Marie had known it was going to be bad. She could have been wrong, but she wasn’t. She wished it had been. There was just something about the initial news, first out of China, then Italy, that cried out to her. And she’d known she’d be in the thick of it. At the hospital. And at home.
It was over now, but it would never be over, in much the same way that her grandparents never got over the depression, and then the war. Marie hadn’t understood why her grandmother had saved everything and insisted on using everything. Wasted nothing. It drove her crazy. Her grandmother was long-since dead, and finally, now, Marie understood. She’d become a lot like her grandmother. Measuring everything. Hoarding some things. Protecting what was hers.
Michael pulled on his green sweater and then took it off again. There was a warming trend and he might not need the extra layer.
He was having difficulty getting in gear. Returning to work was what he knew he should be doing. It’s what everybody was doing who still had work to return to, and he knew he should have felt fortunate. He needed the income. He was behind on everything and his frig was once again bare.
He had nothing against work. He liked to work, or used to, and he had enjoyed the convivial comradeship of the cubicle farm he had inhabited for eleven years. But now it all felt so repugnantly foreign. Vaccination or not, he carried a dreadful fear of people that he had not been able to shed. He pictured himself there now, sitting in front of his computer, wearing his headphones, robotically taking calls. Could he insert himself into the machine ever again? Eight hours on the phones, with a morning and afternoon 10-minute break and a thirty-minute lunch. The small talk in the break room. The resumption of unwanted flirtations and surreptitious rumor-sharing clouded with an embarrassed failure to mention colleagues who had disappeared.
Normalcy was not normal.
Would never be normal.
One hour turned to two and still he hadn’t moved. He was now officially late for his shift. It would have been noticed. There was no point in calling. What would he say, anyway?
What had he done? Why hadn’t he gone in? What was he doing still sitting on his bed, shoeless? What the hell was wrong with him? What should he do now?
And tomorrow. What about tomorrow?
Honestly, if Simone had to spend one more day locked up in her apartment with her husband she’d probably kill herself, if she didn’t kill him first. She hadn’t stopped loving him, not entirely, and she knew inherently that her hatred was not due to either him or her but due to the lack of any other person in her life. No one person could have made her happy, 24-hours a day for weeks and months at a time. Justin tried, in his own way, but he was showing the same strain, though he wouldn’t talk about it and showed no interest in listening to Simone describe her own season of falling apart.
It had come to this. They abided each other. Barely.
This man she once regarded as the moon and the stars was now a grim shadow at the edges of her vision. And he desperately needed to shower more often and change his clothes once in a while. He needed to wear pants. A shave and a haircut wouldn’t have hurt either. For a while she had thought that when the pandemic ended they could return to normal, but now she knew she could never look at him the same way again. Whenever she looked at him or thought of him, all she would see or think about was his hollowness, his deficiency, his emptiness, his pettiness.
He was the pandemic personified.
And today, at long last, she would escape his grasp.
For almost a year, Elaine had suffocated behind her mask at the checkout counter of the small-town Piggly-Wiggly and today, for the first time, she was maskless.
It felt wrong.
She wasn’t used to seeing the faces of her customers or of their seeing hers. She felt downright naked in front of them. She couldn’t have been more embarrassed. She didn’t want anyone to see her mouth or the lines that radiated around it.
She’d spent months making eye-contact with every person who stepped up to her lane with their liters of soda, their potato chips and toilet paper, perfecting a visual grin that she knew her customers appreciated. But today she couldn’t look at them and she noted that they too seemed to be averting their eyes, all the while chattering in cheerful voices about the warm spring and the robins pulling worms out of the ground and the re-opening of schools and the opening of bars.
She almost wished there had been no vaccine so she could keep her face hidden.
Eventually she’d get used to people knowing her face again. Her smile. Her frown.
Why was it so hard?
Benjamin had never been a victim of stage fright, something that distinguished him from most of his fellow actors. Even on opening night, he never got the jitters.
