She holds out her hand for me to shake but I can’t take it. All I can see is a million tiny warning signs scattered across her palm. If I shake her hand I’ll need to wash them for two minutes afterwards, silently singing happy birthday to myself, twice, even though I was born in November and it’s only July.
I make a joke instead, holding my elbow forward like I’d seen politicians and the royal family do on the TV, but she doesn’t laugh. She just forces a smile and tells me that her name is Anna. I tell her mine and pull out her seat, trying to be polite whilst at the same time trying to work out whether the distance across the table is two metres or one or less. I think it’s less and I try not to panic. All that is over now.
“So what do you do?” I ask as I nervously try and count how many people are in this restaurant. It’s definitely more than six. Probably more than thirty. A year ago this many people weren’t even allowed to attend Jessie’s funeral and now I’m sat here less than a metre away from a complete stranger pretending that everything is okay.
“I’m a doctor.” The girl across the table says and for a moment her face perfectly resembles the doctor who came round to our house, in the middle of the night and carried Jessie away from me. Forever.
“That must have been tough.” I say and now I know that I can’t bring up how the bustling crowd of people on the tables surrounding us are making me feel trapped, how when the waiter comes over to fill up our drinks I want to scream at him keep his distance, how I know I won’t kiss her at the end of the night, even if I want to, because I am afraid that she might pass the virus on to me. And because I haven’t kissed anyone since Jessie. She’s a doctor. She must have seen things that I can’t even imagine and she’s okay with being here, on a first date, breaking about a million laws from this time last year.
“It’s been a challenge.” Anna smiles at me, red lips that should be covered by a mask taunting me with their freedom, “What do you do?”
“Uh, I’m kinda unemployed at the moment.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” She reaches across the table to hold my hand but I quickly pretend to have a scratch behind my left ear, “So many people I know lost their jobs this year. I bet you made loads of banana bread, watched like everything on Netflix and had a million Zoom quizzes.”
“Something like that.” I lie. I can’t tell her that I quit my job at the local supermarket because the thought of all those people and their germ ridden hands touching everything and standing too close to me made me so anxious I couldn’t sleep. I can’t tell her that instead of baking banana bread I was scrubbing clean every corner of our house, that instead of watching Netflix I spent hours down YouTube rabbit holes watching the news and conspiracy theories and scientists all talking about how to stop the spread of the virus. And I can’t tell her that the only Zoom calls I made were to the hospital, Jessie’s blank face staring back at me, unable to say a word. I can’t tell her anything.
The waiter returns to our table and I subconsciously hold my breath, “Have you two decided what you’d like yet?”
“Yeah, sure.” Anna replies, “I’ll have the salmon. With chips.”
“And you, ma’am.” A shiver rushes down my spine at the word. The voice of the nurse on the phone at 2am playing in my head, some time in the awkward period between Christmas and New Year. I forget the exact day, dates and time all blurring into one, nothing to separate yesterday from today from tomorrow. “Ma’am.” She said, “I’m sorry. But she’s gone.”
I snap out of the haze, “I’ll have the same, please.” I tell the waiter despite the fact I hate the taste of salmon and much prefer mash to chips.
Half an hour later, following a series of conversations I lied my way through - yes I did try (and fail spectacularly) to write a lockdown novel, no I never got around to clearing out my entire apartment despite telling myself each time I would - the food arrives. I try my best to resist the urge to pull the bottle of hand sanitiser out of my pocket and wipe down the sides of the plate that the waiter was just holding but the voice inside of my head warning me of how easily the virus can be spread refuses to be quiet.
“Sorry.” I say as I squirt a tiny blob of the now familiar greenish liquid onto my hand, “I’m still a bit anxious about everything.”
“No worries.” Anna smiles back kindly but I can see the judgement in her eyes and I know that she won’t be requesting a second date.
“So, how would you describe your love life?” She interrogates as we both take our first bites of the salmon.
Lonely. Non existant. Tragic.
“A bit of a mess.” I say, faking a grin, “How about you?”
“Sort of the same. It’s nice to be able to do the whole dating in person thing again though. Zoom dates were never really my thing.” Anna takes another bite whilst I continue to push the food around the plate, not trusting that it’s safe to eat. “In fact, my last girlfriend broke up with me over Zoom, right at the start of the first lockdown, so I think I have a personal vendetta against the entire platform. How about you?”
“Huh?” I say in that natural tone that you’re never supposed to use on a date.
