Love in a time of pandemic
by Jamie McKenzie
They ran past each other almost every day for two months without saying hello or speaking. They each wore a mask as it was the law in Turkey.
Half the people in the park ignored the law and wore their masks around their necks or on their elbows, but they were both conscientious, even though the masks were uncomfortable.
It was the year of the COVID and the month that Trump was fired. Jake wanted to celebrate, but all the bars and restaurants were closed.
He wondered if she was single and how old she might be. It was hard to tell with the mask and her winter cap, but she seemed stylish and her dark brown eyes were captivating.
They ran along the edge of the Sea of Marmara in a park mostly empty once the weather in Istanbul had turned colder. There were a few people walking dogs and a few people on bicycles but only a handful of runners. Istanbul is a city of smokers.
He wondered if she spoke English, since he spoke no Turkish.
He guessed she was a professor or academic of some kind, but it was just a guess — perhaps wishful thinking, as he was a writer.
He thought she might be in her fifties — ten years younger than he — but fit and slim.
There was a good deal of eye contact after the first few weeks and eventually they added small hand gestures as a form of greeting.
Just as Jake was trying to build up courage to start a conversation, she ran straight up to him one morning and stood a mere six feet away, blocking his path.
“Hey,” she said, pulling her mask down below her chin, so he could see her face for the first time and hear her voice clearly. “You are American?”
“I am,” he smiled, pulling his own mask down. “I’m Jake. How did you know?”
She laughed. “It’s easy. I lived in Seattle for two years and can tell an American instantly by the way they move and look about as if the world were their oyster.”
“I am Elif, by the way.”
He found her quite stunning and was actually having trouble speaking.
“Cat got your tongue?” she joked.
He was not usually at a loss for words.
“How ‘bout we grab some coffee,” she smiled.
“Now. You will have to turn around and follow me back to Caffe Nero.”
Turkey had shut down all the coffee shops and restaurants except for take out, so they carried their coffees a block away to a row of benches that looked out toward the Sea.
It was a bit chilly sitting in their running clothes with their bodies cooling down from their run. They sipped their coffees with masks down about their necks and sat a good two meters apart, one at each end of the bench.
“And so, Jake, what brings you to Istanbul?” she asked.
He launched into a brief account of his travels, his writing and his decision to ride out the pandemic in Istanbul rather than returning home to Manhattan.
“And what is it you do here, Elif?”
She told him about her work as a political science professor and her studies in Seattle twenty years earlier.
“I can see why your English is so good,” he said.
Her teeth were beginning to chatter from the cold, and he could see she was shivering.
“We should go inside,” he said. “My apartment is just a few blocks from here.”
She paused as if thinking it over.
“You want to show me your etchings?”
It was an old joke he was surprised she knew about, when a man tried to lure a woman into his home or apartment by mentioning his art collection.
“No,” he smiled. “My three cats.”
“Well, in that case, I think it’s a very good idea.”
It was his cats that kept him in Turkey, as he could not fly home unless he brought them to Germany, where United would allow him to fly with three cats and three seats. When Europe blocked travel by Americans, he was pretty much stranded.
“Nice apartment,” she said as he opened the door and showed her inside. It was quite nice, Jake had to agree, and he had added some personal touches like plants and posters to make it a bit more homelike.
All three cats, normally afraid of strangers and quick to hide, appeared and lined up in front of Elif as if expecting him to introduce them.
After pulling her mask down around her neck, she stooped down to pet each one, as he named them for her. “Athos, Aramis, and Porthos.”
“Oh,” she said. “The three mouseketeers!”
“Exactly,” he said, happy that they had welcomed her so enthusiastically. “Can I offer you a warm blanket and another coffee?”
She stood up and seemed to be thinking over the risks.
“Shouldn’t we wash our hands?”
“Of course,” he said.
“And how do I know the blanket is safe?”
They were suddenly face to face with the pandemic, calculating the risks of togetherness, the dangers of intimacy and the price of a romance that could lead one or both to intensive care, ventilators, separation and death.
“I washed it this week and haven’t used it since,” he said.
“Sorry to ask,” she said. “Just being careful.”
He nodded his understanding and pointed to the closet where she could get the blanket without him touching it or her.
“Let’s wash hands first,” he said, “and then you can get the blanket.”
While she went for the blanket, Jake left for the bedroom where he could rid himself of damp running clothes and pull on some warm sweat pants and a hoodie.
Elif settled on the couch with a smile and the blanket as he began boiling water for their drip coffee.
“I thought about this,” she said.
“About what?” he asked without turning.
“Well, I figured if I spoke to you in the park, there would be three of us.”
“Three of us?”
“Yeah — you, me and COVID!”
At this he turned around and stared at her. “But you went ahead anyway?”
She nodded. “I have never been one to let fear rule my life.”
“Me, neither,” he said. “I’m glad you said hello today.”
He turned to pour boiling water into the waiting filter filled with ground coffee beans from Columbia.
He had to admit to himself that he had given romance little thought in advance. He had simply focused on meeting her and finding out if she were single. He had not looked ahead to coffee in his apartment or considered any risks.
She was beautiful and would have been a welcome guest in normal times. But they probably would have started with a dinner date in normal times.
He had not thought about the dangers of dating except for the possibility of being rejected if he spoke first. Maybe he was too old for her?
He carried a mug of black coffee to the couch where she sat and then he took a seat across the room from her with his mug.
He realized that Athos, Aramis, and Porthos were lined up in a row near the couch watching them both with great interest.
“How do we do this?” he asked, once seated stirring the coffee that sat before him on a small table.
“Slowly,” she grinned.
As if this were a cue for them to join her on the couch, all three cats jumped up and took possession of the visitor. Porthos, being boss kitty, took her lap. Athos and Aramis each took a side.
“Like that?” he laughed.
Elif was busy petting the cats, which suited them just right. Jake thought he could hear Porthos purring from across the room.
“I have no symptoms and have been avoiding other people for weeks,” she said. “My parents live in Izmir and I have not seen them in two months.”
She took a sip from her mug and then continued. “I would normally have a lot of contact with students, but that’s all online now.”
She became silent, as if she were an attorney resting her case. She turned her eyes on him and seemed to be waiting for a response.
He was not normally a cautious person. He was a bit of a dreamer and a gambler, but this was all happening so fast, he wasn’t sure what he should do or say.
“I’m like you,” he said. “I have avoided people and have my groceries delivered. Even before they closed the coffee shops and restaurants, I saw them as dangerous, with people sitting unmasked blowing smoke and possibly the virus from table to table.”
Athos, Aramis, and Porthos had decided Elif was staying for the afternoon and had all settled in for a nap.
“Well,” said Elif, “maybe we could hold hands without much risk.”
And so, they threw caution to the winds, and Jake joined Athos, Aramis, Porthos and Elif on the couch. Holding her hand was all the more magical because of the pandemic raging outside, and for the first time in a very long while, he found himself welcoming company.
She was very affectionate.
“Do you like Norah Jones?” he asked.
“Well,” he said, “I was thinking if it is ok to hold hands, then it is probably ok to dance.”
“Without social distance?”
“Exactly,” he said, pulling her close enough to kiss her.
Written materials, art work and photography on this site are copyrighted by Jamie McKenzie and FNO Press.
From Now On is published by FNO Press