The Intrigue, 1890, James Ensor

I was out of breath at the top of the grocery store escalator, which was turned off, the guy at the door said, to encourage social distancing. In Canada, I learned at work, they call it physical distancing, a term that’s supposed to be more exact, less euphemistic—or maybe more, since it suggests that what we’re doing isn’t, in fact, social as well as physical. But what I was learning, there at the top of the escalator, is that beyond the loneliness and antsy baking and the way we can’t remember the days of the week, there are six feet between all of us, and the physical effects are real.

The masks, they say, are a signal that you’re taking it seriously. But they are also a very real physical thing, one that reminds not just others but also yourself that you’re doing something, taking action—one that reminds you every time you inhale that you are inhaling through two or three layers of fabric. It reminds you of hand-sewing it after the government gave in and admitted what you’d known all along, that we should be wearing masks. According to the Internet, they might benefit from a coffee filter or vacuum bag. This is the world we live in, the DIY charm lost in the folds of fabric and endless stitching.

And so, out of breath at the top of the escalator, I swerved left at the last minute to grab a disinfecting wipe from a plastic dispenser to clean the handle of the basket and, as I turned, almost bumped into someone doing the same. What came from behind both of our masks was surely sorry, albeit blunted by fabric, leaving our eyes to communicate desperation instead.

My nose was running, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to touch the mask with my germy hands but I needed to stop the snot from making me sweat, which would need to be blotted too, so I pressed with the back of my hand and let the innermost layer of fabric, the one holding the coffee filter, sop up my snot.

Here I will admit that my mask that day was corduroy—green corduroy cut from a pair of pants I’d had through three cities, three apartments, three relationships. They were, I’d finally admitted, no longer fashionable, especially the zippers at the ankle, which looked not just outdated but also unbelievable: Had I really found zipping into my pants at three places a selling point? I’d put the pants in the discard pile one of the early stay-at-home days and then rescued them the day the New York Times ran a sew-your-own mask guide. I wanted something to do with my hands during all the Zoom meetings, something off screen besides moving the mouse. So I sewed. I am not good at sewing; I gave my first attempt to my fiancé after trying it in triumph only to jump at the sight of myself in the mirror, masked for the first time, masked in a mask that, it turns out, was a few centimeters too tall.

I wanted something to do during the Zoom meetings besides looking at the screen. I tried, every time, to look at whoever was talking, but their highlighted box in gallery view wasn’t enough to keep my gaze from drifting back to my own face. I learned too much too fast about what my face does when I’m listening and talking: the way my lips inevitably part to reveal fisheyed buck teeth, the way my chin juts asymmetrically (to what side I’m not sure for the same reason I am not sure if the mirror or the photograph is the more accurate version of me), how my smile twists my jaw one way and my nose the other, the incessant blinking when I talk—a blinking caught in the nearly imperceptible lag and, if not there, then in the recording.

I sewed, cast my gaze down and up often enough that, should anyone let their own gaze wander from their own narcissism and catch my eye, it would be an eye looking vaguely attentive. It was like thinking in person about making eye contact—how as soon as you think about it, it becomes impossible, and you feel like you’re seeing too deep into the person you’re talking too or vice-versa, and the whole conversation becomes embarrassing, so you flit your eyes everywhere but forward and then realize how nervous that must make you look, which makes you even more nervous about sustaining the eye contact you never should have thought about in the first place.

It was like that but of course not at all, because eye contact can’t happen in video chats: Look at the camera, and you can’t see the other person’s eyes; look at their eyes, and you’re not looking into the camera. If only there were a function to fix it, I think every time. And then I remember the function is talking in person.

I occasionally looked around the grid, took in the hoodies and unlined eyes, watched everyone watching their screens. It felt wrong, like that eye contact embarrassment, and so I always ended up back at myself, drawn to the digital reflection, repulsed but hooked.

Sewing was a reason to look away and still listen.

