“This won’t last forever,” they would say, like one day we would just wake up and find that our masks are no longer needed, that we can finally visit our grandparents and hug them goodbye, “this is temporary.”
So many things are temporary. The Roman Empire; Pangea; the dinosaurs. That doesn’t make them any less significant or any shorter. Generations lived and died in tragedies just like this one, but, of course, no one ever believes it will happen to their generation; to them. And when they’re proven wrong, they never think it will last.
There were signs when it began; we ignored them and the pandemic still came. Granted, it was gradual, but it came. Just as gradually, it ended.
People stopped wiping down their desks when they sat down for work every day. Parents and teachers turned a blind eye to children hugging their friends at school. Retail workers no longer needed to approach people with their nose poking out over their protective fabric. Privately owned restaurants reopened and stayed afloat without any philanthropy from their towns’ citizens.
Before we knew it, we were walking down the street, our smiles shining under the afternoon sun. We could walk into a cafe and drink our chosen beverages without maneuvering our straws underneath our masks or, heaven forbid, pulling the mask down entirely.
They implied that when ‘it’ was over, we’d go back to what knew. That we’d look back on this odd period and reminisce on how it changed everything for a short while, but nothing permanently. They were wrong.
In theory, nothing did change from the ‘before.’ We aren’t wearing masks anymore, or side-eyeing anyone who so much as sniffles. But there’s still a sense of ‘wrong;’ the knowledge that the daily interactions between friends will never be the same and that we will never connect the way we used to.
For a little while, we didn’t notice. We were so caught up in our joy at returning to our usual life, that we couldn’t bring ourselves to recognize that it wasn’t usual at all. Once we got used to another “new normal,” we found that it was a combination of our first normal and the normal developed during the plague.
Little children stare at strangers whom they once recognized as friends and cry.
“What’s wrong with your mouth?” They wail at each other, covering their friend’s mouths and staring into the eyes that they found so familiar.
It’s gotten harder to read people and harder to comfortably lie.
We’ve grown uncomfortable with our own expressions; trying to relearn our nonverbal communication proved painful, and alien to our faces. A deadpan face is far more comfortable, and looks better on the face of another. A smile means nothing, but a pair of squinted eyes are the kindest expression someone can make. Frowning takes some people a long time to pick up on, but when the colors surrounding a person’s pupils are made more potent with growing tears, we lunge to comfort them.
We used to be able to hide our nervous ticks behind masks and utter an untruth without a hitch; after all, how could anyone recognize a silver tongue without seeing the mouth to which it belongs? Then the mouths are visible again, and it’s clear when someone purses their lips after swearing that “no, the dress looks great on you.”
But we hardly notice, we’re so preoccupied with watching the way our friends’ lips form their words; so unnerved by what was once (because it was once, wasn’t it? At some point?) a friendly and even favored smile. We could pay attention so easily with our masks, staring at the bright colors and textures muffling the speech of our friends and giving the impression of full attention. We didn’t need to make eye contact; we grew used to ignoring the eyes. Now, though, when the place of our attention now shows a mouth, with its gruesome spittle and ivory bones, we are pulled to both look away and stare closer.
There are also changes in nonsocial behavior; germaphobia is more common, as are allergies.
School supplies always include a large bottle of sanitizer to hang from backpacks, even though the recommended lists never include them. It’s not considered rude for someone to clean their hands before and after introducing themselves.
But the most significant change is with the mouths. We have stopped eating in public; choosing instead to drive through or order takeout. Lipstick is more common no matter the gender or the aesthetic; we’d do anything to distract people from our natural shade of pink. Chap stick is cheap and no longer the common good it once was. Seeing the texture of our lips helps to make them seem normal again.
Puffy scarves that cover up to the nose become popular, and gradually, like it first changed and when it changed after that, we change again. The masks are back. Our lips were so cold, the area under our nostrils always felt a chill. It was like crawling into bed on a cold winter’s night.
We tried to move on; we did. But in the end, we were far too changed to revert to what we originally were, so it was just safer to stay put. We will change again; of that, there is no doubt. But humans are creatures of habit, and if we don’t need to change we won’t. We will forget what was once normal and grow fearful when we are reminded.
Our grandparents chastise us, complaining about wanting to finally see our faces, maybe for the last time. We acquiesce; we cannot see our own mouths, and the pale, wrinkled lips of our elders are too tame to frighten us away.
“This won’t last forever,” they said, “this is temporary.” And the events certainly were. We no longer worry about a foreign infection taking over our systems, or the resulting economic depression. The changes to our minds proved permanent.
We don’t fear infection; we fear filth; we fear expression; we fear mouths of pearly, perfectly-lined teeth.