In trying to keep my distance from other people, I’m encountering a challenge I didn’t anticipate and haven’t figured out how to politely navigate: men in the South, more than anywhere else I’ve lived, are born and bred to hold doors for women. And in most cases, it’s impossible to maintain at least six feet between you and the person holding a door for you.
I’ve tried experimenting with creative ways to keep a healthy distance. When I see a man approaching the same door I’m heading toward, I slow my pace, reasoning that if I’m 20 or 30 feet away, he’ll get restless and manage to overcome the DNA coding that instructs him to wait for me to precede him. So far that hasn’t worked. Southern men are incredibly patient when they see a woman and a door within a football field’s length of each other. It’s actually quite sweet.
The other probably futile strategy I’ve adapted is to not inhale on the occasions when I can’t avoid being less than six feet from another person. My (admittedly unscientific) thinking is that if they happen to waft virus particles at me, at least I’m not breathing those particles in. Not inhaling around people is a viable option in some situations — like on a crowded fitness trail, when I’m trying to pass a cluster of four walkers, two joggers, a cyclist, a skateboarder, and three dogs without veering into the swamp next to the path. It works less well at places like Wal-mart, where I quickly found myself light-headed from oxygen deprivation.
Last night, a man held the door for me at the Cracker Barrel. When I realized that dawdling in the parking lot wouldn’t deter him, I picked up my pace and speed-walked through the doorway, not inhaling. I was ten feet into the store before I realized that he’d said he liked my shirt, and another ten feet before I remembered which shirt I had on and whether it was appropriate for a strange man to like (Snoopy hoodie, so yes). By the time I said, “Thanks,” I was halfway to the Sioux City Sarsaparilla. Hopefully he just thought I was in a hurry to get my soda and catfish, or maybe he understood that I was trying to follow social-distancing guidelines. My intent wasn’t to be rude.
Just like Southern men have generations of training to hold doors for women, many American women have been conditioned to be “nice.” Be compliant. Keep sweet. Often this is so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t speak up even when our safety is at risk — and when we do advocate for ourselves, we frequently face criticism, gaslighting, and second-guessing. I usually choose to say something when I think my safety or personal well-being is threatened, but if I feel uncomfortable because of behavior that I don’t believe is intended in a sinister or menacing way, I hold my peace. That’s my uneasy truce, and I don’t know if it’s the best way.
And now I don’t know if deferring to social norms of politeness in the face of a pandemic means holding on to vestiges of civility and common courtesy, or if it means putting health and lives at risk — or both.
But I know that looking another person in the eye, hearing their voice, and speaking to them are not things I’m taking for granted anymore.
Before Cracker Barrel, I was walking my dog and we heard a gunshot (probably someone shooting at targets in a nearby field). Rufus spooked, as he does with loud noises: flattened his ears and tail and tugged me in the opposite direction from where the noise had come (which also happened to be away from both the car and the way we were walking). I sat down on the grass and called his name. He immediately turned and crowded onto my lap. I hugged him for several minutes as his heart raced and he shook violently. I wished I had someone to hold me the way I was holding my dog, to talk softly to me and tell me things are going to be okay and I’m safe. Because I don’t know that right now. But I don’t think I’d trust anyone who did say it.
Eventually an older man walked past and stopped to chat for a few minutes. Nothing deep, just an exchange about our respective dogs. He stayed eight or nine feet away and we had to shout a little, but it was a mostly normal conversation in a world that’s suddenly become anything but normal — the first in-person communication I’d had in 48 hours — and it was like cool water in the Sahara.
I know I ought to be practicing gratitude and trying to find redemptive moments in this crisis. But I can’t yet. I’m grieving and resentful and furious with God. Yesterday I spent thirty minutes huddled on the floor of the shower, keening like a howler monkey. This is one of my worst nightmares. A lot of the free-floating existential dread I’ve felt throughout my life pointed toward this moment. I thought that was just anxiety but now I believe those were premonitions.
But occasionally gratitude still insinuates itself past the stone wall in my heart. And there are two things that stand out. One is that over the past two years, working out has become not just a part of my routine but something I love, something that sustains me. This week, exercise has become the anchor for my days, especially now that all the other structure is gone. It’s what gets me out of bed, gives me a reason to eat (because on non-class days I tend to cultivate an edge-of-hunger focus, but that can quickly tip into full-blown anxiety), motivates me to start up the computer and concentrate on my to-do list, gets me out of these four walls and into nature, and demarcates the work and non-work portions of my day.
I am also grateful (sometimes despite myself) that my mental health and personal healing have reached the point they have — not where I need to be, but better than I’ve ever been. Two years ago, I would have sequestered myself behind stacks of books, churning frenetically through fiction that I wouldn’t remember a day after I finished it. A year ago, I would have climbed the walls with anxiety and paced like a caged animal because I wasn’t ready to look at the demon sitting in the middle of my mind, and I wouldn’t have been able to sit still long enough to work or read or do anything but scream. Now, while I still lack the attention span for most fiction, I at least can read nonfiction that’s encouraging and inspiring and uplifting. And I understand more about how and why my brain responds to various situations, so I can, at least some of the time, take appropriate steps to talk myself down and keep myself on track.
What I’m learning from friends who are a bit further into lockdown is that the first week seems to be the worst. You start out ambitious, with a schedule and plans and determination, and then the angst, the despair, the loneliness, the frustration, the loss, the grief hit hard. And then you figure it out. You adjust to the new normal and even though you mourn for what you miss, you stop being overwhelmed by it. At least that’s how the trajectory seems to have gone for them. Maybe it will go that way for me, too. Maybe at some point I will find hope and even humor in all of this. Maybe there will be redemptive moments. Maybe living through this nightmare will somehow neutralize or even defeat the aspects that render it so terrifying for me.
But for now, I am just enduring. Letting men open doors for me, holding my breath, howling in the shower, hugging my dog, and spending as much time as I can outside in the sun.