Pandemic Panic Pet Peeves Poem


I’m at the store in line at the checkout counter when I sneeze in my mask and the man behind me jumps back like he’s been shot in the chest because I’m a contagious walking explosive bomb.

Indian writer and activist, Arundhati Roy, says now we are all seen as biohazardous bodies.

After a hike, my son and I need to pee at a nearby pizza place. My mask is gross wet from sweat so I pull my shirt hoodie over my mouth. The waitron stops us. Ma’am, you need to wear a mask. “I am,” I say. Isn’t that your shirt? I look at her mask. It is shaped like a mask. It loops around her ears. It’s made of material like my shirt. It has pretty little flower prints on it. “Yeah,” I say, “it’s material just like your mask.” Regulations, she says, you need to wear a real mask.  

The South African president lifts the travel ban on my home country. My son and I can now visit our family. We board the Dutch airline. The air hostess sees my real mask that loops around my ears (just like the pizza waitron’s mask) and says, You need to wear a real mask. Like N95-gold-standard-for-pandemic-protection mask. I point to the passengers pouring onto the plane wearing material masks like mine. “They’re not wearing real masks,” I say. She rolls her eyes.

My 9-year-old son says his mask is now a piece of his clothing.

I think of babies who no longer see mouths. Only eyes.

My friend once bought her baby a faceless fluffy bunny rabbit stuffy with no eyes, no mouth, no nose —a Waldorf prototype that I thought was plain weird. How do we learn to recognize human emotion when we can’t see it on a person’s face?

In South Africa, my uncle, who hasn’t seen us in three years, laughs while giving me the elbow bump. I want to scream at the idiot who came up with this as a reasonable replacement for a hug.

Women’s rights activist and playwright, Eve Ensler, talks about how the absence of gatherings is devastating for our well-beings. Gatherings, she says. Now ‘gatherings’ is like a dirty word.

I visit my ninety-something grandparents in South Africa who sit behind a metal barred gate with flimsy masks over their mouths as if the bars will protect them as if bars ever protect and they won’t hug me goodbye even though this may very well be the last time I ever see them.

My friend back in America who is perfectly healthy and perfectly petrified calls to siphon bits of my ordinary life. She lives alone and has not left her house in a year and gets Whole Food to deliver her groceries in brown bags, which they leave at her front door. She is envious that I shop for groceries, get on planes, eat out at restaurants.  

Whole Foods doesn’t deliver to African or Indian slums.

I love eating at restaurants now because it’s the only socially acceptable time to be maskless. If I could sit at a table at a restaurant every day all day ordering food and drinks, maybe I’d feel free.

There’s an empty seat across from me at my table at a coffee shop. An elderly man dressed smart in brown corduroy slacks and a black tweed jacket with his paper-thin mask asks to sit there. I’m vaccinated, he says. I would have preferred hello.

I think of my California mom friends when the pandemic started who sprayed their produce with vinegar to disinfect their store-bought lettuce heads. Who called me up frantic to tell me that Strauss yogurt was selling out at Costco. Who hoarded toilet paper as though you could eat it.

I refused to hoard toilet paper and when my son asked what I’d do if the stores ran out, I said I’d wipe with my hand like they’ve done in India for centuries. And I meant it.

The COVID test I have to have before leaving South Africa to return to the US is positive. “Maybe I’ve come to South Africa to die,” I say to my family. In the moment, I’m partly not kidding. The very next day I test again at the very same lab. Negative. That night we toast to me not dying and suddenly I’m allowed to fly back to the US. I don’t show my positive test to the Dutch airline.

My heart breaks for the disabled person in a wheelchair and the restless screaming toddler and all the people standing for hours in that COVID line who cannot afford that test, awaiting their fate of potential quarantine, unsuspecting of the prevalence of false positives.

Back in my new hometown of Boulder, Colorado my son goes to school where he has been taught for almost a year by a teacher I have yet to meet in person.

My friend in California calls to tell me she understands why people murder. Her kids have been home for over a year because she can’t afford in-person private school. She takes destination-less drives just to get out of the house because she says she’s on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Another mom friend says parents signed up to be parents even during a pandemic.

I wash my son’s mask and hang it in the sun to dry.

When I wear my mask on the streets, I smile really big so children and babies can feel it.

Every sunshining day I head to the park to my yoga class to practice in the fresh air.

And above all, I dream of dirty words like…gatherings.