Going, Going, Gone!

Rating K+ for some language and a hint of an adult relationship. It is based on the Ellowyne canon.

The atmosphere in the small lecture hall crackled with anticipation at the 20th Annual Bachelor Auction, a benefit for the Paws ‘N Claws animal shelter. Attached to the main shelter building was a small theater used for lectures, documentaries, and fundraising. Neema was the first to arrive and saved half a row of seats near the front for her friends. She played on her phone until Prudence and Lizette arrived. Ellowyne was the next to come, and Amber traipsed into the theater last. When she saw all her friends, she bellowed out her favorite greeting. 

“Heifers!” she shouted. The women were delighted and they giggled and mooed. Neema seemed a little reticent to join the response but she went along with it. 

“We must seem like a strange bunch,” Prudence whispered to her. “But trust me, you will never meet a more supportive, caring, and affirming group of friends. I’ve known Ellowyne and Rufus since middle school, and we met Amber and Lizette in high school. We got to know Penn in college. He’s a couple of years older than we are. He served in the Army in Afghanistan and now he’s a Registered Nurse in the ER.” 

Neema inquired, “He sounds interesting. I haven’t had the chance to get to know him yet. By the way, where ARE the guys?”

Just then, Rufus bounded down from backstage. “Hey, Neema! Glad you could join us! I was giving Penn some encouragement before the auction. He thinks he’ll get a higher final bid than I did last year. We’ll see about that!”

“Are you up for auction, Rufus?” she asked. 

“Not this year,” he answered, smiling at Ellowyne. “The guys to be auctioned are supposed to be eligible bachelors, and I’m not single anymore.”

“And we’re going to keep it that way,” Ellowyne said. Neema noticed that Ellowyne was positively glowing when she gazed at Rufus and gave him a kiss on his cheek. 

Amber piped up. “Rufus has been up twice. The first time he was auctioned, I won. He took me to the Cartoon Art Museum, and we ate at In-N-Out.”

Rufus pretended to take umbrage with her comment. “Hey! You enjoyed the Wonder Woman and Supergirl exhibits AND you stole most of my animal-style fries.”

“Truth be told, ladies,” Amber explained. “I had a pleasant afternoon with one of the most eligible bachelor volunteers at Paws ‘N Claws. I bid against three other women—I’m sure you can guess who they were. The date was certainly worth $900.”

Neema noticed Ellowyne rolling her eyes. Was there some sort of history between Amber and Rufus?

Ellowyne remarked, “Last year, shortly before Rufus and I started dating, we all pooled our resources to make a big fat bid for him that would surely win.”

“We had serious competition for him,” Prudence added. “I think there were a couple of aggressive society matrons who wanted him to be their toy boy. Or is it a boy toy?”

“We paid $350 each for the four of us. It was for a great cause,” Lizette added.

Rufus said dramatically, “They say that every man has his price. Mine was $1400. I feel so cheap!” Then he grinned slyly. “But I got to take four gorgeous, amazing women on a date! And I got a goodnight kiss from each one!”

“He took us all to the Wharf and then to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience,” Prudence said. “It’s a great place for a date!”

Lizette asked her friends, “Should we pool our resources again in an attempt to win Penn?”

“Well, I’m not bidding,” Rufus said. “He might be my best friend, but I hang out with him whenever I want. Might watch sports or to a pub for bar food and craft beer. Usually he ‘forgets’ his wallet and I get stuck paying.”

The women laughed. However, no one answered Neema’s question about pooling their money to bid on Penn.

Just then, the lights in the theater dimmed and the women—except for Ellowyne—made sure they had their numbered bid cards ready. The audience, whose enthusiasm was already palpable, was shaken and stirred into an alcohol-free frenzy.  The first handsome gentleman titillated the crowd. He was a chef from a Michelin-starred restaurant, and his name was Freddy Wilde. Neema asked Ellowyne, “Any relation?” Ellowyne shook her head. Prudence placed a bid but someone outbid her, and Freddy went for an even $1000.

The next several bachelors were equally attractive. One was a fireman who wore tactical pants, a tight t-shirt, his hat, and a smile. He went for $1200. Another was a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer who wore his form-fitting uniform. He bore a striking resemblance to a young Erik Estrada, so much that his colleagues and even the emcee called him Ponch. The bidding for him was intense. The winning bidder was a woman of a certain age with a spiked, tiger-striped bob haircut and a bad spray tan. Amber bid $900 but was outbid., and Ponch went for $1500. Amber quipped that the woman probably watched CHiPs when it first aired in the 1970s. Then she said, “Maybe I’ll have to speed more often. I wouldn’t mind getting a ticket from him.” She paused. “I would have bid higher but I’m saving my money for Penn.”

Just then, Penn walked onto the stage. Dressed in spandex-blend scrubs that perfectly matched his dark blue eyes and a stethoscope around his neck, he exuded sex appeal and confidence. The emcee introduced him by asking, “Who would like to play doctor with this nurse?” The audience roared. 

Neema put in a $400 bid for Penn, and was promptly bested by the cougar who won Ponch. Amber made a bid of $600. At that point, Neema decided to let Amber and the other woman duke it out in a bidding war. She was a fierce, aggressive sniper on eBay and planned to hold off bidding until the very end. Eventually the sugar mama who won Ponch gave up. But just when Amber was congratulating herself on winning a date with Penn, Neema struck. 

The next few minutes were like a ping pong game. Amber put in a bid for $1000, and Neema bid $1100. Amber bid $1200 but Neema countered to $1300. The two women grappled with each other, increasing their bids by $100 each until Amber offered $2200 and Neema $2300. Amber usually got what she wanted and it was hard for her to give up graciously. Still, she knew that Neema had deep pockets and would continue to outbid her. The auctioneer looked first at Neema and then at Amber and said, “Going once, going twice, gone to Number 86!” And the frenzy was over.

