“This shit is bleak, babe," Thea said, shouting into the phone over the music coming through the wall. “When will you be back”?
There was slight hesitation on the other end of the phone before Stefanie answered, “Uh, the word is that the State Department hasn’t issued any orders to come home yet and…”
"Jesus shut that shit off." Thea cut her off abruptly “Hang on babe, I can barely hear you over the neighbor’s music," she said, shaking her head. She tucked the phone in her armpit and walked over to the wall that separated her and Stefanie from their new (ish) neighbor. “Hey”, she yelled, as she hit the wall three times with her fist-(bang-bang-bang)-can you turn it down?" "Motherfucker", she thought to herself. She was pleasantly surprised when the volume lowered ever so slightly.
“Ah, good", she thought and raised the phone to her ear, “Let’s try again. I could barely hear you."
Stefanie sounded slightly irritated for a split second, but it just wasn’t her nature to stay in it. “I was just saying the state department hasn’t issued anything firm yet and so it could be another two to three weeks before I can leave. But, good news, we are right at the end of the build”, she said reassuringly.
"Fuck", Thea thought, sighing, "Another 2-3 weeks? I hate being alone, especially right now. Have you been paying attention to what’s happening over here?”
Thea was referring to the fact that, in what seemed like a matter of days, the United States had taken the lead, in the number of coronavirus cases, over all other nations setting some people into full on panic mode.
“I know sweetheart, Stefanie said, almost pleading, “You’ll be fine-just Netflix and Chill", she giggled, "and before you know it, I’ll be back”.
Thea shot back, "What are you 20? Look, you said two weeks max and it’s bleeding into four." Thea purposefully paused, waiting, one, two, three beats for a better response from Stefanie, but none came. "Are you hearing me?”
There was whispering back and forth on Stefanie’s end of the line before she answered, "Yes, of course, I hear you, and yes…, Ok. I have to run, I have a meeting. Listen, babe. Just go out on the balcony and sing like they’re doing in Italy”
“Seriously Stef”? The balcony?
“I really gotta run. Call you tomorrow,” and just like that, the other end of the phone went dead. Exasperated, Thea put the phone face down on the coffee table and plopped onto the couch. "God damn it", she screamed in her head, “This is exhausting”.
Inevitably, she picked up the IPad and found the updated number of cases. “Jesus, 244,000, what the hell”? and threw it back down just as quickly.
She thought about calling her mom but didn’t want to freak her out with this neediness. It was erratic contact, at best, and now she was calling her every three days. Her mom was clearly starting to get annoyed with these intrusions.
“Hello, darling, what is it this time precious”? Her mom asked, with a hint of sarcasm the last time Thea picked up the phone to call her.
Her mom was a busy woman. Social and active at 76. Who would have thought? Senior Center during the day and movies and dinner with friends in the evening. While the Senior Center closed down last week, due to Covid, the kitchen remained open and her mom was still walking over to get her lunch since the center was virtually out her back door. Any break in her usual routine was apt to aggravate her. But she was handling all of this well in fact, much better than her daughter was. She just wanted to make it clear she didn’t need to hear from her every three days.
Thea stretched her arms long over her head and looked out the balcony window. Like her relationship and this virus, the weather wasn’t predictable these days. It could be 60 today and threatening to snow tomorrow.
She contemplated porn-hub-but that wasn’t exactly what she was craving. She should be working but had caught up with her last article. The dishes were done, the place spic and span. There was actually nothing left to clean. “What now…what now?” She picked up the little black book and started absentmindedly thumbing through it. This was her idea book. The secret behind her succesful stories. Anytime she had an idea, or overheard an interesting conversation, she would jot it down and review it later.
She stared at the wall separating her and her neighbor. She studied the colorful woodcuts hanging on her side of the wall and wondered what the neighbor had on hers. Perhaps framed movie posters, High Art, starring Ally Sheedy, and Radha Mitchell, or maybe Chocolat, or the mystical Love in the Time of Cholera, or maybe her favorite, Bound. She imagined her neighbor would love these movies as much as she did.
