Behind the Mask

Behind the Mask

Jacqueline Couti
Classical and European Studies

With each passing day, shrouded in their glaring ineptitude and unreliability, many governments embarked upon an obscene merry-go-round. Our survival and well-being were none of their concern. The economy and money on the other hand . . . These governments’ sharp U-turns leave us dizzy, all but reeling from whip-lash. How things have changed in such a short time: from denial and laissez-faire, to a frenzy of empty decisions and (selective) authoritarianism even more erratic, boundless and outrageous. Even before politicians concur on their urgency, social distancing and confinement have settled insidiously in my mind as they surround my heart- making it cold and separating me from others. With growing concern and anguish making me claustrophobic around people, in my head the isolation was already consolidating before it became a suggestion or a mandate. Being around people feels like playing Covid-19 roulette, but after all, isn’t life itself Russian roulette? Reluctantly rubbing shoulders with others due to possible contamination, you wear a smile on your lips that masks your detachment. An illusionist, you disappear before people’s eyes without them seeing your magic trick.

Control, you have some control. Sure. Unlike other people, thanks to your financial situation, you have control over your movements and well-being. This thought in an ever-changing environment is sobering. You can stay home and work remotely, have groceries delivered; you can relax in the garden and enjoy some fresh air and privacy. If you are really blessed, caring neighbors and friends leave cleaning products they have bought for you on your porch. Your privilege should remind you how lucky you are. But blindsiding fear, when it is not your guilt, does not let you count your blessings. Terrified and breathless, you are drowning in your feelings.

Of course, preserving a routine helps to create a less narrow mental space. However, thinking that the quarantine will provide a golden opportunity to facilitate my writing project was just a sham. The ever-growing mental confinement has been throwing me to an inhibiting face-to-face with my mortality and that of others. Often, it is true, writing offers a moment of respite from the confrontation with immobilizing anxiety and terror; yet it proves to be an often-futile endeavor. People are dying, aren’t they? Writing becomes a moment to cut myself off from reality, to immerse myself in texts, in ideas to develop or clarify. It represents a moment of contact with friends to discuss any road-blocks.

What emerges from this prolonged seclusion, which seems to extend indefinitely, at least for me, is finally grasping that our lives have changed and remembering, with sorrow, the simple things I can no longer do. In a sense, spatial confinement has not changed a lot for me because I spend so much time alone, away from others. What has changed is that now I have no choice; I can no longer decide when I want to meet people. I should have lived more . . . Can fun events organized via videoconference replace all the simple moments?

Living alone, confined or not, at least in my case, because here I speak only for myself, is to live with endless debates looping in my head and thrown pell-mell about the possibility of my own death. And struggling with the Rona’s rampage, I deal with another type of existential controversy on the same subject, therefore: the more things change, the more they stay the same. People are dying. Who is next? The confrontation with one’s fragility and mortality remains an unpleasant experience and yet, this exercise in discomfort can liberate the confined mind and keep at bay the moment when, cutting ourselves off from others, we frantically think “game over” and the die is cast…We are so…

Letting go sometimes loosens or, even better, releases the shackles of fears around our hearts. In fact, letting go comes just after confronting your fears—just after becoming hyper-aware of them.

What this never-ending quarantine demonstrates is that in the end, there can only be one; in the end, we forget about “us” and focus on “me.” One must strive to go beyond this fear of the other and reach out despite one’s apprehension. And therein lies the crux of the matter: managing to reconnect to others after understanding that in the end, there is only the self that remains, until the moment of our great voyage … After all, we will always die alone… so we might be better at living together …

So today, after days of confinement, I left my haven to go shopping. I put on a fabric mask that I made using an online model and donned gloves. When I emerged from the supermarket, a blonde wearing a surgical mask told me that she liked my mask very much. I replied that I had made it with a bandana, then added, “Take good care of yourself.” She replied, “You too.” She got into her huge pick-up truck, I headed for my little car. I watched her approach with her vehicle; as she passed by, she honked, we looked at each other, and we smiled behind our masks—a smile that stretched up to the sky and reached our eyes. All our differences had disappeared; as for our fears, in this masked smile, sheer terror has brought us together despite everything that separated us.

If we always die alone, fear instead of dividing can bring us closer, so against all odds, we can choose to live together even when everything separates us, can’t we ? Can we?