Prudence, Lizette, and a rather glum Amber started bidding on some other bachelors. Prudence had the winning bid for a cute Reiki practitioner, and Lizette won a date with a nerdy marine biologist. Amber bid half-heartly on a guy who designed video games. He was cute enough, kind of geeky, and totally not her type. Maybe he’d  take her to the Cartoon Art Museum. Two years ago, she enjoyed her date there with Rufus, from Wonder Woman to animal fries. But they were friends, nothing more, nothing less. This date was going to be abysmal.

At the end of the auction, the eligible bachelors went over to their respective highest bidders. Ellowyne noticed that the sugar mama won two dates, one with Ponch and another with a handsome paramedic. She whispered to Rufus that the cougar might have one crazy evening in mind, and he chuckled. Then he spied Amber looking glum and disinterested when her date started talking video games. Amber caught Rufus’ eye and mouthed the words “Help me!” so he moseyed over to Amber and her date and began asking about the merits and drawbacks of different gaming platforms. 

Ellowyne then spotted Neema with Penn. He was a garrulous guy and had little trouble engaging with people he didn’t know, but Neema seemed uncomfortable and didn’t have much to say to him. Ellowyne told Penn about what turned into a great gaming debate, and, once he heard someone talk about Nintendo Switch, he excused himself to join the other guys.

“Neema, what’s wrong?” Ellowyne asked. 

Neema sniffled and a tear crept out of her eye. “I guess I did something wrong by bidding so high on Penn. I know last year you all got together to bid for Rufus, and I asked if we were doing that for Penn. But no one said a word.” She pulled a tissue out of her purse and blew her nose. “I guess I shouldn’t have outbid Amber. I don’t know if there’s something going on between her and Penn, but I guess there is and I blundered where I shouldn’t have. I just thought it would be a great way to help the shelter and a nice way to get to know Penn since he is in our group of friends.”

Ellowyne thought for a moment if she should tell Neema about Penn’s dating habits. When he first joined the group, he hit on each one of the women. First, he tried to date Ellowyne, but he backed off when he found out how Rufus had been in love with her since middle school. Penn dated Prudence for a little while. They bonded over a mutual love of sports but eventually decided to be friends. Then he dated Lizette. She was so shy and didn’t date very much, and it took some time for her to open up to him. But eventually they decided to be friends as well. And then there was Amber. Sometimes they would go out several times a month but then they ratcheted it down to hanging out just a couple of times. Ellowyne also heard from their friends that Amber and Penn had a friends-with-benefits relationship. One time she asked Rufus to find out from Penn if he and Amber were more than “just friends”. Rufus refused to do that, saying that gentlemen never tell and the best friends of such men would never, ever break a confidence. She decided against telling Neema anything about Penn’s dating history. Ellowyne knew Neema would find out eventually.

“Oh, Honey,” Ellowyne said, as she gave Neema a big hug. “It’s okay. You didn’t know that we all were going to chip in for Penn. I guess we just assumed that we’d do the same thing this time. And Amber, well, she knows she thinks she’s entitled. None of us could stand her until we found out she had participated in children’s pageants. So she can be very competitive, especially for male attention. But you didn’t know that. She’ll be okay. Just give her some time.”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” Amber startled Ellowyne and Neema when she joined their conversation. “Ellowyne is right. I’m the entitled only child of wealthy parents. They got me involved in pageants, and I learned I didn’t like losing. Sometimes I’m a bitch. Ellowyne and our other friends keep me grounded. I am sorry for being less than gracious. I hope you have a wonderful time with Penn!”

Lisette furrowed her eyebrows as she was deep in thought. Finally she said, “I have an idea that will make all of us happy. Penn, you keep your date with Neema. And Neema, don’t beat yourself up over this. Have a wonderful time, talking and maybe doing something that will be enjoyable for both of you. Now, Amber, you bid a lot on Penn…”

Rufus interrupted Lizette. “Too much money, in my opinion. You know that he’s never going to let us—to let me—hear the end of it.” And everyone laughed.

Lizette gave Rufus the side eye and continued. “Anyway, Neema, one of us should have told you that we like to pool our money. We had so much fun last year when Rufus took us out, and we kind of figured we’d do the same. But we never let you know. So, I think we should pool our resources and, instead of money, donate  enough volunteer hours so we can “earn” a date with Penn.”

“So you’re suggesting we put in some sweat equity,” Prudence said. “We donate enough hours that would be the equivalent of $2200, which would have been Amber’s bid.”

“That’s a great idea,” Ellowyne squealed. “Rufus and I have helped with pet adoption days and it’s always been enjoyable. We could do that again!”

Neema said effusively, “That does sound like fun. Maybe I need to adopt a cat or dog.”

Prudence whispered to Ellowyne, “Just don’t tell her about Sybil. Your cat needs an exorcism.” 

Amber stated, “So if we’re going to pool our volunteer hours to get to $2200, the three of us would be—yikes—about $700 each.”

Ellowyne and Rufus whispered something to each other, then Ellowyne commented that she and Rufus would be glad to pitch in for Penn as well. “That would decrease the amount owed to $440 each,” Rufus chuckled and quipped, “I can’t believe I’m putting in hours at the shelter to pay to go out with this douche. Don’t forget your wallet this time!”

“This sounds like a lot of fun,” Neema remarked. “Could I possibly get in on this group date? I’ll gladly do whatever is needed at the shelter.”

“What the heck,” Penn said. “I might as well do some volunteer work, too. I mean, I’m the record holder for the most high-priced bachelor in Paws ‘N Claws history, so maybe I can charm people into adopting dogs and cats.” 

Amber noted that, with all seven friends donating time to the shelter, each person would put in the equivalent of $314 for the group date with Penn. “And remember,” she said, smiling at Neema. “It’s all for a good cause!”

