Chapter 17—Jessica: Jesus and vodka

Chapter 17
April 19, 2020, 9:45 a.m.
Jessica: Jesus and vodka

My sister is blunt. “How can you be falling for a guy you don’t even know?”

That zinger flies straight into my chest. 

“Why not? He’s been kind and helpful. He’s nice and handsome.”

“And…”

“And what?”

“How well did you know Colin before you married him?”

Kate was my maid of honor. Not exactly the cheerleader I hoped for, she nevertheless toasted our happiness and promised to stand by me whenever I needed her.

She sat beside me at the lawyer’s office. She let me soak her shoulder with my tears when I got the final papers. She held my hand during contractions as Lori entered the world, all six pounds, twelve ounces of her, that gorgeous April day.

And then she got married, had twins and then her third child, all boys, and somehow we stopped talking. Maybe it was her bluntness that made me step away.

I sip the coffee Kate placed before me and leave her question unanswered. The air between us grows cold. 

“Look.” Kate gets up for the coffee pot and refills my cup, not that it needed it. I figure she must be choosing the words she wants to say. 

I decide to beat her to the punch. “It’s probably meaningless. The minute we go to work in the office, we won’t want the awkwardness of an office romance. It’s just that I’m by myself, me and Lori, all day long and it’s been nice having someone else to care about.”

We’ve reached our usual impasse. She has her opinion. I have mine. And neither the twain shall meet. 

“Mommie.” Kate’s youngest, Charlie, charges into the kitchen, tears flowing down his face.

Kate gathers him in her arms. He’s only four. “What? Are you hurt?” 

“I want a cat like Lori’s going to get. She said I can’t have one.”

I’m forever amazed at the way children know how to push each other’s buttons. “Charlie, she can’t have one either. At least, not yet.”

He sits up and wipes his eye with a chubby fist. “But she said…”

“I’m not sure what she told you but we’ve had this conversation several times.” I see Lori trying to listen in from the doorway. I pretend I don’t know she’s there. “We can’t have a cat right now. Someday, maybe. But not now.”

Now she bursts into tears and flings herself at me. “But I want a cat. You said…”

“No, I have never said you could have a cat.”

Charlie’s face registers triumph now that his tears have dried. 

“I think it’s time to go. We’ve outstayed our welcome here.” I stand and pick up my bag. “Thanks for watching Lori. I really appreciate it.”

Kate says a few nice things about Hanna and Matt’s wedding before I gather Lori’s things and we head home.

It’s a quiet ride from the suburbs into the city. Lori’s stewing over the cat question, yet again. I was riding on a cloud of love until my conversation with Kate. I saw my friend and her new husband, all smiles, and I couldn’t help wondering if I might ever feel that way again. 

It was lonely standing there with them. It was wonderful, of course, but I never felt so alone. My walk down the aisle was a mistake, although I’d do it all over again so that I would be the mother of the stubborn little girl beside me. 

I’m not getting her a cat. But the thought occurs to me she’s lonely, too. She’s missing her friends, her grandparents, her classmates. Lori always has somewhere to go, people to see. 

Or she did until March 16. The cat is her way of saying she’s lonely. 

OK. I’ll think about getting a cat. I wonder if cat adoptions are even possible now. Better not say anything until I know.

I get the silent treatment from my daughter the rest of the day. The drama queen goes to her room with her nose in the air and she makes sure I see as she closes the door. 

Dinner is just as chilly. I’ve ordered her favorite kind of pizza, hoping for a truce. But she nibbles at one slice and then asks if she may be excused. 

It’s a long night that turns into a long day. 

I’ve got an easy assignment. A lady who’s baking cakes for her neighbors, people who come to her door, including the Amazon delivery woman and her letter carrier. We talk over FaceTime while she bakes a sweet potato pie. As luck would have it, a package from Amazon arrives and I get to meet Sheila after Mrs. Potts hands her the apple pie she made for her earlier in the day.

“I’ve been so busy I haven’t had homemade food in a couple of weeks,” Sheila says after she breathes in the pie’s aroma. 

I wish I could be there in person. I like those moments that tantalize your senses. I want to smell the cinnamon and maybe taste that golden flaky crust. I want to see the sparkle in the women’s eyes as they share a kind moment. 

But I can’t. And I can’t even stay on the line a minute longer. 

“Mommy!” The silent treatment has ended with a cry of anger.

I quickly end the call after double-checking phone numbers for each of them and some of the other people I’ll call after I see to my daughter.

I find Lori in tears. She’s sitting at my laptop where Mrs. Gambino is reading a picture book. I glance at the screen, making sure the microphone is muted. Lori’s teacher doesn’t need drama disrupting her lesson.

“I don’t want to listen to this story. It’s the same one Dan read to me. I heard it already. But Mrs. Gambino told me I have to sit quietly and listen.”

“What would you do if you were in your classroom at school?”

She looks at me and purses her lips like I am a stupid woman who shouldn’t ask such silly questions. 

“It’s no different here, Lori. Mrs. Gambino has a lesson for all of you. You’ve been very good about paying attention and doing your homework. Now, sit down and listen to the story. I bet she’s going to ask questions when it’s all over and you’ll already know the answers.”

Lori must have remembered she’s angry with me. She turns from me in a huff, folds her arms and at least pretends to watch as Mrs. Gambino turns a page and shows the picture to the camera. 

I don’t envy that poor lady one bit. She has to wonder if any of her twenty-seven charges are paying attention. She’s working so hard, spending long hours on Zoom every day, to make sure her children can read at grade level, add and subtract and know where in the world they are. She doesn’t give much homework. Lori’s able to finish everything well before I’m finished for the day.

