Finding What is Lost in a Pandemic
Patrick felt numb but it wasn’t exactly unpleasant. Before the pandemic, he rented a condo for the upwardly mobile in an old, converted brownstone on a tree-lined street. He could walk to the U of T campus, where he worked as a data analyst in an unadorned, closet-like office. The office had one redeeming feature, a big window overlooking St. George. At lunchtime, he would pull himself away from his screen to watch the crowd of students weighted down by heavy knapsacks as they rushed from class to class. Hearing their muffled voices through the plate glass helped to reassure him that he wasn’t dead.
But months into lockdown, even that small proof of life evaporated. He was lost in a slow, monochromatic march, exchanging the prison of his little cubicle on campus for the slightly more comfortable prison of his tiny condo. With classes online, the students vanished. He traversed quiet streets on his daily walk to and from his office. At first, he thought that working on campus would decrease the suffocation he felt. He had even volunteered when his team needed a body on site. But the deserted quad had finished dulling his senses.
Human contact was reduced to Zoom meetings. His likeness appeared in the corner of the screen but, his lean, angular face and shaggy, unkempt blond hair did little to distinguish him from the rest of the group. All the privileges of youth had been smothered in the mud of the pandemic. The casual encounters over greasy food and cold beer and the pleasurable anonymity he reveled in at crowded bars and cafes were distant memories. Even the faux intimacy of his hookups with Eleanor, the pretty analyst across the hall, had stopped. He had tried to Zoom with her in an effort to maintain one-on-one contact with another human being. But her mundane conversation about what she had watched on T.V. was like consuming empty calories. His most momentous decision each day was what take-out he would order for dinner.
Winter descended and froze the remaining life out of the city. In the evenings, after a day of staring at his computer screen, he would lie on his couch and watch Netflix, occasionally putting a hand on his chest to feel the heartbeat. It seemed foolhardy to dream of patios in summer, cold glasses of beer, and girls in halter tops and short skirts. Instead, he thought of the cold walk to his office on the deserted street in the morning.
It was on one of those cold walks when he saw a woman swathed in an enormous winter coat stumble on the ice while crossing the street. She sprawled in the intersection buried under her black coat, resembling a squashed beetle. He paused for a moment, not sure what to do, but then ignored pandemic protocol and rushed up to her as the light began to change.
“Can I help you?” He said as he offered his arm to help her up.
He found himself looking into beautiful green eyes framed by wrinkles that pleasantly creased when she looked up at him. The eyes peeked out at him behind a mountain of winter outerwear. The lower half of her face was buried under a red wool scarf with the telltale blue of a nonsurgical mask visible beneath the knit. She wore a red tuque pulled down around her ears, and the black coat was zipped up around her chin.
“I’m fine, thank you. I just feel really silly. It is nice to see chivalry hasn’t died with the virus.”
Her voice was calm and smooth. There was something about it that made him feel slightly odd, like a ripple on a clear lake. She tried to stand and winced in pain.
“Looks like you might have hurt your ankle.”
“Probably. Can you help me to that bench?”
“Why don’t we go into the Rotman building. There’s nowhere to sit in the lobby, but I have an office there. It’s a lot warmer, and we can take a look and see if everything is okay.”
Together they hobbled toward the entrance. Once inside, she pulled the knit tuque off. He was startled as a rich mane of chestnut curls cascaded around her shoulders. He had to repress the urge to gather them in his hands. He offered to let her ride the elevator up alone, but she insisted that he join her. As he stood at her side calculating how long it had been since being that close to another human being, he felt his pulse rise.
He unlocked the door to his office and helped her to the only chair.
“I’m Lisa, by the way,” she said as she unfurled the large red scarf.
She unzipped her coat, slipped off her gloves, and unlaced her boot. She gingerly examined her ankle that was starting to swell.
Patrick stood awkwardly, unsure what to do.
Without the coat, she was tiny, almost frail. She was not a young woman. On closer inspection, there were threads of grey in the chestnut curls. Gloves off, the skin on her hands was almost translucent, and he could see blue veins running through them. He knelt beside her hesitantly trying to keep his distance while helping her lift the injured ankle. Her hands fluttered delicately around it like a cherished treasure. He began to imagine she had once been a ballet dancer. There was something warm and radiant in her manner, like balm over a wound.