Or maybe her walls were covered in black and white photographs she had taken and framed herself. An unforgettable story for each one. Thea could only speculate, but she thought she was, at least, in the neighborhood of right. Stefanie never saw the point of most movies, unless they had a Hollywood ending. She hated Parasite and Uncut Gems. “Gratuitous violence” she would say, fervently. “What was the point of even making these movies. What purpose? We already know life is terrible and bad things happen? There was never a conversation about the potential social commentary, the differences, and similarities between people, race, or class. It was black and white. No in-between or nuances allowed. Thea felt like Stefanie had always lived in the middle. Maybe that’s why this had worked for so many years. “Opposites attract, and all that shit, right?”, she thought.
The voice coming from the balcony was strong and confident. “Hey, are you there. I just heard you talking”?
"Jesus Christ", she said, jumping a little. She realized who was beckoning her to the balcony and she felt herself blush. “Yeah, sure," she said softly as she approached the balcony. She thought it was weird that she waas just thinking about her and now this. She stepped out and to her right was a smiling face poking out of the window, hovering above the adjacent balcony.
“I would shake your hand”, the neighbor offered, “but six feet and social distancing are our new normal.” Thea didn't know what to say. Close up, her neighbor bore a striking resemblance to Robin Wright and she had to fight the urge to tell her. She just stared at the neighbor, not knowing quite what to say.
“Anyway, the neighbor continued, I wanted to apologize for the music. I mean, how loud it was playing. I didn’t know anyone was home or I would’ve kept it down”. She continued, smiling. “I hope I can make it up to you sometime”? she said.
Thea pulled herself together and hoped her cheeks didn’t expose what she was feeling. “Oh no, no, not a problem at all. I love your music, in fact, but no problem. I was on the phone with my…my, um, with a friend, I hope you didn’t think I was being rude. Maybe I’m the one who should be apologizing.” Thea noticed her neighbors’ hands right away and how she used them to express herself.
Her neighbor broke the awkward silence again, “Sorry to be rude, I didn’t even introduce myself, I’m Itzel, but my friends call me Izzy." She threw Thea a fake high five.
“I’m Thea. Happy to finally meet you. I have to confess that I’ve seen you come and go. That VW. It’s a classic. 1960, right?" She said, hoping to impress with her classic car knowledge.
Izzy laughed, “Wow, that’s pretty good. Not many people can guess her age. She’s cute, right? I like the irony that a 5 foot 3 something card-carrying lesbian is driving what Hitler called the “People’s Car”. She continued to laugh. “Karma, bitches." she said, still leaning out of the window next to the balcony.
“I have an idea, Thea blurted out, "Why don’t we meet out here tomorrow night, you on your balcony, me on mine, and have a drink or…"
Izzy didn’t even wait for Thea to finish her thought “Fabulous idea. I have one better for you. We could call it Merlot Wednesdays. I’m down. This virus has been a real bummer on my social life.”
“Ok." Said Thea. "It’s a da-deal!" Today is Wednesday, she thought. "Oh shit. What time is it now", she asked?
Her neighbor chuckled “Um, don’t you have a watch, right there”? She said pointing to her own wrist.
Thea felt her face flush and she knew she was blushing “Geez, yeah, it’s about 3," looking closely at her watch and wanting to disappear into it. Let’s say 6, 630, 7?" too immobilized to seal the deal.
“Perfect, 7 it is, Izzy said smiling, then disappeared back into her window.
Thea walked back into the living room, plopped down on the couch, and put her face into her hands. “What the fuck have I done?” she moaned. She sat there for a few more minutes, bemoaning the situation but this self-deprecation was short-lived as Thea continued to think about the neighbor. She picked up her little black book and started taking notes.
She tasked herself with painting a picture of Izzy and her life, fitting the pieces together with the clues, the hints of lavender coming through her window, the blue 1960s VW bug she drove, strains of Lizzo’s anthem pounding through the wall, “I do my hair toss, check my nails, baby how you feel, feelin’ good as hell."
