Chapter 24—Jessica: Corona effect

May 16, 2020, 3:17 p.m.

Jessica: Corona effect

Yeast has taken over my life. A bubbling jar of flour and water and yeast. 

A couple of weeks ago, the food section of the newspaper had a story about sourdough. I had five pounds of flour in my pantry and plenty of water, though not distilled or spring or anything fancy. So I clipped the recipe and the step-by-step instructions on how to make sourdough starter. 

It seemed like a perfect mother-daughter project. A little science. A little home ec. And a loaf of delicious bread every few days.

I didn’t read the instructions well enough. 

Sourdough is always hungry. I had to feed it constantly. Every day. One day it came roaring to life and spilled out of its mason jar all over the counter. What a sticky, gloppy mess to clean up.

Seven days later, I had fed it once, and sometimes twice a day. My five-pound bag of flour was more than half gone and I hoped I had enough for a decent loaf of bread.

By then, Lori was off on another camping trip in the basement, completely unimpressed with the, um, science/home ec project. I hoped the smell of fresh baked bread would re-ignite her interest.

And mine.

Mostly, I was hoping the project would ease my raw feelings. 

I shouldn’t even be doing this. I stepped on the scale yesterday and learned why my jeans are a lot tighter than they were a few weeks ago. Too much take-out and not enough walking. Someone on the radio called the phenomenon the Corona 15. Or was it the Covid 15. Either way, I laughed then but now I don’t think it’s so funny. 

More serious than that is my Memorial Day story. So many stories of loss and lack of support during Covid-19. Rashima and I have seen bravery, dignity and strength from these men and women who put their lives on the line when their country called. And now they’re suffering alone or in hospitals where they witness the pandemic-related deaths of fellow vets. So we’re both feeling down from our coverage.

Claire is still expecting a daily story though I can’t say I’m getting used to the daily criticism. I get an email every day with my edited story. She’s decided I need her own special tutelage. I don’t know why. I’m always conscientious about checking sources, getting confirmations, and double-checking my facts. I can’t figure out, even with her comments, what more I should do. 

And where is Dan? On Mother’s Day, my own mother told me to get over myself about him. 

The conversation replays in my head as I punch the springy sourdough and form it into a sort of a round loaf and cover it to proof. 

My hands feel like they are in the middle of “The Great British Baking Show” and my mind is somewhere between confession and a soap opera. 

Mom was clear. “He’s been a good friend and colleague to you—if all you’ve said in the last few weeks is to be believed.”

Ouch. My mother is getting a little testy in quarantine.

“He made a mistake, Jessica Ann.” Yeah, I’m getting a scolding when she calls me by both my names. “You’ve made your share, haven’t you?”

I think she means Colin. Much as Colin is unforgivable in her mind, Dan seems to be worthy of mercy.

“After all, he didn’t tell Claire. He told another mother, who in return, has been pretty kind to you, right?”

That’s true, too. 

But like I said, my feelings are pretty raw. I already have trust issues. Colin left me at a pivotal time in both our lives, rejecting the future we didn’t exactly plan for, but a future we made together nevertheless. Coming back when he did a couple of weeks ago and talking to Lori made me angry, as well as even more certain he didn’t belong in our lives. I have to admit he even hurt me again, showing off his fancy clothes and making me confront the fact that he left me and went on to marry a woman with a ready-made family. In the end, what he really didn’t want was me. 

Then there was that guy last year…no I can’t even think about him. That was a different kind of hurt, stranger-danger kind of hurt. I should have known better but I thought he was just a nice guy so I took a chance. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. 

By comparison Dan looks like a saint. 

As I cover my ugly ball of sticky dough with plastic wrap, I keep shaking my head.

At me for being so trusting with a guy I’ve mostly only seen on Zoom.

At the guy for blurting out my most valuable secret. 

At the world for keeping us inside when it’s seventy-five degrees, sunny, and beautiful outside.

After my mother hangs up, I sink into a kitchen chair and stare at the tree out the back window. Nothing more than a scrawny pile of branches in winter, it’s now covered with deep green leaves a white flowers. Bees buzz all around it. 

Trouble is, I feel like the winter tree. Barren and lifeless. 

I roll little balls of dough from between my fingers and feel a heaviness in my chest that I know isn’t a symptom of the virus. It’s self-pity. 

Lori needs more than a mother feeling sorry for herself but I can’t shake these feelings that make me want to toss the dough in the trash and head for bed.

I can’t do that. I promised Lori she could play in the park while the dough rises and then it will be dinner time. She needs a mother with a smile on her face. No matter how I feel. 

I close my eyes and try to count my blessings. 

