We are told that there are seven universal facial expressions. A little curvature of the mouth, a scrunched nose, a wrinkle above the brow; mere syllables of a language we’re all designed to communicate with.
Our mother’s tongue is tied, I think, as I spot yet another person whose lower face is obscured by a piece of cloth. I can sense a slight catch in their step when they notice me running toward them. By now, I am familiar with the pandemic street rules. Most sidewalks aren’t wide enough for two people to cross paths while maintaining the required distance, which means one person usually has to detour around stubborn grass or cherry-kissed pavement. Being the runner in this situation, the courtesy is mine to display. And so with half a block still to go, I push off the curb and continue to run on road. As I pass by the pedestrian, I meet their gaze briefly. This one is just as cryptic as the ones before. Slightly widened eyes, a deepened forehead crease… Is this simply a look of acknowledgement? A reproachful glare? Or... is it apprehension? These days I can no longer tell.
Unease slips into my throat like a hostile note.
Morning runs used to be more uplifting. Encouraging waves and hellos are now replaced with silence and tension. My neighbours are hardly recognizable. Though the sun beats from above, I feel the chill of everyone’s shadow. Perhaps I’m being too selfish. After all, we are all united by a shared sense of responsibility to combat this crisis - and yet, without a familiar face to greet, I can’t help but feel terrifyingly alone. In a world where we can no longer rely on reading the cursive of our cheekbones, I wonder if there is still a way for us to understand each other.
Later into my run I see a man in scrubs and a surgical mask walking across the parking lot. Judging by the slouch in his gait, he is coming off - or in the thick - of a long shift.
“Thank you for everything,” I call out, barely catching my breath as I turn the corner. I don’t think he manages to catch a glimpse of my face, but I hope my smile still reaches him somehow. I’d like to imagine that, underneath those heavy eyes and heavier blue armour, he is smiling too.