Years ago, I came across a bound set of dated motivational posters in a bookshop in New York. I bought it for its retro-chic graphics. The posters were designed to hang in canteens or locker rooms where the workforce might absorb their exhortations to kindness, honesty, team spirit or efficiency. My favorite featured a costumed couple with their heads bent toward each other in what the artist clearly intended to be genuine mutual interest. They held, at different lengths from their faces, the kind of mask associated with masquerade balls, the kind of mask the wearer can use to cover his face or coyly drop it to identify himself. The kind of mask that, on honest reflection, would never have hidden one’s identity. The text featured prominently above the image: “Masks Off, Everybody. Let’s Be Real.” I was amused by what I saw as campness, and over time I often used that line when I felt conversations were getting too stilted.

I hadn’t thought much more about masks until 2020, when a new virus from China was announced. Viruses had come from China before. SARS in 2002. H5N1 in 2008. H7N9 in 2013. Who understood what the new reports meant? None of those earlier outbreaks affected me. Then they announced at the last minute that Dublin’s Paddy’s Day parade was canceled. Public gatherings were discouraged. Most venues were shuttered.

I was in Galway celebrating my 72nd birthday, travelling with a close friend. When I came down for breakfast that morning (included in the price of the room) I was handed cheap, filmy plastic gloves, the disposable kind used by sous chefs prepping food, and I was told to put them on. They slid around whatever utensil I tried to grip, hobbling dexterity like a potato sack in a three-legged race. My friend and I were shown where to sit, instructed to leave at least two empty seats between ourselves and anyone else, and warned to avoid standing near the other guests at the buffet.

By the time we got back to Leitrim, it was declared a pandemic, which I intuited to mean pestilence on a grand scale. COVID-19. Overnight, Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) rolled out radio spots and TV ads in English and Irish. Printed flyers were waiting in my mailbox. Two-page spreads in the Irish Times – large black lettering on a yellow background – strove for the proper balance between triggering panic and assuring everyone things could be safely navigated if we followed the rules. The virus was highly contagious – particularly threatening to older people and those with respiratory vulnerabilities. I fit both categories. The virus could waft on a breeze. It could aerosolize (this struck me as an invented word, but I knew what they meant). It could ride on a droplet, fall on me in a mist and with my bumbling assistance find its way through my eyes or nose or mouth to get inside my lungs, contaminate me, spread into my bronchioles, activate secretions and suffocate me, drown me. Danger everywhere, potentially with anyone. No more hugging. No more handshakes. No more pubs. Stand two meters away from everyone. On the way back from Galway we had gone to at least a half-dozen chemist shops looking for disinfectant. None was to be had. No one could get inventory orders filled. The chemists recommended washing our hands with alcohol. The cheapest thing we found was French vodka. This proved to be very rough on the skin. I wasn’t surprised, as I was familiar with French rum.

A neighbor dropped off a box of medical-quality latex gloves someone had pilfered from Sligo University Hospital; another gave me a box of disposable face masks. She left it in an envelope at my front door with a note warning me against cleaning the masks with anything caustic that might speed their deterioration. “Leave them out in direct sunlight between uses, and nature will disinfect them,” the note said.

Oddly, the adjustment seemed easy at first. It is a telling commentary on my sedentary life that staying at home and avoiding everyone fit easily into my routine. Social isolation was merely another phrase for carrying on in my way. What chafed (besides the French vodka) was that the crisis had come so suddenly, so unbidden. It provoked ruminations on mortality, on my struggle with COPD. As the daily death counts rose, treasured memories of an earlier, healthier, busier life kept recurring to me, as did wrestling with the void. I suspected other people were similarly occupied. I could see them, as I encountered them on my walks, as we talked across the road. They were grappling with these grave questions, too. Their look askance when we spoke of the virus’ lethality showed me they were. Silence on the topic was the new karma.

I still required human contact, however minimal. The HSE suggested forming a “social pod” by committing to proximity exclusively with one other person or persons and restricting contact with everyone else. A you-and-me-against-the-world bargain. I established a pod with the friend who went with me to Galway. When asked how we planned to manage things, each of us living on our own, we announced the arrangement as if we had eloped.

I limited myself to one trip a week for grocery shopping. Neighbors urged me to order groceries online, but I heard that could take several days, that the system was chaotic, that most customers were disappointed with the results. I kept a detailed shopping list on the kitchen counter, jotting down each item that would soon run out, a discipline to avoid later trips for what I’d forgotten. It became a weekly examination of conscience, a gut-level confrontation with my eating and drinking habits.

