When I was young, my older brother helped me understand why he always beat me in knee football at least 49-7, why he could read four comic books in the time it took me to read one, and why he never puked on the school bus but I did. “You’ve got an inferiority complex,” he said, with one hand on my head. “It’s a fact of life for some younger brothers. Get used to it.” And so I got used to being a slow reader and sitting alone on the bus. The biggest girl in my brother’s class, Maddie, pinched her nose as she passed me by in the bus aisle one day and said, “I hear you’re dangerous.”
When I grew older my parents sent me to a school where nobody knew my older brother, and they held me back for a year so I could be one of the bigger kids in my class. It worked. Nobody dismissed me as the younger brother. I forgot about my inferiority complex, and life was not so bad for a while.
Then I got to college and discovered that I’d had it easy compared to the tougher, brighter people in my class who had worked jobs in high school to earn their way in. A classmate convinced me that my parents holding me back had really been a form of cheating in the big game of life. When I realized that other people deserved to be there more than I did, that they dismissed me as just another easy in, I rushed my existential crisis to our college counseling service, where I learned that I suffered from the silver spoon complex. The only way I could get over my silver spoon complex was to work my butt off.
So I worked my butt off and got a degree in counseling so I could work even longer hours taking care of people with inferiority complexes and silver spoon complexes and other difficult but interesting problems. Figuring out how other people think seemed like a good investment, a way to absolve myself of the sins of my privilege. I thought it was worth it until my wife told me I was no fun any more, all I did was work, what happened to our marriage? She said I’d developed a savior complex.
She didn’t dismiss me from the house, but she could have. And she had a point. It made me think. I cut back my hours and started playing pickleball and made a few friends. Eventually I gave up the savior thing. I woke up one year and realized I didn’t have so much to worry about. We had a few laughs. Life was not so bad for a while.
Then this corona virus took over the world and infected the way we think. In just a few months I’ve become dangerous again. Strangers and friends in the grocery store look at me sideways, if they look at me at all. They don’t see me. They see that magazine cover with the virus shell and the bright red crowns on the surface. They’re looking for signs that it’s eating me—are my lips blue, am I huffing to catch my breath, am I pink and sweaty with fever? To them I’m a walking petri dish. Any second now my mouth might froth over with grey virus cooties wearing so many red crowns, the froth spilling down my chin. That’s why we wear masks, to hide the virus signs while we sneak a few groceries home.
They don’t trust me, and why should they? They all know that I could kill them with one cough or a lethal sneeze. I’ve got cooties, you’ve got cooties, we’ve all got the COVID-19 cooties. A shake is not a shake any more, and a kiss is no longer a kiss—it could be the kiss of death.
In just a few months “How’re you?” is no longer a greeting or a rhetorical question. Now the only answer anyone wants to hear is, “I’m PCR negative within the past 14 days, and exposure free. How are you?” I don’t know how or what I am. Or what anyone is. I’ve been dismissed as many things before, and I’ve figured out how to come back so to speak, but this infection of mistrust might be big enough to close my shop. I’m not sure I’ve got the stuff to bounce back this time. I can’t imagine a life where hugs and kisses are a menace and intimate contact only happens on a screen.
So in a fit of private desperation late one night this week I called the COVID 19 hotline and got a young woman who sounded like she was interning for her telemarketing degree and reading from a script. She listened politely for the requisite first couple of minutes, and then she said what should not have surprised me as much as it did. “You’ve got the vector complex, sir. We recommend joining our rapidly growing online Vector Support Group.” In just a couple of quick minutes, Ms Intern nailed my problem.
Instead of listening to her while she was reciting the 1-800 number and the website link, I heard my brother whisper in my ear, “Get used to it.”