The Art of Seeing by Michael Milton
In perilous times, our deepest human impulse is to draw close to each other—the very thing we’ve been told not to do in the wake of COVID-19.
I recently went out for a haircut, as the city entered Phase 2 of its reopening. I arrived at the salon far ahead of my appointment time. I was eager to be engaging in an activity I considered fairly routine not so long ago.
I bought a banana and peanut butter smoothie with oat milk from the juice shop next door to the salon and then leaned against the exterior wall and watched as fellow Upper Westsiders drifted by. Folks nodded at one another, or executed more formal Asian-styled bows in the others’ direction, smiles evidenced by the crinkling of their eyes at the corners under masks. Some still got a kick out of tapping elbows.
Greta Garbo, the great and elusive beauty of twentieth century cinema said “I vhant to be alone,” but then, she hadn’t been through our current health crisis. If alive today, she may well have reconsidered her most identifying sobriquet.
I really needed this haircut.
Newly emerging mutton chop sideburns echoed a look I sported back when Ronald Reagan was our president and the length of my hair was nearly such I could have utilized a bowl to achieve the look of my teenage years’ icon, singer Davy Jones of The Monkees.
At least I wasn’t stuck with roots not matching the rest of my hair, a dilemma which plagued many of my friends. Only last year, I was still having my rapidly graying hair streaked, a regimen which required monthly ‘touch ups,’ deemed necessary by the bitch goddess Clairol and the other demi-divinities at the temple of Agelessness. Regularity was mandatory once one had embarked on the hair coloration journey. Cost and chemicals finally caused me to disaffiliate from that particular cult and I lapsed back into salt and pepper which inched towards solid salt each year.
As I waited outside the salon, I amused myself wondering if years from now a psychiatric syndrome would emerge as one of the by-products of the shut-down. I imagined that it would have some fancy scientific name identifying its sufferers, but perhaps would be referred to euphemistically as “the covid-crazies.”
Symptoms would include fear of being alone and yet also fear of being with people. Fear of sneezing in public and alarmingly reactive when others did so. Terror of doorknobs, counter tops, spigots. Obsessive hand washing. Sufferers will be unable to help themselves from working the word ‘virtual’ into virtually every conversation. And as one might suspect, any sort of physical intimacy would become a central issue of every therapist’s future sessions with their covid crazies.
As I turned all of this over in my mind waiting for my appointment, I found less humor in it than I thought I might. My generation emerged under the grim specter of AIDS, back in the mid-1980’s. Then, a positive diagnosis was a death sentence. Science was still years away from being able to categorize AIDS as simply ‘chronic.’
Many friends of mine lucky enough to have lived out the storm of AIDS have yet to recover trust in intimacy, faith in love or fulfillment in sex.
“Safer to watch porn.” Or, “I’m too old for all of that. You’ll never get me out there again.”
I understand. It is almost impossible to shed the grim images which haunted us those first dozen or so years of the disease. Thousands of us developed the daily habits of checking for swollen lymph nodes, of checking our tongues for the appearance of the whitish paste of thrush, of searching for black and blue lesions which could appear overnight on any part of the body.
To this day, I still catch myself fingering the glands under my chin or wondering where exactly I got that bruise on my shin or arm.
And those first frantic, desperate AIDS years wondering what constituted ‘safe.’ Could we share a glass of water? A forkful of dessert? A kiss?
Will survivors of the covid crisis suffer similarly? Will hand-holding summon up images of respirators? Will a hug bring the remembrance of raspy dry coughs and skyrocketing temperatures? How long after the Coronavirus has left us will we worry about tumors brought on by the sickness begin to emerge somewhere within our bodies?
How odd that these two plagues—that brought so much needless suffering and death—were overseen by two intransigent American presidents who dealt with what ought to have been times of compassion and love by turning them into politically-fueled battlegrounds; times when the most extreme representatives of those presidents’ party saw each disease as a cleansing opportunity, one to wipe the social slate clean of gay men and women; the other to rid society of people of color and the elderly.
