I never expected to run into Eddie after all this time. It was on a rare workday, when I was actually running a bit early so I decided to bypass my usual route and go to the GenX Coffee House. The door stood ajar, and the aroma of that most favored of brews, mingled with scents of patchouli drew me inside. Looking around, I saw him sitting at a back table, hunched over a mug that he was clenching with the ferocity of a man seeking warmth after a week in Siberia.
I have to be honest, here. This is not the Eddie I remembered from just a year ago. His athletic body was replaced by one emaciated and bowed. His clothes seemed only to remain on him due to an unsightly assemblage of belts, suspenders and other unidentified clasps.
I waited in the short line, hesitating. Should I just get my espresso and go? Ignore him altogether? Or say a cheery hello? The last option seemed the least likely as we had not parted on terms that anyone would call cheery. I learned one this this past year living through a pandemic, and that was time was short. This was my first, and could easily be my only, opportunity to speak with him again. My body was inclined to move without my mind directing it, and I approached Eddie to say a simple hello. Based on the looks of him, he could use a friendly conversation.
Despondent and some might say depressed, Eddie isolated himself in the coffee shop and made sure that he was seated far from other customers. Many considered themselves lucky to be alive after a pandemic, but so many had died or were subject to life-altering affects. It took quite some time to isolate, develop vaccines, and wipe the pandemic from the face of the earth. That’s what the news reported, at least.
He was alive, though, even in the face of his refusal to accept the pandemic as a fact of life. He thought it a farce, a conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies coupled with technology companies that would ultimately lead to a breakthrough, expensive vaccine. His very presence, in his own mind, led more credence to that theory.
Eddie kept his head down, literally. He had felt the wrath of those insisting he wear a mask, demanding that he step aside when he approached too closely, and sneezing….well, apparently you couldn’t do that in public either. So here he was, alive and somewhat the worse from wear.
Cup of pungent coffee in hand, I made my way through the shop and approached the hunched figure at the back table. “Eddie, is that you? It’s been so long” I exclaimed with enthusiasm with clearly surpassed his own. When he looked up, I couldn’t help but notice that his golden-brown eyes had turned a muddy brown; his long, thick hair was now closely cropped with a visible receding hairline. His skin, once so smooth and tanned, was now mottled and pitted. Drugs, I thought, Eddie had to have gotten involved with drugs during our year-long voluntary quarantine.
After what seemed like an interminable wait, he slowly lifted his head to face me. His eyes welled with tears and embarrassment, and he simply said, “Amira.” My name flowed from his lips, his speech slow and strained. It seemed like all he could do to utter this one word.
18 Months Ago
I had been ruthlessly harassed by friends to attend an annual bar hop. Not exactly my thing, preferring a cozy evening at home curled up with a glass of wine and a book. But I relented just this once. Searching my closet for appropriate bar wear, and stopping to wonder what exactly bar wear consisted of, I settled on a pair of jeans paired with a sweater and knee-high boots. Going light on the makeup, I wanted to look presentable, but not inviting. No, not inviting in any way.
Our small group of twenty-something women milled around a standing table, laughing and reminiscing about our college days. I couldn’t help but think how long ago those days seemed, particularly as I was now part of the corporate world and embroiled not only in my work but in the disturbing politics that was a significant part of cubicle life.
I was startled out of my reverie by a good-looking man in a flannel shirt and jeans. With hair skimming his shoulders, warm brown eyes, and skin as smooth and soft as a baby…he took my breath away. He caught my eye and began to walk slowly toward me keeping my gaze. That’s how I met Eddie.
He never thought he’d have a chance with someone like Amira. Even with his wholesome good looks, he always felt undeserving and harbored insecurities with kept him from approaching anyone. It was weird how easy he found it to approach this beautiful, black woman laughing among her friends. She exuded warmth and though he’d never felt this way before, he could only describe it as melting his heart. Eddie approached cautiously, to gage Amira’s reaction. Her smile turned in his direction and welcomed him into her group of friends. That was the beginning.
The rest was history.
