Blydyn Square Review
Fall 2021 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
Fall 2021 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
It’s autumn—my personal favorite season and possibly THE best time to curl up with a good book (or literary magazine) and read. For a nerd like me, fall is the season for stocking up on back-to-school supplies and fanning through the pages of a new book to get a hint of that irresistible smell.
For so many of us, books have played—and, often, STILL play—a major role in who we are as readers, as writers, and even just as human beings. So, when Marylou Ambrose submitted an essay called “My Life in Books,” she sparked an idea for a theme issue of Blydyn Square Review, dedicated entirely to pieces inspired by the influence books have had in our lives.
In this issue, you’ll find nostalgic memories of childhood reading experiences and recollections about how a certain book turned someone from a reader into a writer. You’ll even encounter a piece about why the author hates one particular book.
With special thanks to Marylou Ambrose for giving us the idea, we dedicate this “My Life in Books” issue to all of those hardcore readers out there. Book people are always the best people.
Use the links below to jump to the different articles
Marylou Ambrose is a writer of books, plays, and essays; a reader and mystery lover; an actor, and an over-thinker. She lives in the Pocono Lake Region of Pennsylvania and recently finished her first novel, Your Number’s Up, a cozy comedy/mystery with a paranormal twist. Check out her author page at www.marylouambrose.com.
A Facebook friend of mine writes eloquent posts every day about what she’s grateful for—everything from carpools to her old summer camp to the U.S. Constitution (she’s a lawyer).
This got me thinking about what I’m grateful for. The first thing that popped into my mind? Books. Not surprising, since I was holding one at the time.
Actually, I was holding a Kindle, my almost constant companion, a gadget I never imagined back when I first started reading. But whether I’m swiping a screen or flipping paper, I’ve turned a lot of pages in my life.
My reading adventure started with picture books. The one I remember best is Madeline, about little girls in a Catholic boarding school in Paris. For some reason, my mother hated that book, which is probably why I asked her to read it so much. My son Travis did the same thing to me, asking me to read Oh Say Can You Say?—a Dr. Seuss book with twenty-five tongue twisters—over and over.
I started first grade when I was five, and I don’t recall learning to read. I guess it came easily to me, because I’d remember if it hadn’t. The schoolbooks were pretty lame back in the 1950s. Our readers featured Ted and Sally—a couple of dorky kids and their dog. Not much to get excited about in those pages.
The Bobbsey Twins books were another story. They starred two sets of fraternal twins—Nan and Bert, and Flossie and Freddy—who did exciting things like going camping and solving mysteries. I still have some of the books, and when I read them to my son thirty-five years later, I was appalled at the racist portrayal of the black maid, who was like a character out of Gone with the Wind. I just googled the Bobbsey Twins books, and it turns out there are dozens of them, written between 1904 and 1979. Wikipedia said they did some heavy editing to take out the racism.
Those books were like a door opening for me. I can picture exactly where I was sitting when I read the first one: in a chair in the corner of the living room, by the bookcase. I’ll also never forget the feeling I had when I discovered the joy of reading. I know it’s a cliché, but believe me, it was a joyous feeling. More like a whole world opening up for me than just a door.
After that, reading became my passion. I graduated to horse books—all the girls in our neighborhood were horse crazy. Then it was on to Nancy Drew, whose boyfriend was Ned and who drove a blue roadster. My girlfriends and I had an arrangement: When one of us finished reading a new Nancy Drew book, she’d lend it to another girl and so on and so on, until it circulated back to the original owner. Sometimes, we’d all get together and just sit around and read. Back then, you could buy a hardcover book for a dollar. I can still feel the excitement of going into the bookstore in Auburn, New York. I still have a few Nancy Drew books, too, but I never read those to my son.
I’m not sure when I outgrew Nancy Drew; maybe it was about sixth grade. During my middle school years, I discovered Edgar Allan Poe. I once read “The Tell-Tale Heart” aloud to my English class. If Stephen King had been writing then, I’d have been a big fan.
By the time I was twelve, I started working my way through my mother’s books. She’d apparently belonged to the Book of the Month club in the 1940s. Two of the titles I recall are Such as We and The Vixens. I was fascinated—and confused—by the sexy parts. I remember reading the word orgasm without having any idea what it meant. I tried looking it up in the dictionary but couldn’t find it. Is it possible the dictionary didn’t include words about sex back then? Or maybe I just looked up the wrong word, because actually, I thought it said organism, a word I’d heard of but which made no sense to me in the context of those books.
I grew up in the tiny town of Aurora, New York, whose tiny library was housed in a Tudor-style building. Sometimes, when I picked out books, the librarian would tell me they were too old for me. I can still smell that place—dust, old books, and who knows what else? I saw online they now have candles with the scent of old books. Maybe I should buy one.
I also remember reading The Human Comedy in eighth-grade English and learning about symbolism for the first time. I was probably the only one in the class who gave a shit. But wow! Who knew there was more to the words on the page than meets the eye?
Once I got to high school, my friend Carla and I spent a lot of time in the Wells College library. There, we found copies of dirty books, like Tropic of Cancer. We’d page through them until we found the racy parts. Once, I was babysitting for a college professor’s kids, and they didn’t have a TV set. But I found a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the shelf, which kept me enthralled until the parents got home.
Carla and I also read and discussed The Metamorphosis. We had no idea what Kafka was writing about—a guy wakes up and he’s a giant beetle? I’m still not sure what it means, but we felt smart talking about it.
By the time I finished high school, I’d read all the typical stuff: Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World, The Catcher in the Rye. The summer after I graduated, I was on a Steinbeck kick. Then I went away to college and didn’t have time to read for pleasure. But I sure looked forward to the summers, when I could read to my heart’s content.
I’ve never stopped reading. I have at least five hundred books on my Kindle. I cringe every month when I get my Visa bill and see how many books I bought. Oh well. I guess I could have worse vices. Some of my favorite authors have died in the past few years: Kent Haruf, Elmore Leonard, and Robert B. Parker. It felt like losing cherished relatives. I’ve discovered some new authors, like Catherine Ryan Hyde, who, thankfully, writes a new book every year. I also just discovered T. E. Kinsey, a British mystery novelist, who writes delightful books about Lady Hardcastle and her assistant, Flo.
So there you have it. I’m a bookworm and proud of it. I can’t imagine a life without reading. And to those of you who don’t love to read? My deepest sympathies. But hey, it’s never too late to start. May I recommend the Bobbsey Twins? I hear they’re politically correct now.
Mike Power is a writer and musician living in New York City. Read (and listen to) more of his work at www.mikepowernyc.com and on Instagram and Twitter @mikepowernyc.
I was not intimidated by the size or scope of Infinite Jest, but maybe I should have been. I like a book with some meat on its bones, which is saying something for a vegetarian. David Foster Wallace’s facility with language, and narrative, and his genius for weaving them together, made reading his masterpiece inviting in spite of its size. I have since gone on to read Moby-Dick and Ulysses, and I am grateful to Wallace for knocking down any walls of resistance to books that require a little extra effort to lug around on the subway, or to the beach.
But I found the experience of reading Infinite Jest demoralizing. That a man of such towering talent should produce something so devoid of hope is depressing in a unique way. The scene that stands out in my mind as the one that rubs the reader’s nose in their own filth is the one where James Incandenza commits suicide by sticking his head in a microwave oven that has been rigged for the purpose.
The quality that I find missing from every page in Infinite Jest is heart. A big heart is a dangerous quality in a writer and makes them vulnerable to accusations of sentimentality. Oscar Wilde defined sentimentality as “the luxury of having an emotion without paying for it,” but he used humor to blunt the rough edges that Wallace leaves exposed. A little humor goes a long way in a serious novel. All of the astounding talent on display in Infinite Jest only underscores the hopelessness at the center of the story, and that hopeless pain lingers after the genius of the writing fades.
Evan Purcell writes young adult adventure novels. He has worked everywhere from Bhutan to Zanzibar, where he teaches English and drama. You can read about his writing and travels at www.evanpurcell.blogspot.com.
There’s a special magic inside Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. The entire story is just a boy talking to a tree that loves him. Two characters, very simple illustrations, and yet…
Every time I read it as a child, I would instantly start crying. I was too young to know what an allegory was, or symbolism or poetic language, so I couldn’t quite understand what the story meant, but I knew that every time I got to the ending—an old man sitting on a tree stump—I was overwhelmed by guilt. For not appreciating my parents more. For every little tantrum I’d ever thrown. For hundreds of things. Somehow, this single image on the last page made me second-guess everything I’d ever done in front of my parents.
Once I grew up and started studying literature at university, I began to understand the reasons for my intense reaction to the story. Sure, some people think The Giving Tree is about religion or friendship, but… come on. It’s about a mother and her son. How can you not see that?
Anyway, years have passed since college and I started teaching English in Zanzibar. (Long story.) I needed to make a presentation to my ESL students about symbolism and poetic language, so I decided to show them a PowerPoint on The Giving Tree.
So, in front of about twenty Zanzibari students, I did my presentation… and I instantly started crying. I didn’t even need to read the text. Just talking about that ending made me literally weep. And because I started crying, some of the students did, too. It was, of course, deeply embarrassing, but I know these students will always remember the meaning of symbolism.
That’s the magic of The Giving Tree.
Mike Vreeland writes stories, poems, and songs, mostly for kids and their families. Hear his humorous and educational songs on most online music platforms. www.mikevreeland.com.
“Go outside and get fresh air!
You’ll suffocate yourself up there,”
my mother hollers up the stairs.
Reluctantly, I head outside;
I need to find a place to hide,
somewhere I can avoid her glares.
If I’m careful I can wedge
myself behind a row of hedge,
then read my books where no one cares.
I’m off to Spain, then outer space,
and after that, a scary place!
I’m very glad there are no fares.
Dinnertime, I must go in.
My mother barks, “Where have you been?”
with one of her I’m waiting stares.
I’ve been to far-off lands galore
And to a distant wave-washed shore,
But I just shrug and say, “Nowheres.”
Elissa Matthews was born and raised in New Jersey. She has been a cook on a prawn trawler, a bartender in a strip club, a lifeguard, a receptionist in a law office, and a professional scuba diver. Wherever she went, she discovered that people are rarely who they seem to be, and she’s been writing about the lure of hiding behind our secrets ever since. Visit her at www.epmatthews.com.
I’d like to discuss a book I hate. It was written with so much insight and so much depth, so much poignancy and pain, that obviously the author had either experienced sexual abuse or she’d had the courage to get far enough inside it to understand what it truly feels like. She held up a surgically precise mirror, reflecting with merciless clarity what was missing from my own writing. I was stunned. Up to that point, I’d smugly thought of myself as a pretty darn good writer, but I walked away from that book with the resolution to improve my work, to be a stronger, better, more courageous examiner of human complexities and frailties, including my own.
Doesn’t sound like a book I should hate, does it? But writing with courage is hard, sweaty, intricate work. It is subtle, internal, nuanced work. It requires traveling inside your own soul, excavating the wounds there, and immersing yourself in the pain long enough to produce results with sincerity and integrity. I hate the process. I hate the book that made me do it. I hate the wrung-out, drained, pale creature I end up as when I’ve done it right, or worse, when I’ve done it wrong and I know I have to go back and try again.
Every aspiring author should read A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George.
Roger Craik was born in England and has worked in universities in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and the United States. He is professor emeritus of English at Kent State University.
At forty-five I’m leafing through the book
That Auden read while still a boy,
Or youth at most, slate-eyed, his face unlined,
And ponder, as I skim, this rattle bag’s
Assault on him of ballads, folk-song scraps
Of elphin, ouph, and fay, or else of fairs,
Of beggars, gypsies, vagrants, or the names
That even then were falling out of use
That country people gave to certain plants—
All peculiarly interspersed
With swaths of mainstream English verse
And gathered, with appendices,
By Walter de la Mare at sixty-five
Or slightly less, who dreamed he’d find,
When nearing death,
A folio of antiquated hand,
Its margins flourishing with flowers and birds.
And there, by reading far into the night
He’d learn, with failing eyes, by candlelight,
The wisdom lost while still a child.
Then did he, waking, with his dream
Evanescing in the pewter light,
Resolve forthwith to consecrate
The years—how many were there?—left to him
To re-creating that irradiant tome
Wherein a self-torn man, in raptures, leaf
By leaf, might yet retrieve . . . ?
Then can this drab, this sober, cloth-bound book,
Published eighty years ago, four years before
My father’s birth, and sent by campus mail
From some tall stack of Pittsburgh steel,
Transform into a library this room?
And now, with Auden dead and de la Mare
Neglected in this unfantastic age,
And more than half my life already gone,
Am I self-deluding to believe
That from this very dusk, by banker’s lamp,
I’ll read back through the years into the dawn?
Diana Sovetova is sixteen years old. Born and bred in Almaty, Kazakhstan, she started writing poems and stories during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is infinitely grateful that it happened, since writing brings peace to her soul and mind.
I am Kazakh, and I had always felt uncomfortable saying it. Truth be told, I grew up in a very unpatriotic family that is eager to emigrate, and I’m not alone. There are millions of Kazakhs with similar values. No one wants to tackle the social problems that plague our country. Very few individuals are truly interested in our culture or literature, and no one takes issue with that.
Honestly, I had never read any book written by someone of my descent, until one day my schoolteacher forced me to read The Path of Abai by Mukhtar Auezov, one of our most famous writers. I was reluctant to do it, and even doubted its value. But this epic novel eventually woke me up from the deepest dream of my life.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, my nation was enduring terrible hardships. Abai, poet-modernist and philosopher, ardently helped people and fought for national independence and justice. These events and many others were depicted in the novel.
Initially, I could not understand Abai’s actions. But after each heartbreaking chapter, I felt that I was getting closer. My soul felt all the pain Abai felt, and my heart cried as bitterly as his did.
I realized that rather than running from problems, I should solve them, since there is no escape from my roots, from who I am. I cannot abandon those with whom I share blood.
This book inspired me to fight for the future of my nation as Abai did. I started a blog where I introduce Kazakh culture to the world, and I am trying to spread it in Kazakhstan. Abai showed me the real stamina of the Kazakh nation. He helped me to truly understand what it means to be the daughter of the Kazakh Steppe.
Tara Tomczyk is the editor-in-chief of Blydyn Square Books, author of Secrets Most Writers and Publishers Will Never Tell You, and a lifelong book nerd.
I’ve always loved books. Truth is, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a reader, so I have countless book-related memories I could share, like the time I was in the hospital with meningitis at age three and reading The Berenstain Bears—and debating a nurse over whether it was pronounced Beren-STAIN (as I argued it was) or Beren-STEEN (as the nurse insisted; my guess is that she wasn’t much of a reader herself).
For me, though, one book memory stands out: reading Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty with a flashlight, curled up under the covers in my flannel nightgown, past bedtime on a school night. Like many preteen girls of my generation (that’s Generation X, in case you want to know just how ancient I am), I was obsessed with horses, so the book appealed to me on multiple levels.
