Byte Shorts Showcase: Exposure by Rachel Mann

Rachel Mann

Posted by Stella Calvert-Smith on 28 May 2020, in News, Showcase, Writers

Exposure

I knew it was wrong. I did it anyway. His breath on my neck, his sweat on my torso. Just when we were supposed to stay the fuck apart, we drew together, under the sway of a gravitational pull. I stifled my laughter, my sheer joy at the slickness of our bodies, our health, our desire. If I could get away with this, surely, I could survive.

The quarantine kept getting extended, as our neighbors, one by one, came down with the virus. It was the super who brought it to our door, picked it up at church. One warm late March day, the pastor had shaken the hand of each congregant’s hand as he or she left the service. Having just returned from a trip to Spain, his holy mucous membranes carried a freebie souvenir. The day the super tested positive, our building got sealed up tight. 

It was winter break, and I should have gone skiing with my lab partner, Jonas, who had invited me to his parents’ cabin in Vermont. I liked Jonas. We watched old movies together, Tarantino, Campion when we should have been doing problem sets. He was funny. He did impressions: John Oliver, Hugh Grant. He liked doing Brits. I didn’t even mind listening to him complain about his boyfriend, a wrestler. I would have enjoyed Vermont with Jonas. But I didn’t have the money for the lift tickets, and anyway, I had to see my mom. My parents’ divorce was still new, and after a week with my dad, I needed to see her, too. The fates agreed with me. They locked us up together, for a minimum of two weeks.

At first, we were ok, Mom and me. We made extensive meal plans, sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the cookbooks. Stir-fried mushrooms and tofu with rice on the first day. Chicken with olives on the second day. Beef stew on the third day.  We wouldn’t open a single can of emergency beans. We would eat well, as long as Fresh Direct would still deliver to us. And they would. They did. I stealthily snuck down the steps to retrieve the bags from the lobby, where the delivery man had told us, through the intercom, that he had left them. He was sorry he couldn’t bring them up. 

While dragging the bags into the elevator, the door to Apartment 1B opened a crack. Eyes peeked out. They belonged to a man.  

“Hello,” he said. 

“Hi,” I said, looking up, somewhat startled. We weren’t supposed to talk to anyone. We were supposed to stay in our apartments.

I held the elevator door with my foot. He opened his door so I could see him. “It’s me.”

“Oh, yes, hi,” I said. I had met this man, this neighbor while walking Dad’s dog, Milly, last summer. Back when Milly, and Dad, had still lived here. He was a photographer, I remembered, and he had a dog named… Biscuit. Or something like that. Some very generic dog name. We had walked beside one another down the paved path through the park, to the river, the dogs trotting beside us. I had wondered if I shouldn’t walk next to this man. Was he being too friendly to me? Was I to him? But I didn’t worry too much about it. He had firm biceps beneath his snug-fitting Michigan t-shirt. He had dark stubble and a full head of red-brown hair. I liked that he wanted to walk with me. He wanted to know what I was studying, how I liked college. I had looked him up. Stalked him a bit online. He was successful enough that he was easy to find. He had a wife, who also walked Biscuit, sometimes, although she didn’t talk to me. She wore nice clothes, had blond hair, and was always mid-conversation on her Bluetooth headphones.

“You ok?” I asked, now. 

“I’m fine,” he said. He did look fine. He was wearing jeans and no shirt. “It’s crazy being stuck here.”

“It is,” I agreed.

“Jen’s on a business trip. In Dallas. She’s staying there until this is over.”

“Oh,” I said. Was his wife named Jen? 

We looked at each other. His chest was crafted and curved, like marble. I wanted to touch him like I wanted to touch the statues at the Met. You weren’t allowed to touch. I knew that. 

What did he see? I was dressed for isolation. Ripped black leggings, an overstretched t-shirt, one exposed freckled shoulder. My hair, pulled back loosely in a ponytail, wisps covering one eye. 

“Groceries,” I said, picking up one of the bags.

“See you later,” he said. 

I pulled the bags into the elevator, and he, like everyone else in the world, disappeared from view. Would he…see me later? Unlikely. The whole idea of the stay-at-home order was not to see anyone.

Mom and I were our own society. 

She was writing a novel. “Mornings are for writing,” she said, anointing this a “virus-imposed writing retreat.” She told me to use the time wisely; study something,” she said. 

