Day 32 of quarantine. It was funny how measurable time suddenly felt.
I just finished a Zoom meeting with my students and slipped on my trainers, stiff from newness. My mother had sent them to me with a note: Now you really don’t have an excuse, her silky cursive bookended with a passive-aggressive smiley face. It was true; even though I was still teaching, albeit remotely, I had at least one free hour now that I was not commuting back and forth to campus. My ex-husband used to casually defend her: You know, she only means well, he would say.
“Screw you both,” I said, tying the shoelaces into crisp knots and slamming the mudroom door shut behind me.
I moved to this neighborhood right before Christmas, freshly divorced and teetering somewhere between missing my old life and relishing in my new one. On the one hand, I was certain that loneliness was preferable to being unhappy; on the other hand, I was not sure if I would ever grow accustomed to the silence. I had never learned how to be alone. January and February proved to be a series of false starts. But by the time the first icicle began its slow descent to unrecognizable form, I knew I had also changed: I still missed the cold comfort of a stable but unfulfilling life, but it became easier to lean into the hunger.
My world seemed to open up before me and I began to notice things again.
My neighborhood was the kind where each house varies just slightly from one another, but in ways imperceptible to the naked eye: the lawns, mint-green and neatly trimmed, all accented with budding rhododendron bushes and compulsive rows of pink and red tulips; sprawling bay windows; basketball hoops planted in smooth cement driveways. The pandemic sent most everyone home, so everyday felt like a weekend. Day 32 was no exception. The smells of backyard barbecues came wafting through my senses, sparking a brief nostalgia both comforting and dispiriting. I watched as kids spent the few remaining hours of daylight riding bikes and coloring their driveways pastel with chalk and running through hoses; there was this sense that life had changed for the better. The "new" normal, as they would say.
I continued to walk on, smiling at this thought and squinting in the late afternoon sun. Suddenly, as with a swift slap one was not expecting, I was facedown on the sidewalk, tripped again by a pair of legs that never knew where they were going - the legs that spent an entire youth covered in scrapes and bruises, my legs. I lifted my head slightly, looking around to see if anyone had seen me fall, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I gasped, startled.
“Sorry!” a deep yet boyish voice said. I slowly, achingly rolled around to face him. He backed away several feet, hands up as if to prove he was unarmed. The only thing of his I could really make out were his eyes. Wide, curious Picasso eyes. I scrunched my face, partially because of the pain, but mostly because I was embarrassed.
“It’s okay,” was all I managed to get out. I sat up, dizzy.
“I was just over there mowing my front lawn when I saw you trip,” he said, his eyes shifting to the white Colonial next door to my house. Sure enough, a mower stood in the middle of the yard, abandoned.
“I tend to do that,” I mumbled, feigning a laugh. He stretched out his hands, offering to help me up. I took them.
“Can I get you anything, a Band-Aid? Look at your knees…” he said. I looked down to see two big, bloodied circles.
“I’ll be okay. Thanks anyway,” I responded, wincing. He smiled and ran a hand through his dark hair.
“I guess I should get back to my lawn then,” he said. I said goodbye and limped back home.
Days 33 and 34. Rain.
Every time I looked down at my knees, I thought of the boy with the Picasso eyes. He couldn’t have been older than eighteen, I guessed, but my mind couldn’t let go of him. For that I felt foolish, mad even—what was a newly divorced forty-year-old woman doing daydreaming about some kid who was probably just about to graduate from high school? No doubt I was making something out of nothing. Still, my thoughts were glued to him: his rosebud lips, his smooth hands, the way I could feel his eyes on me as I hobbled away.
Day 35. Sun again.
“Just once up and once down,” I said to myself as I slid my feet into the trainers and touched up my lipstick. You old fool, I thought, narrowing my eyes at the raspberry pout reflected on my cell phone screen. Stepping outside, I saw two male figures in the boy’s yard, tossing a football back and forth.
“Hey. . .lady!.” one of them yelled.
I waved, a soft heat gathering in my cheeks. Lady. Cole threw the football to his friend and ran over to the edge of my yard.
“How are your knees?” he asked.
“My knees? Oh, fine. Um, thanks again for the other day.” I looked down at my shoes.
“Of course,” he said, then: “When did you move into the neighborhood?”
“Middle of December,” I said, trying to mask the quiver in my voice. Across the street, lawn sprinklers hissed and spat, coloring the silence.
“Well, welcome.” He looked over at the other boy. “I’d better get back to my friend. Maybe I’ll see you around?”
“Yeah,” I responded, not knowing what else to say, then: “My name is Jennifer.”
“Cole,” he said, turning on his heel.
