99 Problems A bright pinkish-red teddy bear with a blue face mask against a yellow background

Published on January 17th, 2022 | by Cheryl Klein

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Omicron Echolalia: It’s Kind of Like Last Year, It’s Kind of Not

Goal: Spend the last three days of winter break in a cabin in the snowy San Bernardino Mountains with your son’s soccer-team bestie and his bestie’s mom.

Objective: To achieve your goal, your family of three must be COVID-free. 

The good news: You successfully dodged your first exposure of the break, when your spouse’s cousin came down with COVID after hosting a Christmas Day gathering for thirty people. As it turns out, vaccines are effective. Also, your public health researcher friend—the one you text every time you’re concerned a mole might be cancer—says that omicron is pretty chill, as variants go.

The bad news: The night before you’re scheduled to leave, as you’re traipsing through the attic in search of the snow pants your spouse is certain she stowed up there, you get a text that a boy from your son’s Winter Camp has tested positive. Winter Camp enabled you, over four glorious days, to declutter your house and finish a draft of your novel—things you had zero hope of doing over the 2020 holidays, when you were busy trying not to accidentally kill your son’s grandparents and/or descend into madness. But it rained all week, meaning the kids spent much of camp hitting each other with pool noodles in the gym rather than running around in the fresh air. And they’re good about masks, but you’ve seen how soggy your son’s is at the end of the day. And how much the boy with COVID loves to hug people. 

Child's coloring project of a snowman (colored brown, orange, purple, and green) on a paper plate

Ready, set, go.

Send your spouse to four CVS locations for COVID tests. Give up and schedule an antigen test at the local mall. It costs $129, but they throw in a flu test, the pandemic equivalent of that pale green Clinique bag they used to give away with the purchase of overpriced lipstick. 

And you really, really want to go to Big Bear. Your son has saved his favorite Christmas present, a Minecraft LEGO set, to do with his bestie at the cabin. He wrote Bring to Big Biere on the box. This a kid who, when you tell him to wait five minutes to do something, asks “Has it been five minutes?” at the four-minutes-and-57-seconds mark. That’s how excited he is about this trip: so excited that he has manifested patience.

Pack up your car, because you live by the motto Prepare for the best, ruminate constantly on the worst. 

In the morning, head to Eagle Rock Plaza, the mall where your son likes to get gum balls after visiting Target. The bus stop in front of the mall is where two of the Hillside Strangler’s victims disappeared in 1977. 

This is how it works: the mundane and the traumatic form a temporal layer cake. Right now, 2022 is calling up ghosts of 2020, when COVID was anything but chill. It still hasn’t reached that status for kids under five, for people with shaky immune systems, and for people who have been consistently fucked by the medical system.

Think about the little sister of your son’s camp friend, a three-year-old with a history of respiratory ailments.

On this bright winter morning, look around the mall and the parking structure. Double check the website. Find a short line of cars and take your place dutifully at the end.

But at the front, there is no mobile clinic, just a lone woman in blue scrubs.

“The van didn’t show up today,” she says, “but you can go to the Rose Bowl. They’ll honor your appointment there.”

Drive to the Rose Bowl, a city away. Here, the line of cars is Disneyland-esque, winding and doubling back, with no Space Mountain at the end, just a nasal swab. Do the math: an hour to wait, another hour or so for results. 

“Remember how we made fun of my dad for stockpiling home tests?” your spouse says. “Do you want to just drive to Orange County and get one from him? I think it will take less time.”

A home COVID test featuring a test strip in a plastic tube, sitting in a plastic tray, sits on a cement porch step

Your spouse’s dad loves garage sales and Black Friday doorbusters. He buys things in triplicate. You have never met someone who owns more Igloo coolers. A few days ago, his collection of COVID tests seemed like his collection of baseball stadium giveaways: more valuable in his mind than in reality. Today, your spouse calls him from the road, humbled.

Speed down the empty Sunday freeway to the neighboring county. Greet your in-laws, at a distance.

Your son is still getting the hang of reading and sometimes mixes up Bs and Ds, but he COVID-tests weekly in school and is an expert at swabbing his own nostrils. 

Plunge the fancy Q-tip into the plastic vial. Count together as you swish it around. Exchange it for a test strip. Put the kit on your in-laws’ porch. Set a timer. Cross your fingers.

Fifteen minutes later, the strip shows a single line. Negative. Just like all those home pregnancy tests you took during your infertile years, but this time you won’t cry for weeks afterward. This time you’ll celebrate and go to Big Bear.

Two 6-year-old boys play in the snow; pine trees in the background

Pull up in front of your friends’ house, only four hours behind schedule. Your son and his bestie duel with lightsabers while you wrestle with the roof bag.

“I was trying to prepare him,” his bestie’s mom says. “Our New Year’s Eve plans were already canceled, and it was just such a lonely year. I’m so glad we get to do this.”

Her son slices the air with a purple saber and says to yours, “I’m so happy we’re both fully vaccinated.” That is a phrase first graders say now. 

Last week’s storm covered the mountain in fresh white snow. Your dad warned you, a half dozen times, about black ice: the invisible thing that could send you spinning off the road. You know it’s real, but today traffic is heavy, and the collective heat of humanity has melted it away.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, and several anthologies. Her work has been honored by the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Cultural Innovation. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.



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