Romance In the Time of Covid

‘I just need to make it past the year anniversary… There’s something about dates with me… A year… I make it past a year and I’m okay… That revolution of the sun kinda thing, I dunno.’ It was really cold in the parked car. Rub your hands on the fresh leather and they pick up the scent, a kind of chemical cow, all cleanliness and factory. There are the neighbour’s kitchen lights through the bushes. It is dinner time. The earth is in exactly the same position as it was back then, as it had been a billion times before. ‘It’d be cool if there was something evolutionary about it, something I don’t understand… but it’s probably all calendars and shit. I remember when a friend committed suicide – nineteenth of September, two-thousand-and five – and every year at that time I would get really depressed, and I didn’t know why and then I’d be like, “O shit, it’s the nineteenth tomorrow.” ’ When she asks how I would like to use our session, I prefer not to answer but to just begin talking. ‘So, I’m acutelyaware of what I was doing exactly a year ago. I try not to think of it, but I can’t help it… It just happens.’ ‘What were you doing a year ago today?’ she asked as though it were a lighthearted conversational query rather than any venture into the state of my mental health. I was living a series of moments both past & present. What might be visited upon myself while in my bedroom getting dressed for the day was interrupted – no, possessed! – by the scent of her coffee or face moisturiser, the sound of the radio in her apartment or the smell of the curtain she kept draped over the front door; everything came back in little pieces, squeezed into my day like shrapnel.
    ‘Her friends came over for lunch… Or brunch… I suppose it was brunch. It was nice. Polite affair. After that, we went for a walk – just me and her – round one of the lakes and I took photographs, all in black & white and shit. It was really moody.’ Chuckle. ‘We went to this bookshop – a secondhand bookshop, the place was packed with books – and the owner had this portrait of her uncle or her grandfather or great-uncle, I can’t remember, on the wall. She and the owner chatted a lot. I just looked at the books. She would chat with anyone and everyone. After that we walked to this pub with big glass windows and had a drink. I have a photograph of her ordering a drink in this bar.’ Everything recalled was done so as though it were a dream, a fraction of momentary and temperamental recollection measured against a majority of forgetfulness and feeling! Our squashed clothes against the condensation window. There was a zebra crossing outside – or whatever it is called in Finnish – and there was Bundesliga on the television. Go outside for a cigarette and the bitter cold. The toilets in the back were tiny. The barmaid was a young student; she talked to her, also, and I watched her. She had this hunched, eager pose she formed over the varnished wood of the bar, and there were chiropractors studying it. Telling her felt like a load off. I was not going insane, nor was I longing; I was afflicted by something I could not see, something that was separated from me by three-hundred-sixty-five days and some hours. By the time I told her this, with all the transfer of longitude, we had already walked, via the swimming pool, back to hers with arms full of sweets. At that exact moment, we had been fucking, which was a far more carnal and violent affair than I conveyed, as I stroked my hand across the back seat leather, its stench oiling into my fingertips.
    I wish I had taken more photographs of my grandmother playing scrabble. The canvas bag in which the tiles are kept smelled like her apartment, and I did not know why, because the two had never met. On Saturday morning my mother was repairing some of the stitching that had come undone and begun to separate the bag in two. There is an exact spot where she sits on the sofa, and as she becomes conscious that she is permanently upsetting the cushion, she switches it with another sofa, rather than just moving to another spot. She catches me staring—‘It was about to break. I washed it, too.’ ‘Had quite a distinctive smell,’ I told her. ‘Did it?’
    My parents are attending a funeral tomorrow (at time of writing), not allowed into the service, due to restrictions, but they will, as well as many of my father’s school friends, be lingering outside the church, the -yard, dressed warmly in black through what is looking to be a sunny and frosty day. You cannot attend funerals or raves, you have to stand outside, socially distant, listening to the music from within. The highs get lost in the building’s walls, slap against the side, trapped, wobble grains of ballast & cement, fizz against the year it was built and whisper out into January. I have been to one funeral in my life. The lows make it through in greater lumps of air, air that reaches mourners in the car park, those that line the garden path, the fading ears of middle-aged men who went their separate ways forty years ago.