Neema

Canon:

There are actually two different origin stories. In the first one, Rufus meets Neema first, and takes Ellowyne to a nice restaurant so she can meet Neema. In this version of events, Neema is an artist, and she and Ellowyne get along well. 

In the second story, Prudence meets Neema at an art class they were taking. Pru thinks Neema and Ellowyne would hit it off and invite them for lunch. Unfortunately, Ellowyne was feeling stressed. She was late to her appointment with Dr. Bantam, which caused her to be tardy getting to lunch. Indeed, she was so anxious that she talked at Neema incessantly, giving her way too much information. She made several faux pas about cherries and berries, to which Neema took as offensive because her family owned the biggest organic cherry and berry growers in the country. The friendship starts off tenuously but as Neema and Ellowyne learn more about each other, their friendship blossoms like the cherry trees on Lake Michigan. 

By the way, did you know that Neema means “Born during good times” in Swahili?

Headcanon:

It is so much fun to write about a new character. She pretty much is the personification of the tabula rasa, that is, a blank slate. We only know a few things about Neema and we can let our imaginations go wild(e). I’ve given Neema a surname that should accurately reflect her nationality.

As a result of Sadiku’s financial prowess the Zuberi family was wealthy. They purchased a condo in one of San Francisco’s elite high rises for Neema and a state-of-the-art electric car. 

Neema is the daughter of a retired NFL player, Sadiku Zuberi and his wife, Ayanna. They emigrated to the US from their native Tanzania when Sadiku was recruited to play football at the University of Nebraska. After graduation, he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. Over the years, he played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Detroit Lions. Sadiku was proactive in terms of managing his wealth. and, when he retired from football, he purchased an organic berry and cherry farm near Traverse City, Michigan, which became the largest and most prominent grower in the nation after only a few years. 

Having just graduated from college, Neema wanted to explore some of the places in which she had lived as a child. Her mother suggested San Francisco, where Neema was born. Ayanna remembered how much she and Sadiku loved living there and thought her daughter would appreciate the ethnic and cultural diversity and would also enjoy experiencing life from a different perspective. 

Neema will have many adventures with her new friends. Let’s see what happens as she joins Ellowyne’s social group and gets to know some of the rest of the squad!

Coming Soon!

This will be the home for pictorial stories, doppelgängers, short stories with no more than three paragraphs, and other fun things. There may be contests!

Not All Superheroes Wear Capes 3

It was a hot, dry summer’s day. Penn felt the sweat trickle down his face into his shirt. Suddenly, shots were exchanged, and Penn’s heart raced. He had never been in the middle of combat before this as he was a new medic. The injuries to which he tended were casualties of a battle with insurgents or snipers or those wounded from the explosion of an IED. Penn was nineteen years old and he had never experienced combat firsthand. He tried to be brave but he was so afraid.  The more experienced medic with him crept toward a wounded soldier but, to Penn’s horror, she was shot. Penn froze. He wanted to scream or cry out, but he couldn’t make a sound. Was he a coward? When it was safe to do so, he and an uninjured first lieutenant moved the wounded soldiers out of harm’s way and then to their nearby Combat Surgical Hospital, which was the replacements for MASH units after the war in Iraq. More medics, nurses, and doctors came to triage and treat the wounded soldiers. The chaplain came to pray for those who were dying or already dead. Penn kept seeing his dead colleague, who left behind two small children. He smelled burned flesh and the acrid remnants of gunfire. Finally he cried, broke out in a sweat, and started to scream.

“Hey, Penn,”one of the other nurses sleeping in the staff lounge called out. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a nightmare. Sorry to wake you.” He used to have frequent nightmares about his tours in Afghanistan, but they abated when he got therapy through the VA. Shortly thereafter, he met his group of friends and got much-needed social support. Occasionally something might trigger his PTSD. It might be a crowded room or a discussion of combat on a news show. The worst trigger was loud, unexpected noises like a car backfiring or unexpected fireworks. He had begged off seeing July 4 fireworks every year, saying that he had seen the real thing. He thought the worst of his PTSD was over. And now this. When he worked in the ER, he had some flashbacks to his experiences as an Army medic. Now those flashbacks threatened to drag him down, into the darkness that was PTSD. 

Penn wasn’t able to get back to sleep, so he showered, dressed, and showed up in the ER. It was 3AM, and he didn’t need to come in until 7AM, but he knew he might as well be useful. As soon as he told the nurse supervisor that he was working early, he punched in, grabbed his gear, and started triaging patients. He was finishing up with his third patient of the shift, when a call came through about a multi-victim motor vehicle accident. Penn’s COVID patient was stable so he was freed up to help with the accident victims. One of the victims was unresponsive and Penn jumped on the gurney, straddled the patient, and immediately started doing CPR. Meanwhile one of the doctors and a couple of other nurses stripped the patient, cutting through his clothes with bandage scissors, so they could draw blood, start IV lines, and place electrodes for an electrocardiogram. As per the EKG, the doctor determined that the patient needed cardioversion, so Penn got off the gurney and took the paddles and called out, “Clear!” to ensure no one was in contact with the patient and accidentally received a shock. The effort to correct the patient’s heart rhythm was unsuccessful, so Penn started chest compressions again. An unholy dance of chest compressions, checking the EKG, and cardioverting the patient continued for two more cycles. Eventually, the patient flatlined. Penn insisted on repeating the cycle just one more time, but the doctor called him into the staff lounge.

“Penn,” Dr. Bishop started, “What happened out there? You tried to control the situation but, in spite of every effort we made, our patient could not be saved.”

Penn’s cheeks reddened and he was on the verge of tears. “There is so much death in the ER with COVID-19, but I thought I might be able to save this patient’s life. I mean, I know I could have. When I was a medic in Afghanistan, we saved many more soldiers than we lost. Even the ones with traumatic amputations or bad head injuries–we saved their lives. But with COVID, it seems all that we see are patients we know will die from this disease.” He stopped to catch his breath and pray that any tears he might shed would go unnoticed. “It’s just mind-numbing to deal with one death after another.”

