On my daughter's second birthday in March, I got coughed on, and it was the kind of cough that happens on purpose, with the mask pulled down and curses flying
, the kind of cough that might be filmed by a bystander and go viral
. A Karen Cough.
My family and I were standing outside our local bakery when we decided to stop in for some cupcakes. For my toddler, Ruby, who has now spent more than half of her short life at home due to the pandemic
, it would be an unusual treat to walk in like a big girl, press her little finger up against the glass case, and choose whatever item she wanted.
The shop is very small and only allows five (masked) people
in at a time; it was already full, so we decided to wait, despite the fact that it was freezing outside, because, you know, birthdays.
After about ten minutes, we noticed that no one was leaving. My husband noticed that only one group was in the shop: a woman was ordering, while another woman, a man, and a teenage girl paced around the tiny space
, the girl appeared to be laughing, posing, FaceTiming someone with her mask around her chin. Our daughter was becoming impatient.
“Excuse me, are you in the queue to order anything?” he inquired.
“No, we aren’t,” one of the group members replied.
“Then would you mind waiting out here so we can come inside? It's pretty cold out and we just want to grab some cupcakes for our little one,” he asked, confident that they could see her.
After a few moments, the second lady emerged.
“There, are you happy? We're not from around here, you know. You can go in now,” she said angrily.
“I'm sorry, we weren't attempting to be rude,” I explained, “there's just a five-person limit, and if you're not ordering, we're hoping to go in.”
“All right, then!”
“We can't because there will still be too many of us in there,” my husband explained, “and with all due respect, your daughter has her mask off, and we're with a toddler, so we'll just wait.”
Under normal circumstances, I'd say, "OK, fair," but not when it comes to our state's COVID-19
protocols, which, like them or not, were not up for interpretation based on their limited, voluntary foray into our alternate universe of caring about this disease.
Still, I'm not usually the safety police
when it comes to strangers; if you're an idiot six feet away from me, I'll shake my head and keep moving
. My husband, on the other hand, is not like me; he likes to have the last word, so when the rest of the family walked out the door, he had to jab.
“I hope you got a good selfie in there, and have a good time in Jersey!” he prodded, relishing the awkwardness of what he thought would be a minor passing altercation.
Just minutes after we arrived, the woman who'd been ordering for her family stormed back into the bakery, reciting the names of each character cupcake.
“Did you just make my family leave?” she demanded, “Did you THREATEN my family?!?” The rest of her brood stood outside, watching.
My husband tried brushing her off: "Have a nice day, ma'am." It didn't work
, and her rant escalated: "She was from this town, too; they had just come from a memorial; "why did we think we were so smart??!!" She was screaming
very close to my daughter and getting closer, so I stepped in, trying to steer the debate outside to allow my husband to finish ordering our cupcakes while keeping her awry.
“Oh good, let's go outside, because I'm going to fuck you up, bitch!” she hissed at me.
I'd never fought anyone before, let alone a Baby Boomer outside a bakery, but this time I couldn't just shake my head and walk away.
Instead, I roared, waving at the capacity sign, asking what they didn't understand about being respectful, about the young bakery employees who thought they were rude, about my daughter's second birthday and how I'm terrified to take her anywhere because of people like you.
Then she yanked off her mask and coughed right in my face.
I then fled.
My daughter's birthday was ruined. I cried and shook when we got back in the car. My husband and I argued about how it happened and why it happened. He thought I dialed it up a notch. I felt he lit a match just because he could. Poor Ruby just wanted her cupcake.
I'm angrier than I realized, not just at one woman who would scream in the face of a toddler or purposefully cough in the face of a stranger, but at big decisions made by leaders and small actions taken by people I know.
For weeks, I couldn't shake the despair I felt as a result of this experience, in which two functioning adults were speaking the same language and not speaking the same language, our belief systems hijacked by politics
and weaponized by a public health
It didn't take being coughed on to realize that all of our conflicts are at an inflection point right now: political, cultural, racial, generational, environmental, whatever you can handle. But why, after hundreds of hours of consuming news programming, reading articles, and engaging in meaningful, intellectual discourse with individuals on both sides of these issues, wasn't I in a better position?
I was sick of it.
My reaction was an emotional release, a gut check. I had worked hard all year to protect my family, ever since my final trip to the grocery store in 2020, when people were screaming and lines were an hour long and my neck was sweating and we had no masks
, diapers, or clue.
I've diplomatically questioned family members about their whereabouts before seeing my children
. I've pleaded with my grandmother to wear a mask to her card games (why were they still playing card games?). I've said "no" much more than "yes," and hugged my older daughter through each disappointment.
But I couldn't, ahem, "go high" in that moment at the bakery because I wasn't rational.
Underneath my armor, I am disgusted and resentful. I am angrier than I realized. Not just at one woman who would scream in the face of a toddler or deliberately cough in the face of a stranger, but at big decisions by leaders and smaller actions by people I know.
As with any other story, there are two sides to it. As a lawyer, I'm trained to anticipate my opponent's arguments, and at first, I focused intensely on her when reenacting what happened. But those details are unimportant to getting to the heart of the matter: I am not proud of my behavior. Mine. I never want to scream at another human being like that again.
A part of me wanted to erase this incident from my memory, grateful that no one used their iPhone to immortalize my experience in the Permanent Ether of Internet Judgment. However, I am choosing to share this experience because far too many people have found themselves on the receiving end of conflicts like these, only a couple deep breaths away from it all becoming too much.
Now, I wish I could have deescalated things, that I could have looked her in the eyes and told her it was a misunderstanding. We don't have to excuse other people's behavior, but we also don't have to accept it.
Of course, it's easier to realize this now than it was then, because there will always be birthdays, funerals, work presentations, difficult decisions, and stressors in life that risk turning a small squabble into a larger cough. We can strive to do our best, but we can't always control what happens; we learned that from a pandemic, too.
Joelle Boneparth is a lawyer and writer
who co-wrote "The Millennial Money
Fix: What You Need to Know About Budgeting, Debt, and Finding Financial Freedom" (Career Press 2017). Her newsletter, Our Tiny Rebellions, celebrates women's subtle victories in these not-so-subtle times. You can find her on Twitter/Instagram at @averagejoelle and at www.joelleboneparth.com.
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