Side Effects

He’d never been big on lines, but this one he didn’t mind. It snaked back and forth between the stanchions many, many rows wide.

It was a trick, of course, to make the line wind back and forth like that. An optical illusion. You didn’t feel as if the line were as long as it actually was. If they’d actually let the line be just one line, go around the block and down Aloha Avenue, well, you’d be able to see that you were in for one hell of a long wait before your turn came.

He scanned the crowd, figured there must be two to three hundred or so of them. Yeah, it would have been a long, long looking line out there on down Aloha Avenue.

“Eh, eh!” a man called to him. He recognized him immediately, although it had been many years since he’d seen him.

“Mr. Santos,” he called back, waving.

“Eh Mr. Olafson, how you?” the man called back over the sea of heads.

At one time, he’d seen Mr. Santos often. This was back in the old days when you had to go to the bank all the time to perform the most rudimentary of tasks, such as cashing a check. Back then, Mr. Santos had been the parking attendant/security guard at the branch of Honolulu Bank where he withdrew the cash he’d need to get him through the week. Once ATMs became legion, and once the bank had installed cameras in the parking structure as well as an optical scanner for validated parking tickets, there’d been no need to keep Mr. Santos on. A shame. Saving money. A bank. Kind of ironic. Very sad.

“Good, Mr. Santos, how’re you?”

“I good, all good. Retired. It’s the best job I ever had. How about you?”

“Yeah, yeah, me too. Best job and best boss I ever had.”

They both laughed.

Mr. Santos held up his arm. “You getting the shot?” he said, mimicking sticking the needle in his arm.

Groaning internally, he thought about the needle jabbing into him. Not a fan of shots since childhood and the numerous traumas of school shots, tetanus shots, and all other manner of shots, he did not look forward to the experience.

“Yeah, yeah.” He held up his arm, pantomimed an injection as well.

How odd, he thought, that someone would ask that, seeing as they were all in line to get the shot. That’s what happens when you don’t know someone very well, only in passing, when “Hi, how you doing?” was about the extent of your weekly encounter.

He waved and nodded to Mr. Santos, then returned his concentration to the line as it snaked along.

Everyone seemed to be on their smartphones, busy with all those pressing social media concerns smartphone users have. He’d always hated the idea of phones, even when they were the rotary dial-ups of his youth. He liked talking to people in person just fine, but the phone? He’d never enjoyed phone conversations. There was something impersonal, even when you were talking to someone you cared about deeply.

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, gaming. It was all a waste of time as far as he was concerned.

A waste of time. He had to chuckle about that. How long would it take to get through this line?

But, he thought, this line was not a waste of time, cell phone or no cell phone. This line was important. As Dr. Fauci said constantly, “We’re all in this together.” He felt that way exactly.

The line slithered on.

It was hard to see his grandkids these days. They were all young, vulnerable. They couldn’t get shots. It was his duty to protect them by getting the shot. His duty to all his loved ones, even if he couldn’t hug them, couldn’t play with them, bounce them on his knee.

Now he could see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. He was part of the head of the snake now. Finally he was called forward.

Everyone sat with someone at stations placed six feet apart. He handed over his Medicare and HMSA cards as well as his picture ID. The young man recorded the information on a computer. There was no jovial conversation. No joking these days. This was an all-business transaction. Really, there was no room for joking around.

The young man, his hand gloved, handed the cards back. “You’re good to go,” he said. “Just follow that line inside.”

He thanked him and headed for the next line. Now he was the snake’s tail. Again. A long line, too, but inevitably his chance for that jab came soon enough.

As he sat down, he eyed the basket full to the brim with pre-loaded needles. It looked like a visual record of all the shots he’d received over his lifetime. He swallowed hard.

The nurse uncapped one of the needles. “Any arm preference?” she asked.

He paused. “Guess I can’t say neither?” he said, smiling slightly. The nurse laughed out loud. Well, at least she was able to maintain a sense of humor.

“So you’re not a big fan of needles,” she said lightly. “Don’t worry. Just look away. It’ll be over before you know it.”

