Like everyone else, at first, Rachel was averse to putting on a mask. Not on principle or anything, but because it was goddamn muzzling. Humans, on the whole, were already quite muzzled to an obscene point on the metaphorical front… one supposes it was only a matter of time before it became literal. A way for the Fates to manifest the state of human existence in an even “realer” capacity. But this was all too real, Rachel couldn’t help but notice, suddenly aware that putting on foundation or lip gloss was not going to be possible any longer. Which meant that in those rare moments when she could take her mask off in front of someone, they would see her pock-marked complexion (a lifetime scarring from acne that would only be spurred anew as a result of the “maskne” now caused by complying with being a “decent person” and wearing a mask in public).
Initially, this exposure—this nakedness—greatly bothered her. Especially when it came to trying to finagle any sort of romantic situation. The idea that they could see her in one instant with a mask on and the next without it, sans “cover-up” (a.k.a. her usual brushing on of some L’Oréal bullshit) was an injustice she could not fathom. So she decided, like a sensible person, that she would not bother with such ideas as “dating during a pandemic.” It sounded about as useful as looking for a job during a pandemic. “Lucky” for her, she supposed, she already had one. One of those “we’ll let you work remotely if you show your face for no good reason on Zoom for several hours out of the day” sort of jobs. It was marketing, so the need to prove that one actually did something “all day” seemed to become even more of a challenge. In effect, “singing for one’s supper” became even more of a goddamn thorn in her side. Yet it was these moments she relished the chance to actually “put her face on” with the usual accoutrements of her makeup bag because she was inside, not posing a threat to anyone else around her in the privacy of her apartment.
And yet, as things in New York ramped up in terms of “COVID fatigue,” the guard that started to be let down as a result spread quickly enough to Rachel. She was getting quite bored of her confined surroundings, and took to the streets throughout the summer like everyone else. She was going to get her jollies while she could, for it was just a matter of time before the government officials (run by a psychotic Andrew Cuomo benefitting from the same exaltation circumstances Rudy Giuliani did in once being deemed “America’s Mayor”) decided to pull the reins in again. Not that Americans, let alone New Yorkers, could truly know what that meant. But in NYC, having one’s favorite restaurant closed for months on end was pandemic punishment enough. Oh privilege, we hardly knew ye was the overall sentiment. One that Rachel was also a perpetrator of as she wandered the streets, morosely taking stock of the things in her life she once loved that were now “temporarily closed.” Sure, some places did delivery and/or takeout, but it just wasn’t the same.
One thing she did start to grow accustomed to during these “contemplation of existence walks” was wearing her mask. At long last, it finally felt more anathema not to be wearing it than to wear it. She also started to realize how glorious it felt to be the thing once utterly disdained: a mouth breather. With the burka-like cover for the bottom half of her face allowing her to do something she had always actively worked to avoid—be caught in public with her mouth agape—she felt a new kind of liberation in this form of suppression. No one could see what she was doing with that mouth, and it meant a lot of keeping it ajar. Walking over the Williamsburg Bridge, at an ATM getting some cash out (with disposable plastic gloves, of course, to add to the pandemic-based ocean trash), standing at a crosswalk gazing at her phone. There was no shortage of milieus or opportunities where she could have her mouth wide open for effortless breathing. And it wasn’t that she was overweight or anything, therefore requiring of more respiratory propensity through multiple holes in order to support her “ticker,” it was simply that she found it easier.
She had never known a life of such ease before, relegated all those years solely to breathing through her nose while in public. To be caught with one’s mouth open warranted accusations of being a dullard. Or condescending phrases like, “Shut your mouth, you’ll catch flies” (as Betty Draper’s mother would say). But without anyone to judge by what they could no longer see, free reign of an open-mouthed existence became the norm for Rachel (and, she imagined, many others who would feel obliged, even unwittingly, to keep their maws open while crawling along the streets in masks).
It never occurred to her that life could be restored to its so-called former “glory” with the advent of a vaccine and the assurance that wearing a mask everywhere was no longer deemed essential. Such an existence was now decidedly abhorrent to Rachel. And she knew that, surely, she couldn’t be the only one to feel that way, even if no one else would admit it. Still, she didn’t want to be that “weirdo” who still felt paranoid about not wearing a mask post-pandemic in a sort of inverse way to how anti-maskers were paranoid about their “freedom” being stripped away during the pandemic. So she tried to go out with her bare face one day. Even made a big production about getting her foundation so flawless it looked like a second skin (the kind you couldn’t tell was a “second skin,” of course). Did her eyes all trollop-like with a smoky motif, to boot. She was in full pre-2020 effect. Except that going out this way no longer felt “correct.” Particularly since she found herself hyper-aware of the fact that she could not seem to close her mouth in order to breathe solely through her nostrils. In short, she had grown used to the “open mouth” policy provided by mask life.
It was one she had somehow assumed would never go away once it had been touted. Unlike during the swine flu of 2009, masks had really “caught on.” They were an entire industry that even haute couture labels had seen fit to profit from. How could they all of the sudden just disappear? Everywhere Rachel went now, including into her accursed workplace because apparently the “powers that be” found offices too “valuable” to dispense with as a mode of working, she was self-conscious. Completely mistrustful of her own body’s reflexes to keep her mouth in check by keeping it shut.
Her phobia was confirmed while standing in an elevator with an attractive co-worker whom she had long harbored a crush on. Staring at him out of the corner of her eye, she could also see her own reflection in the mirror of the elevator. It reflected back to her a slack-jawed ignoramus. That’s precisely what she looked like with her mouth open. She wouldn’t be surprised if she touched her chin to feel a bit of drool. She was disgusting, and disgusted. The mask still felt like a phantom limb to her, protecting her boca from being seen in all of its black hole grotesquerie. Mercifully, her crush never paid her any attention (she wanted to believe he was gay and that was the reason). However, he was “chivalrous” (read: too engrossed in wrapping up a text message to someone) to let her exit onto their floor first. She was sure to close her mouth again, but she knew it was only a matter of time before someone caught her with it wide open. She only hoped whoever did wouldn’t see fit to “dick bomb” her.