By Jessica Fiorillo
Featured art: Shame, and Then by Maddy McFadden
The fever itself wasn’t serious. It came on as a subtle achiness, a stiffness of the limbs when I’d push off the couch or rise up from bed after a broken sleep. I took my temperature and it was normal, maybe up a half degree. I kept trying to rotate my eyes down to the thermometer’s window, just enough to catch the reading before it beeped. I thought about a story I’d read about the decreasing temperature of human bodies. That the average of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit was set 170 years ago when bodies ran warmer and California was becoming the 31st American state.
I wondered if my half degree was actually a full degree higher than my usual set point. I tried to remember the last time I took a reading, when I wasn’t feeling my body shift. But that’s the thing about temperatures – you only take them when you suspect that something’s wrong. Often, there probably is.
“You doin’ alright in there?” I knocked on the door to my office where my father had recently moved in to occupy the pullout couch. The office and my bedroom shared a wall so thin that I could often hear click-click-clicking of his Tic Tac box, a habit that he’d adopted while watching the news.
When I was twelve, I asked him if I could call him by his given name.
“Gary, want some tea?” I knocked again, this time louder. “I’m making Earl Grey.”
In space, sound doesn’t exist, yet, if an astronaut were to hold her breath, she would still hear noise; the internal vibration of tinnitus. In the absence of noise, the brain creates its own quiet clamor, the sound perceived internally rather than expressed by external sound waves.
I heard enough to head into the kitchen and put the whistling tea kettle on the stove, its bright red enamel chipped at the mouth. The damage was causing an invisible chemical to leak, which Gary had confirmed with Google and texted to me at some criminal hour. I’d seen the message flag and had left it unopened until I woke the next day. “10 Hazardous Household Items to Avoid Right Now.”
I pulled two ceramic mugs from the cabinet and set them down, a satisfying clink in the stillness.
Shortly before Gary moved into my apartment, I’d lost my job at the San Juan Tour Company. I’d received the email on PDFed letterhead, the company’s wordmark “SJTC” printed in block letters across the top of the page. I’d been lacing up my all-weather boots to chaperone that afternoon’s whale watching excursion when my phone beeped with the sound of incoming mail. I was already on edge from watching the news, the layoffs, wondering whether I’d be next. Whether management would send me on one last journey up the coast with germ-ridden passengers, zipping life preservers and regurgitating spoon-fed jokes. “Is everyone San Juan ready? We’re going to have a whale of a time!”
I once riffed that line as we were sailing past Whidbey Island just as an orca breached beside our boat, its back arcing, a blue grey sphere sliced in half by its glistening dorsal fin. The guests held their breath and grabbed at their cameras like they’d lost something. One savant asked if we’d planned it. “I wish I could harness that kind of magic,” I’d said.
“Due to an abundance of caution,” the letter began. My role had been jettisoned. Puff, like a wisp of smoke from a leaky tailpipe. I imagined printing out the note, showing up to work, and tearing it into infinite shreds in front of Betty, my now ex-supervisor, while she watched, her mouth a circle as if propped open with toothpicks. In the employee handbook section 2.1.5, there is a clause that in the event of workplace aggression, employees are directed to stand down. If deemed to be a minor event, “stay calm and use appropriate humor.” Dance, Betty, dance.
I skidded my phone into the corner of the closet and left it there while I pulled off my boots, struggling with laces that seemed to be siding with management. When I picked up my phone, a new crack snaked across the upper right corner. Day 1 of my hermetic seal into apartment 23, 525 First Avenue, Seattle, Washington, 98104 and already I’d damaged my one link to the outside world.
“Hello, I’m trying to reach the AdultFriendFinder?” With my injured phone, I called my best friend Kate, who’d moved with me from New York to Seattle eight years before. In the years since, as I navigated school exams and slick deck surfaces while pointing out leaping Cetaceans to tourists with heavy zoom lenses, she’d managed to date three men seriously, marry one of them, and settle into a North Seattle suburb with a 2-year-old and another on the way.
“What’s the emergency, Bae?” she’d asked. My parents had named me Bae long before it became a universal term of endearment, making it seem like I was on too-friendly terms with any self-identified Millennial.