“That’s right. You were a medic for what—four years? And you saw a lot of trauma, from minor injuries to soldiers who would have been fortunate to die from their wounds.”

“And once. Just once, I wanted to save our patient and not send yet another person to the morgue.” Penn’s eyes were downcast and he sighed. “The worst thing of all is that my best friend’s parents died of COVID when they were in Italy. Nicest people I’ve ever known. They knew I was thousands of miles away from my family, but they treated me as if I was one of them. I think about my friend and how is heart is breaking. And I can see their faces in the men and women I take care of, especially those who die in the ER.” And with that, Penn broke down and cried.

Dr. Bishop patted Penn’s shoulders. “So you have PTSD, which has gotten worse with your ER work, you’re working way too many hours, and you think about your friend’s loss of his parents. And you didn’t get to walk for graduation and you have no time to take your licensure exam. Penn, that’s way too much for anyone to handle. I think you need a break.”

“But why should I get a break when other nurses going through the same thing?”

“You’re a good nurse. You are empathetic and skilled, and it would be a shame if you burn out so early in your career. Look, let me talk with the nurse supervisor to see what we can do. You need to take some time off. Like right now. Go home. Grab something to eat and maybe a beer. Talk to someone. Check with the VA for some resources, maybe online meetings. And talk to your best friend. Talk to another friend if talking to him is too rough right now.”

Less than 15 minutes later, Dr. Bishop and the nurse supervisor came into the room where Penn was. “Penn,” the supervisor said, “Dr. Bishop told me what happened. I also heard from some of the other nurses who shared sleeping quarters with you that you’ve been having nightmares, usually about being back in combat. You’re one hell of a nurse and we want to do what we can to help you through this. So I want you to go home now, and stay there for a couple of days. When you return, I’ll assign you to do mobile COVID testing. That should give you a bit of a break from the ER.”

Penn tried to protest but he knew the doctor and the supervisor were right. He gathered his things, punched out, and headed home. 

To be continued… 

Love During Lockdown 2

It wasn’t long before Lizette and Lawrence were FaceTiming or having text dates pretty much every evening. They talked about birds, of course, but also how they ended up in San Francisco. They discussed what they thought about San Francisco as well as his childhood in Pennsylvania and hers in NOLA. They shared wishes and dreams and, despite the pandemic, found themselves growing fonder of each other with every passing day. 

The next time they were scheduled to work together, Lawrence came up with an idea. “I know fast food isn’t exactly elegant, but maybe we could get something to eat. We could eat on a picnic table or even in my car.” 

Lizette was excited to get together with Lawrence. Even though they could only take off their masks to eat, it still promised to be an enjoyable first real date. After work, they got into his car and went to his favorite drive-through, In-N-Out. The line was shorter than usual, since most people were staying at home. They feasted on burgers, shakes, and animal-style fries. And when they finished eating, neither of them donned their face masks immediately, and Lawrence gently kissed Lizette. It was a sweet, tender kiss, and it made her feel special.

Eventually Lawrence and Lizette started seeing each other outside the shelter. They would still go to a drive-through to get food. They dined on burgers or tacos or chicken nuggets and sandwiches. The first time they went to a fast food outlet that specialized in chicken, Lizette looked up from her lunch and asked, “You and I love birds so much. Should we really be eating them?”

Lawrence spewed his lemonade, nearly dousing Lizette. “I never thought about that. Then again, chickens aren’t just any birds. They’re tasty birds! When I was growing up, I loved going to the state fair. I used to talk to the chickens, remind them that they were delicious, and inform them of their prehistoric ancestors.”

Lizette dissolved into laughter. “I just imagine you going to a state fair and calling all the chickens yummy dinosaurs.”

“Don’t forget the ducks and geese,” Lawrence said. “They’re delectable dinosaurs, too.”

They giggled and guffawed and howled and hooted until their sides ached and tears trickled down their faces. 

After that, they would see each other as often as possible. Sometimes they watched birds at Buena Vista Park or Lake Merced. If they got together in the evening, they would sprawl out on Lizette’s parents’ yard or on the roof so they could look at the stars. Lawrence pointed out various constellations such as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, and he said that his late father would take him and his brother outside to gaze at the stars. He promised that, as soon as the COVID restrictions had eased, he would take her to the planetarium. 

Lizette promised to introduce Lawrence to her friends. “We have a couple of coffee houses that we like. Brewed Awakenings, Deja Brew, and Underground Coffee. Great coffee, all of them, and amazing sweets. Cinnamon rolls, muffins, cookies, and scones.” She sighed. “I wish this was normal times and that we could all get together. You would really like my friends.”

“I think I will. They sound awesome. I’m sure they miss you as much as you miss them.” Lawrence paused a moment to gather his thoughts. “Even though it would just be the two of us, we could go to any of these shops and get drive-through.”

“That’s a great idea! Maybe we could stop before we go to the sanctuary,” Lizette suggested.

In a short time, Lizette went from being bored to being almost too busy. She finished her coursework online and ahead of schedule. She had her work at the sanctuary and even volunteered for more hours, especially if Lawrence was going to be there, too. Her free time was spent talking to him, texting him, going to drive-throughs with him, and hanging out in safe environments with him. In fact, she had been so busy that she didn’t have a chance to chat with her beloved friends and didn’t tell them about Lawrence yet. 

