The first part of this story (if you’ve already read it) is a running start on the final lap
I was chugging along barely faster than a brisk walk on my morning run around the park near my house. It’s not far, maybe two miles at the most. Just a good way to wake up and get bed-muscles stretched. Up ahead, I spotted a woman shuffle-jogging toward me. She had a mask on as well. As we closed, around an upcoming curve in the path, I decided to cut across on the grass to avoid sharing heavy breathing which you could see in the cold morning air. Ha! I hadn’t shared heavy breathing with a woman in a long time. Instead, as Archie Bunker used to say in his 70s sitcom, we would be ‘passing like sheeps in the night.’ As we neared, I raised an elbow in a Covid salute. I could see the woman’s eyes smile as she nodded. She looked like she could fun a little. My kind of lady.
When I got to the top of the curved path I saw that she had started another circuit at the far end of the park and that we would be passing each other again. My mind, as it often does when I joggle it loose, running, goes free form. I picture us like two masked outlaws passing on the road to Tombstone. She shouts, “Don’t bother going into town. Someone else just cleaned out the bank.”
“Damn.” I start to pull off my mask.
“Naw, better leave it on,” she calls, “folks’ll get suspicious…think you’re trying to hide something.”
I smiled to myself…at my own joke. Happens a lot lately. That’s what social isolation will do to you.
Then, as she thumped past me, she called out, “Hey! Kemo Sabe.”
Well, I’ll be damned. Were we on the same wave length, or what? She could be fun to get to know if I could get a good look at her. Makes me wonder how men get to know women in Arabia under all that cover-up, get to the person not just her appearance. Could be something good coming out of all this Covid mess. Except I don’t know if I would recognize this lady without her mask…when or if we don’t need them. Might be fun to find out.
Well, two days later, same thing happened. There she was, coming at me, jogging like a lady with a sore back. I elbow waved as we passed. She nodded, I think. It seemed to me that she was laboring, concentrating real hard at getting her predetermined laps in no matter how much it hurt. A couple minutes later at the top of my path, I saw her round the curve ahead of me, slogging my way. There was a bench halfway between us. The lady plopped onto it, pulled out a water bottle, dropped her mask and took a long pull. When I got even, I stopped in front of her and pointed to the bench, open palmed as if asking for permission. She nodded and slid to the far end. I planted my elbows on my knees and hung my head as if I was real tired. But I wasn’t really. I had just learned over the years to not rush introductions especially with an attractive woman which this woman was, without her mask. I waited while she pulled off her headband and finger-fluffed her curly, almost kinky, mop of Covid-neglected, mostly gray hair. Catching my sidelong glance, she quickly looked toward some kids on the swings.
That gave me a chance to study her face. Very nice lines. Especially from ear to jaw to slightly cleft chin. Perfect for the clay bust I was working on. She knew I was looking at her, studying her. She even raised her chin slightly, posing. Cut it out man, I told myself. You’re not doing face lifts anymore. Lighten up.
In the spirit of our unspoken tit-for-tat, I yanked my hat off and rumpled my own jumbled haystack. “I haven’t seen the inside of a barber shop in three months.” Then to match her exposed face, I un-looped one ear of my mask. Ducking her chin she turned toward me with a barely-begun grin that tickled the corners of her mouth. I wish she had broken out in a full smile. I bet it would be terrific. Instead, she pulled her mask back over her mouth and nose. Too bad.
My mask back in place, I decided it was time to engage. “Hi. I’m Tony. I live over on Emerson. I suppose you’re local as well,” I asked, raising an eyebrow to invite reply.
“Claire,” she replied in her ‘easy listening’ voice. Tilting her head toward the neighborhoods beyond, she added, “I live on Fairmont just this side of Nichols.”
“Uh-huh. Makes for a nice run with a couple turns around the park. What? Maybe two miles?”
“Actually, 2.4 miles. I’ve taken to calculating more closely lately.”
Her eyes spoke so much—intelligence, interest? Or was I just fooling myself. Damn these masks. There’s so much to see, to read, in a woman’s face. This Covid cover-up feels like a masked ball…‘guess who I am, m’seur.’
I took off my gloves and bent to re-tie a shoe. When I sat back up Claire was staring at my right hand. “Do you mind?” she asked, reaching for my hand. I shrugged. Turning it over, she ran her fingers over my palm. What was she, some kind of palm-reading spiritualist?
“I’m a physical therapist,” she explained, paused, then continued, “was, for many years. Hand specialist. You’ve quite a history here.”
“Yep,” I replied wiggling my half-curled baby finger, “Dupuytren’s contractures.”
Tracing the scar beneath my ring finger, she looked up asking, “Trigger finger?”
“Yes, and below that the scar from carpal tunnel.”
As she folded my hand back and forth she mentioned, “Your fingers are supple…”
“Yeah, even though I no longer practice, I work with clay…shaping figures, faces…more of the same.”
She raised her head, looking askance, slight bob of the head. Something registered. Then she slapped her knees, offered a fist bump and rose. “Nice meeting you.”
“Same here. I run Monday, Wednesday and Friday. See you again some time?”
She was already jogging when she waved over her shoulder.
Two weeks later, we sat in Panera’s munching on scones from opposite corners of a six-foot table. Mask dangling, her full face was no disappointment. In fact, I found her very attractive and if I was reading the signals correctly, the feeling was mutual. So, now what? Do we do the speed-dating resume exchange—education, marriage, career, children and most importantly, current marital status? Or is it possible to pretend that none of that matters, that we can hide behind our masks for an indeterminate amount of time until we all get back to normal…whenever that will be and however normal will be when we get there?
We talked about the pandemic and hospitals which lead to her mentioning a story she had written about staffing. I asked her to email it to me. “Or,” I suggested, “you could read it to me next time we meet.” I watched a new emotion cloud her face.
She slowly cradled her latte in both hands and looked out the window. “Next, you’ll want to show me your art work.”
“Well, sure. If you’re interested.” She set her cup down, looked at her hands. I did too. No ring. No indentation. Like me. Did I…we…want to push further? Couldn’t we just keep it light? No probing past the moment. Like college kids meeting on a train to Vienna. Living in the now, now, now.
When she looked up, I could tell she had decided something and I probably wouldn’t like it. I have to remember that expression and try to capture it in my studio. Call it, Yes…but No. She sighed deeply, then tucked away behind her mask. I hid behind my mask as well and knew I would be jogging somewhere else for a while. Hi-O Silver and away.