Surgical Mask

Illustration by Mathew Borrett

Leslie snapped on xir surgical mask as Morgan impatiently waited for the van door to slide open. “The button on this van is just too damn slow,” Morgan whined. “The ones on the new vans seem so fast.”

“You could always take Wheel-Trans from now on,” Dana muttered. Morgan scoffed. “Good luck today!” Dana called, turning around in the driver’s seat to face Leslie. “And watch the vegetables!”

Morgan swung her cane out the door and rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to hurt the vegetables, don’t worry.” She hopped out of the van, and Leslie followed behind slowly, carefully stepping over baskets of vegetables between the seats.

Morgan was a small brown woman in her mid-twenties who walked with a small black cane. Leslie was a taller agender person who was much curvier and darker than Morgan.

“Good luck with the farmer’s market!” Leslie shouted pleasantly from behind xir mask as xe closed the door.

Dana lived with Leslie and Morgan in a kind of commune house. None of them could afford to live in the city anymore, and it just ended up being cheaper to split a mortgage in the suburbs outside of the city. Dana and the others had started a garden in the back, and they often used the van to also drop off Leslie and Morgan.

“Are you sure you’re up for today?” Morgan asked. They began to walk towards the elevator into the station as the van pulled out of the passenger pick-up parking.

“I’m just taking precautions today, don’t worry about me,” xe said tapping xir mask. Leslie’s immune system was compromised because of medication xe was on. Leslie nodded at Morgan’s cane. “What about you? Is your leg good for today?” Xir eyebrows raised, and xir tone was cheeky.

Morgan rolled her eyes. Her leg was never really good, but she knew Leslie already knew that. “All right, all right, I get it. You’ll let me know if you’re having a bad day.” She paused. “And I’ll let you know too.”

Morgan was born with weakness in her legs, so she had to be careful with how she much she used them, although she did learn the hard way. After a childhood of pretending she could keep up with the other kids if just tried hard enough, now her joints started to ache when storms began to brew, and she couldn’t stand up without grunting. She had always figured that she would have at least one more decade before it came to that, but that didn’t matter anymore.

Leslie nodded. “Glad we got that covered. Again.” Xe laughed and pressed the elevator button. “Let’s go.”

They were at Pape station so that they could get downtown for a meeting. Unlike Dana and a couple of the other roommates, Leslie and Morgan weren’t much for vegetable gardens. While neither of them hated working in the garden or helping with the business side of things, and they both definitely enjoyed eating from it, the garden just didn’t feel like their calling. Instead, Leslie and Morgan were freelance anti-oppression consultants, and today they were trying to pitch a company-wide anti-oppression training to a major corporation.

The pair made their way to the platform and waited for the subway.

“I hope we’ll be on time. How long is the ride down?” Leslie was staring down at xir phone, quickly glancing up at the platform monitor’s time estimate for the subway. Morgan could tell xe was calculating the minutes and possible delays in xir head. She sighed.

“I think we should go over the pitch on the way down. I don’t want it to sound like what we’re talking about is too radical or something.” Morgan walked over to the bench and lowered herself with a groan. Leslie followed, sitting next to Morgan’s cane.

Leslie was checking xir phone again. Xe was always worried about being late, but Morgan figured at least it kept them on time. It was very important when meeting new clients that they didn’t feel like they were wasting their time. But this meant that Leslie was always irritable and frustrated until they were at their destination with a minimum of a ten-minute time buffer. “But isn’t that the point? Like, isn’t that our brand or whatever?”

Morgan frowned. Her distraction tactic wasn’t really working. “Yeah, but I don’t think treating people with respect and dignity is that radical and I don’t think that’s how it should sound.”

Leslie shrugged. “Yeah, I guess that’s true. But in that case, is anything in our pitch really that radical, by that definition? Like, it is all about respect and dignity, isn’t it?” Morgan nodded. “Okay, so how long is it gonna take to get down?”

“We’re not going all the way downtown, so it should only be about twenty minutes. And there’s a bit of a short walk, but it’s still pretty close to the station.”

Leslie was checking xir phone again. Morgan was thinking about snatching the phone out of xir hand when she noticed a woman in her middle age staring at them from further down the platform. She shook her head and sighed. “Could we still go over the pitch?”

Leslie was staring down the tunnel now, eyes squinting. “I think the train is coming.” Xe stood up and reached back to help Morgan stand again.

She felt a sense of relief as the train started to grind to a halt in front of them. The person was still standing at the other end of the platform, and she continued to keep looking back at them. Morgan was sure that they were watching them move from the bench to the yellow line on the platform. She took a glance down the platform again, and sure enough, the woman was still standing where she was before, but her eyes were pointed directly at them. There wasn’t really anything special or even especially sinister about her otherwise.

The doors on the train opened and they stepped on. Morgan risked another glance. The woman was closer now that they were on the train. She was standing in their car now, although at the opposite end, but at least she was focused on finding a seat instead of staring at them. Morgan began to scan for an open seat herself. Leslie was back to staring at xir phone, not really paying attention to either the seats or the glaring woman. She pulled xem along towards some free priority seats nearby, although she made the deliberate choice to move away from the glaring woman.

