(side note: The Expanse was written for a local short story competition, in which a COVID-19 tale was to be told. The limit on this was a measly 3000 words, which explains why this one is shorter than some)
The lady across the way waved her hand in greeting.
At least, I like to think she did. Maybe it was one of those polite-half waves, like you do when you see a kind-sorta acquaintance in the crowd, or the way two guys will nod at each other as they pass in the gym showers. Being the imminent sage and eternal wiseguy, I prefer to remain optimistic. It was, after all, the first human contact I’d had in two weeks. Video conferencing is…well, it’s not contact, that’s for sure.
So I did the right thing: I half-waved back. The early dawn light made it a little hard to see whether I got another one, so I sipped my coffee instead and put out my cigarette. I checked my box. Half full. I fed the remaining coffee to my wilting fern and stood. I cast one more glance in her direction, and half-waved again. This time I am almost sure I saw a reply.
It reminded me of that “you-hang-up-no-you-hang-up” game I used to play with my girlfriend. When I had one. I laughed. Maybe my new friend laughed with me.
I spent the early morning like I had most of them. Checked my mail, checked again, made another cup of coffee and then grabbed a shower. Hot water was one of my few creature comforts. Once, when pressed to list three things that I would miss when the world finally came to an end, hot, running water was one of ‘em, with books available to hand and good music on tap bringing in the second and third slots. Some folk said they’d miss good conversation, others takeout food. Still others nominated their families and one guy said a cold beer. Funny how most listed people, though. People. It was people they would miss the most.
Being the imminent sage, eternal wiseguy, and a first-rate cynic – I know, a contradiction in terms – I rated companionship at perhaps fifth or even sixth on the scale. As a forty-something, semi-balding, work-from-home guy (I just threw in semi-balding for the empathy factor), I’d be the first to admit that my experience of quality human interaction might be a little lacking. I’m not going to go into excuses and blame my upbringing, and discuss nature vs. nurture and blame my mother for my troubles – and if you wanna lay that on me, you best leave it for your therapist, pal – but I could count good friends and (gasp) girlfriends on one hand. I approached making friends much the way you approach an oyster: you pick it up, twirl it around while trying to figure out which end is which, look around to see if anyone is watching, and then wolf it down while trying not to gag. They say garlic butter dilutes that god-awful taste but they would be wrong.
And even though I scoffed at myself for my sentimentality, I must have looked across the road at Mystery Lady’s balcony fifty times that first day.
I live on a pretty busy road – laugh, laugh, pretty quiet road these days – a dual-carriage with an island in the middle. I was on the third floor, and she was on the third floor, and our balconies stared at each other across the road. Now I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that a forty-something, semi-balding guy must also have issues with his eyes, and while you’d be partially correct, it’s also the distance, see? So the next morning when Mystery Lady and I met once again across The Expanse, I couldn’t be sure if she raised her hand in greeting. And I thought: should I? Dare I be the one to raise my hand first and do I even want to? Won’t it go against some sort of code? So I sipped my coffee and feigned aloofness.
She got up and went back inside. I guess that took care of that question. So I turned to my laptop again, determined to finish this article before the emails started getting demanding. If it weren’t for the last minute, I liked to say, nothing would get done around here. Still, I always told the interns to write every day, and then right some more. Do a thousand words every day, I said, and read like it’s your job. Those are the two biggest tools that any aspiring writer has in their box. I may as well practice what I preach.
She came back after a few minutes. I saw the movement and looked up. She had what looked like a piece of printer paper above her head. I squinted. She waggled the paper. I squinted some more. It had something printed on it but, you know, The Expanse. I shook my head and raised my arms in a shrug. She laughed. I felt it rather than heard it. She waggled the paper again and this time I stood and leaned over the balcony, like eating up those few centimetres would make an ounce of difference. She put the paper down and shrugged as well. I felt mocked. But in a nice way.
