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Coronavirus has us walking on a long leash of grace

Peppermint Patty doesn't understand social distancing. But her smile fills 6 feet of separation for most dog lovers.
Peppermint Patty doesn't understand social distancing. But her smile fills 6 feet of separation for most dog lovers.Reed Hoffmann

From the top of the steps he hollered, “Hey there, little doggie!”

Peppermint Patty was preoccupied. But like all boxers do, she hopped in his direction at the sound of a happy voice. By the time he got to the bottom of the stairs, he was about 12 feet away. Only a gate and a sidewalk separated us. He started to step into the street, but he couldn’t stop staring.

“What’s her name?” he yelled.

“Peppermint Patty,” I shouted from the fenced-in dog run.

He had just one half-empty bag of groceries, a rarity in these times of long lines, masks, and 6 feet of space at all times. He stood for a few seconds, his eyes lingering.

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And then he asked what I knew he would: “Can I pet her?”

I should have said no. The CDC recommends pets social distancing, too. There’s no evidence that animals transmit coronavirus to humans. Still, safety first. But I recognized the ache in his eyes. He needed a show of grace.

I know what it means to need the tiniest bit of consideration. A dress once showed me grace. You read that right.

Back in January, I got this Ulla Johnson dress. And if you live alone and have ever put on a dress, you need a certain level of zeal to zip it closed. You have to fight with your limbs, stretch them beyond their wingspan, and hope you can grab that zipper and pull.

It’s hard to know if you’re being punished for your womanhood or for living alone and daring to put on a dress. I’ve felt the sting of humiliation having to ask a neighbor to help close my clothing when my fingers couldn’t reach.

But as I bent my arms back to pull the zipper shut, a long denim ribbon landed in my hand like a lifeline. A zipper tug. It was a little thing but I almost cried at the thoughtfulness of it all.

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So, yeah. I kept my distance, yet let Peppermint Patty stand on her hind legs and stretch like that zipper tug up the gate so she could help close the hole in a lonely man’s heart. At least just a little. He reached over the fence to give her a quick pat. Her jowls seemed to curve into a smile just for him.

“Thank you,” he said, eyes glassy, and he started to walk away. “No one even says hi.”

I could easily wash her fur and return to the rules of the coronavirus era. But I couldn’t let him walk away without that small show of compassion. He was old enough to be my dad, but his Southern drawl and pale eyes reminded me of my mom.

My own eyes watered at the familiarity of this hunger for interaction. I started to wonder if he had gone to the grocery store just to see people, hoping for a hello he never got until he saw us.

I felt for him. If I didn’t have Pep, I would have broken down. Pets make things better. But even with a dog by my side and a schedule booked with watch parties and Zoom meetings and Instagram nights, it’s hard.

I miss hugs. I miss laughing so hard I fall into my friends, a tangle of arms and giggles. I miss dancing close on dark dance floors.

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I’ve seen a few friends over the last seven weeks, all from 6 feet away on separate occasions, smiles hidden behind masks, and never longer than a few minutes.

It typically involves dropping off masks, hand sanitizer, or food. If one of us spots a restock of bare necessities at the market, we send a text. Each of us are on our own and we’re trying to help each other as much as we can.

But when I see them, my body instinctively flows forward. And then my mind, like a computer, autocorrects the behavior. I snap back, fighting the gravity of togetherness, bearing the burden of pain required to push myself back. They do it, too.

It’s been nearly seven weeks since I’ve touched another human. It hurts in ways that slice my spirit, in ways only a loved one can zip shut again. Sometimes I think I can feel it in my skin, the loneliness of it all tap dancing along my arms that used to hug people.

The need to protect each other and ourselves is its own kind of zipper tug, pulling us into our new places far from one another.

The other morning, a masked woman was walking her pup on one side of the silent and empty South End street. Me, in my mask, walked Pep on the other side. Not another human was on the block, not a car idling, just the new sound of nothingness we live with.

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She looked at me. I looked at her. And from across the street we did something Bostonians rarely do: We waved.

We have to find ways to fill that 6 feet of separation with love. Or at the very least, a little grace and a hello to a stranger.






Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee