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MELISSA DU PREEZ: 50 shades of lockdown: Masked confessions

OPINION

My breathing is heavy and laboured. I can feel the heat of it against my cheeks, leaving a slick sheen on my skin. Standing in the queue at Woolies, I cast furtive glances at the patrons around me, all sporting a variety of COVID-19 masks - wondering if they are experiencing the same thing. My mask - Trevor, I’ve begun to call him - has become the most intimate garment I own, outstripping even the skimpiest lingerie I own – I mean, its entire existence owes itself to keeping us safe while caressing our skin. How is that NOT intimate?

It hits me. I’m in a relationship with my mask! And, worryingly, it’s a good one. It swallows my irritated groans at long queues or slow drivers and the way a stray hair tickles my nose always makes me laugh.

If you want to make it Facebook official, it would be “complicated”. Its benefits haven’t been satisfactorily weighed. So far, in what’s touted as the first study of its kind, wearing surgical masks has been shown to cut the chances of those with COVID-19 infecting others by 75%, but its early days, so how does the average Joe like me make sense of it?

Regardless of how effective they are, they’ve become a hot sales item, with local businesses offering up increasingly stylish versions: From bedazzled, to sequined, to faux fur and more. Stripped of our traditional dating (and mating) rituals (read: late night out, drunken tears and next day shame), maybe fancy masks in the middle of a globally transformative health and yes, I’ll say it, escalating climate crisis is how we put ourselves out there now. But then there’s the next question.

As I ponder the new dance of modern romance, it happens. I notice someone new and when our eyes lock, my next breath catches in my throat. Before me stands a Herculean specimen of a man (I’m in a relationship, but come on, I’m only human!), arms loaded with what has become the middle-class lockdown essentials kit: 2-ply toilet roll, a bag of crisps, a 2L Coke Lite and a loaf of bread perched on top. He walks past, close enough to feel the air around me pulse and takes his place behind me in the queue. I turn instinctively for another flirtatious glance before bursting out with “You’re standing too close!” my voice muffled by my mask, as I point at the large yellow Xs along the floor that mark safe social distance. Too loud, the other shoppers glare down what I am fairly certain could have been my future husband. But my public faux pas leaves the dream shattered. Oh well, at least my mask can hide my embarrassment – he’s dependable like that.

It’s just as well, really.

How do people date or create a sense of meaningful intimacy in such a stark and frightening new reality? While our masks offer some reassurance, they can’t solve the loneliness that has crept in, or can they? I thought I’d reach out to a few singletons to see how they manage, if at all, to maintain connected relationships. The results were as varied as the people themselves.

For Nadia Meyer it seems the New Age Shopping Date is alive and well and breaking boundaries: “After chatting online for a while, we arranged to meet for a groceries run – wearing masks, buying tampons and all! It went really well.”

For others, lockdown has been a time to step back: “I am using this time to figure out exactly what I want in a relationship both emotionally and sexually. How I want to be treated and how I want my body to be held, and I would like to be more sexually open and adventurous - life really is too short to be too conservative," explains Liabilwe Sello.

Selaelo Mannya echoes the sentiment, saying, “Nothing beats physical touch. I’m very affectionate and thank goodness I have platonic intimacy with my friends. I’ve chosen to help flatten the curve by not risking my life for kisses and romance.”

For Mihailo Popović, lockdown has meant buckling down, throwing himself into work. “I haven’t had time to ‘bump’ into someone and I don’t use online platforms like Tinder to meet people - I’m old fashioned that way. I’m a ‘face value’ kind of person so for now it’s just me, myself and I.”

So, what have I learned? Two things. That we’re constantly evolving alongside a new world order showing no signs of disappearing any time soon and that we stand a better chance of weathering the storm together if we stay apart. My only hope is that Trevor and his ilk will keep us out of harm’s way while we adjust to the new normal.

Melissa du Preez is a former journalist and current communications officer.