Love in the Time of COVID-19
By Andrew James Rush
Beatrice woke up to the guttural sound of her phone vibrating on the shelf of her headboard, the same way it did every morning. She didn’t even need to set an alarm. It would be him again. “Good morning pretty lady! Hope you have a great day!” It was always the same. Not the same message, exactly. He’d switch it up, call her honey, say “hope you slept well” instead of wishing her a great day. But it was so monotonous and predictable.
“Ugh,” she sighed, finally giving in to her wakefulness and throwing the blankets off of her pajama clothed body. She was supposed to be up already. He never texted her before she got up, even though she knew he was always up long before her. He waited. Jesus, he must think every morning about when he should text her, plan it out, maybe even type the damn text into the box, then when he thought it was the right moment, hit send. She wondered how long she could get away with not responding before she seemed like a bitch. An hour? Maybe lunch?
She stepped into the bathroom and brushed her teeth. She wasn’t not pretty. She had curly blonde hair that was beginning to show the grays - yet another way that COVID-19 was affecting her life - stone gray eyes, and a little button nose that even she had to admit was cute. But he was always calling her pretty, and it just bothered her. She didn’t know why it did, exactly, and she definitely couldn’t tell him that it bothered her, but it really did. Even if he used the word beautiful instead. It didn’t matter. It was just too much.
Everything about him was too much. Oh, he was nice enough.
No, he was too nice. Too sweet. Too thoughtful. It was like he was rubbing her face in it. He never lost his temper, never let an unkind word slip out, never forgot to mention whatever thing Beatrice happened to be working on that she’d brought up earlier so she’d know he’d been paying attention. It was like he was trying to win some kind of boyfriend award. It was too much. Too much too much.
She showered quickly and brushed her hair, straightening it with a hot iron, and scarfed down a quick breakfast of cold pizza and almond milk. That was another thing. He was so damn health conscious. It was overbearing. He never outwardly judged her eating habits, but that was just one more way he was too much. He didn’t even indicate in any way that he disapproved, but she knew he did, because he, like in everything else, was relentlessly consistent about the food he ate. The fact that he didn’t chastise her for her dietary choices was in itself a chastisement.
Finally she was ready, and she set up the laptop on her kitchen table and logged in. Work in the world of COVID was a stressful and omnipresent aspect of her life. Because she worked from home, she never felt like she was totally off. She’d do some work for an hour or so, wash some dishes, do some work, eat lunch, do some work, sweep the living room… and when five o’clock rolled around, she found she couldn’t stop doing work. It kept nipping at her. Check the invoices, cross reference the inventory, confirm the payment with accounting, double-check that the website was current, did they pay for the advertisement? On and on. And through all of this, he’d text.
“How’s it going babe? Kicking the day’s ass?”
“Oh, man, I just made the killer omelette.”
“Check out this gif!”
All damn day.
He didn’t have a job. Well, he did have a job before COVID, but then when all the restaurants had shut down or drastically reduced their payroll, he went on unemployment, and there he’d been ever since. He was taking the extra time to work on his paintings, hoping maybe he could sell one, she guessed. But he had also talked about not going back to the restaurant industry. “It doesn’t seem stable anymore,” he’d said. “And I think I’ve been over it for a while, honestly.”
“What are you going to do after?” she’d asked him.
“Not sure.” He had seemed utterly nonplussed and just continued to eat his avocado with a spoon, right out of the shell, in tiny little spoonfuls, one after the other like he was playing a little game with himself of it. He never got upset or showed heavy emotion. He had this calm… serenity about him that she’d once found attractive, but now found utterly exasperating. “I might look into landscaping. I’ve always wanted to work outside.”
Truthfully, she’d found much about him attractive at first. He was in really good shape, physically, for one thing. Like, amazingly good shape. He ran, lifted weights, and had a membership at a rock climbing gym where he’d sent her videos of himself when they first started dating, and he looked like he knew what he was doing, at the least. She’d also really appreciated how thoughtful and kind he was. He had a gentleness, which was heightened by the fact that he was exceptionally tall and well-built. A gentle giant, she’d once called him to a friend she was bragging him to.
“Aren’t you worried?” she’d asked him.
“Sure,” he’d said. “There’s a global pandemic going on. I think everybody’s worried.”
But she didn’t really believe he was worried at all. And how could he not be? He had been a cook all his life and barely made ends meet, and now there was an economic catastrophe taking down the whole country. The little online Bidet company that Beatrice worked for was doing well, for now, but everyday she suffered panic attacks five or six times; just little ones, but they were panic attacks all the same. She was worried about her mortgage, having just bought her house in Walnut Creek three years ago. He wasn’t worried about his rent in San Francisco? Of course, that wasn’t the same. He didn’t own anything. There was no real risk for him like there was for her.
She hadn’t done any actual work in almost an hour. She just kept thinking about him, waiting for the phone to buzz with another, hopefully vapid text. If it was an “I love you,” or “I miss you,” she might just lose her damn mind. What was she going to do about him? Finally, she picked up her phone.
“Good morning, honey! Sorry, I slept in. Work is crazy. How’s your day?” She hit send, scrunching her nose at her phone.
He texted back right away.