“The axe swung hard today. I’m out.” Kate covered the mouthpiece, yelled something to her husband Bruce, who was either in the garden or another city altogether, and returned her attention, telling me in pinched acoustics that she was so, so sorry, Bae. Where will they find another PhD willing to schlep those unitards up the coast?”
The comment made me feel both smart and stupid at once. “Chat another time?”
“I’m having a hard time figuring out my schedule,” she said. “Let me call you back when I’ve got a minute. Will’s preschool is doing Zoom calls, if you can believe it. Some generic overachiever in Lulus wants to teach him the color green. I think I can handle it. I have a master’s in anthropology, honey. I’m pretty sure we discovered green.”
I tried another friend, Skye, a San Juan coworker whose reverence for Betty matched my own. The two of us often grabbed drinks after work in bars with lofted ceilings and tacky floors. The last time we’d hung out, we’d accidentally found Betty’s online dating profile in an effort to vet our Seattle competition. “Looks like she could suck the chrome of a trailer hitch,” Skye had sniped before slurping the foam off her Ten Pin IPA. Betty’s mouth pouted in a way that looked more sour than sexy and the image bore the fawnlike glow of a woman who’d FaceTuned her age into a lower category.
After seven rings, the time it takes to sing “American Pie” and start over again, Skye’s voicemail picked up. I hung up the phone.
Silence, if experienced over time, may lead to phantom noises that can manifest in people with normal hearing. Normal hearing. Normal people. The new normal. Isn’t it odd when you repeat a word and it stops looking normal?
I put on some music, a slow symphony of isochronic tones. Something that felt steady and rhythmic and safe. From the small window in the kitchen I could see the city lights scattered in every direction like chipped ice, sharp angles melting into puddles of darkness. Nothing had ever looked more peaceful.
The morning after my firing, Gary called me to let me know that Judith was sick. She and Gary were partners of twenty years, and until Gary moved in with me, they’d lived together in a two-floor condominium complex in North Queen Anne. Judy was a homespun creative type –originally from Minnesota where she and Gary had met – whose job as an “Art House Jedi” was never clear to me.
Two days after Gary’s call, Judith had developed a host of telltale symptoms: fever with chills and a cough that sounded like dried kidney beans shaken in a jar. Unable to walk, Gary had been forced to carry her the twelve blocks to their neighborhood hospital and had left her there, yelling at admissions that he wasn’t stepping one more goddamn foot out the door while the automatic doors opened and partially closed around him.
“Gary, my place is yours if you need some company,” I told him after Judith had been admitted, hoping that he wouldn’t call my bluff.
“Judy, Judy, Judy,” is all I could make out through the sound of damp snot and stabbing breaths.
He inhaled, deeply, bitterly, and then exhaled, “sure.”
I called Carly.
I’d known Carly for ten years at least, three more if you include the dinner we’d shared with mutual friends before we joined the same firm. In the intervening years, she’d stayed in corporate finance while I’d abandoned New York City, determined to land a degree in marine biology. I’d ended up at the University of Washington, close to Gary and Judith in Seattle, with a brother due south in Olympia. None of us were from the West Coast, but we’d all been drawn to the dense cloak of Douglas Fir and the promise of February rhododendrons.
Carly seemed to be the sole person in my network who wasn’t tending to the diapered set or ignoring my calls.
“Quarantine is death-con five,” I told her. “Not to mention, Gary’s moved in.”
Carly tipped a bottle over her glass and tapped the underside to release the last few drops. “GARE,” she said in the stony voice of someone twice her age. She’d met Gary once when he’d visited New York City and she’d fallen for his worn one-liners in the same way you might develop a crush on your favorite professor.
“Is that wine or whiskey?”
The Wi-Fi was glitching the screen into fractals. Carly held her glass in front of the lens, where it perspired, pink as a dahlia. “That would have been quite the pour.”
“Gare’s in the spare,” I told her. “Got him a set of AirPods, and he wears them all day watching the news and Seinfeld reruns. It’s like having a turtle in the house. Pokes his head out every few hours for crackers and a thimble of gin.”
Carly bent over a bowl of rice and scooped a mouthful. A grain stuck to her upper lip as she sat back up to nurse her overpour. “Must make it hard to bring someone home.”
“It’s a lockdown, lady.”
“Actually,” Carly said, “I have two quarantine boyfriends.”
