Sunday, June 14, 2020

On Ambiguity (Essinger)

This is a story about ambiguity—moral, philosophical, logistical, epistemological, all of the kinds of vagueness. For me, this particular exercise in ambiguity began with a tickle in the high back of my throat, in the first days of March, when the world was somewhat more whole than it is now. I had been swimming laps, and about half the time the chlorine bothers my sinuses, so this was no real worry, except that I had some major travel coming up, and didn’t want to bring a cold along. Never mind the latest virus making the news.

Except that, one (1) person had been out in public with this virus in my destination city. And now at the last minute, my conference was considering calling the whole thing off. Attendees cancelled in droves. One friend I often see there, a former Marine and the closest person I know to an actual conflict journalist, said, “Dear God Dave, you’re not actually going?” My wife didn’t love the idea of me bringing contagion back home to the kids, and the prospect of being quarantined and missing their swim championships (which would never take place) was then a concern.

But airfare is airfare, and hotel reservations were paid for, all on the dime of the magazine I edit, and that reimbursement depended on my going as planned. So I bought hand sanitizer. I bought disinfectant wipes. I bought Cold-Eze and Airborne, and I resolved not to touch surfaces on my flights. Because how dumb was I going to feel if I panicked and bailed, only to sit home all weekend feeling fine?

By the first morning in the hotel, I wasn’t fine, but causes and distinctions quickly got blurred after I was Hit. By. A. Fucking. Car. I should be clear that this was not, as I had to explain to other conference-goers, a metaphor for being hungover; a car literally backed into me on a busy sidewalk, popping my knee sideways hard enough to engage the impact sensor in the bumper and, luckily, stop the car.

There was some adrenaline, though. And there was a fair amount of ibuprofen taken. And I spent that day in a crackly, skin-tingling kind of haze. Which was not, at that time, any known symptom of anything noteworthy, and I did not have a dry cough, nor a measurable fever; plus, whatever sinus thing I did have had come with me from Ohio, where Covid-19 was explicitly not yet available.

What I did have, turned into stunning fatigue, chills, and insomnia, along with coughing up colors and consistencies you do not want to see from your lungs. This was sicker than I’ve ever been in my adult life; still, I was functional, not dying or anything—just weak. According to the prevailing knowledge at the time, I could have only a bad cold or a flu, for which there was nothing to be done. I holed up. I survived.

And on my flight home, I sat very still and breathed lightly so as to not cough on anyone. I spoke to an elderly woman who was traveling by air out of desperation to get to her family after a son had died. My seat was next to hers. There were no masks: this was early March. I hope she’s fine. I tipped the cleaning staff on leaving the hotel, though not enough, and I hope they were well-equipped.

Yes, I did see a doctor, but having still no fever, and still not imminently dying, no one was interested in testing me. I wasn’t worried about myself: I was getting better. I would be fine. I mean, there are tougher human beings than me, but I’ve been a competitive ultramarathoner, I do 100-mile races, and I’d felt almost this miserable before and managed to hike out forty miles in the rain. I’d live. That said, whatever I had laid me low for a while: I have literally target-trained for more than a decade to maximize my body’s capacity to use oxygen, and into April, my lung capacity still wasn’t right.

As far as I know, no one I came in contact with became ill. My wife reported being unusually tired one day. Our kids had no extraordinary level of sniffles. In a narrative sense, it seems wildly coincidental that, on the eve of a major pandemic, I should get that sick from something else; and yet, a coincidence is not implausible.

I don’t know a lot of things here. No one wants to test me for anything now either. I could pay for an antibody test that could very likely be incorrect or inconclusive and wouldn’t necessarily mean anything regarding immunity. So I haven’t pursued that particular ambiguity yet.

Months later, I’m ambivalent about sharing this story, for the ambiguities it invokes. Can I blame contradictory information, a botched national response, a continued lack of effective testing? A combination of circumstances and wishful thinking? Is this how diseases spread, from people operating on poor knowledge and no good choices? Is that how basically everything happens in this world?

Knowing then what we think we know now, there are decisions I would have made differently.

And still, we know so little. Next to nothing, really.

Dave Essinger’s first novel, Running Out, was published by Main Street Rag in 2017, and since then he has picked a really unfortunate time to finish his second book, a post-apocalyptic story partly featuring a pandemic. He teaches at the University of Findlay, in Ohio. Online at, @DaveEssinger

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