Alternate Reality

Fiction by Alexandra Carmichael

Two months into quarantine you started thinking about Mari. This was after being stuck in a tiny Manhattan apartment for weeks, cloistered with your wife, Sandra, and the worst versions of one another. Shaving and flossing had become pointless vanities. The gut you’d spent thirty years trying to avoid had appeared beneath your t-shirts. Your only exercise was the short walk that granted alone time every few days.

Each day was identical. The alarm went off at 8:50 a.m. You rolled out of bed and sat down at the desk, opened your laptop and checked how many new cases there were, how many more deaths, before turning to unread emails and a list of the day’s video meetings. Sandra did the same from the kitchen counter or the couch. You both worked through lunch and into the evening. The room remained silent except for an occasional grunt triggered by a moronic email. Around 6 p.m. your phone buzzed with a reminder that you’d only taken 20 steps that day. Yet most nights you were too exhausted to do much more than heat up leftovers for dinner. Then you and Sandra would play Yahtzee or watch a movie. You’d go to bed and repeat the whole thing again the next day.

You knew exactly how privileged you were, but that somehow made it worse. The banality of the suffering, how little it took for you to crack. Poor you, earning a steady paycheck from the safety of your apartment while people were dying or going bankrupt. All of your loved ones were healthy and employed in cities that weren’t virus hotspots and perhaps never would be. You over-tipped the delivery men and women who brought groceries and Indian food to your door, and threw money at random charities. That dulled the guilt some.

It was during one of the virtual work happy hours, the first time you thought of Mari. The happy hours had their own routine. A dozen coworkers in tiny squares on your screen sipped beers or glasses of wine. The faces in the squares tried and failed to talk about anything other than the virus. Every Friday at 5 p.m. you endured the strained silences, the technical issues and the lack of interesting conversation. It was your only human contact outside of Sandra and a bi-weekly call to your mother in Vermont.

On that particular happy hour, Judy and Liam were dominating the conversation while everyone else was sort of staring and nodding. Liam was giving a tour of his parents’ beach house in Jersey where he’d been staying the last month. He kept complaining about being back with his parents, about the lack of takeout options. Just as you started to consider faking a lost Wi-Fi signal, a new face popped up in the bottom right corner of the screen. Mari, with her dimpled smile and cascading black hair. Her face was the size of two postage stamps, but there she was. How had you forgotten about her?

Mari used to sit next to you at work, back in the before times when it was normal for 45 employees to spend nine-hour days breathing each other’s air in an open office. Back when you would reach bare-handed into the plastic containers of pretzels and gummy bears that lined the shelves of the shared kitchen. There was even a sandwich drawer in the office fridge where communal deli meats, cheeses and bread were restocked every Monday. Dozens of germy fingers peeling off thin slices of turkey breast from the same pile and fumbling deep into a plastic bag for the last slice of bread. It seemed like a great work perk at the time.

Mari was the new girl, back when that meant something. You’d been assigned to be her welcome buddy. There was a checklist of things to show her. How to use the printer or book a conference room, where to get the best cup of coffee. One time she wheeled her chair over and asked you how to merge two cells in Excel. She leaned in to watch you demonstrate. You could smell her shampoo. Lavender, or maybe lilac. There’d been an exchange of cute banter once or twice, a few smiles that seemed to linger during a good morning or have a nice weekend. But that was it. It wasn’t even a workplace crush. There hadn’t been enough time for that.

You couldn’t stop glancing at Mari’s tiny face for the rest of the happy hour. And you were sure she was looking in the direction of your own face a few times. Is it possible to make intimate eye contact through a screen? Because that’s what kept happening. Judy was droning on about how unprecedented this all was, and you announced that the word should be banned for the rest of the year. Mari laughed. And then came a small glimmer of something familiar. You remembered what it was like to want to know a person, to want them to like you.

