The Star-Herald

Breaking the fast

Last week, I ate a meal at the Two Rivers Lunch in Allagash. It was my first visit to a restaurant in over a year. 

The folks who have disregarded their civic and Christian duty to help us through this pandemic will not understand the experience I am relating, but those who have social distanced, have worn masks, and have just stayed the heck away from places where they might bring this virus home to kill loved ones will know that this loosening of restrictions is a mixed bag. 

I was excited to go out for a hamburger at a locally owned family restaurant. Two Rivers Lunch is a small and funky cafe marking the junction where the Allagash River joins the St. John River near the Canadian border. It’s about as remote as a person can travel in Maine and still drive on pavement, so I knew the chances of me catching COVID-19 were miniscule. 

Yet when I walked in, vaccinated, wearing my mask and knowing the professional and compassionate folks that work with Darlene at her cafe were also vaccinated and masked, I was still nervous. I mean I was seriously nervous. Over the past year, I have avoided people, spent time only with my immediate household roommates, and exclusively interacted with my fellow humans through the video waldo of Zoom. I’d trained myself daily not to do exactly what I was doing at that moment. I felt like I had walked naked into a den of hungry lions. 

Was that familiar looking stranger near the front counter a disease-carrying threat? He wasn’t wearing a mask, so I wondered. No. It was Chace Jackson, the son of the Maine Senate president, Troy Jackson, sporting his new pandemic beard. Chace grew up in Allagash, and he was at Two Rivers because he wanted to celebrate the reopening of Darlene’s restaurant along with other people in the community. 

Was the lady who walked up to me wearing a mask going to send me home with a disease that could kill my wife and my mother-in-law? No. It was just a person returning to work for the first time in over a year, fully vaccinated, and she was just happy to escort me to my table and explain that once I was seated, I could remove my mask. 

Which I did, and lightning did not strike me down. 

I ordered my hamburger and fries, and it was the best hamburger (Angus beef!) in the world. It was certainly the best hamburger I’d eaten in over a year, even better than my own burgers cooked on my backyard grill. 

While I waited for my order to come to the table, I realized I was shivering. I didn’t care if I died, so it wasn’t that sort of fear. What I cared about was causing pain and suffering to those around me to the point that they disappeared into oblivion and I would be left alone and friendless because I was such a jerk for making them sick. In that way I feared for my life, I guess. 

Which gives a little credence to those jerks who sneered at me throughout this pandemic. “I’m not afraid,” they’d say. “You can be afraid if you want, but I am not going to live my life in fear, you libtard.” 

It was so strange. I was unafraid as this event unfolded. It was like dealing with a long winter storm or some other natural disaster. Fear was useless, and what I sought were the voices of competence and confidence. It was only now, as I was dropping these hard-won habits, that I felt fear. 

Though I suspect that anyone who treated this pandemic with the cartoonish outrage of upset cult followers will fail to understand this strange mixture of joy, pride, anxiety and reclaimed liberty, good people welcome our common thread, our common community with our fellow vulnerable humans as we once again attempt to wrestle with a world that is feeling a little more welcome, a little more sensible, and a little healthier than she had since this small planet last occupied this part of its orbit around the sun. 

I finished my sandwich, finally relaxed and calm, in this small, beautiful cafe. I raised my cup of tea and offered an early afternoon toast to my fellow Americans, as well as to my fellow humans across the planet. Here’s to those who wish us well, and, for those who don’t, they can go to… well, they know where they can go.

Andrew Birden is a recipient of two Maine Press Association Freedom of Information Awards and a Newspapers in Education Award. He writes and teaches from his home in Fort Kent, Maine. Find more of his work at MachoChef.com.

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