The young woman who worked at the front desk of the salon had to rap loudly on the plate glass front window to break my reverie. She waved me inside. Needless to say, my mood was a bit dampened by now. But when I entered, my nostrils were titillated by the scents of a hundred different beauty products.
I fell into a trance that only the right combination of hairspray, shampoos, conditioners and a dozen various strengths of hair gel can produce. I allowed myself to be led to a seat at the sink and gave myself over completely to the absolute pleasure of my hair being washed, my scalp massaged, my ear lobes rubbed. This was the most physical intimacy I had experienced in weeks. The dark imaginings of just ten minutes before had mostly evaporated and I could feel my joie de vie returning.
Settled comfortably into a swivel salon chair, I noticed there was an older woman occupying the seat at the station one over from mine. I am an inveterate eavesdropper and as my stylist circled me like a planet’s moon armed with scissors, a comb and a spray bottle, I discovered the woman’s name was Renee, she was seventy-eight and she had been coming to her stylist—Marlyne—for twelve years.
Marlyne asked her about someone named ‘Sal.’
“She had a stroke,” Renee reported. “She died in the hospital.” She added ominously, “Sal didn’t die of the stroke.”
The mask Renee wore over her nose and mouth did little to muffle the devastation in her voice.
Marlyne moved to hug Renee and then caught herself and simply said, “I’m so sorry. I’ll miss seeing her.”
“Forty-eight years,” Renee continued. “Forty-eight years,” she repeated, as though not quite believing the vastness of that number herself. And after a moment she added, “I won’t like living alone.”
The roar of the hair dryer Marlyne wielded made further conversation between the two impossible.
Bursts of hot air blew my way while I studied Renee in the mirror in front of us. She had short and incredibly healthy-looking white hair. Bright blue eyes. Great cheekbones. She was petite. Elegant.
“You’re all done, my dear,” Marlyne chirped, perhaps a bit too brightly.
Renee nodded but didn’t move. After a moment, she eased her mask down to uncover her mouth and stared at her reflection, tilting her chin coquettishly from one side to the other.
She then asked, “Do you think I’m still attractive?” managing to sound both poignant and pragmatic.
Marlyne smiled. “Yes. I do. You are a very attractive woman.”
Renee pulled up her mask and rose from her seat. After slipping cash into Marlyne’s hand, she moved a bit stiffly towards the front of the salon. The sound system softly played Whitney Houston’s hit song, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
My own stylist had now aimed his dryer at me, pushing miniature hay stacks of clumped hair scurrying off the black smock and down onto the marble-tiled floor.
Forty-eight years and now, suddenly alone.
What had Renee been thinking about a moment before as she gazed at her reflection?
She may have simply been through so much of late and had momentarily lost any connection to the face looking back at her. Maybe she had pulled out her collection of ancient moues and sweet smiles to see if she could stir up memories of her younger self, a time when Sal was still alive, when the two were still a couple.
Or had she been contemplating the eventual possibility of meeting someone new to share life with? Had she been weighing the affects visited upon her visage by the passage of time and perhaps decided the romantic game might still be played in the time she had left.
I wanted her decision to be the latter. I wanted her to be the one to get out there, to “get back in the game,” the very game some of my friends had eschewed years ago. I wanted Renee to be off finding new love among the ruins.
AIDS had done its emotional and psychological damage to so many of us. I dreaded the very real possibility that covid-19 would end up doing the same.
Renee had admitted it aloud. She didn’t like living alone.
Who, after these past months, wouldn’t agree? No one vhants to be alone.
‘Renee’ means re-born? Renee! You already have that on your side, my dear. Find an app and start swiping.
When the time is right, find intimacy again. Get out there! Do it for you. And do it for so many of us who abandoned all of that years ago.
Those of us still alive are rooting for you.
Be reborn, Renee.
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