Chapter 15—Jessica: Surrounded by romance

Chapter 15

April 17, 2020, 11:45 a.m.

Jessica: SURROUNDED BY ROMANCE

Because there’s no real eye contact on Zoom I have trouble figuring out a lot of what’s going on in our daily editorial meetings. If it weren’t for the way the boxes light up with a yellow and green frame, I might not even be able to tell who’s talking.

It’s weird the way everybody is kind of looking out at me but since they’re looking at their screens and not their cameras our eyes never meet.

I’ve kept my eye on Dan through the whole meeting. He’s unusually quiet. He’s kept his focus on notes he’s writing, instead of the speakers. And yet I have the feeling sometimes he’s looking at me.

After yesterday, I only want to be with him. To make sure he’s feeling better today—although how could he. He’s taking the deaths of his friends so hard. 

After yesterday, I only want to be with him.

I felt honored that Dan let me be the one who comforted him. I only wish he’d let me put some of what he said to me in my article. 

Or offer his opinion to the whole group. We’re all working on a tribute page to run in Sunday’s paper. A firefighter, a nurse, a couple of retired corporate executives, a lawyer and a pair of old folks who loved each other and baseball. 

It occurs to me I don’t know what Dan’s working on. I’m not sure when we stopped being a team, but as much as I resented it a month ago, now I miss the camaraderie that came out of what was a pretty nasty introduction. 

While Rashima talks about the restaurateur who has announced she’s closing her once-thriving night spot, I watch Claire. 

She wears her usual scowl, occasionally jots something down and then taps her cheek with her pen. It occurs to me she’s signaling the speaker to wrap it up so the meeting can move on.

As soon as she does it, Rashima—who was telling a really good story—stops in mid-sentence.

“I’ll leave the rest for you to read in tomorrow’s paper,” she finishes. 

“Sunday’s paper,” Claire corrects. “We need a good lead story for the Style section. Write a notice for the business page for tomorrow and turn it into a feature for Sunday, Six hundred words. Ed? Can you find some pix?”

Ed, who was fiddling with something off-camera, sits up and leans toward his camera.

“Sure. I took plenty of good ones for Rashima’s review last year.”

Today’s conversation has left me in the dumps. I can’t deny it. The stories are so sad. People are dying. They’re losing their jobs, their businesses. Food giveaways attract long lines of people, socially distanced of course. Our business writer Sian keeps comparing the economy now with the Great Depression.

And then I look at Dan in his little square at the bottom of the grid. The troubles of this pandemic have hit one of us really hard and no one except me even is aware of it. 

I text him. “Meet for lunch?” I know in-person gatherings are still a bad idea but yesterday’s impromptu meeting has made me hungry for more.

“Thanks but I can’t. Ton of phone calls to make.”

“Virtual happy hour later then?”

“We’ll see. TTYL”

I toss the phone aside. I want what I can’t have. That’s the truth of it. It’s Jonathan Taylor Thomas all over again. I’m falling in love—no, no, no, I didn’t really think that, did I?—I’m crushing on someone out of my reach.

“Mommy, I can’t figure this out.”

Lori stands at my elbow, still in her pajamas and her hair a tangle of knots. I’m turning into a negligent parent, I think as I try to smooth her too long tresses.

“Shouldn’t you have changed into something other than pajamas by now, babe?”

“Oh.” She looks down at the pink knit outfit populated by white and blue bunnies. “I forgot.”

I give her that mom stare. She ignores it. “Could you please show me how to do this? Then I’ll change.” 

I’ve got to hand it to my daughter. She’s learning how to negotiate like a pro.

“All right.” I take the paper and pencil in her hand. She knows this stuff. It’s number lines all over again. She can teach me how to use them. 

It doesn’t matter. What she wants, I decide, is a moment with Mom. I pull over a kitchen chair with my foot so she can sit close and we work out each and every problem together. To tell the truth, she shows me how it’s done. I liked math but Lori’s good at it.

When she’s filled in the last answer, she looks up at me and beams. “Now can we have lunch?”

Um, we made a deal. I give her that stare again. She smiles and adds, “After I change?”

She gallops off to her room and I start smearing peanut butter on bread.

When my phone jangles, my heart leaps as I hope Dan is texting me. 

No, it’s Hanna and the news might be bad. “We’ve hit a snag.”

I don’t even think about texting her. Instead, I hit her phone number.

