Sunday, May 17, 2020

An Unmasked Kiss: Denying Reality and Responsibility in the Pandemic

An Unmasked Kiss

“Oh my god, it’s been so long!” she exclaimed as she ran out the gate to kiss him.

I so deeply wish this title and first sentence were the beginnings of my attempt to ghost-write romance novels and finally save for a retirement fund. Instead, it was just another night living amidst Gen Z-ers in the time of Covid-19.

The gentri-gate of the newly renovated apartment building next door had just groaned open, a twenty-something tattooed woman dancing through it to half run to a waiting car blocking the street. P and I were sitting in our folding chairs in our make-shift outdoor patio, the front portion of our tandem parking spot. 

P and I put on masks to leave our apartment, walking from our front door through the shared space of our apartment courtyard through the entry gate that opens up to the heavily trafficked sidewalk we traverse for a few feet before we skirt by our car, Joan, who sits gathering the dust of the Los Angeles basin, mostly unmoved in the time of the pandemic when, if it is possible due to privilege, it is SaferAtHome. Holding glasses of wine, we settle on to our outdoor chairs, where we take off our masks to read Mary Oliver’s writing and clink glasses as we say cheers to another bizarre day of navigating the uncertainty of a pandemic.

I read aloud the first chapter from Mary’s Long Life, entitled “Flow,” pausing for the passing of a helicopter, listening to our neighbor rummage through the recycling bins. She doesn’t speak much English, and my Spanish is scant, so we mostly greet each other and smile. Her husband used to load up his truck, parked directly in front of our gate, with used, tossed-aside machines and metal to drive to the yard to exchange for cash. Last week, I spoke to my other neighbor, e, and asked if this woman needed anything. I hadn’t seen her husband for some time, and the truck hadn’t been moved. He passed away a few months ago, E told me. I’ll ask if she needs help, but I know her son lives in the mid-west and helps her, and she likes living here. E told me that she and her husband still drive the woman and her truck, no longer filled to overflowing, to the yard to exchange the metal for her income.

She is widowed. I know nothing of her life, her experience of Los Angeles, and this neighborhood.

As we sat in our make-shift isolation space, she passed by us, her eyes above her mask acknowledging us, seemingly smiling, as she waved and made her way about her work.

I continued to read out loud from Mary, as the Los Angeles golden hour light washed over the newly remodeled apartment building next to us, the one with the automatic and dysfunctional security gate the new owners installed to make the new, mostly 20-30 something, tenants feel safe. That gate has never worked properly, at one point opening and closing endlessly, now doing it with a loud sound like an old man snorting.

“But even paradise must have rules,” Mary Oliver wrote. “I do not know whether or not those rules were engendered in the beginning by divine deftness or by chance. I rather think chance was the origin – though perhaps the chance was offered divinely – for the rules are neither nice nor neat; simply workable, and therefore, in the quest for life rather than no-life, sublime. Every vitality must have a mechanism that recommends it to existence – what seems like ornamentation or phantasm is pure vitality. It comes from an engine of mist and electricity that may be playful, and must be assertive. And also, against the odds of endurance in the great-shouldered sea, prolific.”  (Mary Oliver, “Flow,” from Long Life.)

The 20 or 30 something woman had blithely danced through the groaning, snorting gate to rush out to meet a man at his car, saying

OUT LOUD, for everyone living in the pandemic to hear:

“Oh my god! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!”

And then we heard the sound of the unmasked kiss.

Neither friend / lover who had not been seen for so long wore a mask. Both were white.

Perhaps. Perhaps, they’d both just tested negative for Covid-19, both knowing that those tests were not false-negatives. And after the test they’d both self-quarantined, ordering in no take-out, seeing no one else, and this was their first contact, knowing they were both 100% positively negative.


Meanwhile. As I write this the following day (May 17, 2020), there are 694 new cases, and 29 deaths. Today.

The numbers* based on age ranges show that the majority cases are not in my neighbor’s age range, but in ours, 41 – 65 (14, 619 total in L.A. County so far). But the number is not that different than in her age range: 12,531 deaths in ages 18-40.

The breakdown based on ethnicity shows that the Hispanic / Latinx community is the most at risk in L.A. County:




Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander


And, as March for Science shows in this graph, if we are following the same patterns of the contagion map of the 1918 / 1919 outbreak (which it appears we are), the worst outbreak is to come.

I was speechless as we watched the unmasked kiss between two people who “had not seen each other for so long.”

As I’d just read: “the rules are neither nice nor neat; simply workable, and therefore, in the quest for life rather than no-life, sublime.” – Mary Oliver

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