March 16, 9:30 a.m.
Jessica: ALL BY OURSELVES
“I wish I had a cat.” Those are the wistful words from my bored six-year-old daughter still in her pajamas, looking up from schoolwork assignment we just read together.
The way things are right now, I don’t want a cat or a bat, a dog, or a frog, with or without green eggs or ham. I can’t help sighing. I’ve been reading so many Dr. Seuss books to Lori the past few days I’m thinking in rhyme.
Life as my daughter and I know it changes in so many ways today. Not only is she not in her first grade classroom, my first day at my new job isn’t starting the way I dreamed it would. This should be the day I stride purposefully—triumphantly—into the newsroom of the paper I grew up reading to take my place among the best journalists in town.
I spent the past six months writing resumes, assembling clips and going through interviews to land what I considered my perfect job. I dreamed about asking important questions, scribbling in a notepad, and rushing to make a deadline, just as they did in those old movies like The Front Page and All the President’s Men. It’s been my dream since I was editor of the high school newspaper, since I spent all-nighters getting the college paper to bed.
Today, however, all that is still a dream. I sitting at my kitchen table, staring at an unfamiliar laptop, filling out forms for income tax, health insurance and 401K and e-signing ethics code statements. Beside me, Lori is working on a language arts packet her teacher distributed on Friday. It might keep her quiet for now but I’m really curious to see how this goes if the stay-at-home order lasts more than a couple of weeks. Two weeks is what the governor said on Friday. We’ll see.
As it turns out, we’re part of a global news story, a pandemic sweeping across the world. Efforts to “flatten the curve” have mandated social distancing, which has closed schools, churches, stores, restaurants, banks and offices statewide and, in the process, has interrupted my career arc. I don’t mean to be harsh—I made a contribution to the Red Cross and I always wash my hands and wear gloves as recommended—but this is still a pretty weird way to be starting a new job.
Beginning today, workers all over the state are tele-working, working from home, surrounded by their children who aren’t in school, their husbands who aren’t at work and roommates who are also sharing the internet and table space, and their dogs and cats.
I should be so excited. Finally, I’m a real reporter, with bylines and deadlines and a different story every day. And I get paid to do it. Only, it all feels wrong.
“Are you settling in all right?” my editor, Claire, texts me through the paper’s online messaging program.
I look around with a chuckle. I’d say I’m settled. This house still looks the same as it has since Gramma and Grandpa lived here. The kitchen table is even the one they used, although it’s never as shiny clean as Gram kept it. Rings from last night’s coffee cup reproach me. The pan I used for dinner along with the plates, cups and silverware, rest by the sink, still dirty.
At least I brushed my teeth, took a shower just in case and even found my eyeliner to brighten up my bleary eyes. Plus, I’m wearing a business professional blouse, that pairs beautifully with my yoga pants and flip-flops. No one will see past my head and shoulders, so why worry about what’s off-screen, right?
“So far so good,” I write back.
Actually, what I really feel is isolated. Even with my daughter sitting right next to me.
Lori, a happy first-grader who loves ballet, Brownies and her neighborhood friends, doesn’t yet realize her whole schedule has been canceled, all the way down to play dates with Melanie and Olivia. She isn’t going to see her Nana or Pop, either. It’s just the two of us for who knows how long.
Already I miss being surrounded by my fellow workers. Friday was my last day as an editorial assistant in a weekly newspaper office with six people I knew everything about—their spouses’ and children’s names, their birthdays and their vacation plans. I knew that Ellen always wore the same blue dress every Monday—I’m not sure she even knows she does that. Evan, our boss, was terrified of his boss. LaDonna always quips that she likes her coffee “strong and black like her men.” Brendan only drinks green tea and he’s vegan—he was quite the challenge when it was my turn to make the birthday cake. Always the first in, I was the one who fired up the coffee pot every morning and divided up the mail.
Today, I have a whole new crew, a bigger crew, and I’ve never met any of them except Claire and Mr. Okun. If I hadn’t had the presence of mind to run over to my new office on my lunch break Friday to meet with Claire, I would be unemployed today.
“We have a meeting at eleven-thirty,” Claire texts.
“Is it a Skype call?”
“Something similar. I’ll email you an invite, all you do is click on the link and it will connect you.”
