Seeing faces

I've spent the last three Saturdays having breakfast alone at the McDonald's nearest to the flat.

I mean, why not? Shalla's usually asleep by this time, and I'd be too lazy to make breakfast for myself, since it's, you know, Saturday. I know, usually I look forward to making breakfast on weekends, particularly when we had a French toast phase, one which will surely come back around in a couple of months or so. But since I've been doing most of the cooking, I guess I miss the days when I can wake up and not do much for the first hour, and maybe for the second or third, too.

Since I wake up at five in the morning most days now, this means not eating anything until roughly half past eight. I'd be watching something on the television, maybe drinking some Milo, all that time. Sweep the floor - it's not a big flat, so it's done in ten minutes, and maybe I'd squeezed in some mopping, too. Take a shower, get clothed, and head to the grocery. Along the way, the McDonald's. See. It makes sense.

I guess you could call it a treat to myself. I feel guilty, sure, because I'm doing it alone. (And before you react, this isn't me trying to sneakily squeeze out some me-time. Shalla works the night shift. It's pretty hot outside most days. The best time for her to sleep, at least until we finally buy an air conditioner for the bedroom, is when the sun has barely gone up.) But since I don't have to fall in line for an hour before the grocery opens - we have all wisely decided to fall in line at five minutes to nine - I might as well extend my pondering hours. "Muni-muni", as my mother would put it. And I finally get to eat breakfast, too. The usual. A sausage McMuffin, some iced coffee - one of the few times I would allow myself to have some coffee - and a hash brown.

The restaurants have been opening their doors to dine-in customers again these past few weeks. That doesn't mean we'd come rushing in. A couple of months ago I mentioned how Shalla was apprehensive about eating in a restaurant, which meant we found ourselves eating our burgers inside the car, in the parking lot. That meant jokes about how the security staff might assume we were doing something... else inside the car.

A few weeks ago, we finally decided to eat out. Somewhat on a whim, I must add. We were at the Shang and Shalla got peckish, and we ended up having a really early dinner - it wasn't five in the afternoon yet, but you're used to your routines changing when you live with someone who's more or less in another time zone - at this grilled cheese place we've been seeing for a while now. I remember scoffing at the idea of a restaurant that specializes in grilled cheese, but, well, I'm happy to be proven wrong, because the food is actually good. Or maybe it's because we haven't eaten out in months.

Remember when you spent hours waiting in line at Panda Express just to be able to boast about it on social media? Now there are no lines, and they've had no choice but to deliver via Grab. And we've been there thrice before all this happened. But that's me showing off uselessly, and also, I digress.

The grilled cheese place normally seats, I'm guessing, fifty people. When we went there, there were only six: a group of four occupied the middle-most table, one that would, in the old days, occupy maybe eight. They were chatting, masks off, shields off - this was the early days of face shields being required in malls, something that was only codified on a national level this week - and it kind of felt normal, since I've been seeing folks on television do the same, only with cameras on. I didn't think much of it, because I was relieved to not have to wear a face shield, at least for a while. That, and it's because we haven't eaten out for months. I haven't eaten out for months.

The second time I did it was three weeks ago, when I craved for a McMuffin and decided to eat inside a McDonald's for a change. It felt somewhat weirder. There were a bit more people - the branch sits right by a call center, after all - but there were no longer tables for groups. Everything is a table for two, and even then there's a plastic barrier separating each person. You only need a phone handset and it's like you're visiting someone in prison. But for me, a guy who always ate alone when I had a job that required me to be in the office every weekday, this was a boon. Nobody has to look at me weirdly for occupying a whole table.

(It could be weirder. The food court at the Shang, for one, has been rearranged to the point where only one person can occupy a table, and every table is spaced roughly two meters apart. It's like you're taking a college entrance exam at a really cavernous auditorium.)

The pandemic has also meant McDonald's has become a table service restaurant. I know they've been doing this at some branches for a while, but I never really took advantage of it, because, I mean, it is a fast food restaurant, and it feels like you're taking away staff from others who also want a quick bite because you insist on not getting out of your chair. Now, though, there really isn't much to do, so they can serve you, well, your McMuffin and your iced coffee and your hash brown. Not exactly feed-worthy, but you take what you get these days. That, and removing that wretched face shield. I mean, how can you eat with that on?

As I tucked into my breakfast, I saw two ladies, perhaps from the call center, chatting and laughing. And then it occurred to me. I haven't seen faces in a long time. I forgot what faces look like.

Sure, it might sound like an exaggeration. I see Shalla's face daily. I chat with my colleagues on Zoom. But in every other setting, we have to wear face masks (and, ugh, face shields). It makes it a little more difficult to communicate. Everyone is muffled. (Or I'm really getting deaf.) Gestures that used to be acceptable in the old times just don't cut it anymore. I mean, you could smile at the security guard for opening the door for you, but they won't see that anymore, for your mouth sits underneath a face mask and the light bouncing off your motherfucking face shield, those things that do more than most to prevent you from breathing, give you a headache, make your sweaty forehead more uncomfortable and remind you that you're wearing it because the government wants you to think it's on top of things. But, again, I digress.

I forgot what faces look like. All they are now are avatars, covered up by masks. You have to work a little harder to express yourself, to know that you're being understood. My weekly errands mean I'm now a familiar face at both the laundry - where one of the staff shares my sentiments about these putrid face shields, and you do know I am exaggerating for dramatic purposes, right? - and the meat counter at the grocery. The woman who mans the pork section saw me, smiled - I could tell because her eyes changed - and waved at me. In normal times, doing that might suggest a flirty undertone, but really, all we wanted was to reestablish some sort of human decency. And for me to talk about how they have ground pork on time this time around, for a change.

It's one of those things we take for granted, I guess. Not the dining out, not entirely. Not the going out on a whim. It's seeing other faces, complete faces. It's knowing instinctively what to do. It's the connections we make. It's no surprise we're all more anxious and depressed these past few months, and the gut feel we have about "we're flattening the curve" not being entirely true makes it all worse. And yes, I know we're all living online now, but, to borrow an anecdote from one of my colleagues - and I'm sure you feel this too, without necessarily using the same terms - networking sucks when you do it online. But for how long, I wonder, will we have to make sense of all this?

And your responses...

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