“It’s winter break. I don’t have anything to study.” I lay on the couch with my feet under an old afghan that Grandma Kate had made, reading a sexy vampire mystery. Who would the vampire seduce? Which young woman would fall prey to his wily deceits? 

My mind wandered. I listened hard for the sound of the super, hacking away in his basement flat. But I couldn’t hear a thing, other than the constant hum of NPR from the radio in the kitchen. Could his droplets reach us, up on the third floor? Was it possible for them to creep up through the air vents? Did we even have air vents? Wasn’t that how it had spread on a cruise ship? 

Mom, who normally met friends for lunch on the east side and walked there across the park, and played tennis twice a week and road her bike long distances on Saturday mornings, always made time for fitness. She did a video yoga class and a strength training class, on her mat, in her bedroom, in front of the tv. She failed to convince me to join in. 

In the evenings' Mom joined me on the couch. We watched reality shows and procedural crime dramas that she found gripping, though I was bored, skipping through my phone the whole time. My friends were stuck all over the place, too. In their childhood bedrooms, in hotel rooms. Flights had been canceled. We were all sheltering in place, like a school drill. Jonas FaceTimed me from Vermont, but all he wanted to talk about the wrestler. My dad was in quarantine too, in his new apartment, in Yonkers. He checked up on me, now and then. He seemed fine, but I could hear Milly whining in the background. I hoped she was getting walked. 

By the second week, the walls of the two-bedroom apartment were closing in. Mom wore her bathrobe all day long. She spent hours on the phone talking to her writing partner, but less time, apparently, writing. She asked me what I was cooking like I was there to make her food. Even Netflix had nothing for me; I’d already watched every show or movie that held any remote interest. I took burning hot baths, sometimes two or even three in a day. The scalding water made me feel something. 

Late one night, after Mom fell asleep in front of the tv, I laced up an old pair of high school sneakers and jammed headphones in my ears. I put on Vampire Weekend and snuck out the front door of the apartment. Instead of walking down, out, into the world, I went up. Four flights up. Then down, seven flights, all the way to the lobby. When I got to the bottom, I walked back up. I was careful not to touch anything. No railings, no doorknobs. This was ok, I told myself. The air was not contaminated. This I was allowed to do.

Technically, I was not allowed to do this. The instructions from the health department, pushed under our door, said to stay inside the apartment. They also said that if there are two or more people living in the apartment, they should try to stay apart as much as possible, in different rooms, if there were enough rooms. There were not enough rooms. Neither Mom nor I was willing to lock ourselves in the bedrooms. 

By the time I climbed up to the top and then down to the lobby for a second time, I had a good sweat going. It didn’t take much. I hadn’t done any cardio since intramural volleyball in the fall. I had been stuck in an 1100 square foot two-bedroom apartment for over a week. 

I was stretching, about to start the next round, when the door to apartment 1B opened. 

“It’s one in the morning,” the neighbor said. He was wearing striped wearing boxers and a tight black t-shirt. 

“Did I wake you?” I said. It was a weird thing to say. My stretching was silent. 

“No, can’t sleep. I’m watching Contagion, have you seen it?”

“I think I’m living it.” 

“It’s a cautionary tale, for sure.”

“You should watch Friends or something. Don’t watch that.”

“Do you want to come in?”

“I’m exercising.”

“When you’re done?”

“But. We can’t.” 

“We won’t touch.”

I turned and sprinted all the way to the top. Really got my heart going. I knew what I was going to do, even as I knew that it was wrong. But I had already broken the rules, just by leaving my apartment, and now I couldn’t stop.

This time, at the end of my lap, the neighbor’s door was open, wide. He didn’t make me knock. I didn’t even have to touch his doorknob.

“Come in,” he called. He clicked the TV off and shut the door behind me.

I sat on the sofa, a low, grey modern number. It was more comfortable than it looked. He sat three feet to my left, but I could feel the heat of him, like maybe he’d just been working out, too. 

“But I want to touch you,” I said. It was an end-of-the-world thing to say, for sure.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I’m not afraid.”

“You probably should be,” I said. I half-smiled, from the corner of my mouth. I was still out of breath. I was afraid. But I reached out and touched him anyway, his chest firm and pliant under my fingers. Touching him was like oxygen on the moon. 

We did it on the couch. He moved quickly, tugging on my leggings like he thought his wife might walk in any moment. I would have liked to slow things down. I would have liked to have felt the warmth of his mouth on my skin. But these weren’t times for choosiness. This was survival, and as he pushed inside me, I felt alive. 

