It was the end of October, 2019. I sat in the lobby of my local doctor’s office, waiting to cross the threshold into another routine checkup. It was the epitome of lemon antiseptic, bleach, and the metallic tang of stainless steel. The polite women at the front desk clacked away on their computers, occasionally plucking their pens from behind their ears with a dainty click before scratching away on their clipboard. My name was somewhere on there, among many others. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought. I was well into my freshman year of college at the time, distracted by the absence of the Chicago streets that had become my campus.
While the clock ticked on, I scrolled through my phone— memes, cat videos, Tom Hiddleston appreciation posts, all the essentials needed to pass time and calm the nerves. But scrolling can only get you so far when you’ve got a very limited attention span. My attention had wandered from my phone screen to the abstract artwork that hung limply across the grey walls, to the geometric carpet, to the dirt crusted into the toes of my sneakers— how did that get there?—, to the end table where I had rested my purse. Resting on the beige ceramic was a bottle of sanitizer (soon to be a rarity) and a cardboard box of blue medical masks (also soon to be a rarity). Beside the first box was a smaller second box, filled with child-size masks printed with rainbow smiley faces.
At the time, I didn’t think about the fact that someone might actually need them. I know that sounds bad— and inconsiderate— but I was a bored, angsty then nineteen-year-old looking for a comedy act. I reached for the mask on top and spread it easily across my face. I snapped a picture and sent it to my friends back in Chicago, laughing because it seemed so absurd. Not because I was wearing it, but because of the way it looked: a happy, vibrant neon blue, so bright for something that symbolized disease. I tucked it in my pocket and ended up taking it back to school with me.
A week or so later, it was Halloween. Being on campus, the last thing I had considered was a costume. Where do you go trick or treating in downtown Chicago as a nineteen-year-old woman? Being new to the area, I had no idea. So when I was invited to go to the college’s annual Halloween party, I was at a loss. I was traditionally broke— too broke to go out a blow money on a costume— and, for an art student, incredibly uncreative. I wore it to the party, frayed at the edges and caked with fake blood. With my hair done-up in absurd pigtails, eyeliner bags smudged beneath my eyes, dolled up in a mini skirt, a lace bralette, and platform Docs, I didn’t know what exactly I was, but the bouncer let me in, so I guess it worked. The party itself— that’s a different story. As for the mask— I kept it with me as a token, crusted over with cheap cosmetics, stored safely away in my closet beside lotions and pill bottles. It was a keepsake, a reminder of my first college party, and all of the angst that came with it. Then, in April 2020, I threw it away without remorse.
I didn’t throw that mask away because I hated it. I didn’t throw it away because I was an “anti-masker” or because I thought the coronavirus was a hoax. I threw it away because it no longer served a purpose, reduced to pitiful remnants of a makeshift costume that seemed to be a world away.
The COVID-19 pandemic took 2020 by surprise. That was well over a year ago, and yet the shock hasn’t since worn off here in 2021. It seems crazy to look back on an entire year missed, adjusted to Zoom and a toilet paper shortage, and that guy who decided to buy up all the hand sanitizer. It seems crazy to think of the human toll of the pandemic, and all of the lives that have been impacted, and all those that have been lost. It seemed trivial, at best, to look back at a Halloween party where wearing a mask meant something very different. It was part of a costume, something goofy, when, only months later, we were faced with a mask shortage in the middle of a massive public health crisis. The irony.
Though I may have abandoned my lipstick-stained mask from 2019, I replaced it, once I was able to. I have 16 of them, which I alternate between work and errands. Some are homemade. Some I ordered online from stores that now list “masks” as an accessory. Some of them have patterns, like my mask from the Halloween before. Stars, on one. Sharks on another. Scooby-Doo, flowers— gingham, if I’m feeling frisky. It was after quarantine, after masking up to leave the house for only the barest essentials, that I realized why exactly the mask I wore that Halloween had been adorned with bright colors and happy emojis.
To bring joy.
To provide some kind of spark, something to smile about, to make your own when so much is out of our control. As a way to take hold of something no one (clearly) could possibly have hold over. To continue to reach for that painstakingly human element even in the darkest of times. It took actually needing to wear a mask, for the safety of myself, my loved ones, and my community, to understand and appreciate that. There’s a reason “I like your mask” has become such a frequent compliment: it’s a way for us to establish ourselves in the middle of fear and the unknown.
I haven’t worn a mark to a party in a long time— actually, since Halloween 2019. Last Halloween, in 2020, I spent the evening happily binging the “Halloween” series with my boyfriend and snacking on bat-shaped Reese’s bars (again, the irony). Though I’m not sure what this coming Halloween of 2021 will bring, I’m looking forward to it. Though we’ve come so far with the vaccine, the pandemic isn’t over. Even as a vaccinated individual, I’m looking forward to a return to some degree of normalcy, whenever that may come. Until then, I’ll be wearing a mask (probably with teacups on it).