Espresso in hand, I slowly walked toward Eddie’s table. He neither heard me approach, nor sensed my presence. Hesitantly, I asked, “Eddie, is that you?” Slowly he digested my words and raised his head. His empty eyes met mine, yet he seemed unable to speak. “It’s been a long time,” I said, “The pandemic certainly wreaked havoc with all of our relationships.” I felt as though as I was babbling, but his lack of response was beginning to embarrass me and make me rethink the idea of reconnecting. What was the point, after all?
He heard footsteps, but they usually walked right past his back-room table into one of the available rest rooms. Stunned, Eddie realized that someone was standing in front of him and calling his name. He considered ignoring it, but slowly raised his head having nothing at all to say. Of course, he remembered her, but encouraging a conversation and what might lead to emotions that he had no right to feel, he remained silently staring.
18 Months Ago
This was the relationship he never dared dream about. He and Amari hit it off the first night at the bar and barely separated after that. Their relationship was not immediately sexual, but they spent happy days and evenings together doing fun things like taking walks on the beach while watching the stars, having lunch at secluded woodland restaurants, picnics in the park and all that you might expect two young people falling in love might do.
The race difference had no impact on them, they were hopelessly bound together and fearful of no one. It seemed like a match that was blessed from above. As their relationship progressed, for the first time in his life Eddie felt a sense of family, of belonging. Never had he, in his wildest dreams, expected the likes of Amira. “Just how lucky can one guy be,” he often mused.
Unbeknownst to him, within a few short months, all of that would change.
I never thought I’d fall for a white man; it was just beyond the scope of my expectations. I struggled with it at first, but my heart overruled my mind. Eddie was more than just a pretty face; he was a gentleman who was able to share his innermost feelings when he felt safe. And, as time passed, he felt safe with me. We traveled locally a bit, experiencing new things together for the first time and before long our relationship progressed. Although we had taken it slow, when it began…..it began with a bang. I believed that Eddie was my forever love.
13 Months Ago
It began with rumors I overheard in the office. Someone’s uncle in another state was desperately ill and admitted to the hospital. Family members had no idea what was wrong with him. Worse, neither did the doctors. Then Rhonda, who sat in the cubicle beside mine, told me about her cousin who lived in Britain and was experiencing a similar illness which began with shortness of breath, a fever, and difficulty breathing. More and more rumors became fodder for increasing anxiety and concern.
It wasn’t more than a few days later when I heard widespread reports about a global pandemic raging across the globe with a 78% rate of death. Not a “Lay on your bed and drop off the sleep” kind of death, but a despairing death leaving the victim fighting for each breath while hooked up to medical apparatus and freely releasing bodily fluids.
Mere rumors spread quickly to the front pages of every major newspaper around the globe and on every social media channel. Scientists were alarmed at the trajectory of illness and death, forecasting hundreds of thousands dead and no time to analyze nor research and distribute treatments or vaccines. The pandemic had arrived and I, for one, took it very seriously.
Within forty-eight hours I sewed my own facemasks on the recommendation of our Surgeon General. I packed up my cubicle belongings, notified my boss that I would be working from home, and left the building. Though there was no work-from-home policy, others were not far behind.
I decided to invite Eddie to stay at my place. Not to rush the relationship along, or to achieve ‘the next level’ but more practically, to form a two-person pod where we could safely hunker down and await further instruction. Although not what we planned, this could be a new beginning for us as we weathered this horrible illness together, hunkered down in safety.
His reaction was unexpected.
Eddie heard about the pandemic, of course, but didn’t really take it all that seriously. Someone’s uncle, someone’s cousin in another country, the media always hyped every illness as if was a foreshadowing of some deadly epidemic that would result in a zombie apocalypse. He had no time, and no interest, of being a part of yet another conspiracy theory.
As the next couple of days unfolded, he could barely contain his disdain for those wearing masks. Masks. Over their faces and, don’t forget, covering their noses. Scientists warned to stay at least six feet apart from others, masked, to contain the pandemic and at least offer an opportunity to stay alive until an effective treatment or vaccine could be found. Eddie wasn’t a macho man, but considered himself a realist. This bullshit was likely a conspiracy to frighten everyone into submission while the wealthy made more millions by investing in cures and vaccines that were likely already manufactured.