Music, especially that song, made her smile, made her dance, unconstrained, by herself in the living room, fist-pumping in the air, singing to the invisible crowd. The music freed her mind and her body.
Thea laughed as she imagined herself tossing her very short hair and checking her raggedy ass nails. She had never, ever, in her entire adult life, done either bit, but she loved to think about the irony as sang the song and made the gestures, as lame as they were.
Stefanie preferred the Wolf, the local country music station, or NPR news. Thea liked to be informed but she set limits for herself, otherwise, the shit happening, especially now, would have her committed to the psych hospital.
Stefanie watched the markets and wanted to be informed about what was happening internationally. She kept up with the State Department because of her position. She was a Nurse Practitioner helping to set up hospitals in Saudi Arabia and other oil rich nations. Cleveland Clinic was her first in Abu Dhabi. She consulted and helped them design rooms that worked for both the patients and nurses. She didn’t have to deal with the messes that the Project Managers often found themselves in. She didn’t have to get her hands dirty at all.
She would often come home angry, full of stories about how one or more of the Australian nurses end up in jail for public drunkenness or fighting. Thea found it hilarious and imagined herself hanging with the Aussies, wearing shorts and raising hell just to spite the pervasive misogyny in that culture. Thea knew the nurses might spend a night in jail, but they were bailed out, usually in less than 24 hours, and didn't suffer any severe consequences as they were needed. Once Thea made the mistake of joking about Jodi Magi, who was arrested in Abu Dhabi for “writing bad words on social media." She was joking about WHY she was arrested not THAT she was arrested, but Stefanie didn’t appreciate it.
On the job, she was a serious nurse consultant who dressed and acted the part. While she fought for both nurses and patients, she knew how hard to push and when to stop. That was not Thea’s strong suit. One could not be too forceful, as a woman, in the middle east. Stefanie was always dressed in her best on these trips. Long sleeves and dress pants, always. She generally wore some type of blazer because professionalism was expected under all circumstances.
For Thea, best dressed meant jeans and a t-shirt without holes. This was one thing she immediately liked about the neighbor, although unlike Thea, she looked “dressed up” in her jeans. It’s weird how some people can always have that put together look, even if they had sackcloth on their backs and camel dung in their hair. Her neighbor could have pulled that off.
Thea was thrown off because the neighbor reminded her of one of her first crushes, Robin Wright. Maybe it was her demeanor; she seemed self-confident, the way she held her head up and appeared to look the world in its face, both Izzy and Robin Wright. Thea always joked that “Forest Gump made me gay.” A person could be pig ugly and still desirable, Thea thought, if they had that unwavering confidence, and a slight hint of arrogance, they’d still be fuckin’ hot. She had lost a lot of her own confidence over the years, maybe that’s why this woman was particularly attractive to her.
She and Stefanie had been together for 13 years, married for 4. Marriage for her was something sacred and romantic. For Stefanie, it was a way to guarantee health insurance into retirement and to potentially increase benefits on taxes. Never the romantic, at the time she had said, “Securing our future is romantic honey, isn’t it”? "Yeah, right," Thea said to the wall. "Yeah right”.
The day to day tedium kicked in after a couple of really hot years. It sucked, but isn’t that how it always works for everyone? The hook; passionate, wild lovemaking anywhere and everywhere, even in the damn car and then… crickets. "What the hell happened to us?" She fought hard to wrap her head around it but never had the answer to these questions.
They renovated this place, made it their home 10 years ago. All 750 square feet. When they moved in, all of the wood in the apartment was painted over, God knows how many coats they would have to remove. They spent hours and days working to get the paint off of the gorgeous white pine accents throughout the townhouse. They were both disgusted with this blasphemy. Who the hell paints over white pine? It was early into the relationship, so the hard work was fun, and they worked like a well-oiled unit. This brought them even closer together.