“Jealous.” I walked over to the corner of the living room and plugged in a neon sculpture, a gift from an ex who’d sourced it from a yard sale on Mercer Island. The words “No Vacancy” shone in dayglow orange, the “n” starting to fade. I hadn’t slept with anyone in nine point five months.
“It’s a coordination nightmare,” Carly said, ticking off the problems with her Greenwich Village co-op. Four floors of walkups and a 12-hour super who cleans every surface with a chamois cloth before starting the process all over again.
“I mean, I appreciate the guy, but come on, where do you draw the line between cleanliness and neurosis?”
She was particularly pissed at the jerk from 1A who sat at his window with a pair of binoculars, partially hidden behind a blooming honey locust, rapping on the panes whenever he saw high and unholy communion. Neighbors slipping into old patterns as they returned from their once-a-day walks to Hudson River Park. Even the dogs, tugging at their leashes to sniff inside one another’s ears, got rapped.
Carly had to space each boyfriend a few days apart, sneaking them into her apartment after dark when the street went quiet from the clatter of early dusk. Ladles on pots and pans—a daily tribute to the first responders—the return of the few who still worked outside the home, and kids doing their final hallway sprints before parents hollered their names for bedtime.
“So how does it actually work?” I asked. “Do you tell them that you’re breaking quarantine with other people?”
“10,000 percent. If you can’t communicate, what’s left?” She flatted her lips into a line. “Come here hon,” she yelled into the other room. “Cy!” Her one-eyed Maine Coon climbed into her lap, gripping and slipping until she helped him up by his elbows.
“I had this one guy,” she said. “He wanted me on my back right at 7 pm with the windows open. Said he wanted to be fucking me to the sound of applause.” She stroked Cy’s coat and he burrowed his cheek into her chest.
I looked at Cy and considered everything he’d been forced to witness with his one good eye.
A row of books hovered behind Carly on floating shelves. Henry Miller, Pauline Reage, a book with a lush papaya on its cover, brimming with seeds. Carly tossed her head, a half inch of grays erupting from the roots and spraying out like a fire hydrant.
“I’ve been meeting them on Hinge,” she said. “The place is a virtual cesspool these days. I’m not complaining, but these guys are pent.”
She categorized the men by height, career, style, and if they broke the rules, sheer naked ability on a scale from 1 to 10. As she spoke, her wine slipped around inside her glass like a discarded negligée.
“You been dating?”
Dating apps seemed so pointless right now. Like the catch and release fishing that Gary did with his boys every summer, trolling for brookies on God’s Lake, struggling to reel them in before unwinding the hook and tossing them back.
“I can chat with my girlfriends any day of the week,” I said, believing my own lie, “but I’m looking for more…contact. And if I can’t get that.”
“Contact,” she said, pausing. “But you’re anti?”
“Dan Savage is anti.” Dan Savage, author of the acclaimed Savage Love column, Seattleite, infamous throupler. “Said he had anal sex in the 80s during the AIDS epidemic but that he didn’t go home and have anal sex with his mom. He makes a point.”
“Mind if I grab a cig?” Carly asked as she tossed Cy to the floor. She ripped through her purse, retrieving a laptop, antibacterial hand spray, and what looked like a set of rusted iron keys before finding her pack of Parliaments wedged in the crypt.
She opened the rear kitchen window with her shoulder and squeezed her way through the opening, breaking herself into the fresh air, an armadillo poking out of its pre-war shell. My phone screen blurred sky blue and knit gray as Carly set up her small tripod on the fire escape. Her face broke back into the frame as she sat on the far edge of the platform and retrieved a smoke from its crumpled box. A lighter clicked. Dark smoke ascended, mingling with a dense canopy of browning magnolia petals.
“Ever had sex over Zoom?” Carly’s phone was on speaker and I’d unintentionally channeled the question to her shared courtyard. Beyond Carly, buildings spilled residents and faded laundry onto separate fire escapes, an entire cityscape desperate for air.
Carly bobbed and turned down the volume on her phone.
“I mean, it’s not my first choice. I don’t really need to be that seen. Not to mention that without my usual maintenance.” She swept her hand from belly to mid-thigh and back up again. “This isn’t my best feature.”
It was late when I first texted him.
