“Hi”, I heard her say as she entered the emergency room. We were working together and I was looking forward to seeing her. Well, seeing her is a bit much of a description these days. She had walked in with little of herself showing: face mask with its sheer, seamlessly stitched layers of anti-microbial material, over which sat the full plexi-wrap-around mask that protected her face?
Was it beautiful or plain? Her expression, was it hard or soft? I had heard her voice a million times, but never seen her face.
“Hi”, I say looking around just in time to catch the smile in her eyes. I always hope my eyes do me the same service. I always try my hardest to make them shiny and bright. To communicate all that I feel about her.
She looks down my body and holds the stare on my fluid-resistant isolation gown. It rustles as I move. I sound like a possum running around inside a large paper bag.
“Wow”, she says sarcastically, the same as every time I see her, “you are looking sharp this afternoon.”
The PAPR’s (Powered Air Purifying Repository) motor built into my bodysuit, quickly skips a beat as it always does when she walks into the room.
“Are you flirting with me, girl?” I ask and wish those words had never escaped my mouth. I had never finished a sentence with “girl”, as in “What you talkin’ ’bout, girl?”
So I have no idea what I should say next.
I flush and feel my face turning red. In the background I hear the imperceptible sound of the PAPR whir a little stronger as it attempts to cool down areas I don’t want to think about. Areas that are currently cocooned inside the protective membrane I exist in at work.
I realise I have never seen her in any other outer dress. We have always worked different shifts and often our times coincide. I love the days we do work together. I am even a little embarrassed to say I have only seen her outside that crinkly coverall in my dreams.
In dreams, I slowly unravel her crepe-like exterior until I reach her nakedness. But even there, once her clothes line the floor, her body is just as crinkly. There is no shape, no feminine contours, no defined start or end, no back or front. Even her face is out of focus, except for her eyes.
I can’t remember ever seening all her face.
Who or what have I been falling in love with?
Oh, please … what am I saying! Love!
I know she is married. Husband’s name is Roger. She even has a child. Rosemary.
‘Girl?” she intones softly, bringing me back to the present. “Did you call me, ‘girl’?”
She looks around and approaches. Our faces are so close I savour the intoxicating scent of the anti-bacterial spray used to thoroughly clean her plexi face protector.
She places her hand on my arm (there goes the motor again). Her hand like mine is covered by specialised nitrate rubber gloves. They’re purple as you would expect these days. Not the standard blue you normally see; less scratchy, less permeable than your everyday latex gloves.
“I am not a girl.” she whispers in a low register that would impress even Barry White. And there is almost a wink from her left eye.
My face scrunches with doubt. What did that mean? I must look like a constipated chimpanzee. I am so glad for the mask right now. But my brain is racing. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what she means by “I am not a ‘girl'”. Is she telling me:
- she’s actually a fully mature woman, with a mature woman’s body underneath?
- she’s no longer man or woman but something that has transmogrified into a truly magical being by this pandemic?
- she’s had a sex change lately and we should compare our tackle during smoko?
She steps back and laughs at my reaction. “Come on,” she says “let’s get back to work.”
For the first time since she entered I notice how busy we are in the emergency room. We’re surrounded by a number of indistinct bodies covered in PPEs from head to foot.
It’s not really an “Emergency Room”, like in a hospital. But it helps us think we’re doing our bit. We started calling it the emergency room a few years ago when COVID first started. It was only called COVID-19 then and the emergency room was just the “kitchen” of a take-away restaurant.
She looks down at her list and reads “I have three orders for chicken nuggets, three fish burgers, and two vanilla sundaes.” Then addressing me “You do the fish burgers?” she asks.
“Oh, yeah” I am working with her today. “Sure leave it with me.”
We start the process of cooking, compiling, wrapping, and packaging each order ready for the front-of-house staff to hand over to the rapidly growing number of customers. Obviously lunchtime has arrived.