The townhouse was their little bungalow. You would step through the front door into the living room with wood floors throughout, a gorgeous couch from Morocco, War rugs from Afghanistan, handcrafted furniture, replete with interesting pieces of local and international artists. It was a simple turn to the left and a walk through pocket doors to the bedroom, where another set of pocket doors led to the bathroom, then through a conventional door to the tiny kitchen and around a very “questionable”, if even existent corner, to the “dining room," which seconded as a studio for Thea to do her woodcuts, before she rented a shop downtown at the cooperative. This was a paradise for both of them when they moved in, but Stefanie was paid big bucks now and wanted something bigger. Thea was content in their home, her Pequeno Nido, and had no desire to pack up and move again.
Carlos, their neighbor who lived through the other side of the wall, almost as long as she and Stefanie, had moved out 6 months ago to take a position at Oxford. He would head up GLAM, a division of four significant world collections, which fit this gay boy perfectly. He and Thea became fast friends and she missed him. Zoom just didn’t do the trick. “I need to call him later," she thought, “See how he’s doing." "Has this hit London as hard," she thought? Oxford was only 60 miles northwest of London and she knew he loved to party there with all the beautiful boys. “I hope he isn’t being stupid," she said out loud.
She looked down at her phone. "530 already? Oh shit. OH SHIT." She ran to the bathroom while sticking her nose into her own armpit, “Eww. Gross. Time for some Toms,” she said, and grabbed it from her personal hygiene drawer and slathered it on, giddy and delighted. “Slow down tiger", she said, looking in the mirror, and speaking as if she were advising an old friend. “This is a wine with a stranger, it isn’t a big deal," she. “Pull your head out, before you look stupid." She splashed her face repeatedly with cold water and frantically brushed her teeth, precisely checking her breath even though she knew there would be at least 6 feet between them.
“What to wear, hmmm, what to wear”? She thought about changing but they just saw each other. That would be awkward. She decided that her Heart T-Shirt and jeans would be just fine. “I’m not out to impress her or anything," she said to herself in the mirror, running her hand through her short hair, to be sure it was in place. "Fuck it", she thought and messed her hair up with both hands. This is me.
She went to the wine rack and dusted off a 2017 Napa Valley Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot. She wished she could present Izzy with a Chateau Lafite, but she knew that whatever it was, even if it was boxed Franzia, Izzy really wouldn’t care.
The four weeks after Thea and Izzy met that first time out on the balcony flew by fast. ProPublica was putting a lot of pressure on Thea to finish up her piece on the VA and Izzy was busy getting groceries to her parents and trying to finalize her unemployment benefits. The relief package would actually be fairly decent, at least in the short term, for gig workers like Izzy, but she was looking forward to getting back to her job. Today would be their 4th and final wine fest. Stefanie was on her way home.
Thea took a bottle of Trader Joe’s Sauvignon Blanc off of the wine rack and looked at it a bit too seriously. The smell always reminded her of weed, but for cheap white wine, it tasted okay. "Better than Mad Dog 2020 wrapped in a brown paper bag", she said under her breath, dragging her feet as she made her way to the balcony.
It was a bit cooler tonight, so she wrapped her 30-year-old Patagonia Zen Turtle pullover closer and anticipated that her friend's beautiful face would pop out onto the adjacent balcony any minute. Thea eyed her watch. It wasn’t like Izzy to be late. 5 minutes, then 10, then 20 minutes passed. She poured herself a small splash of wine every five minutes and gulped it down. Before she knew it, the bottle was done, and Izzy was nowhere in sight. “Hey Izzy, Thea’s slurred loudly, "where the hell are ya girl?"
She swung her arms out and knocked the wine bottle off the table. “Oh Goddammit”, she said, as she bent over to pick the glass up, and when she did, the disequilibrium of the alcohol facilitated her fall out of the chair and onto the cold, hard ground.
When Thea woke up, she thought it was Stefanie who was standing beside her. “Jesus, you had me worried sick baby," Stefanie said, a look of relief on her face seeing Thea finally open her eyes. She was having a hard time seeing Stefanie and tried to concentrate harder to focus her eyes. She strained to see and realized Stefanie was wearing a yellow cape and goggles? and a mask? What the fuck? Thea thought as she tried pushing herself up on her elbows.
