saliva molecules the other passengers exhaling just inches from my face, each one of them possibly containing a deadly virus or any of its variants. I was reading the news about new resistant strains of coronavirus all the time.
It was a struggle to be a germaphobe before the pandemic. Now it’s a nightmare.
At first it wasn’t so bad: hand sanitizer everywhere, and people respecting social distancing. But it’s been over a year, and people are getting careless.
I get up from my seat, moving away from the breath of the man sitting behind me. The train shudders, and I have to touch one of the railings to steady myself. I feel all the oils from everyone who’s ever touched it seep into my hand. This hand is contaminated now. I might as well use it to keep myself standing.
I peer out the window, trying to calm my dizziness, as if it were motion sickness and not paranoia invading my consciousness. The trees rush by like green pom-poms.
I depart the train, holding my breath as I walk by people. I wonder idly if anyone else does that.
There’s a pigeon in the train station. Limping on a three-toed foot, it shakes its dirty feathers and pecks at a piece of litter. It completely disregards me, standing only a couple feet away. I’m standing in line for my commute, shoulder to shoulder with people queued up to cram ourselves onto an already crowded train. I wonder how long it’s been since the pigeon’s seen the sky. I always had a hunch these birds lived down in the subway tunnels like bats in caves, their orange eyes never glimpsing sunlight, making their nests in the broken fluorescent light signs. Or maybe they are also passengers on the trains, never making a home anywhere, content to wander the city’s underground looking for scraps.
This excursion has a purpose. I’m going on a hike for the first time in - well, I don’t know how long. Nature and I don’t exactly get along. I’m thoroughly disgusted by bugs and mud and branches that could be poison oak whipping in my face. Part of me can’t believe I’m braving the subway to go to this activity.
I’m determined to make it up to the top of the mountain this time. Last weekend I didn’t even make it on the train; I was stopped by the crowds of people in the station.
The trail is not far from the station, but I still have to walk by people on the sidewalk. I give them a wide semicircular berth, stepping into the street.
Once I start walking on the dirt, I start breathing hard again. I don’t know if it’s panic or if I’m simply out of shape. The sliding of the tiny granules under my feet, the unsteadiness makes me anxious.
About halfway up, I slip walking up a steep slope. My already contaminated hand landed on the ground, followed by my no longer pristine hand, followed by my body. I register my disgust before I recognize the pain. I wipe my grimy hands on the bark of a tree, but that doesn’t clean them.
When I’m almost at the top, something even worse happens. I see another person coming toward me ahead on the path.
I hadn’t planned on coming across anyone else on this trail. But I should have known. This was the absolute worst part of the trail to run into someone. There’s no room at all to pass: unyielding stone on one side and a steep drop into the lush deep woods on the other.
I almost turn around. There’s no way I can get past without physically touching the other person. Unless I talk to her and one of us agrees to backtrack to a wider part of the trail. But the prospect of talking to a stranger was almost as daunting as the thought of catching the virus.
She’s walking, so I have a few seconds to decide, but my head is spinning again and time means nothing. She pulls up her mask as she approaches.
She’s stopped. So do I. We’re more than six feet apart. “Are you alright?” she asks.
I take a couple deep breaths. “Yeah. Am I almost there?”
“Yeah, it’s just past this narrow part. I can go ahead of you, if you want.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I don’t mind seeing it again. It’s a wonderful view.”
She leads the way a few hundred feet forward, keeping her distance but looking back to see if I was following. Suddenly, the trees clear and I’m at the mountaintop. I have never seen so much sky in my life. I feel a warm feeling come over me: pride, at having made it here, and happiness, at seeing the most beautiful landscape I had ever seen.
As we stare out over the lush canopy of trees, the winding creek, the mountains stretching up to the sky, I look over at her. She’s watching me watch the horizon. I could tell she was smiling, even under the mask - it was the way her eyes crinkled into small lines and sort of lit up, like binary stars.