But it wasn’t just the story that enthralled me. It was the whole idea of staying up late, sneaking in “just one more chapter” before heading off to sleep. Lying there, turning pages while my sister snored across the room, I remember thinking, “This is what grownups do.”
I was wrong, of course. Precious few adults—then or now—spend a whole lot of time reading, much less sacrificing sleep to do it, but it was a powerful feeling to be one of them. And, if I’m being entirely honest, it still is.
Valeriya Badambayeva is a teacher. She is 36 and new to writing. She enjoys singing, reading, traveling, visiting ancient places, tasting local food, walking around, and listening to brilliant minds. She believes fantasy books are able to lead us to an imaginary world. They take us back to our teenage years and to our childhood.
Different ages read books for different reasons. Older people use the simple act of reading to try to brighten up their loneliness. Young people, meanwhile, read books with fairytales to learn and be entertained. They see amazing and stunning worlds, and it’s a real shame that as we get older, we lose the ability to actually think that these magical stories are real.
I cannot stand when anybody compels me to do anything. However, we are obliged to devour an enormous amount of compulsory books starting from elementary school. I did all the tasks at my school and university, read fiction novels, and studied textbooks, although I did not get as much pleasure as I had in childhood. As a little girl, I had scanned Legends of Ancient Greece. I was pleased to read the novels of Somerset Maugham, British classics like The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the classic stories that make up our canon. They are great! But they simply cannot make me feel like a little girl in a wonderland, in a mystery fairytale.
Once, I was sent a book on my smartphone called Legend of Lukomorye, and it took me back to my early life. As I devoured its beautiful text, it brought me right into a fairytale. The fantasy genre for grownups is a very special way to go back to our childhoods.
Suddenly, you go to a miraculous place with familiar fairytale characters. You observe a whole new world with princes, beauties, evils, speaking animals, magicians, and mythical creatures. It is my last shot to once again be that little girl in a magical world.
Karen Miller’s short stories have been published in The Baltimore Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Snake Nation Review, and other literary journals. Her novel The Promise Claimers was the Blydyn Square Books 2018 publishing contest winner.
“We’ve got to get rid of some books,” I keep saying. My partner agrees, but it’s so hard to choose which books to keep and which to sell or give away. Each one evokes a memory, an “Oh, yes! I love this author, this book.”
There is the library, the online option. A bookmobile supplied me with books as a child and teen in rural Arkansas. My siblings and I would walk the few blocks to downtown where entry into the air-conditioned bookmobile was always an adventure. I picked out as many books as I could carry and spent the summer reading. Since I was a tree climber and there was limited privacy in our home, I often found a seat among the tree limbs and read. My dad, a conservative preacher, wouldn’t allow us to have a TV, so I read a lot.
But back to my books. My partner and I are moving, and we are drowning in books accumulated for years in two university offices, two home offices, our living room, not to mention the storage unit.
Last week, we took a break from packing. We went out to eat and, of course, stopped by a bookstore. And, yes, we bought two books. Since then, I’ve learned about a posthumously published novel by William Gay and discovered another author, a must-read.
So, what’s a book lover to do? I’ll figure it out with my partner. During lean times and prosperous times, books have always been our weakness, the thing we found a way to buy. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything, all those voices, those worlds, those ideas that prod me to think and grow, to experience life in ways that only books can make possible.
Books are the guide for our life. Thanks to them, we can learn from the mistakes of others, analyze very different situations, and make our own conclusions. Books can be about love, patriotism, historical events, or just growing up. No matter the topic, though, every book can teach us something.
In my childhood, I used to read a lot of books. They were all interesting, but one of them stuck in my memory. This novel is so strong that it struck the strings of my childhood soul, because the author described manhood, patriotism, humanity, honesty, and love of life. It showed the importance of staying human in any situation.
The Fate of Man by Mikhail Sholokhov is about a simple Russian soldier named Andrey Sokolov. He got through World War II, was a prisoner in a concentration camp, saw his only son die, and mourned the bombing death of his entire family. Throughout all this misery, the character found one last reason for life: He became the surrogate father of a little boy. Like Andrey, the boy had lost everything, and the two of them fight through the darkness to build a brighter future together.
While I was reading the story, I cried, because I lived out his life with him. Without losing hope, Andrey took in his new “son” and tried to find glimmers of happiness in an impossible situation.
I’ve had my share of unpleasant moments, and I can easily succumb to bitterness, but remembering this story, I recognize that I am just a human. There are worse fates than mine. This one book, full of misery, is the reason I find happiness in the world.
Keira Schaefer has published with Atherton Review and Second Chance Lit. Currently, she is a reader for the Line Literary Review.
I dive into a new story
Like a dolphin in the waters
Captivating my attention
Fables, fantasy, biographies
All bringing me into peace and tranquility
Heroic characters who save the day
A plot twist playing tricks on my mind
The mystery within each book
Solved by a clever detective
Into a book I soar and fly
My imagination running wild
A. V. Griffin is a professional writer, entrepreneur, and artist who resides in Upstate New York. She is the author of two books: a sci-fi novella called The Demon Rolmar and a collection of poems called Ephemeral Thoughts. Griffin holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in library and information science. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Quests through Narnia and epic journeys through space were some of adventures that reading allowed me to experience as a young child. My passion for books began when I first started learning how to read. The experience of being able to read by myself was eye-opening to say the least, and shed light upon an exciting new world of possibilities. As a young girl, I began reading just about anything I could find, including fantasy stories, classic novels, and mysteries. I reveled in the time I spent reading stories such as A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because of their ability to take the reader on fantastical adventures. These stories held a certain magic for me during my youth, and continue to do so today.
My love of books stems from their ability to spark the imagination of the reader. While newer forms of entertainment, such as video games, have become very popular, they lack the fundamental appeal that books provide—the opportunity for an individual to create settings and characters through the use of his or her imagination. While reading, an individual can picture a world that is uniquely their own. Two individuals can read the same story, but they will imagine that story in two entirely different ways. Moreover, reading harkens back to a time when life and technology were not so intricately interwoven, and allows an individual to take a respite from the fast-paced lifestyle endemic to our society. The hustle and bustle of everyday life seems to fade as we allow an all-consuming novel to take us somewhere uncharted. The power of books resides in their ability to engender creativity in the mind of the reader, which is something that newer forms of entertainment simply cannot provide.
Paul Rousseau (he/him/his) is a semi-retired physician and writer published in sundry literary and medical journals. Nominated for the Best Small Fictions anthology from Sonder Press (2020), he is a lover of dogs and is currently living in Charleston, South Carolina. He longs to return home to the west. Follow him on Twitter: @ScribbledCoffee
He was discovered unconscious in a hotel room in Montgomery on his way to his childhood home in Monroeville, Alabama. It was 1983, seventeen years after the publication of his “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood. He was rushed to a local hospital, where it was determined he had inadvertently overdosed on the epileptic medications Dilantin and phenobarbital. He had been diagnosed with seizures a few years earlier, and the medications were prescribed at that time. I was a resident physician completing my training in internal medicine, and was, in part, responsible for his hospital care.
He was a diminutive man, with sparse hair and a high-pitched, nasal voice. His face was that of a man older than his years, wearied and worn. When he spoke, his words were slow and deliberate, as if pulled through molasses. He was dismayed that most patients failed to recognize him; in fact, I remember his glum refrain: “Nobody knows me, nobody knows me.” And they did not.
“Are you feeling better?” I inquired.
“Why doctor, how kind of you to ask, I’m feeling fine. I believe I can be on my way soon. I’ve been so tired; the repose has been wonderful.”
He was discharged two days later. There was a small press conference. He wore a white suit with a scarf, hat, and sunglasses—typical Truman Capote. “Doctor, if I may, how do I look?”
“You look straight out of the pages of a magazine,” I answered. “Very dapper.” He tipped his hat and grinned.
As he ambled toward the podium, he paused, beckoned me to his side, and offered a gift in appreciation: his autograph on a pharmaceutical pad, the small letters of his signature not unlike his pint-sized physical stature.
Margaret D. Stetz is the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Humanities at the University of Delaware. Although she has spent most of her life teaching and writing about literature, she still finds it hard to reconcile academia with the world that she knew as a working-class child growing up in Queens, New York.
I found Maggie Tulliver only after I’d been to the gynecologist. I wish I’d met her earlier.
It was a traumatic first appointment—not just because I was naked, and my feet were in stirrups (growing up in New York, I’d never even ridden a horse), but because of what the doctor said. Had I read The Mill on the Floss beforehand, I might have felt less alone; I might even have risked talking back.
In the opening of George Eliot’s 1859 novel, the protagonist is still a young girl—a very intelligent one. To Maggie Tulliver’s father, this is unnatural. He complains about her being “Too ’cute for a woman,” meaning too acute and sharp. For him, “an over-’cute woman’s no better nor a long-tailed sheep,—she’ll fetch none the bigger price for that,” alluding to her future worth in the marriage market. In the nineteenth century, a woman with brains was a freak. Eliot wanted readers to be outraged over this judgment, and we are.
If only I could have quoted Eliot and made the gynecologist feel ridiculous, when he made me feel small.
It was spring 1970. I was sixteen, and I was suffering from excruciatingly awful menstrual periods. I told him I was graduating high school early and starting college in the fall; I didn’t want to miss class time every month. What, I begged, should I do? Nothing, he said: “You’re too smart. That’s why your periods are painful. It’s all connected.”
I slunk away. But if I’d read Eliot’s novel, I might have answered, “Which century are you living in? I didn’t know Victorian men could get medical licenses now!”
Later, thanks to Eliot, at least I could shout that in my head.
Aditi Kataria, age 24, lives in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. Her work has appeared in Ink Babies, The Criterion, Intouch, and College Magazine. She considers herself as open, approachable, adaptable, curious, and optimistic with art, literature, and culture as few of her sundry areas of interest.
Should I drown in the raging passion of Heathcliff
or should I surf on the sycophantic words of Mr. Collins?
Should I let my mind be shrouded by the mysteries of Rebecca
or should I watch peacefully the growth of the Little Women?
Oh! I know the Importance of Being Earnest!
but what do I do? I live in The Glass Menagerie!
Ah! Should I start being involved in Secret Sharer
No, no, Virginia would trap in the Room of One’s Own!
Look! Shakespeare and Marlowe are fighting at the back of my mind!
Look! Milton and Dante are right in front of my eyes!
I have seen the fight between Angels and Demons
I hid in the room and cried When Angels Cried
I often lose myself traversing the life of The Mayor of Casterbridge
but ’twas The Fountainhead that managed to mess up my head!
Let me take a Train to Pakistan and revel as Alice in Wonderland
but wait! What about The Kite Runner or The Scarlet Letter or Hemingway or Jane Eyre!
Forget it! I am greedy, I can’t let go of any jewel.
At the artistic brilliance and lustrous characters, I can’t help but marvel!
Every piece is worth little more than a million dime,
let me savor the taste of these weaved worlds with a glass of wine!
You can choose one, but I will keep them all.
On the pages of the masterpieces, I will take a stroll.
I will take your leave now as I have another world to enjoy,
who would have thought that words could provide such joy!
Catherine Ann Winters works as a writer and presentation coach in Kansas City, Missouri. She earned her PhD from the University of Rhode Island in May 2020, where she co-produced the podcast Careers in the Public Humanities.
The first book I wrote in was On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I had been told that the book would “change my life,” so it felt important to prove that I engaged with the book. Writing in my cheap paperback made this visible. I underlined moments that seemed poignant, as if maybe that would be the line that transformed my view of everything.
At the time my brother was stationed in Iraq. My family would send him packages every few months with snacks, drink mix, and things to pass the time. At some point, he asked for books. My parents bought him the novels he enjoyed when he was younger; I included whatever I had recently read. Often, the copies showed a bit of wear from my handling, but other times they were new, standing in for borrowed books. The Penguin Classics edition of On the Road with a monochrome blue vintage car passing by had underlining in blue pen, proof of me.
I remember him asking why I had underlined what I did. I tried to explain, but mostly I was embarrassed—I had shared what I had intended to be for only me. He found not just the text, but my enigmatic emphasis. I have not seen the book since.
Yet I imagine that my brother annotated On the Road in response, and then others did, too, adding and then putting it back on a shelf at the base for someone else. If I saw that book, I hope I would not just find what fourteen-year-old me found touching, but the traces of other hands touching the book—the conversation I might have started when I took my blue ballpoint pen and underlined: “I had nothing to offer anybody, except my own confusion.”
Lini S. Kadaba, a national award-winning journalist and former Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer, has freelanced since 2010 for a variety of magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post. Her debut novel, Leftovers After Life, is slated to be published by Blydyn Square Books in 2023 and has been recognized by the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. She has a grown son and lives in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, with her husband. Follow her @LiniSKadaba or www.facebook.com/LiniSKadaba.
Neena’s first-grade teacher has asked to meet with Neena’s mother after school. While she waits, Neena hums “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to calm herself. When her mother returns, she has a frown.
“Ma?” Neena ventures. “Did I do something bad?” She looks at her mother and holds back her tears. Her mother studies her for a moment.
“No, beta,” she says, her face softening. “Mrs. Fleisher is saying you need to practice reading aloud. She is saying the other children read better than you. Is that true?”
Neena moves her head, with confusion at first. She wants to shake it yes, but that would disappoint her mother. The initial weak nod of affirmation quickly turns into a vigorous shake. “I can read,” she insists.
Neena sits on the edge of the chair at the round kitchen table. The toes of her bare feet graze the cold linoleum as she leans forward and hunches over the letters.
“Read,” her mother says.
Neena looks at the picture of Dick running and Jane following. Her pointer finger moves back and forth under the black letters. Neena loves stories. She craves them. When Mrs. Fleisher reads aloud or her mother tells her a story, she listens intently, swaying to the rhythm of the words, words she soaks up and can repeat by heart. But the truth is that the letters, those As and Ps and Qs, don’t make sense when she tries to read on her own. As she looks at a word, the letters swim around and go out of focus.
Run, Dick, run. Neena fumbles over the words. Her mother urges her to sound it out. Again. And again. Each time, her voice gets louder and Neena’s voice gets softer. She is trying so hard not to cry. But the tears well and the page blurs. Finally, her mother gives her a quick smack on the back of her head. It does not hurt, not really. But it gets Neena’s attention. Neena sucks in her breath, wipes the back of her hand across her eyes and then reads the sentence. Perfectly.
The following pages are the second installment in a novel that we will be publishing in serial format over the course of the next year.
Nicolette Fermi is a New Jersey–based writer, ghost writer, and editor whose work has appeared in numerous small publications. She is also the author of the novel The Fine Art of Manipulating a Man (Pallas Press). Shelter in Place is her second novel.
Quarantine Day 22
“Five miles—hell yeah!”
Claudia stomped into the house feeling strong, almost exuberant. She’d made it five miles (just three weeks after surgery, when all the books said it would take six weeks to go three miles), and something had occurred to her on her walk: She was happy. Almost.