Gary had come out of hibernation for his final nightcap. Seemed to be all he did lately, now that Judith was in the ICU and he couldn’t visit. Sometimes an empathetic nurse would call, and he’d lay there for a few minutes, listening to the machine breathe for her before signing off with a quiet “night night Judy Dudy.” I’d heard him say this twice and planned to avoid the same room if he called her again. My heart couldn’t take such things.
I found relief in my bedroom with its forgiving surfaces and macramé wall hanging. The room this late in the evening was as black as a Magic 8-ball, and without the window that pulled in light from Terry Avenue, it felt smaller but cozy. Like a stylish pet crate that smelled of lemon verbena. I thought about the world, that feeling of missing something so palpable. Someone to help carry me through the pain of job loss, illness, and isolation if I couldn’t do all the carrying myself.
I opened up an app, updated my profile pics, and wrote a short caption referencing hot tubs, dry martinis, and salty rib eyes, cooked black ‘n blue. It had been my experience that all it took to land a few thirsty men was a grilling reference paired with a stiff cocktail.
I found target #1, a stately-looking specimen in faded jeans with young skin and grey hair, making it tough to assess the accuracy of his listed age. His smile kicked up at the corners and featured a dimple on one side.
I found a second.
“Hey,” I typed into the chat box. “Sweet pup.”
The guy was decent looking, dressed in the Seattle uniform—flannel shirt and blue Arcteryx raincoat. A shaggy mastiff lounged at his feet, a wisp of drool connecting its mouth to the tile floor. In the background, a road bike wheel poked out from the kitchen, which was mostly out of frame.
“Hey…Bae…I feel like I already know you,” he responded, faster than I expected.
From reading through profiles I’d gathered that single Seattleites were pro-spontaneity and anti-mayonnaise. This guy, this Craig, mentioned neither. A solid plus.
I looked back at his posted images. In one, his hands were raised in the air, declaring victory in a presumed ping-pong war. “This could be us” read the caption above another image, where he seemed to be taking a shark-like bite out of the neck of a giggling female. A third photo placed him shirtless in Nike basketball shorts that grazed his knees, a potential deal-breaker were it not for the referenced Marilyn Monroe quote. “It’s not true that I had nothing on. I had the radio on.”
“I have two questions for you, Craig.”
“Do you have the radio on?”
“As we speak. 2nd?”
“Donuts or donut holes?”
“Mmmm. Good answer. So, Craig, are you on here much?”
“Text me your number,” he said.
“Not sure I know enough about you yet.”
“Best way to find out,” he quipped.
A charmer, this kid.
Working against my usual protocol, I sent my number through and picked up on the first ring. FaceTime. Interesting choice. “Hey,” he said, his voice deep and smooth like well water.
“So, this is Craig,” I said, pleased that his image matched his profile pics.
We spoke about my family in the area, my peculiar yet intimate knowledge of grass-fed beef. His job in coding, a role that took him around the state and often overseas. His planned move to Palo Alto. Redwood City, to be exact—more trees, fewer dicks. He was sweet and effusive, his humor edgy, if a little bit nerdy. I found myself drawing into him, this stranger, like a drop of water swallowed into sand.
“Want a tour of la casa?”
I bit my lower lip in affirmation.
“The best first.” His eyes crinkled into cellophane as he wandered across the living room and stepped out onto the patio, thirty floors above sea level, the wind high and staticky in my earpiece. He tilted the phone 180 degrees and then down, Pike Place Market glowing ember-like below.
Craig stepped back inside. “What about you, Bae, what gets you out of bed in the morning?”
“I work with orcas. Worked. Marine biologist.”
“A mammal studying mammals.”
“Wouldn’t mind examining more of this mammal,” I baited, surprised by the boldness that comes with knowing that you’ll never meet someone in person.
Carly’s hair was still wet from the shower and her torso was wrapped in a towel when I called her. “Give me a min,” she said, “Jason just left.”
“One of the quarantine boys?”
“You’re gonna end up with Covid and Chlamydia if you keep up with this.”
Carly brought her phone to her face so close that I could only see the bottom of her eyeball before she threw it on her comforter face-up, smothering my phone screen in oatmeal-colored popcorn.
“1A saw him on the way out tonight. Yelled at him, something about trespassing. Is this illegal?” Her voice had become distant, like she’d buried herself under a scaffolding of wooly fabric. “I don’t think this is illegal, right?”