To be continued…

Love During Lockdown: Lizette

After her conversation with Prudence and Amber, Lizette was left with not much to do. She fed her birds and cleaned their cages, and then she leafed through a few magazines. She thought about calling Amber so they could talk in French. Lizette, having grown up in New Orleans and being of Creole heritage, was fluent, as was Amber. But she didn’t want to bother Amber so soon after they just talked in the morning. She thought about texting Prudence but figured she would be exercising or meditating. And then she thought about getting in touch with Ellowyne but she was probably preoccupied with Rufus. Lizette was happy for them, of course, but deep down she had always wished that Rufus might turn to her if he got tired of his one-sided romance with Ellowyne. Maybe he could introduce her to some of his engineering buddies. Or maybe she should try Tinder or a dating site. But this was not the time to start dating someone because of the shelter-in-place orders. It would even be difficult if she tried to reconnect with her old boyfriend back in NOLA. Goodness. Would he even remember her after so long? Lizette sighed. She was bored. Very bored. Bored enough to call it ennui?

Fortunately, Lizette’s was short-lived. She quickly went from having little to do to a full schedule. The second week of the shelter-in-place order, she received a call from a local bird sanctuary asking her if she could spare some time to help out. Several volunteers had quit because of the pandemic, so she was tasked to feed the birds, clean the cages, and interact with them, especially birds that mimicked speech. It was pleasant work for Lizette especially since she was starting the veterinary school at UC Davis in the fall. 

Between finishing her classes at State and taking care of the birds, Lizette found herself busier than usual. She kept up with her friends via text, FaceTime, or Zoom meetings. One day a new volunteer started. His name was Lawrence. Under his mask, he was a handsome fellow with soulful brown eyes, a well-trimmed beard, and deep umber skin. Lizette had met a number of guys at college, and occasionally some of Rufus’ engineering cohorts, but none made her knees shake and her heart flutter. Lawrence did. 

“So you’re interested in birds, too,” he said. “I’ve loved them from when I was a little kid. My grandmother had birds and that’s how I got into them. And you?”

“I got interested in birds because of my grandmother, too. She had a couple of parrots that she loved so much. Sometimes we went bird watching.”

“I love bird watching,” Lawrence exclaimed. “I even joined a bird watching society but everyone else was at least 60. Not that I didn’t enjoy their company, but it would have been nice to have someone closer to my age.”

“I joined a group, too, when I lived in New Orleans,” Lizette said. “And I found the same thing. But my grandmother made a bunch of friends in that group.”

Lawrence asked, “What are your favorite birds?”

“I love talking birds,” Lizette answered. “Right now I have an African grey. And you?”

“An African grey? You are so lucky! Those birds are amazing. I have a couple of canaries  named Bruno and Bob. They fit in with my lifestyle. I live in an apartment with three other guys, and I can’t always count on them to feed my birds. It should work well in the fall, when I start veterinary school at UC Davis.”

Lizette was gobsmacked. “I’m going to the UC Davis veterinary school in the fall, too!”

He exclaimed, “No kidding! Are you doing the aviary program, too?” 

Lizette nodded. “That’s why I chose Davis.”

“Are you going to commute or move there?”

“Right now I plan to commute. My parents live here and I have a bunch of friends who live here, too. Although most of them are headed to grad school. One friend is doing law school at Stanford. She’s planning to commute. Another is going to State for a holistic physical therapy track. She went there for undergrad, so she will live at home. I also have a friend who is already at Berkeley and he plans to commute. He’s doing a PhD in mechanical engineering and statistics for engineering,” Lizette said. 

Lawrence smiled. “Wow! You hang out with an intelligent bunch of friends!”

Lizette added, “Oops. I forgot one of my friends. He was a medic in the Army and he’s finishing nursing school at State. Right now he’s working in the ER and taking care of coronavirus patients.”

“That’s got to be tough,” Lawrence stated. “It sounds like nurses are working 16-hour shifts with few days off. It’s nonstop.” 

“Yeah, that’s what Penn says. “He’s also said that it’s a lot like being in combat. You know, I haven’t seen my friends since the lockdown started, and I miss them. We usually met up at a coffee shop or a pub a couple of times a week. I mean, we stay in touch through text messages and FaceTime, and sometimes we have a Zoom meeting. But it isn’t the same,” Lizette said wistfully.

Under his mask, Lawrence scowled. “I hear you,” he said.  “I wish I could take you out for coffee or maybe a drink but we can’t with COVID restrictions.”

“How about we exchange numbers so we can at least text?” Lizette suggested.

Lawrence thought that would be a great idea, and they planned to have a text date that evening.

To be continued…

Love and Loss 3

Ellowyne sat with Rufus until the wee hours of the morning. She held him while he wept and brought him ice cream when he admitted to some indigestion. When he began to fall asleep, she put his head on her lap and pulled a throw blanket over him. Only then did she lean back and drift off to sleep. 

When they woke up around  mid-morning, neither of them felt inclined to do any virtual classwork. Fortunately, they were caught up on their studies, and missing a day or two would be of little consequence.

Still, Ellowyne let her professors know what had happened, and she encouraged Rufus to do the same. She wanted to gently tread the fine line between grief and his obligations. He worked so hard to get where he was academically but he needed time to mourn his loss. At her behest, Rufus got in touch with his professors and advisor. Dr. Wolowitz  gave him condolences and told him to take as much time as he would need, even if it meant deferring some of his work to summer. Rufus was going to work on some projects before starting grad school, but Dr. Wolowitz pointed out that there might not even be a summer session due to the pandemic. He also said that engineering and math could wait but grief would not. 

Rufus decided to get a little more sleep since he was emotionally drained. But before he got into bed, Ellowyne asked him if he wanted to let their friends no. Rufus was aghast. “Oh, Ellie, I can’t do that. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Talking about it makes it so much more real. But if you want to, go ahead.” 

When he had drifted off, Ellowyne  opened a Zoom meeting and contacted all of their friends to participate. Fortunately, Penn actually had a day off, Lizette didn’t have to be at the bird sanctuary, Prudence pushed herself away from YouTube, and Amber, who was probably still in bed, managed to drag herself to the computer for the meeting.

Pru was the first to notice that something seemed wrong with Ellowyne. Maybe she and Rufus weren’t getting along and thinking of breaking up. Penn also noticed Ellowyne’s somber mood. He had an idea of why she was chatting with them but he hoped against hope that he was wrong. He wasn’t.