I return to my own laptop and pick up my phone. I Google cat adoptions while I listen to the voice mail prompt. 

Big yellow eyes on the webpage catch my attention as I leave my name and number for Mrs. Potts’ neighbor. Popcorn is adorable. Good with children and adults. I’m falling in love. She’s orange with stripes from her nose to the tips of her ears. She’s been looking for a home since July of 2019. Oh, she’s looks perfect. I’m definitely falling in love—until I get to the sentence about her having a strict specialty diet and daily thyroid medication. I look over my laptop and wonder if I’m ready for Popcorn. 

There are some pretty cats and the local shelter is open for adoptions, virtual anyway. How do I decide? Do I choose the shy one who hides under the bed, the long-haired cat with dental issues, the black and white with the heart murmur. So many have something wrong. One is deaf. Another hates to be petted. Another is afraid of children.

Lori’s voice interrupts my search. She’s answering Mrs. Gambino’s question with her usual enthusiasm. It’s enough to make me relax. She’s doing fine. I don’t need to worry about her.

Just before the editorial meeting, I check to be sure she’s doing her work. It’s quiet and she’s leaning over the arithmetic worksheet I printed out. A page full of subtraction problems should take the entire length of the meeting to finish. 

I click on to our online meeting and immediately notice Dan is missing. It feels strange not to see his face among all the others. Claire’s late so I text Rashima to ask how she’s doing.

“Have you heard about Breonna Taylor?” 

The name doesn’t ring a bell. I quickly glance through the morning paper, looking for the name. Finally, I admit I don’t.

She texts back. “Yeah. Didn’t think so.” 

She glances at her screen, I guess looking at me. Something’s wrong. But I don’t know what.

Claire’s arrival ends the conversation but I call on Google again to find out who she is. What I read shocks me. She was younger than me, an EMT working during this coronavirus pandemic. And she’s dead, killed while she slept by policemen looking for someone else.

Why haven’t we heard about this? 

I sit back, my thoughts reeling. Not only about Rashima’s question but why this story hasn’t been on our front page. Our own city has had its share of police brutality. 

And where is Dan?

I don’t want to miss him. In fact, I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up that there’s something between us. My sister is right. We hardly know each other. We’ve really only met a couple of times. We talk on the phone every day so it feels like we’ve gotten to know each other really well. 

But I haven’t even told him where I live. I wouldn’t never have mentioned Lori if he hadn’t seen her. If I’m keeping secrets, isn’t he? After Colin—who kept it a secret he didn’t want children—I don’t know who to trust. 

I don’t want Kate to be right. I want her to be completely wrong. But it is true the newsroom will be an awfully uncomfortable place for romance. Or worse, romance gone wrong. 

Besides, I can’t even decide if we have room in our lives for a cat. How can I ever decide we have room in our lives for another human being?

No, this is a mistake, isn’t it?

I add little to the meeting since my mind is on everything but the day’s news. Rashima offers to write about the EMT in Louisville but Claire rejects the story. I can see the disappointment—no, it’s more than that—the resentment on Rashima’s face. 

I’ll call her later to see what’s up.

“Now I know who she is,” I text my friend. “Let’s talk later.”

She sends a thumbs-up emoji.

I sign off and realize it’s gotten quiet in the dining room. The laptop is closed and a sort of confetti litters the table. 

“Lori?” 

“What.” A morose-sounding voice comes from under the tablecloth. 

“Why aren’t you on your call?”

Lori is lying on the floor, an angry scowl on her face. “I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m tired.”

I pick up a piece of the confetti. It’s what I feared. Bits of the math paper she has to finish by the end of the school day.

“Lori? What happened to your math paper?”

“I couldn’t do it.”

The phone rings. Between the second and third ring, I decide I better answer it. Lori probably needs time to decompress anyway.

“Good afternoon, Jessica Sands,” I chirp. 

“Miss Sands.” I was expecting Mrs. Pott’s neighbor. Instead, it’s Dan.

“Hey Dan. I really can’t talk right now. I’m expecting the last call for my story. Can we talk later?”

His tone is cool. “If you want. But I need Dr. Marino’s number. I can’t find it.”

“I’ll text it to you, okay?”

“That’ll be fine.” 

I want to ask if something is wrong but decide this isn’t the moment. 

“Mommy.” I can hear the frustration in Lori’s voice.

Definitely not the moment. “I’ll call after while. Four good?”

“Sure. See you.”

Now I’m worried. But there’s nothing I can do about Dan’s moods when I have Lori’s to contend with.

Another worksheet has been torn to bits. 

“Lori Sands, you pick up that mess right this instant. I’m going to reprint those pages and we’ll sit down and finish them together.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I don’t either. You do as I say, Miss.”

It goes downhill from there until she’s tossed the rest of her books on the floor, spilled her pencil cup and reaches for the laptop. I grab it before she does. It may be old but it’s mine and it works. And it has to work until the end of the semester a long month and a half from now.

I close my eyes and count to ten. By then, Lori has stomped off, telling me she hates me and stampeding up the steps to her room. She shuts the door with a bang. 

A perfect day. 

Besides the happy news story I’m writing, I’ve got an outraged colleague, another one playing it too cool and a furious daughter who isn’t sure what she’s angry about. 

The phone rings again. This time I look before I answer. 

It’s Hanna. She should be on her honeymoon to Bermuda. Instead, she’s working, just another Monday during a pandemic.

“How is going?” She asks. 

Do I tell her? She asked. 

“I need Jesus and vodka.” 

“Jesus and vodka? Why?”

“I need Jesus and vodka and I stand by that statement.” 

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