In March, on my daughter’s second birthday, I got coughed on. It was the type of cough that happens on purpose, with the mask pulled down and curses flying. A cough that might be filmed by a bystander and go viral. A Karen Cough.
My family was outside our local bakery and decided to stop in for some cupcakes. For my toddler, Ruby ― who has now spent more than half of her short life stuck 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 whichever item she wanted.
The shop is very small and only allows five (masked) people in at a time. It was already at capacity. We decided to wait, even though it was freezing outside, because, you know, birthdays.
After probably close to 10 minutes, we found it strange no one was coming out. My husband realized just one group was in the shop: A woman was ordering, while another woman, a man and a teenage girl paced around the tiny space. With her mask around her chin, the girl appeared to be laughing, posing, FaceTiming someone. Our daughter was becoming impatient. My husband peeped his head through the door.
“Excuse me, are you in line to order anything?” he said.
“No, we’re not,” someone in the group 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 said. Surely, they could see her.
A few minutes passed, and the second woman came out.
“There, are you happy? We’re not from around here, you know. You can go in now,” she said, visibly annoyed.
“I’m sorry, we weren’t trying to be rude,” I said. “There’s just a five-person limit and if you’re not ordering, we’re hoping to go in.”
“We can’t, because there would still be too many of us in there,” my husband told her. “And with all due respect, your daughter has her mask off, and we’re with a toddler, so we’ll just wait.”
The woman mumbled something under her breath about New Jersey. Under ordinary circumstances, I’d think “OK, fair.” But not when it comes to our state’s COVID-19 protocols, which, like them or not, were not up for out-of-staters to interpret based on their limited, voluntary foray into our alternate universe of caring about this disease.
Still, I am not usually the safety police when it comes to strangers. If you want to be an idiot, be an idiot six feet away from me, and I will shake my head and keep moving. My husband, though, is not like me. He loves to have the last word. So when the rest of this family walked out the door, he had to jab.
“Hope you got a great selfie in there. Enjoy your time in Jersey!” he prodded, thriving in the awkwardness of what he thought would be a minor passing altercation.
Once we were inside, just minutes later, as our daughter began to recite the name of each character cupcake, the woman who’d been ordering for her family stormed back into the bakery.
“Did you just make my family leave?” she demanded. “Did you THREATEN my family?!” The rest of her brood looked on outside.
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 up with ordering our cupcakes and to keep her away from them.
“Oh good, let’s go outside, because I’ll fuck you up, bitch!” she hissed at me.
My intentions were obviously misconstrued. I’ve never fought anyone, let alone a Baby Boomer outside a bakery. But this time, I didn’t just shake my head and keep moving. I couldn’t.
Instead, I roared, waving at the capacity sign, asking what the hell they didn’t understand about being respectful, about the young bakery employees who thought they were rude, about it being my daughter’s second birthday and how I’m terrified to take her anywhere because of people like you.
Then she ripped off her mask and coughed directly in my face.
My daughter’s birthday was ruined. I cried ― shook ― when we reconvened in the car. My husband and I battled each other on how it went there ― why it went there. He thought I dialed it up a notch. I felt he lit a match because he could. Poor Ruby just wanted her cupcake.
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.
For weeks, I couldn’t shake the despair I felt in the aftermath of this experience. 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 crisis. I was never too jaded to think this couldn’t happen where I live; my New York City suburb is not immune to the conflicts playing out everywhere.
Right now, all of our conflicts are at an inflection point: political, cultural, racial, generational, environmental, anything you can handle. It didn’t take getting coughed on to realize this. But then why, after my hundreds of hours consuming news programming, reading articles, and engaging in meaningful, intellectual discourse with individuals on both sides of these issues, was I not in a better position to handle myself when thrust into a real-life viral video?
My reaction was an emotional release, a gut check. I had gone far to protect my family all year. Ever since my final trip to the grocery store in 2020 ― the one where people were screaming and lines were an hour long and my neck was sweating and we had no masks, no diapers, no clue ― ever since then, I’d been building armor around them.
Diplomatically, I’ve 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 I’ve said “yes,” and hugged my older daughter through each disappointment. I’ve been a buzzkill to my friends. Time and again, I’ve been the bad guy, but I could sleep well knowing I was doing what I should to protect us.
In that moment at the bakery, though, I wasn’t rational. I couldn’t, ahem, “go high.”
Sanctimony doesn’t buy you peace of mind. Underneath my own layers of 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. Many of us have steam to blow off, and acknowledging that is important. It shouldn’t be a referendum on your gratitude, either. You can be thankful for your health and prosperity and still be on the verge of losing your shit.
There are two sides to my story, like any other. As a lawyer, I’ve been trained to anticipate my adversary’s arguments, and at first, I focused deeply on her when playing back what happened. But dissecting those details is unimportant to reaching the heart of the matter: I am not proud of my conduct. Mine. I never want to scream at another human being like that again. Even if my instincts were rather primal and I’m kind of glad they exist.
A piece of me wanted to delete this incident from my memory, thankful no one used their iPhone to place my experience into the Permanent Ether of Internet Judgment. But I am choosing to share this experience, because too many people have found themselves on the receiving end of conflicts like these ― only a couple deep breaths away from it just being too much. This past year has been hard on all of us ― even, I’m sure, on the cougher.
Now, I wish I could have deescalated things. I wish I could have looked her in the eye when I spoke to her, told her it was a misunderstanding. We don’t have to excuse other people’s behavior, but we don’t have to stoop to it, either.
Of course, it’s easier to realize this now than it was then. There will always be birthdays, funerals, work presentations, hard decisions, stressors in life that risk turning a little spat 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. She is the co-author of “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 wins in these not-so-subtle times. You can find her on Twitter/Instagram at @averagejoelle and at www.joelleboneparth.com.
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