“I don’t know how I can say this,” Ellowyne started. Her voice trembled and she stumbled over some of her words. “Rufus’ parents died of COVID in Italy. Yesterday someone from the State Department brought boxes with their cremains and some of their personal items including passports, money, and jewelry.”

“Dammit,” Penn said. “I was afraid this was what happened. I mean, he texted me yesterday and asked if it was some prank I was pulling. And if not me, then someone else.”

Lizette shook her head. “I’m so sorry. Please tell Rufus that.”

“But only when he’s ready,” Prudence said. “It sounds like he’s in a state of shock and denial. He might not be up to hear anyone’s condolences.”

Amber asked, “Yeah, remember in Freshman Psych when we learned about Kübler-Ross’ Stages of Grief? Prudence is spot on about Rufus being in shock and denial.”

“I took a course on death and dying last year during J-term,” Penn stated. “We discussed how Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief aren’t necessarily a linear process.”

“It’s a more circular process,” Lizette said. “And someone can skip some stages or backtrack to a previous stage.”

“So, what can we do to help Rufus?” Prudence asked. 

“Well, I think he will want to lie low for a while,” Ellowyne answered. “Right now he doesn’t want to talk about it, and I’m not going to push him. I want to do what’s best for him, and I’m going to—oh—no—”

She could no longer fight her tears. “I—I—I don’t want to cry in front of Rufus. He doesn’t ne–ne–need that now.”

Amber asked, “What can we do to help Rufus? And you?”

“I’ll make a grocery run for you today,” Penn offered. “Beer, too, for when Rufus feels up to some.”

“Penn, this is your only day off in who knows how long. Really, we don’t need anything and if we do, I can go to the store,” Ellowyne said. “Rufus would feel even worse if he knew you sacrificed your time off.”

“I’m not doing anything today,” Lizette said. “I can do the grocery run for you.”

“Oh! Marisol made croissants and some sourdough yesterday. I’ll bring you baked treats and some of my special coffee,” Amber said.

Prudence spoke up. “I will give you and Rufus some aromatherapy candles. Lavender helps calm someone in distress. And I’ll do some distance Reiki, too.”

In the distance, Ellowyne could hear Rufus moving around. “I’m going to let you all go for now. I think I hear Rufus. Thank you all for being there for him—for us! I’ll let you know when he feels ready to talk. I love you all. Thank you for being there for us.”

A Work in Progress 2

“Ugh! Are we out of toilet paper again? Marisol, have you been shopping recently? I mean, we, of all people shouldn’t have to deal with silly shortages!”

Marisol cringed when she heard Amber hollering. She enjoyed working for Mr. and Mrs. Stanhopes but dealing with Amber was another matter altogether. “Yes, Señorita! Please give me your list and then I will go.”

“Hmmm,” Amber said. “I’ve been craving your clam linguine, so you’ll need to go to the seafood market. Oh, since you’re going there, you can pick up the ingredients for cioppino. Remember that I love extra crab and great big shrimp. Back to the linguine, could you make the pasta from scratch? Do you need semolina flour? And hard flour for sourdough bread? A bread salad sounds so refreshing.”

Marisol rolled her eyes as she hastily wrote down Amber’s demands. The girl would never write out a list, even if she promised. She had no concept of how much time and effort Marisol put into everything she did to please her. But her parents, while wealthy, treated her with appreciation and respect and made no outrageous demands. Amber was getting better, however. She put effort into her friendships with the other girls and the two boys in her social circle. And she was starting to be cognizant of a world outside the mansion gates. So perhaps Amber would eventually learn to treat Marisol kindly.

Disrupting Marisol’s train of thought, Amber bellowed, “Don’t forget the toilet paper! I need the extra soft kind. Four-ply. Ultra-soft, deluxe, extra plush. But not the kind with those obnoxious bears in the commercials. I’d use cheap toilet paper over that!”

“I won’t forget, Señorita! I’ll leave in a few minutes so if there is anything else you want, please let me know.”

“Tamales! Your tamales are so good. And mole. I don’t care what meat you get but I would love to have some of your delicious Mexican food.”

Marisol added masa to her list, along with pork, chicken, some spices, and Mexican chocolate. At least Amber did acknowledge that she liked Marisol’s cooking. Still, Marisol plotted a little passive aggressive revenge because she always got the toilet paper with bears in their commercials and put them, without packages, in all of the bathrooms.  

To be continued…

Love and Loss 2

Ellowyne continued to stay at Rufus’ home after their quarantine expired. They decided she would stay there until his parents returned from their trip to Italy. In time, they settled into a daily routine. When they woke up in the morning, they canoodled, showered, and had breakfast. Then they worked on classwork on their computers, sometimes attending Zoom meetings or participating in online discussion groups. They would break for lunch, then go back to work. Usually, Rufus worked through the afternoon and Ellowyne made use of her box of fabrics by sewing masks to sell online. When finished, they made food and watched videos. Sometimes they played Exploding Kittens or Tacocat.Other times they played chess.  And when they went to bed, they made love and spooned the entire night. 

In their time together, they learned so much about each other. Ellowyne marveled at Rufus’ elaborate LEGO structures, drones, small robots, and Rube Goldberg devices. Her favorite Rube Goldberg machine picked up and shook the Mars globe she gave him for his birthday. (It was his favorite, too.) One of the Rufus’ idiosyncrasies was the way he listened to different music when he was studying. If he was working on math or statistics, he played Led Zeppelin. If he was doing his mechanical engineering course, he listened to Aerosmith. And if he was working on his humanities elective, he played Pink Floyd or Fleetwood Mac.

