Spring came and went and nobody saw.
There were no lustful glances, sundresses smocked in flowers, or bare arms of young men after long hours spent pumping iron. No pastel shorts to match the trees that had erupted in springtime flora. There was only the bright chirping of birds in the city streets who realized that for once they were alone at last.
The window of the ground floor apartment looked out onto what was once a busy commercial street, interspersed lightly with a few residential buildings. He had gotten an incredible deal right before the plague hit, a remodeled storefront property equipped with a standing shower, a kitchenette, and a paltry minifridge, which he had quickly replaced with a full-size model and deep freezer. He would be here, he intuited, for the long haul. Nobody was purchasing stores anymore, the realtor had told him, so they were forced to start giving them away for what was considered on the market, nominal sums. In what was once the greatest urban jungle, the concept of a nominal sum was different for the buyer and seller, but he did not say so to the realtor. He took what he could get: one thousand square feet to himself in the most crowded city on Earth—now also the most diseased—for just above what he had been paying for the last dump he had lived in.
He outfitted the front window with blinds that were becoming more purposeless by the day as the street cleared to zero. Every day, he raised the blinds slightly, and in the dusky evenings, he found he could see into the windows of the apartments above the Italian bakery, now shuttered for many months, the CALZONES BAKED FRESH ON THE PREMISES sign hanging by one hinge.
He could see the people in the windows clearly only as the sun began to set, some optical trick of nature. The days verged on the brink of crisp, cool, and clear air. He watched the windows begin to crack open until one pale evening, the center window in the crumbling yellow brick was opened completely.
It was not until he saw her pale face peek out from the window past the mosquito screen, propped up by equally white hands, and almost dropped his steaming mug that he realized just how invested he was in watching the early evening show he had concocted for himself. Far above the streets that were once the lair of the infected, before the authorities took over, there was little for her to fear as she flipped the long auburn wave of her hair out the window. She combed through the rich strands first with her fingers, then with a pearl-handled brush, working it over until it gleamed, hair hanging well past her waist, and therefore well past the window ledge; he wondered if like him, she had not had the opportunity to avail herself of a haircut before they had closed all the barbershops and hairdressers. He thought he would have remembered that waterfall of shocking red hair, somewhere on the street, in the bodegas, or certainly in the nearby park before everything, every last bit of human interaction was denied them all for their own safety.
Was it safe to go insane, he wondered. It had been a full year since he had touched another person or experienced touch by anything other than his own hand. A growing sense of urgency filled him as his evening ritual became a thing of doctrine rather than hobby, and every night, he raised all his blinds and sat with his nose glued to the window, hoping against hope that she would see him.
When she did, eyes of some unknown color finally strayed and locked on his one night, and he was rewarded with a smile that made his heart pound. The next night, a large piece of paper was fastened to her ledge, a number printed in clear, even strokes. Three days, and he realized he had her area code. Two more and he realized her game, his anticipation building until the day he could collect all ten digits that would unlock the gate to the bridge between them.
They believed, by virtue of their respective isolation, that their romance was great and unprecedented. How incredibly lucky he felt to discover that she was not only a woman of great beauty, but possessed of a keen wit and a playfulness he would have enjoyed even prior to the outbreak. When he quoted moments from the plague outbreak in Romeo and Juliet, he was afraid to seem overly fanciful, but was rewarded instead with her breezy laugh and warm voice returning jokes about their star-crossed status in kind.
The campaign to meet her in person occupied the next several weeks of his time. She lived with her elderly grandfather, and as everyone knew, those above a certain age in the world were at the height of vulnerability to succumb to the plague. All it took was one strand of the microbe to enter their apartment, she told him. To which he replied, madly, incessantly, that there were precautions they could take. They would not touch, he told her; she could disrobe completely upon entering her hallway. But where would she burn the clothes, she asked him, over which they shared a hearty laugh.
