May 9, 2020
It’s just as well. That’s what I keep telling myself. It’s just as well. But it really isn’t. I know why, too.
Because I’m stupid, stupid, stupid. Me and my big mouth.
I deserve it. Jessica has ghosted me. For more than a week, Jessica hasn’t responded to a text, answered a call, called me back, or answered an email. Yup. I know I did wrong. I know she’s angry. Even without hearing it straight from her.
Rashima called me right after her conversation with Jessica to tell me Jessica knows that I let it slip about Lori. I wanted to bite off my tongue the minute the words escaped my big mouth. I had promised not to tell anyone about her daughter. It was her secret to tell when she was ready.
I don’t know why she needed to keep it secret but it doesn’t matter. I knew that.
I only thought—well, maybe I didn’t think, I don’t know—but I meant well when I said to Rashima how well she seemed to be handling motherhood and journalism at the same time. She laughed at me in response, told me I had no idea what I was talking about.
I blurted out that we only have two reporters on the staff, besides Claire who has a nanny or someone to help her out, managing to work from home with kids underfoot. I told Rashima how impressed I was by the good work she and Jessica were doing.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I begged Rashima not to say anything. But she did, though I don’t know why.
I guess I should have told Jessica myself what I had done and begged her forgiveness.
Not that she would.
Not that she should.
I just wish she would.
“You’re toast, man.” When Frank’s text arrives it offers no comfort. I came clean to him in a text about an hour ago. Without naming names. I knew better than to do it a second time. I’m not always stupid.
I jump when the phone rings. Before I get it to my ear, Frank is laughing at me. “I told Bella what you did.”
“She’s the one who said you’re toast.”
“Did she say why?”
Frank laughs again. “She said, and I quote, ‘If he was a person I kind of liked, it would immediately kill any chance of following through. If you’re not already in a relationship, there would be no reason to hold on. All I would think is, He’s cute, but he’s such a jerk.’”
Bella doesn’t mince words.
“So she doesn’t think I can save this?”
“She said, it would be okay if you were a spy. Then sometimes you just have to look like a jerk.”
“Why would it make a difference if I were a spy?”
“Bella didn’t explain.”
“I’m not a spy so there’s no hope, huh?”
“Not in Bella’s opinion. But for what it’s worth, she may not hate you forever. Who is this anyway? I thought you were falling for the new reporter. She doesn’t—”
“No, I was asking for a friend.”
“That’s not what you said.”
I can’t lie to Frank but I can’t tell him either. “I know but I can’t reveal my source in this case.”
“Got it. I won’t ask. Even if maybe I know—but I won’t reveal your source either.”
Frank’s a good guy. I don’t think he’ll even tell Bella. She probably already thinks I am a jerk.
“But for what it’s worth, Danny boy, I think she, whoever this secret person is, may forgive you. We all make mistakes. Now if you can find a way to explain that you did it to save your best friend…”
“Or Rashima. Or even…” I stop before I say Jessica’s name. “I only was thinking what a great person she is. I did exactly what I promised I wouldn’t. I’m a bum.”
“That’s what Bella said.”
“Sorry, Dan. I wish I could think of something better to say.”
After I hang up and finish my story, I’m taking Rex for a walk. One of us needs to have a good day. The weather today is cool and breezy, perfect for a good long walk.
My heart isn’t in my work today. My story—for tomorrow’s Sunday edition—is a simple one, an update of the numbers, which aren’t getting any better and seem to indicate we’re going to be stuck inside for a good long time. That fact alone sends my mood into the blue zone. As if it wasn’t there before.
Jessica’s little plant, nearly a foot tall now, seems to mock me from its place on the window sill. “Oh, shut up,” I say. Yes, I talk to a plant before sending my story to Claire.
The streets in my neighborhood are busy this Saturday afternoon. It’s actually a little weird after so many weeks on lockdown.
Today looks like a street party. The pretty weather has brought out everybody who has a dog or a little kid or wants to ride a bike, take a jog or go for a walk. Entire families are stretched out along the sidewalks, happy not to be cooped up on a spring afternoon.
Rex wants to stop and let everybody pat him. Usually, I let them but with the pandemic it seems like I ought to be more careful so I keep to myself. If that means we have to cross the street to avoid a conversation, then that’s what I’ll do.
“No, no.” I tug on his leash when a family with three little girls turns the corner. “Rex, come.” His nose is attuned to the smells ahead of him, his ears twitch this way and that as the children chatter and giggle. He doesn’t come as asked but pulls the other way. Usually an obedient pup, he’s clearly looking for a little love from someone other than me.
“Sorry, pal.” I tug on his leash again. We’re crossing the street whether he likes it or not.
“Doggie!” The littlest child calls out. Her hair twisted into pigtails with little red and white balls on the ends, she’s just a toddler yanking on her father’s hand.
“No, Zakiya. Stay away from the dog.” He picks up the little girl just as she stretched out her chubby little arms toward Rex.
“No, Rex. Sorry, man,” I call to the father. “My dog hasn’t seen children in a while. He likes them.”
The man chuckles. “He looks like he could eat little Zee, here.”
“No, lick her to death, maybe, but he’d never do that. He’s a gentle giant. Have a good walk.”
I drag my reluctant mutt across the street. He keeps looking back and whining, at least until something new attracts his attention. I just have to keep walking.
I can’t get Jessica out of my mind as we walk. Nor can I help kicking myself with every step.
