Just to confirm your suspicions, Kina is definitely not allergic to breath—mine or hers or anybody else’s, though she does have a tendency to sneeze lately when she stumbles into our bed in the morning, which I chalk up to seasonal allergies or an embarrassing surfeit of mystery dust in our bedroom. She has always been hyperconscious of breathy behaviors, admonishing us for “breathing too hard” or commenting on the excessive breathiness of a room upon entering it, but it’s never risen to the level of an allergic reaction. She’s just thinking a lot about breath lately, which I suppose is true of all of us.
One of the things I think I’ve forgotten in the last year is what it means to be in a room with a bunch of other mouth-breathers. Sharing breath, a behavior to which I had never really given any thought before, has become A Real Scary Thing. Over the years, I have found myself sitting in poorly-ventilated office conference rooms with air so heavy that I’ve had to slink out for a deep breath of my own, diving back in once I’d cleared my lungs of carbon dioxide. How was this ever acceptable? Like trysts and talk therapy, breathing together now feels like an intimate act to be conducted with strangers only when absolutely necessary. This thing we never noticed has become a privilege and a responsibility—the former we grant only to the ones we love, the latter we undertake under duress.
I feel incredibly vulnerable now when I take off my mask with other people; its removal signals an acceptance of our shared condition and our willingness to risk illness to have a more personal connection with one another. We cannot smile at each other, eat with each other, whisper to each other with our masks on, which makes any decision to form an emotional connection with another person visibly explicit. Outdoors, these gestures have a certain significance, but to be so vulnerable indoors requires a lot more calculation, and it’s exhausting (no pun intended). Taking off my mask at home among my family here—Laurea, Kina, and Kina’s nanny, Hannah—is a source of deep relief; I know I can be among these people, and I care about them. It’s not that I don’t think about the air they breathe; in fact, it’s that I’ve made a conscious decision to share that air with them.
I’ve lost a few friends, in the breakup sense, lately. Not worth going into detail, but many of you will have experienced how the polarizing events and ideas that emerged in the last year can drive a wedge into even the closest relationship. When this is all over (if it will ever be over), what will it be like to share a room with them again? Setting aside the viral gamble, do I want to share my breath or spare it? As immunity becomes more prevalent, even in pockets, we’re all going to be making some conscious decisions to be in the room with people we don’t love with the same breathy intensity as we do our families. We may find that we’ve developed a sort of allergy to each other over the last year, and navigating that is likely to be dicey.
Still, as the weather grows warmer and more workplaces plan to reopen, I can feel my guard dropping. Maybe it’s the vaccine, maybe it’s an actual yearning for shared air. We want to connect to others, to smile and whisper and eat. Breathing alone is crisp and safe, but it’s far from inspiring—again, no pun intended. Inspiration, in its original Latin meaning, referred to the act of breathing into somebody—an idea, as we generally understand it, but we can take that meaning more literally today; I think we all are more thoughtful now about those from whom we take our inspiration, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.