‘No good deed goes unpunished,” I thought grimly, as a nurse stuck a swab up my nostril and into my brain. This, as anyone who has taken a coronavirus test knows, is only a slight exaggeration. They push that thing well into the posterior of your nasopharynx, which is as unpleasant as it sounds.
But before we discuss my good deed, I have a sad story to share. Reader, I went on holiday and I feel awful about it. (Have you grabbed your tiny violin yet?) Don’t worry, I’m not one of those who took the mickey and jetted off to Disney World amid a Florida coronavirus surge. I stayed in New York, but spent a week on Fire Island, which is off the coast of Long Island and is a sort of Disney World for homosexuals. To perpetuate reductive stereotypes: toned gay men have wild parties in the Pines area of Fire Island while lesbians discuss recent IVF advances and walk their dogs in an area called Cherry Grove.
I was in Cherry Grove, renting a beach house with my girlfriend and a couple of friends. In precedented times, escaping from New York City for a summer holiday would have been unremarkable. In coronatimes, it was a moral maze. It’s hard to get any R&R when all you can think about are R numbers. I spent the week feeling lousy about lounging in the sun during a pandemic and anti-racism protests. The whole thing was a huge guilt trip. (Side note: a compulsion to pun can be a sign of brain damage – perhaps that swab really did puncture my frontal lobe.) Honestly, though, gnawing guilt has been a feature of the past few months. You feel bad about how your life has been disrupted – then you feel bad about feeling bad because, compared with so many other people, you have it easy.
Is it irresponsible to go on holiday now? If you don’t travel far and you’re careful, I don’t think so. My group didn’t mix with others, and we diligently wore masks – as did everyone else in Cherry Grove. You had to wear a mask on the beach; you had to wear a mask on the ferry; you had to wear a mask walking around. You should see my tan lines.
But not everyone was careful. Fire Island made headlines while I was there because a 27-year-old, known as Covid Corey on the internet, headed to the Pines shortly after having recovered from Covid-19 symptoms. He then mingled, maskless, with hundreds of other not-so-bright young things at big beach parties.
It’s hard to be careful 100% of the time. On the ferry ride to the mainland we bumped into a couple of acquaintances and offered them a lift home. In the beforetimes, this would have been normal and polite. But inviting an unknown variable into a car with you these days is potentially dangerous. The most sensible thing to do is to be wary of everyone – which may keep you alive, but isn’t exactly a pleasant way to live. So as soon as I got out of that car, I got a coronavirus test. To be clear: I didn’t (and don’t) have any symptoms, nor does anyone else I know. Still, I didn’t want to be immortalised as Asymptomatic Arwa. Also, it was free: whenever the US’s horrific healthcare system offers something free, you take it.
So that was my holiday: paranoia, guilt and a stick up the nose. I thought a week by the beach would be a much-needed dose of normality. Instead, it was a reminder that there’s no going back to normal or, at least, not for a very long time. Even when looser restrictions allow you to leave town, there’s still no getting away from it all.
• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist