It has been fourteen days since Popong was placed in isolation. He was covid negative twice in the last 24 hours. Despite this, he was asked by the hospital to give himself an additional two weeks of isolation (with pay) before dealing with vulnerable patients, which he promptly agreed to; this was perfect for him. Popong was always socially distant even before covid. He did not alter a single thing in his lifestyle.
Despite our close friendship, as we both came from the same country, Popong politely asked me to avoid visiting him. He resisted my offer to (at least) take care of his groceries. â€œYou make it sound like I am in total quarantine from the community. I just can not work with patients. I can do my own damn groceriesâ€, he protested.
The theory is, Popong could still harm very sick people due to his shedding of viruses despite their less potency and viability. Hospital and healthcare facilities wonâ€™t take any risk. But he could spend time outdoors, albeit in isolation, preferably at odd hours of the day; he began walking or jogging in parks in the early mornings or late evenings when there was virtually no other person around. He brought a mask with him but it was not needed.
â€œArenâ€™t you afraid of being alone in the dark?â€ I asked with some concern. I was on the phone with him having a small talk; I was trying to run down things with him, the way we usually do, making sure there were no loose ends in his recovery from the perspective of a health care worker. Mask, the three Câ€™s. I was no longer worried. If Popong had it bad, he would be in the hospital right now. Still, no one knows. There was always the risk of false negatives and reinfection. No one knows anything about this virus.
I sensed his impatience with me. â€œAlex, there is no need for me to be afraid. What exactly do I possess to attract a criminal while I run in the park? I am not a pretty woman, I am not rich. I am in running gear and carrying my cheap phone. I am like a fish with only bones left. Who in the world would even bother me? â€ Popong has a way of putting himself down. He has low self esteem, very unassuming and does not see the reality of the world around him. I explained that he could be mistaken for somebody who fits the â€˜enemyâ€™; there are bigots, racists, psychotics, homeless people out there who will hit you hard for simply being you.
â€œYou heard about those punks who punch old people just for the heck of it. I just saw in the news an old woman in New York, she was like 90 years old walking slowly with her walker and this low scum casually pushed her face and she fell on her side, her head hit a post.â€
Popong is used to my line of thinking. If he is careless about his world, I am paranoid with mine. I am not exactly a tactful and confidence-boosting buddy either. I am the pessimist between us two. My imagination can get the better of me when I talk with friends. I often paint the darkest picture imaginable, I guess it comes from my hospital work which tends to always predict the worst case scenarios and outcomes that should be mitigated early on. How do we say it again? Out of abundance of cautionâ€¦ or, Erring on the side of caution. I automatically take that line of thinking when it comes to friends and it does not make me popular. My mouth running with all those what ifâ€™s can get out of bounds.
Popongâ€™s tone of voice gained a tad higher pitch. This type of conversation bordering on verbal altercation is normal between us. All the time.
â€œWhat is wrong with you bro? I am not a defenseless 90 year old man for chrissakes! I did not survive more than 3 decades in America by getting worried about what could happen to me. For ten years this old coot trained for marathons in the middle of the night. Please stop playing all these weird scenarios in your brain because I am beginning to think you are either paranoid or brimming with anxiety. Alex, there are no imaginary monsters. Your ass will freeze if you keep imagining them.â€
â€œOk, just saying,â€ I said.
He took a deep breath. We both became quiet as I stared at the empty wall in my apartment. We do this frequently, two old bachelors at odds with normalcy.
Popong broke the silence. â€œI used to be active in social circles until all my friends got married and had kids and became content with family life (that is what I call normal) while I lingered like a leaf flying where the wind blows and floating where the river flows; I am way too happy being single. Look, I am a transient on earth with no desire to alter my transitory existence. I get formed and expand like a bubble and expect to burst. The end. I have no intention of leaving any mark anywhere. Life is too short to worry about bad outcomes in life or creating a legacy or being worth remembering or being visited in an unknown cemetery. Two days after my demise, a lot of people will remember me. Two years after, maybe a few will remember me. Two hundred years after? Seriously? I donâ€™t even know who my forefathers were two hundred years ago. So I keep livin la vida loca. Oscuro. This little time I got on earth is all I got. Better take advantage of the moment. So being worried like you do wonâ€™t cut it for me.â€
â€œBut Popong, at least have a record of your time here on earth. We are the floating people that were forgotten in the islands we left behind and unknown in this land we adopted, but that doesnâ€™t mean we have no story, it is not like we were rocks expelled by a coughing volcano and landed on a strange place and grounded for thousands of years. We are humans and as humans we experience life too. I mean, donâ€™t you watch the news about the Filipino healthcare workers dying in foreign lands because of covid? It bothers me Popong that they are dying without sharing their stories outside of Facebook or Twitter. The only time they got recognized was after they succumbed to covid. How about the many years they lived on earth, what were their thoughts and aspirations?â€
â€œOf course you know our story Alex!â€ Popong released a big sigh, abruptly signalling a wrap-up of our conversation. â€œThat story follows a singular track. We are born, raised to graduate in college, find a job abroad to support family back home and then, raise your own family if you can afford to. Watch your own children assimilated to the new country. We would then be delegated to the side and well, end our earthly journey with grace and dignity. That is what it is all about, isnâ€™t it?
â€œYou make it sound really depressing Popong.â€
â€œListen, I will tell you my story though I cannot find a value in it. I cannot tell it over the phone. I will lose my voice and wouldnâ€™t know the head and tail of it. I am better off writing it. You will receive whatever I can write via email as my time allows it. I donâ€™t know, seriously, if there is anything in my life worth noting but I know you. You will not stop prying and badgering me, your nosy attitude is beyond uber, you need to change Alex. But let us finish this talk. I have lots of things to do. Goodnight.â€ He hung up.
I averted my eyes from my smartphone to survey my place. The lights are soft. A few of the dirty plates and pots are left in the sink for morning cleaning. The two cuts of salmon I fried two days ago are still in the pan. Despite the cleanliness I try to maintain, the lack of organization in my unit is obvious. Old mails are piled up on my table, together with my diabetes glucometer and sticks and lancets. On the same table, my pots of plants probably needed watering. These plants are important to me. They soften my living room and provide a little oxygen. They are living things that I can check up on, like friends, even chat with them telepathically. In a few minutes I will go to the yard with my mask on to water the bigger garden. It is amazing how the things I used to take for granted are so valuable nowadays. The plants, like pets, are almost becoming indispensable in this time of pandemic. When the world tells us to distance from one another, plants and pets and books and computers and phones become indispensable.
Ah, the fried salmons, I should set them aside in the fridge. Now and then a car passes by. I could tell it is brand new by its crisp, strong, barely audible engine sound, as opposed to the loud, almost struggling sound of an older version. This can sometimes be worsened by the loud rap music being played inside it. Or the heavy bass then makes the ground shake. I donâ€™t know how the kidsâ€™ hearing nowadays would turn out as they age with this abuse they inflict to their ears.
I step out and turn on the outside faucet to start the watering of the buildingâ€™s garden.