“I don’t know what to do,” she answers. No “hello.” No “how are you?”

“Tell me.”

If anything else can go wrong with the wedding, I worry she might call it all off, certain the universe thinks their wedding is a bad idea. 

“It’s our rings.”

Both of them are planning to exchange antique rings. Matt is giving Hanna his grandmother’s simple gold band. Hanna’s grandfather didn’t wear a wedding ring but had a signet ring, heavy and etched with the family seal, that he always wore on his left hand. It fit Matt without any adjustment. 

“You didn’t lose them.” 

“Oh no. Well, no. Not really. We know where they are. We just can’t get them today.”

The story tumbles out, my friend nearly breathless and horrified that they didn’t think of it before the day they leave to get married.

They bought a house right before the pandemic lockdown, a pretty cottage with lots of trees in the backyard. Before moving in, Hanna took the rings to her bank and put them in a safe deposit box. Where they still are.

“There’s no one at our little branch today. We can’t get our rings.” I can hear the despair in my friend’s voice. 

“You don’t need rings to get married, though.”

“Yes, we do.”

“Hanna. You have the man. You have the marriage license. You have the venue. You have the minister. You can still get married tomorrow afternoon on the mountain side by the river, just the same. Exchange the rings when you can get the bank to open for you. It’ll be a special moment for just you two.”

 “And the bank teller. Chica, there’s something else.”

Maybe the universe doesn’t want Hanna and Matt to get married after all.

“The minister has backed out. Since the number of cases of covid-19 keeps rising, he’s decided it’s not safe to come.”

News stories always start with the most important fact. Hanna prefers to start small and then go with the big stuff. 

“So you’re telling me you don’t have anyone to officiate at the wedding?”

“Nope.”

“I know an internet officiant but he lives too far away. Matt’s sister has two little kids so she can’t do it.”

“What do you need?”

“Can you do it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Go on the internet and get ordained. Then you can come tomorrow and be our officiant.”

I’m already sitting down at my laptop, typing in the words “how to become an internet officiant.”

I glance through the search’s results. “Anyone who feels so-called can become a minister within seconds.”

Free, easy, legal—all words that might mean I can go to the wedding after all. I’ll need to perform a ceremony, give a sermon or say a few words, made it meaningful and memorable, by tomorrow afternoon. It’s a lot to do. I’ll have to pack, too. What should I wear? What’s the weather going to be like? It’s pouring rain today. I’ll need shoes for mud.

My mind is racing so fast with all the things I should do I haven’t even answered Hanna. 

“Jess? Are you listening?”

I chuckle, a little embarrassed, a little excited. 

“Sorry, Hanna, I was already making my to do list. What do you need?”

I should have known Hanna already had a huge set of requirements. Down to the navy blue suit I wore to their engagement party. 

I jot everything down even as I pour a glass of milk, cut Lori’s sandwich in half and place it in front of her. She’s in the pink leotard as usual. 

I wasn’t even expecting to attend the wedding. Since their plans were practically an elopement, I had resigned myself to witnessing my very best friend get married on an online chat platform. 

Now, it looks like I’m going to be the one to officiate as they tie the knot.

Hanna signs off sounding just as she should, as an excited bride. It isn’t the wedding of her dreams. But it’s the man she dreams of sharing her life with. I couldn’t be happier.

“Mommy? Was that Tia Hanna?”

Oh, hell. I forgot something, didn’t I? Would it be okay to take Lori? Would it be safe for her? 

We haven’t gone past our block in more than a month. She hasn’t even seen her grandparents or her friends.

“Yes, that was Tia Hanna. She’s getting married tomorrow, remember?”

“But we can’t go, right? Because everything’s closed, right?”

She’s tearing the crust of her bread in little bits so I carry the plate away and take the last clementine out of the fridge. 

I better get some groceries, too. I have a lot to do before tomorrow.

“Tia Hanna and Matt have decided to have a little wedding since everybody can’t come. You can watch it on the Zoom, just like you watch Mrs. Gambino, when you have math class.”

“Oh.” Unimpressed, she hops out of her chair and asks be excused. 

“You don’t want the clementine?”

“No thanks. You can have it.”

I sit down at the crumb-sprinkled table and start filling out the online form to be “ordained.” Father Jim will laugh when he finds out one of his parishioners has become a minister of the United Church of the World Wide Web. 