Twenty minutes later I was back home, in the shower, trying to wash it all away. His sweat, and mine. His germs, and mine.

The next day I woke later and spent hours in the kitchen. I made empanadas filled with spinach and cheese, and curried rice, and two loaves of sesame semolina bread, which I ate hot from the oven, slathered in butter. I was famished, and then I was satiated. Desperate to repeat. 

Mom didn’t have an appetite. She sat with her laptop in her bed. She asked me to warm up some broth from the freezer, and I brought it to her in a mug. I didn’t feel any resentment whatsoever.

I didn’t have the neighbor’s phone number. I didn’t have to think about what to text him, or what not to text him. I didn’t have to think about him at all if I didn’t want to. 

  A little after midnight, I tiptoed down the stairs. His door was open a crack, the sofa visible inside, but no signs of life. I elbowed the door open.

“Hello?”

Water was running in the bathroom, then footsteps. He still hadn’t heard me.

“You left the door open,” I said, louder.

He wore a towel around his waist. His hair was damp. He did not look surprised to see me.

“Would you mind closing it?” he said.

“I did.”

“Here,” he said, handing me a glass. I brought it to my nose and inhaled an astringent, sweet aroma. I let the liquid touch the end of my tongue. It burned, but I liked it. 

He sat on the couch, in his towel. I didn’t know if I should keep my distance, because of the virus, or if we were past that. I just stood there, the liquor sending pulses to my temples.

“You like rye?” he asked. “I’m out of bourbon. Should have stocked up.”

“Never had it,” I said.

“You have now,” he said. There were lots of things I’d never had before, that now I had. A quarantine. Rye. Him.

An hour later, I was back upstairs under my childhood comforter, exhausted and slightly drunk. I slept twelve hours and woke up wondering how to pass the time before I could run the stairs again.

I filled a carafe, poured the water into the coffee maker, ground beans. The aroma hit me like a memory: late August, sitting on the porch upstate holding a warm mug, the trees rustling.

Mom was quiet; she must be writing. I settled into the couch, my headphones in, listening to soundbites of the mayor’s daily press conference. I heard a cough. And then another. Is the mayor sick? Or is that the super? I pulled the headphones from my ears. Then heard it again.  

Tiptoeing to my mother’s bedroom, I knocked, shyly, for some reason not apparent to me. “You ok?”

“Tea,” she said. I cracked the door.

“Mom?”

“Could you make me some tea, please?”

She was pale and flushed, sweaty under a mound of blankets. 

“I’m fine,” she said, sitting up halfway. “I stayed up late, writing. My circadian rhythms are off.”

I boiled the kettle, poured the steaming water over the pyramid tea bag, stirred in honey and milk. I deposited the cup on her night table, and closed the door behind me, I heard another cough. I went to the sink and washed my hands. 

I laced up my sneakers, touched my toes, reached my arms out to the full expanse of my wingspan. Closing the door quietly behind me, I sprinted up to the top of the building and then down to the bottom, where the neighbor’s door was slightly ajar, as I knew it would be.

No one knew how long the quarantine would last; by week three, it had already outlasted our wildest imagination. I wasn’t going back to college. The neighbor’s wife wasn’t coming home. Mom’s problem went beyond her circadian rhythms. She was picked up in the middle of the night by an ambulance crew in head-to-toe space suits after her coughing woke another neighbor, the snoopy one next door. She never called us first, never knocked on the door to see if we were ok. She called 911, and then Mom was gone.  

Now, I take my temperature twice a day. I suck as much air as I can into the depth of my lungs, and then I blow it out, slowly. I call the hospital every day and there’s one nurse there, who, when she’s on shift, gives me updates about Mom. Now, I pray. I’ve stopped the fancy cooking; I’ve stopped even trying to read. But I still run up and down the stairs once a day, and I still visit the neighbor downstairs, when the door is open. 

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Rachel Mann is an NYC-based writer of fiction and plays. Her debut novel, ON BLACKBERRY HILL, won the National Jewish Book Award for Young Adult Literature in 2016. She graduated from the Novel Studio course at City University London, as well as from Columbia (BA) and New York University (MA).  She can be contacted via her website www.rachelmannwriter.com or on twitter @rachelmannnyc.

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2 Comments

Sheila Lewis

thank you Rachel, for this gripping tale of our times. And how this young woman adapts–differently than her mother, and with an open end. There are not endings, yet.

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