A New Morning, Life Returning to Normal

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We were somewhere outside Manteca, California when I realized I didn’t have to worry anymore. My girlfriend and I had stopped for gas in one of those strip malls along the highway where every fast-food chain you could think of was ready to take your order. Hundreds of people in a mild purgatory of replenishment.

That afternoon, the wind was vicious, something as a California boy might fear were signs of tornado. Empty bags of Fritos and Burger King Whopper wrappers swirled in the air. People held their hats. Our tank was barely half-full, but we knew, after a night of camping, boozing with friends, and poor sleep, neither of us would want to stop. Self-preservation was something both of us had learned over the past year.

As I popped the cap, I noticed an older woman pull up in her Toyota Camry. She got out, smiled, and started to approach. My first instinct was to wave her away. I didn’t have a mask on. I didn’t want to risk potentially getting her sick.

“It’s ok son,” the old lady said. “I’m vaccinated. Are you?”

I said I was, then helped her wash the dust from her mirrors.

“It’s nice to be back,” she told me before driving away.

In California22,503,069 people or 56% of the state has received at least one dose.

 Overall, 17,104,505 people or 43% of California’s population has been fully vaccinated. When I read 56%, it was hard for me not to feel we could do better, especially everything the state has been through. Why would you not want to take a safe, CDC approved vaccine that would literally allow you to safely do what my girlfriend and I were on our way out to do? As of today, safe, free, and effective COVID-19 vaccines are now available to everyone age 12 and up. Why keep yourself from safely seeing old friends, throw around a football without worry, sit around the campfire and literally purge ourselves of the last year? As my girlfriend pulled up to our campsite with bugs buzzing around our ears and kids whipping by on their bikes, I was left befuddled. 

“You know it’s not that simple,” my girlfriend – a librarian and much smarter than me – advised. “Now help me with this tent.”

Of course, it’s not that simple. This is America. There is of course the conspiracy, Bill Gates microchip side of things, to more plausible reasons like the science was too rushed, thinking COVID-19 wouldn’t necessarily affect them, and Trypanophobia. There was also the fact some people didn’t have time to take off work to simply go and get it, like voting. Yet, as I thought back to that old lady, it felt it should be that simple; health should be that easy. It felt as easy as taking the ragged gas station wiper, dunking it a few times, and saying, of course, don’t worry about it. Of course, I can help.

After we unpacked, argued about putting the cover on the tent (it was 75 degrees with no chance of rain, yet my girlfriend insisted I put it on (not a thing)) we packed up a cooler of beer, Claws, cheese, sandwiches, and snacks for the Salamander River. As we walked along, breathing in the hot, dusty yet fresh air, we nodded at other car campers. Most of them didn’t have masks on. There was that familiar twinge of anxiety with a sprinkle of judgement, one that I’d felt hundreds of times living in San Francisco. Again, I told myself I didn’t need to go there anymore. I trusted they were being safe for themselves and me. What other option did I have?

At the river, it was all flip-flops, heavy sunscreen, and big-day bags meant solely for consumption. All my friends were carefree and relatively tame, an air of calm around them. I was expecting an explosion. As we situated ourselves, I saw a friend throwing a football around waist deep in the slow-moving river glanced by the afternoon sun. There was a swarm of kids running around the beach, enamored by nature, carefree, and without their parents’ hesitation looming. Across the river, two people were chatting, shoulder to shoulder, on a half-submerged log.

As we ate our sandwiches, shared bags of chips, poured each other shots of tequila and shot gunned beers, I realized how premeditated my past actions had been. I was never one to plan much of anything before COVID but, when I was forced to for the well-being of others, I made sure I did. Suddenly, the weight of safety while sharing these, I’ll admit, fratty moments, were gone. I welcomed all of it, trusting the national public health agency trusted their issued guidelines.

I’m not someone who believes a Reddit page is as good as a doctor’s script. Listening to professionals, for me, has never been a capitulation to the man. There are countless other things I’m vengeful toward in regard to the government but, when it comes to science, never once did I feel like I was bending the knee to some higher power to control me. Opening another beer, I tried not to think about what could have happened if I’d done the opposite.

After libations and tribulations, we went back to camp. The worry of brushing elbows, shoving an old friend, taking someone near to congratulate them on their baby, was gone and simultaneously, that much more valuable. I hadn’t been able to be close to anybody close to me for over a year. Every interaction was held at six feet or more. The gap was closing. This precious proximity was a reminder that I was alive with others just like me. Zoom, however 4k and uninterrupted by shit internet, doesn’t suffice. My senses were heightened (though it could have been due to a few other things) to soak up everything we had missed.

We sat around the campfire and told stories of our past. One friend admitted getting semi-addicted to online shopping. Another said they started drinking too much, to which we all agreed. I said something that surprised me, something that I hadn’t even admitted to myself. A campfire will do that.

In the morning, minds hazy, skin sun burnt, a gang of kids flew by on their dirt bikes. There were a few bouncing up and down on the pegs. The rattle of playing cards stuck in the spokes filled the air like firecrackers. Invisible birds, tucked away in tree branches, spoke to each other in chirps and song. Off in the distance I heard someone ask another, are you as hungover as I am?

Everything was coming back to life minute by minute, the good and the bad, the light and the dark, as life tends to always do.

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Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran is a freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Winner of the ClarkGrossman and Wilner Award in Short Fiction, his work has been featured in Drunk Monkeys, The Millions, Music in SF and more. He survives in San Francisco.