Love in the
Time of Covid
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Friday June 16th, six o’clock in the evening. The subway car is partly crowded. It’s hot, passengers are nervous but desperate to reach home. You’re both standing close but not too close, and for a split second, your hands accidentally touch along the same hand bar. You move your hand right away, you apologize, and need to show you mean your two to three words of apology. No worries, says the stranger with a casual glance. Nothing more. Still, you notice the half-masked face with the velvety glance, the wrist, the hair, even the fingernails, down to the forgiving but self-conscious smile that still lingers to mean It happens and which is aimed, not at you or at someone else in the car, but hovers like a whimsical afterthought that should vanish but doesn’t. You want to see that smile—unmasked. And then you catch yourself staring at that vague sheen of skin along the neck area, which is quite tanned and you wonder how, with whom, and where it originated. You’re dying to ask but can’t even begin to think of the words. Your intercepted look stirs a confiding, ironic glance you hope you’re not misreading, though your caution tells you that this is all in your head, this never happens, and even if it did, it would be a seedy subway moment between two strangers who are just eager to get home, remove their masks, shower, meet friends for dinner, and never think of subways until Monday morning. You can almost hear the old wisdom prevail: What happens in the subway stays in the subway.
A subway is an unlikely place, things aren’t meant to happen here, and strangers know not to buttonhole or be buttonholed. Extended glances are instantly regarded as indecent, and you never know who the stranger is. Still, you wish you could say something, something humorous or mildly bold. How often have you let moment kike this slip by, either because something wasn’t right, or because you were shy, or someone stood too close and could hear, or because a better moment might come soon enough again, better moments always come again—so you hope. Life, they say, is what happens to in the here and now. But life is no more than a series of better next time. So you rehearse dialogues: To “Do you always stare at strangers this way?” your answer might be “No, never, but I have to because we may never meet again.” Or you’re asked which is your stop, and your answer would be a clever “It was two stops ago.” “Why did you stay on the train then?” “If you ask it’s because you already know the answer.”
You try to say somethings witty. But nothing comes.
You want to say simple words, even if they’re totally flatfooted. But you can’t even find the words.
Can you think of anything?
Maybe it’s because everyone seems to be staring at you. Or maybe because your words might unleash a torrent of rebukes. Maybe you fear that un mistakable No, which has been dogging your entire life, because life’s Yesses always disappear; the Nos stick forever after.
But then without thinking: “Would it be totally wrong if I asked you to remove your mask?” you ask.
“Because I want to remember your face.”
“Because something is happening and I’m scared to know its name.”
The mask is quietly lowered.
“Yes, very happy.”
But now comes the unexpected, the one you’d put down a million because it’s the last thing you’d ever have imagined anyone asking.
“Your turn now.”
“My turn what?”
“To remove your mask.”
We burst out laughing
“Do you believe something is happening?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Where do you get off?”
“Two station stops ago.”