A Covid Romance

by J. Speer

(I wrote a short story for a contest. This is the first draft. It is still a work in progress. I’d love an honest critique on it. I am supposed to write a short story dealing with life during the pandemic. I chose to write a simple love story. Here it is below.)

     She noticed when he wasn’t there that morning.  In fact, she noticed everything about him from the brown leather shoes he wore every day to the way he combed his hair or the half smile he would give when he was happy about something.  She noticed that he drank his coffee black.  There was a myriad of things she had picked up about him over the years that they had worked together.  But, of course, she didn’t let it show.  She adhered to professionalism at all times. 

     They worked across from each other on opposite ends of the large telemarketing center.  There were many rows of small workstations with computers between them.  Yet, she could still spy a subtle glance his way every now and then.  She would look in his direction.  If he looked at her, she’d look away as if she was just casually scanning the room.  This happened a couple times a day since they were stuck on an 8 hour shift together, day in and day out, for nearly 2 years. 

     They had only talked briefly.  Sometimes, he’d come over to her work station to get a paper signed or to find out some pertinent information regarding insurance claims.  His smile seemed genuine and friendly.  Occasionally, they would even chat for a few obscure moments about the business, or work, or current events.  She noted he liked football.  He noted she liked art.  Their discussions were always short as the supervisor was constantly watching with disapproving glances.  If they talked too long, the supervisor would often walk over in their direction.  As always, he would abruptly leave at that point and head back to his desk. 

At break time, they sat at opposite ends of a long table.  He was with his friends.  She was with hers.  She would play on her phone.  He would play on his phone.  She might look his way briefly.  He might look her way for a moment or two.  They would both look away.  Nothing much happened between the two of them for 2 years. 

But today, he wasn’t at work.  She frowned a little behind her fabric mask as she overheard the boss and supervisor talking.  Apparently, he was sick.  He called in with a cough and fever.  The managers were discussing it quietly near her workstation which was situated close to the supervisor’s office.  She eavesdropped while she continued working on her computer with the medical claims.  Their work was considered essential since it dealt with healthcare.  So, they had continued working through the stay-at-home orders and quarantining of people from other industries. 

The management had gone through many precautions, however, to protect the workers.  They made hand washing mandatory several times a day and distributed pamphlets about worker rights during the pandemic.  The supervisors often held impromptu meetings for the employees to come together to discuss the current state mandates and the changes with the health insurance premiums and deductibles and such.  It was sort-of a stressful time for her and, try as she might, she didn’t get much restfulness at home despite the precautions recommended by the CDC. 

She looked at his empty desk.  She was worried about him but she didn’t let it show.  To be honest, she still didn’t know much about him.  She didn’t even know how to contact him.  She didn’t know his last name.  Everyone there went by a first name basis only. 

That morning was busy and eventful.  She guided many callers through the insurance claim process and helped others with disputes on their billing.  She answered questions about deductibles and copays and coinsurance.  She fielded all sorts of complaints and even some hostility from a few callers.  That was normal.  It happened every day.  At first, when she started the job, that part was exceedingly uncomfortable.  But over time, she had become more expert at the topics as well as handling conflict.  Over the years, she’d moved up within the department.  Now, many of her coworkers looked to her for answers and training. 

She went to break with her friends, Mary and Jamie.  They played on their phones and laughed at a few silly memes and videos.  She was aware of the empty space at the end of the table.  As break ended, her friends got up to head back to the main room.  His friends did likewise but one lingered for a moment.  He put his phone away and went to grab a pop from the nearby vending machine.  His name was Bryan.  She knew him well. 

She got up from the table too and put her phone away.  She glanced at Bryan’s back as he looked over the selection at the vending machine.  She walked over to him hesitantly, not knowing how to ask the question she was considering. 

“Hey Bryan,” she nodded at him.  He looked back at her briefly and smiled. 

“Hey,” he said as his eyes wandered back to his selection.  He pushed a button on the machine and a pop can rolled to the dispenser. 

She looked at him for a moment.  She bit her lip.  She knew she had to head back to work soon.  Bryan started turning towards the main room and she knew she would lose her chance in a moment if she didn’t speak.

“Bryan,” she began.  “Hey, do you know Kevin’s last name?”

Bryan didn’t say much but he eyed her curiously.  He probably wanted a reason for the question.  She just stood there and did not give him one.  There was a little pause.  He cracked open his pop.

“Yeah, it’s Piper.  Kevin Piper,” he said.  He smiled.  She just smiled back politely.

“Thanks, Bryan,” she said sweetly as she followed him back to the main room and to another couple of hours of hard work. 

At lunchtime, she sat in the break room with her usual sandwich and bag of chips.  She got a bottle of water from the communal fridge.  Most people left the telemarketing center for lunch but she drove pretty far every day to work.  She couldn’t go home.  She was also health conscious enough to avoid the fast food. 

