Chapter 27—Dan: Flowers, candy, and apologies

May 29, 2020
3 p.m.
Dan: Flowers, candy, and apologies

Even with a virus still claiming lines every day, the world had emerged from the lockdown. Feeling better, I watch the TV news coverage of all the people protesting the death of a Minneapolis man at the hands of police officers. 

Not just in Minneapolis, either. People, Black and White, young and little gray-haired old ladies, are joining marches in cities, all over the country. And in Europe. 

Still on sick leave, I’m sorry I’m missing his chance to cover the protests in my own town that seem like they’ll go on for weeks. People are angry. And cooped up in their houses, they’ve been able to watch the coverage more carefully than at just about any other time. 

Maybe since September 11, a day when the principal of my school called all the students into the auditorium to tell them a terrible thing had happened and school was closing. I went home, watched endless loops of planes crashing into skyscrapers, and wondered where my Daddy was. I decided to become a reporter that day, thought in fact I’d run the Six O’clock News I watched so avidly. Only later did I discover the appeal of newspaper’s longer form storytelling. 

Sitting in my usual spot on the couch, I lean my elbows on my knees to listen to a protestor list all the Black men and women who’ve died in the past few months.

Rex wakes up from his late afternoon nap, pads over, and stares at me with those liquid brown eyes. I can’t resist patting my dog’s big, furry head. “Need a walk, boy?”  

As if he can understand—I’m convinced my dog does understand a little English—Rex dances on his big paws and heads for the door.

Carefully, I rise from the couch and turn off the TV. Even though the headache and weakness that plagued me for two weeks have completely disappeared, I’ve been afraid they’ll come back. I can’t help thinking of all the patients I saw over at University Hospital, isolated, attached to machines, and count myself as one of the lucky ones. I’ve gotten a clean bill of health and, fourteen days later, am free to revisit the world.

Finally.

A sticky pasty feeling in my mouth makes me stop at the front door.

“Just a second, Rex.” I’ve got to run upstairs and scrub my teeth. I don’t even want to think how many days it’s been since I’ve taken care of my oral hygiene.

One glance in the mirror and I wonder when I last took a shower. I like the beard though. It’s come in thick and glossy, blacker then I expected. It’s rugged and outdoorsy, a much better image than the sick, weak patient look I’ve been sporting for the past two weeks.

After a thorough scrub with my toothbrush and a quick comb through my shaggy locks, I decide to change my shirt, too. And my socks. And, oh hell, I throw everything in the hamper and jump in the shower. The hot water shocks my sensitive skin at first but then I take a deep breath and enjoy the steam and the gentle massage of the shower. 

Toweled off, I find the cleanest jeans among the pile beside my bed, and put them on with a long-sleeve t-shirt, clean socks and my running shoes. 

I feel human again. And, if I should happen to meet someone I know, he—or I hope, she—won’t run the other way. 

Rex has lain patiently by the door. He’s been a good sport through all this. I kind of wonder if he’s worried about me. Monster hasn’t. I glance around the living room and find him curled in a ball in a pool of sunlight. Despite all of Rex’s dancing, the cat hasn’t even twitched a muscle. He’s a healthy looking specimen now, filled out after weeks of digging through the garbage. He figured out how to give himself a bath, too. So he’s downright cute. Even if his name suits.

“Let’s go, boy. We both need a good, long walk.” I attach Rex’s collar and leash and grab my keys and phone from on top of the TV.

The May air, warm and humid, hits me as I open the storm door. How I’ve missed this. 

I hold the door ajar as Rex bolts through it—followed by Monster. 

Rex tugs on the leash and pulls me down the three marble steps before I can get the door locked.

The cat has dashed across the street and is now sitting so pretty on the curb. I feel like he’s taunting me. Or maybe us. Rex can’t get across the street fast enough. 

I glance around quickly for cars but Rex—who’s usually careful about such things—races on with only one thing in mind. Getting to Monster.

“Here, kitty, kitty.” What a lame thing to call out for this tough creature. I ought to be saying, “Here, monster, monster.”

As soon as Rex pulls me across the street, the cat takes off. And without my wanting to, so do we.

I swear under my breath as I try to stop my dog. Maybe the cat, now feeling better, wants to go home. After all, it seems to know where it’s going.

“Monster. Get over here.” I call, hoping this time it will listen. 

At the busy, car-filled corner, my heart thuds to a stop. I don’t want to witness the cat’s tragic end. 

To my relief, he turns and heads toward the park instead of rushing between the wheels of sedans and SUVs. 

“C’mon, Rex.” Like I have to prod him to hurry after Monster.

We race around the corner where a woman wearing an Old Bay mask is picking up the little creature. 

It’s Jessica. My heart gets a workout like nothing it’s experienced before. It pounds out a tune before rising with joy when she looks up at me and smiles.

“Look what I found. This little kitten ran right into my arms.”

Smart cat. Exactly what I wish I could do. I stop about ten feet away. I don’t know if I should get any closer to a woman who isn’t speaking to me.

“That’s Monster.”

“Your cat? And you call it Monster?”

“Just a temporary name for a temporary visitor.” 

I quickly explain the events of the past two weeks. Finding the little bag of bones, getting sick, wrecking my computer—which I am quick to point out was the work of that same little creature purring so contentedly in her arms. Like I said, smart cat.

