Chapter 26—Jessica: Hanna to the rescue

May 29, 2020

2 p.m.

Jessica: Hanna to the rescue

Lori dances up the stairs, urged by her favorite aunt, Tia Hanna, to find a sweater and put on sneakers. 

“And put your ballet slippers away in the closet,” she calls up after her.

“You’re going to be a great mother someday.” My friend has such a great way with kids. 

“I hope so. Matt and I have our fingers crossed we’ll have news one of these days.”

“Do you mean?”

“No, Jess. I see that sparkle in your eye. But don’t go buying baby booties yet. We’re only, um, talking about it.”

“You know that’s not how it works.”

That cracks Hanna up. It feels good to hear a laugh in my house. 

It’s been a lousy week. Claire’s criticisms have been constant. She found a factual error one day. She questioned the reason for a source another day. She didn’t like my lede yesterday. I have to admit I’ve been a little distracted.

Life with Lori hasn’t been rosy the past few days. She’s tired of school by computer and more days than not, I’ve found her playing under the dining room table rather than finishing her homework. I’ve had to sit with her through the few sessions Mrs. Gambino can manage. Poor teacher. She’s still teaching her students how to mute and unmute themselves. And fewer show up each day. Yesterday, five showed up for her social studies class. And we have to do her assignments together or Lori uses the worksheets to doodle or practice the cursive I started teaching her. She likes the way I make the L in her name so we started with that. It is a pretty letter with its loops and curls.

When Hanna called me this morning, she must have heard the despair in my voice. She shows up this afternoon and invites Lori—not me—for a walk in the park.

“Thanks for letting me take her out.” Hanna moves a stack of papers I left on the armchair to take a seat. “How’ve you been? I got to be honest. You look like hell.”

Compared to Hanna, dressed in jeans and a short sleeve blouse she actually had to iron, her long black hair twisted into a french braid, I must look pretty bad. I think I last took a shower on Tuesday. So my hair is pulled back in a too-tight ponytail. I’m wearing my most recent work-from-home outfit, great sweatpants with a hole in the right knee and a t-shirt from Ocean City. 

“It’s been a busy week. Between work and Lori, I really haven’t had time to…” I look at my outfit with embarrassment. “Besides, who’s going to see me except a little kid who wears a tutu to school everyday.”

“That’s not the point. You need to take better care of yourself. You even look like you’re putting on weight. I hate to mention that fact but those sweats—aren’t they the ones you were wearing when you drove up for the wedding?—are fitting you a little too snugly.”

I jump off the couch and twirl around trying to get a good look at my bum. These pants are supposed to sag and, oh crap, they don’t. “Yeah, I’ve been cooking more. I started making sourdough bread and I’m getting pretty good at it. I have a loaf in the freezer. Would you like it?”

“No, thanks. I’ve got my own Covid-15 to contend with.”

“Your what?”

“Covid-15. Everybody’s talking about how much weight they’ve gained in the past two months.”

“Somebody joked about that on the radio the other day. Yeah, I definitely am not looking like my usual self.”

“It’s not just your weight, Jess. You look like the world has fallen onto your shoulders. To be honest, I’m worried about you.”

Hanna pulled my hand to get me to stop looking at my ugly pants and pay attention. I didn’t want to hear what she had to say. I’m doing the best I can. Lori and I are, I mean. School’s nearly over. The way Lori has been this past week, it may as well be considered over now.

Then I have to figure out how to keep her active and involved in something while I work. I’m hoping the world will get better and we can continue with our usual lives. 

I’d like that. I miss my parents. I miss dinner in a restaurant. And I know Lori is tired of talking only to Barbie and Doggie-Woggie. She misses her ballet lessons and I know how sore she was about her camping trip being canceled.

“Everything is fine, Hanna. With any luck all this will be over soon and things can go back to normal.”

“Jess, sit down. You’re fidgeting and I’ve known you long enough to know that means you’ve got a hundred things on your mind.”

Am I fidgeting? When I decide I am, I force myself back onto my usual place on the sofa and fold my hands over my knees—just to keep them from bouncing. 

“There. Now what’s going on?”

Before I can answer, Lori shouts down the stairs. “Tia Hanna, is okay if I wear my dancing clothes? I have the pink one on Mommy gave me for my birthday. I haven’t gotten to wear it outside yet.”

A smile of amusement crosses Hanna’s face. “Is it okay, Mommy?”

When I nod, Hanna shouts back. “Si, chica.

I have to shake my head. “My daughter wears only tutus these days.” 

“Is that a fashion critique?” Hanna eyes my outfit again with a cocked eyebrow and a smirk.