Mari took up residence in your head after that, her face appearing at random times like while brushing your teeth, but mostly at inappropriate times. Like that time late at night when Sandra said she needed more emotional support from you right now, that she needed to really talk about how terrified she was. Every time she tried to talk, apparently, you would clam up and get defensive. You tried to listen to her and respond with the right combination of words, but all you could think about was whether Mari would be more understanding. Maybe Mari would know that not everyone was processing all this in the same way. Not everyone needed to talk and talk and talk about how crazy things were. You thought about Mari’s glossy black hair and green eyes, about how simple and perfect her face was.

The tally of days spent sheltering in place ticked up and up. You and Mari didn’t work on any of the same projects and had no reason to speak to one another. You saw her tiny video square in the monthly all-company meeting or the occasional happy hour. Sometimes you’d fantasize about a reunion. Everyone would return to the office and Mari would sit down at her desk and say hey neighbor like she’d missed you. But the CEO kept pushing back the return-to-office date. First it was mid-May, then mid-July, until she stopped pretending to have a plan. We will reevaluate in 2021, her last email read. That meant six more months at least of whatever this was, of rolling out of bed and into your desk chair, of five video meetings a day and sugarcoating quarterly reports and watching television all weekend.

Sandra was the only person in the world you’d want to be stuck in a cement box with for an unknowable amount of time, but that didn’t make it pleasant. She was still trying to make the weekends fun. She ordered a 1,000-piece puzzle online. It was a landscape of rolling green hills and a serene lake, the kind of place you used to go hiking together. When the puzzle arrived in the mail, Sandra lit up like it was Christmas. She poured two glasses of wine and set all the pieces out on the kitchen table. Let’s start with the border first, she suggested. She decided you would focus on the lake parts and she would find the tree parts. You stared at her while she squinted at the pile and diligently separated out green pieces as if there were a prize at the end. Watching her made you more depressed than all of the months spent at home. How could she not see how pointless it all was? You told her you’d rather shove puzzle pieces into your eyeballs than continue doing this for another second. She got upset, took the bottle of wine into the bedroom and finished it herself.

By month four, people started fleeing the city for good. Neighbors and colleagues and friends you hadn’t seen in years. Some had been laid off, some were buying homes in North Carolina or Michigan, some had vague plans to return when all of this was over. You couldn’t really blame them. All of the things that made New York worth it were either shut down or dangerous. The bars and restaurants and museums, the excitement, the feeling that anything could happen. Your favorite part of New York had been taking the subway to a random neighborhood, wandering among the unfamiliar faces, the millions of individual worlds. You’d spend the day popping in and out of bookstores and coffee shops and delis, maybe catching an evening movie afterward. But now all of the faces were covered in masks and all of the stores were covered by metal grates or wooden boards. You didn’t blame people for leaving, but you definitely resented them. How easy they made it seem, to pick up a life and place it somewhere with better real estate prices and a lower hospitalization rate. Leaving was unimaginable, as if your fate was tied to the city’s, but you couldn’t remember why you wanted to stay, either.

Teddy from work was leaving, not just the city and the company but the country itself. He told you America had let him down, that he was moving back to Ontario where his family was. His precious dual citizenship let him slip under the travel ban. That’s why the party happened. Teddy wanted to throw a final get-together in the backyard of his brownstone in Brooklyn, said there was enough space for eight or ten people to gather responsibly. He invited you to be one of those people. It was the first time you had a good enough reason to leave the apartment and risk exposure. For a moment you hesitated, not because you might get sick or because one month ago this kind of party would have been illegal. The hesitation came at the thought of holding a conversation with someone besides Sandra. It made you nauseous. Choosing something to wear and being charming and pretending to be interested in a boring story. What if you’d forgotten how to do those things? But of course you had to go, because Teddy was leaving. And because just the thought of it made you feel more hopeful than you had all year. And because Mari might be there.