I heard the sound of a door wheezing on its hinges and Carly reappeared on the phone screen wearing a light grey pajama top with two damp spots at the shoulders. She propped the phone on her dresser and brushed her hair, transferring her anger from 1A to the few knots that remained post-shower.
“Get yourself a drink” I told her. “He won’t call the cops. The last thing that guy wants is two first responders coming to his place and manhandling his doorknob.”
Carly poured from a double bottle of red.
“On to the doppio, huh?”
She ignored my concern. “Updates, hit me. Did you meet up with that guy you were texting?”
“Not a chance.”
“You’re the one who once stripped and put on a flight attendant suit at our office holiday party. Where’s my Old Bae?”
“Cheeky dear. And Miss Pan Am didn’t catch any viruses that night.”
Spring progressed, carrying with it the sweet and jumbled song of the house finch, notes of lilac punctuating the air. TV ads that typically harmonized the opening of boating season on Lake Washington were replaced with an onslaught of promotions for video communication tools and suspect online college programs. It had been six weeks since I’d lost my job. Five weeks since Gary moved in. Four weeks since I’d developed strange and unusual feelings for a man who was simply a face on a screen. A rapid scale of change for times that otherwise felt as stagnant as forgotten pond water. Bills were mounting, and, without the whaling job, I’d been forced to take on a series of administrative microjobs for my alma mater, filing research grants and harassing ex-donors to support the school’s waning endowment.
Lethargy is a lack of energy and enthusiasm. It’s a primary symptom of loneliness. Prior to the 17th Century, the word “lonely” rarely appears in writing. Its etymology references people who live far away from their neighbors. Loneliness as a modern condition. Affliction. Affectation. Decision.
On May 19, 2020, Judith P. Nelson passed away.
Gary handled the news by walking four miles to his old neighborhood, avoiding public transportation and the few Ubers still willing to brave the desolation. He knelt outside the hospital window where he thought Judith had last been seen. When he came home, he nodded to me, walked into his room, and shut the door.
“So, Bae, is your dad still living at home with you?” Craig and I had begun to have more frequent video calls. They provided me with a way to sink into him, even if we couldn’t be in the same place physically.
“Dying to kick him out, I presume?”
“His partner just passed away.”
Craig didn’t speak for a moment. He looked at me as you would a toddler who’d just scraped her knee, that soft moment of bewilderment right before the tears start.
“He’s alright. It’s not like we didn’t have any warning. She’d been on a ventilator for weeks.”
“What do you need from me right now?” he asked in a way that made me fall in love with him just a little bit. “Do you want space, or do you want me to be here with you? You can put your phone down and we can just lay together. You don’t even have to talk.”
A tear shimmed out of one eye and landed on my chest.
“Hey. Hey. I got you,” he said. “How are a dog and a marine biologist alike?” His voice was gentle and felt like a ring buoy tossed from high above.
“I don’t know.”
“One wags a tail and the other tags a whale.”
“I hate you, Craig Oakley,” I said, laughing through the ebb of tears that I’d allowed to trail down my cheek.
“What’s Moby Dicks’ father’s name?”
“Wrong. Papa Boner.”
“You have a future as a professional grief counselor, you know that?” I shook my head. “Speaking of which…”
“Yes,” he said.
He shifted in his seat as the conversation moved from one place to another in the time it takes to hear a heartbeat.
“One of these days you’ll have to introduce me to Papa.” I blew my nose into a tissue and then rubbed my right nostril with the back of my wrist.
“How about now?” he asked, his voice serious, his face searching for something I wasn’t sure I could provide.
“Carly, what would you say is your ideal date?”
It was another evening on lockdown, each night bleeding into the next. Gary had started to migrate out of his room and over to the living room coffee table where he’d challenged himself with a 654-piece monochromatic puzzle.
Carly looked at me, flicked her eyes to the ceiling, then answered.
“Da Toscano appetizer, Fetish club main, brunch dessert.”
“Have you really been to one of those places? Not my scene. I don’t need some latexed babe in 6-inch heels threatening me with a flogger.”
“To be honest, I can’t even talk about restaurants right now. I made the mistake of checking Eater the other day and it triggered a half-day of ex stalkery online. There was this one shot of Dane’s hand holding a slice of pepperoni pizza and I stared at it so hard, remembering.”
“You have other boys to play with now, love.”
“Yeah, but they don’t do what he did. He had this way of touching my hair. Like he was right there in the moment, not worried about some kind of performance. How’s the Crag?”