    Above a wardrobe, in the spare bedroom my mother dedicated to her granddaughters, my duvet is stored. The girls could never reach up there without a ladder, but they play below with farmyard animals, tiny action figures and an assortment of wooden fruit that the eldest will sell on Saturday afternoons when she visits, and family members go up, one at a time, to purchase a wooden apple or a peach or a wooden tomato. My duvet is stored above her head, above the market stall she has set up and all the wooden coins and paper notes, above the signs scrawled in Crayola. Atop the rickety metal step ladder – my every tremor vibrating through it and then amplified by my panic & giggle – I pull down the laundry bag with my duvet rolled tight inside. Unzip and its colour is unfamiliar to me at first, an off-white yellow, even its touch; in fact, it is almost three minutes before I realise it is my duvet. Its weight is especially unfamiliar. Since returning to my parents, especially in the hot spring and summer, I used a much lighter duvet that was barely there, and was unable to keep me warm through autumn and winter. So thin is it that, through my tossing & turning, it gets trapped underneath me and tightens until I awake, cocooned. After many forgetful evenings I finally, on the twenty-fourth of January, put my own duvet in the sheets I ironed with strange enjoyment. It is so heavy! I showered and got into bed, beneath the duvet, and it pinned me to the mattress. ‘Wool’s like that.’ I could not move. I was smiling and it was the best I had felt in bed for a long time. It reminded me of before.
    ‘Sounds like an anxiety blanket.’ The house on the corner’s hedge overhangs the narrow pavement. Its shade encourages a thin moss to flourish on the paving slabs below, making them somewhat treacherous in fresh rain, especially as one ducks out the way of the hedge. ‘Yeah, or a weighted blanket.’ We are in the habit of talking every day. At half-two I regard the weather. I call her as I curve onto Salisbury Ave. She answers uncertainly, even at the display of my name; either me or her mother. If a call is missed, the walk takes twice as long. If the gale is too much, I curse, and round off the seafront to the backstreets, the howl of the wind shut off by a parallel row of houses. She comes through clearly, a cuppaon the table, next to a stack of half-read books and well-watered plants, a cat calming in her lap, checking her thigh for a piercing his excited claw just made, an exclamation mark of blood, 12pt, brushed up on a fingertip; no problem with cats, piercings or blood. You speak to someone every day and you learn their moods, and what really makes them laugh. You speak to someone every day and you find out about their feistiness and slowly build up a list of books you would recommend them. You speak to someone every day and you soon disregard saying ‘Hello’, preferring instead to open with an observation about some strange gentleman you have seen running in circles, or a dog that is ignoring the distant calls of its owner, or a house that has recently installed a totem pole on its front lawn. It is what Gabriel García Márquez referred to as Romance In The Time of Covid. In the million walks I have made, new differences stand out like sore thumbs, as though, every month or so, an angry hammer were taken to the landscape. I pause. Outside of the public toilets – the public toilets near the beginning of my walk, not the ones near the end (which often interrupts our telephone calls if I do not believe I will make it home in time, given the leisurely pace I adopt when we converse), and the public toilets they have kept open this lockdown but were closed during the first – there is a small tree. I pause because I do not believe that the small tree was always a small tree but that yesterday it was a large bush. The married couple who smoke on their balcony overlooking the sea drag their gaze from the shallow waves to my pause, as I recognise I am not going insane, but that the bush was excavated – a palm of some sort, able to withstand cold temperatures and sea winds – and replaced with a very attractive young tree, all twisted & turned in rough bark, pale green leaves in tufts, and beneath it a mound of unsettled soil. It rained only an hour ago, yet the soil, soft and fluffy, is clearly newer than that. Had I been there sooner, I would have witnessed the pulling of flora’s tooth. Where is it now? Is something like that relocated or simply churned to chips so that it might nurture a young’un on its way to the top? I looked up at the couple smoking, their bellies overhanging the balcony, both elbows poised with fag that they might look down their nose at me, before I finally admired the pout of upturned earth and pulled out my phone.