I reach for my credit card—of course I want the official certificate—but pick up my phone. instead 

“Mom? Do you think you could watch Lori tomorrow?”

I retell the long saga of Hanna and Matt to my mother. She’s “sympathetic but.” How I hate that little word.

“My doctor told me no. I wish I could, Jess, you know how I miss that little sweetie. I could send your father over.”

I almost say yes but realize that wouldn’t be right either. “Maybe I’ll take her with me.”

“Don’t you dare.” My mother’s a little freaked out about this virus, worried that people aren’t being as careful as they should, afraid it’s going to kill everyone. 

“I won’t. I’ll think of something. Thanks, Mom.”

I hardly put down the phone when it buzzes. “I’m sorry.”

It’s Dan but I can’t imagine what he’s apologizing for. 

“Hi, Dan.”

“I was rude earlier. I shouldn’t have brushed you off the way I did.” 

“You’re busy. I understand.”

He’s silent for a long time. 

“It’s just that…”

He pauses. Sometimes, you just have to wait so I do.

“I’m starting to care for you, Jessica.” 

“But we hardly know each other.”

“I know. I’ve seen you every day for a month but only in person, what? Twice?”

I’m surprised, not surprised—because I’m thinking the same thing. Yesterday changed everything. I saw the tough reporter’s soft side, vulnerable side. 

“Me too.” I practically whisper the words because it’s so hard to say them. My relationship with men hasn’t been too good. My only boyfriend was the love of my life until he left me pregnant and alone. Last year, I got mugged when I tried for the very first time to venture out on my own. I don’t take chances anymore.

Or I didn’t until now. I figure a tentative baby step won’t hurt anything.

“You mean?” He sounds surprised. “I haven’t been the nicest of colleagues. I thought you were merely tolerating me.”

“Well, that’s absolutely true. You have been quite annoying — but sometimes you have your moments.”

“So I guess it’s too late for lunch. Can we meet for a drink later? You and Lori, I mean.”

I get that little Jonathan-Taylor-Thomas lightness in my heart. And then I remember everything I have to do before tomorrow—including find someone to watch Lori.

“I’m afraid my plans have changed.”

I fill Dan in on all the latest news, from my ordination to the locked-up wedding rings. I leave out the babysitting duties, I’ll call my sister Kate later. We haven’t had a chance to catch up since she’s been working at home with her children.

“So what are they going to do about rings?” 

“They aren’t required. They’ll exchange them in the presence of a bank teller next week.”

“But that’s such a nice part of the ceremony.” 

Why is Dan arguing with me? After all, I’ve just read up on the requirements for a wedding. “They can’t get them in time so there’s no point in worrying about them.”

“It’s just that I inherited my grandparents’ rings. I could lend them to the happy couple—if you think that would help.”

Wow. That’s what I think and that’s what I say

“Wow. That’s so nice.”

“I could bring them by if you want.”

A cold chill runs through me. I don’t take chances anymore. But I also just told him I had feelings for him, sort of told him anyway. Somehow, though, I’m not ready yet. My shields go up, way up. I won’t tell him how hard it is or why but I don’t want to invite him over yet. I’m still happy with public places. 

“Tell you what. Lori keeps asking me if we can meet up with Rex in the park. I’m sorry she never mentions Rex’s owner. How about after we turn our stories in?”

“Rex doesn’t care about my schedule. We’ll be in the park about five-thirty. Can you make that?”

“Okay. Great. And Dan? Thanks, you’re the best.”

“I’ve been waiting for you to say that.” 

There he goes again, arrogant reporter. Even if I agree, which I do, I’ll never tell him. “Ah, okay. See you then. Don’t forget the rings.”

I’ve got a busy afternoon ahead. But my heart is beating with a new happiness. My best friend is getting married and I’ll be there. My coworker is falling in love with me even though we’re working from home. I’m surrounded by romance. 

I dial my sister’s number. “Hey Kate. How you holding up?”

Next Monday: CHAPTER 16—Jessica: They do
Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter, Chapter 14—Bad news first

Dan and Jessica’s story needs 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? (PS–This is torn from real life, for sure. Someday I’ll share the story. It’s wonderful.)

If you have a suggestion for #what happens next, send it along with your name and hometown to whathappensnext.19@gmail.com. (Copy and paste the address, please.) Or comment below.

Together we can write a great story to remember the lockdown of 2020.

Ⓒ2020 MARY K. TILGHMAN

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