I took off my mask at work today, just chatting with one of the therapists at lunchtime. She said I looked different than she thought I would — her mind had filled in the blank with a different nose and mouth for me. I felt the same. It’s like opening a gift you were sure would hold a new blouse, and finding instead a pair of slacks. Nice, but not what you expected.

We’ll have mask stories later. We’ll remember how we made the first one out of an old tee-shirt, following along with a YouTube video, because you couldn’t buy one for a million dollars anywhere, in the beginning. Later we graduated to Etsy masks, or sewed them ourselves out of whatever fabric we could find at whatever store might be open. We got our shit together, maybe, and sewed some more to give away. Over time the masks became more fashionable, ever more sophisticated: a red mask covered in rhinestones, another in velvet cheetah. Kids in masks made to look like the gaping jaws of a shark or a lion, or with Spidey webs across the mouth, or quotes from Frozen. I sported a black silk model myself back in the day, then tried the kind that looks like a duck’s bill, but I landed eventually on the genderless blue paper ones with elastic straps — because mask fatigue is real, and because at some point we collectively forsook fashion and started wearing jeans every day to work. We’ll remember masks on sidewalks, dangling from the rear-view mirror. The smell of our breath, the rasp of paper against our cheeks, the muffled voice of a masked person on the phone. How we were plagued by maskne, and fogged glasses, and slippage, and the vexing social dilemmas caused by those who refuse to mask and still want to get in your grill. How we were grateful at times for the emotional neutrality a masked face projects.

Not having to smile. Smiling anyway. Social creatures after all, no matter the number of screens or shields or plexiglass barriers between us. We still need each other. We never stopped trying to connect.

What will you remember?

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

5 responses

  1. I will never forget how selfish people are. This year has really robbed me of any faith that we will be able to do what is necessary to tackle any of the issues we face. How will we ever avoid catastrophic climate change if the people we rely on to contribute to the solution can’t be bothered to wear a fucking mask over their faces? How much easier could it be, really? Can these people be counted on to alter their lifestyles in the interest of averting apocalypse when we know that they could not even bear the inconvenience of a scrap of fabric over their mouths?

    • I believe in your generation and the ones coming after. The vast majority of young people understand climate change and how urgent the problem is. The challenge is as it ever was: How to get them to vote?

  2. “What will you remember?”

    The fear. I hadn’t thought about this in a year. How quickly we try to forget. But, the fear. The store shelves empty of some items. Good luck finding beans or rice. Or pasta. Or toilet paper. Toilet paper? Was that panic due to Americans being so full of sh*t? Then there was sanitizer. Or there was none. A third of a billion people suddenly learn to wash their hands.

    And the masks. Or the no masks. Not enough masks. Doctors and nurses reusing masks and PPE that should have been used only once and thrown away. A nurse who every day when she got home from work, stripped out of everything as soon as she closed the door behind her, let the garments fall to the floor, immediately went to shower while her husband, gloved and masked (reusing disposables) gathered her things and put them in the washer, water set to hot.

    The masks. The panic. I work from home and rarely need to go out. I miss the out. I still rarely go there. Spring is come. But last year. Last year, for six weeks, I didn’t leave my building but for three short trips, totaling less than two hours. Once to the supermarket, twice to the liquor store. Priorities, you know. My wife, though, braved the storm. Insisted we maintain a steady stream of fresh fruits and vegetables. Went to the grocer two or three times a week. Her mask? I forget. A bandanna, I think. How quickly we forget. The fear for her, and for myself should I lose her and my world be devastated by her loss, that I don’t forget. I do worry a bit much.

    The masks. My masks? At first, an old sander’s mask from the days twenty years ago when I used to sand wood. It was unused — I kept my last pack of them, thinking they might come in handy some day — but the elastic had dry-rotted. I cut and stapled a large, heavy-duty rubber band to replace the rotted elastic, and until the masks I scrambled around to find and order finally arrived, that mask, ill-fitting and tightly pinching my face, was the mask I wore when sally forth I did.

    Other masks arrived. Slowly, slowly. A writer I know posted to FB as to how her brother, who ran a small fabric-dying business, was making available gaiters, cleverly patterned with images of books, or antique cars, or wine, or turtles (turtles? yes, turtles). I ordered five. They arrived and I gave two to Susan, my wife. From iHearts I ordered three or four masks in an American flag pattern. Why was iHearts selling masks? This is America. The opportunity presented itself, the need was there to be met. Those are my go-to masks. Effs with the fascists and science-deniers, those masks with the American flag patterns. Hooray fro the red-white-and-blue. I keep one on the bookshelf by the front door, one on my computer right here. I can stop keying and reach out and touch it. From Amazon, detested, life-saving, world-saving Amazon, I ordered a pack of three-dozen disposables. They arrived literally on a slow boat from China. But come early May, they and the flag-pattern masks and the gaiters arrived, almost on the same day, and I could put aside the sander’s mask.

    Averil, I haven’t thought of so much of this, even though it was just last year. Now it’s all coming back. I’ll not trouble you with an almanac, The Year of Living Maskly. The traffic directions marked on floors of supermarket aisles. The early hours for old-people shopping (I qualified, but did not go). The census job I was offered and did not take (fear stalked the land, I would not; pandemic and political BS made the role of streetwalking census taker problematic). The BLM protest march Susan and I, masked as all the marchers were, took part in come early June. Hundreds of us, marching and chanting and holding up signs, route pre-approved and guarded by police. Say his name! Say her name!

    And one last. One last thing. The shame. Not even much of that. Sheepishness, mostly. But something I discovered, months after the mask-panic had passed and all at last had sufficient masks, and all who were to die in the first wave were dead, one of my aunts among them, I discovered that in two building evacuation packs I had scavanged from work when the business collapsed four years ago and the office closed and we all transistioned to working from home — so that part of pandemic response and lockdown we had no problem with, we were already there — but I discovered these two packs contained four N95s. Pristine, unused. Included in the packs in the belief by fashioners of such packs that there may be survivors in a high-rise disaster and they may, in the darkness and chaos of the hell wherein they find themselves, they may need and be able to wear these masks. No one needs them now — today — and as with the sander’s masks, I keep them for the just-in-case.

    • Oh, Tetman. I does me a lot of good to read you. It’s like reading a better version of myself.

      The just-in-case is what has really changed. I think this past year has given us a sense of shared mortality, a peek under the floorboards at a less than stable foundation. We are so vulnerable — as a species, as a country, as individuals. The just-in-case feels like next-time. Long after the vaccine puts this current nightmare behind us, we’ll be keeping those extra masks.

      • Absolutely. The year 2020 gave us 20-20 vision with regard to how fragile our society is, how quickly it could come undone, how much it depends on some certain but unquantifiable critical mass of us acting with decency and common sense.

        Will we? Are there enough of us for that? Hell’s bells, I haven’t a clue. We humans do seem to be a sort of vertebrate cockroach, an unfeathered sparrow, a two-legged coyote always up to survival tricks. Our rapacious culture cannot survive in its current form, that is clear. What will come in its wake, or even to its wake, is beyond me to say. But at least we have masks and know how to wear them.

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