You were on the couch one evening working on a PowerPoint about earnings from the first half of the year. No amount of flashy charts or clip art could make the numbers look better than they were, but you kept trying. It was late enough in the day that your eyes started to blur and burn from staring at a screen for so long. Teddy sent out a poll to get a head count for the goodbye party. You saw Liam’s name in the RSVPs. He wouldn’t have been at the top of the list for your first human contact in months. But it didn’t matter, because Mari’s name was there, too. You remembered that green dress she used to wear sometimes on Fridays, the one that tied at the waist. You could picture the tan triangle of her chest made visible by the v-neck. The dress was the same intense green as her eyes. Into your head danced a series of juvenile what ifs. An intimate conversation in a dark corner, an inviting smile, a hand on a shoulder.

That night, you and Sandra had a big talk. Well, Sandra talked and you stared at the wall. She said again that she needed more from you right now, that she was tired of holding all the pieces together. She told you all she wanted in the world was for you to give a shit. It was a familiar phrase, one she’d mentioned in an argument a year or two ago. The motifs of your marriage had not changed during the pandemic, but seemed heightened now. The problems that had always been there grew teeth and scales overnight. They no longer hid in the shadows. You mustered an apology, uttered the word depression out loud for the first time. You told her about Teddy’s party, said it was the first thing you’d cared about in months and that maybe it would make you feel better. Sandra nodded. You could go if you wore a mask the whole time.

On the night of the party, you had a six pack of beer in the fridge and were trying to decide what to wear. Clothes never carried any anxiety before, yet there you were, rifling through the closet for a shirt that didn’t look stupid. You shaved and even put some gel in the limp, overgrown strands that had become your hair. You look like yourself again, Sandra said when you walked into the living room. She asked if anyone was bringing their spouse to the party. You said probably not. The less people, the less exposure, so it seemed taboo to bring a date. You grabbed the beer and a small sports backpack with two extra masks, a small bottle of hand sanitizer and latex gloves. Just in case.

In the cab, a plastic curtain had been hastily fastened to the ceiling to shield the driver from her passengers, or maybe it was the other way around. You and the driver were both wearing masks. You mumbled a greeting, but there was no pressure to make small talk like there used to be—not a good enough reason to spread spit particles. The plastic partition was supposed to be reassuring, but it freaked you out, a reminder you were living in the after. Maybe this party wasn’t such a good idea. What if the other people at Teddy’s hadn’t been staying home? What if they’d been out at those crowded street parties you’d seen videos of online, or in another state with a higher infection rate? You were too anxious to notice the city, everything you’d been missing the last few months. Instead of looking out the window you calculated how many days it would take to begin feeling symptoms, then marked it in your calendar app.

Teddy let you into his house, made a joke about not being able to hug one another, then told you to walk straight through the first floor to the backyard. He asked you to please not touch anything and to keep the mask on until you got outside. The yard was bigger than you’d imagined. Instead of concrete there was grass, the kind with lots of soft clover so it felt like you were walking on an expensive carpet. You had the urge to take your shoes off but thought it might be weird. Six or seven people were there, sitting in chairs spread six feet apart, drinking their own beers.

Teddy came out and you had a conversation at arm’s length. He told you how glad he was that he wouldn’t be around for the election. He used words like militarization, authoritarian regime, voter suppression. Enjoy the next few months, he said, because after that America is kaput. You asked him to please stop talking, then realized your face was covered and he wouldn’t know you were teasing. The moment passed uncorrected.

After a few beers people started to relax, nudged their chairs closer together. Masks were removed and left to dangle from one ear or were wrapped around wrists like a fashion accessory. You kept yours on, thinking of Sandra. It was impossible not to talk about the virus. Liam had a friend of a friend who got it and recovered, said it was like having the flu but for weeks. A girl named Asia said she loved getting food from all the places she could never get a reservation to before. She’d been ordering takeout from Michelin-rated restaurants and eating it in her living room. You were tipsy enough to admit your theory that there was an alternate reality out there where the virus never happened, where no one died and no one got laid off and you were all sitting in the office every day eating communal deli meats. The sound of the others laughing at your joke filled your veins like a drug, made your pupils dilate.