“Sounds good.” It really isn’t. That’s about the time Lori expects lunch. They eat early in school and so she’s used to it. I was looking forward to eating with her.
“Have you finished the paperwork?”
“Everything but reading through the employees manual.”
“That can wait. I’ll send you a listing of your fellow employees. You’ll want to know who you’re talking to during the meeting.”
Roger that. Little hopping dots on the screen alert me that Claire’s still typing. Or maybe thinking about typing. It lasts a long time. Finally her message pops up.
“Be careful what you say in front of Dan. He’s been having a rough time lately. But in addition to making unforgivable mistakes in his stories, he’s become something of a big mouth. He talks too much and says things that should be kept confidential. We’re all watching what we say, you know?”
Kind of like a little know-it-all brother who tells his friends when you have a crush on one of them, I can’t help thinking. I have one of those, although Bill grew out of it long before he and his family moved to San Diego.
“Oh yes. That bad. It’s not just meetings. Always be careful. He’s not too discreet.”
“OK. Dan. I’ll make sure I look him up.” I can’t believe it. Reporters are trained the spill the beans—but to protect their sources, too.
“I’m erasing this message. Just in case.”
Claire signs off and as promised sends the photo directory of my new fellow staffers. When I check back at our conversation on the chat page a few minutes later, I find the whole thing really is gone. Like we never talked. She wasn’t kidding. I stare at the empty white space and tap out the theme to Mission: Impossible with my pen before turning to the sheet of names, faces and titles. A new job is not supposed to start like this, at all.
I scan the faces on the photo directory and panic. I’ll never recognize all these people by eleven-thirty. Even though it’s only twelve people, it’s a lot to remember with everything else.
The managing editor, Tyler Okun, whom I met at my second interview, has a face I could never forget. Dark, piercing eyes that remind me of Lori’s favorite author, the one who wrote The Giving Tree. The photo on the back of the book used to haunt my dreams. Shel Somebody. Loved his books, was afraid of his picture. Lori has said the same thing.
I make myself look at Mr. Okun. He is the head honcho so he shouldn’t really be scary. But that face, I’ll always remember that face. I try to reassure myself by recalling how kind he was that afternoon.
Shel Silverstein. That’s the writer whose photo used to scare me. Mr. Okun has to be just as charming as I convinced myself Shel Silverstein was. No one who wrote children’s stories as sweet as his could really be scary. With a little shiver, I turn my gaze on the other pictures.
After I pick out Claire, I start searching for Dan. I don’t know what I’m looking for, glasses probably, a weak chin or mean little smirk. My gaze pauses on the name Dan Johnson. This must be the guy Claire warned me about; he’s the only Dan on the page.
Only, he’s not the dweeb I was expecting. This Dan has cerulean blue eyes, you know the color of a sky on a perfect summer afternoon. They shine out of a freckled face. A thatch of straight black hair hangs over them, nearly hiding one of his dark, thick eyebrows. He looks like the camera caught him as he was trying to say something. His expression is thoughtful with his lips slightly puckered as if he’s about to say “pretty.” Or some such word as that. Pretty was the first word that came to mind because that’s exactly my first impression of Dan. One pretty face. Too bad about the rep.
I’m trying to size up the rest, to see how I fit in. Most of the group seems like they could have been part of my class at the University of Baltimore. They look to be in their mid-30s. Bright-eyed and optimistic, I’d guess. A nice mix of men and women and a virtual United Nations of ethnicities. No point leaping to any rash judgments about my co-workers. Anyway, I mostly hope they’d be nice to work with or go to lunch with. Whenever we are actually working in the same office.
My attention returns to Dan. How could someone so handsome be the jerk Claire described? He has the kind of face I’ve been drawn to since the sixth grade. The kind I used to sigh over when I watched Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel. Born with eyes dark as night, I was always fascinated with blue eyes, how they seem to sparkle, even shine, in a way mine never would. And when my friends were whining about their freckles, I used to envy them. How nice, I thought it must be, to have a sprinkling of those dots across a little button nose. I didn’t have the button nose either but I kind of liked my long, sharply pointed nose. I wanted the freckles.
Dan’s face even has the very freckles I always longed for.
I am still recalling life as in middle school when my phone rings. The caller ID flashes “Times-Herald.” My first call as an employee.
