My excellent friend reopened his restaurant with a smashing event that turned out to be several different parties, sequentially. I tried to arrive late because Ric had warned me that the first phase would be critics and celebrities, perhaps even politicians. The critics are said to have been delighted. The first write-ups were very positive. Boffo Blogging!
The place was crammed with yuppies. Avenue C was full of smokers and hangers-on, just what you want to see at an opening.
When I managed to squeeze inside, I found a lot of women smiling compulsively and trying not to eat hors d’oevres lest food stick to their teeth or they gain weight or something. The men were happily digging up the gourmet trough, using as few utensils as possible.
I found myself standing in a crowd of masticating Uptowners, reluctant to pull exquisitely concocted bundles of food out of a tray in the middle of the worst disease mankind has ever faced. On the demand side, I faced the ever-cumbersome mask problem. How to drink that Nebiolo the host slipped me?
Even worse, how to flirt with goggles on? I have Nina’s accusation to live up to.
I began poorly. It’s hard when your consciousness still belongs to someone, but I had to start somewhere. The women in black dresses ran off one by one, claiming friends were waiting for them in the other room. I’m lucky they didn’t fetch pals to throw drinks at me.
I met a reporter from a local paper—a rascally sort of guy with eyes that wink without moving. I think he widens them to seem sarcastic when he says anything that sounds idealistic or gullible. He was pretty well informed. Before heading home to the wife and kids, he arranged to buy some masks.
Then I hung alone, as if from a string. I hate that.
Ric spared me by explaining that my protective gear was scaring people and that the hip crowd would be coming later. I was wondering what had happened to the LES DIY.
The (Wet) Sidewalks of New York
I strolled the Lower East Side, which seems to have shrugged off the recent unpleasantness. Street corner entrepreneurs again hiss drug names at passersby (ignoring New York’s ignoble status as what NBC’s local station called the “marijuana arrest capital of the world”). The sidewalk crust of dog dung has cracked, revealing time-honored urine trails.
When I returned, the swarm was younger, louder, counter-cultured. I spotted numerous locals and members of the LES DIY stuffing themselves. They had hung up their masks, which made me feel even more out of place but allowed me to see their faces.
Many sported the infamous scowl that veteran East Villagers turn into a permanent sneer, but they looked happy to be relaxing together: a gang of do-gooders who did really well.
I wondered if my wise and persistent correspondent were present. It seems clear from her texts that she’s a DIYer, a woman (duh), and a night owl like me. She has never offered clues to her age or style, though she’s pretty savvy about how men and women relate. She has never referred to meeting or seeing me and has made it impossible for me to reply to her emails except publicly, in these posts. She might be older, offering flu support from behind an email screening service and a door lined with Multilocks.
Sifting the possibilities taught me something virtuous about wearing goggles: It’s easy to scan a roomful of women without being obvious.
I began with someone I’ve suspected—Anna, the food czar, who normally works as a event planner and lost her job when the pandemic broke out. She’s a diminutive princess with luminous skin and high, elegant bones. There’s a little tomboy in there: She could poke you in the arm, hard, if you annoyed her.
Anna was dressed in black cling that left a lot exposed. This surprised me because her smile was as distant and sad as ever. I don’t know if it’s because her volunteer gig has ended (temporarily, I fear), or because she lost her little girl to the flu. Probably both.
I took off my mask and goggles to commence our first-ever conversation. Seeing so much of me may have frightened her. Her wide gray eyes darted around like mourning doves in hunting season.
Then she asked when I expect the next wave of bird flu to commence. A girl after my own heart! It could start tomorrow or in six months, I began. No one even knows why there has to be a hiatus. Is it the eye of an epidemiological hurricane?
Ayn Rand: Communicable Discomfort
Anna asked what I thought of the government’s response to the pandemic, then looked bored when I said that anyone who needs the government has made at least one mistake. (Which she’d know if she were a faithful reader, right?) I raved about the LES DIY’s work, and she thanked me for helping. Would I join them? Never, I said, Ayn Rand would kill me. I was joking, sort of. (Rand is dead, but I’m pretty sure she’d disapprove of the LES DIY).
