by Robert P. Barsanti
I was standing in front of the ice cream in the Stop & Shop when I got shouted at by a former student, enraged, hopping, eye-popping at my mask. He was a house painter, but there was not a spot of paint on his clothes today. Instead, he had a cart with milk, Cheerios, Huggies, broccoli, two loaves of Arnold White bread, and one canister of grated parmesan.
And I was deciding between Chunky Monkey and Coffee Heath Bar.
“The virus was a hoax from the media. My mask was a fool’s errand. I need to get my head straight and stop listening to the media. Use your brain. Think.” He shouted.
Which sounds a lot like something I might have shouted at him a few years ago.
I wasn’t particularly scared or threatened. After 35 years in a high school classroom, I have been shouted at by the best of them. Principals, teachers, nurses, lawyers, policemen, and comedians have, when they were sixteen, stood up and let me have it. In my classroom, I am the only one paid to be there.
Nonetheless, it upsets everyone around me when the shouting happens, and it isn’t the most pleasant experience. Nurses expect that a patient may vomit on their shoes as well, but it doesn’t mean they want to go home and tell their wives about it.
When he tired and saw the masked audience gathering, he spun around, stomped up to the check out and left. Later, at three in the morning, he sent me an email apologizing.
Masks are hard to accept. Before we had to wear them, the disease was happening to other people. It preyed in nursing homes, factory farms, and New York, but it had left our island alone. Everything looked normal. If we waited long enough, the year would resume with dinner, drinks, and nights in the AirBnB. No matter what you read in the paper and what you saw on TV, Main Street looked ready to go. The mask challenges that. The mask proclaims that the virus is here like fog, beading up in the screens and dripping from the branches. It doesn’t just happen to other people, it happens here. We weren’t lucky. We didn’t get spared.
Moreover, the mask hides. Fully half of our faces are hidden and cannot convey emotions: we cannot smile; we can’t scowl;we can’t laugh for fear of it slipping off. So we slink around like bandits, afraid to stand too close and afraid to say too much. Fear brings anger, and anger steals sleep.
In the sickness of spring, I think a lot of angry lights burn at three o’clock in the morning. Especially around the first of the month. My lights have been on as column A starts to look a lot smaller than column B. When the planes hit the towers, we spent months waiting for the next attack. Even Christmas Stroll was stalked by rumors of attacks on ferry boats. But it passed quickly, with an embarrassed glance and inane airport searches. This crisis hangs like the fog: outside, indefinite, and stalwart. If we are lucky, we sit inside, warm and dry, while it drifts by.
Worse, we can’t defeat this with a fundraiser at the Box, with a community walk around Brant Point, or with a hug and a handshake. Instead, we remain inside our expensive boxes, watching the meters run. Or we wear a mask, sanitize our hands, and hope that customer just has an allergy. Togetherness, human warmth, and a pat on the back have become poisonous. On this Memorial Day, we mourn and remember the world we once lived in.
So, safe from the fog, pick what word best applies to you at this moment: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance? Yesterday has died and it won’t pay the invoices anymore. The dawn continues to insult us, and the calendar snickers, both at home and at the bank. The uncertainty rots the shingles. We hand out yard signs instead of diplomas, drive our own cars at Daffodil, and wonder whether the next boat carries a trick or a treat. Everyone is afraid of the new day.
Except the frogs. By five in the morning, the dawn ticks another morning on the calendar. The fog remains swirling and eddying in fatal droplets. Then the peepers begin. One, then six, then a thousand…roaring in the lust of spring. The birds hidden in the brake of blackberry bushes follow in, buzzing, chirping, and skating their own love songs. The rabbits, momentarily free from pursuing play of an old puppy, bounce along the flagstones and nibble on the grass. Life, as the scientist says, finds a way. And, in the early light, it also makes a remarkable noise.
We live. In the fog, with a mask. We still croak our way into the day, hop along our paths, and build the best nest we can. We can live, we can adapt, we can accept that summer is coming. August has mutated into something different, but it is still coming.
My mask will remain, as will yours. The visitors, such as they are, will be wearing masks as well. Vineyard Vines, Izod, and even Nantucket Red masks will cover us; the Golf Club and the Yacht Club are soon to feature bespoke masks for their members.
Our new world demands more from us. It does not demand more cruelty, more blindness, and more ammunition. Instead, we have to reach for kindness, compassion, and mercy. But when we approach someone with a mask, we have to listen harder and more generously. We can’t see what they are feeling as we once could. In turn, we have to be kinder and more open, since we can’t show what we once did. The masks ask and task.
The new day arrives, in all its froggy goodness. We meet masked, but not hidden.