Recently, at a funeral, I got to thinking about the lesser challenges of the mask. Not the should-you-or-shouldn’t-you, which is settled science at this point, but the specific problem of how to cry with a mask on. This was especially pressing for me because, as an incorrigible weeper — it doesn’t matter if I’m a third friend twice removed — I was streaming tears before the service had begun. But the mask posed a new challenge: How to blow my nose discreetly and with enough frequency that I didn’t wind up with a big wet splotch in the middle, surely a repellent look during a raging pandemic? How to lift my mask to do the requisite wiping without someone looking askance?
Worse, I hadn’t worn black. That is to say, I had worn black clothing and a black coat — the ceremony was socially distanced and outdoors on a brisk November day — but the mask was light gray. I hadn’t realized until I was running out the door that I didn’t own a proper mourning mask. I briefly considered borrowing one of my son’s black masks, but given the territorial behavior around masks in my family, knew this would have had grave repercussions.
In a household with three children, it was only natural that a proprietary mind-set had set in. Early on, when we were still in the box-of-disposable-masks phase, before anyone “owned” any particular mask, there was a lot of tussling about who left which mask where and who bent their nose wire just so. Later, when we converted to washable masks, the sense of “Mine! Mine!” only grew. The smallest child learned to knot his ear loops. The middle child only wanted certain colors. The eldest clung to the disposables until they ran out. Once, over the summer, we went to the beach and didn’t bring enough masks. The middle child had to wear the youngest child’s mask to use the bathroom, the sensory equivalent of getting into his sibling’s bathful of used lukewarm water.
My husband ordered a bunch of cheap masks, not knowing how long the pandemic would last and not wanting to make too great an investment. Also, he is colorblind. The first shipment arrived, and the kids scuffled over the package, snatching up the best ones. I wound up with the polka dots, which everyone seemed to recognize lacked a certain dignity. I would run errands in my polka-dot masks sensing I was the object of disdain.
Also, my masks didn’t fit. This was before mask makers began offering different sizes and the ones we had seemed to come in one-size-fits-all … for a horse. Then sizes were introduced, but how did one calculate face size, anyway? Last I checked, there were no size charts directing you to measure the circumference of your face around the widest swath of nose, or to draw the distance between earlobe and chin. Using guesswork, I ordered a new batch and learned that my middle child and I had bigger faces than anyone else in the family. I flashed back to a haunting period of adolescence in which my oldest brother accused me of having a face that managed to be too long and too fat at the same time.
Meanwhile, my husband got creative. He had discovered that masks could make a statement, and soon had an exciting coronavirus wardrobe full of personality. One day, a mask with the pattern of an old library card arrived, complete with date stamps. I posted a picture of it on Instagram, where it received more likes than images of my most recent book and my best cat photos.
I had to face the fact that my masks were both unoriginal and unfashionable. They said nothing smart about me and I didn’t wear them well. My horse-size masks kept slipping off my nose. An ear loop always came loose when I was in the company of my strictest quarantine friend or at the moment I arrived at the cash register. When alone, I lost confidence in my face (was there something structurally unsound about it?), and when in company, I felt like an outlaw, shirking my duty as a citizen. Maybe she’s one of those anti-maskers, folks probably whispered behind my back at the pharmacy.
Maybe I was! Goodness knows, I had mask issues. I forgot, repeatedly, not to apply lip balm. I smiled meaningfully at people, forgetting they couldn’t see. Walking up a steep hill after the funeral with two old friends, I gasped and wheezed like an animal trapped under a damp blanket. “Can we stop for a minute?” I begged, while the two of them looked at me coolly, their expressions yogi-like, their breath inaudible.
I briefly contemplated buying a special plastic cup that you can apparently put between your face and your mask to create breathing room, but knew nobody who used such a device, which I’d only seen advertised on social media, and therefore it felt almost as foolhardy as buying something “as seen on TV” was during the ’70s. For all I knew it had been debunked as unsafe and black-marked as uncool; if I wore it, I’d probably wind up with deep, telltale red indentations on my skin. “She fell for the cup,” people would note as they swished by in their bespoke, limited-edition masks from pop-up websites that only fashion insiders knew about.
When I got home, I faced the usual cacophony of masks scattered on the bench by the doorway. “Whose are these?” I raged. Some masks had been labeled, but a vast majority were inscrutable. I did my best to divvy them up and called once again to the kids, “Please remember to put your masks in the laundry after using them!” but the truth was, nobody knew where to put the masks. The sock drawer didn’t seem quite right, nor did anyone enjoy the idea of stashing them alongside the underwear. How did you differentiate between the clean ones and the “I only wore it for five minutes” ones? What we ended up with were piles everywhere, and the risk of accidentally putting on someone else’s mask.
“Whose face does this belong to?” you’d find yourself wondering, and then wandering to a more existential place. “And who am I beneath this mask I wear?”
Pamela Paul is the editor of the Book Review and the author of the forthcoming “Rectangle Time,” a picture book for children.
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