But romances peak, as romances do, and the urgency to meet before the passions evaporated, consumed them both, quietly, silently. The meeting was set for the weekend, when the street patrols were quieter, in the park that had been fenced in to keep out large groups that had foolishly gathered before the hard government crackdown. They were infected or dead now, as per the latest government media reports, but he knew of a crack in the fence, a place where the chain link had been destroyed, either by human hands or by animals determined to access the foliage within. He had spied this breach just a year before he had closed his apartment doors for good. They would don the rough equivalent of hazmat suits, or as close as they could get, and then discard them after they parted, before entering their respective domiciles.
The fact that the plan was foolish and crazy, only fueled their imaginations. They were out of time and place, it seemed, doing only what other lovers in centuries past had risked just to be with each other. If the extra precautions they were forced to take threatened to dull their romance-laced rendezvous, they reminded themselves there was no romance if they were dead. Although individually, both believed that it would add more charm to the story that was writing itself.
It was dusk when he set out for the park.The mask that covered his nose and mouth was instantly sweaty. It had been twelve months since he had felt the outside air on his skin, and it was an unfamiliar kiss. He walked along a deserted city street until he came to the brown and silver fence. Searching for the crack, he felt slightly apprehensive—who knew what was inside? Perhaps the foliage was so dense they would not even be able to enter?
What he found, however, delighted him. Playground slides and swings, monkey bars and branches sprung proudly from the rubber matting beneath them, only slightly rusted. The trees that intersected above them seemed to hold hands, providing a thick, leafy roof over sculpted stone turtles and frogs, ridden once by screaming children, now home to dense green moss that spread like a carpet over everything. Only one street lamp still shone, improbably, as if someone had left the switch on in an office far away before deserting it forever with the rest of the citizens. The chain-link fence had been constructed only around the open areas of the park; in the forefront were only the classic coal-black steel bars, but he felt the overgrown trees would provide them the cover they needed from the prying eyes of the patrol cars whose lights began to glow more brightly, ferocious, as the evening darkened.
They were careful. They did not touch or uncover their faces or hands, but how their eyes hungered. He did not think the lust would punch just so, right beneath his stomach, but he had also not banked on how her eyes would light up as she laughed. Amazing that he could feel so alive seeing just that, when once he might have lingered far longer on a woman’s mouth or chest. They spoke at length, then allowed the quiet hush of their enclosed cave to descend upon them. The light from the street lamp peppered with particles of moist air looked almost like a gentle falling rain. On the park bench, only the tips of their gloved fingers touched.
When the interruption came, it was brusque and angry. One of the patrol cars had spotted them through the bars, and at once, they were amongst the scores of desperate fools who still attempted to secretly meet in public places. The officers were very angry with them. Did they know how dangerous this was? The men’s badges gleamed menacingly in the harsh light that had just moments previously seemed so cozy. Did they know the penalty for fraternizing outside?
Their hearts pounded, guilty and alarmed at the same time.
Neither wanted to go to the sick house. Those suspected of infection were locked away for a month or more amongst others either confirmed or suspected in the local county jails, the cells re-outfitted as makeshift hospitals, four to a narrow, enclosed space. Survival rates were almost nonexistent.
Her eyes were desperate, and he knew he had to act. The idea, borne of madness and preservation, came to him all at once. After all, without her, the grandfather would surely die. If she returned, at least there was a chance.
“We’re married,” he told the officers, trying to quell the sound of the blood pumping in his ears. “We already live together and simply wanted a taste of the outside world again. Please forgive us this one transgression,” he said, locking eyes with her. “We will not spread it to anyone. We will go home together.”
For a brief, shining moment, there was silence and hope. The officers exchanged glances, mulling over this new information, considering. The anger that had simmered almost visibly around them wavered for a moment, and he felt his stomach unclench. It would work. The officers began to mutter behind their thick masks, and with each passing second, the realization that they were saved sank more deeply into his relieved shoulders.
“Kiss,” they said suddenly.
“If you are as married as you claim,” said the officers, the stars on their badges in sharp relief, then it should be no problem for you two to kiss. Right now.”
Spring had come and gone, and with it went hope.