“You should have made more friends,” said Kristen.
It took two attempts, but she stood up from the couch without spilling her gin or dropping the iPad and moved over to the lounge chair. Jeffrey followed.
“I have friends,” said Jeffrey, placing himself on the arm of the chair, his arm draped across the back. “Lots. It’s just that they’re like cats, hard to herd. And you know you won’t like most of them. Now unmute so I can say hi to Katherine.”
He leaned in and started waving at the screen. Katherine waved a single forefinger without letting go of the stem of her wineglass or lifting a corner of her thin mouth. Kristen pressed the iPad against her chest.
“Come on. I need to ask her something.”
“No you don’t. Go watch your King of the Tigers.”
Katherine was grateful Kristen saved her from interacting with Jeffrey.
“I knew this would happen,” she said to Kristen. “Two weeks into self isolation and you would finally be ready to leave the clinging bore.”
“I didn’t say I was ready to leave him, I said I wish he would leave me alone for just one solid hour.”
“Why settle for an hour when you could have the rest of your life?”
So the conversation went. Kristen partially defending Jeffrey, but really defending her own actions and lack thereof, Katherine bringing up all of Jeffrey’s tedious habits. He was dull, but not maliciously. And he never strayed nor even flirted with anyone else but her. It was his anxieties, the anxieties he refused to talk about, but were obvious in his growing avoidance of conflict, his side-lined writing career, his shrinking social circle. To compensate he was always claiming he had more friends than she or Katherine imagined, but that made Katherine laugh.
“Lovely chatting, honey,”, said Kristen, weary of the critique, “but I have to go now. That book club I joined starts soon.”
“How dull! But have fun, and as soon as this draconian lockdown is lifted I want to see his worldly possessions on the verge outside your house.”
Jeffrey was sulking in the kitchen, pounding star anise and Szechuan pepper in the grey stone mortar.
“On a cutting board! You’re going to mark the bench,” she said.
He huffed and pulled out a cutting board.
“Katherine could be nicer.”
“She could be, dear. I don’t think she has forgiven you yet.”
Jeffrey had written an exposé on Katherine’s now ex-husband’s investment firm, which had folded as a result. Most of the dirt had come from Katherine, full of wine and boastful of her then-husband’s clever ruthlessness.
“Now,” Kristen continued, standing next to Jeffrey and rubbing his back, “I have the first meeting of that book club I joined. So I’ll need the office to myself for an hour or so.”
The book club, sixteen random strangers re-reading Jane Austen, was meant to be women only, but the appearance of a man, a rather good-looking man with swept back hair and a shirt that might be completely unbuttoned, led to a dark murmur. A woman, plump, narrow spectacles and hair in a bun, spoke up and introduced him as Michael, her friend, who was gay, and loved Jane. And he was so sweet and even offered to leave the group out of respect, but they all welcomed him. All except the blonde woman in the bottom left of Kristen’s screen. She wrinkled her nose and disappeared, never to return.
It was surprisingly fun. Just about everyone had a drink of some kind in hand, but they were all polite and everyone got a chance to talk. As one of them said, the red head from Ohio, it was what you might expect from the Jane Austen fandom. And there were jokes about Michael and Mr Darcy, which he took well, tossing his hair and pouting, claiming he was still waiting for his own Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, Esquire.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
Right by her ear. Jeffrey had snuck in and was kneeling on the floor next to her chair. She grabbed the mouse and scraped, scraped, the cursor over to the mute button and hissed at him.
It was echoed back by the screen, like a stumbling chorus. She looked at the mute icon. It was highlighted. Among the grid of faces several were smiling and waving, including Michael.
“Jeffrey!” they were saying.
Jeffrey grabbed the mouse and unmuted the session.
“Hey everyone - Christina, Amber, Rebecca, Kelly, and Mikey. How funny seeing you all here. Especially you, Mikey. They let you sneak in?”
What was happening? Michael giggled and seemed to be blushing.
“I haven’t seen you, Jeffrey, since the lacrosse trip.”
A new laugh emanated from Jeffrey, one she had never heard before, low and rising up out of his chest.
“That was quite a trip, wasn’t it? Amber, you are looking amazing.”
Kristen pushed the chair back from the desk, shuffled it into the middle of the office, and took a deep drink of her wine. Why was Amber blushing now? What the hell was going on?
It was late. Katherine was in bed reading a cosy mystery with Mr Puggles huffing next to her on his special pillow. Her phone buzzed. On the screen was a badly lit photo of a yard with a car parked in front of it, its trunk open and a figure standing with what might be an armful of books and clothes beside a multi-coloured, multi-textured pile on the lawn.