‘I don’t have to smile if I don’t feel like it!’: Covid freed me from politeness and unwanted touching | Life and style

August 28, 2020

Just before the New York shutdown for Covid, I’d been kvetching all over the place about people touching me too much. It was the feminist rant of a woman with experience in the service industry, mostly. But in particular, a guy who’d recently not-really-asked me out had decided to repeatedly reinforce his ambiguous, undeclared interest in me by putting his hands on my shoulders at the slightest provocation whenever he ran into me in public, coming up from behind me while I sat working at my computer at a cafe, or just going full-frontal, sometimes sideways, even.

Along came the shutdown. Suddenly, people who used to reach for me found themselves spasmodically curling their arms back to bring their hands to their chests, and standing six feet away from me.

It was delightful.

And then there were the masks: I no longer had to smile if I didn’t feel like it! That, too, was fortifying.

One day, during a walk, I saw the shoulder-clapping fellow I’d kvetched about rounding the corner and veered away from him into the street, and, our eyes meeting above our masks, I said out loud, “Oh, my God! Get away from me!” and laughed rather insanely as we passed each other. It was the laughter of a woman freed and sanctioned by circumstance to demand that men respect her personal space at last. It’s the one thing I hope never changes back.

I have been known to squawk publicly on the subject of male misconduct, yet I remain, frustratingly, the product of a “good” upbringing, brainwashed into automatic “nice girl” behavior, meaning: never do or say anything that might anger or humiliate a man, which is frighteningly easy to do. So, when the guy put his hands on me, I froze, instead. When he was gone, my meltdown consisted of complaining to my friends, as one does when one is raised this way. But this is no way to live: I’ve since learned from younger women that it’s healthier to just risk the anger of men, even if it means … risking the anger of men.

I’m not a very touchy-feely person. It has taken me years – decades – to learn to put my arm around someone in friendship. Putting my arm around my late husband was the only form of PDA I engaged in with him, right up until the day he died. I just wasn’t good at it. And why should I be, I sometimes wondered? Did I owe everyone a piece of myself? Didn’t I already give plenty? Submitting to the public’s daily appraisal of my appearance and saying thank you when they approved, smiling even when I didn’t feel like it just so I could get along in the world seemed like quite enough, without also having to let people continually touch me.

My last day job was in a cafe until I taught a course at Suny New Paltz this spring, where I loved not touching/being touched by my students (except emotionally), in such contrast to my day job in the cafe. I am spoiled, now. As a server, I’d had to tolerate a lot of demands from strangers to fake-adore them, particularly from men. Whoever did that study about how servers who touched their customers got better tips than those who didn’t should be boiled alive. I blame that study for the fact that everyone now wants to leverage their tips on how much you seem to love them. Ugh.

With every year that went by at that job, I grew less tolerant and began saying things like, “I don’t like to discuss my physical appearance, thank you, can I take your order?” or “Please don’t call me ‘young lady’. I am a grown woman.” After teaching last semester, I never wanted to work in service again.

The longer I spent alone, the more I felt like I belonged to myself again. I will admit that the period of bereavement after my late husband’s death was an education in learning to touch and be touched by friends who sincerely cared, and it was valuable and humanizing. It was also about time! But the extreme isolation of sheltering in place was like falling off the wagon: loneliness was a comfortable old armchair that I settled into almost guiltily.

Knowing I’d likely never work at my local cafe again, I felt free to walk past the customers I’d never liked and not smile or even greet them. I sometimes pretended not to see them at all. Oh, the joy! I only stopped short of saying, “I never liked you.” It reminded me of Mark Twain’s short story, The Facts Concerning a Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut, in which the narrator manages to eliminate his conscience and goes on a killing spree – that’s how sinful it feels for a woman to not smile at strangers who greet her.

I don’t think I’ll ever go back to my ladylike ways. Blame the ’rona or congratulate me for my newfound self-possession, but whichever you do, stand back six feet while you’re doing it, please.

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