Rufus also learned more about Ellowyne. Gone was the sad, anxious girl who was perpetually in the throes of an existential crisis. Rufus thought back to the days when they were in middle school, when he first noticed how unhappy she seemed but how she wore creative clothing. That girl grew up. In a relatively short period of time, Ellowyne shed her chrysalis and emerged a confident, self-actualized woman. Rufus was glad that she still created and wore wearable art, since that was one of the things that initially attracted him all those years ago.

One afternoon, Dr. Bantam called Ellowyne to figure out a way to continue her therapy in spite of the pandemic. Immediately, she noticed how Ellowyne sounded so different. There was a cheerfulness, a buoyancy in her speech,  something Dr. Bantam had never heard from her in the past. Dr. Bantam asked Ellowyne what had changed in her life to make her so happy. 

Ellowyne asked, “Do you remember how I was so unsure about Rufus and what he wanted from me? And you encouraged me to consider him as more than just a friend? Things happened. I realized what a wonderful man he is and I figured out that I was attracted to him. We are now in a serious relationship. I love him and he loves me. We got quarantined together and I’m living with him until his parents get back from Italy.”

Gobsmacked but happy for Ellowyne, Dr. Bantam encouraged her to stay in touch and call her if she needs an appointment or just to talk.

One morning, Ellowyne was in the living room, checking Facebook before her class started. She knew Rufus was working on stats because she could hear Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog coming from his room. The doorbell rang, so Ellowyne, dressed in Rufus’ pajama top and her sweatpants, answered after she out on one of the masks she was wearing. At the door stood a man and a woman, both in masks and business suits, asking for Mr. Rutter. 

“Honey, there are some people who want to talk with you,” she called out. 

“I’ll be right there,” he answered. He was wearing his pajama pants and pulled on a t-shirt and mask before he got to the front door. He furrowed his brows when he saw the visitors, who looked very serious and were carrying several cardboard boxes. What on earth could they want?

The woman asked for Mr. Rutter but Rufus said, “I’m sorry. My father isn’t here. He and my mother went to Italy for an extended vacation.”

“No, no. Sir. We’re from the State Department, and we’re here to see you,” the man said. He and the woman showed their identification badges to Rufus. “We’re sorry, but we’re here to inform you of the passing of both of your parents.”

Rufus looked incredulous and shook his head. “I don’t believe it. My parents were fine when they left.”

The woman said, “They died of coronavirus in Italy.” She handed him two boxes, both of which were marked “cremains”.

“Yeah, right,” Rufus responded. “This sounds like a prank my best friend would do. Penn set you up to do this, didn’t he?”

Ellowyne came up beside Rufus and put her arm around his shoulder. “Honey, I don’t think Penn would do this.”

“Nope. No way. These ashes might have come from somebody’s charcoal grill. Or from burned papers. My parents are fine. And if they died, why wouldn’t the corpses have been sent?”

“Sir, there is too much risk shipping a corpse to any location in the US,” the woman stated. “We don’t know if handling the remains of someone who died of COVID-19 can expose someone to the disease. So they are all cremated when they pass.”

The man gave Rufus a box that contained his parents’ valuables.  He said, “You will find your parents’ jewelry and watches, along with their other personal items in here.”

After they left, Rufus tossed the boxes onto the couch. “Penn sure outdid himself. A box with my parents’ valuables. Yeah, right. He put a lot of effort into this prank.”

Rufus sent a text message to Penn. “Great gag! You must have had this planned for weeks! A little late for April Fools’ Day but it’s still funny!”

Penn, who had a rare opportunity to take a quick break, texted back. “Huh? What do you mean?”

“You set up those people, allegedly from the State Department, to tell me my parents died in Italy.”

A few minutes later, Penn responded, “I’m sorry. I didn’t have anything to do with this. But I don’t think it’s a prank.”

Dumbfounded, Rufus put his phone in his pocket. He asked Ellowyne, “Can you believe it? Penn says he knows nothing of this prank. In fact, he doesn’t think it was a prank at all!” He noticed Ellowyne’s somber expression. “You don’t think it’s true, do you?”

Ellowyne didn’t answer him right away. She reached over to touch his cheek. “I hope it’s not true. But I’m here for you whatever happens.

The rest of the day was marked by verbal silence. Rufus was blasting Led Zeppelin so he had to be working on statistics. Later he listened to Aerosmith, so Ellowyne knew he was working on some of his engineering projects. But then, the music stopped. Ellowyne quit sewing masks when Rufus emerged from his room. She asked tentatively, “How are you feeling? Did you get a lot done?”

He answered, “Eh, I got some stuff done but I guess my heart wasn’t in it. What do you think? Are my parents really gone?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you should open the box with your parents’ valuables. You know, to see if it really is their stuff.”

“No. It’s just a ruse. I’m not going to fall for that nonsense. If Penn didn’t do it, somebody did. Maybe one of my classmates. You know how crazy engineers get.”   

Then he deftly changed the subject. “Hey, what would you like for supper tonight? I’m in the mood for Thai.”

Eating was the last thing on Ellowyne’s mind. She remembered how she felt when her mother died when her car was struck by a drunk driver. Ellowyne was only five years old when she lost her mother. For the longest time, she didn’t understand where her mother was or why she wasn’t coming back. From her perspective, death was temporary and reversible. She also thought she could wish her mother back home. At every dusk, she would wait to see the first star so she could make a wish that her mother would return. Alas, all the wishing in the world could not bring Ellowyne’s mother back, and eventually she realized that her mother was really dead. So, although the circumstances were different, she understood Rufus’ shock and denial. She would support him in any way possible. And right now, he needed food.

“Sure,” she said. “I’m not terribly hungry but I would like some Thai fried rice with shrimp and pineapple. Are you getting drunken noodles?”

“Nope! I’m going to have some Crying Tiger.” 

Usually, Ellowyne teased Rufus about the hot, spicy food, which usually made him laugh. She tried to muster up some enthusiasm and hoped he wouldn’t notice how hard she was trying to be normal. “OMG! That stuff’s so spicy it could make a tiger cry! Dried Thai peppers on dried Thai peppers on dried Thai peppers, and a little bit of steak you can drown in the sauce. But I’m not sure if I want to kiss you after you eat. And if you wake up with indigestion in the middle of the night, don’t blame me!”