“How did your last relationship end?”
She died. She caught Covid and became another statistic on the news.
“Things just sort of fizzled out between us. We were forced to go long distance because of everything.” I lie because it’s so much easier than the truth.
Anna doesn’t notice the flicker of sadness behind my words, “Well personally, I think everything happens for a reason. Pandemic or no pandemic, you probably weren’t meant to be.”
I tense up, my knuckles going white as they clutch to the chair leg beneath me. If everything happens for a reason then why did I lose Jessie?
“Do you mind if I just pop to the toilet?” I ask, instantly feeling guilty but I need some space, I need to get out of here, “I’ll only be a moment.”
“Of course!” Anna laughs, the two glasses of wine she’s drunk since I’ve arrived ringing in her tone, “It’ll give me a chance to update my friends on how this is going.”
If I were braver I would have asked her “how is this going?” in a flirty tone and then sat back down and continued with the date. But I’m not brave, not in the slightest so I walk away weaving through the maze of couples, trying to avoid making contact with anyone as I pass.
The toilet cubicle is too small and I can hear the woman in the cubicle next to me speaking loudly on the phone. She coughs and instantly I go into panic mode, covering my mouth with my hand and then overthinking everything my hand has touched: the chair, the wine glass, the cutlery, the door handle, the toilet seat. All of it is covered in the virus. All of it doused in the germs that stole Jessie from me.
I reach for the toilet roll and there’s none left. A flashback to last April when the supermarket ran out of the stuff, flits through my brain, and I remember how much Jessie laughed when I told her about the woman who stuck two rolls into her bra to stop someone else from taking them.
Another laugh cuts through my thoughts and even though I’ve barely known her for an hour, I can recognise it as Anna’s. “Jane!” She calls, “Are you in here? They’re asking if we want dessert?”
I push open the cubicle door and catch my reflection in the mirror. My eyes are blotchy with tears I hadn’t even realised I’d cried and my makeup has run in chaotic streaks down my face. I look exactly how I feel inside.
“Are you okay?” Anna asks holding out a hand which I still refuse to take.
“No.” I say, honestly spilling out of my lips for the first time all night, “I think I need to go.”
I rush out of the bathroom and out of the restaurant, into the fresh air, finally able to breathe without worrying about the circulation or how many windows are open. No one comes close to me and it feels right, it feels safe.
“Jane?” Anna’s voice echoes in the night. “Sorry, I just had to pay.”
“I’ll, uh, pay you my half,” I say, my hands fumbling around in my bag for my purse. I open it up but there’s no cash in it. I can’t look at a crisp £5 note without wondering how many other purses and shop tills it’s been in anymore.
“Don’t worry about it.” Anna reassures, noticing my panic, “I’ve covered it.”
It’s silent for a moment and I don’t know whether to run or to stay. I made a promise that I’d try to move on, from Jessie, from the last year and a half, from life before it became a daily struggle to cling on to, but now all I can think about is how I need to break it. I don’t want to move on. I don’t want to forget. I don’t want 2020 to become the answer to a multitude of quiz questions, thirty years from now, which prompts the rest of the group to reminisce about the weirdest year of their life. It wasn’t the weirdest of mine, it was the worst.
“Which way are you heading?” Anna asks, daring to step too close to me.
I point behind her, down past the neon glow of the bus stop to the park that I have circled a thousand times in my mind but never by foot, cautious of all the elderly couples and mum’s with prams and people who might have a cough or a temperature, or worse no symptoms at all, who belong in beautiful places like that.
“I live that way.” She continues indicating in the opposite direction. “Do you want to come back with me.”
I physically shudder at the thought of our bodies naked and intertwined in the night. I can’t do that. I can barely even do this anymore. Long gone are my days of meeting a stranger on the internet and ending up back at hers, the unfamiliar scent of someone else’s bedsheets sending me to sleep.
“Sorry.” Anna blushes in the streetlight, “Is it too soon?”
I don’t know if she means because it’s out first date or if she’s referring the state of the world right now but I nod nonetheless.
“I need to go.” I say, “Thank you for tonight though.”
She looks up and catches my eye and I can’t help but wonder what could have happened between us if I wasn’t so afraid. But if I wasn’t afraid I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be single and I wouldn’t need to look for love because it lay right besides me every night.
“Bye Jane.” Anna smiles as she disappears in to the night.
“Bye.” I echo back as I head back to my empty home, wishing that the world hadn’t changed me so much.