“Why are you here”, Thea slurred? And looked around at her surroundings. She was surprised by the groggy and soft sound of her own voice, the thickness of her tongue, the difficulty making the words. She became aware of the rhythmic whirs and clicks of the machines around her, the lines crossing her body this way and that. She craned her neck so she could see her feet and she wiggled her toes. “What the fuck Stef”? She said, confused. “Is this a joke?" "Wasn’t I just on the balcony waiting for Izzy?" Thea was trying hard to figure out how she had gotten here, to this place, with Stefani standing over her wearing this yellow thing.
“I don’t know who Izzy is baby," Stefanie said speaking softly, “you’re in the hospital and you’ve been here for about 3 weeks". She wavered before going on, “I had to bring you to the ER because you had a persistent fever. Remember, honey?"
Thea was thoroughly confused after this revelation and let her heavy head fall back into the pillow. She had to let this soak in as she pulled at her memory banks trying to find her place in this reality, but she couldn’t. “No”, she said angrily and unconvinced, “This isn’t a hospital. Why am I here?" She became frantic and her voice got louder and stronger. “And what the hell did you do with Izzy? Where is she?”
Stefanie tried her best to calm Thea by putting her gloved hand gently on her left shoulder talking in a way that she thought would pacify her. Thea tried to shift away from her touch. “No, get your handoff. Where’s Izzy."
Stefanie knew she was confused and tried to distract her “Babe, guess what? Carlos is here. He’s waiting to see you. See, look through that window.” Stefanie pointed to the right-hand side of the room where a wide window revealed the workings of a hospital. Thea relented and Stefanie was able to help lift Thea’s head and shoulders a bit higher up in the bed, so she could see Carlos. “That’s it," Stefanie said cheerfully, "See, he’s waving”
Thea couldn’t believe it. She wanted to wake up. Carlos was right there, through the window. His smile lit up the room. "This is a dream, a fucking nightmare. I was just waiting for Izzie. Wake up god damn it, wake the fuck up," she told herself, getting more perturbed with every passing second. No matter how many times she willed it, she couldn’t pull herself back to the balcony where, for the last time, she was waiting to share a cheap bottle of wine with Izzy.
"Honey, I'm going to go catch up with Carlos before he comes in to see you," Stefanie said as she backed out of the room.
Thea looked frantically around her, for something familiar. And there it was. Her little black book, sitting on her bedside table with some medical items. She willed herself to roll over and reach for it. "I feel so heavy," she thought.
She grabbed the book and opened it. She recognized the writing. These were notes she had written. It looked like she had been jotting down her temperature and how she had been feeling. It was clear that this was the beginnings of a point of view COVID story, she the subject.
She kept reading. About how it became more difficult to take a deep breath or move from the bedroom to the bathroom. She looked closely at the pages for any mention of Izzy and couldn't find anything. She was exhausted and confused.
Finally, when she was just about to put the book back on the table, she came across several pencil sketches of a 1960 Baby Blue Beetle with the license plate Ix Chel. Izzy had told her, Itzel was a derivative of Ix Chel. Did she dream this?
Under the picture of the Blue Beetle with the Ix Chel license plate, she wrote, Itzel, she of the rainbow. Looking through the prism of the moon.
Thea started crying. She realized all of this must have been a fever dream, a wish, an illusion. She remembered she had been writing a story about the Mayans and the strong representations of women in their folklore when the fevers hit.
Stefanie and Carlos came into the room. Carlos immediately went over to Thea, sat on her bed, dried her tears, and embraced her. "I know I'm not suppossed to do this, Mija, but you know me, I never follow the rules," he whispered into her ear.
Thea rested after they left. She laid her head back on her pillow and closed her eyes, clutching the little black book in between her hands like a prayer. She played out the last four weeks she had with Izzy and fell asleep to the whirs and clicks of the machines.