End Walter

Short fiction, published in Capsule Stories: Isolation Edition, April 2020

     The highways and streets that had led me from San Francisco to our little Washington town of Meadow Glade had been vacant strips of gray, like something written in pencil and then hurriedly erased. Ten hours of driving with the feeling of having just forgotten something; exhausted though all I’d done was keep my car straight. 

     My parents’ garage door was opened, but I stopped short of it. I staggered out of my pre-pre-pre-owned Impala, and smiled at my parents across the no man’s land of our yard. They forced their smiles back, the way they used to prod me towards a stranger to whom I was supposed to say hello. And then we stood there, frozen, not knowing what to do next. What had we expected? We were in a pandemic. This should have been an email. 

     And then my mother seemed to make a decision, and began towards me. 

     “Mom,” I said. “Mom.” And I kept saying it as I backed up against my car, but she was unstoppable now. She was already crying as her arms clamped around me, her ‘smart’ daughter (her only daughter). I inhaled particles from her hair whose scent is indistinguishable in my mind from the concept of home, of mother. The particular dimensions of her embrace are the last sensation I’d want to experience before dying. But I was not the most likely to be the victim of this embrace. 

     Shaken, I insisted on leaving after just a few minutes – this after insisting that I risk my job to drive ten hours to see them – and drove the ten hours right back, stopping in an even smaller town on the way for a few hours’ sleep in my car. I couldn’t stop thinking about my father’s face as I gave him one last look, my distraught mother in the foreground. All his swaggering wit, the flowers of his optimism, pruned away, leaving a spooked old man watching his daughter recede. 

     My father went in for his coronary artery bypass graft that afternoon, and died of complications that night. I hadn’t even hugged him. 

     By the time I woke up again, there were messages on my phone telling me he was gone and that he’d tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Automatically, I reported to my head of department that I’d been in contact with the virus. 

     It seems that a neuro resident in the intensive care unit isn’t a top priority, so they ordered me to quarantine “for now.” It’s been a week, and I keep expecting “for now” to end at any moment, or at least to be administered a test to make sure I have it. Somehow, I’m sure I have it, sure my mother had it when she gave me that sweet and stupid hug that I know – I know – she had to give me. Just the way I had to see them before the surgery. The first thing a doctor loses, after the dependency on a full night’s sleep, is the facility of regret. 

     As medical personnel become more precious each passing day, I’m a doctor who’s not allowed in a hospital. “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” I assume that Voltaire meant to include women but just forgot. 

     Although I know I have it (and a doctor can’t be a hypochondriac, can she?), I treat this down time as though it might actually end at any moment and I’ll be back at work. I don’t start any books because I won’t have time to finish them. I don’t think about the distant future or fortify myself for it. I stay inside, keeping others safe from me.

     My mistake – that would actually be somewhat decent of me. No, I’ve decided      I can’t stand being cooped up in my apartment anymore. People are losing their livelihoods or their lives, and I can’t do them the service of staying indoors except for essential errands. But there we are. After regret, goes guilt. I’m going to the park. 

     It’s overcast. 

     It seems California has changed in every way, and the weather has followed suit. Normally, people are so friendly: they say hi and you smile at their dog and say hi back. It’s a city where exuberance is alternately celebrated and taken for granted. But as I stroll along the margins of Duboce Park, which is as populated as on any regular Sunday, no one interacts.      The dogs play together, but there is no petting the dogs of others, no inquiring about their age and breed. I feel like I’m the only one who can see them all, the whole pointillist tableau of face-masked San Franciscans in the park, while everyone else thinks that they and their dogs are alone.  

     Fifty-some years ago, hippies danced and laid across each other like warp and weft, thinking a new age had dawned. Might one of them, in the throes of an acid trip, have glimpsed us in the future: the same park, their grandchildren, staring fearfully at each other that the other will veer too close? 

     I decide to walk the diagonal path that runs through the park. Sure enough, the cavalier finance dilfs and the anxious Facebook nebbishes alike part for me like the sea. Like I’m a leper. I am; we’re all lepers. 

     At the beginning, the silver lining that I’d looked forward to was, ironically, being less alone. My boyfriend, Diego, lives across town but works at the same hospital as I do – though we met at a trivia night in the Mission. He was brought in as the ringer for the music round and the sports questions. My wheelhouse is science and history, but of course when the quizmaster asked for a definition of aquagenic urticaria, we were evidently the only two people in the room who knew it was an allergy to water. 