Come lunch time I was a few hundred words in. Not my best day. I considered another shower – indulge in one of my creature comforts – but picked a trip to the store instead. The road was, as usual, deathly quiet. Not for lack of people, because there were people about, oh yes. But quiet nonetheless. These masks hide such a crucial part of our personalities, don’t they? It’s like…it’s like you can’t see the bottom half of a person’s face and so you have only the eyes by which to gauge emotion, or tone, or nuance. Half of your ability to read intent is gone, just like that. And suspicion! Ye gods, but people are suspicious. You so much as glance at another person and they think you’re throwing the hex on them. Stand in lines, don’t talk, don’t come closer than your little “x” on the ground. Thank the cashier through five millimetres of plexi-glass. Of course, you’re handing the cashier all your stuff, and your cash, and she is packaging them and handing them back, along with your change, so the irony of the plexi-glass screen is not lost on me. For a self-confessed hermit I ought to have been happy with this. Anything that takes away the need to interact with someone (“for goodness sake, just text me, why call”) must be counted as a good thing. But this? Even I knew that what we had here was a problem.
Mystery Lady was on her balcony when I returned. She waved to grab my attention and held up another piece of paper, and then a second. This time I could definitely see something printed on it. I held up my hands and shook my head. Mystery Lady put the pages down and raised her hands to her eyes, miming what looked to me like a telescope. Ah, lightbulb. I waved a hang on sign and went rummaging. Every man – and perhaps every woman but I suspect this is the province of men – has those hobbies that they go into with gusto, spend a bunch of bucks, and then abandon out of sheer…I dunno, loss of interest? Whatever. Mine included remote controlled cars, kites, fancy running equipment and, haha, photography. It was the camera I dug out. Fancy bag with slots for the camera and the lenses, a flash or two. I took out a decent lens and clicked it into place, carrying the whole lot back to the balcony. I held it up and got what looked like two thumbs up in return.
Is it stalking if you have permission? Felt like stalking. The lens cap now off, I trained the lens in her direction and focused. She held up both pages again and this time, clear as day, I saw a letter “H” on one and a letter “I” on the other. HI. I laughed. She laughed too. She held up a pair of small binoculars. I put the camera down and turned to my notebook. Writing HI on a page, I held up the notebook. Peering through the lens again, I saw Mystery Lady aiming her binoculars at me, and saw her bright smile as she read my message. She ran back inside and then out again, scribbling on another blank page. This one said LAURA. I scribbled my name on another page and held that one up.
She scribbled again, this time across four pages.
PLEASED. TO. MEET. YOU.
It occurred to me later that evening that I could simply have asked for her phone number. I remember, back in 1996 or so, getting my first mobile phone. Big thing, quick as a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter and with a battery that lasted as long as an election promise. SMS changed the communication landscape. Now, you could fire off a text instead of making a call. If your buddy didn’t have SMS you didn’t stay in contact. Then, we got internet-based instant messaging, like MSN. SMS fell by the wayside. Again, if your buddy wasn’t on an instant messenger, then that contact was lost too. Enter WAP-based applications like MXit, and PC-based instant messaging fell off. Then smart phones with choices of messaging apps. Each one leaving its trail of dead contacts. Those that failed to keep up, got left behind. Now, thanks to social media, we can “keep in touch.” But do we? It’s all an illusion, you know. Seeing Sally’s baby pictures or Johnny’s sand boarding trip is not “keeping in contact”. So now we phone the people that matter and consign the rest to the social media graveyard. Every now and again we pass by a friend’s tombstone and leave some flowers (by way of a Like, or a little laughy-face reaction). We have come full circle.
So, no. I didn’t ask for her number. We would have exchanged “hellos” and “how-do-you-do’s” and maybe gotten into something a little deeper but – in the end – it would have gone the way of most text relationships: a flurry of memes, links to random rubbish, and incessant posturing, asking “how was your day” only so that you could tell the person all about YOUR day, the horrible narcissists that we are.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but our scribbles across The Expanse seemed more real than most relationships I could recall.
I was scared to death of breaking the spell.
We had coffee together each morning that week. Nothing was formally arranged, but I was on my balcony at around seven, and she had either beaten me to it or not. We would raise our steaming mugs in greeting and exchange a few words. By the fourth day I had blown through my notebook and so included a ream of printer paper and a permanent marker in my shopping basket. Our conversations were slow, as they would be when you are restricted to one, maximum two, words per page. Our exchanges would follow something like this:
Then a pause, as I contemplated my reply. Small talk was never my thing.
WHAT DO. YOU DO? I wrote.
DOES IT. MATTER? Laura wrote back. No, I thought. It probably doesn’t.
One morning we got into some deeper conversation. It started with WHAT IS FOR. BREAKFAST, to which I replied. COFFEE.
BREAKFAST IS. IMPORTANT she wrote back, and COFFEE IS. IMPORTANTER was my reply.