“Good morning, Jessica Sands.” Why did I have to put that little sing-song lilt in my voice? It sounds just too perky for nine-fifty-five a.m.
“Good morning, Jessica Sands.” A baritone voice echoes my words. Already I hate him, no matter who he is. He pauses, so I guess I’m supposed to laugh. I just wait.
After a single beat, the voice continues. “I, ah, this is Dan Johnson. I thought I should call the newbie to welcome you aboard.” OK, that’s kind of a nice gesture, just what I’d expect from a face like his.
“Thank you.” There’s that lilt again, but this time I mean it. “This is a strange way to start a new job, I guess.”
“Usually, we order in a platter of donuts or bagels and have a little chat before we get down to business. Someone must’ve thought you were coming in today. There was a little pot of purplish flowers on your desk. I saw them when I went in to pick up a file. I hope you don’t mind but I took them home. They were only going to die before we all got back to the newsroom.”
Isn’t that nice? That’s what I think and that’s what I say.
“When we do get back, I’ll bring them in then. If I don’t kill them first.” He chuckles drily. I try to be friendly so I laugh along.
“Anyway,” he goes on, “Since we’re all scattered today I told the staff I’d make a call so I could introduce you during our meeting later.”
Maybe he is just being friendly, but I can’t forget what Claire said about watching him at the meeting. She didn’t mention he was going to call. My guard goes up, a little anyway.
“How considerate. What do you do in the news room, Mr. Johnson?” I always do what my mother taught me and call new acquaintances Mr. or Ms. until they tell me to call them by their first name.
“My dad is Mr. Johnson.” Everybody says the same thing, don’t they? “Please call me Dan. I cover city affairs, the mayor and council and other stuff in town. Lately, we’re more general assignment reporters than anything else. Claire said she wants you to work with me until the pandemic is over.”
Well, this is a surprise. I swallow hard, as I wonder why Claire warned me about him but didn’t mention that we’d be working together. I try to sound upbeat. “Oh, so we’re on the same team.”
The way he pauses before answering makes me nervous. I wonder what I said wrong.
“Yeah. I guess you could say that.”
Maybe changing the subject would be a good idea. Hanging up would be a relief but something tells me not to do that yet. “Do you live in the city?”
I know right away I picked a good topic. “I just bought my first house. A great little townhouse south of the harbor. It’s pretty old but someone before me tore out all the walls and modernized the kitchen. They even put on a rooftop deck. Can’t see the water but I do have a sweet view of the park and the stadium.”
“Sounds nice.” Of course it does. From the sounds of it, it’s my own neighborhood, right behind the city’s best park. Lori and I live on a modest little street where everybody bought into the fad of covering their pretty brick row houses with pastel-colored Formstone back in the, I don’t know, 1940s or maybe ‘50s or ‘60s. Even my grandparents or maybe it was my great grandparents covered the brick on the front. Nearly all the houses in my block are covered in the fake stone that really looks fake. We also have old-fashioned screen doors decorated with little black silhouettes of horse and buggy. Get past the front door and it still looks like my grandparents’ house. Neat and tiny with a faint aroma of sautéed onions I can’t figure out how to get rid of. There have been no updates at my house.
But I don’t dare tell him where I live. I never tell anybody where I live until I get to know them better. After getting mugged by some guy from a bar who followed me last year, I don’t take chances. I want to ask Dan if he lives with his wife, girlfriend, or maybe roommates but don’t. I hate to sound nosy—even though I really am.
“So, Jessica Sands, tell me something about yourself that I can share with the staff at our meeting.”
I don’t have to think about that. I’m proud of my education.
“Well, I got my bachelors at the University of Maryland in digital communications and then my masters in the Writing Seminars at Hopkins. ”
I hear a little snort. That usually means one of two things. He’s looking down his nose at my undergraduate school—a common but wrong-headed for an under-appreciated school. Or he thinks I’m putting on airs when I mention my Hopkins degree. People do that too. I don’t know why. Only thing to do is ignore it.
“I was an editorial assistant at a weekly for the past six years and before that I taught reading at a public school in west Baltimore for two years with Americorps.”
“Reading, huh? Why did you want to come to our little corner of the world?”
