Ah, poor Helen. Her husband, Derek, who had developed the selective and vindictive pedantry of a sharp mind growing less capable, was maintaining social distance in their home, perching at the far end of the dining table instead of at her elbow, commandeering the couch in front of the television while banishing her to the side chair, and in their bed constructing a Great Wall of throw pillows and cushions firmly tucked under a blanket, forcing them both to the isolated edges of their king-sized mattress.
It was unnecessary. Neither of them had left the building for a month. Nor had they let anyone visit. Neither of them had any symptoms of the corona virus, and when the delivery drivers tapped on the door of their apartment Derek would watch through the peephole until the hallway was clear before donning gloves and bringing the bags or boxes in, the contents within then sprayed and wiped with a solution of bleach. The only time either of them left the apartment was Derek’s late night mission to the garbage chute down the hall, when Helen would stand behind the closed door, keeping tension on the knob so it wouldn’t latch, waiting to swing it open when she heard his shuffling approach and his stage-whispered “It’s me!”.
Now Helen was a sensual woman, still, who had learned across the years to thrive on air kisses, patted forearms, shoulder embraces, facials, mani-pedis, a monthly massage, since Derek started withdrawing. How she needed a massage. All that had been cut off from her. Video chats were not enough. Building regulations meant she wasn’t even allowed to have a small consolatory dog. It would have been a pug. She would have named it Chuggles and called it Mr Chugglesworth when she was cross. So instead she drank. She schemed. She moved into the guest room where in the middle of the single mattress she didn’t dream of falling. Derek muttered but kept his pillow fortifications intact.
It was on a drab Tuesday, where the wind had drummed the rain against the windows and the muted chatter and roar of Derek’s sports, he watched all of them, even darts, flowed into every room of the apartment, that Helen cooked a dinner for one. A few cocktail potatoes, a piece of salmon, six spears of asparagus. Derek, drawn by the smell of fish fried in butter and lemon, appeared at the far end of the table.
“It dawned on me that all this time when we must be social distancing I had been touching and breathing on your food. What were we thinking? Don’t tell me - we weren’t thinking.”
Derek’s mouth opened, closed, settled on a scowl. That final refrain was his favourite serve, low over the net, not worth the battle to return. He went into the kitchen, opened the fridge, closed the fridge, opened the pantry, returned to the fridge, and settled on a bowl of cornflakes with a whisky chaser. Checkmate.
Derek never learned to play chess. Thus, in the bathroom the next day, his guts griping, he was caught short and Helen seemed to be out of earshot. He had to sacrifice a back page of Golf Digest and then wait for Helen to finish a video chat, a chat he nearly walked into waistband open, fly down.
“All out? Already?” said Helen. “There might be a spare roll in my ensuite.”
She disappeared into the guest room, returning not with a roll but a gathered ribbon of tissue. He reached for it and she withdrew it.
“You can have it,” she said, “but I have this sore spot just above my shoulder blade that needs attention first.”
He whined but capitulated, making a great show of excessive hand sanitising before and after.
For a breakfast of french toast, the cornflakes having lost their appeal after five meals in a row and their supply of stale bread only increasing, she got a foot massage.
“It’s a been a while,” he said at the start, awkwardly shifting the towel on his thigh and her feet on the towel.
“You were always very good at it,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
Her feet were still lovely. So well formed. They made his look like lumps of meat. That spot along the outside edge still brought the same response, that muted purr. He smiled at her curling toes.
A week later, the shower didn’t cost her anything but a few seconds of self consciousness, a moment of doubt, and a firm prod. He followed her out of the living room, one eye on her back, one eye on the windows between the open curtains.
“What are you waiting for?” she said from under the water. He was hesitating with his hands on his waistband.
“Get in or you’ll be living on cornflakes again.”
“Soap supposedly ruptures the wall of the corona virus,” he said. “So there’s that.”
He got in, stiff, abashed. She wrapped her soapy arms around him.
“Then this is a good thing, yes?”
“See? We’re going to get through this.”