The Woman without a Mask
in front of me in the cold room
in Costco has stopped
by the exit, her cart blocking my path.
I stand waiting for acknowledgement,
careful to keep six feet between us.
I would go back the way I’ve come,
but the aisle is narrow, already
full of carts and shoppers eyeing
the spring mix, the asparagus, the
green beans and Brussels sprouts.
When she looks up, I’m clutching
my plastic pint of strawberries,
waiting for her eyes to meet mine.
And when they do, I see that I have
failed to conceal my judgement.
It’s true. In the fifteen seconds before
she saw me, I saw her mask-less face
and wrote her history—from her education
to the car she drives to how she voted
in the last election. I’ve even named her
Karen. She, too, it seems, has passed judgment,
as though my facial covering were
a blatant bumper sticker decrying
her kind. She straightens, back against
the wall, and says, “I’m not moving.”
I squeeze through the gap with feigned
indifference, my silence the biggest
fuck you I can muster, step out of that
confined space to my waiting cart,
and move on to the cat food and coffee,
feeling odd, somewhere between
addled and sad. What a time we share,
when in trying to slow the spread
of a disease, we reveal (or think
we do) so much about ourselves,
where only a few months before the eyes
could pass over a face in passing and not see
a threat, when the space between us
was not so precisely measured, when
a stranger was a stranger, and we
could imagine we shared something
other than air. A year from now,
if I survive, I will be able to remove my
mask and conceal myself again,
incognito, immune to contagious gazes.
I pay for my goods and leave, my eyes
fixed on my car as I cross the parking lot.
Safe inside, my white face fades
behind the windshield glass.
I take off my mask and breathe.