“Craig. He performed.”
“I had plans to Nair strip myself if it ever happened, but it just unfolded. Virtually of course. Toughest part was keeping Gary out of our date. Nothing a cushion can’t solve.”
Carly laughed as she pictured me heavy breathing my orgasm into one of my bed pillows. I didn’t tell her that it happened so soon after Judith passed away.
What I’ve learned about dating in quarantine is that it’ll test you. Not in the patience required to stay at home, waiting for simple things like the return of indoor dining and amusement park dogs over-drizzled with mustard. But in the longing for certain luxuries, like hot air balloon rides, or saved-for vacations. Human touch and in-the-flesh companionship were starting to feel like something extravagant and misplaced, a precious gem lost behind the radiator.
I could sense that Craig felt the same way. In the beginning, he would drop hints about an in-person visit. His move to Redwood City was approaching, independent of whether the virus was still circulating. His lease was up on his apartment, and, although his landlord would no doubt let him stay longer, he was eager for change.
“I need to see you,” he told me.
“You are seeing me, see, right now.” I held up my fingers, cupping them together and angling them back and forth like the queen. “See this face? It’s looking at you.”
If I were to draw a picture of sadness, it would look like Craig. A stick head with upside down rainbows for eyes and a stripe for a mouth.
He stayed like this, childlike and frozen until its burden tugged. On me, on him. On our evolving partnership.
“Look, Craig. I have a parent at home with blood pressure that would give you altitude sickness. It’s not a risk I can take right now.”
When the inner ear can no longer pick up waves from the outside, a shifting of particles and feelings and sentiments that land on the listener as sound, then, left without choice, it picks up the rumbling of inner mechanics. The brain, churning, churning, waiting.
“Gary, I’m heading out. You cool if I’m gone for a few hours?”
“Not going anywhere with real breathing and sweating people, are you?”
It was the longest sentence I’d heard from him in days. Something about him was missing.
In the wake of Judith’s death, Gary had become as fear-stricken as a caged panther. He trolled industry watchdogs, knew more about virus testing and contact tracing than any news anchor. Michael Osterholm whispered into his ear each night as Gary listened to podcasts and Facebook video clips before bed.
“Nah. Climbing at Little Si. Back in a few hours.”
I told myself that what I was doing was for my health, a sanity-saving measure to share a socially distanced beer with the man who’d caught me in his silk-spun web and had yet to meet me in person.
The convenience store at the end of my block was still open and I stood in line, 6 feet apart from the next patron, waiting for my turn. The printed scarf that I was using as a mask slipped down my nose and I adjusted it, my fingers nudging against my eye in the process. I tied it on tighter, hopeful that I wouldn’t have to touch near my face again. I’d forgotten gloves but had remembered hand sanitizer, and it was safely stowed away in my bag for later.
It had been weeks since I’d stepped inside any kind of store. Gary had started to order our groceries online and took steps to glove himself and wipe down every box and container before bringing them into the apartment. I’d asked him to order some tulips but he refused due to the nature of their “in-homing process.” I imagined him trying to Q-tip each petal while hunched and holding his breath.
The beer fridge was mostly empty save for a few six-packs of Coors and a wall of untouched berry cider. There was one last pack of amber wheat from a local distiller which I shoved into the V between my armpit and elbow, happy that I’d be showing up at Craig’s apartment with something of reasonable value. I reached for a crinkled bag of pork rinds to bring as a snack, figuring that it was the one item in the store least likely to have been felt up by curious hands.
Behind a plastic barricade, the cashier stood, ringing up customers and placing their items into reusable bags. I’d forgotten my bag at home, a realization that habits, even those of the deeply imprinted variety, are easy to break when the world is falling to pieces.
I stepped forward for my turn, and the cashier, a weathered old man with glasses slipping down his nose just like my scarf, rang up my items. Covering his face was a cloth mask with tiny cacti, a gift from one of his grandchildren perhaps.
He coughed into the crook of his arm and then took my cash. “Allergies, post-nasal,” he said as he handed me the change and a paper bag that held my items.
“Tis the season,” I responded, turning my face once more in his direction before stepping out the door and back into the light. I opened up my Uber app, disappointed that my beer would warm while I waited fifteen minutes for the blue Toyota Highlander to arrive. Without anything to fill the deep black hole between the car’s arrival and Craig’s apartment, my stomach flapped, hard, like a flag in a hurricane.