She was a cute girl, a little shy and quiet but not bad to look at.  Today, she was wearing her favorite grey knee-length skirt with a cream blouse and matching cardigan.  Her heels were mid-rise, enough to look flattering but not too much.  Her hair was shiny and curled.  She wore glasses as she peered at her bright computer screen all day. 

Mary and Jamie had gone out to eat fast food.  There were only a few others in the break room for their hour lunch.  She sat there eating and thinking.  Then she picked up her phone, scrolled through Instagram, Snapchat, and Google news.  She opened Facebook too. 

She looked around and then tapped the search box.  She typed in Kevin Piper.  She didn’t know if he’d be on Facebook but she did find someone with his name and several mutual friends.  She looked at the name for a long moment.  She pursed her lips and then hit friend request.  She let out an exhale and then turned her phone over on the table.  She resumed her break and ate her lunch. 

The rest of the workday was long and tiring.  When she headed home to her tiny apartment, she saw that he had accepted her friend request. 

The next day as she clocked in and washed hands, she looked over to see his empty desk.  She secured her face mask again and headed to her own desk.  She furrowed her eyebrows briefly with concern.  That day would be another long day for her answering phone calls and helping customers with their inquiries. 

She went home that night and cooked dinner for herself.  She petted her black cat on the couch as she watched Netflix.  She looked at her phone a couple times as she watched the TV.

On the third morning, he was still gone.  At break, she went to the bench outside by herself and looked at her phone.  She pulled up Facebook Messenger, found his name, and pulled up a chat conversation.  She looked at the empty space on her phone for a long moment and then hit the handwave button.  Then she took in a deep breath and typed.

“Hey, this is Anne from work.  I heard you were sick.  Just hoping everything is alright.”  She hit send and then waited with baited breath for a moment or two.  She was looking for his reply on the screen, for the little conversation cloud with the three periods that indicated the other person was writing back.  She waited and it did not appear right away. 

He must be busy she thought to herself.  It wasn’t like her to do something like this.  She never contacted guys just out of the blue.  She never made the first move….at least until now.  This was different though.  This was the pandemic, the Coronavirus, and frankly she was concerned for his well-being as a friend and a fellow co-worker.  So, she had decided to reach out to him but now, as she watched the mostly empty screen, she was having second doubts.  By the time break was over, she bit her lower lip glumly.  She closed her eyes briefly and thought to herself, He’s not going to answer back.  Rejection central.  If he does answer at all, it will be something short and then I will get ghosted.  This was a bad idea. 

She got up from the bench and headed back in to work.  She set her phone aside and tried her best to ignore it for the few hours she had left of work that day.  When she got off work and clocked out, she retrieved the phone.  As she walked out of the call center, she was surprised to see that, in fact, there was a notification that he responded after all. 

She opened up Facebook Messenger and retrieved the conversation.  There was the reply.  It said, “Are you worried about me?”

She paused walking to her car.  What should she say at this point?  Be serious and say, “Yes, of course!” Or be nonchalant and just say, “Maybe.”  Or should she could say something satirical or flippant or even funny? 

She thought it over.  If she was honest, she would finally signal to him after 2 years that she did, in fact, have some interest.  But if she was coy or subtle, the conversation might end right there.  And, he obviously wanted to know where things stood at this point.  She reasoned it would be best to be truthful but yet lighthearted.  So, she texted him simply, “Perhaps, yes, I just simply wanted to make sure you’re ok.”  Then she hit send again. 

This time he was replying back right away but it took a while for this second message to come through. 

He said, “Ah, well thanks.  I’m doing alright.  Doc says it might be just common cold but, just in case, they did a swab.  It wasn’t very fun.  Not recommended lol.  Anyway, I have to self-quarantine for fourteen days so I did notify the bosses.  They said I could take paid leave time which is good.  In the meantime, I will get the results back from the swab in five days.  Wish me luck.”

She didn’t know at first how to respond to that information.  Then she typed back, “Oh so sorry to hear that but I’m glad you are doing well.  That’s good that you can take paid leave.  As for the swab test, I have heard it is pretty rough.” 

She stopped for a moment, not knowing what to say next.  Then she added briefly, “We’ll be thinking of you.  Get well soon.”  She hit send.

He replied, “Thanks.” 

She watched the screen for more words but nothing came through.  Then she added in closing, “Be sure to check your temperature and get plenty of sleep.  Ok, ttyl.”  She added a small smiley emoji at the end. 

His reply simply stated, “Thanks for checking up on me.  Ttyl too.”  He also sent back a small smile emoji. 

Anne got in her car and drove home.  When she got in the small apartment, she put her mail on the side table, slipped off her shoes, and found her black cat.  She gave her cat a brief snuggle and then checked his food and water bowls.  Later, that night as she was preparing another dinner for one, she got another notification on her phone.  She thought it might be Mary or Jamie.  Yet, she was really pleasantly surprised to see that it was Kevin again.  He had texted her a short message.

