We had a plan. Everyone would be safe, get tested, take a rapid test upon arrival. I followed the plan. And yet, after spending Monday and Tuesday with my colleagues, many of whom I was meeting in-person for the first time, I woke up early Wednesday with a sore throat. Wanting to be cautious, I sat out that day’s events and took one of the four rapid tests I’d brought with me.

The test was negative, so I blamed the sore throat on sleeping in air conditioning, but when my head started hurting, I worried further and tracked down a rapid PCR test. After walking 24 minutes through the 92-and-humid day, I found Grubb’s pharmacy and its COVID-testing outbuilding. A woman slid open the window like I was ordering drive-thru, but instead of being in my car waiting on a sandwich, I was on foot, leaning my face inside so the woman could swab my nostrils.

(If you’d told me three years ago, I’d some day be sticking my face into a random building for a stranger to poke long Q-tips up my nose, I’d have thought you ridiculous.)

I found a Lime e-bike to ride the mile-point-two back to the Marriott. Much better than walking, I thought, breeze cooling my face. As I dismounted, a woman shouted across the street, “Can I have that bike? Can I have that bike?!” Realizing she was shouting at me took a moment, took noticing her charging toward me. My mind had been elsewhere. 

“Uh, I have to end my ride,” I told her, gesturing with my phone. “Do you have the app?” She looked confused even as she said she did. She pulled the bike out of my hands before I could lock it up, which the app required me to do, so I took the obligatory photo not of the locked bike, but of the woman wheeling it away. 

Then, with a few hours before my results would be in, I met my sister and niece. My sister, after seeing my Instagram story, reached out to say she was also in D.C.(!!!), because my niece had orientation at Georgetown. “That’s amazing!” I replied. “I might have COVID, though.” We hadn’t seen each other since my dad passed away five years ago, so missing this random chance to connect was unthinkable – and maybe I didn’t have COVID. I was sick last month with something else. Maybe it was allergies! Still worried, however, I masked up and we met outside, ate pizza in the shade, no hugging, as we caught up for a joyful couple hours. 

As I walked back to the hotel, I opened my email on my phone to find one with the subject line, “YOUR ULTRA RAPID RT-PCR COVID-19 TEST RESULT.” I tapped on it. “Dear Jennifer Savage, Thank you for your recent appointment for RAPID RT-PCR Test for COVID-19…The result of your FDA Authorized RAPID RT-PCR Test for COVID-19 is: POSITIVE.”

Oh, damn. Was the result wholly surprising? Of course not. We’ve been in a surge and at this point I’ve lost track of how many people I know, even careful ones, have caught it. But because my family had remained untouched this long, I suppose part of my brain thought we’d keep sailing along. My first thought was dismay: How could I be the one who brought COVID to our lobby week? I did not want to be that person! My initial texts to my colleagues were more apology than information. 

All the responses offered understanding. Two people delivered supplies to help get me through quarantine. My employer provided nothing but sympathy despite the situation turning the trip from triumphant into a rather expensive unplanned solo retreat. 

I think about all the other ways this could have gone or if the pandemic had manifested during less forgiving life chapters – and the level of gratitude nearly undoes me, especially after I (carefully) exit the hotel and walk two blocks to the Airbnb I found, a place with light and ventilation, a washer and dryer. Yes, I’m sad and lonely and being sick always sets off a sense of despair, my weakened body unable to assist my mind in keeping that at bay, but examples of how much worse this could be are manifesting all around me and how can I not have perspective from the vantage point of a high-rise apartment this perfectly sparse and bright?

Today is Day 4 of quarantine. The CDC says to isolate for five days after a positive test, then mask up around others for an additional five. This guidance may be too forgiving, but it’s what we have right now. I wish we’d done the pandemic better, cared more about protecting each other and ourselves. I’m anxious to get home, would prefer to do it without infecting anyone else. 

In the meantime, I work and write and consider various shows and try to finish the crossword puzzles in the back of The Week magazines I brought for the flight and remind myself where I am, a fact surprisingly easy to forget when one stops going outside. I remember the Capitol Building, the Rayburn House, the Longworth cafeteria, the tree-lined streets defining neighborhoods of brick buildings as if I occupied them weeks ago instead of mere days.  

Today is International Surfing Day. The forecast back home looks perfect, east winds on the outer waters, 5 at 10 on the nearshore buoy. The desire to be in the ocean pulls at me. I make promises to myself to spend more time surfing, to finally take up cold-water swimming, to immerse myself in the outside more often.

I don’t have a clean ending to this, no last perfect line. I’m just waiting around, trying to remember that life often goes sideways and we must do what we love with whom we love when we can.