She felt good, hopeful. Sure, she was stuck in quarantine and had just lost a uterus, but for the first time in longer than she could remember, she had a job she (almost) liked (and she felt ready to get back to it, maybe as soon as this coming Monday). She had some decent friends in her writing group. And she knew, for certain, she was healthy. The past few years, either during her post-divorce crushing poverty or more recently when she actually had health insurance but was too scared to use it for fear of what the doctor might tell her, any happiness she’d felt had always been tempered by the lingering belief that she was secretly dying, that there was some kind of cancer growing inside her that would be her demise. Let’s face it: Most of the time, you knew when something wasn’t quite right with your body. She’d been right about the growth but (thank the gods) wrong about the cancer. And after the battery of tests, she knew all her remaining parts were working just fine—and had nothing growing on them or in them that wasn’t supposed to be there. For now, anyway.
That in itself was cause to feel pretty good. Throw in some endorphins from a fast(ish) five-mile walk, and what Claudia was feeling could only be described as jubilation.
“Five miles? Is that a lot?” Dad asked, not looking up from the crossword puzzle he was putting together.
Way to destroy a good mood. That kind of soul-crushing was a unique talent only parents possessed.
“Kind of,” Claudia said. “I mean, it’s about five miles to Candace’s house. Think about how long it takes to drive there. Well, I just walked it.”
“Huh. That’s pretty good, I guess.”
“Thanks for the support. You would’ve made an outstanding cheerleader.”
“Nothing. I’ve got to get showered.”
She practically trotted down the stairs to her apartment, as much as she could with two stubborn steri-strips still tearing at her belly. She eyed the shower, wishing the six-week waiting period were over so she could finally take a bath again. Frankly, she couldn’t help feeling that showers were for filthy sunbathers at no-cost public beaches who wanted to get the sand off their grimy feet. Baths were for the civilized, the educated, the sensual people who knew the difference between hosing off the stench of dead sand crabs and living the good life.
Claudia sighed. She wouldn’t get to be civilized today.
She checked the clock. Nine-thirty. Wow. She had been walking a long time, and she hadn’t bothered to check her email before she left. It wasn’t like people were exactly overwhelming her inbox with vital messages these days. Other than the never-ending deluge of spam from Houzz and the Christmas Tree Shoppe, she was pretty sure she hadn’t had an email since before her surgery, which made sense, seeing as she was technically on medical leave. Still, she hated the feeling of being out of touch, so she lifted the laptop lid and logged on.
To her surprise, there was a message from her boss, Jennifer, at the science publisher. It merely said, “Give me a call when you get a chance—no rush!”, with the subject: Updates on Science Strategies Project.
Technically, Claudia wasn’t supposed to return to work until after four weeks, per Dr. Goodman’s instructions. Of course, Dr. Goodman had assumed the pain would be excruciating, and it had been practically nonexistent, so what did she know? Claudia was feeling pumped, eager, sick of sitting on her ass—and Jennifer’s email seemed like a sign from above. If work was ready for her, then Claudia was ready for work. She grabbed her phone and dialed.
Jennifer picked up on the first ring like a too-anxious teenager hoping for a prom invitation. “Claudia, how are you? How are you feeling?”
Claudia stretched her calf muscles while she talked. “I’m doing great. Just walked five miles—slow as a turtle, granted, but I did it. I’m rested and ready. Put me to work anytime, boss!”
There was a long silence, and then Jennifer said, “Actually, that’s what I needed to talk to you about. Since this whole virus thing has got the schools closed, and we sell strictly to schools, the higher-ups have decided we need to shut down operations.”
“Yowza. For how long?”
“We’re hoping to be back by September, when the schools open back up. If they open back up.”
“Oh my god.”
“I know, I’m sorry, it sucks.”
“How many of us are out of work?” Claudia asked.
“Everybody. I mean, I assume the CEO and those guys will keep getting their pay—some things never change—but all of us in the creative and sales departments, basically everybody who produces our line and promotes it, we’re all history. And that includes the history writers. Sorry. Bad joke. I’m doing my best to keep a sense of humor here.”
“Wow. I don’t know what to say. About the situation or how bad that joke was.”
Jennifer laughed. “Thanks for being a good egg about this, Claudia. You wouldn’t believe how most people are reacting. I’ve had everything from sobs to death threats.”
“Let me guess: The death threat came from Dan the physics writer.”
“How’d you know.” It was not a question.
They sat on the line in companionable silence for a moment, then Jennifer said, “Well, the good news, if you can call it that, is that you can file for unemployment.”
“Along with the other zillion New Jerseyans who’ve been knocked out of work. Wonder how long that money will take to come in.”
“I know, I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation, I’m in the same boat. I’ll be filing my own claim come next week, after I finish the joyous process of making these calls.”
“Do you really think they’ll rehire all of us in September—or whenever the schools reopen?”
“That’s anybody’s guess,” Jennifer said. “All I can tell you is that I won’t be holding my breath. And I’d suggest you follow my lead and start looking for something else.”
“Gotcha. Well . . . thanks for the message. I guess.”
“I’m sorry, Claudia. I know it sucks. But let me just say it’s been a pleasure working with you. I hope we get to do it again sooner rather than later.”
“Me too,” Claudia said. “But like you said, I won’t hold my breath. Take care, Jen.”
Claudia clicked off the call and sank down onto her desk chair. Suddenly, all those endorphins from her walk were gone and her legs were full of lead. Not many people can say they’d been fired—okay, not fired; laid off—for the first time at the age of forty-eight. Claudia wondered how most people handled going through this multiple times in life. She kind of wanted to burst into tears. But no. That would be silly. You don’t cry over a stupid job, especially one where all you did was write dumb articles about the chemical composition of chewing gum or how paleontologists could tell what dinosaurs ate by looking at their fossilized poop.
Oh, who was she kidding? It had been the best job ever. And she’d done it all from her basement, wearing sweatpants and slippers and never once having to pay a toll or sit in traffic or wear a pantsuit or fill up the gas tank on the way to work.
So much for being happy. This was her life, exactly: Just when she’d found something to be grateful for, the universe had stepped in to slap her back down to her usual state of mild to moderate misery.
Fuck it. It was time to cry. If (as the TV commercials told her) people were going to be depressed over not being able to go out dancing or have barbecues, then she had every right to mourn the loss of the best job she’d ever had.
It was official: This virus sucked.
Quarantine Day 23
Claudia was already coming to dread these weekly video chats with her writing group. Though she did hate the medium (video was no substitute for reality; it was why she could rarely sit through a whole movie—thank the gods for Netflix and the ability to pause), she realized it was more about the people. She didn’t like them. Not the specific people in the group, per se, but people in general. What did that say about her?
Sure, she’d always been aware that she had misanthropic tendencies, but something about having to watch literal talking heads, in boxes on a screen, every week really brought the whole thing into perspective. In real life, you could distract yourself from the mundane, mindless, getting-to-know-you chit-chat that everybody engaged in by looking around the room or taking a (needless) bathroom break. On screen, it was just you and the talking heads, which brought her friends’ stupidity into crystal-clear focus. And this virus was making things worse.
Ever since her call with the doctor, Claudia had been feeling uneasy. Something was tugging at her, kind of like when you’re sure you’ve forgotten something—to turn off the coffee pot or to roll up your car window before a storm—but worse. She felt like she was missing (or maybe just denying) something big. She could only remember having this feeling once before: in the weeks before she discovered her husband was cheating on her and slowly draining their bank accounts to set up his brand-new life. Even now, more than a decade later, the memory sent a shiver up her spine. She knew better than most people that her intuition was solid. And today it was telling her that something was wrong, that maybe these whack-job conspiracy theorists online were on to something and this whole virus thing really was some sort of hoax.
For a brief moment, it occurred to her that she was less afraid of contracting a deadly virus than she was of the fact that Americans, true-blue patriots in the land of the free and the home of the brave, had laid down their liberties without so much as asking the constant question on the lips of every three-year-old: “Why?”
Luciana’s audio squeaked on, tearing Claudia away from her paranoid musings.
“I hear you but your video isn’t up,” she said.
“Merda,” Luciana muttered. “Every week is one thing or other no work.”
The video box flickered on and there was Luciana, scowling at her webcam.
“You’ve got it now,” Claudia said. “But this whole video thing does suck. It’s not like meeting for real.”
Luciana shrugged. “For now, is okay. With my anxiety, I no mind so much not to see the people in real life.”
“For me, video makes the shyness worse. It feels like I’m being interviewed on CNN every time the feed switches over to me. Seriously, I don’t know if my nerves can take much more of this.”
Karen’s video box popped up. “Hey, hey, girls. How’s your week been?”
“Trapped at home, same as every other week these days,” Claudia said, though she noted that Luciana was smiling. She really was enjoying this shelter-in-place thing. Not that Claudia could honestly say she wasn’t . . .
“Since they closed the parks, I’ve been going crazy,” Karen said. “I was walking with my neighbor—social distancing, mind you, six feet apart on the path—every day, just to get some exercise, but now we’re stuck inside. We’re all gonna get crazy fat.”
“You can walk on the sidewalks,” Luciana said. “Or on treadmill, you have one.”
“And who doesn’t have a dusty treadmill moldering away in the attic?” Karen said.
Claudia watched Luciana and Karen chatting back and forth and realized what was wrong: She missed Berk. He’d texted that morning to let her know he’d be helping his elderly father with some yardwork this afternoon and wouldn’t be able to make the meeting. It sounded (almost) like a line, like he was trying to impress her with his sensitivity, but why would he be trying to pick her up, now? They were stuck in quarantine for the foreseeable future. It wasn’t like they could go out or have sex or even, officially, meet in real life. Sad that she had to think that way, but men were men, and most of what came out of their mouths was some kind of line. Still, she was choosing to believe this particular line was legit, and Berk really was just a dutiful son taking care of an aging parent. Why not look for a bright side, for a change? What bothered her more was that she realized she was feeling more irritable than usual just because she wasn’t seeing his face among the video blocks on screen. In only two weeks, he’d become one of her best friends and she felt lost without his presence (such that it was). Pathetic.
Gladys was onscreen now and rambling about something. Claudia yawned and forced herself to pay attention.
“. . . website and it’s got all these cool ideas. I copied the address and if I can figure out how to send it to you, we can all go on and maybe write about their daily idea.”
“Like writing prompts, you mean?” Claudia asked.
Gladys thrust a finger up in the air. “That’s what they call it. Writing prompts. It’s a whole site with a new writing prompt every day. I thought it would be fun for us all to read it and use it for today’s writing.”
Claudia felt herself cringe at the notion. In her mind, generic writing prompt exercises seemed more suited to beginners (like Gladys) than seasoned publishing veterans like Claudia who were (supposed to be) working on epic novels. She made herself unclench her shoulders and try to find the fun. Already, the bright side was long gone.
Luciana finally managed to talk Gladys through the complexities of “copy” and “paste,” and the URL for the writing prompt site popped up on the chat screen. Claudia followed the link and read today’s featured prompt:
“A six-letter embarkation on a reality story.”
What the hell was that supposed to mean?
“Um,” she said. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say this site is not produced here in America. Because that? Is gibberish.”
Gladys frowned and peered at her computer screen. “Maybe it means—”
“It no mean nothing,” Luciana. “English is no my native language, but hello. That make no sense at all.”
“It was a good idea, Gladys,” Karen said. “Maybe next week it’ll say something we can actually understand. Hey, Luciana, where are the boys? That cute Ashton and our buddy Berk?”
Claudia wasn’t sure, but she thought she noticed Luciana blushing at the mention of the missing members of the group. Funny, Claudia thought: They’d known each other six months and Claudia had only learned last week that Luciana was divorced and heterosexual, with a preteen son. If the kid hadn’t barged into the room during their meeting, yapping about wanting to go to the mall (as if that might happen in quarantine), Luciana would probably never even have revealed that. That was the internet for you—creating “friendships” of the most superficial, transient sort.
“I no sure,” Luciana said. “Ashton no RSVP to group. And Berk, he change his yes to no this morning, but no give reason. Maybe he no like us no more.”
Claudia hated the idea of admitting to a friendship with Berk outside of the group, but hated even more the sad, self-loathing expression on Luciana’s face.
“Berk told me this morning that he has to do some yardwork for his dad. That’s why he canceled. He’ll be back next week.”
Luciana’s eyes couldn’t seem to meet the webcam’s artificial “eye.” “You talk to Berk outside group?”
Aha! Claudia thought. Gotcha. Somebody has a little crush.
“Not really,” Claudia said. “Well, a little. But only because he asked me for feedback on his novel. You know, because I used to be an editor.”
Luciana brightened and a smile crept over her lips. Yowza. It was amazing how, in some ways, we never really leave the seventh grade, especially when it comes to romance.
“All right, then,” Luciana said. “Is time for our silent writing for one hour, so I ask you all shut down audio and we talk more after sixty minutes. Yah?”
Claudia switched off her audio and video (she wasn’t keen on the thought that she might accidentally pick her nose or stick a boob back into her bra cup there on camera for everyone to see), then stared at her blank notebook page. She had never believed in writer’s block—after all, barring physical injury, you could always write something. Maybe just a grocery list, but something. Today, though, she could almost relate to the tortured, lazy writers who claimed to be “blocked.” Truth was, she just didn’t feel like looking at her story right now. She was already living a dystopian reality; it was hard to relish the idea of building another one in her fiction.
What she should be writing, anyway, was her critique of Berk’s book. This morning when he let her know he’d be skipping the meeting, he’d asked if she’d be up for a one-on-one video chat later tonight, to talk over her notes on his book. Maybe it was time for her to actually write a few, before all the details of his novel—which had been a decent, if uninspiring and formulaic, read—escaped her memory. It was a curse of living a literary life. Your brain could only hold on to so many plots and characters and descriptions.
Three hours later, notes in hand, she was back in the same spot at her desk waiting for Berk to sign on to video chat. Unlike most of the people in their writing group, he was pretty prompt.
“How was group?” he asked.
“Same old. How was yardwork?”
He sighed. “Never work with family. They are way too particular.”
“They’ve seen too much.”
“Maybe. Or maybe just enough to always think they can do it better.”
“If only they could physically do all the things they’re experts on.”
“That’s exactly it,” Berk said. “My dad was at me all day. Cut the limbs higher. Mow the grass shorter. Tie up that sapling tighter. You’d think he’d been a landscaper before he retired.”
“He wasn’t, I take it?”
“Accountant. The man has zero experience in yard maintenance beyond firing up the lawn mower once a week for fifty years.”
“And you have more?”
“Kinda. I worked for a landscaper for three years right out of high school.”
“I can hear your thoughts right now: He didn’t go to college?”
He was dead on.
“Did you?” she asked. “Not that it matters.” She wondered, though, if it did. She’d spent four years at a prestigious college learning exactly nothing outside of how many beers she could drink before puking, and where had it brought her? To a go-nowhere career writing silly articles that she was convinced nobody ever actually read. Oh, wait. She’d almost forgotten. That career was over, so not even that.
“No,” he said. “I didn’t go to college. I didn’t have the money and, I’ll admit, I was a terrible student in school.”
