May 29, 2020
Jessica: More than a loaf of sourdough
When I got closer to Dan’s house, I felt my pace slacken. I wasn’t quite sure I was ready to see him. I needed to. I missed him and Hanna was right to send me over here.
But I’ve been feeling so sluggish. I’ve put on so much weight from all the bread I’ve baked and take-out I’ve consumed. Honestly, I should never call for another pizza as long as I live. And Ben and Jerry, much as I love them, should be banned from my freezer for all eternity.
I can’t remember the last time I walked down a street alone. It had to be early March. I guess it was that last day I worked with LaDonna and Brendan.
It felt strange not to have Lori tugging at my hand as she chatters non-stop about everything on her seven-year-old mind. It was almost like half of me was missing.
The moment got even stranger as that kitten dashed around the corner and ran right into me. It squealed and I squealed and before it could run into traffic I grabbed it by the scruff of its neck.
A cute little thing, soft and obviously well-fed, it had to belong to someone.
I was still cooing to it, urging it to retract those razor-sharp claws, when Dan and Rex hurried around the corner.
Suddenly, I forgot about my concerns about being on the street by myself, about the way I looked. Even my shyness faded away. What I wanted more than anything else was coming my way.
The kitten settled into the crook of my arm and purred loudly enough to cover the noise of my own pounding heart.
I don’t remember what we said. There were apologies and health reports and then there was that kiss.
I didn’t wait for Dan who looked like he was too nervous anyway.
I pulled him close, took off his mask—brazen woman that I am. And kissed him.
And I’ll do it again. I’m sure of it. I sit beside him as his gaze takes me in inch by inch. He’s studied my hair, badly in need of a cut, and he’s gone over every inch of my face and my body. On a normal day, I’d feel self-conscious. But today, it’s wonderful to be the center of attention. It’s delicious to have the sensation of his furry face in my memory with the anticipation of another kiss to come as soon as Lori and Hanna head off to the park.
I pick up my coffee mug with trembling hands. He smiles at me with those beautiful blue eyes aglow. I’d forgotten about his freckles. They cover his nose and what I can see of his cheeks, a pale constellation of dots that make him seem boyish.
We talk but I don’t pay attention. It takes too much concentration to follow a conversation in the midst of a summery day at a table with fresh coffee, fragrant fruit-studded scones and a warm hand touching mine.
Lori’s excited chatter is enough for all of us. Dan answers her questions and laughs at her little jokes. Hanna’s attention swings between Dan and me as if she’s trying to decide if we are a good fit. Her smile eventually comes, signaling her approval.
I’m glad for that. Hanna’s been my friend for so many years she knows me better than anyone else. She never warned me against Colin but was quick to come to my side when he left.
“I’m heading to the ladies.” She picks up her wallet and gestures with her head at me.
“I’ll join you. Will you two be OK for a moment?”
“Three, Mommy.” She gestures at the dog sleeping under her feet.
“We three will be fine, Mommy.” Dan smiles up at me and I can’t help it. I lean and kiss him.
“Mommy!” Lori looks surprised and then giggles.
I hurry off inside the small, dark cafe where Hanna waits.
“I thought you were headed to the restroom.”
She shakes her head. “I just wanted to hug you. I’m so happy for you. Dan’s just as wonderful as you said he was. And Lori loves him.”
I sigh in relief. “She really does, doesn’t she? And you do, too? I’m so glad.”
The words keep slipping out of my mouth and I don’t want to stop. “Thanks for setting me straight. I almost let him go. And I didn’t even have him yet.”
“That would been horrible. Just over a stupid little mistake.”
I heard her but I had to go on. “Now that I’ve kissed him, I realize how terrible that would have been.”
“Jess…” Finally, I stop. We’re standing in the middle of a deserted cafe, since everybody has to either order to go or sit outside. But we’re in the waitresses’ way. Hanna pulls me toward the door. “Your daughter and the new love of your life are going to think we’ve escaped out the alley door.”
“New love of my life?” I can’t believe Hanna said that. “Really?”
“He will be if you go back and sit down like a nice young lady.”
I float back outside to the tiny table where Dan sits patiently while my daughter has draped herself over the furry beast underneath.
“Sorry. We got to talking.” I slide into the chair beside Dan while my friend picks up Lori from the sidewalk. “Hey you. Let’s go to the park.”
“Can we take Rex? He wants to play, too.”
When Lori looks from Hanna to me, Hanna shakes her head with serious conviction.
“Not today, Lori.”
“I’ll tell you what.” Dan looks from my daughter to me. “How about a picnic next weekend?”
Hanna has to grab for Lori when my child practically jumps out of her arms. “With Rex?”
“Of course. If it’s OK with your mommy.” He looks at me with those clear blue eyes and I nod. How could I turn down such an opportunity?
“Can we have ham sandwiches? I love ham sandwiches. And Utz potato chips? They’re my favorites.”
“Hon, we’ll plan the menu later. Why don’t you and Tia Hanna go to the park. Maybe we’ll meet you there for the walk home.”
“OK, Mommy. Goodbye, Mister Dan.” Lori’s voice lowers as she looks wistfully at Rex. “See you soon, Rex.”
Hanna lowers my little girl to the sidewalk and takes her delicate hand. I watch them walk away, Lori already chattering and giggling in the carefree way of little girls.
I return my gaze to Dan who, I guess, has been watching me this whole time. The blush heats my cheeks as I try to remember when the last time someone really looked at me. I welcome the attention with a hint of a smile as I take his hand.