Rufus grinned and phoned in an order for delivery. He seemed to forget about the visit from the State Department. Ellowyne vowed to be patient with him and not push him to open the boxes.

As they ate, Rufus exclaimed, “I know what happened! It’s a mistake. They misidentified the remains and my parents are fine.” He continued to ignore the boxes, especially the one marked valuables. He decided to watch the blu-ray of some superhero movies. “Michael Keaton was the best Batman. And Jack Nicholson as the Joker is inspired.”

After the first movie, Rufus wanted to watch another. Ellowyne agreed that the movie was good, especially the scenes of the Joker running rampant in an art museum, all set to a soundtrack by Prince. She made popcorn, hot and dripping with butter, and they cuddled together under a soft blanket. Without mentioning the boxes, Ellowyne got ready for bed, as did Rufus, and they spooned most of the night.

In the middle of the night, Ellowyne awoke to an empty bed. She threw on a robe and a pair of slippers and headed toward the living room. There she found Rufus with the contents of the box marked “Valuables” spread out on the coffee table. He had opened their wallets and passports. There was no way someone could fake those documents. He picked up his father’s watch, then his camera. And then he picked up his mother’s engagement and wedding rings. They were family heirlooms, meant to passed from one generation to the next. He remembered something his mother had said,” When you find a woman to marry, I will give these to you. I hope you end up with Ellowyne. I know how much you love her.”

He tried to choke back his tears, but they defied him. By that time, Ellowyne came over to the couch and sat with him. “It isn’t a prank or a mistake. My parents are gone,”he said as he collapsed into Ellowyne’s arms and sobbed. She held him, rubbed his shoulders, and stroked his hair.  

To Be Continued…

Nature Abhors a Vacuum 2

As the days of COVID restrictions continued, Pru became restless. True, she filled her days with Facetime chats with Amber and Lizette, and she organized a regular Zoom meeting with all the members of her rugby team, the She Devils. She caught up with all her classwork and read some of the suggested texts for her courses. And she continued practicing meditation, distance Reiki, and online sessions of both yin and yang yoga. Still, she missed being around people. Pru’s parents were essential workers, so they were gone most of the day. And she missed her friends. Penn was so busy at the hospital and she rarely got a text back from him. She had texted Ellowyne a couple of times and occasionally they chatted. Unless he had his nose in a book, Rufus joined the conversation. But Pru had a vague, unsettling feeling about Ellowyne and Rufus, like they were going to face something cataclysmic sometime soon. 

One morning, she woke with nothing planned. She threw some juice, yogurt, and fruit into the blender for a healthy, tasty smoothie. But when she finished making it, she had an urge for doughnuts. Mmmm. Crullers glazed with sugar. Fruit-filled kolaches. Jelly doughnuts bursting with cherry jam. Krispy Kremes.  Pru popped her smoothie into the refrigerator, then got into her car to find the nearest, open drive-through doughnut shop. 

Her mission was successful and, with a bag of delectable doughnuts and a large cup of coffee, Pru settled in front of her laptop. She grabbed a chocolate-frosted chocolate doughnut and took a sip of her coffee, and decided to wander about the Internet. She checked Facebook and noticed that Ellowyne had changed her status from “single” to “in a relationship with Rufus Rutter”. He changed his status as well. Prudence sighed with relief. Maybe she was wrong in thinking they might be on the edge of catastrophe.

Otherwise, Facebook was boring. Lizette posted about her work at the shelter and how she was enjoying learning different crafts. Amber posted nothing except a terse “I thought this COVID nonsense was supposed to be over by Easter.” And there were few posts in the She Devils FB group. When Pru found herself perusing her parents’ pages, she decided to move along.

Hmmmm. Prudence had decisions to make: kolache or jelly doughnut, TikTok or YouTube. She chose the doughnut and YouTube. Previously, she found great guided meditations there, but she wanted to look at something different, something way outside the usual videos she watched. As she scrolled through the suggestions, she found it. The motherlode of consequential, life-changing, earth-shattering videos: Dr. Pimple Popper.

She smirked when she clicked on the first video. She remembered the time, about a year ago, when she brought Penn to a party at the house of one of her teammates. One of the girls had a nasty zit on her back, and, knowing Penn was in nursing school, asked him to pop it. He drank enough beer to agree to do it, but not so much that he would do it under unsafe conditions. So the She Devils went looking for sterile gauze and alcohol. One found a sterile needle and gloves among the hostess’ sister’s diabetic supplies. Penn took a gulp of his beer, and had the teammate pull her shirt up to reveal the biggest pimple he had ever seen, well, at least the biggest one he saw that night! Prudence opened the gloves and the sterile needle, and Penn gingerly pierced the angry-looking cyst. The girls all ooohed, aaahed, and giggled as the furuncle exploded with watery goo and the ribbon of pus Penn extruded from the opening. A couple of the girls nearly gagged but Pru was steadfast, not queasy in the least. She held the gauze, wiped up the exudate, and handed Penn some hydrogen peroxide, iodine solution, and a Band-Aid so he could finish cleaning and dressing the wound. She and Penn shared an Uber and a few drunken kisses in the backseat of the car. Good times indeed!

She clicked on another video, then another. She nibbled on the doughnuts that remained in the bag while she searched for even more videos. Her coffee had gone cold and all the only things left in the bag were doughnut crumbs. Only then she looked at the clock and realized that she had been online for nearly five hours! Her parents would be home from work soon, that is, if they didn’t have to do overtime. Prudence put the ingredients for lentil soup in the pressure cooker and sliced some homemade sourdough bread. Then she scurried back to her room to get her laptop, and watched a couple more videos while the family’s supper cooked. 

To be continued…