“You seem smart enough.”
“Guess there’s a difference between intelligence and whatever it takes to be good at school.”
With a close friend (if she had one) or family member, Claudia would’ve fought that statement, because, come on. Being able to adapt to any situation—even a monotonous, ritualized one like traditional classroom schooling—is pretty much exactly what intelligence is. But with Berk, she decided to let the water flow. It was too soon to burn the bridge between them. She detected a mixed metaphor in her muddled brain but ignored it.
She left it at: “I was a nerd in school. Graduated third in my high school class.”
“I would’ve guessed valedictorian.”
“Me too. Politics. The girls ahead of me were both sleeping with the principal.”
She shrugged. “Rumor had it. Hard to say for sure. Problem was, classes in my high school weren’t weighted, so every class was equal, and a Pass was as good as an A. So, the valedictorian’s ‘Pass’ in study hall was just as valuable for class rank as my A in AP Physics. Senior year, I took four AP classes, and I used all my elective slots to take subjects I’d missed by being on the AP track, like comparative literature and U.S government. Call me crazy, but I kind of wanted to, you know, learn. The girls who made it to the top of the class? Took three study halls a piece as their electives and had zero AP classes. I’m not saying they cheated, but . . .”
“They fucking cheated.”
“It doesn’t matter now. Look where all my fancy education has gotten me: a shitty apartment in my dad’s basement.”
“Some people would say your career is pretty impressive.”
“Some people would take issue with your calling my sad series of kids’ books a ‘career.’”
“Hey, stop that,” he said. “I read a few. You’re really a terrific writer.”
“Good lord, you read my books? Where’d you even find them?”
“My niece has the whole series. My sister says they’re the kids’ favorites.”
“I suppose I should be grateful somebody bought my books, since nobody seems to be doing it much lately.”
“I should’ve ordered my own copy, shouldn’t I? So you’d get a royalty?”
“Don’t be silly. You gave me your book free; I should do the same.”
“So, dare I ask? What’d you think of my book?” he asked.
Claudia looked down at her notes and felt all the forthrightness she would have needed to share them flee her body. She wanted a friend, not a protégé. She shoved the pad aside.
“To tell you the truth, I already can’t remember much about the details,” she said. “I almost never remember what I read. But I liked it.”
“Guess that happens, doing what you do,” he said. “Too much to read, so you can’t hold on to the little nuances.”
“You’re in the same line of work,” she pointed out.
“Eh, only sort of. Yeah, I have a couple of books out and one in the works, but it doesn’t exactly pay the bills.”
“Mind if I ask what does?”
She thought she saw a twitch of discomfort on his cheek, and wondered if she was about to receive a typical male whopper of a lie about work and income.
“Sorry to say, I’m between jobs at the moment,” he said. “I was managing a grocery store in Union, but I quit back in November.”
“Union is the next town over to me. What store?”
“The Lidl? German store?”
“Holy crap,” she said. “My dad loves that place. I’ve never been.”
“Not many people have,” he replied. “Which is pretty much why I left. Sales were in the toilet but nobody seemed willing to do much to fix things.”
There was more to this story than he was telling, she knew; only a true idiot willingly leaves even a shitty job without something better on the horizon, and Berk hardly seemed like an idiot. For now, though, she wouldn’t press.
Berk suddenly smiled. “So, does this count as one of those virtual happy hours everybody’s having these days?”
“Doubt it,” she said. “First off, it’s just us, no bar, and I don’t even have any liquor.”
He held a bottle of beer—a green Rolling Rock—up to the screen. “Then I’ll drink for two.”
“Rolling Rock? Jesus. I haven’t had one of those in twenty years—speaking of college. I had plenty of them back then, though. I bet I can still remember that little saying on the back.”
“I call bullshit.”
“‘From the glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe, we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment. As a tribute to your good taste, it comes from the mountain spring to you. Thirty-three.’”
“Shit. You’re good. But why no drink? It’s Saturday night. Shelter in place. I’m guessing you’re the only adult in America not getting hammered.”
“I suspect that’s often the case, even without the quarantine.”
“You don’t drink?”
“Oh, I drink. Probably more than the next guy. But it’s not a lot of fun to do when you’re sitting all alone in a basement.”
“I’m sitting alone in a bedroom slash home office.”
“You live alone?”
“Well . . .” He tilted the beer to his lips and took a long sip. Even after he set the bottle down, though, he didn’t continue.
“Spill it,” she said.
“You first. Why are you really not drinking?”
“I would be, if I didn’t just have surgery.”
“Doctor said no booze?”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just . . . This is going to sound stupid, but I like to sleep on my stomach. You can’t do that with a cut-open belly, and I’m afraid if I drink, I’ll forget I’m hurt and sleep the wrong way and tear myself open. Does that make me paranoid?”
“Probably,” he said. “But I’m guessing I’d feel the same way in your shoes. Let me know when you’re ready. I’ll send you a nice bottle of wine. Red or white?”
“Red. Dry. Oaky.” The mention of how she liked her wine brought her back to the time she’d sat with Aaron at a fancy wine bar, and he’d informed the sommelier, “Claudia likes her wine to taste like she’s licking an oak slab. Got anything like that?”
Berk brought her back to reality. “No problem. I like it that way myself. Except in summer. Then, I prefer a crisp pinot grigio, chilled.”
“Wow. Me too. Maybe we’re related.”
“God, I hope not.”
“Why, whatever do you mean?” She put on her best fake Southern accent. “Are you flirtin’ with me, sir, or are ya hidin’ somethin’?”
He took another swig of beer. “You’re gonna make me an alcoholic with these personal questions. But okay. Yeah, I’m kind of hiding something. I’m technically, well, sort of . . . married.”
Claudia felt heat creep into her cheeks. How humiliating to have read things so wrong. Here she was, flattering herself all this time, thinking he was interested in her romantically, but all he ever really wanted was her critique on his writing. She wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
She decided not to find out. She pretended to look at her watch (forgetting she wasn’t actually wearing one) and said, “Hey, I totally forgot my dad needed my help with something after dinner. I gotta go. Talk tomorrow?”
She didn’t wait for him to answer before she clicked exit and left the video chat.
Quarantine Day 24
Claudia rolled over in bed and flipped the pillow with a contented sigh. There are few pleasures in life as simple and satisfying as a cool pillow against warm skin. For a moment, she almost forgot all the garbage that had been weighing on her mind since last night. Berk was married, and she was a moron. As if that weren’t disheartening enough, Dad had mentioned that her sister would be stopping by today. Just what she needed to perk up her spirits.
She shook out her numb fingers. Sleeping on her back was killing her. How did people do it? There was nowhere to put your arms without cutting off circulation to your hands. She longed for the day when she could get back to sleeping on her stomach, like a normal human being.
Upstairs, she heard a thump, followed by the patter of four clawed feet. Right on schedule: Bandit and Dad were up and headed for their walk, and of course, making sure Claudia didn’t sleep past five a.m.
It was just as well. Between being forced to sleep on her back and last night’s humiliating conversation with Berk, she wasn’t sure she’d had two consecutive hours of sleep. What had she been thinking? It wasn’t like she liked Berk—not that way (yowza, she sounded like a fifth-grader). He was just a friend, if you can even call someone that if you’ve never seen him in the flesh and only chatted a few times.
You already have a boyfriend, she reminded herself. Sure, she hadn’t seen Aaron since Christmas, and here we were coming up on May, and sure, she hadn’t had sex with this so-called boyfriend in . . . well, she wasn’t about to wear out her tired brain doing that math. Years, was sufficient to say. It had been years.
She stood up and glanced back at the cozy bed, covers all in disarray. For a brief moment, she wondered if she would fall asleep if she climbed back in, tucked foam plugs in her ears, and ignored the sounds of life above her. But what was the point? She might as well get showered and ready while she had the chance. She had to look fresh before Candace got here. Even in quarantine, Candace seemed to find it necessary to make fun of Claudia’s clothing choices. As if a woman who never wore anything other than boot-cut jeans and long brown sweaters—no matter the weather or season—had room to criticize.
Just a few hours later, too early for a reasonable visit, at least for people who weren’t family, they were all sitting on folding chairs on the enclosed front porch. Dad wasn’t big on “fancy” furniture (as he put it), so other than his own office-style chair, where he did his puzzles and smoked, the only available seating consisted of these ancient metal jobs, probably stolen from some American Legion hall circa 1975. In a higher-end, “fancier” house (as Dad would have put it), the porch might have been called a Florida room. Here, it was just a porch.
Claudia’s niece, Alexis, was curled up, cross-legged, on her metal chair in the corner, playing with her phone while the adults talked around her. Funny, Claudia thought: People say a lot more about kids than they ever say to them. It was stupid for Candace to bring her anyway. If anybody was carrying the virus without showing symptoms, it was Alexis. Every time Claudia had seen the kid, pretty much since the girl was born twelve years ago, she’d come down with a cold or flu. Behind Candace’s back, Claudia and her mother called the girl Typhoid Alexis. She was pretty much a walking, sullen, phone-swiping collection of pathogens.
Alexis and Candace had only been in the house for, oh, about four minutes, and already Claudia could feel her blood reaching its boiling point. Had it been a pot of water, she’d be reaching for the box of pasta. Dad, on the other hand, was beaming, as if seeing Candace and Alexis were the best thing that had happened to him in half a lifetime. Claudia tried (and failed) not to take it personally.
Candace and Alexis were wearing identical pink bandanas over their faces. Claudia knew it was their way of “masking up” for the virus without looking like hospital personnel, but she’d held out for as long as she could. She had to say something.
“Is this a stick-up?” she asked.
Candace stopped in the middle of the monologue she’d been delivering to Dad and glared (Claudia didn’t need to see her sister’s mouth to know that much).
“The bandanas,” Claudia said. “You look like the Spice Girls on their way to a bank heist.”
“What’s a Spice Girl?” Alexis asked, not looking up from her phone. At least she was listening. That seemed to be a first.
“Never mind,” Candace said. She turned back to Claudia and Dad. “Sometimes she makes me feel old.” She smiled (Claudia could see that through the mask, too) at their father and said, “I guess they don’t teach nineties pop icons in school these days.”
“I thought you were teaching school these days,” Claudia said. “Aren’t the finer points of nineties trash music now your responsibility to impart to the next generation?”
Candace scoffed. “It really is ridiculous what they expect of us. We are parents, not teachers. And yet, here I am, teaching math and science like someone from NASA.”
“The school doesn’t do anything at all?” Dad asked. “I read in the paper that they’ve got some kinda online learnin’ stuff.”
“Oh, yes, they’ve got it,” Candace replied. “Alexis is required to log in to the system at precisely nine-thirty in the morning, at which point her lesson for the day is unlocked. It’s about half a page of reading, plus a two-minute video that pretty much just restates the reading, and then she has to answer three questions to prove she looked at it all. She has until midnight to finish the quiz, and you pass even if you fail, as long as you click an answer to each question. It’s crazy. And let me tell you, most days, I’m the one watching the damn video and picking the right answers. Alexis can’t be bothered to get out of bed or off Snapchat even if she is awake.”
“Are you joking?” Claudia asked. You could never be sure with parents. Complaining about their ongoing martyrdom seemed to be their primary form of communication.
“I’d never joke about my child’s education.”
“It sounds like she’s not getting an education to me.”
“Well,” Candace said. “This is temporary. Next fall, when the schools reopen, things will be back to normal.”
“It doesn’t bother you that the school you pay insanely high property taxes to have your kid attend thinks five minutes a day of remote instruction counts as ‘education’?”
“It’s not like that’s all she’s doing. We do . . . supplemental activities.”
“Like . . . ?”
Candace sighed. “Like watching educational television.”
“Bingeing on Netflix. Gotcha.”
“Claudia, be nice,” Dad said.
“Don’t bother, Dad,” Candace said with a sneer (which also showed right through her mask). “She’s never nice. And yes, Netflix is an excellent resource for documentaries.”
“I didn’t realize The Real Housewives qualified as a ‘documentary.’”
“Do you always have to be such a bitch?”
“Candace, be nice,” Dad said, but he wasn’t looking at them. He was too busy lighting his twentieth cigar of the morning.
“Look, Claudia, I’m doing my best in a very difficult situation,” Candace said.
“Of course you are,” Claudia said. “I didn’t mean to get you riled up.” She wondered as she said it whether it was true.
Candace took a deep breath and looked like she was muttering beneath her mask. A new mantra, maybe? She’d gone through a few New Age, hippie-weirdo phases—and if Facebook was any indication, even non-insane people seemed to be going through a sort of “latch onto anything” phase right about now.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Candace said. “Having a child changes everything.”
“And now I’ll never know, right? Is that what you’re trying to say?”
“Girls, I’m serious, this is gettin’ ugly,” Dad said, squinting from the smoke in his eyes.
“I didn’t mean—” Candace said, cutting herself off. “Honestly, I had forgotten all about your operation. I apologize.”
“Thanks. I guess,” Claudia said.
“All I meant was that a child makes you feel terrified. You’re entirely responsible for how another human being turns out.”
Shit, Claudia thought. That thought was terrifying: Alexis could become another self-centered asshole just like Candace.
“It’s a lot on your shoulders,” Candace continued. “And this whole pandemic doesn’t help matters. Now, I’m not only in charge of instilling values and keeping my daughter fed and housed, but I have to keep away a dangerous disease and handle her education all on my own.”
“Jason isn’t helping?”
Candace laughed. “As if. Men.”
They exchanged a look and then both of their sets of eyes darted over to Dad, but he was, like Alexis, now fully absorbed in a game on his phone.
“So the schools are closed for the rest of the school year?” Claudia asked.
“Looks like it,” Candace said.
“It’s not even May yet. Isn’t it a little early for them to make that call?”
“That’s what I said. But you’ve got to look at it from the teachers’ perspective: three extra months of summer vacation.”
“Good point. And if they think five minutes a day from home equals what they teach in class, they obviously realize they’re not doing a whole hell of a lot.”
“It’s a racket,” Candace said. “Do you know any other part-time job where you make sixty grand and get full benefits plus a pension?”
“I’m in the wrong line of work,” Claudia said.
Candace beamed. “Me too.”
Any other time, Claudia would have pointed out that Candace had no line of work, but she swallowed the temptation. This was the first time she could remember that the two of them had agreed on something, and she wanted to see how long the pleasantness could last.
“Candace, honey,” Dad said, suddenly looking up and over at Candace and Alexis as if seeing them for the first time. “You don’t have to wear that mask in here.”
“I’m protecting you, Dad. No offense, but you’re in the high-risk group, over seventy.”
“Ouch. I think your sister just called me old, Claudia.”
“I think you’re right,” Claudia replied. “And Dad’s healthier than you are. He eats right, at least when I’m cooking, and he gets plenty of exercise walking Bandit a solid thousand times a day.”
“The CDC said masks were a reasonable precaution, even for healthy people,” Candace said. “You see people wearing them all over.”