I deserved that but, even coming from my dear friend, the zing struck a painful spot.

It must have shown on my face. Hanna puts an arm around me and kisses my cheek. “I love you just the same.”

Why, I don’t know, but that simple, sweet declaration cues the waterworks. 

“Jess!” Hanna pulls my wet, sobbing mess of a woman from her damp shoulder to look me in the eye. “Whatever is the matter?”

I answer her loudly, punctuated by another sob. “I don’t know.” 

She searches my face though I can hardly look at her. “It’s nothing and it’s everything.” I sniff and wipe my eyes with my sleeve the way Lori does when she has a meltdown. 

“Your mother?”

“She’s doing great. But the chemo has her feeling terrible so I haven’t been able to talk to her much. Dad’s a trouper but he’s busy with her. They don’t want any of us near until Mom’s better. My sister…well, you know my sister. She’s trying to run her own little home school.”

“Are you telling me you’re feeling all alone, hon?”

Hanna hits the nail on the head. I don’t know how she knows me better than I know myself. I really do feel all alone and I hadn’t thought about it. I nod, relieved to know what’s bugging me. 

“Is that all?” She holds me close again. “I’m here, Jess. I got married, remember? I didn’t move to Mars.”

“I hate to call and whine. And that’s probably what would happen.”

“Sweetie, I’ve known you since you were in diapers.” (Not true, by the way). “I’ve heard you whine like a seven-year-old. I’ve heard you cry like a private school sophomore, you know the kind. They weep at movies, the news and school announcements. Usually as a large group.” (We were sophomores together so this is absolutely true, though we went to Catholic school, not some fancy prep school.)

I have to laugh, albeit weakly, through my tears. “We really did love to cry in high school, didn’t we?”

“It was like some kind of group therapy. Maybe if we cried together we wouldn’t cry alone.” Hanna smiles at me, with that hopeful look that maybe she’s made me feel better. Which she has. 

Then she glances toward the stairs. “What is your daughter doing?” She shakes her head. “Doesn’t matter. I really was coming to help you.”

“You’re the best, mi amiga.” I reach for a Kleenex, like an adult, and blow my nose. Bravely I paste on my smile. 

“Jess, One other thing. You haven’t mentioned your colleague Dan once. You used to talk about him almost as much as Lori. Is everything OK[ fix the OK/okays] at work?”

I refuse to allow the tears to flow again. I swallow instead before answering. I tell her everything. The criticism. The sad, sad stories. The growing number of disagreements, arguments and temper tantrums—both Lori’s and mine, I’m afraid—over school work. 

Then I tell her what happened with Dan. “I can’t forgive him but I’m worried about him. He’s sick with this stupid virus and I don’t know what to do.”

“What did he do exactly? Tell a colleague you both trust about Lori. By mistake. In a way that was complimentary to both you and her. Even though he blurted out something he shouldn’t have. Really?”

“That’s about the size of it.” The tears have stopped and I feel like something punched me in the face. My eyes are all swollen and my nose is stuffy and I just feel defeated.

What she says next is something I do not expect. “Wake up, Jess. You’ve got a good thing in that man.” 

She’s got that little wrinkle between her brows. It’s her signal that she’s saying something difficult and she knows it. But she means it, too.

“What can I do? His phone is going to voice mail. So he’s avoiding me the way…”

“The way what?”

“The way I’ve been avoiding him.” 

Hanna rises from the sofa and grabs my hand. “Let’s go. I’ll take care of Lori for the rest of the afternoon. You go…” She gestures with a swirling motion as she takes in my covid-19 outfit again. “Take care of this. Then—you said Dan leaves close to you?—go over there. Make sure he’s still alive.”

“I can’t do that. What if I bring the virus home?”

“Wear a mask. Stay six feet away. Do you have gloves?”

I nod. 

“Wear them and take your hand sanitizer.”

“I haven’t been able to find hand sanitizer since I ran out.”

Hanna sighs and digs in her enormous purse until she pulls out a family size bottle of the stuff. 

“Do you usually carry a bottle of hand sanitizer that big?” I can’t help the smile that steals across my face. 

“No, I brought it for you. I found these at the gas station on my way here so I bought three. That’s all they would allow me to buy.”

She hands it to me before shooing me upstairs. 

She follows and then turns into Lori’s room. “Lori, did you find your shoes?”

What a good friend I have. I feel a little better. I’m still worried. But I have to make sure Dan is alive, don’t I? Nobody’s heard from him since before Memorial Day so it makes sense someone should check on him. Might as well be me. 

Next Monday Chapter 27—Dan: Flowers, candy and apologies 

Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter, Chapter 25—Dan: What the doctor ordered

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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