Our conversation imploded. Discomfort is so communicable.
Somehow my brain overheated. I wanted to know more about her, so I asked about her daughter. I don’t recall why or how I phrased it, but the best adjective must be: badly.
Anna looked confused, then suspicious. She went impossibly pale, fixed her eyes on an empty chair. They grew moist. I wanted to comfort her. I stuttered an apology.
A DIYer who co-owns an organic bagel shop abruptly engaged her in a one-way conversation about someone I don’t know. Maybe she was protecting Anna. As she started rubbing Anna’s neck and shoulders, I felt like a grain of sand stimulating an oyster in all the wrong ways. There’d be no pearl for me.
Red-faced, I moved away before Anna spoke again. I tried not to look at her after that, which took some effort. Her bare navel shimmered like gold, a testament to the wealth of Vitamin D in Ric’s backyard. It hurt that we had felt closer in this very place, amid microbial menace, than we could feel now.
The LES DIY women ate a lot more than the previous female guests. Their bodies and characters were fuller. The most arresting was Vanquisha, a retired transsexual nightclub personality who tends sick rescue animals for a shelter. She joined out of friendship, knows little about bird flu, is unlikely to be one of my readers.
The next activist I probed turned out to be a socialist bike rebel who thought I was insane to have spent years anticipating a virus.
A woman with powder blue eyes and a hard expression was intriguing and seemed to be watching me closely. She decided I was a creep when I asked if she had written to me.
No one, in fact, mentioned my website or blog. Where was my fan?
I was tempted to ask Ric who she might be. But I never seek the inside story on a woman. Even close friends are usually wrong: A little knowledge is a dangerous invitation to misjudge. Best to follow your instincts.
Then came a DIYer I’d never noticed—a medical student in epidemiology. She hadn’t had much time to volunteer because she was working in two clinics, but she seemed cool. She’s a true believer who aims to help society prepare for the second wave.
Rise of the Valkyrie
Henceforth she shall be Val, for Valkyrie. She’s a tall, vital blonde with hazel eyes, exactly my height and wider in the right places. A perfect ‘write-in’ candidate.
Val had been impressed with my mask, which DIYers had given her. She wasn’t allowed to wear it at work, where everyone was forced to use the same protective equipment. Ayn Rand wrote all about socially ordained mediocrity.
Val wanted to step outside for a smoke. I’d have walked a mile for one if it might establish that she’d been writing to me.
She had something nicer in mind. We walked in what I eventually realized was a pattern of one-way streets whose traffic was always coming at us. No cops were going to sneak up behind this lady. She was pleased to let go after months of tension and overwork, regaling me with things she’d seen at hospitals.
The public health system came closer to snapping than I had suspected. There’s a desperate global shortage of ventilators, which I’d predicted. A lot of equipment failed from overuse, which I hadn’t considered. There aren’t enough needles to vaccinate many people.
If the second wave commences soon, the medical industry will collapse. Staffers are fed up. With vaccination mandatory for New York State medical professionals, many worry about the prospective H5N1 shot. People are tired, dispirited.
“The problem is that we did well enough going through the motions in a mild pandemic to let everybody think the system works,” Val said, “which was probably the worst thing that could have happened.”
She was warming up when I realized I felt dizzy. I’d drunk too much wine and had stupidly eaten little. Val’s smoke was especially thick.
She kindly located a stoop so we could talk some more.
It was gloriously unthinkable when we kissed, like unsafe sex would have seemed a year ago. However clumsy I felt, it was delicious to explore a mouth other than Nina’s. A warmer, deeper, softer space welcomed me.
Then we heard the voices, a chorus chattering in our direction, wherever we were. Soon they were upon us—the women of the LES DIY—and we were embarrassed. At least I was. Anna looked up at me, then away, as usual.
After greetings, Val left with them. We didn’t even get to trade email addresses. I’m convinced she already has mine.