“Yeah,” Claudia said. “And those same people are also wearing the crazy eyes.” So much for making the pleasantness last.
“Are you saying I’m crazy for trying to make sure my father stays healthy?”
“Do you have the virus? Because the CDC also said masks are only effective, if they work at all, for someone who’s already infected to avoid spreading germs if they sneeze or cough on other people. And even that, they said, is a big maybe. You have to read the whole report when you quote these bits of ‘science,’ not just the headline that shows up in your Facebook feed.”
“I heard it on the news, not Facebook,” Candace said—but her forehead was creased and pouty, so Claudia knew she was lying and was afraid of getting caught. She’d always been a terrible liar. She had too many tells: the pouty face, the lack of eye contact. It was amazing she’d gotten away with so much back in high school, the way her body language instantly betrayed her. She’d been lucky their parents had treated her like a golden child and always believed her bullshit.
“CNN, I’m guessing, right? Or maybe MSNBC?” Claudia said. “Not something that might use actual science instead of left-wing fear propaganda.”
“What news source does that these days?” Dad chimed in. Claudia wanted to hug him for joining her down in the “let’s make it worse” abyss.
“There really isn’t one,” Claudia agreed. “But you know I read all the actual science news, the professional and scholarly journals, so what I tell you is the truth, not what the government wants you to hear.”
“The government is only trying to keep people safe,” Candace argued.
Over their father’s guffaw, Claudia said to Candace, “How did you and I grow up in the same house, yet you missed out on all the family-provided common sense?”
“Just because I believe in a strong government and social justice doesn’t mean I don’t have common sense,” Candace said.
“Simply uttering the phrase social justice means you’ve fallen prey to the left-wing mind suck and surrendered your ability to think for yourself.”
“You’re a fucking fascist,” Candace said, lifting the bottom of her bandana mask to gnaw at a hangnail. Apparently, keeping the elderly safe was only important when you didn’t feel like biting your nails.
“Fascists believe in more government control, not less, in case you missed that part in school,” Claudia said.
“So, what? We should just let people do whatever they want?”
“Yeah,” Claudia said. “It’s called liberty, and we’re supposed to have it. You know, as Americans.”
“Well, I for one appreciate all the government does.”
“Like . . . ?”
Candace shrugged. “Providing fire and EMT departments—”
“Both of which are usually staffed by local volunteers, not government workers.”
“Protection against terrorism—”
“Worked out great on 9/11.”
“The excellent public school system—”
“The same one you just said was a racket?” Claudia said. “Oh, and your fabulous school is paid for mainly by local property taxes, not your beloved federal government, so try again.”
“I can’t argue with you,” Candace said.
“Girls, enough,” Dad said. “Candy, honey, your sister’s right. Don’t tread on me, all that good stuff. Now, let’s change the subject. Alexis, sweetie, what’re ya learnin’ in school these days?”
“Like that’s changing the subject,” Candace muttered.
Alexis didn’t look up from her phone. The rest of them sat there, waiting for her to reply, until it became clear she wasn’t going to.
Candace nudged her daughter. “Enough of that for now. Answer your grandfather.”
Alexis glanced up, her eyes glassy and dazed-looking. “Huh?”
“Pop-Pop asked what you’ve been learning in school.”
Alexis smirked. “Haven’t you heard? There is no school anymore. We’re on virus vacation.”
Candace shook her head. “You see what I have to deal with? The kids think this is the best thing that’s ever happened to them.”
“And they’re right,” Claudia said. “It’s not like they give a shit about learning—in school or out.”
“We can’t all be nerds like you,” Candace said.
“Or idiots like you.”
“Girls, what did I just say?” Dad asked, lighting his cigar. Nothing like plenty of secondhand smoke to get your lungs good and primed in case you did happen to encounter the virus.
Alexis was already back to swiping at her screen.
“Alexis, stop that,” Candace said. “Put the phone down or I’ll take it away for good.”
“Yeah, right,” the kid said. But (to Claudia’s surprise) she obeyed and tucked the phone into the pocket of her faux running shorts. What was with the kids these days? All they ever wore were workout clothes, yet you never actually saw one of them—or anybody under the age of thirty, for that matter—do even anything resembling exercise.
“So?” Dad said.
“So what, Dad?” Candace asked.
“What’s the kid got to say? What grade are ya in, again?”
“Fifth,” Alexis said, with a barely noticeable eye roll.
“And what’re ya learnin’? Ya got online classes, your mother says.”
“I dunno,” Alexis said. “It’s mostly just reading a little bit and then watching a video. And then there’s questions.”
“Your mom said that much,” Dad said. “But what’s the topic? Science? Math? History?”
“It’s called social studies these days, Dad,” Candace said.
“More left-wing nonsense,” Claudia said under her breath, partly hoping to kick off another argument. Things were getting dull without one. Candace ignored her.
Alexis shrugged. “They’re just little stories. And then you see how much you remember.”
“Reading comprehension? In fifth grade?” Claudia asked. “Shouldn’t she be learning some actual content? I mean, I was taking pre-algebra in fifth grade—and in science class, we were dissecting cow hearts.”
“You can’t do that stuff anymore,” Dad said. “Them PETA whackos would go nuts and burn down the damn school.”
“Because it’s okay to harm humans, but not animals,” Claudia joked.
Candace ignored that, too, and said, “They don’t do pre-algebra that young. They learn that ‘new math’ stuff, anyway. It makes no sense. You might as well be using an abacus.”
“We can blame the Chinese for that, along with this damn virus,” Dad said.
Claudia would have high-fived him, but she had another fight to pick with her sister. To Candace, she said, “But the schools are so great. It’s all that government influence.”
“We use calculators,” Alexis said, like it was insane to even consider doing math any other way.
“What if you have no calculator? Or it runs out of batteries?” Claudia asked.
“The calculator’s right on your phone,” Alexis said, plucking her cell from her pocket and holding up the screen.
“And what if the power’s out and the phone dies? How will you do math then?”
“What kind of math are you doing in the dark anyway?” Alexis said, looking down at her screen again. “You’d just wait for the electricity.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Dad burst in. “But what if ya work for the power company and it’s in your hands to get everybody else up and runnin’?”
“Like I’d ever work for the power company,” Alexis said.
“Watch it, young lady,” Candace said. “You need to respect front-line workers who’re keeping us all powered and safe during this global health crisis.”
“Whose Facebook post did you steal that line from? PSE and G?” Claudia asked.
“Oh, screw you, Claud,” Candace said. “You think you’re so smart, but you don’t know so much.”
“I know you’re a moron and you’ve never had an independent thought in your whole life.”
“Girls . . .” Dad said.
Candace pulled down her bandana—the better to swear at you, my dear—and said, “I’m sick of you. You think I’m all stupid and crazy for wearing a mask but you’ll be doing it, too.”
“Not me, no way,” Claudia said.
“Uh-huh,” Alexis piped in. “We heard it on the radio on the drive over. The governor just passed a new law: Masks are required in all public and private buildings.”
“That makes no sense,” Dad said. “They can’t dictate what we do in our own houses.”
“They mean private as opposed to government-owned, Dad,” Claudia said. “So, a retail store or a club or restaurant would be the ‘private’ part. But you’re right—it makes no sense.”
“I think it’s perfectly reasonable,” Candace said.
“Of course you do, Billy the Kid,” Claudia said. “You’re too drunk or stupid to notice that the government has stripped away your civil liberties.”
“I’m perfectly happy to give up a little freedom to make sure the people as a whole are safe,” Candace said.
“Thank you, Karl Marx. Actually, no, I take that back. It wasn’t Karl Marx who thought it was cool to dictate what people could wear. That was Hitler. And your cute little mask is no better than the stars the Nazis made the Jews wear.”
“That’s it,” Candace said. “We’re leaving. Alexis, put that phone away and hug your Pop-Pop good-bye.”
Dad stood up, trying to protest, but Claudia could tell he was kind of relieved. As happy as he always was to have Candace and Alexis come and visit, it was clear he was even happier to see them go. It only took a few minutes of fun with family before you could tell Dad would rather be free to go back to his baseball cards and puzzles and computer solitaire. Dad, like Claudia, could never be called a “people person.”
“Stay safe, stay healthy,” Candace said, kissing Dad right through the bandana (as if that even counted). “I’ll call you tomorrow. I love you.”
“Love ya, too, sweetheart. And you, Alexis, do good in school.”
Alexis nodded, but she was already back on her phone.
As she watched them leave, Claudia couldn’t help thinking she wouldn’t mind seeing the virus take out certain people, even if they happened to be part of her own family.
Was that wrong?
Quarantine Day 39
Claudia could say one thing for video chat (one positive thing, anyway): It was better for getting-to-know-you talks than text messages. As she logged on, she remembered the early days of her friendship with Aaron, before it turned romantic (well, as romantic as their relationship ever got, that is). They had flirted over text, never seeing or hearing each other. Yeah, they had had the luxury of the occasional actual date, which was more than anybody had now, but the bulk of their intimacy had been typed out in SMS. Even as a writer, Claudia wondered how intimate a relationship built on that foundation could ever really be.
“Hey, there,” Berk said.
“Hey back. What’s going on?”
“Is that even a legit question anymore? Does anything ‘go on’ these days?”
“Not in my life, it doesn’t.”
“Your hair looks good, and by that I mean clean. It’s crazy how nobody seems to bother showering before hopping on video chat. Um, hello? You are aware I can see you, right?”
“I know,” she said. “I find it almost insulting when the women in our writing group get online without at least a dab of mascara. I mean, are we not important enough to merit ten cents’ worth of makeup?”
“I don’t think all that many women bother to wear makeup at all these days, whether they’re seeing other people or not. I blame lesbians.”
“I blame laziness,” she said. “Though I suspect lesbians haven’t helped.”
“Speaking of LGB-whatever—I saw a thing on Twitter this morning. Basically, it was going on and on about how LGB people aren’t complaining that their pride parades have been canceled because of the quarantine, so why should religious people be upset about not being allowed to go to church?”
“Yowza. I mean, I’m about as religious as Richard Dawkins lately, but how can anybody equate a party celebrating how much you love taking dick up the ass with someone feeling they owe a moral obligation to God?”
Berk grinned. “I knew you’d have the right attitude. And hey, this is coming from an atheist. If I’m supporting people’s right to go to church, you know the liberals have fucked something up.”
“I’m all about freedom, and as much as I’d never go to church—”
“Or take dick up the ass?”
“Precisely. I may not do these things myself, but I’d also never stop anybody else from doing them. But religion and sex parties are different things. People not getting that shows just how dumb the American populace has become.”
“Oh, oh! And I saw another thing about how conservatives are whining about being told to wear a mask in public but think it’s fine for a store owner to refuse to serve gays.”
“Wow. Do people really not get the difference between a private individual choosing who he or she wants to work with and being forced to wear a garment by the government? Don’t get me wrong, I think a bigoted store owner is a douche, but I support his right to be a jackass and exclude anybody he wants.”
“The government’s not supposed to tell us what to do.”
Claudia smiled. “Wow. You may be the first semi-intelligent person I’ve met in years.”
“Back at you,” Berk said. “So, did you read that book?”
“The Haunting of Hill House? Yeah. Did you read mine?”
“House of Mirth? Yeah. How did we both pick books about houses?”
“House of Mirth isn’t about a house,” she said.
“Okay, true. So?”
“What did you think of my favorite horror novel of all time?”
“Are we being nice or are we being honest?”
He made a face like he was thinking hard about the question. “Let’s go with honest. Nice is bullshit.”
“Good. I agree.”
“So . . .”
“I thought it was cute,” she said.
“Cute? A horror novel was cute?”
“It reminded me a lot of the old Nancy Drew books I used to read as a kid,” she said.
“Well, I imagine the author of Hill House, Shirley Jackson, had a big influence on those, then.”
“Nice try,” Claudia said. “I checked the dates, and the first Nancy Drews predate Hill House by like thirty years. Which means . . .”
Berk turned pale, almost green. “Nancy Drew had an influence on Shirley Jackson. Shit. You just destroyed my whole worldview.”
“Sorry, but it’s true. Same corny dialogue, cheesy settings, lack of character differentiation—”
“Hey! I think Hill House has amazing characters. Granted, the male characters are kind of wooden, but Eleanor and Theodora are very well developed.”
“As if! If anything, it’s the opposite. Outside of the doctor’s obnoxious wife, who’s nothing but a caricature, the only character with any unique personality of their own is Luke—and even he’s pretty generic. I literally had to keep counting lines to tell which girl was talking when there was a dialogue between the female main characters. That’s how similar they were.”
Berk clutched his chest. “No more! I think you’ve dealt me a fatal wound. My favorite book and you’ve tainted it.”
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m not saying it wasn’t good. It just wasn’t especially sophisticated. It read more like something out of the nineteenth century instead of the 1950s. But like I said, it was cute.”
“Ouch. You’re like a fiction assassin. But seriously. You just destroyed my opinion about a book that’s been my favorite since I was, like, seven years old.”
“That’s the trouble,” she said. “Ghost stories are for seven-year-olds. You gotta grow up sometime.”
“And what? Read Edith Wharton? Is this really your favorite book? House of Mirth?”
“Not even close, but I figured if I said Wharton, you’d instantly think Age of Innocence.”
“Exactly. Frome is like torture. There’s a reason they keep it for the dumb classes in school.”
“Aw, shit,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was in the dumb classes. What did the smart classes read?”
“So, nobody gets out of high school unscathed. Good to know.”
“Anyway . . . back to Wharton. I couldn’t pick Age of Innocence because who hasn’t least seen the movie? It’s practically a play-by-play of the novel, so you can’t read it after seeing the film. It’s not a fair start.”
“So . . . House of Mirth.”
“Yup. Not her best, but good enough to give you an idea of what she could do.”
“My only criticism?” Berk said.
“Yeah . . .”
“Why couldn’t Lily just admit she borrowed the money? I mean, come on. It’s just not that big a deal.”
“Now, maybe. But aristocratic, knickerbocker Old New York was a different world. I admit, though, I had the same reaction the first time I read the book.”
“How many times have you read it?”
“I read it every week,” she said.
There was a long silence before Berk said, “Really?”
“Thank the nonexistent gods. I was gonna have to hop off chat right now.”
“So, enough about old books. How do you like our writing group?” she asked.
“I’m not sure how to answer that.”
“They’re very sweet,” he said. “And they’re excited about writing, which is always nice to see. But sometimes . . .”
“You feel like you’re teaching a beginners’ writing class?”
“Wait a while,” she told him. “It gets worse. I’ve been in the group since November of last year. Some weeks, I wonder why I’m not getting paid for my efforts.”
“I’ve been wondering why nobody wants to pay me for any efforts for months now,” he said.
“Still no luck finding a job?”
“With retail closed, it’s hard to get a job working as a retail manager. It might be time for a new career.”
“You already have one, technically.”
“Yeah, because horror writing pays so well these days. I mean, for people other than Stephen King. Be glad you have a job. You don’t want to be unemployed. Not now. I hear you can’t even certify to get paid because there’s too many people tying up the phone lines. I guess I should be grateful I’ve been out of work forever. At least I get my sad three hundred a week.”