But now? Now, he was scared shitless.
It wasn’t the acting that frightened him. It was the audience. And his fellow actors. Perhaps most of all, the green room. It was sitting side by side with Emily and Stacey and Sean. It was the brightly lit dressing room mirrors, the open make-up kits, the pre-show chit-chat. He hoped they hadn’t noticed how hard it was for him to breathe, how the confining cinderblock walls pressed in on him.
The prop table accused him of recklessness.
The costume rack threatened strangulation.
The opening night flowers reeked of betrayal.
The stage manager called places.
There was a reassuring measure of emptiness in the cavernous, lightly-populated auditorium, he thought. This was of middling comfort.
The house lights dimmed.
He walked on stage.
He opened his mouth.
Amanda leaned against the fence at the entrance to the long-abandoned dog park. The sign forbidding its use - banning the congregating of animals and humans - had been removed and sometime soon, perhaps later today, people and dogs would appear.
The sun was just coming up.
This is what she had missed the most. Not her family, not trips to the mall, not evenings at the movies or a late-night drink at a bar. It was the dogs, romping and running and yipping and leaping and returning to their owners from time to time to check in before returning to the ad-hoc pack. It was the liberation of it all. The joyous, unbridled, unleashed thrill. It was the banal conversation with strangers, fellow dog owners, the collective observation of the tumult of fur.
For now it was enough to just be here, at the park, on her own, imagining the return of the dogs, hearing their voices in her mind. Tomorrow she’d return at a later hour.
There would be new dogs, adopted during the pandemic, exploring the park for the first time. Even for the older dogs, the veterans, it would seem like a new experience.
It was like it had never happened. None of it.
He glided down the court, dribbling like a pro, spinning, turning, side-stepping until he saw the opening and leaped, his arms high in the air, the ball spinning in a perfect arc toward the net. The high-fives, the re-grouping. The sweat running into his eyes.
He’d missed joining pick-up games in the park. He’d even missed the hard concrete they were forced to play on. He’d missed the cat-calls from the peanut gallery, the wannabees who couldn’t play themselves but thought they knew better than the players who could. He had missed the feel of his Air Jordan’s as they landed and held firm and guided his feet in a new direction. He’d missed the tingle at the end of his fingers when they touched the ball.
But now, he couldn’t recall the missing.
Now it was only the doing: the playing, the action, the challenge of putting himself up against whomever showed up. It was losing and winning and not caring which.
It was the effort.
It was the game.
Somehow she had survived. Not just the illness, but the poverty, the hopelessness, the isolation – and now it was time to resume her past life.
Her shift started at 5:00.
She entered the kitchen door, clocked in, said hello to the dishwasher as she passed his station, grabbed a copy of tonight’s menu, asked questions of the sous chef, politely said no when the blond girl (what was her name?) asked to borrow some lipstick, checked herself in the mirror, and eased into the dining room to see that the busboys had correctly styled her tables.
This much was rote.
She could do this.
By 8 pm the room was full, the cheerful voices and piped-in music and clink of glasses and forks on china and scraping of chairs a throwback to a prior life. A life that had returned, ready or not.
Ready or not.
Her heart skipped a beat. Then another.
It would be all right.
This would be all right.
People needed plumbers, pandemic or not.
Tomorrow wouldn’t be much different from today or yesterday for Dan. Maybe he wouldn’t need the mask anymore, but he’d never been one to stand too close to his in-home customers, and there was something about a plumber that the customers never entirely embraced either. They had been happy enough to see him when he showed up, to fix a leaky faucet, a clogged drain, a broken furnace. He was good at his job. He never ran out of work.
Today was just another day. Tomorrow would be another, still.
The day the plexiglass panels were removed was the day Patrisha knew the pandemic was over. Until then it had been a hope, a whisper, a breathless dream – but now it was real. Nothing separated her from the rest of the world, the people who bought stamps, shipped packages, picked up mail.
