The woman behind me in the supermarket checkout line stood at the designated red line and started unloading her groceries onto the very end of the conveyor belt. The bagger had gone to get me a replacement for a defective item. This took a couple of minutes and, apparently, the woman’s resolve to do the right thing wore thin.

She moved over the red line to put more boxes and cans down. Then she moved even closer to me, until she was about 3 feet away.

I said, through my mask, “You’re supposed to stay behind the red line.”

She threw up her arms. “Well, excuse me!” Then she added, “I’m wearing a mask.”

I said, “I don’t care.”

Am I proud of this interaction? No. But this is what it has come to. Safety over civility.

As my husband, Paul, said when I told him about the thoughts I’ve been having on this subject, “We are having to redefine what it means to be human.”

Unfortunately for me, I’ve been redefined as a misanthrope.

I am a shy person who avoids confrontation. I prefer to seek positive solutions to problems. So I have to be pushed to the wall to tell someone to get out of my space.

Nowadays, pushed to the wall is my default position.

I know I’m not alone, and I try to remember that when I have negative interactions (which have been mercifully few). There are those who are furious about having to wear a mask. There are those who are angry at those who won’t wear a mask. Everything we do outside our homes is complicated. But we are tired of staying home. Our nerves have been stretched and frayed.

I used to think I was a “people person,” but my feelings toward others have turned rather sour. Luckily, they will never know this, as they are strangers.

Take, for example, the couple who had parked themselves in front of the shelves of seltzer. I gave them two minutes. Then she started haranguing him about something he had put in their cart. That was it. “Excuse me,” I said, pointing to the seltzer I wanted to purchase.

They both turned and looked at me with expressions of total astonishment. Neither was wearing a mask, but even in the pre-pandemic era I wouldn’t have reached around them to get what I wanted.

If I hadn’t been wearing a mask I would have smiled and said, “I just need to get in there…” Though I am a staunch supporter of mask wearing, I have to admit that they make communication difficult. No one can see that I am smiling. So I do a lot of waving — I can only hope it’s interpreted as “thank you” and “no, it’s fine that you almost ran into my carriage with your carriage.”

Plus, I kind of have to shout to make myself heard. That is not friendly.

I get angry with people I encounter while out walking. Paul and I will slip into single file if we see others approaching on a trail. We will “pull over” if necessary. Most of our fellow walkers do the same, but there are those who insist on walking two (or more) abreast, and invariably they are talking loudly.

As they pass, I can’t help but see microscopic virus-infused particles swirling in the air. Right toward me.

Yes, I know that is completely ridiculous. This is what it has come to.

I feel anger toward the people who let their children run or bicycle ahead of them. Just this past weekend, Paul and I were on a narrow woodland trail when I saw a boy of about 10 running pell-mell toward us.

“Incoming!” I said to Paul, and we moved off the path. But he never made it to us. Instead, he climbed into a tree so he could surprise the rest of his family.

They walked two abreast. Two abreast, down the trail, so Paul and I had to stand aside and wait.

I haven’t gone completely over to the dark side. I am very happy to see friends and colleagues via Zoom. I enjoy interactions with strangers outside — who behave themselves at the appropriate distance. Email and texting are wonderful ways to communicate!

At the moment, Mainers are keeping the number of new COVID cases down. I am convinced this is because the majority of us are playing by the new rules, and because we had a phased-in opening of businesses based on scientific evidence.

But we have to assume that everyone we meet is carrying the virus, and to protect ourselves accordingly. This is not paranoia, as the most recent findings show that many people are either pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic.

I know my anger is really a reflection of my fear. Luckily, there are ways I can show love for my fellow humans: I can wear a mask, keep my hands clean and step aside on the path. And if you see me waving, remember that it means “thank you,” not “get away.” Really.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected].


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