Imagine his surprise when Amari asked him to move into her place to form a safety “pod.” He laughed; a belly laugh that erupted into a fit of laughter that was as surprising to him as it was unexpected by her. She was aghast that he could dismiss her concerns so easily; he was amused at her naivety and willingness to do something as ridiculous as lock herself way and wear a mask while outside. A mask. Every time she went outside.
Eddie wanted to live with Amari, but not like this. Not because it was required or advised, but because they loved each other. He simply couldn’t give up his freedom based on junk science and fear. Much discussion followed, but in the end, they parted ways. Eddie liked to think they parted amicably, but bitter words had been spoken; words that could not be taken back. In Eddie’s world, freedom was just too precious to give up; even for a short time and for the greater good.
Eddie lost much of his family and several friends during the pandemic. He had no doubt, though, that they had simply passed from old age or pneumonia, or some other rational disease that was to be expected when people were old or careless with their living habits. He was still alive, and still going about his business and remained convinced that this was just a global conspiracy to keep people in a perpetual state of fear.
The next year was a blur, thought at the time I thought that time was passing painfully slowly. Working from home became an unexpected pleasure. Wearing only top clothes and makeup, no one could see my comfy pajama bottoms and slippers on our teleconferences. After a brief adjustment period, I learned how simple it was to order meals from a food service; groceries from the market; anything I wanted from the internet. I had everything I needed; everything but Eddie.
His blatant disregard for my strong feelings had led to a premature break-up, one that neither of us was prepared for. We tried to video call each other for the first few weeks, but that rapidly become more difficult as he was traversing the outside world and my world had grown only as large as my own apartment. We found ourselves with less to say, experienced the loneliness of physical separation and, in the end, our calls became fewer until one day they just ended.
I’m sad to say that I don’t remember what day that was. We just stopped speaking.
Still standing awkwardly at Eddie’s table, I began to fidget and turned to leave. Clearly, he had no interest in a conversation. “Wait,” Eddie said, “Please sit with me.”
I felt awkward and uncomfortable, but sat beside him. He told me I looked great, and although I know the year in voluntary hibernation did me no favors, I chose to graciously except his compliment wishing I could say the same. There was so much to catch up on, and yet no words reached my lips. We sat in uncomfortable silence, as I sipped my small cup of espresso just wishing this impromptu meetup would end.
Eddie didn’t know what to say to her. He told her she looked great, and she did but he knew that he looked like he had aged twenty years. Although he lost most of his family and many friends to the pandemic, he never wavered in his belief that this was simply a hoax perpetrated by the pharmaceutical and technical industries to build a profit-making engine. Sure, there was something going around but look at him. He didn’t get sick, did he?
From his vantage point, his decision to forego masking and distancing requirements had been the right one. His choices did take a toll on his emotional health and well-being as it became clear that he had lost the love of his life. This awkward silence was unfamiliar; Amari sitting beside him was unfamiliar, too. Was she wearing a new perfume? He couldn’t remember her scent.
It was unreasonable to expect just to pick up where we left off, right?
I finished my espresso in silence, glad that it was so small. It was clear, now, that we couldn’t go back and find the comfort and love we once shared. Both horrible words and a long separation had cost us our future together. I was sad, and simply said, “Eddie, it’s nice to see you. I wish you all the best and look back with fondness on our time together.” Eddie, head down, said nothing.
I stood up, and as I turned to leave, I looked back one more time. Nothing had changed; yet everything had.
Pandemic Control Board
Chewing on a tuna salad sandwich and potato chips, Ronny heard the familiar “BING” on his radio console. These interruptions happened far more frequently than anyone would imagine. Ronny couldn’t even take a lunch break but had to stay at his monitor, alert to any infraction that would register by the chip implanted at the vaccination site.
The latest alert targeted a vaccinated individual had just been seated with one of the unclean. Unknown to her, and he knew a great deal about her from the electronic chip, fraternizing with an unvaccinated person could lead to only one conclusion. Death. Cost avoidance dictated that all immunized individuals remain separate from those not vaccinated. Of course, that was not publicized in any way. In fact, any leak of that information would result in certain elimination.
Ronny picked up his satellite phone and called the local Pandemic Board to report the infraction. He knew that Amari Jenae Browne would be dead by nightfall.
He returned to his sandwich and chips, barely swallowing another bite before the next “BING” alerted him.