“Well, it’s probably a sprain. Don’t think it’s broken.” It was a matter-of-fact analysis. There was nothing intimate in her tone. Yet, he wanted to hear more of the soft tones of her voice. Saying his name by way of introduction felt as unfamiliar as putting on a new pair of shoes. Her eyes creased as she smiled beneath her mask in acknowledgment.
“Absolutely. Can I Help you put the boot back on? I’m Patrick, by the way.”
“Well, Patrick, today is my lucky day. I haven’t come across such a gentleman in a very long time. I was sure the pandemic had erased them all.”
He loved the way his name sounded as she said it. A sliver of pale skin was visible just above the sock on the swelling ankle. Patrick realized his hands were shaking as he helped her put the boot back on.
“I’m sorry!” He realized he was standing too close to her, breaking pandemic protocol again. Without all the protective outer clothing, she looked far too vulnerable for that type of contact.
“No apology needed. We still have our masks on.”
“I had to come to campus today to pick up a form for a course I will be teaching online in the spring. For some reason, I couldn’t upload it. I obviously didn’t pick a good day.”
“It’s pretty cold out there,” Patrick agreed.
“Yes, but spring is coming. You can feel it. Won’t it be great when we can stop wearing all these layers of clothes?”
Patrick nodded. It was an awakening. The hope of spring had not crossed his mind until she said it.
“It will feel like freedom. And the vaccines are coming too! Soon all of these restrictions will be just a memory.”
“I hope so!” He answered with the correct response even though he felt like a heretic in a new religion.
She tried to stand and winced in pain. Patrick, conscious of being in the same room for too long with a total stranger, frantically wondered what his next step should be. Although he didn’t feel particularly vulnerable to the virus, he worried that one of the few other occupants of the building from his faculty would be more than happy to shame him for entertaining a visitor.
“Is there someone I can call to help you?”
“I’ll call my son. He is a doctor at Mount Sinai.”
She pulled out a phone and began texting. She read the almost immediate response, the consternation showing in her eyes. “He will come, but he can’t get here for at least an hour.”
Patrick was at a loss. What was he to do with this injured woman for an hour in his tiny cubicle of an office that was too small to properly socially distance? Asking her to leave would be like pushing an injured sparrow off a ledge.
“Is there somewhere I can wait?”
“You can wait here. How about some tea?” For some reason, he had the irrepressible desire to create an impression of hospitality.
“Tea would be lovely.”
He plugged in the small kettle he kept in his office.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any milk or sugar.” Patrick was out of practice about how to have a conversation with another human, let alone a woman he had just met.
“Just having something warm will be lovely. So what do you do here, Patrick?”
“I’m analyzing demographics for a project here at Rotman.”
“Please tell me about it. Demographic data is one of the most important and overlooked aspects of policy.”
He was stunned. A total stranger who could talk about what preoccupied most of his waking hours? He began to explain the project as he made the tea.
He felt a strange intimacy as she slipped her mask up to take a sip of the tea, and he caught sight of perfectly formed mouth.
He began to talk about the project that had absorbed his energies for the last year. Suddenly he stopped, realizing he had been talking for 10 minutes straight.
“Is there something wrong, Patrick?”
“I just don’t want to bore you. It’s tedious stuff.”
Lisa looked up, the wrinkles around her eyes creasing in a smile.
“Ah, consider how your souls were sown/You were not made to live like brutes/ But to pursue virtue and knowledge,” she recited calmly.
“Yes, I’m glad you know it. I think the message applies. Don’t you?”
His pulse had begun to thunder in his ears and he felt dizzy.
Her phone pinged. “My son! Do you mind helping me out to the front of the building?”
He realized she had handled the conversation so deftly that he had not asked her one question about herself.
He helped encase herself in her winter layers while trying not to touch her, especially the exposed flesh above the ankle. She leaned on him as they made their way to the front door. Even with the winter layers, she seemed weightless.
Her son waited for her in a big grey SUV. Patrick opened the door to help her in.
“Charles, this is Patrick. He is the last of the grand gentleman.”
She turned to Patrick. “I cannot tell you how grateful I am. Here is my card. I hope that when this is over, you won’t hesitate to let me buy you a tea.”
She gingerly made her way onto the seat of the car and was gone. Patrick carefully examined the card in his hand, Dante’s words echoing in his mind.
Patrick felt like the atmosphere had suddenly vanished, and there was no oxygen. He squinted at an unexpected glint of sunlight and thought, the walk home will be different tonight.
Suzette Blom has had careers in academics and law. She lives in Toronto.