     Diego goes out more than anyone else I know in the health care industry. He can’t stay home for longer than it takes to get up, get dressed, and toast Eggos. He thinks that time with me is something that can be checked off the list after a couple of hours, after which he can go out for drinks with one or another of his many, many friends. 

     How was I coping? I got time with someone else: Rob from Urgent Care. He lives right around the corner on Laguna, and I felt I could trust him not to talk since no one at work seems to talk to him. Or like him. He’s so intensely focused on his job that he sacrifices civility towards patients and coworkers alike, yet he is by all accounts incompetent. It’s the kind of focus a first-time driver has when they hit the gas and the car jolts forward: he is serious because he is overwhelmed. 

     So, while Diego’s pulling twenty-hour shifts followed by PBRs at Bender’s, and I was getting nailed by six feet of eye-rolling seriousness, the problem remained at large: a presence I expected to flash in the bathroom mirror while I was spitting out my toothpaste. I was still, fundamentally, alone. 

     And then bars were shut down. And then we weren’t allowed to see our friends at all. And the health care cataclysm that had been on the horizon blotted out the sun. And I had the most selfish of thoughts: that at least I’d have a quarantine buddy when we were off-duty. Finally, some lying-in-bed time with a boy I actually felt feelings for. 

     But I had to drive up to see my parents. 

     Diego isn’t allowed to see me, or else he won’t be able to go to work either. Even fucking Rob – my last resort, who never even deserved to see me out of my scrubs, much less out of my shower – would never compromise his responsibilities in this time of crisis, blah, blah, blah. Good on them.

     I mean it: I would make the same decision. In fact, I wouldn’t see either of them right now if they tried. That doesn’t mean I can’t be hurt that they’re not trying. 

     Now that I’ve walked through a park, I reason that I must feel a little better. I start to head back. 

     There was a dash of drizzle when I first set out from my apartment, but the sky has held back. The world is numb. On the edge of feeling. 

     Gray. 

     I cross Steiner. I’m still officially aimless, but I know my legs are heading home the way one senses when a song is on its final verse. 

     But then, a surprise. A surprise of color. 

     I stop and stare at them, reaching over the metalwork fence as though to shake my hand – not allowed, friends. They aren’t daisies, aren’t bougainvilleas…I’m quickly running out of flower varieties. I appreciate that the metalwork they seem to be in conflict with is in the design of flowers not unlike themselves. They’re a confectionary yellow, translucent. I look at them for what is probably an unreasonable length of time. I get cold from not moving, but I still stand there.

     “Enjoying my dahlias?” 

     I start. A man with deep, almond skin and a baseball cap is standing (what I consider to be) extremely close, and smiling as though we’ve met here every afternoon for years. 

     “Sorry,” I say, taking another step back. “This is your house?”

     “No,” he says, leaning against the fence. “I’m kidding. But it’s good to know you’d believe I live here.”

     I’m not sure what to say, and I’ve already dismissed him as a wack job, so I allow myself an extra moment of staring at him. He’s young: my age or a little younger. He’s dressed unimaginatively well, with a button-up shirt, dark green chinos, and indoor soccer shoes, but the old baseball cap raises some questions. And he doesn’t seem to know there’s a pandemic going on, because he steps towards me again. 

     “Have a good one,” I say abruptly, turning around to book it home.

     “I felt the need to introduce myself…” he begins. 

     Adhering to some tacit convention of society that I can’t seem to put my finger on, I find myself turning back around. 

     Knowing he has only moments to keep me from walking away again, he continues in haste: “We passed each other in the park, and then I felt like I was missing out on something, I don’t know. And then you were just standing here. I had to say something.”

     On ‘park,’ I detect a trace of an accent. Australian, maybe?

     “This is really some time to hit on people,” I say. 

     “I’m not….” But I’ve given him a look and he smiles. “Okay, this could technically qualify as hitting on you, but I’m not after anything. I’m not even gonna ask for your number. I just thought you might wanna talk to me.”

     I remember I didn’t bring my phone, and only now do I regret it because it’s causing my thoughts to turn entirely to scenarios in which I’m running away from this guy. 

     “You thought I might wanna talk to you,” I say.

     “Six feet apart,” he says. “Look, I just feel like I need a connection right now. Or I’ll go nuts. You know what I mean?”

     “Yeah,” I say. “Actually, I do.”

     “Okay,” he says.

     “Well,” I say. “Lead the way. Six feet.”