“He sure looks happy.” I smile at the cat and then at Jessica, even though my mask covers my mouth. “How nice to see you.” 

“I was coming over to see you.” She lifted the package in her free hand. “I’ve been baking sourdough bread. I thought you might like a loaf. It’s not pretty but it tastes good.”

I’m honestly touched. Not expecting to see her so soon, I hadn’t even rehearsed my apology yet.

“That was nice of you.” I pause, gathering my nerve. “Jessica. I’m sorry for what happened. I got all caught up in the moment talking to Rashima.”

“I know…” She blushes. It’s a sight that enhances an already beautiful woman. 

“I would never hurt you.” 

She closes the distance between us. “I know.” She studies my face and I freeze even though I long to touch her. 

“I should have at least given you a chance to explain. I was so angry. I guess I’m overprotective when it comes to Lori.”

“Speaking of Lori, where is she?”

“My friend took her to the park. And told me to come see you.”

“Ah. What a good friend. I’ll have to thank her sometime.”

The air between us is electric. So many things I want to say. But I don’t, hesitant to make a move toward a colleague that might be inappropriate. Instead, I hang onto Rex’s leash and gaze into Jessica’s soulful eyes. In person, they are so blue, so big and so focused on me. Not like a Zoom call at all. 

“How are you? Nobody’s heard from you in days.”

“I had the virus.” I quickly add, “I’m fine now. I was on sick leave for the last two weeks. Claire knows. She didn’t tell you?”

Jessica, by instinct I hope, takes a step away.

“Yes, we all knew. But we thought we’d hear from you. Rashima said she’s tried calling you.”

“My computer died and then my phone ran out of juice and I was so out of it I didn’t think to charge it.”

“And now?”

“I’m fine. Really. Got a clean bill of health from my tele-doc. He didn’t even want me to come into the office.”

She steps closer, close enough to hand me the bread. Then she touches my manly beard—it sticks out from behind my paper mask—with a look on her face I can’t read. “Don’t you like it?”

“It makes you look like…” She studies me for a moment and then takes the mask off. Her hand, to my delight, stays on my face.

“Like every other man during a pandemic. Why have you all grown beards?”

“Because we can.” I smile at her, and she laughs.

“And the long hair.”

“Because I haven’t been to a barber since March.”

“It’s a good look.”

“Jessica…” I have to say it. I’ve gotten this far and she seems to be my friend again. Only, now, I don’t want her to be my friend. I loop the leash and the bag of bread on my left arm and gently lay a hand on her free one. “Do you think we could start again? I mean—”

She slides her hand up my arm and pulls me close until the only thing separating us is a little striped cat and her mask, which she removes. I bend toward her and she responds,  with a kiss, soft and tender, sweet and fragrant. After two weeks of my own house, I delight in her scents of baking, baby powder and something flowery. Her perfume, I guess. She smells like the home I want to go to. 

Though it lasts only a moment, I think it’s a kiss that is forever engraved into my soul.

“Jessica.” Her name, such a pretty name, sounds like it should be the beginning of a song. 

“Dan.” Her eyes dance as she smiles. I think she’s trying not to laugh at me.

Finally, I come to my senses and realize my dog and my cat and the two of us are taking up valuable sidewalk space. It’s time to move on. But she beats me to it.

“Do you think we could stop for coffee? There’s a little cafe with outside tables.” She points a block away. Yes, I can see the little striped umbrellas. 

“A date? Are you asking me on a date?”

“If your dog and cat don’t mind.”

“Maybe we could take them home and—I live just around the corner.”

“Good idea.” Rex looks up with a whine. “Well, maybe Rex can come, too.”

I take her hand as the four of us walk back to my place. At the door, I remember the disaster area the living room has become in the past few weeks and ask her to wait with Rex.

Inside, I race to the kitchen to lock down the garbage can, put the bread inside a cabinet out of Monster’s reach and fill a bowl with tuna for the little guy.

I pause for a moment, enjoying the thrill of knowing Jessica is waiting for me. She kissed me and she’s waiting for me. 

She’s waiting for me! I rush out the door, lock it and link my arm with Jessica’s. She keeps hold of Rex’s leash and the dog leads us, a bounce in his step that matches my own. 

Our block-long stroll is quiet. I think we’re both taking in the meaning of this moment. Are we a couple? Do we have a future? Even more than that, we are two people spending time together. In this time of coronavirus lockdown, that has been a rarity. We’ve spent only virtual time together. And this is real.

“Hi, Mommy!” Waving to us from a table under an umbrella, I recognize Lori but not the woman with her. 

“What are you doing here?”

“Your daughter begged me to stop. She wanted to sit under an umbrella.” 

Jessica gestures toward me and says, “Hanna, this is Dan.”

“Nice to meet you, Hanna.”

“Hi, Dan.” Lori leaps from her chair and hugs me, smearing the ice cream from her face on my nearly clean pants leg.

In an instant, she has moved on to hug my dog whose tail wags wildly at her attention.

It feels weird to take a chair at a cafe, to sit among people I know, to sip coffee I didn’t brew myself. 

I glance over at Jessica, allowing my senses to fill with her. The ring of her laugh, the huskiness of her voice, the sunlight bouncing off her silky hair. 

She catches me looking and puts her hand on mine. And a dream comes true. 

Next Monday Chapter 28—Jessica: More than a loaf of sourdough 

Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter, Chapter 26—Jessica: Hanna to the rescue

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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