That first day, every customer commented on it. Every single one. When there was a line, as there often was, the person second in line or third would hear the person in front of them say something like, “Sure is nice being able to get rid of that damned plexiglass barrier!”, and then when they stepped up to the counter they would say the same thing or some variation of it.
They couldn’t help themselves. It meant something to them that the plexiglass was gone.
We were all safe again.
Barry was not amused.
All these months he’d kept himself fit, transforming his bedroom into a home gym and faithfully exercising one, sometimes two, and sometimes three hours a day. He was in the best shape of his life, and was just beginning to see the outlines of an actual six-pack on his own previously unremarkable abdomen.
He was ready to display himself to those most apt to appreciate his new self. But … the only gay bar in his northern Wisconsin town had closed. Permanently. All those years he had attended the late-night underwear parties and shirtless backyard patio bar gatherings, enviously admiring other men while remaining fully clothed himself – and now that he had something to show, there was no place to show it, no one to look at him. There wasn’t even a beach nearby, gay or otherwise.
Although it gave him pleasure to look at his new body in the mirror, this wasn’t the pleasure he had longed for.
None of it was fair.
Caleb had no need to tell his mom and dad about his two Fs. They’d seen it coming, same as him. What more was there to say about it?
Since schooling had gone online, nothing about school was private anymore. As his home tutors, his parents knew everything he did and everything he didn’t do, and it hadn’t made life easy. Caleb considered the failures to be his parents’ as much (or more) than his own, but good luck telling them that.
If you’d asked him a year ago if he would prefer going to school or not going to school, he would have replied ‘NOT’, like every other red-blooded American boy. But now? Now, he couldn’t wait to get back. He couldn’t fucking wait.
He’d be first to show up and last to leave. When classes ended, they’d have to shove him out the school door to make him leave.
He’d be happy to be anywhere but home.
Anywhere but home.
Indira had never understood the logic of having to wear a mask while working the bank drive-through.
She had been the only person in the teller’s chamber, separated from the customers by inch thick plexiglass, and she only communicated with them through an intercom. She supposed that it made some sense that she had to spray the deposit tray between customers, but even that. she figured, was more for show than anything else.
Arriving at work, she avoided socializing. She exchanged greetings with no one, not even a look or a nod. She went straight to her chamber, turned the lights on, checked her cash drawer and her register tape, and began her day. At the end of her shift, she closed out and left before the manager entered the chamber to retrieve her daily reports and replenish her drawer for the next day.
She drove to work alone and she came home alone. She cooked dinner alone and she ate alone. Her groceries had been delivered and left outside her front door. Anything else she needed she bought on Amazon. She watched a lot of television. She stayed home.
So how, then, she wondered, had she caught the virus?
She had no memory of the two weeks she was intubated and very little of the first days the tubes were removed and she was allowed to breathe on her own again.
She hadn’t been ready to leave the hospital but they needed the bed. She was home alone again, but not ready to work. Not yet. Maybe not ever. They said it was safe now, but she didn’t feel safe.
At night, she sits in the dark, watching television, the sound turned off.
Owen finished unpacking, and then he made his bed. His books were on his desk, along with his laptop and the framed photograph of his dog. His window was open, inviting the sounds of other students arriving in their parents’ cars. The tearful goodbyes. The hugs. The anticipated separations.
Tomorrow he’d sit in a classroom again, next to other students. He’d raise his hand and ask a question of an actual, three-dimensional professor. He’d walk down a crowded hall to the crowded plaza to the crowded union where he’d have a crowded lunch. He’d bump into other people accidentally. He wouldn’t worry about using a public restroom. He’d make plans to get together with some friends that night, after he finished a workout at the gym. He’d meet a girl. He might bring her back to his room, or perhaps he’d go to hers. They’d kiss, lips to lips. They’d kiss without fear. They’d spend the night together and wake up the next morning without regret.