For the years from 2009 to 2019, he was a devoted mask wearer. He had lived in San Diego all his life, and had done the according amount of border crossing between California and Mexico, whether for business or pleasure (mainly the former). When news of the H1N1 or “Mexican flu” (yes, before there was a “Chinese virus”) broke in January of ‘09, he was among the first Americans to panic. Indeed, he could never understand why it took people so long to grasp the gravity of a situation. Sure, they could blame the media for having a tendency to generally sensationalize everything, but how, Ben wondered, was it possible for anyone to “write off” the reports of a novel virus spreading? It’s not as though this was even at a time when the term “fake news” was being bandied.
Ben was eager to stock up on as many surgical masks and as many bottles of hand sanitizer as he could before the masses “suddenly” caught on–a.k.a. the spread was noticeable to them because it affected someone or something in their lives. For, as we all know, nothing really matters to people until it actually fucks with their day-to-day existence.
Ben’s day-to-day was living and breathing two different countries just thirty minutes apart geographically, but a world away culturally. Because his profession as an aid worker frequently required him to show up to various detention centers along the border and help translate, Mexico–or at least the line that divided it from the U.S.–was as much of a home to him as California. And if the swine flu was concentrated in one area, it was there. Ben knew (before it was endlessly chic to be “hyper-woke”) to call it “Mexican flu” was going to generate further unwarranted racism against the already maligned Latino population in Southern California. That this was going to extend as a matter of policy tenfold to any adults and children detained by authorities at the border. The chaos was immediately palpable, and Ben took it upon himself to rent an apartment in Tijuana so he could be even closer to the tumult. At the ready to manage it as best as he could–in a mask he would have been glad to super glue to his face if it didn’t fuck up his skin (he was still hoping to find a girl one day, after all… even if pandemic conditions made it more of a challenge than usual).
Riding the bus in Tijuana was frequently scorned as a surefire way to invoke death, but Ben didn’t care. At roughly fourteen pesos to ride, he wasn’t about to further contribute to Earth’s demise with his own private fossil fuel emissions. He was wearing the mask in the first month of the reports, when it was still permitted to ride public transit without the enforcement of covering one’s face. As he got on, people regarded him strangely. Like he was being some kind of gringo pussy for feeling obliged to go the extra length to protect himself over “a few cases” in Veracruz. Where once it starts, it don’t stop, he wanted to scream at the passengers as they all continued to ogle him like fresh meat. Fresh swine.
As the bus teetered through the streets with the same ricketiness of an Italian funicular, Ben could feel himself holding his breath and inching away from the elderly woman who felt obliged to sit right next to him, rubbing against him with her closeness. Did this bitch understand nothing about fomites? He wished urgently to be able to crawl out of his skin, to eject himself from his body so that he would not have to experience this level of worry while being forced to remain inside of it. Alas, such technology had yet to be invented. Or, in other words, I’m limited by the technology of my time.
He exited the bus at the last stop and walked about a mile and a half to get to the detention center, where no one was yet wearing a mask, not even the officials. The government’s mass distribution of masks, in fact, wouldn’t really take off until April. Giving months for the spread to flourish. Why oh why must humans always be damned to repeat the same mistake of giving a novel virus such a fantastic head start? Again, because it has to interfere with everyone’s day-to-day to sink the fuck in their dense-ass skulls.
Spending his nights alone in the dingy apartment that had become his home away from home, Ben found it difficult to take the mask off even then. Sometimes, he would shower with it on. He couldn’t fathom why his paranoia was getting all the more intense as 2009 drew to a close and the cases began to plateau. Maybe it was his dealings with such concentrated blocks of humanity every single day. Maybe he was genuinely disgusted by the human ability to spread disease. He couldn’t begrudge the animals for it–after all, they were being held in far crueler detention centers against their will.
When 2010 came and went, and with it the H1N1 pandemic, he was still wearing masks. Much to everyone else’s dismay. It amazed him, actually, that they weren’t all thanking him for setting an example. For being ahead of the curve whenever the next pandemic inevitably hit. There was no such gratitude, only stigma. Until, one day, he finally decided he couldn’t bear it anymore. He ripped the mask off. Just one day before the new year, resolving on December 31, 2019 to give up the ghost of “doing his part.” Right when the world would demand he do his part more than ever.
Of course, he had about four months of “freedom” in California before the tensions and the mandates would make it impossible to avoid wearing a mask again. Except that he still chose not to. The scandal–the sheer cannibalistic frenzy–it caused was never more marked than on a hellishly burning day in May when he boarded a Big Blue Bus in Santa Monica, for, by this time, he had migrated “north” to Los Angeles after securing a less travel-heavy job as a teacher of Social Justice Studies at SMC. Why not? He figured. He could repurpose the social injustice he saw migrants endure for “women, gender and sexuality” instead. If it meant remaining in one place without subjecting himself to as many people as he did in the detention centers. For the class he was offering to teach was online. Sparing himself of the human contact that made him increasingly wary.
In fact, he was starting to doubt whether he was even human at all anymore. He had been such an automaton of evading their acquaintance for the past decade–so sure another pandemic would flare up sooner rather than later–that he barely remembered how to commune with them. How to even genuinely give a shit about them, even though “masking up” was a sign of caring. He didn’t. Not about them, at least. Just himself. It was, indeed, every person for themselves now. That was the American way. Always had been. It had just never been so effortlessly broadcastable.
As, evidently, he was being broadcast right now on someone’s phone–one of several jeering passengers who, at first, stared at him in shock for boarding without a facial covering, then proceeded to hiss and yell that he needed to get off the bus or put on a mask. The “incident” continued to escalate as the driver turned to insert himself into the situation, almost deigning to actually get out of his seat to intervene–an unheard of act in bus driver comportment. It was then that instead of putting a mask on, Ben at last took his final one off… revealing underneath his skin the metal cogs and wheels of a machine.
He didn’t know if he had always been one, or merely transcended into one. But based on the horrified, hushed reactions of the passengers, he reckoned he was going to be too ahead of this trend for his own good as well. And ten years from now, when they were all showing their true automaton non-colors, he would probably somehow be deemed as obsolete with his own since “antiquated equipment.” In the meantime, the bus driver, too afraid to further engage, let Ben sit down. After all, machines can’t spread diseases.