That’s how I saw him. I was on my way into the restaurant to pick up my order. He was on the way out, holding a clear bag full of noodle trays and soup cartons. For a second, we paused, the upbeat that precedes each social distancing dance move. I broke the pause with a body juke and syncopated step aside. He chose a subtle sway. Throughout this maneuvering, the man was close enough for me to see his face. We were in a tight food corridor, after all. But we were also far enough apart for me to size up his shoulders, his hair, the cut of his jacket. And it was a natural thing for me to do, notice. There was nothing else to rest my eyes on. No elevator buttons to fumble with or “Walk Your Dog, Cheap!” flyers to pretend to read. There were no distractions, no crush of others trying to get by. It was just us, captured together in a restaurant entranceway, being polite. Then he was gone. He passed to my left and out of my life without an exchange of phone numbers, carbon monoxide, or airborne particulates for that matter—well, hardly any, I suppose. But it is so bizarre. I have that image of his upper half stuck in my head, as if a Polaroid, the kind of vision-stamp my neurons usually reserve for the single-shoe-in-the-roadway sighting or a red shellacked front door.
Is it possible that by slowing down and moving apart, we have all become more visible? Or am I just hungry for contact? Come to think of it, when was the last time I felt a bump and heard an “Excuse me”? It seems like forever and ever ago.
Maybe it was the coat that seared the memory—jacket, actually. Wool blend. Boxy. Hip length. It was a solid light color with four buttons. It had a lapel or collar; I cannot remember which. As a Polaroid does, the image is fading. I’m usually practical when it comes to outerwear. How many hats does one need today? What is that boot’s temperature rating? Are there shovels and blankets in the trunk of the car? Does anyone even know how to light a roadside flare? But not today. Today, I’m thinking only about the venture between the car door to the restaurant’s take-away spot and the chance encounter with another human being. A neighbor from somewhere, reminding you and me that we are not alone. They are not alone. And what will they see of me, by the way? What is my arm’s-length screen shot? What if someone were to stand back, play director—put up their thumbs and index fingers—and frame my shot, the Hollywood equivalent of a health check? Only instead of asking, “Are you currently experiencing a runny nose, watery eyes, or fever?” the wardrobe assistant would look at me and say, “Dear lord, is that your son’s coat?”
What would you choose? How would you dress for a chance encounter, or to give yourself an edge at getting a few extra servings of your favorite savory sauce? A houndstooth plaid oversized coat with a hoodie underneath (with thumbholes please, because who wouldn’t kill for a little Breakfast Club detention?), maybe. A prim double breasted, because you are who you are, topped by an infinity’s worth of scarf. A neat quilted and belted wrap, in sage, to get you in the mood to rebinge The Crown for dessert. How about a faux leather trench, or a halfsies puffer because who says a midriff cut is only for summer? If teddy bear faux fur is your thing, okay, no judgments. Snuggle away. But slush is for real, so can I at least nag that, for carhops, shorter is better? Or go duffel or twisted knit and, ohhhh, what I wouldn’t give to have the nerve to try velvet. I dare you to visit, for example, the Zara website and not see the potential of the world of short hops. Ins and outs. It is the one time you can look at a website full of “winter” coats—ha, ha, as if they know winter—and not have to mutter, “Yes, it might be the one, but is it insulated?” Besides, we already have the Alo Yoga Haze long sleeve top in raisin heather from Buffalo Fleece and Outerwear to wear underneath.
Quarantining, isolating, hibernating. The dark. I walk the sidewalk at dinnertime, under the streetlights, heading out for my own dinner order. But the scene has changed. The walkway is quieter; the stretch of cars idling in front of a string of restaurants is longer. Each driver waits for the alert that grants them passage inside. Many of these occupants have already idled like this once today. They have picked up kids from school and are now waiting to pick up roasted mushroom dumplings and kimchi ramen. “Ahhh, dumplings,” they think, tired and hungry. “Wait, did I remember to get the kids?” Because of the glare of the streetlights, I cannot see them sitting inside these cars, not clearly anyway. The glass reflects, and, although I’m yearning to see people, my neighbors, I am not rude. All I can hope is to catch a glimpse of the one whose turn is next. They will get out of their car and I will pause. I will adjust, in my awkward way, to a half of a step and give them space. They will pass by me at arm’s length, and click, click, click, click my eyes will live-record. It will feel good inside, too, because these days it is never just my tummy that’s hungry.