The back door of the brownstone opened and three newcomers walked outside. The only one you saw was Mari. She was wearing a maroon jumpsuit that looked fantastic on her. Her hair was tied into a loose bun. A few of the sensations you’d missed glowed like embers. It felt something like hope. For a while you stayed on the other side of the yard, sneaking glances at who she talked to and who made her laugh. Then you were three beers deep and in the same conversation circle, trying not to look directly at her. You removed your mask and shoved it in your pocket. The cool air felt strange on the lower half of your naked face. A man you’d never met was describing his job at a pharmacy. He reached into his backpack and took out the large plastic face shield he had to wear for fifty hours a week. Liam asked if he could try it on. Your hands twitched, a symptom of newfound germaphobia, when the pharmacist handed it over and Liam put it on his own face. A few jokes were made. Someone threw an empty beer can at Liam’s head so it bounced off the mask. You pumped hand sanitizer from a nearby table into your palms.

Mari and Teddy were discussing how much they missed the gym while you pretended not to eavesdrop. How could you get her attention? The banter used to come so easily. There’d been an infinite well of mundane shared experiences to draw from, weekend plans and expense report meetings and the terrible coffee in the kitchen. Now every shared experience carried the potential for trauma. In the end, Mari did the work for you. She turned and asked what you’d been doing to stay sane. She gave you permission to look her full in the face and you did so, while mumbling some lie about jogging every morning and reading books. You nearly did a double take. You squinted at her face a few times and hoped she didn’t notice. Her eyes weren’t the green you remembered, but a soft brown.

Mari talked about her attempts to learn Spanish during quarantine by watching classic movies with Spanish subtitles. She could now say there’s no place like home and may the force be with you in Spanish, but not much else. You both chuckled. You scanned her face for the dimples you swore used to be there, at least on one side, but none appeared.

The other people in the circle peeled off to go to the bathroom, to grab another drink, until it was just you and Mari. The chatter veered into what you each missed the most. Concerts. A coffee shop that had permanently closed. Hair cuts. But it wasn’t the witty exchange you’d remembered. Maybe you’d forgotten how to be charming, or maybe it was her. Then Mari leaned closer. Her hair didn’t smell of lavender, only of stale cigarettes. She whispered in your ear about how this whole mask rule was nonsense. They’re a breeding ground for bacteria, she said, and isn’t this whole virus thing a little over-dramatized? How do we even know it’s real? You stared at her, disappointment stinging the edges of your eyes, then told her you had to use the bathroom. On your way inside you put the mask back on and decided it was time to leave. There was nothing for you here.

Teddy was in the kitchen filling a bucket with ice from the freezer, and you poked your head in on the way to the front door. You thanked him for the invite and gave an awkward thumbs up, aware now that your expression was hidden. Good luck out there, he said, and held out his elbow for you to bump with your own.

You summoned a cab and waited until it pulled up in front of Teddy’s apartment. Once in the back seat, you texted Sandra that you were heading home. There was no plastic partition this time and you were buzzed enough that the virus seemed a far-away worry. The driver had the windows cracked, and as he sped off a cool breeze rushed in and around you. A bouncy pop song tumbled from the radio up front, a song you used to love. You imagined dancing to it in a crowded club with a dimpled, green-eyed Mari in the alternate reality. The fantasy wouldn’t stick. Maybe isolation had its perks. Or maybe it was time to buy a house in Charlotte.

You looked out the window as the cab hurtled past all that life. It was one of those summer nights where the air hangs close and heavy, breathing down the back of your neck. When everyone seems at peace with their own sticky, glistening bodies. Four old men in surgical masks played cards outside a bodega. Beautiful women walked up the street in heels. A young man in a face shield wiped down a plastic table outside a restaurant. There were neon lights and bicycles and people dancing and people arguing and dogs and dirt bikes. It was all still there. The streets drummed and sang as they always had. This was why you lived here. This was why leaving was impossible. The city was alive and euphoric and just as incredible as you’d remembered. You couldn’t wait to get home and tell Sandra, to see her smile.

Alexandra Carmichael is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her nonfiction work has been published in Dovetail. She earned a BA in English from Binghamton University. Follower her at @AllieCarmic.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

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