Love in the Time of Cholera


hen the world shut down, I didn’t think it affected me. Travel was restricted as countries sealed their borders. The general population was quarantined under governmental stay-at-home orders. Businesses and schools closed, causing massive job losses. But my job had been deemed “essential”, so I kept going to work at my stripmall storefront. And it seemed that despite the empty streets, stores closing early, and my son not going to school, my daily routine was relatively unchanged. For a while.

A friend and I get together for her birthday every year with a few people (who change from year to year), but we didn’t do that. There was no place to go; all the restaurants and bars were closed. Using terms like “clusters” and “super-spreader events,” by St. Patrick’s Day all public gatherings had been canceled.

“Social distancing” began taking its toll on me in a larger sense. Every summer, most of my "fun" consisted of going to local Minor League baseball games and hanging out with my friends there. Everybody who knew me, knew that was my “thing”. But this year, all sporting events were canceled, so I couldn’t get together with the Berm Bums at the ball park.

News reports over the summer said that the pandemic was causing an uptick in mental health issues as job losses continued to soar, and people were trying to work and school their kids from home, frustrated by isolation from friends and limited job prospects. I didn’t think I had any mental health issues; I was just going to work every day as usual. My son liked the schools being closed; he was old enough to handle Zoom classes in his room. And my spousal equivalent was as distant as ever. So I didn’t feel depressed. Although I was getting lonely in the pandemic, I didn’t notice.

Spring cleaning my house one day, I dug out a big box of old photos. For about two months I kept the box out, occasionally going through the photos and reminiscing about friends that had disappeared. I read an article that quoted studies showing that for men over a certain age, those friends don't get replaced. Looking back, I realized that— for a large part of my life— I had kind of been the life of the party. And I'd had a lot of parties. I was funny, and fun to be around, and having good times surrounded by friends. Now I was only surrounded by memories of them. And there was no party to be the life of.

I generally felt that my life had been lived. There's a saying: life’s a journey, not a destination. But I’d made the journey. I'd reached a humdrum destination. Now growing stagnant, learning to be content with just fading away. But I’d smile, I was okay with that; I’d had a full life. Oh, the stories I could tell! Lots of good times, plenty of dark times, joy and heartbreak, ups and downs and sudden turns. Like a roller coaster. Looking back, I’d sadly smile and think, it was a hell of a ride. I should have enjoyed it more. Hell of a ride.

Now the ride's over. I'm just in the train, rolling slowly to the bumpers where we all get off.

Suddenly she was there.

Avril was 22. Very compact at 4 feet 11 inches tall, she was a little brown asian girl with a long black ponytail. She had earned an associate’s degree, but when the economy began to reopen she was employed at the cellphone store next door to where I worked. Occasionally, she'd come into my store to get money changed for her register, or I’d see her sitting on the window ledge outside when I’d go out for a smoke. She asked me for a cigarette a couple of times.

One day, bumming a smoke, she patted the seat next to her and said “Sit down.” So I complied, and she formally introduced herself. Amused, I said that I knew who she was, and told her my name. I said that I liked that she’s bright and bouncy and smiles all the time. She looked at me for a moment, and then said she did that to hide how she was sad all the time; she was surprised that working next door, we couldn’t hear her crying through the wall. She claimed she had chronic depression, but accepted it as just a part of who she is; she said she would smoke and drink and get high and smile all the time to mask it. She had a tattoo of a diamond on her throat.

And she kept talking. Unfiltered, she knocked down her walls and opened up to me. I remember just staring at her, stunned. And she looked right back at me, unafraid. I think she was testing me to see if she’d scare me away; to see how I would judge her. But I was old enough to accept her without prejudice. And in response I thought, “Hell, I can do that, too— this chick can’t hurt me.” So I let down my own walls and talked to her. We conversed, and the more I listened, the more I saw who she really was. I found her intriguing.

She thought of herself as a worthless little sad girl. A bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks. When she pouted, "Everyone says 'oh, you're so pretty' and stuff, but so what? That doesn't help," I found that amusing. She reminded me of myself at that age, when people called me talented and smart and talked about my potential. When I was young and fun and laughing— and miserable. Dark inside. But I had learned. It had taken decades but I had learned how to be happy without masking or medicating. I had a sudden brief urge to crusade, change her self-worth and her pessimism, and save her from sadness. But at the time… I was not entirely happy myself. So would I be counseling, or commiserating? Uncertain, I decided it was best to just extricate myself mentally and go home. Leave the Girl Alone.

See, thirty years earlier, my friend Ned had given me some advice about how to treat my wife after our divorce. I said I should probably call her again, and No! Ned interrupted. She’s trying to get on with her life, then out of the blue I show up in her ear bringing all that shit back. If it’s her turn to call, wait for her to call, he said. Leave the Girl Alone. Words to live by which have served me well countless times since.