It was the same voice that I remembered from the first night. Just as curious, too. Craig opened the door and looked left and right before he found me a few feet down in the hallway, my scarf covering my smile. Next to him, Chili Palmer sat on his enormous hindquarters, drool forming as he caught the trailing scent of packaged pork rinds.
I gripped the top of the bag and held it up like a trophy. “Amber wheat, baby,” I said, my voice muffled through the fabric.
Craig was taller in person than I’d expected, but his features were everything that I’d come to know and adore. The soft angles of his cheekbones. An attentiveness etched into his forehead.
“Entrer,” he said, tipping his hand into the apartment. “Ah! Hold up, safety first.” He held up his index finger and propped the door open with a rubber stopper. “I’ll meet you in the living room.”
I followed him with my eyes, taking in the modern design of the hallway. A framed print of geometric shapes in desert tones hung above a console table laden with untouched mail. The apartment was more stylish than it had appeared on his tour the night of our first call, when we’d met as strangers and had hung up the phone as something else.
“Over here,” he called from a space just past the hallway, beyond where my eyes could take me.
I took off my sneakers, followed the reverberation of his voice, and emerged into the same living room that had provided the backdrop for so many of our prior conversations. I inhaled the scent of Western Red Cedar, a smell that had drawn me to the West Coast years ago.
“You never told me that you’re a woodworker,” I said as I looked at the makeshift studio that he’d created in one corner using a homemade sawhorse table. On top of the table sat the beginnings of a carved boat with a small set of metal tools scattered beneath its hull.
“I like to work with my hands,” he said, jogging back to the front door to remove the stopper.
I tossed him a warm beer from the bag when he got back. “Well then, use them to open this.”
Craig relaxed into his womblike chair and popped the can. Keeping my distance, I cut an arc around to the edge of the room and found the sofa, a mid-century masterpiece of teak and leather. I sat down, the flapping in my belly less noticeable as the cushions flattened beneath me. Outside, the view hung like a painting with fragments of buildings and a piercing grey sky. Chili, giving up on the promise of treats, slumped into an overstuffed dog bed.
“Might be hard to drink with that mask on,” Craig said as he took his first sip. He found it humorous that I was taking such precautions, though he understood. I was already feeling guilty about not having wiped down the beer cans before we touched them, and since I’d already made this one mistake, I tugged at the bottom of my scarf, smearing the lip gloss that I’d applied in the elevator.
“Never a lovelier beauty sourced from the depths of the internet,” he said as I laughed and adjusted the lip gloss with my pinky, thinking of myself as a great blue whale who’d been caught in a glittering sea pen.
“Cheers to that, my friend,” I said.
“So, we’re just friends now?” he said, goading me.
“You’ve seen me naked, so I’d put you into a different category.”
“Yes, remind me about that?” he said as I caught the faintest trace of a wink.
“We haven’t even gotten to the pork rinds yet.”
“I’ve already eaten,” he said.
“So have I,” I responded. “That shirt, take it off.”
Craig clutched his palms to his chest in mock indignation. “But we’ve barely said hello. I feel so objectified.”
I jutted my chin in his direction. “We’ve done enough talking,” I said, playful and serious at once.
He placed his beer on a coaster, took the bottom of his shirt, and lifted, revealing a trim patch of dark hair under his navel.
“Keep going,” I said.
He removed his shirt in one fluid gesture and got up to approach me.
“Wait,” I said. “Let’s keep it safe.”
“I will,” he said. “I’m not doing anything unless you approve.” Craig walked to the far end of the couch and sat down, less than six feet between us but easily more than four. I could forgive him for that. He swung his legs in my direction, and I looked down at the tender pads of his bare feet.
There they were. Craig’s toes. Close enough for me to touch. Close enough for me to feel his skin, to assess things like dryness or ticklishness, or, at its most fundamental, the physical energy of our human-on-human connection. I wanted to touch my index finger to the top of a single toe and graze it back and forth along his knuckles. I wanted to rub my palm against the sole of his foot, pad against pad, and press.
“Meet me halfway?” he asked, wanting to feel me against him as well.
“I’ll consider it,” I said, loosening my grip on the rules that I’d set for myself at my own apartment before leaving.
