*Written over a year ago, when masks were “advised” and socially distancing encouraged. Everyday people were beginning to listen, yet COVID was considered by some main street deniers a figment of our overactive imagination. For locals, this was at Caralluzi’s Food Market, Bethel, CT.
I maneuver the one-way aisles, six feet apart from scardy cats in front and behind me, methodically grocery shopping.
I’ve turned into a futuristic human vending machine, my eyes sweep the shelves to pluck only what’s on the list, no ingredient review, no impulse decisions, no comparison shopping.
Look, grab, cart, walk, repeat.
I am a transformer, like the soda machine at the mall: money in, make your selection, the mechanical arm sliding up and over, selecting B-7 to slide out and dispense so efficiently, a neon bottle of caffeine-infused Mountain Dew.
Back when malls and caffeine were a thing.
In the market, a rogue shopper comes toward me, like frogger, making his way, the wrong way, up the one-way of the cereal aisle. No mask, no gloves, no special awareness, the air of superiority emitting off him like gamma rays of the sun, burning my retinas and conscience long before he gets close enough to do actual harm – too close. He brushes past me, backsteps then lingers, like cigarette smoke wafting long before the glow of a Winston or Virginia Slim appears, the residual whiff remaining long after the butt ground out.
I dodge his look, his being, holding my breath while maintaining equal distance from those before me and after, while this freedumb American Patriot shoves his arm in front of my cart, like dads did before seatbelts were required, fling a forearm as if that could stop their child from being catapulted through the windshield.
Way back when, in the before, before seatbelts were mandatory, before click it or ticket was as acceptable as a key in the ignition, before masks were needed to buy breakfast cereal.
Now rule followers are masked and gloved, a CDC prescribed safe distance between each other, methodically choosing only the necessities to get in and out of Caraluzzi’s or ShopRite or even Costco for the really brave and fearless, as germ-free as possible, because no one wants to be guilty of killing grandma.
Those masked look through tear-rimmed eyes at each other, grasping onto the common desperation of hope, smiling smiles not seen but felt, despite the masked emotions, through eye contact, crows feet, kindness palpable. Mostly.
The Hormel Chili told me all I needed to know
I stop my cart abruptly, not wanting/wanting to hit the unmasked man with my cart, and throw it into reverse, looking pleadingly at the woman shopping behind me – hoping she stops in time too. Both of us seeing and knowing the danger of this Patriot going the wrong way up the one way, grabbing this and that from the shelves – cans of Hormel Chili, Pepperidge Farm donut holes, a couple of apples rolling to and fro in his basket.
No list, no gloves, the freedom of his appetite and prerogative guiding his every point of purchase whim.
‘s’cuse ME,” the man growls, eyes challenging, daring me to question his audacity to appear as before – maskless, like shopping for breakfast cereal is normal and not life-threatening.
He interrupts the flow, cutting off my carefully choreographed journey, breaking the rules, reaching over my cart for Cap’n Crunch, then quick two-step to the side, the Quaker Oats behind my head.
His arms move like an octopus, whipping in and out, too fast for me to escape the in-between, moving the air in front, the air behind, and I shrink as small as I can, but can’t hold my breath any longer, and exhale loudly, head down, gloved hands gripping the Chloroxed bar, waiting for his choices to be over and I can safely go on.
“Sor-REE,” he huffs, mocking my mask, my insecurities, my precaution, my fear.
He towers above me, shaking his head in disgust, his basket deliberately slams my cart as he bulldozes by. I inhale his contaminated air, ripples of privilege and ignorance and please not COVID pass through my mask into my mouth, into my lungs, into my cells.
Then before I realize what’s happening, the words spill out of my mouth on the exhale, escaping my mask, and I apologize.
To him. For being in his way. For the mask. For the pandemic. For taking up space in the cereal aisle.
Wearing a mask and being afraid clearly labels me as one of them, just as he is one of them, without.
It is so natural, this apologizing. I was hoping the mask would muffle it, but it just keeps coming.
“No, it’s okay,” I stuttter. “No worries,” I lie, relieved he is taking his Cap’n Crunch leaving.
And when he looks through me one more time before barreling toward the cashier, “I”m sorry,” I spill, like a female-bot, a submissive auto-responder. It’s out of my mouth and escapes my mask before I can trap it.
I don’t mean it, not one word, and don’t know why it flows out of me like the air we both breathe.