“As someone recently laid off, I can tell you the rumors are true: You can’t get certified for unemployment.”
“Shit,” Berk said. “You didn’t mention it.
She shrugged. “Why dwell? Besides, if I bring it up in group, we’ll end up talking politics and we don’t want to go there.”
“I talk politics in group all the time. I didn’t realize it was a no-no.”
“The deafening silence might have clued you in,” she said. “We’re not the most confrontational group.”
“The real problem with political talk is that people have lost all sense of humor about stuff.”
“I’m not sure liberals ever had a sense of humor.”
“Now who’s talking politics?”
“You can’t be political if you don’t vote,” she said.
“You don’t vote?”
“Not anymore. What’s the point? Look at the 2016 election: a choice between a tangerine-tinted whack job and a woman who’s either too weak to leave her cheating husband or is in a sham marriage just to gain political power and is therefore the world’s worst role model for girls. Either way, you lose. That should’ve been a wakeup call. And yet, most American morons still went to the polls. Maybe if nobody had voted, we’d have had to actually change the system.”
“Ah, so you’re an anarchist.”
“Nah, that’s not the right word. Anarchy conjures up images of rioting and Molotov cocktails flying through shop windows. I’m not talking lawlessness or any sort of disorder.”
“Okay . . .”
“Well, okay, I guess, in a way, I am talking lawlessness, because in my ideal system, there’s only one law.”
“You can do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm another person, an animal, or property of any kind.”
“Animals? How will the meatpacking plants operate?”
“Obviously, they’re a special exception, but they’ll be required to treat the animals better and kill them humanely. This packing the chickens in and cutting off their beaks stuff is bullshit. Oh, and no more veal. Come on, seriously? Killing baby cows so you can eat a piece of meat as tough as old boots? That’s nonsense.”
“Yeah, you really can’t get a good piece of veal anymore. Go on.”
She opened her mouth, then stopped. “Wait. Are you just letting me tell you all this because you think I’m crazy?”
“I would never think you’re crazy.”
“Yeah, right. But seriously. I’ve got this all worked out.”
“I can tell. Go on.”
“Okay. So, that’s the only law. No harming anybody or anything. Drugs? Knock yourself out. Drinking? Bottoms up. Fancy a jaywalk? Be our guest.”
“So, total lawlessness.”
“Well . . .”
“What happens if someone does hurt a person, animal, or thing?”
“Glad you finally asked,” she said. “Well, first off, we have cameras everywhere. Every street, every corner, every business, outside every home. If you agree to have cameras in your home, you get half off on your yearly taxes.”
“Good deal. How much are taxes?”
“Hundred bucks a year, fifty if you put in cameras.”
“That’s cheaper than a subscription to Amazon Prime. By a lot. And what do we get for that money?”
“Figure a hundred bucks a head, in a town of ten thousand, that’s a million-dollar budget. Fire department and EMTs are volunteers, same as now, so all we need are a couple of cops—figure ten at fifty grand a year, that’s only half our budget.”
“Fifty grand isn’t a ton of money for a salary.”
“It is when you get to keep all of it, except for a hundred bucks.”
“Or fifty, with cameras.”
“Excellent recall. Now, that leaves us half a mill to cover salaries for our two judges—that’s more than enough, seeing as the cameras mean nobody engages in frivolous or phony lawsuits or commits random acts of violence. And the rest goes toward maintaining the camera system, so we never have to worry.”
“Aren’t the cameras an invasion of privacy? If someone’s always watching your every move?”
“That’s the thing: No one is allowed to watch the recordings, which upload directly to the cloud, unless there’s a legal dispute. And, of course, there are cameras watching the IT and maintenance people and even the judges and cops who might have access to ensure that there’s no sneaky peekers.”
He tilted his head like he was considering it, then he nodded. “Fair enough. So, what happens if someone does break the law and gets caught?”
“There are no prisons,” she said. “Why should we pay to feed and house criminals? For a minor crime—shoplifting, painting graffiti, breaking someone’s property, that sort of thing—the first offense means you now have to pay half of your income to the community fund.”
“Easy enough to avoid it: Don’t be a criminal.”
“You become an unpaid worker for the community. You have to work for as long as a judge deems is necessary—nothing shorter than one year—to pay off your debt to society, while existing solely on handouts from kind passersby.”
“Wow. Okay. Isn’t that essentially reinstating slavery?”
“Slaves were given no choice,” she said. “Here, you do have a choice: not to commit multiple crimes.”
“You’ve really given this a lot of thought.”
“What else have we got to do these days?” she asked.
“Dare I ask what happens if you go wrong again?”
“Three strikes and you’re out.” She held up her finger to her throat and made the classic slicing motion. “Death penalty.”
“I can’t say I wasn’t warned.”
“True story. Oh, but that’s just for minor crimes. Obviously, for the big stuff—murder, rape, terrorism, whatever—we kill you on the first strike. We don’t fuck around in my world.”
“And I bet it’s the happiest place on Earth.”
“Hell yeah, it would be.”
“You are a truly astonishing human being.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls,” she said.
“I’m pretty sure it’s the first time anything like that has ever left my lips. One more question?”
“How do you make sure the judges and cops don’t just play favorites? Cameras or no, they get the final say, right?”
“We’d have jury trials, with the cameras for evidence—no need for lawyers, good-for-nothing parasites—for any crimes and disputes, but you’re right: Judges and cops are always pretty sleazy. So, in my world, judges are only allowed to serve two years, max. And they’re ordinary people, chosen by a lottery system. There are no lawyers, and the cameras make the truth pretty obvious, so it’s not like anybody needs any special legal training to do the job.”
“Shit. I’m pretty sure you just cured most of society’s ills for the past five hundred or so years.”
“And forget about corrupt cops,” Claudia continued. It had been a long time since someone had paid this much attention to something she had to say and she wasn’t going to let it go to waste. “No cop works the same area or specialty for more than six months, so there’s no chance to get settled in on a beat and get paid to look the other way—not that they could look the other way.”
“Look away from what? There’s no crime if nothing’s illegal.”
“You got it. Pure paradise all around.”
Berk was quiet for a second, then said, “I have one more question.”
“Where have I heard that before? Go ahead.”
“What about the things the government does? Like the FDA, protecting against tainted food and drugs? Or the EPA, shutting down polluters?”
“Seriously? In this age of protests in the street when somebody gets a paper cut and social media boycotts when your DoorDash order is five minutes late arriving, we bring businesses to their knees with a hashtag. We can handle the FDA and EPA’s jobs—and everybody else’s—without a single bureaucrat getting involved.”
“Whoa. You’re totally right. But you forgot one thing.”
“Bullshit,” she said.
“Uh-huh. What about war? What about other countries that still have their regular old-fashioned systems?”
“War? Over what? What’s to fight about? Everybody’s free to come and go as they choose. There’s no taxes or tariffs, just a free market benefiting the entire planet. Who would even think about fighting when you have it all?”
“Okay, I’ll buy it. But what about welfare? I mean, what about poor people?”
“There won’t be any poor people. I can cure poverty in one generation: Don’t have a baby if you can’t afford it. Poverty dies with this generation of poor. Without kids, not to mention without taxes, a shitty job at the McDonald’s drive-through is suddenly a goldmine.”
“And what if somebody did have a baby they couldn’t afford?” Berk asked.
“Well, that’d be a crime—it would be harming not only society at large by asking us to pay for your behavior, but also the child who wouldn’t have the things it needed. It would be grand theft.”
“And the punishment . . .”
“Do I really have to say?”
“Lemme guess: Death penalty.”
“You’re catching on,” she said. “Not on the first offense, obviously, but . . .”
“That certainly would eliminate poor people.”
“I told you. It’s genius.”
“It’s something, all right,” he told her. “Not many people could afford to have a kid.”
“And voilà! I just solved world overpopulation, too.”
“Can I ask another question?” Berk said.
“Go for it.”
“Do you think you’d think differently if you’d been born dirt poor?”
She tilted her head, like she was thinking, though she already knew the answer—she’d considered it many times. “Yes,” she said. “And I’d be just as wrong as everybody else who thinks the poor deserve special treatment for being horny and lazy. You get what you produce, and if the only thing you’re producing is more mouths for society to feed, you deserve to be destroyed.”
“Harsh, but true.”
“Hey, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I’m all for charity, when it’s deserved. But how often do you encounter a poor person on welfare who’s not using it for liquor and heroin while also cranking out a new baby each year?”
“Um . . . never?”
“Like I said, don’t get me wrong. I’m only talking about eliminating the government-sponsored welfare state. There’s still charity for people who fall on hard times.”
“Who pays for it?”
“I thought there were no taxes,” Berk said.
“There aren’t. But imagine a world where you don’t have to give at least a third of everything you earn to the government, or have to spend an extra six or seven percent on every single item you buy or pay as much as your mortgage every year in property taxes. Picture all the worthy causes you could give to with all that extra money in your pocket.”
“Yeah. And if you’re inclined to give your money to drug-addicted ghetto mothers who beat and starve their seventeen illegitimate children, that’s your right.”
They sat in silence for a few moments, as Claudia caught her breath. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d talked so much, with so few interruptions. Then she said, “I should go. I’ve talked your ear off enough for one day.”
“I’d never complain about that. I’m not kidding. It’s an honor.”
“To be let in. To be able to see what’s going on behind the curtain in that beautiful, warped mind of yours.”
“Thanks,” she said. “It’s not every day somebody accuses me of having a warped mind.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Okay,” she said. “I guess I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“One last question first?” he asked.
“You really have put a lot of thought into all this stuff. How? Why?”
She shrugged. “Well, I was a Poli Sci major in college.”
“Then how did you end up becoming a science writer?”
“I’m a Renaissance woman.”
“That you are. But tell me the story.”
She shook her head. “You’ve heard enough for today.”
“My philosophy is to always leave ’em wanting a little bit more. But there’s no big dramatic story, anyway. You take what jobs you can get to make a living. I fell into science writing because it was there and it was easy. Besides, how can someone who hates government as much as I do be in politics?” She frowned. “So much for leaving ’em wanting a little bit more.”
“Isn’t that the stripper code of ethics?”
He grinned. “Call you tomorrow?”
“Talk to you then.”
Quarantine Day 52
It was only a virtual tour, but it was better than nothing.
Ages earlier, even before her surgery, Claudia had spotted a billboard on the highway: A local college was hosting an exhibit about Leonardo da Vinci. She’d forgotten all about it, back when she could have actually gone to the little college museum and seen it, but a few days earlier, boredom had jumped in and reminded her about the billboard. She’d waddled as fast as she could to her computer to look it up. (The waddling had nothing to do with her surgery, not anymore; she blamed it instead on the ten pounds she’d put on since “shelter in place” had started.)
Yes, the exhibit was still going on, and the college had created a virtual tour so people could visit (for free—bonus!) from home. When you’ve spent several weeks looking at nothing more exciting than the four walls of your room and your own (increasingly chubby) face in the mirror, even a few still shots of something you’ve never seen before can be appealing. And this was more than that: The college had actually done what some of the “real” museums did—take video of the entire museum, so the online viewer could pan around three hundred sixty degrees. You could look at the art, read the explanatory signs, and (if you were so inclined) even stare up at the exposed pipes on the ceiling. Talk about an immersive experience.
She was about to click on “Start Tour” when it occurred to her that Berk might get a kick out of this. And, having been unemployed for a lot longer than Claudia had, he was probably even more desperate for diversion. She pulled him up on FaceTime, only briefly pausing to consider if she should stop first and put on a little makeup, do something with her messy-bun hair. What was the point? He wasn’t a love interest (she had to remind herself). She already (technically) had one of those, over in Pennsylvania. Berk was just a friend. And it’s always best to let your friends see you at your worst so they’ll be even more impressed when they catch you looking good.
“What’s up, Stega?” he said when he picked up.
“Stop calling me that. I make one comment about thinking the fringe on a stegosaurus looks cute and you act like I’m obsessed with dinosaurs.”
“No problem, Saurus.”
“Ugh! Enough with the nicknames. You can call me Claudia, or Claude, or Greatest Genius of All Time. Nothing else. I’m not twelve and, as much as I hate to inform you, you’re not, either. Got it?”
“Got it. Sorry. What’s up?”
“I’m sending you a link. There’s a virtual tour of a Leonardo exhibit at the college near my house. Wanna go on it with me?”
“Shit yeah, I do. Send the link.”
Five minutes later, they were sharing a screen as they made their way through the exhibit. It wasn’t as good as being there, but it was better than nothing. And best of all, there weren’t any virus-paranoid weirdos wandering around in gloves and masks like there would have been if they’d been able to get out in real life.
Looking at the models of Leonardo’s wild attempts to achieve human flight, Claudia shook her head. “I get that we have airplanes now, but I still think somebody ought to figure out how to do it Leonardo’s way, with wings. We’ve got all kinds of super-light materials available now that he could never have dreamed of. Surely, we can figure out how to make real wings for humans to fly with.”
“Because airplanes don’t count. Sure, they get you where you want to go, but my rule is: If you’re not flapping, you’re not flying.”
In the corner of her screen, he did a spit-take with his drink. “Did you just say, ‘If you’re not flappin’, you’re not flyin’’’?” he choked out.
“I don’t think I dropped my Gs like some hillbilly, but . . . yes.”
Berk was shaking his head, with a grin on his face.
“What?” Claudia asked.
“I just really, really like you,” he said. “If we weren’t in plague times, I’d take you out for a drink.”
Claudia looked at the clock in the corner of her laptop screen. It was after four p.m. and that was close enough to cocktail time for her.
“Got anything to drink there?” she asked. “I declare this Da Vinci Drinking Hour—and please note, I do so only for the alliteration. Unlike whoever curated this museum exhibit, I’m aware that da Vinci was not Leonardo’s last name.”
“Got beer in the fridge,” Berk said. “Back in a sec.”
She grabbed a box of wine she’d bought the month before her surgery (she liked to keep things classy) and poured herself a glass. There was nothing so relaxing as your first swallow of smooth cabernet after more than a month without so much as a sip.
Returning to the computer, she clicked the virtual tour arrow and read about Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man while she waited for Berk to come back. He was taking a long time to fetch a beer. She was just starting to wonder if he’d taken the opportunity to ditch her when he scooted back into his chair and appeared on screen.
“Hey, you jumped ahead,” he complained.
“Like five feet,” she said. “I’ll drink wine while you read the write-up. I already know plenty about Vitruvian Man.”
“I’d never dare to argue with that.”
“Sorry it took me so long to get back,” he said. “Weirdest thing. Luciana called.”
“Luciana from writing group? Really?”
“Yeah,” he said, then took a long swig of beer. “She’s been calling a lot.”
A pang of jealousy punched Claudia in the gut and she watched on screen as her cheeks flushed with shame. “Huh,” she said. “I didn’t realize you guys were so friendly.”
“We’re not,” he said. “At all. She just called one day, like, a week or two ago and said she wanted to talk.”
