Take off that damn mask, a man says. He takes another step forward, having asked me a question and straining to hear. His speech is quick and loud, his body too close to mine. Are you afraid to take it off? I think of the places I’ve been, of the people I hope to see for the holidays in just a few short weeks. I can see the spittle on his lip.
Nearby, an older couple are seated together, masks on. A recent storm has driven them from their home in search of warmth and a way to charge their phones. When I ask, the husband says they don’t come out much anymore. They’ve been huddled in the garage around the woodstove, playing puzzles in the dark. I don’t even go hunting anymore. What I can see of his face is creased and worried.
We broke records again today, more new cases than in any single day period yet in my state. I can’t help but think of everyone all at once in some collapsing space of grief and love, anger and fear, hopefulness and loneliness and more desperation than I thought would be necessary.
I think of a young couple I know who have hardly left their apartment since March. They are vigilant social distancers, hand-washing homebodies who hug not, touch not, see not. They have their goods delivered or take them carside to go. Masks rest upon their faces like cocoons and they endure until it is safe to reemerge in the world. How lonely it must be, how demoralizing to look out through their windows and wait.
I think of my grandfather, who lives in Cumberland County, the highest risk county in Maine. He’s eighty-four and his body betrays him. For the first time ever he tells me not to come for Thanksgiving. In an email days before the election, he begs his family to vote for a voice of reason. He warns of new cases nearing a soul-crushing figure of 100K per day in the U.S. Five weeks later, I read of the 173K new cases today, the more than thousand that died in the past twenty-four hours.
I think of the eighteen people on ventilators across the state. I think of the smell of the ICU, the view from the window three years ago when I sat with a friend who was in a medically induced coma from lung complications. I think of the wet, rattling wheeze of a body unable to breathe on its own.
I think of my aunt: a nurse. Her daughter: a nurse. My stepmother: a pharmaceutical technician.
I think of my mother on the phone days prior, worrying over the heart of the man she loves. At least I can go in with him for his appointment this time. I promise to call.
I think of the man who made sheep noises in passing, jeering and taunting a pair of mask-wearers. I wish him health. I think of the woman I read about online whose customers offered to tip her better if she took her mask off, so she did. Times are tough and there appears to be no relief.
I think of the space outside around me, the space between me and other bodies near me, the space they leave between one another. I wonder what their faces look like behind their masks. I wonder why they aren’t wearing any masks. I think of the space of the mask itself, a little cone around my nose and mouth, an unspoken prayer of I wish you well.
I wonder who is thinking of me. I wonder who is putting on their mask tonight and thinking I wear this with love. I wonder who sees me — as I continue to be out in the world, as I work around people, smiling behind my mask (I never thought I’d wish for crow’s feet, can they tell I’m earnest, that I mean well?) –and thinks thank you or I feel safer or maybe even should I have one on too?
I wonder if the maskless feel judged, if they feel safe, if they feel the same weight of responsibility that I do. I wonder who would have to die in their life to convince them that this is real, or serious. I wonder how many new cases tomorrow will bring.
Take off your mask, the man says, and I try to smile and take another step backward.