Those Blurry People
I’m sitting on a crate in a big warehouse filled with bodies, and I can’t seem to process anyone’s face.
My mask is pulled up high on my nose, with my glasses perched over the seam of the fabric, blocking the cloud of my breath. It’s the middle of the day, the very start of the film festival, and the warehouse is flooded with light from second-story windows. People are moving about slowly, grabbing complementary beers, and moseying up to one another to exchange waves and astonished, gosh-I-haven’t-seen-you-in-forever hugs. I can trace the outlines but I can’t see the details, can’t bring any of the shadowy figures into focus.
It’s the first indoor, in-person performance my boyfriend’s theater company has gotten to hold since the pandemic began, and I know the room is full of people I’m familiar with. I know it. Coworkers of his, former students who have messaged me on Instagram, friends of his who have become friends of mine. I could squint through the crowd and spot a few halfway familiar eye sockets hovering over their own cloth protectors. I could. But I can’t. I should be able to, it’s a thing everybody can do, and I need to learn how, but I can’t, so I don’t.
I’m overwhelmed by the chaos of movement, the emotional torrent of other faces and bodies recognizing one another. I can’t tell when somebody recognizes me. It’s hard to anticipate who I will see and when, or to conjure how somebody’s real-life, masked visage differs from their social media face. It’s impossible to tell when somebody actually wants me to walk up to them, to start a conversation, and when they’re giving off every nonverbal cue imaginable that they hate my guts. In situations like these, every neutral signal reads as a negative one to me, a barbed warning to keep away. So I do.
I have a social algorithm that serves me well in small groups and one-on-one conversations. I can be charming and emotionally present, with eye contact that makes a person feel seen, even if it lingers a little too long. I can pull life details that I’ve gathered from social media out of my memory, and ask questions that feel carefully considered, because they have been. I can prepare for small-scale interactions, walk down different conversational pathways in my mind…