After a pause, I mirrored him, lifting my legs into the same position on the sofa, our hips flush against opposite arms while the balls of our naked feet touched for the very first time. It felt warm and sweet, as if honey had been poured between us, and there we were, sitting, pleasantly stuck together.
We sat this way for some time, staring and feeling, the loss of words more natural than an abundance of. We’d done enough of that, the talking. The phone conversations, the video intimacy.
I thought again about Carly. About her need to feel held. And, in this moment, with our soles connected, I agreed with her. Nothing had ever felt more essential.
“Your belt buckle,” I said. “Loosen it.”
Craig pulled at the leather tip of his belt, tugging it back a notch before letting it go slack and drawing the two ends apart. Without me asking, he popped the top button of his jeans and the zipper began to unwind. Using his thumb and forefinger, he guided the zipper down further.
“Your turn,” he said.
In my dream I am lying in bed with the bedsheets cast aside, rumpled and wet, still carrying the weight of exertion. I turn my head to my right and he’s there, lying next to me. He touches my face and leans over, kissing me, his lips the texture of lemons.
I touched the back of my hand to my forehead again. It was incrementally warmer. The kettle hissed and I poured steaming water into both mugs, adding milk to each, and to Gary’s, a spoonful of sugar.
I walked over to Gary’s room, placed one of the mugs on the end table under the mirror, and knocked once more. “Gary?” I whispered, not wanting to disturb him.
I rotated the doorknob and pushed.
Anahata sound is the vibration of an unspoken word in spontaneous meditation. The vibrations are felt all over the body, especially near the heart.
The room was dark. Dank in its undisturbedness. Though not untidy, Gary’s clothes lay in piles, folded, as though he wanted to re-use them without the hassle of stashing them in the dresser first.
A low bark, faint and jagged, emerged from the bed.
A shoulder moved like pulled taffy beneath the coverlet.
When at rest, the blue whale has a heartbeat of four to eight beats per minute. It’s both the heaviest heart on the planet and the slowest.
I stepped closer. The barking intensified. A cerulean orb lit the covers from below, a cotton Oceania.
“Dad?” I whispered, cupping his arm.
He stirred and sat, sweat beading his brow.
“Judy,” he said.
“No, Bae.” I looked on with careful eyes. Gary pulled his headphones from his ears, the barking sound muffling as he pushed them under the covers.
“I was dreaming. Dreaming that we were in Atlantis.”
“I think we may have found the culprit” I exhaled, pulling back enough of the covers to exhume his iPad, its screen phosphorescent, a mass of luminous sea lions. A male hauled itself out of the water and called to the milling group, its song reverberating through Gary’s buried headphones.
“Trying to give yourself permanent hearing loss?”
“Sitting front row at The Clink will give me hearing loss in approximately seven and a half minutes. Hearing loss by sea lion will take an average of thirty-two and a half years, at which point I’ll be shacking up with Judy in the ethereal spirit world.”
“Terrific. Interested in having an earthbound experience with me in the living room?” I held out the ceramic mug which shimmered with heat and comfort.
“Did you know that female Alaskan seals mount each other as well as males during breeding season?”
“Yeah, Dad, I do.” I put Gary’s tea down on one of the few clear spots on the dresser. He tapped the screen, freezing a male and female in pronated position, their necks fused together.
“What’s his name?”
“You left your climbing shoes at home. What’s his name?”
“Changed plans and walked Green Lake instead.”
“The cedar boat on the living room table.”
In the absence of fact, there is sound. When visual cues demonstrate one argument, pitch, less susceptible to behavioral control, will demonstrate another.
“His name is Craig.”
“So, was this Craig worth the risk?
“Do you remember when you once said that Judy made you feel like Johnny Cash in Hush Puppies? I think I understand that better now. Can you forgive me?”
“Hold on, let me ask Judy.”
Gary closed his eyes and tilted his head toward a familiar place, silence becoming the currency of conversation. Knowing. Understanding.
“She’s not ready for us anytime soon.”
Jessica Fiorillo spent her early years in Canada trying to avoid injury as a nationally-ranked downhill ski racer. She now lives in New York City with her three kids and is the author of the food + travel blog Feed Me Dearly. She will be starting her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College in September 2021. You can reach her at http://www.jessicafiorillo.com