“My little girl is smitten, Mister Dan.”
“And Mister Dan is smitten with Miss Lori.” He lifts my hand to brush it with a kiss. Such an old-fashioned gesture, sweet and romantic, and I love it. “And Mister Dan is head over heels for Miss Lori’s mommy.”
Before I can respond, the waitress stops by with the check, which I take.
“I was going to get that,” Dan protests as he reaches for his wallet.
I shake my head and put down my credit card. “It’s quite expensive, three coffees and a chocolate ice cream. I better take this one.”
“Then let me buy you dinner.”
I’m about to protest, I have a daughter to look after, when he corrects his statement. “Let me buy you and Lori dinner. I want to get to know both of you.”
His blue eyes are framed with exquisite laugh lines, tiny remembrances of happy moments. I can’t believe I’m sitting with the man I thought was so full of himself, who I was warned had a big mouth and thought only of his own needs and wants.
“That would be nice. How about pizza at my place tonight?”
“How about steak and shrimp at your place tonight? I found a steakhouse doing carryout.”
I can’t remember the last time I had steak, or shrimp. “Sounds heavenly.”
“Because of the food or the company?”
“Oh definitely the food. I’ve seen you nearly everyday of my life since March. I know what a bore you can be.”
“Yeah.” Those laugh lines deepen and his laugh comes from deep inside him. “Nothing has been boring since we met.”
“Except having to stay inside all the time.” I wonder what it would have been like if we’d had the usual newsroom experience, seeing one another in our offices every day.
“Well, maybe things are changing. We’re sitting in a restaurant, well, outside a restaurant. People are everywhere.”
“True. Standing six feet apart, avoiding everyone else’s gaze, wearing masks.” Except at this table, where I see Dan’s perfect smile, his lips upturned with a hint of dimple and a flash of white teeth. As he looks down at his coffee mug, thick dark lashes brush his pale cheek. When he returns his attention to me, his look has turned serious.
“Are you worried about being out? I mean, covid?”
“Not like this. I’ve been so careful because of Lori, of course, but we’ve been quarantined for way more than fourteen days. As you have. And you know you don’t have the virus anymore. Honestly, it feels like heaven being out where I can see people and talk face to face.”
The waitress returns with the check, which I sign. “Care to take a walk to the park?”
Rex jumps up, his ears erect, his tail whacking against Dan’s leg. “How can I say no?”
Arm in arm, we stroll down the sidewalk, Rex in the lead.
“You know that little cat you rescued for me earlier?”
“The one you call, ahem, ‘Monster’?”
“Yes that’s the one. It’s a cute little thing that needs a good home.” Dan tells me the story of how Rex found the cat. “So I don’t think it belongs to anyone.”
“Isn’t he getting along with Rex?”
“It’s more like, he’s getting Rex in trouble. The two of them dart around the house and make a mess when I’m out or asleep. They spilled soda on my laptop and they are always getting in the trash.”
“Sounds like a dream pet.” I have a feeling I’m about to adopt a cat. Maybe.
“The thing is, when I take Rex out, Monster doesn’t do anything bad. Just sleeps. I do lock up the trash can but other than that I think it’s the duo that inspires mischief. I was wondering if maybe Lori would like to take care of the little Monster. I remember she wanted a kitten.”
I cock an eyebrow with half a frown. “I don’t want to say yes.” I remember the way the soft kitten purred in my arms when I picked it up. “I don’t want to say no either.”
“Then say you’ll think about it.”
“I’ll think about it.”
The park is full of families, dogs, masks. Even with social distancing, parents are chatting while their children chase after one another. Lori has found a friend from ballet class. Like Lori, she’s in a pink tutu with her red hair in a long braid flying behind her. They’re running and laughing, glad to be together in the bright sunshine. Poor children have been locked up for so long, it makes me glad to see their joy.
Hanna sits on one edge of a black wrought iron bench talking to someone perched on the opposite side. When she spies me, she waves, as does the other woman. A ballet mother whose name I don’t remember.
“Jess, this is Nina. She says you’ve met at ballet. I didn’t know you took dance classes.”
“You’re a riot, Hanna.”
“Hi, Nina. Looks like our daughters found each other.”
“Ginger has been cooped up for far too long. I hope it’s all right.” Nina studies the handsome man at my side.
“I’d like to introduce you to Dan. He’s a reporter at the paper with me. Dan, Nina’s daughter takes ballet lessons with Lori.”
It suddenly feels like a regular Saturday afternoon. I’m talking to adults. Our children are playing. Maybe it’ll be all be all right soon.
Dan squeezes my hand. No, I don’t have to hope. I know it’s going to be all right. It already is.
Next Monday Chapter 29 Dan: Flowers and kittens, Jessica: Space and time
Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter, Chapter 27—Jessica: Hanna to the rescue
Dan and Jessica’s story has benefited from your ideas and stories about surviving the early days of the pandemic lockdown.
Even though the coronavirus hasn’t left us—I thought for sure it would be gone by now when I started this story—my covid-19 romance is coming to an end. I hope the saga of these two working-from-home lovebirds has helped in some tiny way. The final chapter is due to be posted Nov. 30 with the last audio chapter coming Dec. 7–book launch day for INN BY THE LAKE.
Together we wrote a great story to remember the lockdown of 2020.
Ⓒ2020 MARY K. TILGHMAN