A New York Times editorial by seems-like-a-smart-guy, Syon Bhanot of Swarthmore College, urges me to tamp down my desire to return to normal socialization. No one has to convince me to stay at home. My nails look terrible.
Syon—I feel we are close enough after my second read to be on a first-name basis—notes that the halcyon days of social distancing are over. We’ve binge-watched all the hot shows, Zoom-chatted with long-lost friends, and basked in the chrome-wipes shine of our refrigerator. Doubts about the danger will naturally emerge.
I nod at my laptop in agreement. My enthusiasm for disinfecting handles waned weeks ago. Nevertheless, Syon—I imagine he has a kind face—urges me to stay home, saying we can spread the infection without knowing it.
I determine my best bet for winning Syon’s approval—now a top priority—is to become an influencer. Syon says, “seeing you behave in this way (sic, wearing a mask) might make others feel subtle pressure to be more responsible.”
Like a Mission Impossible tape, the editorial disappears from my browser for lack of subscription. I accept the mission.
* * *
The designer co-op shop in our block is making masks. Their website loads like molasses. After slogging through a multitude of sundresses, I unearth a sole image of a mask. Not my color.
I click on the chat-with-a-designer box. “Any other choices in masks?”
I noodle on changing the sheets while I wait for a response. I can’t remember when I did that last. I check for stains.
A reply pings. “Fill in the quantity you want. We ship variety.”
Never would I, a four-decade fashionista, allow someone else to pick out what I might wear, especially since my choice is pivotal to any lasting relationship with Syon.
“Using remnants, changes daily.”
“OK, any neutrals will work. I live on your block. Are you there?”
Dots fade in and out. Those chat-boxers could be cleaning their toilet or bathing their cat. Did you think they just licked themselves clean?
“Ok,” I type. “I’ll come at 4:15.”
“Pay online first.”
Doesn’t she realize I don’t know how many I want until I see them? “Will pay when I come.”
“Should process through the website. Masks free. Donations between $6 – $15 appreciated.”
“OK,” I say, not really understanding why masks are free.
The price module shows the value of one cent. I click six for quantity. The molasses mode returns, spinning a virtual rainbow.
I shake out of my hypnotized state and click the chatbox.
“The online purchase tool isn’t working. Will bring payment with me.”
The blue dots pepper across the chat window. Probably pouring Drano down the tub drain. Cat hair can be pesky.
“Please try again.”
I ignore the underlying exasperated tone. Retailers today are damsels lying across railroad tracks hearing the whistle of the train.
The system allows me to buy six masks for six pennies. I scroll up and down to see where the donation field is. Nothing. Plus, the site keeps prompting me to pay the freight.
Why would I spend eight dollars when I’m a half-block away, and it’s time to harvest recyclable bags off the line? Hundreds of plastic bags are thrown away because folks think they may be contaminated, but you can rinse them and hang them out to dry for seven days. No one will see the clothesline in your living room.
I click “pay.” It’s PayPal only. I broke up with PayPal after they were hacked. I contemplate reneging on the whole transaction, but Syon wouldn’t want me to give up so easily.
I click the chatbox. “Sorry, don’t do PayPal and freight unnecessary. I’ll bring a credit card when I come.” I hit enter and consider potential hairdos to enhance the masked-selfie I intend to send to Syon in response to his editorial.
A full five minutes of hypnotic blue dots beat to the rhythm of my infatuated heart. I reconsider the merits of shopping small. The big guys make the sin of purchasing fast-fashion so quick. I summon up my local spirit, hold off clicking out for two more minutes, and am rewarded.
“OK,” I can almost hear her sigh. “Freight could be a donation.”
Her answer makes no sense to me.
“Who’s the charity? I’ll make out a check.” The blue dots beat on. Maybe she’s so young the word ‘check’ tripped her up, or she had to replace the cat litter.
“Credit card is fine. See you after 4.”
* * *
At 4:18, bandana bound, I knock on the locked door of the shop. Nothing. I move to the far window and peer down the spiral stairwell leading to a basement workshop. I knock on the window. A head emerges on top of a forty-something’s body, climbing the stairs. She props the door open like a shield between us and shoves her reddish-blonde hair off her forehead.
“It’ll be a few more minutes.”
“OK, I’ll wait. Do you want to take payment now?”
“After I finish.” The door swings closed in my face and self-locks.
The breeze is kicking up. I lean into the doorway and swipe open my cell. I’m positively dizzy to discover I have enough miles on American Airlines for First Class on a cross-country-with-enhanced-cleaning-procedures flight. I picture Syon and I strolling the woodland trail that follows Crum Creek, just west of the Swarthmore campus. He compliments my hairdo.
I’m full-on in my Thoreau-like fantasy when forty-something reappears.
“You can come in.” The expected undertone of apology for leaving me out in the cold is missing. Hot pink and emerald green gingham masks dangle from her fingers. “I brought you the color-pop set.” She beams, inexplicably proud of her choice for me.
I resist saying that I’d asked for neutrals in writing. Plus, I’ve just read a National Geographic article explaining that while pinker Flamingoes are more attractive to potential mates, they are also more prone to fights. I don’t want Syon to think I’m a troublemaker.