At the supermarket, still inside my parked car, I struggled with the latex’s unyielding tautness across my furled knuckles as I worked what looked like empty cow teats down onto each finger. The mask made my glasses steam as I breathed, disorienting me. A local lad stood as monitor at the sliding-door entrance, announcing a maximum of twenty people were allowed inside at any one time. Would-be patrons, spaced apart by two meters, stretched across the carpark. His up-thrust jaw indicated I should take my place at the end of the queue. I cringed as I passed people I knew, as if the mask and gloves I wore were a judgment on the likelihood of their contagion, as if I were signaling fear of them. With the pubs closed, the pandemic had grabbed everyone’s notice. We were all on edge. At first the HSE issued no legal mandate to wear a mask; when it came, it was with loophole language that allowed dissenters their dissent.

So many decrees, so many daily tolls on the news – hospital admissions in the Republic, admissions in the North, fatalities since last reporting. I struggled with the anxiety they stirred. The more fearful I grew, the more my shame at having my face covered gave way to resentment toward those who weren’t masked. Why didn’t everyone take the same precautions? Why didn’t they show respect for those of us at high risk? Why didn’t the lad at the supermarket turn them away?

And somehow, we settle into Covid’s prolonged siege. The pandemic rolls on. Reprints of Camus’ The Plague sell out. Zoom becomes an option for human interaction. School children are sent home and learn to blame disinterest in the larger world on limited internet access. Or they simply drop offline, permitting no explanation. The newspapers tell us working from home is a perfectly reasonable substitute for collective brainstorming and intra-office competition. People stop going anywhere.

My neighbors across the lane, attuned to my anxieties, set out widely spaced lawn furniture under rain tarps between our houses. We pass plated food across the gravel, reminding each other to speak up, grousing about what we are missing, acknowledging our gratitude for the fresh country air and wide-open spaces surrounding us. We share news of church closings that we don’t attend and pubs I stopped going to long ago. We cluck our disapproval of politicians caught violating travel restrictions and rumors of house parties that sent everyone home with the virus.

Small-town pressure keeps such conversations within acceptable boundaries; tut-tutting is the fare of like-minded friends, shared privately. But in Sligo, anti-mask protesters organize and march. Similar outbreaks appear in Cork and other towns and cities. On O’Connell Street in Dublin hundreds of demonstrators march behind megaphones blaring out that wearing a mask is “injurious to the health of our children.  The government must stop this repression!”

Back in the supermarket, directional signs point out which is an up-aisle, which is a down. Yellow discs on the floor show us where to place ourselves as we queue. The women manning the registers – always women, it seems, never men – wear clear protective face shields hinged to headbands, like half-dressed astronauts. But amid all that compliance I sometimes spy a shopper or two walking the aisles without facial covering. They often stare fixedly at sell-by dates or nutritional information, pretending they don’t notice my eyes watching them over the top of my mask. They pass by me bare-faced and shameless while I stand fogged in behind my glasses, strapped to my own exhalation.

My old poster comes back to mind: Masks off, Everybody. Let’s be real. I have come to understand that these maskless shoppers are actually driven by the same instincts as I am. It’s ­ not that they are shameless. On the contrary, they feel the same shame I feel. We are asked to cover our faces, something inherently against our nature. We are humans, wired to know each other by our visage, to closely observe the faces shown to us. We make our appraisals accordingly. Our face is the witness we give others, the basis on which we are judged.

I have acquiesced. I feel it is the right thing to do – for my own sake, to protect others, to curtail further contagion. But I cannot escape the feeling that I operate under an alien guise. I struggle with the sensation my mask presents me to the world as someone other than myself. Those who do not acquiesce, who cannot manage to don a mask despite the intense public disapproval they surely must feel, also wear a mask – a different kind of mask – in order to deflect our judgment. Some of them feign the mask of indifference or distraction. Others wear the mask of defiance. Once masks are introduced, who’s to say what is real?

Buy Waltzing a Two-Step

Dan Juday’s Waltzing A Two-Step: Reckoning Family, Faith, and Self is a coming-of-age memoir that is a must-read. A compassionate journey of self-acceptance that follows Dan Juday from the rural communities of Indiana, across Europe, and among the East Coast searching for a life well-lived.”
—Chanticleer Book Reviews

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