For a few minutes last weekend, I was winning at life. My husband, Francis, and I were getting ready for a small gathering of friends on our neighbors’ wrap-around porch overlooking the bay. It was a warm summer evening, my stomach felt flat for once, and I was in the mood for a cocktail.

I scanned the few dresses in my closet for just the right thing to wear. These neighbors had not spent the majority of their careers in the military, earning public salaries limited by the government. They had all worked in the lucrative private sector for decades, enabling them to afford the houses closest to the water. Our house was the one at the top of the street, with a partial water view if you sit on the south edge of the porch and crane your neck to see over the neighbor’s hedge.

I grabbed the floral sheath dress my mother-in-law had given me years ago. It was from her favorite department store, Lord and Taylor, which was to a neurologist’s wife what Target is to a military spouse. Over the years, my mother-in-law had tried to polish my image by dressing me in finer things, and encouraging me to wear heels and more make-up. When I’d wear my normal get up — jeans, comfortable top, flat shoes and maybe a dab of mascara if any at all — she was likely to greet me with a concerned expression, reach a hand out to my shoulder, and say, “You look a little ill … are you feeling alright, my dear?”

I zipped the dress up over my tummy control underwear, slipped into low-heeled cork wedges, and applied make-up appropriate for the occasion. The tube of neglected lipstick I found in the back of my vanity drawer was a shade that matched the dress perfectly.

“Wow, you’re a total Baberaham Lincoln!” Francis blurted when I walked into our kitchen. Although I hadn’t heard that term since the early nineties, his outdated compliment put an extra spring in my step. At age 54, I’ll take whatever I can get.

Inflating my own ego even further, I was proud of the gourmet pizzas I’d made for the party. At pot-lucks past, I’d often contributed dishes that were too basic or not trendy enough. But this time, I’d knocked it out of the park with thin-crust caramelized Vidalia onion, blue cheese and walnut pizzas.

As Francis and I walked toward our friend’s waterfront house, I was firing on all cylinders. We strolled across the manicured lawn toward the wide porch, already abuzz with a handful of neighbors. Our timing was perfect.

But then, we noticed it.

The neighbors were wearing masks. Everyone. Except us.

I stopped on the porch steps in my Lord and Taylor sheath dress, holding the chilled chardonnay and gourmet pizza, an idiot’s smile plastered on my lipsticked mouth. “Oh… well… uh,” Francis stuttered awkwardly, “I guess I’ll be right back!”

Giving me a quick glance, he scrambled back up our street while I stood frozen, embarrassed by our pandemic fashion faux pas. Francis returned in a flash, sporting a forehead full of sweat beads and a crumpled mask he’d grabbed out of his car. He handed me one, too, which I quickly yanked over my head.

The night wasn’t ruined, but my self-confidence was. Despite it all, we carried on, hobnobbing with our neighbors within this bizarre new normal. Conversations were interrupted by “Pardon?” or “Can you repeat that?” because words were fabric-muffled without the benefit of lip-reading. No one figured out how to gracefully lift a mask to drink from a wine glass. While eating, everyone let their masks dangle strangely from one ear, mine smeared gaudily with lipstick.

Walking home under the high moon, I realized that after years of struggling to keep up with fashion and etiquette, the pandemic had thrown me a curve ball just when I thought I’d finally gotten it right. Next time, instead of caramelized onions, sheath dresses, and chardonnay, I’ll focus on pandemic party rule #1: Wear a mask.

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