“That’s the thing. Nothing. She told me she has bad social anxiety disorder and is trying to get past it by forcing herself into situations outside her comfort zone.”
“And . . . ?”
“And then she sat there, not talking. At all. I finally started jabbering nonsense about my book deadline and how I don’t know if I can get my car inspected because I don’t know if the stations are open during the quarantine.”
“So, you just bullshitted.”
“Yeah. For a good half-hour. It was one of the most uncomfortable things ever. And then she said I should call her again in two days.”
“So, did you?”
“Uh-uh,” he said. “But she called me.”
“And the same thing all over again. We sat in silence until I talked a little, and then she said thank you and told me to call again.”
“That is strange.”
“Yeah, it’s been three or four times now,” he said. “I’m starting to wonder . . .”
He shrugged. “I don’t mean to sound all arrogant or whatever, but—”
“Oh, I get it. She likes you.”
“I don’t know.”
“I mean, like middle school style: She like you, likes you.”
“That’s what I was trying to figure out.”
“Well, would that be so bad?” she asked, realizing with a rush of relief that she’d found a way to take the pressure off herself and trick the jealousy into going away.
“Totally it would.”
“I don’t know,” Claudia said. “She’s only three years older than us, so she’s age-appropriate, unless you’re one of those forty-something men who thinks he should only date twenty-year-olds?”
“Nope. Not a dirty old douchebag, thanks.”
“Okay, then. So she’s a good age. She’s pretty, she’s smart, she seems to be independently wealthy, based on the fact that she’s divorced but doesn’t have a job, yet she can still afford a house in a nice section of town.”
“Yeah . . .”
“And that Italian accent? Shit, dude. If I were even the teeniest bit LGBTQ or whatever it is these days? I’d do her myself.”
He was quiet for a long moment, while they both sipped their drinks. Then he said, “But I don’t feel a connection with her.”
“Is that so important?” Claudia asked, knowing perfectly well that it was. “And hey, don’t forget, you’ve never actually met her in real life. If and when we ever get out of the house again and meet for real, it could be love at first sight, for all you know.”
He shook his head. “I’d know, even over video chat.”
“No, you wouldn’t. There’s no way—”
“I would. I did.”
“But how—” She clamped her mouth shut the instant she realized what he was saying. She reached for her wine, only to find the glass empty, way too fast. She swallowed hard, so hard, she saw it happen on screen. “I need more wine. Be right back.”
She clicked off her camera as if she had to leave the room, even though the wine was right next to her. She needed that moment alone to think. She poured the wine, trying to ignore the pounding in her chest. How silly was this? She felt like a schoolgirl about to be kissed for the first time. It was insane. Sure, she liked Berk, from what little she knew. But you didn’t fall in love with someone you’d never really met. Not to mention the fact that neither one of them was officially “available”—in either the “open to a new relationship” sense or the basic sense of being able to leave the house and interact with each other. Even if she’d been so inclined (and she hated herself for the unavoidable fact that she was), there was no way for this to work out. She took a long sip of wine and squared her shoulders to go back to the computer and “face” him.
“Threw you for a loop there, didn’t I?” Berk asked. The tug of a smile at his lips made him seem like the buddy Claudia had come to know over these past weeks, not someone threatening her sense of self and stability.
“You could say that,” she said.
“Sorry. I’m just being honest. Luciana’s great and all, but I thought it was pretty obvious: I like you.”
This was the sort of situation that had always left her at her worst. She was terrible at saying no, awkward at confrontation, terrified of being humiliated. She had no idea what to say.
Finally, she said quietly, “You’re married.”
Berk raised his beer bottle to his lips, then appeared to reconsider and set it down instead. He folded his hands and leaned toward the screen. For a moment, Claudia thought he was going to start praying (odd for an atheist). Then he said, “Yeah. I am.”
She waited but he didn’t say anything more. She let out an exasperated sigh. “So, then, why tell me you like me?”
“When you only have this one life, you’ve got to make the most of it. Why waste time skirting around the truth?”
“Don’t give me your atheist babble. That’s a load of crap. If you’re married—and you know I have a boyfriend—why bother to say it when there’s nothing to be done about it?”
“First off, let me explain,” Berk said. “I’m married, but only on paper. We separated—let’s see—four years ago.”
“Then why are you still married?”
“It’s a long story,” he said. “But here’s the gist: My ex wants the house we lived in, where I live now. It’s the house my grandparents left to me when they died, which happens to be the same one my mom grew up in, and so did I.”
“Why the hell would your ex want the house, then? It’s obviously yours.”
“Best I can tell, spite.”
“Did you cheat on her?”
“No, not a chance. The other way around. She’s living with her boyfriend now. Oh, and he just so happens to be my former best friend. Yeah. That cheesy old story.”
“So why not just tell her no on the house?”
He sighed. “I have told her no. And she says she won’t sign the divorce papers until I agree.”
“This makes no sense,” Claudia said. “Did you own the house before the marriage? Or is it community property?”
“I’ve owned it since before we got married.”
“No prenup, I’m guessing.”
“It seems simple enough to me,” she said. “Just get a lawyer, tell her no, be done with it.”
“It’s not as simple as that.”
“Are you saying she has something on you? Jesus, you don’t have kids, do you?”
“No, no, nothing like that. I just—” He stopped himself and reached for his beer. “I don’t really want to talk about it. I’ll tell you everything, I will, but I can’t do it now.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll let it go. But then you have to let go of all this ‘I like you’ crap. I’m not Anne Boleyn. I don’t date married men.”
“It’s only on paper—”
“I don’t give a crap what it’s on. Married is married. I went through hell getting my divorce, and it cost me every cent I had. I can’t be with anybody who’s not willing to do the same.”
He took a deep breath, then said, “That’s fair enough. But just know it’s out there. I do like you. And I think you feel it, too.”
She glanced away from the screen, keeping her eyes trained on the burgundy liquid in her wine glass.
“You do, don’t you?” he asked.
She looked at him on screen, grateful for once that true eye contact was impossible on video chat—it was her only defense.
“Yeah,” she said. “I feel it. And I’m actively fighting it with every cell in my body.”
He smiled. “Well, I won’t complain about that, I guess.”
“I should go.”
“Don’t you want to finish the exhibit?”
“Not today. I don’t have the energy to think anymore today.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
She was leaning in to click the end chat button when he said, “And, Claudia?”
She stopped. “Yeah?”
“You’re a lot hotter than Anne Boleyn.”
She burst out laughing and felt a rush of gratitude that they weren’t together, in real life. That remark alone would have made her forget all her rules and kiss him.
“You’re damn right I am,” she said. “Talk to you tomorrow.”
Quarantine Day 61
There was a ball of dread in her stomach as she waited for the video chat window to load that day for writing group. She hadn’t not wanted to see someone this much since . . . well, it was probably middle school, after she had stopped a boy who tried to kiss her and he’d responded by telling the entire class she was his girlfriend and they’d “gone all the way.” Going to school the day that news broke had been pretty awful—so much so, that the only way she could look back on the incident now without cringing was by knowing that the boy in question turned out to be gay and he’d made her his unwitting beard. With that hindsight, you kind of had to pity the poor asshole—though she still wouldn’t have passed up an opportunity to kick him in the nuts, even now.
But seeing Berk today? She was looking forward to that even less. Sure, she’d heard from him since the whole Leonardo da Vinci/declaration of feelings fiasco. But his texts had been polite, careful, little more than small talk. Good morning, good night, the kind of stuff you’d say to anyone. Even so, it had felt like too much, and after two days of perfectly dull pleasantries, she’d texted him:
“Enough with the small talk. And I’m not ready for big talk yet. So let’s not talk for a few days. Okay?”
In retrospect, she was thinking she should’ve just kept up with the boring daily banter. All this not talking was making the dread even worse.
Luciana (as usual) was the first to pop up on screen.
“Oh, Claudia, I just began coughing,” she said, hands clutched in front of her like an opera diva performing the death aria. “I think I have virus.”
“You’ve got a fever?”
“Ninety-nine,” Luciana said. “I believe it is rising.”
“You just started coughing now?”
“Moments ago, yes. That is why I take temperature, fast, fast, and I see I have fever.”
“Okay, relax,” Claudia said. “It’s ninety-nine. You don’t exactly need to be iced down or anything.”
“No. But still I worry. If this is virus . . .”
“If this is the virus, there’s a ninety-nine-plus-percent chance you’ll be just fine. You don’t have asthma or any kind of preexisting immune condition, do you?”
Luciana shook her head, but Claudia could see tears glistening in her eyes. Fury rushed through Claudia’s veins. How dare the news and political sons of bitches do this to people! Luciana had once been married to a doctor, so she knew more than Joe Schmoe about how disease was transmitted, yet here she was, as convinced she was about to die as a Black Death–era peasant would have been if he just discovered a bubo.
“Okay, then,” Claudia said. “You’re a healthy person. You’re going to be fine. You just need to stay home, get plenty of rest, drink lots of water and that weird herbal tea you like so much, and binge out on Netflix.”
“I should no go to doctor?”
“Luciana, no, come on. You’ve seen the news. Unless you’re in dire need of a ventilator, the best thing you can do is stay home and wait for the virus to pass. It’ll be gone within fourteen days, so just pretend like you have the flu and snuggle up in bed. Where’s your son?”
“He is with his father for weekend.”
“Can he stay longer? No sense risking him getting sick if you really do have this thing.”
“Yes, yes,” Luciana said. “I call. I call now and be back to video soon. Yes?”
“”Yes, good. You go. I’ll stay here and host until you get back.”
“My thanks to you, Claudia.” (She pronounced it “CLOUD-ia,” and Claudia loved that.) “You are good friend.”
“So are you. Now, go.” Claudia watched as Luciana clicked off her video feed, which was almost instantly replaced by none other than Berk’s. Of course.
“Oh, hey,” he said. “I figured Luciana would be first today, since I’m online so early.”
“She had to make a phone call. She’s convinced she’s got the virus.”
“No shit? How did she look?”
“Same as always. Just fine. Or, rather, gorgeous and Italian.”
“You don’t think she’s sick?”
“With the SARS virus? No. With mass hysteria? Hell’s yeah.”
Berk shook his head. “This whole thing is crazy.”
“I’m not just talking about the quarantine,” he said.
She looked at her screen, making as much eye contact as she could, through a webcam and from fifty miles away. “I know that, too.”
They sat quietly for a long moment, then he said, “Claudia, I—”
“Not now. Anybody could come on. I’ll talk to you after. Or tomorrow. Let’s say tomorrow, okay? I’ll be ready then.”
“Is that a promise?”
“Call it a pinky swear,” she said, holding her little finger up in front of the screen.
“Deal. Oh, look, there’s Karen.”
“Hey there, everybody,” Karen said as her video shimmied into focus. “Where’s Luch?”
“She’ll be back,” Claudia said. “She thinks she’s got the virus, so she’s calling to have her kid stay with his dad a while.”
“Good God,” Karen said. “That’s terrifying. This is the most deadly thing ever.”
“Technically—” Berk began.
“Zip it, dude,” Claudia said. “No woman wants to hear any sentence a man speaks when it begins with the word technically or actually. We hear that and we know you’re about to mansplain and correct us, like some arrogant Victorian windbag who thinks women should be seen and not heard.”
“Hear, hear,” Karen said (though Claudia just knew she was spelling it “Here, here” in her muddled mind). “No offense, Berk.”
Luciana’s video flickered back into its box on the screen. She already looked better, less tense and flustered than earlier. “Okay,” she said. “All fine. Anthony stay with my ex-husband until next weekend. All good.”
“You hang in there, Luch,” Karen said. “You’re gonna be okay. And if you have any trouble breathing, you just dial right up to nine-one-one—”
“Okay, enough of that,” Claudia said. “We don’t want to get her all scared. We don’t even know for sure she has this thing, and she’s in perfect health, not at risk at all. She’s going to be just fine. I’ve been reading the science news. This thing is being blown out of proportion. Healthy people are in no more danger than they’d be from a common cold. That’s all this thing really is.”
“That’s what I said,” Karen said, pouting.
“You did,” Berk said, apparently choosing today to avoid politics for the first time. “That’s right. So . . . is anybody else joining us today?”
Luciana (who had not yet coughed once, Claudia noted—a miracle for someone with a severe respiratory illness) leaned over and looked like she was scrolling on her phone. “Ashton, he coming, and that Gladys, but I don’t know if we expect her. She call me this week and say she have computer problem.”
As if on cue, Ashton’s video feed kicked in and his handsome, “young Idris Elba–style” face beamed at them.
Luciana frowned. “Will anybody be mad if we do chat now, and I leave early? I no sure I feel up to writing today.”
There was a general mumble of assent, even from Claudia, though she knew well enough that without the structured hour of writing time between the group’s chats, she’d end up doing exactly zero work on her novel today. It was just as well. She could declare “talking down a hypochondriac from the edge of hysteria” her major accomplishment for the day.
“What topic we talk about?” Luciana asked.
“I got something,” Karen said. “I’ve been paging through my notebooks and reading some of the stuff I’ve written these past few months—”
“You’re writing longhand?” Berk asked.
“Yeah,” Karen said. “I like to get my stuff down in a notebook to start with.”
“Might I suggest that you try composing directly on computer file? Longhand seems all flowery and poetic, but you’ll never be a real writer if you do your drafting that way.”
“Excuse me,” Claudia said, before she even realized she was going to speak. “But that is complete and utter bullshit.”
“What do you mean?” Berk asked.
“I mean, there’s nothing wrong with writing longhand. I’ve done half of my own books’ first drafts that way, and would you say I’m not a real writer?” She was ready to pull out the mean card, if need be: that she had had ten books published, to his measly two, and hers had been with an imprint of a Big Five house, while his publisher had been an obscure sci-fi/horror press that was already out of business. Not a real writer, her ass.
“No, of course not,” Berk said.
“Writing longhand may seem old-fashioned, but it’s the only way to achieve real honesty in your writing.”
“How do you mean?” Karen asked.
“Yeah, I’m curious. And that’s not sarcasm,” Berk said.
“When you type something straight into a computer, it’s ‘official.’ Your brain can’t help but look at it like a work email or a school project. Your inner editor comes out as soon as you type a single character—not to mention the built-in editing function on your word-processing software. How can you write freely with squiggly lines under every word that might not be perfect? Imagine trying to write ungrammatical dialect for a novel that way. You’d go crazy.”
“That’s fine, but—” Berk began.
“I’m not done yet,” Claudia said. “It’s not just being free from judgment—your own or Microsoft Word’s. It’s about honesty.”
“Honesty how?” Karen asked.
“Did you ever keep a diary, as a kid?” Claudia said.
Karen nodded, along with Luciana. Even Berk gave a reluctant shrug of agreement.
“Okay,” Claudia said. “You wrote that longhand, and you wrote down whatever you thought—no matter how embarrassing—because you knew no one would ever read it except you.”
“Right . . .” Karen said.
