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It's a Monday at 658 am and I'm sitting at a Panera very far from home. Twelve miles away actually.
A tiny old man with a cane walks by me as he heads towards the restroom. Back and to the right. That’s where all Panera bathrooms usually are.
I'm waiting for my order of oatmeal and coffee. I never drink coffee. It doesn't sit well with me.
I'm also wearing a mask, but not because of COVID. It's Florida, so it's actually weird to be wearing a mask. But I don't want anyone to recognize me with this white plastic bag in my hand.
Not that anyone will recognize me. Not if there’s a God.
I look up.
"Oh, hiiiiii," I say in the cheeriest voice I can possibly find.
It's Jeff. We're not close, but I know him well enough to not want to see him right now. Jeff is gay, lives in Miami, and is friends with everyone I know. He looks good. Very healthy and awake for 658am.
"How's it going man?" he asks.
"Oh, I'm fine," I say, though I’m nauseous and my right eye is bloodshot. "I'm doing really well actually. Just a little hungry." I’m not hungry. But I look hungry. Starved, even. "How have things been with you?" I ask, hoping to switch the focus back to him.
He doesn't buy it. He's a psychiatrist. Not that that means anything, but it would make sense that someone who spends their day prescribing drugs to fix personalities can tell when personalities are off.
"What are you doing here? Don’t you live in South Beach?" he asks, smiling. "Sooo random to run into you! I work right around the corner!"
Of course he does.
My stomach rumbles. "Oh. Um. Well. Um," I stammer. "So, Ben and I went to Mexico two weeks ago."
"That's so fun!" he says,
"Mhm," I say. "And we ate something or drank something. I don't really know. But my stomach has been bad since then so my doctor told me to get a stool test. And the only lab that would give me an appointment within 24 hours was all the way over here and so, um…you know…here I am."
"Oh wow," his face softens a bit and then he begins talking about how he went to Mexico on some stupid gay vacation but I’m not listening to him because my stomach is starting to cramp and I’m thinking about how that man with a cane hasn’t come out of the one-stall bathroom and though I’ve never been a violent person, people can change.
The Panera woman trays my order. "Oatmeal and a large coffee, for Alex," she says.
"Thank you," I reply. And as I lift my hands to grab the tray, Jeff sees the white plastic Quest Laboratories bag around my wrist.
"Is it..." he says, as he takes a small step back, "in there?"
"Oh. No no no no," I laugh. I smell the coffee and feel my intestines respond psychosomatically. "These are just the specimen collection containers. Don’t worry. They're empty."
I notice that the Panera woman looks at me oddly, which is fair.
Jeff stares at me for a beat and then makes a few very fair assumptions on his own.
"Wait," he begins. "You're gonna do that…," he looks to the bag, "in here?"
"I’m far from home, Jeff. So, yes. That was the plan."
"Wow," he says. "Good luck."
"Thank you. I'm going to walk away now," I say to him. "But see you around."
"Hopefully not here."
"Hopefully not," I say, as I walk, clenching towards the booth furthest back and to the right as I go to see about a man with a cane.
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