“I focused on history and nonfiction writing in school because I’ve always wanted to write for a newspaper. You know, ‘journalism is history in a hurry’ and all that? I’ve been sending my resume to the editors here since college graduation.”
“OK! Oh, and one more thing. Married? Kids?”
I pause before answering that one. I didn’t even answer that question for Claire. I’m proud to be Lori’s mom but my story is, well, difficult, and something I don’t wish to tell everyone. Instead, I repeat the question.
I’m not surprised when he objects. “I’m the one asking the questions.”
“I don’t think it matters whether I’m married or have kids, does it?” Is that bitchy to say? I don’t care. I’m not telling my story until I get to know everybody.
“Fair enough.” I can almost hear him shrug. “Well, then, I guess I’ll let you get back to that training manual. See you at eleven.”
“You mean eleven-thirty.”
“Yeah, whatever. Nice talking to you and welcome to the nut house.”
I hope he’s kidding about that last thing as I switch off my phone and reach for the manual.
The photo of Dan in the staff directory catches my eye again. Such a nice looking guy. And he was kind of sweet about the flowers. Too bad I’m not going to meet him or anybody else for the foreseeable future. Social distancing, hand washing and tele-work are the watchwords as long as this dangerous virus is going around. I worry about what I’ll do about Lori if I have to go out to work. Reporting is best done where the news is happening but already this morning I saw TV reporters working from their homes. It was kind of weird, really, to see inside those people’s houses. It even felt a little wrong. At least I won’t have to worry about that—I take another look at my filthy kitchen as that thought comes to me.
Maybe I should straighten… I stop the thought before I finish it. No sense thinking about anything but work between nine and five, not if I want to keep my job.
I glance at the clock. Only have an hour to look over this list before the meeting. I run my hands through my hair and glance around the room. Up to now, no one has known what a mess my house is. No one ever sees the inside of my house and I like it that way.
But in ten minutes, some part of my messy place is going to be on view whether I like it or not.
For the sake of my pride, I have to straighten at least a little. I carry the laptop around with the camera on as I look around the house for a background that doesn’t reveal my lack of housekeeping abilities. I’ve read Marie Kondo’s book and even promised myself to go through all our stuff and fold and sift and thank my things for their service. It looks like I might have to start tonight. If these meetings are going to be a regular occurrence, I need to have at least one clean corner.
The living room won’t work, even if it’s the cleanest part of the house. I need to have a place to take notes. I can’t juggle the laptop and a notepad. My desk is in my room and I haven’t made the bed since I moved in three years ago. And no one should see a bed in the background anyway.
The kitchen table is surrounded by debris. The recycling in one corner is piled to the middle of the front window. The curtains are tied up so I could get some light into the dark space. Lori’s backpack is hanging from an empty chair with picture books piled on the seat. Her bike is parked by the front door and the newspapers from the last month or so are stacked next to it.
I pick up my morning coffee mug and put it in the sink, out of sight. Then I collect the dinner dishes and the pot and hide them before wiping down the kitchen table, straightening the curtain and turning on the lights. The background isn’t impressive but it’s better than it was.
I catch sight of my hair and realize I never brushed it. After smoothing it, I decide a ponytail might look better. And the blouse I thought looked so professional this morning has a spot of coffee on it.
I race upstairs and grab my favorite power jacket. It’s red, it’s pretty and it makes me feel like I can do anything.
As I am about to be introduced to my new team, I need it. Then I smooth my hair and even freshen up my lipstick.
It’ll do. It’ll have to. It’s almost show-time.
Lori looks up as I race down the steps. “You look pretty, Mommy. Are you going somewhere?”
“Not today, dear.” I stroke her silky light brown hair. “We’re going to work here all day, won’t that be fun?”
The phone jangles on my desk. Hanna, my best friend in the world, is texting me. “My life is over.”
Chapter 2: Hannah: My life is over —next Monday at noon, right here.
I’m looking for your ideas!
Every Monday I’ll post a new chapter until Dan and Jessica find love, lose it and, we hope, find their happily-ever-after. Do you have an idea, torn from your own pandemic stay-at-home saga, that might help them?
If you have a suggestion for what happens next, send it along with your name and hometown to email@example.com. (Copy and paste the address, please.) Together we can write a great story to remember the lockdown of 2020.
Ⓒ 2020 Mary K. Tilghman