I noticed you, hardly remembering if you wore a beard before or not. I am so glad that at least I recognized the glint in your eyes, above the “Brother from a Black Planet” mask you wore so confidently.

You were possibly smiling.

I wish that I could have returned the hug I saw you were making possible with your widening open arms as you took more–beyond the 6 feet I so carefully maintain–steps towards me. I ended up walking backwards, stepping away, and I hated that. I would never do that to you in real life. In life lived before COVID. I hoped I had not offended you, but to make sure, I quickly explained, “I do this to everyone I see and recognize. I end up stepping back from them, and now I’ve had to do it to you.”

I could not believe this. I was smiling, but in real life (pre-pandemic), I would have been saying “Gotcha!” and rushing forward to slap my hands on your shoulders and pushing myself into your brother bear chest. But there is no “Gotcha!” and no punchline now. We have to really be careful, cuz even joking punches can be misconstrued, have you cast as adversarial, by anyone watching from even a greater distance than my conversation with you now requires.

Who might be judging me, being with Black organizer men and not hugging them, me looking like I’m either being oddly deferential or perhaps afraid of them as I step back? I don’t feel fear of the Brothers, I don’t hesitate to be out and in public, space and good words with them. But the ugliness—to me, it feels contrary to our natures—of maintaining large social distances reminds me of the Ugly Americans who are permanent tourists in our nation. The ones who have skimmed the periphery of multicultural, diverse anything, and have more than socially distanced from movement politics and movement people, and our cultural celebrations and commemorations, high holidays and traditions. We are the toured, we are the cultural attraction they are repelled by. Their scrutiny has made me want to throw shade back, scowl and hiss, but wouldn’t that make me the chimp in the zoo cage who only retorts or reacts but never actually asserts?

I want to assert with a huge smile on my face. I want to boldly glow my composure and hold my space, my ground, surrounded by brothers, sisters of the movement. I am not walking away, I’m here, I’m staying, because I am not ugly and I will not be alone when there’s a beautiful crucial movement to walk into, and it is only a few steps back I take, as if to calibrate my ready stance, to flex my toned muscles for the true, eventual, and decisive steps forward.