“Writing a draft longhand does the same thing. You allow yourself to say things—mean things, racist things maybe—on a piece of paper you know you can throw away that you’d never put down in a computer file.”
“That’s true!” Karen said. “I always think some computer hacker could sneak in and read my stuff, even as I’m typing it. Wouldn’t that be humiliating?”
“The odds of a hacker—” Berk said.
“It’s not about what’s really going to happen,” Claudia said. “It’s about tricking your brain into being free and honest. And you can never do that on a computer file.”
“But editing,” Berk said. “You can’t edit on paper.”
“As someone who worked for years as an editor, I can tell you that you edit best on paper, old school. Ever hear of the classic red pen? Those edits are happening on paper, or the stereotype wouldn’t exist,” Claudia replied. Her heart was pounding, she was so fired up. She didn’t just want Berk to be wrong; she wanted to grind him under her shoe like a cockroach—and she had no idea why, other than the fact that he had no idea what he was talking about.
“I disagree,” Berk said. “I always write my drafts directly into a file. And it works for me.”
To Claudia’s dismay, her face—on screen—contorted in obvious disdain.
“What?” Berk asked. “You think my writing doesn’t work?”
“I didn’t say that,” Claudia said. “I didn’t actually say anything.”
“Then do,” Berk replied.
She stopped and took a deep breath, as her mind paged through the options here. What was best? To tell the truth and strike the final nail into the coffin of her friendship/relationship/whatever it was with Berk? Or to back off and be the doormat she would normally be, avoiding confrontation, even when her insides were roiling with righteous indignation?
The truth it was.
“Okay,” she said. “Here’s the thing: I think I’m the only person in this group who’s read both Karen’s writing and Berk’s book.”
“Yeah,” Berk said. “And?”
“Karen’s writing may be a work in progress,” Claudia said. “It may not be as technically proficient as what you, Berk, create on screen. But her writing . . . has soul.”
Karen beamed even as Berk exploded: “And mine doesn’t?”
Claudia had to look away from the screen before she could answer. “Well . . . no.”
“Ouch!” Ashton said, slapping his hand down in front of him. “Now that was harsh!”
Luciana jumped in and said, “I think this is good place end chat this week. You can all talk more after your writing, if you like. Me? I head to bed, yes?”
Claudia felt all the energy drain out of her, like she’d just spent an hour sobbing. Or been run over by a truck.
“Feel better,” she said, and before anyone could say anything else, she clicked on the “Leave Meeting” button and slammed down the lid of her laptop.
God, she was an idiot. She did this every time. Something pleasant would come along, and she’d go out of her way to destroy it. Just because a romantic relationship with Berk wasn’t doable at this exact moment didn’t mean she needed to throw away the friendship they’d been building. But as soon as he had started talking, it was like her body took over: She had been physically compelled to disagree, as cruelly as possible, just to try to make him mad, so he would end things and she wouldn’t have to take responsibility. She could walk away a martyr, “betrayed” by yet another person who just didn’t “get” her.
She was pushing herself up from her chair to go splash some cold water on her argument-heated cheeks when her phone chirped with a new text message. She sighed and checked the screen. It was Berk:
“That was great! Nothing hotter than a good debate. 😉”
A breathy, giddy laugh fluttered out of her. Maybe she hadn’t blown it, after all.
Quarantine Day 75
On Monday morning, Claudia came in from her walk to find Dad missing (probably sneaking off to the baseball-card store again) and her mail on the kitchen counter. Right on top was an envelope from the hospital where she’d had her surgery. She slid it open too fast, and had to stop to suck on the papercut she gave herself. When she finally got the bill out, she couldn’t help but laugh: The hospital was demanding ten thousand dollars . . . after her insurance had already paid ninety percent.
It was a miracle. Somehow, the hospitals were supposedly overrun with virus patients and operating with a skeleton crew of essential doctors and nurses only, yet the billing department could still find the time and resources to overcharge customers. God bless America.
For generations, politicians the world over had claimed to be working hard to figure out how to fix health care, when the answer was so simple: Get rid of the insurance companies. This was America, after all, where we speak the word middleman like we’re trying to spit snake venom out of our mouths. Why would we leave something as important as our health and well-being in the hands of parasites who contribute nothing to society? The solution was so obvious: Remove the middleman and make everybody happy. Instead of inflating prices by astronomical margins, just to ensure they get paid something by uncooperative insurance companies, doctors could go back to charging—oh, wonder of wonder—what things actually cost. This forty-dollar charge on Claudia’s itemized hospital bill for two antacid tablets would become the four cents those generic-brand Tums actually cost, and unlike the insurance company, she would actually pay it. Doctors would make more, patients would pay less, and the only people who’d end up unhappy would be the leeches at the insurance company who’d have to stop feeding off the efforts of others and get real jobs.
Claudia honestly couldn’t imagine why nobody else seemed to see this obvious fix. Then again, she’d learned long ago that most people? Were morons.
Luciana came to mind. Back a couple of weeks ago at group, after Luciana had been convinced she had SARS-642, Claudia had emailed the next day, asking how she was feeling and how severe her symptoms were. Luciana’s answer:
“I much better. Had good run this morning. Six miles, good pace—almost good enough for race. Cough much better. Virus no so bad, after all.”
It had taken all of Claudia’s willpower not to type: “You idiot, you don’t have the virus!” But come on. Someone suffering from a form of severe acute respiratory syndrome did not exhibit symptoms on Saturday afternoon and then run ten-K the next day. The only possible diagnosis here: hypochondria, mass hysteria, and a good helping of stupidity.
Claudia sighed and looked at the clock on the microwave. Only an hour to get showered and dressed before her doctor’s appointment. It was her final checkup, which should have happened over a month ago, but kept getting pushed back by Dr. Goldman’s pregnant patients going into labor and forcing her to reschedule nonemergent exams. As much as Claudia was looking forward to being officially cleared for exercise, she wasn’t thrilled about the idea of today’s outing. It would be her first time leaving the house, other than for her daily walks, since the surgery. And how the world had changed!
Forty-five minutes later, she jingled her car keys in her hands as she headed for the door.
“Ya sure you’re good to drive?” Dad asked. “I could take ya, if ya want. Course, then Bandit would be all alone . . .”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Stay with Bandit. I’ve been driving thirty-some years, you know. I’m sure it’s just like riding a bike.”
To her own surprise, it was true. She eased down the street as if she’d just driven to the grocery store yesterday. Her only rush of panic came when she remembered she would have to wear a mask into the doctor’s office and had to pull over to see if she had tucked the one Dad had given her that morning into her purse. Yes, it was there, just like it had been since he handed it to her a few hours ago. Not that the knowledge made her heart pound any less. It was amazing how little it took these days to send her flying into a nervous frenzy. Then again, it’s hardly irrational to worry when the government was fining people for entering public buildings without a mask. The body, apparently, knew better than the mind when its rights were being trampled.
At the office, she got out of the car and tucked the mask over her ears. Almost instantly, her lungs contracted, like she was being smothered with a pillow. “Fantastic,” she muttered. “All this loose space on the sides is letting viruses in no problem, but it seems to be keeping oxygen out. Excellent design.”
The good thing about going to the doctor for a routine visit during a worldwide medical crisis is that there’s nobody else in the waiting room, at least not at your OB/GYN. No competition meant (slightly) less waiting, and Dr. Goodman strolled into the exam room only twenty minutes past the scheduled appointment time—possibly a record for the entire medical community.
“Cute mask,” Dr. Goodman said, from beneath her own.
“Do these things really do anything? I mean, besides keeping me from breathing properly?”
“Meh. You didn’t hear it from me, but they’re mostly for appearances. So . . . you look good. How’ve you been feeling?”
“Like I’m about to asphyxiate, if I’m being honest.”
“Anything related to your hysterectomy? I’m an OB, not a pulmonologist.”
“I’m not crazy, though, right? These things make it hard to breathe.”
“That’s hardly the worst of it,” Dr. Goodman said. “People don’t seem to comprehend the proper way to wear them. I see people everywhere with the mask tucked under their nose. It’s as if they’re unaware that they also breathe through their noses.”
“Maybe those are literally the mouth-breathers.”
“Perhaps, but somehow I doubt it. But obviously, that’s doing nothing to contain pathogens. To make matters worse, you’ve got most people using the same paper surgical mask wherever they go, day in and day out. After approximately four hours, that mask is teeming with bacteria and who knows what else. It’s entirely contaminated. Essentially, people are wearing pathogen farms on their faces and then wandering around, wondering why disease is spreading.”
“But it is spreading? I mean, last night I saw on the news that one in a hundred Americans is infected. I’m not terrific at math, but on my author social media accounts, I have ten thousand ‘friends’—most of them very outspoken—so I should know at least a hundred people in that world alone who are infected, but so far, I haven’t heard of a single one. Truth be told, I haven’t even heard of a friend of a friend of a friend or anyone who has this virus in real life.”
Dr. Goodman looked around, like she was worried there might be bugs planted somewhere in the exam room. Yowza, am I getting paranoid, Claudia thought.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” the doctor said. “And please, you didn’t hear this from me. I wouldn’t say a word to an ordinary person, but I know you’re a scientist, like me, so you’re capable of processing things with an objective and rational eye.”
Claudia was about to correct her, to remind Dr. Goodman she was only a science writer, not a full-fledged scientist, but nope, no way. This sounded too juicy to miss out on. “Okay,” Claudia said, giving a calm, sage nod.
Dr. Goodman leaned in, too close, like a conspirator. She looked around again, then whispered, “All right. So, there is a virus. That’s no hoax, contrary to what some right-wing groups may be claiming. But the numbers being reported—those are a hoax.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s see. How many deaths have you seen reported in the news? What’s the most recent count you’ve seen?”
Claudia bit her lip and tried to remember last night’s figures. She always watched the latest virus counts right before settling in for bed (as if morbidity and mortality reports were super relaxing). “I’m ballparking, but just over a hundred thousand, on the news last night.”
Dr. Goodman nodded. “Correct. That’s the official figure the mainstream media have been giving out to the public. But the numbers are inflated.”
“Well, for one thing, those figures include all deaths from respiratory illness of any kind. In other words, a longtime smoker who dies of COPD is included within the count, as is an AIDS patient dying of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.”
“How can they get away with that?”
Dr. Goldman smiled. “That’s hardly all of it. The numbers also include all flu deaths—not SARS-642, but any strain of influenza that has caused a U.S. fatality since the start of the calendar year.”
“Whoa. So, what are the real numbers?”
“Of deaths? You’d have to check the CDC website—the only place I’m aware of online that is currently separating respiratory deaths by actual cause. When I last checked, the SARS death count was hovering around eight thousand worldwide.”
“Oh my God.”
“Just to be clear, that’s nothing, relatively speaking. Certainly, yes, it’s unfortunate that these people have died, but such numbers hardly qualify as pandemic level. An ordinary flu kills maybe fifty-two thousand people in a bad season, and yet we don’t declare it a pandemic.”
“Why isn’t that in the news?”
“Precisely. We’re looking at a mortality rate for this SARS virus of . . . let me check my notes—I did the math this morning. Zero point zero zero three percent. Just for reference, a normal flu kills zero point zero one two percent—so this virus is only a quarter as deadly as an ordinary flu.”
“So why are the news stations saying this is so scary?”
Dr. Goodman looked around again. “Everyone in the medical field is trying to figure that out. All I can say with any certainty is, it’s political.”
“And I thought I was being a right-wing nut thinking the Democrats manufactured this whole crisis to ruin the good economy and get the president out of office come November.”
“Ding ding ding ding ding,” the doctor said, pressing her index finger to the side of her nose. “You are correct, ma’am.”
“Come on,” Claudia said. “There’s no way a political party could pull off a scam that big. They’re too disorganized. There’s too many moving parts.”
Dr. Goodman leaned in again. “I would show you our orders, but they arrive digitally and we’re required to delete them upon reading. The IT tech even comes around to make sure there’s a permanent delete from the hard drive.”
“We’re to record at least double the previous day’s numbers of SARS cases we’ve seen, regardless of the actual amount. Obviously, as an OB, I’ve seen zero cases. However, my supervisor told me to submit a report of twenty-three cases for yesterday. I suppose that means I’ll be seeing forty-six cases today. That will prove difficult, seeing as you’re the only appointment I have today and you appear to be virus-free.”
“But why would you agree to do it? If it’s not true?”
“When they threaten to take away your license to practice medicine, your whole livelihood, if you don’t obey, you fall into line pretty quickly, I’m ashamed to inform you.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t say anything—not here, and especially not once you leave here. I shouldn’t be telling you any of this at all, but I need someone else to know. I’m going crazy. The numbers are crazy. And they’re lying about who’s dying, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re saying children are equally prone to the virus as the elderly, but the truth is that only fifty people, total, under the age of sixty have died to date—only one under age forty-five—and every single one of them had severe medical issues, such as untreated HIV or aplastic anemia.”
“So, basically, we could have just locked down the nursing homes, not the whole world, and nobody would have died?”
“Precisely. But what can you do? When you get down to the heart of things, I work for the government, and Big Brother’s got nothing on Nelly Pelucci.”
“The speaker of the house?”
“She’ll be something more akin to ‘dictator-in-chief,’ if she gets her way. And she’s certainly doing that these days.” Dr. Goodman glanced at her watch. “You’d better get up in the stirrups now so I can do your internal exam. Even if you’re my only scheduled patient, my boss will reprimand me if I spend more than fifteen minutes with you.”
“Nothing like giving every patient plenty of one-on-one attention.”
“Don’t get me started. Now, scooch your butt down here.”
Coughing hard immediately after abdominal surgery hadn’t hurt as much as Dr. Goodman’s probing fingers. The woman must have had razors on her nails, like something out of a horror movie. But when it was over, Dr. Goodman said, “Looks perfect. Of course, it has been months now. Pregnant women wait for no one. But I’m pleased to report that I can officially clear you for exercise.”
“That’s great,” Claudia said. “I think I’ve gained fifteen pounds since all this started. I need to start running again and burn some of it off.”
“You’re good to run. Oh, and you can have sex again, too.”
Claudia barked out a laugh. “Like that’s going to happen anytime soon.”
“Well, in the event that it does, you’ll be ready. Make an appointment for a mammogram—you’re overdue, and besides, better safe than sorry when your body’s growing unusual masses.”
“The imaging center’s taking appointments?”
“Oh. No. They’re not—not for nonemergent patients. But put it on your calendar to do when the quarantine lifts.”
“When might that be?”
“Just between you and me, we’ve been instructed to plan for at least another six months, so right in time for the new president—whoever it is—to be sworn in. It’s a fantastic strategy for the Democrats to pull off a victory. No one will choose to vote for the president who ‘let’ the economy stand still for most of a year.”
“You really think that’s what’s happening?”
The doctor took another furtive look around the room and said softly, “I know it is.”
She patted Claudia’s hand and moved to the door. “Stay safe,” she said. “And don’t forget: You didn’t hear any of this from me.”
End of Part 2. Part 3 will appear in the Winter Issue of Blydyn Square Review.