Dearest Rachel –
The weird thing about this pandemic epoch we’ve been stuck in is that I actually manage to have my own personal trademark “look,” just like you did by wearing all purple. And it took less than a year to do it.
Of course, part of that is because I’m always wearing the same mask when I’m out and about (which is rare enough that it’s not that big of a deal – I don’t see where a few minutes a day is terribly significant). But what a mask:
For those unable to recognize that moronic grin, here’s a little more context:
Yep, that’s the one. Alfred E. Neuman, poster boy for Mad Magazine. Talk about gatekeeping; it’s been actually fun seeing who recognized it, and who was just amused by the silly grin.
You know, I originally meant it to thumb my (covered-up) nose at the rules. Look, I was reasonably okay with the whole ‘fifteen days to slow the spread’ narrative. I’d spent way too much of 2019 in hospitals with Dad; the concern that they might suddenly be overwhelmed with thousands or even millions of people dying of Covid was a scary prospect for all of us. Plus, we could (unlike a lot of other people) afford to hunker down together and just cocoon while the plague passed over us. Daniel, in particular, gloried in the fact that his hikikomori tendencies were not only no longer a cause of concern, but now rather a honorable civic duty, and did his level best to outdo that ‘fifteen days’ requirement by whatever order of magnitude he could.
Meanwhile, we’d heard some awful stories from people we knew. Twofeathers had a sister-in-law whose grandson came home from camp (don’t recall if it was a day camp or a sleepaway) and inadvertently infected the whole family. The sister’s husband, who was diabetic and had battled cancer to a draw recently, was felled by the disease. Imagine being a five-year-old kid with that on your impressionable conscience for the rest of your life.
But there were some cracks in the narrative, too. When we heard that one of our favorite YouTube animators had been stricken, we naturally feared the worst, that she had, at the tender age of 32, been handed a death sentence.
As it turned out, not so much. While it was wonderful to know that she would recover – and is still making videos to this day – it was a little weird to come to an understanding that Covid, while a nasty little bugger to deal with, wasn’t necessarily an automatic trip to the Shadow Realms.
And then when May wrapped up, some fellow died in police custody (won’t mention names, as the trial has barely even started, and we wouldn’t want to prejudice the jury now, would we?), and everything changed. Aaaaand I’ll stop here, before I tip my hand politically. It all struck me as something out of the theatre of the absurd. And who better to point out absurdity than Alfred E. Neuman?
So, while you went whole-hog at Tee Public, buying all sorts of masks to make whatever fashion statement went with your outfit (and proselytizing as you received compliments for your gear – and don’t worry, honey, I attached a link so whoever’s interested can look for whatever mask they might want), I just picked out the one. And if people wouldn’t recognize my face on sight, the mask certainly made an impression.
Because I had just the one statement to make about everything – “What, Me Worry?”
The funny part was, it never failed to draw comment or compliment. I might even have to apologize to you for upstaging your masks more often than I might have noticed. And even if I was annoyed by having to wear a mask, the goofy grin seemed to amuse everyone who saw it, and they responded with the sort of cheer that could snap me out of whatever funk I might be in. Whether one recognized old Alf or not, one could not stay upset at this mask, and I could not stay upset when everyone was so cheerful with me in response to it.
It made everything we were dealing with in the midst of this universal imprisonment just a little more tolerable.
But suddenly, after the accident, my mask, like everything else, took on a very different aspect. Whereas it had been a form of identification and a lighthearted tweak at the what I considered to be the overwrought rules of society, now I retreated into it to simply conceal myself from the world.
I had seen on Reddit (I think on r/wellthatsucks) about an unfortunate girl who had gotten a tattoo reading something along the lines of “From this day forward, boldly, confidently refuse to wear a mask” just days before the lockdowns became a thing. A noble sentiment, from a figurative perspective, but these days, people would take that literally and those people would be mad about it: “How dare you, you grandma killer!”
But I was now wearing my mask in a literal and figurative sense. Alfred E. Neuman doesn’t worry, nor does he weep. I’ve seen in a number of literary works about “a smile that doesn’t reach the eyes,” and never understood the concept. I’m not sure I still do, even though Alfred’s smile doesn’t reach my eyes – does anyone really notice that?
I’ve never been particularly observant about what some writers refer to as “the windows of our souls,” and while it may be a case of projection, I suspect a lot of other people are no more so than I. All they see is the smile, and they like it – and tell me so. And I thank them politely, but I let them know “it covers up a lot.”
Because it does. Let them get a smile or even a laugh out of it: if they can, they’re entitled to it. We all need something to smile about, after the awfulness we’ve all endured.
It’s just that… it no longer does anything for me.
Jenn, in particular, tells me I need to either wash this mask much more frequently than I do (after every wearing? Is she crazy?), or I should swap out masks from time to time. I may start going through your collection going forward; it may render me more nondescript, but I’m not really trying to call attention to myself, anyway.
And besides, it’s the closest I’ll come to kissing you again… at least, on this side of the pale.