So the next day, I was across the parking lot having a smoke in my car. In my rearview mirror I could see Avril moving around in her beat-up Suburban, facing our stores. But after I finished my cigarette, to avoid being creepy or cringe-y, I decided to Leave the Girl Alone. I walked past her truck, heading into my store without looking her way, ignoring her, but as I reached the door I heard her yell my name. Well… that stopped me, and she called me over, so we ended up comparing our schedules to figure out when we could talk again.

Soon after that, I was again out on another break, having a cigarette in my car, lost in my own thoughts, when I was startled by my passenger door suddenly being thrown open as she jumped in. I just stared at her in shock as she pulled out her own cigarette and said, “Got a light?” I thought, yeah— one just jumped into my car.

That quickly became a routine— we’d go on smoke breaks together, talking and comparing schedules. Avril liked me, obviously. And it had to be obvious, because she was young and tiny and cute and I was terribly aware that I was very much not. I was self-conscious about being ancient and unpretty, big and old and uncool. I was skeptical, so I kept my emotional distance at first. Maybe she liked me— or maybe she just wanted to play with my heart.

But over time, she seemed innocent. After she texted my cell phone a couple of times, she said I could text her, or call her, anytime. Again, I was skeptical. But as the days passed, she continued to very pointedly repeat that. Any time. I soon showed her that I had made her a Contact in my phone, but even though I had her number (and her email, and her address), I didn’t want to be creepy, so I wouldn’t call. And I didn’t. Unless she texted me; oh then I’d answer!

Meanwhile, the background of our jobs gave me a sense of pending urgency. Her company could transfer her at any time, and the business climate was such that my company was closing its stores and laying off employees. I told Avril that I tried to talk meaningful and deep, out of a kind of desperation. Based on years of experience, I knew it wouldn’t be long before she was sent her way or I was sent mine, but either way, five years from now she wouldn’t remember me. However, I dwell in my past, so I would always remember her. So I needed to know her hard, and needed to know her now. I said, “I’m not trying to get in your pants… I’m trying to get in your head.”

I told her I hoped to make enough of an impression that, maybe every few years, she’d remember the time she worked at a cellphone store, and there was this guy next door, and he was nice. I’d like that. In response, she gave me a picture to help me remember her.

It became a daily thing: she would run up to my store, yank the door open and dart inside, literally skipping across the lobby and waving with both hands… just to say hello and tell me to visit her next door whenever I could. She was usually a little more subdued if Brittany, my co-worker, was around. However, one Monday after a holiday weekend, she pulled up to work, came running into my store, and cried, “Tom! It’s been so long!” Seriously, the way she shouted, all excited and happy to see me like a puppy, was pleasing… but, like, really? It had only been three days…

I asked Brittany, “Did she seem happy to see me?” Brittany burst into laughter, “Oh, she seemed real happy to see you!”

Brittany started calling Avril my little girlfriend from next door. I retorted that, if you allow for teen pregnancy, I’m old enough to be her grandfather. And that became a running joke. One day, I was conducting business with a woman, with Brittany observing, when Avril came in to say hi. She hovered in the background for a moment, then leaned in, interjected that she’d see me after work, and bounced out. I mentioned to the customer, “That’s my granddaughter.” The lady said, “That’s nice,” and continued her business while Brittany covered her mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

And when I’d go out to have a smoke in my car, I didn't need to watch my rearview mirror, because I knew she’d shortly emerge from her store to come running across the parking lot, knock knock on my passenger window, and jump in. When I once said seeing each other for fifteen minutes at a time wasn’t enough, she responded by saying, “When are we gonna go to a ball game?"

Through the end of summer into autumn, Avril and I talked a lot. I was late getting home after work a number of times because we’d been sitting in my car, bonding. One Indian Summer sunset we were just sitting together, not saying anything. I could feel her regarding me curiously until I looked back at her. After a moment, with some effort she slowly pulled the band off of her ponytail and said suggestively, "You've never seen me with my hair down." I smiled back; "Gorgeous either way," I said. Flirting was fun.

And she was still intriguing. Sometimes I was her counselor; sometimes she was mine. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to those Christian stories of the sweet high-school girl who befriends an old man in the nursing home. I was amused by her worldview; she was young and a constant reminder of how I felt when I was once young. How I thought. The future is not now, it’s next year, and that is so far away that today is pretty much forever.

At one point, I shared with Avril my belief that everybody has walls around them, invisible concentric rings made of stone. I recalled that when we first met, she just threw open her gates and let me in to see her. And figuring I had nothing to lose, I let down my walls too, thinking I don’t care, this is who I am. I told her I just wanted to know her, everything about her. She spread her arms and said, “Here I am, ask me anything!” She went on to say she didn’t understand it; she just felt comfortable talking to me.

Avril claimed she was just a girl from the ‘hood, renting a house in North Omaha. She had to plan trips to the Food Bank on paydays because “the struggle is real.” I don’t know why she told me she was bisexual and once had a girlfriend for three years. But since we were opening up, I told her how my girlfriend had been keeping me celibate. She asked, “do you ever still… think about it?” I smiled and said, “When do I not?"