My mask—the second one—turned out well. But I was not satisfied, and I was in the mood to shop, so I browsed fashion-magazines’ mask-buying goods, stared at models I could tell were beautiful by the tops of their faces alone, the symmetries below clear, their eyes telling all. I was let down again and again by weeks-long production times. But social-distancing wore on, each week passing surprisingly quickly, punctuated on Fridays by early trips to the grocery store, where, waiting in line, I’d don my mask and start thinking about my breathing. The parking lot lights were dim; it could have been any time of day. Everyone grimaced; everyone looked like they’d rather be alone.

Figuring it’d be like this for awhile, I rationalized the long wait, which no longer seemed so bad, and ordered a couple of masks from a company known for its high-end aprons. In the meantime, I shopped in corduroy, blotted my nose with corduroy, basked in the momentary thrill of getting compliments on my corduroy. I hoped people could sense my grateful smile, I hoped I wasn’t talking too loud, and I hoped on one could sense my prickly feeling that it was perhaps weird to care about how my mask looked. Vanity is persistent: I smiled on Zoom for all to see but for none to actually notice, and I smiled in public, hidden but hopeful. I thought more about my face than ever before; I thought more about my face at a time when it was obscured, either by Zoom itself, narcissism, or a corduroy mask.

In the cheese department I looked around, saw no one; I considered reaching into my mask to adjust the blip of fabric tickling my nostril, less concerned with my dirty hands than with the threat of someone seeing me put my dirty hands where they shouldn’t be. I thought, then, of my parents and that I’d told them I was being careful, fastidious even. My nose itched. I still hadn’t caught my breath, wouldn’t catch it till the mask was off. I was breathing through my mouth, an ugly habit, but what’s a habit that no one knows about?

In line to check out, heavy basket resting against my leg, I wanted the shoppers around me to see my eyes, to see them open in a smile as I pretended this was normal. I wanted them to see me keeping my distance, waiting my turn six feet behind and in front of them. I wanted acknowledgment, some validation of my effort. I smelled my own breath, heard it rustle the fabric. I wanted to be noticed. I wanted purpose and appearance to be aligned. But weren’t we all acting? Weren’t we all pressured into seeing and watching only to find our intentions masked?

At the register, I held my hand out wide so the employee could check my ID, and I shouted “Thanks!” with the hope that volume would take the place of enunciation or feeling. We were physically distanced, socially too, stripped of niceties because talking was muffled and mouths were hidden and distrust was everywhere. But hadn’t we always been that way? Maybe that was the reason for the Canadian term: not that “social distance” was incorrect or inexact but that it was nothing new. We’ve been distanced from one another since the dawn of tools like video-chatting and social media, platforms that either encourage self-involvement and the performativity of virtue signaling, or elicit an obsession with how we look. 

After a few moments, hand still outstretched, the cashier asked me to remove my mask, which I did without thinking, only later struck by a frustrating esprit d’escalier: I could have said, “No, that’s not safe”; I could have asked why; I could have recited my birthday and address. I could have told the cashier to look me in the eye, saying, “I promise I am who I say I am, because look—I look just like me.” But instead I just did it. I did it to make things easy; I did it because eye contact, as we all know on Zoom, isn’t always possible, and the interface that forces our faces upon us doesn’t actually sate our obsession with appearance—it only makes it just as untenable as the masks do.

That moment of unmasking, I realized on the escalator out, bothered me so much because even though it gave me the physical attention I’d wanted, it also laid bare an obsession I thought was Zoom-induced but was actually there the whole time. It wasn’t that the masks revealed the obsession but, rather, that they knotted it, hamstringing physical performance only to make performing elsewhere, like Zoom, feel more necessary. 

In the parking lot, I continued my routine and transferred the heavy groceries—broth and the flour I’d spent weeks looking for, butter and beer—into the backpack I wasn’t allowed to fill in-store, and I put my headphones back in and took my mask back off (the two together felt like clogging both sight and sound, letting in only the panic of being in a place). And as I walked home, I mindlessly rubbed the mask’s fabric between my dirty fingers in my coat pocket. I breathed. Then I stepped into the street so the oncoming shopper, yet to be masked, wouldn’t infect me as he passed.

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