Chapter 21—Jessica: Private Lives

May 5, 2020 2:00 p.m.
Jessica: Private lives

“Is everything all right, Rashima?” We’ve spent the past hour dividing the work on our Memorial Day story, reviewing our interview list. And it looks like it’s going to be a really good story. Really sad, too. We’re talking to veterans who have survived both war and covid-19. But we’re also talking to the loved ones of those who survived a war but not the virus. 

As sad as the conversation has been for the past hour, it seems like Rashima is distracted. Or troubled. Not her usual sassy self. 

“Oh, yeah,” she responds quickly enough. 

“One of the kids sick? BreAsia? Jamari?” I hope it’s not the baby, whose name I can never remember.

“No, they’re fine. In fact, we’ve been preparing for our run Friday.”

“Run?”

“For Maud.” The tone in her voice makes me think I should know who Maud is.

When I don’t comment quickly enough, she sighs loudly. “This is the problem.”

“Excuse me?” 

“Do you even know who Ahmaud Arbery was?”

It dawns on me. Everybody knows who Ahmaud Arbery is. Or they should. He’s the kid who got chased down by the father and son who shot him dead just because he was jogging in his own South Carolina neighborhood back in February.

“I hadn’t heard him called Maud.” I don’t tell her I haven’t heard of the run on Friday. I don’t even know where it is being held.

“Oh, okay. The kids and I are running on his birthday. There’s a Facebook page all about it. On Friday he would have been twenty-six. BreAsia even put Ahmaud’s name on her Nikes with glitter glue. It was all I could do not to get mad at the mess she left.”

I almost commiserate but stop myself. I haven’t even told Rashima about Lori. 

“Where are you going to run?”

“One of the bike trails around our neighborhood. We’ll never get the whole 2.23 miles but we’ll try. It was BreAsia’s idea. She saw the news while I was working.” 

Rashima was silent for a moment. “I wasn’t ready for The Talk. She’s only ten. And Jamari’s eight. I know I’m going to have to warn them about people like that but I didn’t want to tell them yet. They’re only beginning to see the world in black and white. I don’t even let them go to their friends’ houses in our own neighborhood by themselves yet. I don’t want them to be scared—no matter how worried I am.”

Worrying about my child not coming home from a jog around the neighborhood is something I worry about, too. But I’m afraid of cars. Not bullets. “It just keeps happening, doesn’t it?” 

“Ahmaud was just jogging. Breonna Taylor was asleep in her bed. Those cops were looking for a guy who had already been arrested. They were killed them just because they were black.”

We’re silent for a moment, taking in how painful this is for my friend. “We ought to do something,” I finally say, in almost a whisper.

“Damn straight. We’ve tried. We just can’t get anyone to listen. I can’t even get Claire to run a local reaction story. ‘It’s not about us,’ she said.”

“Claire can be hard to deal with,” I agree.

“She’s different during all these online meetings. A lot gruffer. I guess she’s like the rest of us—well the rest of us with kids—too busy with work, too busy with schoolwork and dying to get out of the house.” 

I think I got left out of that comment, didn’t I? I brush aside the exclusion; after all, I don’t want to divulge my private life just yet. “You mean she’s more fun to be around in the office?”

“I wouldn’t say that, exactly. But she does have a sense of humor and a really loud belly laugh when someone makes a joke. Ed can really get her going.”

“Something to look forward to when all this is over, I guess.”

“The newsroom is a fun place. We work really hard but we have a good time. We’re probably all a bunch of nerds but I like it.”

“I’ve been disappointed not to be there. I’m beginning to worry it might be months before I set foot in the office.”

“Could be. The virus isn’t going away. Remember what Claire said about places opening up too soon? Their numbers are spiking again. I don’t think we’ll be back in the office until the fall. Just a guess.”

The walls of my living room close in at the thought. I like this house. I even like working from home. But I don’t like not knowing my co-workers. Not sharing a joke—I had no idea Ed was funny. To tell the truth, I’d like to have dinner in a restaurant or a sandwich someone else made.

When I hear Lori reading in the next room, though, I reconsider. After all, I’ve gotten to watch my little girl grown up a little, learn new things, chat with her classmates on line and her stuffed dog here. Our own private refuge from the coronavirus is a cozy place to be.

The conversation turns back to our story. We’ll interview all the subjects on FaceTime or Skype. We’ll turn our interviews into a collection of short stories and Rashima will write the lede[ correct spelling]. 

I’m excited to be working on this story. It’s going to take a lot of time, especially since I still have to write daily articles. It’s not breaking news but I’m hoping it’s a touching portrayal of how the coronavirus has affected our wartime heroes. We make a big deal about the men and women who went into battle. “Thank you for your service” and all that. 

Best of all, I get to work with Rashima. She’s a good reporter, a great writer and, I hope, a new friend. I’d like to have someone to talk to in the newsroom. 

I haven’t talked to Dan in nearly a week. Since Rashima and I have been working on this story, there hasn’t been any good reason to call him. He hasn’t called me either. Not even a text during the editorial meeting.

It’s fine, I suppose. For the best, I should say. 