I’m not sure why I feel so bad about what happened. Up to now, we have spent no real time together. Everything has been on the phone, online or by text or email. The only reason I’ve ever seen her at all is because we happened to meet my accident because we live in the same neighborhood. I don’t actually know where she lives. I can’t find an address near my house with her name attached. She must be renting or something like that. I finally gave up about the tenth time I searched online records for “Jessica Sands.”
We never have had a real relationship. I can’t even ask her out on a date with this lock down. Not even coffee. There’s no place to go since every restaurant, coffee shop and bar is still closed.
She couldn’t—or wouldn’t want to—get a babysitter for Lori and, to be honest, if we ever went on a real date anyway. Both Jessica and I have seen what the virus does to people. We’ve talked to victims and the deceased’s families. It’s an awful fate for anyone so I wouldn’t want to ask her to take a chance, either for herself or Lori.
It’s just as well, too. Especially if there’s a chance that Lori’s father is coming back into the picture. I shouldn’t get in the way of a father. Lori should have him in her life when she’s ready. Now that she knows he’s around, she may be asking.
She’s a smart little girl who probably is working it all out now. I guess anyway. What do I know about little girls?
Turns out I don’t know much about big girls, either. “Women,” my mother would correct me. She always does. I’ve screwed up big time with Jessica and it feels terrible.
The thing is, if we don’t have anything real going on between us, why does this feel so awful? Like someone turned off the heat in the middle of winter and all I can feel is cold. Like I’ll never be comfortable again.
I turn down a side street, one near our house that seems deserted. Narrow and dark, it’s situated in such a way that it never seems to get the sunlight. There are no trees and the residents have given up putting pots of plants on their marble steps or filling the window boxes attached to the second story. It’s barren and cold.
It’s perfect for the way I feel.
I put my hand in my pocket and realize my phone is still sitting on the dining room table. Just as well. The only person I want to hear from now isn’t going to call me, text me or email me. I’ve been ghosted and I deserve it.
I trudge down the sidewalk while Rex noses a rare dandelion struggling for a foothold in the cracked pavement. He’s got an inevitable spring in his step, a jolly gait that always makes me smile.
Nothing can make me feel all right today.
Something stirs under the steps at the end of the street. As usual, Rex sees it before I do. His ears go back, his nose in the air puzzling out what he’s found. The fur on his back rises in a ridge like he’s feeling threatened.
I only saw a small pale object dart underneath the battered wooden steps that need a new coat of dark green paint. Rex yanks on his leash, his nose to the ground. I pick up the pace, sure all he saw was a rat. What else could it be?
I don’t want Rex to come face to face with a rat. It might have rabies. It might hurt him. It might hurt me.
“Come on, Rex. Let’s go down this street. Look, Rex, another child. Come on, boy, let’s go see if that little boy wants to pat you?”
Rex is undeterred. He’s practically dragging me toward the steps. I can’t see whatever he’s heading toward anymore. I’m hoping whatever it is has found a hole in the basement window or a bit of broken brick in the foundation and gotten inside and away from Rex and me.
The truth is I can’t get over the strength of my dog when he really wants something. I pull and I tug but my mutt isn’t wavering. He’s making a beeline for the steps.
I’m keeping up, my mind racing for the name and number of my vet, my doctor. I’m certain we’re going to need medical attention before this encounter is over.
Hell, I can’t even call 9-1-1. My damn phone is still sitting in the house, two blocks away.
“Rex. Rex.” I keep calling to the stupid dog. “Stop. Stop now.”
I try everything.
“Let’s go home and have dinner, boy.”
Nope. I’m afraid dinner is under those steps.
When I swat his butt, his hindquarters shake off my feeble attempt at discipline.
You know, that big old dope looks up for a second and sniffs the air. After glancing at me—I can almost hear him call me a big, fat liar—he continues on his route.
He yanks harder the final three steps, diving toward a space under the steps. I hold my breath, waiting for the yelp when he gets his nosy snout chomped on.
And, yup, he backs out with a most piteous cry.
“I told you, boy. I knew you were going to get hurt.”
There’s a set of scratch marks on his shiny wet black nose. Tiny little ones.
A pale striped kitten that would fit in my hand hisses at Rex and me. Its fur stands on end, its eyes big and its ears flattened.
A chastened Rex lies down beside the little cat and eyes it. The stand-off looks ridiculous. My big frightened dog and this tiny little fur ball paw to paw.
It looks like the cat won and it knows it. It rushes at Rex and bats at it with its tiny paw. No claws are extended this time, I notice.
I scoop up the little terror and feel all its bones. It’s dirty, shivering, and obviously hungry. It has cuts on its back feet and its tail looks like something bit off the end.
Despite all that, it’s a cute little thing that desperately needs some love and attention.
Rex jumps up to investigate its assailant from a safe distance. The kitten scowls again but it’s purring too.
I pat its skinny little body and it settles against my hand. Rex looks from the cat to me and back to the cat.
“Do you want me to keep this little ragamuffin, boy?”
He pushes his nose at my hand.
This time, the cat lets him near.
I guess I’ve got a new cat. Unless it belongs to someone else. Or unless someone else really wants a cat. I’ll post a notice on the telephone pole near my house with its picture. Someone might be missing this little fur ball.
“Let’s go home, boy. I think I’ve got some tuna this little guy might like.”
Next Monday CHAPTER 24—JESSICA: Corona effects
Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter,
Chapter 21—Jessica: Private Lives
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. (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