Remember people? I’m not talking about your family or close friends. I’m talking humanity, unknown people. Drinking in a bar and talking to strangers. Dancing at a concert. Playing pool and laughing. Spontaneously chatting with someone new. The spark of spontaneous connection.
It is has been two years since COVID struck. I wouldn’t say that I am an extrovert, but I am definitely no introvert. Yet, for 23 months, I have spent time only with family and a few friends. There were some joyful forays last spring when, post vaccines, we traveled to Chicago and Minnesota. We even saw a Broadway show, eating tapas and drinking margaritas with friends in a tiny outdoor hut. But gradually, Delta and Omicron, denizens of the dreaded Greek alphabet, drove us back home, where we have hunkered ever since.
The thing is, we bought vacation tickets last March. Freshly vaccinated and prior to the variants, we booked a once-in-a-lifetime Antarctic expedition. It seemed fine back when we wired the deposit. But, as the January departure approached, this dream trip started to seem like a nightmare. Omicron was advancing exponentially. One day alone, 50% of my caseload came down with COVID. How could we possibly travel all the way to Antarctica without getting sick? Plus, Chile (our departure country) had exacting COVID restrictions, which could land us in quarantine thousands of miles from home.
Here was the gauntlet: we had to test negative prior to boarding the international flight. We had to test negative in the Chilean airport upon arrival. Finally, we had to test negative to board the expedition ship itself.
Eyes on the prize, my husband and I made brutal choices. Like the director in A Chorus Line casting his dancers, we cut, cut and cut. We canceled our trip to New York City to celebrate our daughter’s birthday. Then we canceled Christmas at our friends’ house, quietly celebrating instead with our daughters (plus Ben!) at home. Finally, a knife to the heart, we canceled our precious decades-long New Year’s celebration with friends.
We stayed home. We did nothing except pack and hope, shopping online for glove warmers and down vests. I think our friends thought we were crazy.
On January 5, we set off, KN94 masks donned, seeking quiet corners in the JFK airport. We ate like food-stealing criminals, furtively shoving chunks of granola bars under our masks. Upon arrival in Chile, everyone on the plane, and all international travelers, stood in line for hours to be tested. Awaiting the results, we holed up in a hotel, gazing down at the streets of Santiago, unable to explore save for a quick park stroll.
Testing negative again, we flew to Punta Arenas, and finally connected with our cruise line. But instead of going straight to a welcome reception, our bus drove straight to the Punta Arenas testing clinic.
I dreaded this test most of all. It seemed cruelly possible that we could have sacrificed Christmas and New Years, flown to the end of the world, within sight of the ship itself, and then be told “No trip for you!”. Or maybe Doug would be told no. It could be either of us.
“You can’t be mad at me if I test positive. I did the best I could,” I said to my husband.
“I was thinking the same thing. Don’t be disappointed in me.”
“I won’t. We both tried so hard.”
But, miracle of miracles, we tested negative. Relieved, we finally joined the welcome reception, waiting to board the ship. I looked forward to the expedition company’s presentation, happily anticipating slides of penguins, whales and icebergs. However, this presentation was deadly serious.
We were informed that, out of 14 ships currently in Antarctica, 13 of them had COVID. There were no guarantees we wouldn’t be one of them soon. The company said we did not have to take the cruise. They would completely refund our money and help us travel home.
“Don’t go because of the money,” they said.
On the other hand, there were only 28 potential passengers. On a ship that normally held 120, there were 28 people left who had booked this trip, and had managed to arrive in this meeting room, COVID-free. “This would be as close to a private cruise as most of us could ever hope for. Think about it. Let us know in ten minutes if you change your mind and don’t wish to go.”
Presentation over, the room buzzed in quiet conversation. I looked at Doug. “Do you want to turn around? Do you still want to go?”
“Of course we are going! We came this far.”
In fact, all 28 passengers chose to go.
At first, it was weird. The dining room felt cavernous, not even 50% full. Everyone sat far apart, greeting each other through masks. Our table was set for four, but the other two settings were quickly and permanently removed. Many tables had these ghost settings, suggesting how many others had originally hoped to be on board. The crew, their first time out in years, was eager to connect, but the dynamic seemed odd, as the crew outnumbered the passengers, 3 to 1.
Each morning, everyone on the ship took a COVID test. And each morning, miracle of miracles, everyone passed.
Over time, the vibe changed. The ship that initially felt too unpopulated now felt roomy and free. Want a seat by the window? Take your pick. Want an unobstructed view on the deck? Choose from four different perfect spots.
As the days progressed, we all relaxed into the best COVID bubble ever. It became scientifically impossible any of us were ill or contagious. We had been repeatedly tested, with absolutely no chance to encounter new people for the next 12 days. On this ship at the bottom of the globe, we were as safe as anyone could be in the whole world. And for the first time in almost two years, I had no fear of COVID.
At night, we gathered at the bar, cruising past pale blue icebergs. We drank "negronis" and scarfed peanuts. People told jokes and stories, increasing in hilarity. One night, I laughed so hard that my belly hurt and I couldn’t catch my breath. We sat in ever-widening circles, as more and more people joined the evening parties.
One night toward the end of the cruise, a fellow passenger proposed a game. A group of 12 of us sat around an oval dining room table. We learned how to play "Codenames," listening to our “cluemasters.” The rest of us conferred, deciphering the clues, and strategizing.
One of my new friends sat to my left, very close. In his excitement, he shouted a bit, directly in my face. Unaware, a tiny droplet from his mouth flew in the air and landed on my wrist.
Momentarily, I froze. COVID! His breath was so close to me that I was unavoidably exposed. Danger! Danger!
But then I remembered. We didn’t have COVID on this ship. I was perfectly safe, despite this brazen droplet. I breathed for a minute. I relaxed again into the warmth of this community, surrounded by strangers who had become friends. I drank in the warm air, made even warmer by our collective breath, our completely danger-free breath.
I remember people. I remember talking to strangers without fear. I remember pubs and bars, laughing and shouting. I remember drinking tequila shots and dancing. I remember singing in choruses, our musical breath joyfully intermingled. I remember laughing in packed audiences, thousands of us, collectively howling in unison. These communal interactions were once commonplace joys of life. Sustaining and empowering – oh how I miss them.
Remember? Please, may these times return soon. Please may we all be safe again to savor the best of humanity, our collective heartbeat, the hum of life.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.