Once, while out shopping, I think I saw her. I couldn’t be certain. I had only seen her through the lens of my camera, one eye screwed shut, and that messes up your depth perception a little. Also, I had only seen her from the waist up and have no idea how she walked, and of course this person wore a mask. The hair was right though, but it was from across a street and I didn’t want to risk being wrong. Worse, I didn’t want to risk being right.
I did put on a proper shirt though, a nice, blue, long-sleeve one I use for my formal occasions. That was on the third day.
YOU LOOK. NICE. I guess I did.
When I was in late primary school, when I was…what…perhaps 11 going on 12, there was a girl I really liked. I mean really liked. I thought she was just about the prettiest girl in the entire universe. We shared classes together. We were in a play together once, as well, and in one scene we would have to shake hands as we were introduced to each other. My pre-adolescent brain was all a twitter. I was going to touch her hand! The joy! The majesty! The horror! What if I messed something up? Sadly, there was no reciprocation. I tried, in my bumbling way, to make myself noticed and even asked her out once but the reply was no. I can’t remember how I took it. That was thirty years ago now, a little more. Whatever memories I have of that time have now been painted in and embellished, added to and re-constructed, so that even now I can’t wholly trust my recollection of that time. This is how memory works, for all of us. But I will never forget the ethereal way in which I held her memory. Thirty years later, when we reconnected via social media and I saw the woman that she had become, that same childhood beauty was still there, just better. Refined, dignified, classy.
And even if you don’t remember something completely, from long ago, you can sometimes smell a scent or hear a sound and the memory will come flooding back. You don’t think you’d remember what the back door to your childhood home sounded like when it closed, but if you heard it again you’d know it. Sometimes you don’t remember the exact details of the event itself, as coloured in as it is, but you can recall the emotion it stirred up. And so, even now as Laura and I bantered back and forward, one page at a time every thirty seconds to one minute, I sensed that I could smell something, or hear something, or maybe it was just a re-firing of some synapse that took me right back and that warm glow I felt then when I was in the presence of my long-ago Mystery Girl now started to manifest itself in the now, with my Mystery Lady.
Go ahead. Laugh. I deserve it. My friends, the small handful that I call my own, would have laughed. That’s what friends are for, after all. Reminding you of the absurd and imploring you not to take things too seriously.
She wasn’t on the balcony that next Monday morning. My paper and pen were beside me, my camera at the ready. I had added a toasted croissant to the mix, just to show willing and, perhaps, enjoy a bite of something together, along with our coffee. I waited for an hour but nothing stirred. No curtains moved, no early morning lights came on. The door to the balcony did not open.
I got nothing done that day. Oh, I made a reasonable facsimile of it but let’s be honest: it would have been pure rubbish, anyway. Every so often I would peak out of the windows, or walk out onto the balcony. At first I thought I had been foolish, putting on a nice shirt. Who was I tryin’ to kid? In disgust I took it off and threw it onto the bed, replacing it with a t-shirt.
On Tuesday, as with Monday, again no movement. This time I started counting the number of balconies from the left hand side of the building. She was the third. Third from the left, three floors up. A magical number on which to hang a hat on. I could go around, I thought. I could cross the road and knock on doors.
I could ask: excuse me, do you know Laura?
No, my dear.
I’m sorry, I’m looking for Laura.
She is in 3C.
I could just ask if everything was okay but it was that primary school play again, the handshake that I was delighted and – at the same time – horrified for. So I did what I always do. I battened down the hatches and waited. I watched and lurked and spied and frowned and wondered. I told myself that I was being silly. Go, go now, just go and see. What harm could that possibly do? Imminent sage, eternal wiseguy, first-rate cynic and – now – insufferable coward. Now, as then, I left it. Mystery Lady and Mystery Girl.
I was woken by a commotion down on the street, early on Wednesday morning. I opened the balcony door and stole a look down into the road. Across the road was an ambulance. At Magical Number Three there was a flurry of activity.
Someone was being wheeled out on a gurney. A white sheet covered the someone. I glanced up at Laura’s balcony again, and saw the movement of more than one person in the shadows. I looked down at the gurney again. It was waiting, patiently on the side of the road, as a paramedic opened the door of the ambulance. I hastily grabbed a piece of paper and pen and wrote HI in big, bold, and harsh letters.
I showed it to the gurney.
There was no reply.