Brittany once said she thought Avril had some “daddy issues,” and I said “Yeah, probably.” Avril’s family came from Myanmar, but her mom was dead and her dad was in prison. She said most of her other relatives blamed Avril for his imprisonment, and called her luulain, the Burmese word for liar. She started to tell me some serious story about that, but then became hesitant, so I told her I wouldn’t ask any more about it. She quietly said that was good; talking about it made her upset.

She was placed in foster care until she aged out, and that family was good. But now, four years later, her foster “stepdad” and her sister were the only family she still got along with. After Thanksgiving, she told me that she had stopped by her biological family’s place, but only stayed for about ten minutes before leaving because she felt uncomfortable.

Winter approached, and one chilly night I was leaving for home. When she came out for our usual goodnight cigarette, I looked her hard in the eyes and said, “I’m going out on a limb here, but… I think about you… all the fucking time." She grinned and replied, “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” “Well, it’s pretty annoying!” I retorted, to lighten it up. She laughed, and just then a customer pulled up. So we both kind of sank a little bit at the interruption, but she was still grinning and said, “Gotta go. Sorry I’m living in your head rent-free!” She went inside to do her job and I went home.

But she took that kind of statement in stride. I said it had to be obvious for me to believe she really liked me? Yeah. Mirrors exist, and I was very aware of what I looked like, and what we looked like together: a big old creepy perv hitting on a cute little girl. But it became apparent that she liked me a lot, and I had no freakin’ clue how that was even possible. I was constantly double-checking myself, to make sure I wasn't reading too much into it. We didn't have a romantic relationship. But twenty years of my home life have taught me how to love without hugging, kissing, or touching.

And… we had… something. An emotional affair, I guess. In a “summer fling” kind of way.

The one word that always popped into my head when I thought of her was spark. Life is like a box of chocolates and she was a peanut butter cup. She was a ball of sunshine, a bright spot in my gray day. In my gray life. She made me remember that there are beautiful things in the world. She had springs in her shoes.

I didn’t figure it out until much later. Covid quarantines had made me more lonely than I realized, and she talked to me. That was all I wanted; and everything I wanted. She became important to me, something I eagerly looked forward to. A touchstone. A lifeline. Somebody to love. Unconsciously, socially isolated from my friends, I used her to replace them. And thinking that friends always disappear, in my head she began to represent all the friends I’d ever had. I didn’t understand that; all I knew was that she was… joy, and seeing her made me happy. I was amazed that all that—— would suddenly just run out and jump into my car.

Then one day at the end of the year I was taking a break in her store. It had become our custom to visit each other on our breaks, and we were talking the way we usually did; talking about deep meaningful subjects in a flirtatious way. Half-joking means you're half-serious. Exposing ourselves behind light shields. And she was smiling at me when she got a text and checked her phone. Instantly her smile dropped and her face went blank. I watched her for a minute— she was instantly dead-serious, looking somewhat frightened, and I’d never seen her that way. I stared at her as she stared at her phone. Then she said, a little too loud, a little panicky, “Read it!” and thrust the phone at my face. The text message on the screen said to her, “I think we’ll have you at 30th St starting next week,” and some other stuff.

The one thought that popped into my head screamed, “I knew this would happen!”

We looked at each other, not knowing what to say because there was too much to say. I grabbed hold of my heart so it wouldn’t break, and left to go back to work.

And the next week she quit showing up and brightening my day. We tried to compensate; for a few weeks we spent most of every day texting, she at her job and me at mine. She would start; I wouldn’t go after her, ‘cause I should always be ready to Leave the Girl Alone. I needed her to prove that she still wanted to talk to me. And she did. But since we couldn’t look into each other’s eyes, the text conversations were light and shallow and not so… personal.

And not seeing each other almost every day? That’s how friends start to turn into memories.

The post-Covid world had reopened, and her texts became sporadic. Our daily conversations became occasional "check-ins." And at some point, a few weeks into the next year, I realized they'd stopped. When I checked, the last one she had sent was some usual small talk. Trivial. There was no goodbye, no closure… just a fading away. As the days passed, I kept reminding myself of those wise words: Leave the Girl Alone. So I did.

As you go through life from job to job— the people that you work with every day, the people that you go out partying with every night, they’re your friends. Until they get left behind, or you do. Not saying they stop being your friends… they just disappear. Fading away over time. The ones who were important to you become memories. The rest are just gone and forgotten.

And life goes on. You'll meet more people, make new friends. Sure. Could happen…

Avril was a little spark, bright and bouncing around in the world, and I’m absolutely amazed she bounced across my life’s path. Totally amazed. But this was the first time in my life that I met someone, knowing even as I grew to really like them, that they would soon be gone. Friends— people I care about— have always ended up disappearing, but I had never realized it until after they were gone, always thinking, oh sure, we’ll see each other again. But with Avril, from the beginning I knew what would happen. Early on, I even told her most of it. I told her there'd come a day when our ways would part. I told her that she was young enough that she’d forget all about me… but that I would always remember her.

The part I left out— the part I didn't tell her because I didn't want to face it— was how much it would hurt.