Staring wasn’t unusual to Morgan. She was pretty used to it at this, but she always made a point to be aware of her surroundings. She usually got a lot of stares whenever she went out. Especially when she went out with the other housemates. Their group was eclectic to say the least: most of them used canes, braces, or other equipment, and even without them, they would stick out in a crowd. It used to bother her, but now she kind of figured that as a young cane-user, it was going to happen whether she was upset or not. While stares were common, that didn’t mean that there was nothing to worry about.

She looked back towards the woman. She was now seated close enough to glare in their direction with an uninterrupted view. The entire situation was sending off alerts through Morgan. She tried to stare straight forward, but found herself glancing back at the woman too often. There was usually some attempt to hide the staring.

“Do you think I’m going to have to explain neopronouns when I introduce myself?” Leslie asked. Morgan couldn’t believe that Leslie still hadn’t noticed the woman. She wasn’t sure if there was a point in mentioning it yet.

“Get off!” blared a croaking voice. Morgan realized it was the woman who had been glaring at them. Her shoulders tensed, and she tried to meet eyes with the woman. The train was getting full, and to Morgan’s relief, backpacks and passengers began to block her view.

“Like I’m going to have to introduce myself with my pronouns, right? So should we just use that to jump into the pitch?” Leslie didn’t seem concerned by the shouting. “Or do you think they already know about neopronouns and that would come across patronizing?”

“Get off this train!” The woman stood and began to work towards them. Morgan started to realize she hadn’t been glaring at her, but at Leslie. There wasn’t much about xem that should have drawn attention to xemself, not on that day. Both of them had made sure to dress professionally and keep themselves presentable. They couldn’t afford to appear sloppy today. They were wearing understated button-ups with suit jackets. Even their coloured hair wasn’t out of place; more people on the train had their hair brightly dyed than didn’t.

This had been something that had been bothering Morgan at the back of her mind, something that she had been afraid of since they had been travelling into the city more. Ever since the pandemic after the LA Olympics, everyone had been on edge. Morgan had known many people who were at least living with some kind of chronic condition after contracting an illness, and she knew many people who had lost people, including friends of her own. Any reminders of illness were regarded with a certain kind of dread and fear. And Leslie’s surgical mask was a stark reminder.

“I’m talking to you, sicko!” the woman shouted as she stood in front of Leslie. Xe had finally looked up from xir phone to stare blankly at her. “You think you can go around spreading your sickness around to everyone?” Her face was starting to get red and flushed. She used one of her hands to emphasize her words, jabbing a pointed finger at xem.

Morgan couldn’t move. Her mouth fell open as she searched for the words. While she had dreaded this moment for so long, she had never quite figured out how to respond. She didn’t know how to intervene and come to the rescue.

“It hasn’t even been, what, five years?!” the woman shouted. “Don’t you care about the people that we lost?”

Morgan whipped her head around. Most of the other passengers had turned their eyes away. The passengers sitting across from them were staring at the floor, and the ones further along the car all kept their eyes turned to the other end of the car.

“I lost my father because you sick people can’t just stay home! You have to go around spreading around your diseases to us healthy folk!”

The woman didn’t even seem to care whether Leslie responded. She had got started and was going to let xem know how she felt, every last feeling. Leslie was staring, but Morgan couldn’t get a read on how xe was reacting. Xir eyes seemed blank or even cold. Xir surgical mask made it difficult to tell if they were reacting at all.

Morgan gripped her cane tightly as they stepped out onto the sidewalk. She was still shaky from the encounter, and even though Leslie was still trying to get an answer about xir neopronoun question, she could not focus on anything except the ride.

“I’m sorry.”

Leslie was checking the route on xir phone and didn’t even look up. “What for?”

“For not doing something, for not saying something for you.” Leslie had started walking and Morgan followed behind. “I dunno. That it even happened in the first place I guess.” She couldn’t quite pin what she was feeling, but she knew it didn’t feel good.

“You didn’t need to say something for me, I’m quite capable of it myself.” Leslie looked back at her and slowed xir pace a little.

“I know, I just feel like I should have done something.”

“Now you know what to say. Or just tell her to stop, be quiet, that she’s being rude.” Xe sighed. “It’s not like it’s never happened before. Some folks really do just forget that these things can be useful outside of a hospital.”

“You’d think that after Doctor Mayor got elected that more people would be aware.”

“By blaming the sick person, they can tell themselves that they’d never make that mistake.” Leslie shrugged. “They’ll be fine and live forever. No one likes a reminder that they aren’t invincible.” Xe paused. “No one likes to think about being sick.”

The sounds of the bustling Bloor-Street sidewalk suddenly seemed loud in the silence between them.

“Do you think I should take off the mask before we get to the building?” Leslie sounded soft and impossibly small.

“Why would you do that?”

“I don’t want to ruin our chances with the pitch.”

Morgan smiled. “Wouldn’t that be a great way to pitch them that they need it?”

Leslie burst out laughing. “Definitely. Okay, I think I’m ready for this now.” Xe checked xir phone. “But we are going to be late.”

Morgan shuffled quietly beside Leslie. “And my hips aren’t going to get us there any faster.” She watched Leslie grimace. “But don’t worry. The meeting is actually fifteen minutes later than I told you.”

“What?” Leslie gawked.

“We’re always late.” Morgan shrugged. “So I thought this time we wouldn’t be.” She smiled and gave Leslie an enthusiastic pat on the back. “We’re going to be just fine.” s

About Mari Ramsawakh