“Anything a bit more neutral?”
She scowls and clips back down the stairs. At least I’m inside this time. I envision a green-gold meadow near the creek where Syon and I might spread our individual picnic blankets. I gaze longingly from my square of plaid, and he tells me how my hair—his voice is drowned out by stomping on the metal stairway.
Forty-something dangles denim blue and pale-less-prone-to-throw-a-punch pink prints lined in beige. She suggests I could reverse. Okay, beige is neutral, but it makes me look sallow, and my skin tone is already bordering on inside-too-much anemic. I make a mental note to sunbathe on the roof deck before boarding my heightened-hygiene-flight to the East Coast and force a smile, motioning to a few masks on the counter.
“Do you have another pattern there?”
She picks up a retro-print in woody tones, featuring a voluptuous young woman perched on a dock by an Ozark-like lake. Syon nods his approval.
“Perfect. I’ll take all three. And two of the blue ones.” I proffer my credit card.
She shakes her head.
I guess it is silly to put five cents through the credit card machine. “Who shall I make out a check to for the donation?”
Forty-something eyes my admittedly-fishy-looking ripped checkbook cover and shakes her head again. She must be out of practice taking payment.
I dig into my wallet and count out cash. Five times fifteen. I lay a total of seventy-five dollars on the counter, but she doesn’t touch the money. Maybe her sanitizer is downstairs.
I gather the masks up and ask, “The name of the charity? Just for my records.”
There’s a long pause before she lowers her head and says, “Me.”
I blink, remembering the four downturns we navigated in our forty-plus years of retail, the anxiety of those days quelled in the ensuing upturns but never quite effaced.
“Just keep going,” I whisper and push back outside, swinging my recycled plastic bag of masks at my side.
* * *
A new day blurs in. News alerts recount “virus snitching.” It was only a matter of time before we turned on one another. The New York Times reports all sorts of folks are reporting those “flouting social-distancing guidelines.”
A Boston neighborhood blog has called out a group of adolescent girls, walking together with lacrosse sticks. Utah closed down tattoo parlors, and beauty salons after over 500 folks filed complaints. An Alabama woman called the cops on teenagers goofing off outside a bowling alley. Paired with photos of crowded beaches, #FloridaMorons is trending on Twitter. In Long Beach, Washington, pamphlets were left under windshields along the beach highway, stating, “Your vacation is not worth our lives.”
This gives me pause. Would Syon want me crossing state lines with a germ-laden carry-on? I resolve to pack only a change of underwear, under-eye concealer, and three-ounce sanitizer dispensers in my purse.
Facebook messenger signals a new message. I swipe it open.
“I wanted to personally thank your donation. I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart. Please let me know if you need anything else. I hope the meds work out for everybody. XO.”
Ok, well, that’s nice. Meds must be a typo. Or is it? She hadn’t really focused on the money when I was there. Did she wake up this morning, see the rare cash and think we’d done a drug deal? I quit out of messenger.
A calendar reminder slides across my laptop. “Veggie shop.” Walks, with a destination, comprise a fair portion of my daily exercise routine, and three stalwart Pike Place Market produce vendors remain open.
I step into the filtered sunshine, wearing the blue denim mask that matches my navy down vest, and reflect on Syon’s warning: “Fatigue-induced sojourns into public spaces might inadvertently spread infection.”
Justifying my errand as hunger-induced, I revel in the rush of freedom.
The streets are mostly empty, and I stick to the relatively low-trafficked cobblestone center of the market. At Sosio’s, my go-to veggie vendor, two others are waiting for service. I step back, cataloguing who’s ahead of me.
A masked-but-gloveless woman fondles the heirloom tomatoes. I stare at the back of her head, attempting a Vulcan mind probe. Her tomato infatuation ceases, but she moves on the grapefruit. After playing them like a concerto, she plucks out two and hands them to the clerk who bags the rest of her purchase. She leaves, unconscious of my glare.
I clip through my list with the clerk, handing her my plastic bags to reuse as I go. A man stops way-too-close-to-me. I sidestep two feet. The clerk returns my disinfected credit card and hands me my bags. The man blocks my path out. I evil eye him. He steps back. I flee.
Two blocks from home, a thirty-something unmasked woman, a dog leashed to her right hand, and a mask-less child on her left encompass the entire sidewalk. Her whimsical look purveys an obliviousness to all around her. They move closer.
It’s too late for me to cross the street. Her child and I are on a collision course.
I bark through my mask. “Hello, social distancing?”
She progresses with no response, just an annoyingly indulgent smile.
I face into a doorway as they pass, never having deviated from their path.
I consider taking the woman out from behind but am held back by the possibility of putting yet another undeserving child into the foster care system.
Back in my condo, I scrub and put away my produce, wondering if surveillance cameras can be mined to out the unmasked. That’s how they found the London bombers, after all.
I stare out my window at passersby below—only half sport masks.
I intend to break it gently, but Syon needs to know that subtle pressure isn’t gonna work.