He said, “So, how’s your art classes going?”  She smiled when she saw the message, mostly because he had remembered something special about her.  She realized too that he was also trying to start up a conversation.  She leaned against the kitchen counter as the black cat lay lazily on the table and swishing his tail back and forth slowly.  The pot of water on the stove was boiling and filled with spaghetti noodles.  She had already prepared the meat sauce. 

But the phone had her attention at the moment and she started to share a conversation with Kevin.  They talked about several things that evening as she had dinner and sat on the couch as usual to relax.  They talked about their pets and their apartments.  They talked about their families and their interests and hobbies.  The conversation lasted quite a while and it made her smile.  She felt happy.  She wondered if he did too.  When she went to bed that night, she slept pretty well with the warm and soft black cat curled up beside her on the quilted bedspread. 

The days prior to learning the Coronavirus test results were filled with the usual work for her.  However, there were intermittent and fun text conversations with Kevin throughout the days.  Each day, she’d ask how he was feeling.  She made a few suggestions for getting well soon.  Otherwise, they would make small talk about the weather or food or sports.  They discussed things about work.  They made some jokes and told funny stories to each other about colleagues and especially the supervisors.  He would send her GIFs or memes he liked.  She would return those with other memes she had found as well.  They talked about YouTube videos and channels they liked.  They talked about video gaming or streaming channels. 

He seemed in good spirits.  He seemed to be doing alright.  He said his symptoms were going away and that he wasn’t too bothered by the test.  Kevin claimed he was certain it would come back negative.  He made light of the whole situation and said quarantine time was starting to bore him.  She asked him what he did during the day.  He said that he mostly slept and watched TV.  He read books and read stories and news on the internet though he tried to stay away from some of the negative media stories.  They tended to bring him down.  He said he liked music too.  He offered to make her a playlist. 

As the days and evenings passed, they became closer friends.  They even chatted via Facetime every now and then.  On the night before he would get the Coronavirus results, Anne lay in bed looking up at the ceiling in the darkness.  Her cat purred soft and low beside her.  The cat was all curled up and she decided not to disturb him.  He could get grumpy at times.  Instead, she thought about Kevin and even prayed for a moment that the results would be good for him.

And to her surprise and to Kevin’s as well, they were just that.  The test results came back negative.  She smiled warmly at him on video as they Facetimed. 

She said, “I’m really happy for you!  I’m so glad.”  And he half smiled back. 

He said, “Well, that means I can come back to work soon….as soon as the doctors will release me.  I’ll let you know.”

The doctor did release Kevin to come back to work the following Monday.  Kevin let her know through a text.  She answered back to him that this was great news.  He said he was going to miss sleeping in but he needed to get back to his old routine. 

Saturday and Sunday were sunny and cheerful days for Anne.  She talked over the phone with Mary and Jamie and a few other friends.  She did some grocery shopping and cleaned the apartment.  On Sunday, she watched church online.  She also watched some of the new series on Netflix later such as Ozark.  Anne watched Tiger King to see what all the fuss was about.  It proved very entertaining. 

Monday morning, Anne got up a little earlier than normal.  She took extra care that morning with her appearance.  She was really looking forward to seeing Kevin again.  She hadn’t heard from him since Sunday early afternoon.  She figured he must be busy. 

Anne drove to work with her cup of coffee in one hand and she listened to XM radio.  She felt a little nervous about seeing Kevin again.  She pulled into the parking lot and walked to the call center entrance.  She clocked in just before 8 am at the start of her shift.  She washed her hands and turned to put her face mask on as she looked over at Kevin’s desk.  He was there.  He looked nice as usual.  He didn’t seem to look her way though.  He was busy with his friends surrounding his desk.  The supervisor came over and also wanted to talk to him. 

Anne looked away.  In that moment, she felt a little downcast.  She finished securing her mask and turned to head to her desk.  That is when she saw it. 

On the desk near her computer was a glass vase full of a dozen scarlet, red roses.  She blinked and exhaled into her mask.  She walked slowly to her desk and went around it to sit down.  She sat down looking at the beautiful flowers and even lowered her mask a little to inhale just a little bit the rose fragrance.  There was a little white envelope attached to the flowers. 

The supervisor walked by and briefly said, “Well, well, looks like you have someone special.”  She raised her eyebrows at Anne as she walked past.   Anne blushed profusely. 

Anne just said, “Thanks, they are very pretty.”

Anne looked across the room at that moment to the one person she hoped might have sent the flowers.  She looked at Kevin.  He was no longer with his friends.  He was seated across from her and looking at her directly.  And for the first time in 2 years, she returned his gaze boldly without looking away.  He lowered his face mask and there was a half-smile on his face.  She lowered her mask briefly and returned the smile. He nodded towards the roses and the card.  She lifted the little white envelope and opened it.  She pulled out the white card and read it. 

It simply said, “Thanks for everything.  You helped me through a difficult time.  I appreciate you.  In fact, would you consider going on a date with me?”

Anne bit her lower lip again.  She then smiled wide behind her mask.  She looked at him across the room.  He was wearing a mask too.  He looked at her.  Then, she nodded her head to say yes. 

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