“Great! Painting is going really good, might finish the whole Octopus piece today.”
He’d been talking about this octopus painting since quarantine started. He thought maybe he could sell it and keep the painting going for a few more months after his unemployment ran out. He thought it was going to be his lucky break, she guessed.
He was a good painter. She’d seen enough of his work and had a basic enough grasp of what made a good painting to recognize that what he was doing was sophisticated and elegant and had a kind of heft to it. A voice. But he was acting like this was his ticket out of the economic shitstorm of the century, and she just couldn’t see how that made any kind of sense. She couldn’t dare criticize it though, or it might come off like she was being unsupportive. Like a bitch. And she wasn’t unsupportive. She really thought he could do it, maybe even get rich doing it someday. Well, maybe. But she didn’t think it was a realistic plan out of the mess they were in, and he wasn’t acting scared. He was acting like everything was just going to work out magically.
She threw the phone down on the table where it thunked, it’s rubbery plastic case doing its job admirably.
After a few more minutes plunking around on the inventory page of her work software, she got up and tried to find something to eat. Bagels. Cream cheese. She stood in the kitchen and ate over the sink, staring out her little window that looked out at a playground which had been wrapped in caution tape for most of the last few months, but upon which a small boy now played as his mother stood by taking pictures wearing a cloth mask with a screen printed cartoon smile over where her real mouth would have been. The scene brought up another tiny panic attack, and she wondered how bad the COVID situation was and if they might be able to fully open the economy again.
She practically ran back to her computer and checked CNN.
US Reports Highest Single Day Spike in New COVID-19 Cases.
No such luck.
“What are you doing after work tonight?”
She knew what he was really asking was Could he come over? She hadn’t let him come over in over a week. He’d only actually asked once, and she’d almost let him. But something in her response must have queued him into her reluctance, because he had told her he could wait a few days if she wasn’t feeling it, and she had admitted she wasn’t. But she hadn’t told him why, and he hadn’t asked, so that was that, right?
“Taking it easy, I think,” she replied.
“Work has me kind of wiped out,” she added, hoping to dissuade him from asking more directly.
He didn’t respond. Good. That was really good. Finally maybe she could get this work thing under control.
The work thing was actually completely under control, and on some level she even knew that. But she was obsessing over it, and even though she knew she was obsessing over it, and she knew that the reason she was obsessing over it was because it made her feel like there was something about this quarantine world that she could control, she wasn’t quite at the point of being able to acknowledge this fact exactly. And this inability to acknowledge this fact just pushed her further into her obsession, and she half watched herself spiral into this for the rest of the afternoon.
It was after five. She didn’t even have to check. It was him, and he was going to ask how her day had gone. Jesus! Relentless!
“Beatrice, are we OK? Things feel off with us, but I’m not sure what. Am I imagining it?”
This was unexpected.
Her hands trembled. Another panic attack. Why was he so nice about it?! Of course they weren’t okay! Nothing was okay! She went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face, wondering how long she could delay talking about it. Maybe she didn’t need to talk about it. Maybe she could just lie and say things were fine. But then he might want to come over.
“I’m having some feelings about us.” She waited and then sent another. “It’s complicated.”
“Do you think we should talk about it?” He always wanted to talk about things. No matter what the problem was, he wanted to drag it out into the open and just discuss it. Deal with it. There was too much else going on, too much stress, too much worry… And he wasn’t worried about the one thing he should be! Finding a damn job!
“I know this is probably harsh, but it feels like our trajectories are going in different directions right now.” She was winging it, vaguely aware of the beads of sweat trickling from her forehead.
“Is this about me being unemployed?” he asked.
“That’s part of it. Yeah.”
“Don’t you think we should have talked about this by now?” There he goes again! Why?! What was there to talk about? Why couldn’t he just get a job?
“Not with the way you’re going at this with total tunnel vision.”
“That’s pretty insulting, Beatrice.”
“It’s how I feel.”
It was how she felt. It was the most honest thing she’d said in days, and it felt good. So good that she continued.
“I think we need to break up. I’m too stressed out right now, and I think our trajectories are incompatible. I’m sorry.”
“Wow.” That was all he said for a few minutes. “I can’t believe that after all we talked about how important communication is, you would break up with me in a text message because I’m unemployed.”
Well, that was just unfair! It was a gross oversimplification at best. There was his just… too muchness, for one thing.
“I’m sorry. You’ve been really sweet.”
Okay, let it go now, she thought, willing him to comply. She felt the blood drain from her face where it had been building up, making her flush and hot, and the sudden change in blood pressure made her feel cool and relaxed in the humid bungalow. But then her phone began to ring.
No! That was too much! She dismissed the call.
It rang again.
She went into the menu on her phone and blocked the number. Sweet relief! It was as if a cool autumn breeze had blown in and swept all her frustration away. That was it. No more annoyingly sweet “good mornings.” No more shares from his FitBit at seven in the morning. No more frank discussions about emotions. That was it. She was free.
She flipped on the news. Statues were being toppled in Charleston. The Minneapolis police department was set to be dismantled. The Seattle city hall had been taken over by protesters. But Beatrice was fine. A smile broke across her face in the orange light of the evening that filtered through her living room blinds.
Beatrice was just fine.