“We’ve been on this call for nearly an hour,” Rashima says. “We better wrap it up. Kimmy is going to need me pretty soon.”

Kimmy, that’s the baby’s name. 

“How old is the baby?” I used to think I’d be surrounded by babies all the time when I was newly married. I couldn’t wait to have kids. Obviously, I didn’t wait. 

“Six months. She’s a cutie. And she’s suddenly doing so much. Finally, she’s sleeping through the night. She just started sitting up by herself. I can’t leave her alone anymore, except in her crib. She’s figured out she can roll. Jamari puts her on the living room floor just to watch her roll from one end to the other.”

“I remember when Lori—”

The words are out of my mouth and I can’t haul them back in.

“Jess? Are you there? You cut out.”

I take a deep calming breath, confident it’s going to be okay to share mommy stories with Rashima. 

“I was remembering when my daughter started to roll over. I didn’t know and she rolled under the bed. I couldn’t find her.”

Rashima laughs. That’s all. She doesn’t ask any follow-up questions.

“They’re adorable, aren’t they?” is all she says.

“I guess I should explain.” I feel like I have to. 

“Explain what?”

“About my daughter, Lori.”

“Lori? Your daughter?”

“Yes, she’s seven.” 

“How come you’ve never mentioned her until now?”

“I wasn’t sure when I was hired how Claire would feel about my being a single mother. Then, I don’t know, I guess I couldn’t figure out how to mention her.”

“I’m glad you finally did.”

I feel better, too.

“To tell the truth, Jess…” Rashima pauses. “Dan told me by mistake a few weeks ago.”

“He what?”

“It was an honest mistake. He just mentioned how impressed he was with the staffers handling two jobs at once and he mentioned you. He didn’t tell me about Lori, exactly. And when he realized what he did, he promised me not to mention it.”

The blood in my veins turned ice cold. He betrayed me. He turned out to be exactly what Claire said, a big mouth.

“Does everyone know about Lori?”

“Oh, no. Definitely not. He was beside himself when he realized what he did.”

I tell her about how Claire warned me about his big mouth. 

“What? She said that?”

“Yeah. I thought it was weird at the time.”

“Dan’s usually too busy talking about himself to repeat what others are saying. He’s a little impressed with himself.”

“That’s an understatement.” 

“I can’t imagine why Claire would say something like that, but then she’s good at trying to keep us from becoming friends.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It does in Claire’s world. She thinks reporters should be competitive, trying to get space on the front page, or beat out someone for the best story. That’s why she liked that first piece you did. You managed to get a story Dan couldn’t get.”

I don’t know what to say. None of this makes any sense but then again, it does explain why our editorial meetings are so fraught with tension. I thought it was just the online tool we use. 

Before I can say anything, Rashima continues. “The person to watch out for, in my opinion, is Claire. She’s a good editor but she’s not a good people manager.”

“And Dan? How can I trust him?”

“He said it without thinking. I’d be mad, too. But he’s all right. You have to remember he was Claire’s fair-haired boy until just before you came. He misquoted the mayor or something. I don’t think Claire has forgiven him yet.”

“So she stuck him with the new girl.”

“Oh I wouldn’t say that. Maybe you’ve heard about Sophie.”

“Endlessly. She’s the smartest, most talented reporter on the face of the earth, after Dan, of course.”

Rashima laughs. “Yeah, everybody knew he was desperately in love with her. She knew too. But she didn’t give him the time of day. She wasn’t interested in him or any man for that matter. But she did learn to be a good reporter with Dan. That’s why Claire paired the two of you. I was going to offer and then with the virus and everybody working from home, I didn’t think I’d have the time.”

“Well, you’re working with the newbie now.”

“Yes I am and we’re going to have fun. As much fun as we can have with a sad story. The next one will be fun, for sure. Now I have to go. The baby is crying for me.”

I hang up the phone, stunned by the revelations in what should have been a routine conversation. Who can I trust? I’m beginning to wonder. I’ve already learned to be careful what I say to Claire. Only a little more than a month into the job, I’m making sure I have plenty of story ideas when the meetings begin. I never mention what I’ve already written because she’s bound to criticize what I’ve written or compare it unfavorably to someone else’s story. That’s something I can’t get used to. It never would have happened at my last job. Things were definitely kinder and gentler in the weeklies world.

But Dan? What do I do about that? He promised he wouldn’t mention Lori to anyone. 

If I can’t trust him with one little, but very important, promise, how can I trust him with anything else?

I used to bite my fingernails. If I was angry or worried, I’d bite them down until it hurt. I was thirteen when I figured out how to stop doing it. I wanted to wear nail polish—but not on those ragged nails. 

I’m really angry. And hurt. And I’ve chewed off my thumb nail before I realize what I’m doing. 

I shake my hands and head to the bathroom for a nail file and a bottle of coral nail polish to fix the damage I’ve done.

Just as I finish the tenth finger, the phone rings. 

It’s Dan. Not talking to him now. I let it go to voice mail. 

Next Monday CHAPTER 22—Dan: Ghosted

Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter,
Chapter 19—Dan: The real world

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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