Pass the Wipes

By Wendy Mass | October 15, 2020

Deadlines don’t care about pandemics, but it’s very challenging to craft a novel when the dumpster fire that is 2020 is more consuming than any work of fiction could ever be. This year is full of tangled storylines, confusing subplots, and conflicts that never get resolved. Like @mia_sade’s viral post pointed out, “So many plot holes. Like where did the murder hornets go? Why introduce them if they aren’t important to the story?” Add in all the unreliable narrators, and 2020 is just bad storytelling.

Then there’s all the new lingo that goes along with the pandemic. Since ancient times, we’ve been coming up with new words to give substance to our thoughts and experiences. Naming concepts is what brings them into existence, and I can’t help but be fascinated by the new pandemic vocabulary that seemingly overnight and without our permission, has united us in shared lexicon. Somewhere there’s a parallel universe where terms like social distancing, flatten the curve, contact tracing, remote learning, and even tasty ones like quarantini simply don’t exist. That universe’s version of me hasn’t spent the last seven months trying to keep both kids and elderly parents safe and fed and educated and entertained (the kids are great, the parents are infuriating). That other/luckier me hasn’t lost months of her life to doomscrolling on this seemingly-never-ending coronacoaster (bonus points for using two new pandemic words in one sentence!). I feel like I am constantly yelling down to the teenage ride operator who keeps falling asleep when he should be pushing the stop button and letting passengers off.

Alongside the new words, a whole set of uninvited behaviors have also popped up. For some of us though, they aren’t so new. In November 2019–when life was still normal–some friends held an informal intervention in my living room. The topic? My intense avoidance of germs. They brought up the fact that I always made my kids use their sleeves to touch public door handles, grocery carts, restaurant menus and elevator buttons, always had hand sanitizer and wipes at the ready, had a sign posted on my front door that said, “Please take off your shoes when you enter and don’t leave with a nicer pair,” always carried a pen/stylus combo in case I needed to sign something so I didn’t have to use someone else’s pen (or god-forbid, my bare finger on a touchscreen), and I always asked for disposable cups at restaurants. My friends insisted that looking at every surface like it was contaminated by some invisible enemy wasn’t good for my wellbeing, was not serving my kids’ immunity systems, and in the case of the cups, was bad for the environment. In short, they declared: You. Are. Germophobic. And it needs to stop.

I am only germ-conscious, I argued. I insisted in vain that I was doing my small part to help keep my family healthy, and didn’t everyone make their kids change their clothes when they came in from school after they’d shared chairs and desks all day?

Turns out they didn’t. Their kids were even allowed to sit on their beds in the clothes they’d worn to school (shudder!). Nor did they order special tray-table covers for flying, or wrap a hotel TV remote in the see-through shower cap to avoid touching it directly.

I could have kept arguing, but I’d run out of steam. I was ready to stop these behaviors. Fighting an invisible (and likely imaginary) enemy daily for years was exhausting on so many levels. Shaking someone’s hand and then hoping they didn’t see me whipping out the sanitizer later always made me feel bad. And I knew my family had taken just about all they could take and were likely getting alcohol poisoning from all the sanitizer I’d thrust upon them. I told myself from then on, I’d let my kids glide their hands along a railing, hold a dollar bill or a menu or pet a stranger’s dog without immediately washing their hands. I worked hard at telling myself over and over that there’s nothing dangerous lurking on that surface.

Slowly but surely, I started to believe it. My surroundings started to feel less threatening and I realized what a heavy weight I’d been carrying around. The day I watched the kids put their hands all over muddy bleachers at a football game and then resume eating popcorn without yanking out the wipes, I knew I’d made progress. The next day I left the sanitizer at home. On purpose.

And then a few short months later, along came the pandemic. The first week the virus hit the Northeast I drove past Starbucks and saw a sign on the window saying they were now only serving in disposable cups. It was surreal, and I admit I felt vindicated. Turns out I wasn’t crazy after all, just ahead of the curve! And while everyone else was scrambling to find hand sanitizer, I already had a lifetime supply! In fact, I hadn’t been doing enough—I hadn’t been using gloves to open the mail and I certainly hadn’t been sanitizing our groceries. I only washed my hands to the tune of Happy Birthday, when I should have been doing the Alphabet song! Now with the onset of the pandemic, everyone in the world was ordered to become a germaphobe. No shaking hands, no touching surfaces (or your face!), spray /wipe /wash / sanitize /cover your mouth/don’t get too close.

Friends now joked that I had been right all along. But I didn’t want to be right. It turns out that misery doesn’t love company, and it was so much better for my sanity not looking at everything and everyone like they had cooties. But like they said in the movie Airplane, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”

Well, you know what I mean. I had nearly convinced myself that there really weren’t invisible germs ready to kill you at every turn. I understand the need for these precautions currently, but when this is over I’m going to have to work twice as hard to recover the progress I’d made. I don’t know if this aspect of the pandemic is harder for those of us who struggled with it beforehand, but it definitely adds an extra emotional burden. I can’t wait to leave this new vocabulary and isolating behaviors behind. I want to throw out the wipes again and hug everyone hard, whether I know them or not. I’ll be too happy that my kids are actually attending school, to make them change their clothes when they get home.

Well, I may still do that last one. But I’ll get in those hugs first.

Copyright © 2020 Wendy Mass
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