It was nearly 7:30, but I had just finished my fourth lecture and still had to grade essays. I entered the kitchen and just stood there, expectant. I had thought about going on a walk, having spent most of the afternoon contemplating what the odds were of seeing Cole again. Cole. How I loved the taste of his name in my mouth. But the very moment I would start to feel that flutter, I would get a harsh reminder of who I was and who he was and how we would probably always be just two parallel lines. And he was young enough to be my son. For that reason, I poured myself some wine and sulked out to my front porch.
“Jennifer?” I heard after a few minutes. Shielding my eyes from the brash evening sun, I looked up and around to find the voice. Cole was standing in a window on the second story of his house.
I set down my glass. “Cole?” You old fool.
“Hi, Jennifer.” Please, please say my name again. He wound his window shut and faded from sight.
Day 37. Saturday morning.
I was up late grading and fell asleep on the scratchy Berber carpet in my makeshift home office. The air was warm and the light coming through the blinds created sharp divisions on the walls. Fixed between two of them was a paper plane. Unfolded, it revealed tiny, angular script:
Hi Jennifer, couldn’t sleep. You probably aren’t awake. Just wanted to say hey. “Talk” later? —Cole
The flutter returned, and I allowed it to stay a little longer this time. I grabbed a pen from my desk.
Hi Cole, you’re right, I was asleep Hi. Why did I say that again? lol
I crumpled it up. Lady. You old fool.
Day 37. Saturday evening.
I was at my desk grading when another paper plane thudded into my blinds. This time it read:
Did you get my first note? —Cole
I peeked through the opening. He was in a window directly across from my office. The coral and gold and cream of the sunset reflected on the glass, obscuring his face. But I made out what he was wearing: faded jeans (or jean shorts? I could not tell) and a white t-shirt with black lettering that said DECATUR HIGH SCHOOL.
Hi Cole, was all my hand could manage. I folded it back into a plane and opened the screen and blinds just long enough to chuck it into the bereft flower box outside his window. I shot into the bathroom and locked the door. I did not want to smile, to feel so liquid, to feel as though there were spiders under my skin. At least that was what I told myself as I brushed the tangles from my hair and emerged back into the office a few minutes later. He had returned the plane.
Hi Jennifer. Roll up your blinds. By that time, the sun was fully submerged by the twilight, and I could see his face again, his Picasso eyes, his mouth. He smiled broadly and waved. I waved back, tucking a piece of hair behind my ear in an act of timidity. The dimness behind him was replaced by soft yellow light.
I only allowed myself to be illuminated by the white glow of my computer screen.
After a few seconds, he mouthed something, then put a hand up to the window. He took a finger and traced small circles on the glass, then made its way down to the button of his jeans. In an act of reciprocation, I pulled at the faux silk bow of my pajama bottoms.
I really enjoyed last night, even if we only saw each others’ bellies. —Cole
Me too. Don’t you think this is
a bit strange, though? ~ Jen
The world is strange right now.
He slowly took off his shirt, revealing a pair of rosy nipples and a softly chiseled stomach. I lifted the camisole over my head. He held up a finger and mouthed, “Be right back.” A minute or two later, he sent over another plane.
Please take off your bra? I want to see your breasts. —Cole
I looked up and shook my head. Then another plane flew into my hands.
Why not? —Cole
I slammed the screen and rolled down the blinds, wrapping myself with a quilt, as if to contain my fury. To keep me from descent.
I kept everything closed. I wanted nothing to get in; not even light or air. I did not even look to see if Cole had sent over a plane. Neither possibility was suitable. At least not right then.
No plane. Lady. You old fool.
Day 41. I sent the first one over that day.
I’m sorry. ~ Jen
An hour passed, two. Then, about 10:30, a paper nose jutted through a slit in my blinds.
Me too. —Cole
Stay at the window. I’m coming. ~ Jen
He was grinning as I came into his view. I waved meekly, giving him a tight-lipped smile. Just as before, I lifted the camisole over my head. Then I unhooked my bra from the back and peeled it off, revealing an absent breast, the long thin scar left in its wake—still tender, even after all these months. Kind of like me.
When I looked back up at him again, he was still smiling. But it was different. He held my gaze, somehow transforming it into this tangible thing. I could almost see it materialize in the dark space separating us.
“Be right back,” he mouthed after a minute.
He sailed the plane back, landing crisply in my hands.
You are truly so beautiful, Jennifer. I love the way your hair grazes your collarbone. —Cole
I wish it were you. ~ Jen
A blur of flesh and feelings commenced at each sundown by a piece of college-ruled notebook paper. With each new day, more skin, more knowledge of one another.
Day 81. Summer had cracked open like an egg.
The governor said the state, the country will be reopening soon. Life will soon get back to normal, she said.
“Normal,” I said to myself, feeling the word on my tongue. Until then, it carried so many meanings for me: comfort, familiarity, a return to all things known. Something embraceable, preferred.
I already miss the strange world, I wrote to him. My skin pearled with sweat as I folded the paper into flyable shape. He appeared at the window seconds later.
Me too, he said. This time, I could hear him.