Lori. My mother’s progress. The house over our head. Plenty to eat. Even my damn job. 

It doesn’t help at all so I scrape at bits of dough from between my fingers. I’m getting up to wash my hands at the sink when the phone rings. It’s Rashima. On a Saturday? My heart pounds a little. I press the green button and then the speaker phone button. “Hey, Rashima.”

“Hi, Jess. I just got off the phone with Claire. Dan’s on sick leave.”

I grab my phone with my sticky hands and find my way back to the  kitchen chair. 

“Sick leave…” The pandemic is so much on my mind I immediately picture him isolated in a sterile room hooked up to a ventilator and nurses dressed in protective suits and masks. 

“He’s got a fever and he’s coughing. His doctor doesn’t have access to a test so he didn’t know if Dan has the virus. There’s nothing he can do really except stay in bed and away from everybody for fourteen days.”

“Will he be all right?” My anger soars right out the kitchen window as I regret not returning his phone calls or answering his texts. 

“Should be. The virus isn’t really affecting people our age the way it affects older folks. You can call him, if you want. He’s not contagious through the phone.”

“I…”

“Look, Jess, I know the two of you had some kind of a falling out. But I think he would like to make amends. The virus isn’t the only thing that’s making him feel like shit.”

I’m not so sure that’s true. And what if he doesn’t want to talk to me? No, I can’t call him now. Besides, I may make him feel even sicker. No, I can’t do that.

“I guess” is all I say

“You feeling all right, Jess? You sound a little funny.”

“Me? Just up to my elbows in sourdough.”

Rashima laughs. “You too? My husband has been making it for a couple of weeks. It’s messy but the bread tastes good. A loaf in this house lasts about twenty minutes. Goops. Kimmy fell down. Better go. Call him, Jess.”

I click off the phone and stare at my sticky hands. As I peel off the last bits of dough, I wonder what I could possibly say to Dan. 

How can I even call him when he’s sick? Maybe calling would make him feel even worse. Maybe he’s so angry with me he won’t want to talk to me. 

I grab a towel and wipe the rest of the yeasty mess from my hands and toss the towel into the sink so I don’t forget and try to dry dishes with it later.

A prayer rises to my lips. “Make him well. Please make him well.”

It’s not enough. 

I wash the mess off my hands and take a deep breath, gathering my courage before I punch in Dan’s number.

What to say, though. How are you, Dan? 

Need anything—like my forgiveness?

No. No. No.

I do live right around the corner. Maybe he needs something. What about his dog? Who’s taking care of him? 

I don’t know how long I stare at my blank phone. Lori is singing a Brownie song down in the basement. Make new friends… She must be pretending she’s at the campfire. 

Maybe we should make s’mores later. 

I’m procrastinating, aren’t I?

I don’t know what to say but my hands are shaking and my heart is pounding. The butterflies in my stomach are busier than the bees outside my kitchen window. 

I can’t make myself do it. 

All kinds of possible responses play through my thoughts. 

He’ll answer but he’ll speak in that cold, monotone voice that kills any courage I can drum up.

He won’t answer at all, let it go to voicemail. In effect, ghosting me like I ghosted him.

He’ll answer like he and his big mouth never blurted out my secret to a colleague. Like I should trust him. No, I don’t think I could stand that. It would just make me angry all over again.

Or what if he answers weakly, in the throes of a coughing fit, barely able to breath, congested and suffering? Then what will you do, Jessica? 

I can’t go over. That wouldn’t be good for Lori or me.

I don’t want to anyway. I’m still upset. I still don’t trust him. I don’t even like him.

Yes, I do. 

The battle rages on while the dough rises. In fact, the timer goes off. The dough needs to go in the oven. 

Feeling like my pockets are stuffed with rocks, I get up and consult my recipe.

Turn on the oven. 475 degrees.

Slash the dough with a big X.

It’s not pretty, really still just a pile of pale tan dough. It’s bigger now, I guess. I can see bubbles just under its floury surface. 

I set the timer, slide the pan into the hot oven, and beg the dough to turn out all right. 

Can’t do anything else about it. We’ll have bread or something resembling it in about twenty minutes.

That’s enough time to call Dan, my conscience says.

But, I tell my conscience back, that’s not enough time to summon the courage and figure out what to say.

Or even to come to the conclusion that there’s even one good reason for me to make that call. 

“Make him well,” I pray again. After all, I don’t wish this virus on anyone. Even the man I can’t trust. 

Next Monday CHAPTER 25—DAN: What the doctor ordered

Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter,
Chapter 23—DAN: Not so welcome

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? The final chapter is due to be posted Nov. 30.

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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