“Wait,” he said, taking off his glasses, laying them on the table. “This way, even if I’m tempted to look, out of some, you know, morbid curiosity, I’ll barely be able to see anything.”

She laughed again. It was good to joke. God, it was good to joke. Since this whole pandemic had started, he’d found it harder to be funny about anything. His wife, his children, his grandchildren, he’d not been inclined to exercise his humor with any of them very much at all. Too many people he knew were getting sick. Some were hit hard, had been hospitalized. One had died. So far. No. It was difficult to find the humor in much of anything anymore.

He turned away.

“You okay?” the nurse asked.

He could feel the cool of the alcohol swab, then the slight pressure of her hand gently grasping his upper arm.

“If I’m not, I’ll let you know by screaming,” he said.

She laughed again. “Okay, all done,” she said.

“What?” He’d not even felt a thing. Not the tiniest poke, no swelling of the vaccine liquid as it pumped into his arm. “Really?”

“Really,” she said, placing the band-aid on his arm. “You’re good to go.”

As his sat for the mandatory fifteen-minute wait, he surveyed the crowd of all the other good people who knew they were all in this together. They were all on their phones.

He rotated his arm as had been suggested. Flexed it over and over in every direction he could. Still there was nothing. No pain.

The oversized clock was easy to read. When his waiting time was over and he hadn’t passed out, he was released.

Climbing into his car, he was amazed at how easy the whole process had been. He’d expected pain and there’d been none whatsoever. The car roared to life.

Then, as he waited to turn out onto Aloha Avenue, it began. He rubbed his eyes. A horn honked behind him.

Damn, he thought. Without really thinking about it, he moved out slowly. No one hit him. He was thankful.

It was a short drive home, but it was the longest one he’d taken in many years. Everything seemed blurry. He ran over in his mind the list of vaccine side-effects he’d seen. Loss of vision, he didn’t remember that one being on there.

Well, they better add that one, he thought, beginning to perspire.
For no good reason he suddenly thought about whether his family would miss him. His wife? His children? Well, for sure his grandchildren would. He was the spoiler. The easy touch. The grandparent who gave his grandchildren everything they wanted. No questions asked.

His heart was beating so fast, he could hear the blood pumping in his ears. Am I really dying? he wondered. The sweat trickled down his neck?

He turned onto his street and parked very carefully in front of his house. Sitting there, he rubbed his eyes again. Oh my God. Will I even be able to make it from here to the house?

Opening the door, he got out and stood with little effort. This brought some relief. He made his way very slowly to his front door, fumbled with a sweaty hand for the key. He noticed how shallow his breathing had become.

As the door swung open, his wife called out. ‘Honey, is that you?”

“Yes,” he called weakly, staggering to the couch and collapsing.

His wife came into the living room. “How was it?” she said. As a person with a special health condition, she’d been one of the first people vaccinated. She’d had no problem, no side effects. Not even a stiff arm.

He tried hard to focus on her face. She was blurry, like a fading memory. Already? he thought. She would miss me, he thought.

“I,” he said, “I’m having a little difficulty.” His heart rate had slowed and his breathing had eased up a little, but the idea that he might die, well, might he?

“I –”

The phone rang. His wife picked up. “Ah hah,” she said. Then listened. “Okay. Thank you so much for calling.”

“Honey,” she said, “how on earth did you make it home? You left your glasses at the vaccination place. How could you even see to drive?”

After a pause to let this sink in, he laughed. It was a tremendous laugh of great relief. Now that, he thought, that is the definition of funny. The nurse would definitely laugh. Mr. Santos would laugh. His wife and his kids would all get a good laugh from this.

He laughed out long and hard again. His wife stared at him. “What is it?” she asked, beginning to laugh just because he was laughing so hard.

Gradually, he calmed down. “Nothing, honey, not a thing.”

He could make out her face, blurry as it was, from memory, and he loved the way it looked.

“Every blessed thing is so good,” he said. “Can you drive me back there?”

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