Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Tabada: Masked interiors


THE eyes are restless creatures, fugitive fidgety wary.

Living near enough to Taal Volcano when it erupted last Jan. 12, I relocated to Metro Manila and took refuge behind an N95 mask.

The flimsy sheet of fiber has turned gray from airborne pollutants, whether from Taal’s ash or the metro haze mingling vehicle fumes, industrial waste and garbage gas.

The garters cupping the mask firmly over nose and mouth have snagged on my hair clip, setting loose a dangling pompom of dingy filament.

The mask is deformed, squashed by books and gadgets inside my tote or damp from constant inhalation and occasional coughing.

This mask of mine disgusts but I cannot throw it away.

It only takes a scintilla—a speck, a jot, an iota—to change life as we know it. For weeks, I have been leaning on science to make the unanticipated intelligible. Volcanic ash, air pollutants, novel coronavirus: At the heart is a matter so small as to be undetectable except to the instrumentation of science.

The N95 mask is said to effectively filter at least 95 percent of such particulates.

Yet, it is to the humanities I turn to seek meanings in the meaningless. Commuting daily last week, I observe how an infinity of masks transforms trains, buses and jeepneys into moving masque balls.

Here a winking cat, there a toothy skull grin. Bee-stung lips blowing a purple kiss in a sea of N95s, N88s and disposable gauze strips. A vendor on the MRT station fanning out cloth masks, including one with glitter.

Settling in my mask, I unmask other benefits. I yawn without covering up. When I doze while commuting, I don’t worry about snores or a slack mouth.

Releasing the repressed by reining in the lower half of the face shifts the focus on the eyes. Do I hear better from watching my neighbor’s eyes above the mask? If the eyes were masked, too, one would either be a crusader or a vigilante.

This mask of mine told me eloquently that I am not in the best shape to tackle all the stairways encountered in my everyday journey. Two staircases along Edsa, nine to reach the archives in the main library.

Or 12? I begin counting only to lose my place when the mask makes every step seem inordinately high or faraway.

Logically, I should unmask when I am inside the library, books always being my safeplaces. In the archives section, where they are moving personal papers and university files to a new building, dust motes are flying. Behind the mask, I am safe.

And humming. Despite the time-honored rule of silence, I hum with impunity while reading and handwriting notes under the Gorgon gaze of librarians. Behind the mask, of course.


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