Pandemic Diaries: Of Bak Kut Teh, plastic gloves and Starbucks

Today, I went out for the second time in the last 16 days. The first time I left the house since Malaysia’s Movement Control Order came into effect was yesterday, when I was tasked to get Bak Kut Teh for dinner.

It was rather surreal driving all of 3 minutes to my neighbourhood mall to pick up dinner. Given that I had left the house at 5pm on a Sunday, the streets were relatively quiet. Pulling into the mall, I instinctively got out my parking card without realising that the gate to the parking lot was open and parking was going to be free. The car park was quiet too, like it had somehow got the wind kicked out of it.

I parked and sat in the car for a while, reminding myself to put on my mask and not touch anything. I watched others walk into the mall, into their cars, out of their cars, out of the mall, everyone seemed quiet and reserved. Masks on, I could only see their eyes and their bodies moving in this direction or that, carrying this or that. One lady walked into the mall without a mask.

I think the last time I was forced to wear a mask was when I was in primary school, though I don’t remember why. What was familiar though, was the heat and humidity of my own breath suddenly trapped with nowhere to go but back into my face. It’s only for a while, I told myself.

Ordering dinner at a place I often went to was surreal. The regular seating area was closed, with chairs turned upside down and placed on the tables. The only part of the restaurant that had people was close to the cash register and the entrance to the kitchen. I placed my order after having to call my father to remind me of the order. I left my basket and pot at the restaurant for them to fill it up and headed for the supermarket.

There was a line, I mean, of course there would be a line. This line had three people but we were separated by yellow tape on the floor. I had learned of this new way of lining up from my parents, from my friends, from WhatsApp chats, from podcasts, from the radio. I knew to stand behind the yellow line on the floor, to keep six feet away from the person in front of me, and to hope that the person behind me had the common sense to do the same. What I didn’t know was what it would feel like to stand in that line and watch people shop for their groceries with face masks and gloves (provided by the supermarket), six feet apart and suddenly, so quiet.

Soon, it was my turn. I had my temperature taken, my hands sanitised and thin plastic gloves handed to me to put on. All I wanted was to get a tub of Tillamook’s Mudslide but instead, I found myself almost on my knees searching for the other side of my wireless earbuds. I thought I had lost one side and panicked, almost touching the floor so that I could get a look under the shelves to check if it had landed there. It had not. After 20 seconds of panic, I checked my bag to find that the other side was in my there all this time.

Suddenly the slippiness of the gloves irritated me, the eerily hushed tones people around me had adopted irked me, the way the store employee stared at me embarrassed me, the way a few women who were clearly out together with no masks or gloves on pissed me the fuck off. I hated how I had to wait for someone else to finish browsing the ice cream section of the frozen aisle before I could step forward to have a look. I couldn’t even say “excuse me” so we could both look ice cream at the same time because I had to stay six feet away from her. I suddenly realised how close to one another the shelves were in the store, shelves in a store I had been to all my fucking life. I had never thought about the shelves at this supermarket until Sunday.

I paid for my ice-cream, aware for the first time that the cashier was going to touch my hand while she gave me my change, getting annoyed at myself for taking the gloves off to fish out cash because I couldn’t open my purse with the slippery gloves on. How the hell did everyone else manage to take their monies out with these bloody gloves on? Why is this woman leaning so close to me? Can she not wait for her turn? Has she not read the news?

I encountered the same woman at the wine shop, which also doubles up to sell pork. (Yes, it’s Hank’s for those of you wondering.) Again she came way too close to me for comfort and I gave her the look which she obviously could not see because I was wearing a face mask that continued to trap my exhales and force them back into my face.

I woke up around noon, I rarely get up in the mornings anymore since work only starts at 3pm. Today, I just couldn’t get out of bed. It felt like there was no point, until it got to 1.30pm. I thought about coffee and how nice it would be to have a cold one, and then I thought about Starbucks and a triple shot soy latte from Starbucks and I decided I would get it.

While brushing my teeth, I thought about all the Starbucks stores that have been my home away from home. There was the Starbucks on Calle 28 in Playa Del Carmen where the street performers would perform for the tourists who wondered out of their hotels just before dinnertime searching for a good restaurant. There was the Starbucks in Eugene on the corner of 13th Avenue and Alder Street where I sat next to the loudest person on the planet while being surrounded by enthusiastic university kids. There was the Starbucks on Sendlinger Strasse in Munich my family and I visited last December as we waited for the rain to die down and the for our toes to warm up again. There was the Starbucks on Limmatstrasse I sat in while waiting for the next bus to take me from Zurich to Interlaken for me to start my new job back in 2015 and again in 2017. There are the countless Starbucks in airports from Bangkok to Orlando to Singapore to KLIA 1 and 2, providing me with coffee to help me stay awake while I wait for my flight to my next destination.

I got dressed to check if the Starbucks 3 minutes from my house was open. Facebook and Google couldn’t give me precise answers so I had to drive there to check it out. I took my bag from the day before, with my hand sanitiser and face masks.

I went down the same quiet roads, pulled into the same quiet car park, put on a new mask, and found the doors closed with signs stuck on them. From my car, I couldn’t make out what it said. Please be open. I need that soy latte.

The first set of doors on the side of the store directed me to the front of the store. The sign told me to keep 6 feet away from other customers. I hesitated before pushing the door open with my bare hands, telling myself that I could not, under any circumstances, touch my face until I sanitised them. That familiar scent of Starbucks coffee cut through my mask, cut through that layer of trapped air, and filled my lungs with absolute joy. It was hard not to be overwhelmed.

While waiting for my drink, I looked around. This was the first Starbucks where 13-year-old Nicole bought her first Mocha Frappe with whipped cream and caramel and it cost almost three day’s worth of pocket money. These days, I come here so often, no, I used to come here very often. I had not been here in weeks by this point. The spot where I usually sat at now had its chair placed on the table, upside down. I had never heard Renee Olstead sing so loudly in here before. I was the only customer in store, watching four baristas prepare orders that came through Grab.

“Triple shot soy latte?”

“Yep, that’s mine. Thanks.”

I picked up a paper-wrapped plastic straw, decided against it, and put it back.

I skipped to the car and drove straight home to sip my triple shot iced soy latte. I logged on to Slack and began my work day.

Header image by Nathan Roser on Unsplash