     He smiles, and it reminds me of a slideshow of smiling quokkas that my best friend, Heather, sent me this morning. If you’ve never seen a quokka, I highly suggest it when this story is finished. It’ll make you feel a thousand percent better. 

     And while we’re already on a tangent, I feel I should address the anomalous fact of my not having my phone. Holed up in my apartment as I’ve been, I pinball between watching movies (mostly documentaries about other times it felt like the world as we knew it was ending), checking in with friends, and reading the news. A lot of news. It eventually starts to feel like everything and everyone is hovering very close to me: the pandemic hovers above, obviously, like the sword of Damocles; the whole, decomposing history of the world kind of roils beneath me, waiting for me to fall into it like a ripening fruit; and everyone I know and love flurries around me, venting, advising, and then more venting as though they’ve paid for the privilege by having given me advice. But nothing ever touches me. And this unconsummated claustrophobia is so oppressive that I have done the unthinkable: leave my phone at home. 

Where were we?

     “I don’t know if I’ve ever hit on someone before.”

     Here we go.

     “How does it usually go?” he asks. 

     “When someone hits on me? Are you looking for pointers?”

     “No,” he says. “I’m just making conversation. We don’t have to do this.”

I breathe out. “Yeah. No. Sorry. I haven’t had human contact for a while. I’m kind of in a funk.”

     “Aren’t we all,” he says.

     “I assure you my funk is…funkier than the average bear’s.”

     “Who do you usually talk to?” he asks. “If not humans.”

     “My computer screen,” I say. “I yell at Trump, or Mitch McConnell, or Adam Driver.”

     “What has Adam Driver ever done to you?”

     “I don’t know. He only plays characters you wanna fucking yell at.”

     “That’s real.” He chuckles. “I just watched a movie that came out like last year, and everyone’s standing close together and never washing their hands. I felt like I was watching Caligula.”

     “That’s funny,” I say. 

     “I’ve also been on kind of a rom-com kick,” he says. 

     “This is no time for rom-coms,” I say, absently.

     “No time to hit on people, no time for rom-coms. What is it with you?” he says. “All you do is read the news and watch Adam Driver movies?”

     “I don’t believe in escapism,” I say.

     “I’m not trying to escape,” he says, suddenly keying up. “I’m trying to experience this moment in history or whatever. I really am. But it’s not just happening on charts that show the rate of infection and in, I don’t know, opinion pieces about Andrew Cuomo.”

     “So you do read the news.”

     “I grew up in DC. Of course I read the news.” Finally some biographical information. “But the moment is happening here, on this walk, on your couch, on my couch.”

     “You have a couch? I don’t have a couch. Do you live around – ?”

     “I’m trying to feel this, because it’s once-in-a-lifetime and it’s insane. And watching people fall in love with Meg Ryan is part of that, because it’s all stressing me out, to be honest. And there’s no meaning in suffering on purpose.”

     “Okay. Take a breath. You can do whatever you want.”

     “Sorry,” he says. But then he goes on: “If this isn’t the time for a love story, then what good are love stories to begin with?”

     We give each other perhaps the most self-aware exchange of glances in history. 

     “I’m not hitting on you!” he says.

I laugh. He smiles at me as if he knows I like him. I do. I feel like everything’s been far off in the distance and he is close and sharp and in color. 

     “You got a little defensive back there,” I say.

     “Not defensive, no,” he says. “It hurts to watch people make this harder for themselves than it already is.”

     “You can’t let what other people do bother you,” I say, knowing the triteness and the impossibility of this. 

     “Yeah,” he says, and stops at the corner. “I’m going this way.”

     “Am I not invited?” I ask.

     “Thank you,” he says. “You’ve made my day.”

     He turns away from me and walks. Vaguely insulted, I just watch him go, and when he’s almost at the end of the block, I start walking home, too. 

     I still have so many questions. I feel like we could have been neighborhood buddies, and we could have taken walks every other afternoon or something. But I just let him leave me there. What am I afraid of?

     I look back, entertaining the idea of running after him. No, that would be…I don’t know. I just wouldn’t do that. 

     I look back again to see what intersection we parted ways at, already nostalgic for something that happened thirty seconds ago. I can’t see the sign for the street I’m walking down, but the cross-street sign says, “Walter.” Above “Walter,” a smaller sign says “End” to indicate that Walter ends at the street I’m now on. 

     Okay, Walter. Well, I didn’t think about my shit for a few minutes. That was nice. 

     Now what?