Last year, I took Spanish classes for four hours a day, five days a week. That was Before, of course. During that time of diligence and optimism, I met more than one expat who’d been in Madrid awhile who confessed they’d worked really hard on their Spanish when they first got here, but then they’d let it slide — they really needed to get back to it.

I didn’t get it. Why work so hard, and then, just … stop?

Theoretically, I’ve now reached the level of Spanish most of those people had attained. And now I get it. A year ago, I naively thought that if I did A, then B, then C, I’d wake up one morning and suddenly be speaking fluent Spanish. I always was, at heart, a rule follower. Aren’t results supposed to follow when you abide by the rules?

Fluency actually feels less attainable to me now than it ever did then.

I can study the subjunctive until I’m blue in the face, but it’ll never come naturally. There will always be a mental hitch, when I have to stop to think over things. Am I making a request? A command? Describing something in the past — or talking about a one-off event?

I’ll always have to watch Casa de Papel with Spanish subtitles. The taxi driver will always start talking about something I lack vocabulary for (last time it was road work, and while I could commiserate with an Atlanta taxi driver about crappy roads forever, I wouldn’t feel qualified to criticize the Spanish government, even if I had the words for it.)

Besides — much larger problem — now that we’re all wearing masks, I can’t understand anybody.

They can’t understand me, either.

While we were in the States, I was impressed* by the sleek black masks I saw people wearing everywhere, so much so that I bought one at the airport. When I unwrapped it, it turned out to be the saggy grandma’s panty-hose equivalent.

That black mask goes into my collection: I have surgical masks, KN95 masks, homemade masks shipped from home, homemade masks made by tailors here in Madrid, masks with elastic straps I’ve cut and re-engineered to avoid the dreaded Mask-Slip, when a mask slides down under your nose when you open your mouth.

Like Goldilocks, I’m not happy with any of them. I’m still searching for The Perfect Mask, the One that’s just right; I have to stop myself from buying more.

But the sad fact is: no matter what color or style it is, a mask is just a mask.

*Those camouflage neck gaiters that seem to be certain Americans’, genus red-blooded white young guys particularly, concession to mask-wearing are not masks.