A year ago, the only masks in my house were for Mardi Gras or Halloween.
A year ago, I ate dinner with my mother in a restaurant in New York City, an intimate two-top by the windows, nine vertiginous floors above Columbus Circle, and we traded bites, nibbling insouciantly off each other’s forks, then walked back to her apartment arm-in-arm before sleeping in the same queen bed, breathing one another’s breath till morning.
Last year (for this Luddite, anyway), “zoom” was a scrap of onomatopoeia, the sound a child made as she powered her Matchbox car across the floor.
Weird new world
Now I live half my life on Zoom, the agora of our weird new world. In the past 12 months, I’ve used the platform to teach poetry to 4th-graders and memoir to adults, to play Taboo with friends, to celebrate Passover and Rosh Hashana and Chanukah with the Hoch-people, to attend three funerals, a bat mitzvah, a baby naming, and enough shiva minyanim (mourners’ services) that I’ve lost count.
For months, I did not hug my mother, let alone swap breath.
And the masks? They’re everywhere—the calico, hand-sewn ones and the ordered-from-Amazon KN95 beaks—stuffed in the pocket of my winter coat, hanging from the key-hook by the door, heaped in a bowl on the mail table, folded in the glove box of the car.
Let me count the ways
There are so many ways to measure the vast distance from then to now, from B.C. (Before Coronavirus) to the cascade of bungling, ingenuity, and sorrow that came after. You can clock it in the grimmest of aggregate numbers—more than half a million people gone in the United States, more than one-third of them people of color—and the most intimate losses, like the death of the mother of my childhood best friend, a woman who put a full breakfast on the table every Sunday morning and sang in a crystalline soprano.
You can mark the time in dark chocolate peanut butter cups consumed, in rolls of toilet paper triumphantly procured, in lost income or new habits (bleaching the doorknobs early in the pandemic; taking on a daily yoga challenge for February, the longest shortest month).
You can plot the passage on a calendar that warps like a painting by Salvador Dali: Is it spring again? When was my birthday? Did we even have July? You can tally the losses and gains—for yourself, your people, the world—but how in the universe to weigh unspeakable grief against cleaner air, or the deprivation of touch against the delight of seeing far-flung friends on a laptop screen near you?
The moment of impact
I broke my knee almost four years ago. I don’t recall the moment of impact. What I remember is the instant before I tumbled from a window seat in a university dorm: perched in my flamingo pajamas, barefoot, hardwood below and rose-tinted, stained-glass windows behind.
If this year has taught me anything, it’s that every moment is like that: We’re always teetering on the precipice of something, never knowing what delight, reprieve, or catastrophe is headed our way. It’s reminded me that uncertainty is the human condition, something we share no matter our race, geography, or gender.
Anything. Can. Happen. Sometimes, it does.
“What causes it?”
Last week I went to the dermatologist. I’d almost forgotten how to take a train. Wait, where do I put my ticket? And do I bring it with me when I leave? There was something on my back, a bas-relief bump I could finger but not see unless I did a twist, facing away from the bathroom mirror while craning over my right shoulder. My partner eyeballed it: Yeah, you should get that checked out.
If you’ve been to any kind of doctor in the past 12 months, you know the drill. Blurp of hand sanitizer when you come in and when you leave. A cup labeled “clean pens” and another cup for the ones that have been clutched in someone’s germy hand.
The exam room is small and windowless, but a HEPA filter hums. The doctor takes a minute to assess the bump—“Yep, that’s a benign keratosis.” I want to throw a party for the word “benign.”
But he is still talking. “Want me to take it off?” I hear the pros (it will only take 10 seconds; if the bump stays, it will no doubt continue to grow; it’s in a spot likely to get irritated from waistbands and towel-drying) and cons (basically, none). I say OK and lift my sweater.
“Like a bee sting,” the doctor says. Which is accurate, if the bee maybe fell asleep and forgot to stop stinging: a long pinch-burn while I gasp a little through my masked, clenched jaw.
“Vaseline and a Band-Aid twice a day for two days,” he says. “You’re good to go.”
“Wait,” I say. “What causes a benign keratosis?” I’d like a formula for avoiding dermatological calamity in the future. I’d like to know how to skirt the wild lurch of anxiety-relief-anxiety, the sense that there’s another shoe out there, still poised to drop.
I wait. A moist cloud behind my mask means I am still breathing. I am about to venture out again into the actual agora, streets of falling snow and strangers whose eyes—joy, sorrow, rage, relief—I have learned to read more carefully in this past year.
“What causes it?” the doctor repeats, instrument still in hand. “Being alive."
Image description: A close-up photo on a collection of various facemasks, including a clinical-looking white one and several patterned cloth ones. A few of them hang on what appear to be vintage light-switches. A small purple spray bottle of hand sanitizer sits on the foreground.