Masked Affection

Christine Bialczak

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Barbara sat down heavily in her seat. It was like she had turned into a block of lead on the walk from her office to her car. She could barely breathe through the face mask and her glasses were fogging up. Just being aware of the virus was exhausting. She couldn’t understand, though, why Jeffrey wouldn’t wear the mask and didn’t seem to want to follow the guidelines set out by the government. She was afraid he would get sick, and it worried her he would get her sick. She really had to think about how she wanted to pursue their relationship, given his defiance for everyone’s safety. 

Barbara met Jeffrey at an office shindig at her boss’s house. He worked on the floor below her in the publishing company, the floor responsible for sending out payments and collecting money from wholesalers and other retail outlets. She had no interest in the money part of the publishing. She loved reading the works, which is why she became an editor in the first place. With her love of reading, she figured she might as well make money doing the one thing she loved. It paid better than some other positions at Dusk Publishing and that was incentive enough to work her butt off and impress her supervisor. 

The night of the party, the threat of rain moved everyone inside Mr. Martin’s home. He said he didn’t want to put all the food out and set up the music if he was going to have to take it all down in a mad rush when the rain came. Barbara didn’t mind at all. The spring weather, with its rainy evenings and cool mornings, brought tons of no-see-ums, enough to make you look like you were crazy; swatting at apparently nothing in front of your face. She was not into bug spray, especially on her face. When Mr. Martin had the party, there was no virus yet, so no one adorned masks or rubber gloves. Everyone sat around laughing and talking, some only inches away from who they were conversing with. Given what the world was going through now, that could have been disastrous if even one person tested positive. 

When Barbara arrived at Mr. Martin’s house, most of her coworkers were already there. Dan was already half in the bag, flirting with Cindy, who kept trying to inch away from him, only to have him follow her each time. Cindy had a boyfriend and she certainly wasn’t the type of girl to date the “party animal” or the guy who was drunk at all the parties. As soon as Barbara walked in, Cindy caught her eye and beckoned her with a pleading look to come save her. Barbara knew what Dan was like and knew Cindy wanted no part of his antics. 

About a foot away from Cindy, Jeffrey stood looking out the window onto Mr. Martin’s back patio. He was tall and slim, not that good looking, but there was something charming about him. He held himself well and had a very modern wardrobe. Barbara wasn’t sure if he was single or not, but he seemed like he would be intellectually stimulating to talk to, based on the conversations she has heard him have with other coworkers prior to this party. She would have to save Cindy, then make her way over to Jeffrey. 

Once Cindy was finally away from Dan, Barbara excused herself and told Cindy she had to find out about one of her client’s payments. Cindy couldn’t care less about work, so she didn’t even realize that Barbara has nothing to do with the money paid to authors. It was just her excuse to talk to Jeffrey. 

Barbara walked up and stood silently next to Jeffrey, joining him in peering out the window onto the patio and then the lawn. Mr. Martin obviously either had great landscaping skills, or he hired a service because his yard was immaculate and pruned to perfection. Jeffrey cleared his throat. Barbara wasn’t sure if he did that to give her a hint that he would rather stand there by himself or if he was truly clearing his throat. 

“Hey, Barbara,” Jeffrey said.

“Hi, Jeffrey. I wasn’t sure if you wanted company over here or not. The rest of the crowd is getting tipsy and loud. Not really my idea of a party at the boss’s but…”

“Yeah, I don’t do drunk very well.”

“So, what do you think about Mr. Martin’s manicured yard out there?”

Jeffrey chuckled. “He must hire someone to do that. It is much too perfect for a guy who works as many hours as Paul does.” 

Barbara rolled her eyes. “If Mr. Martin put in that many hours, how come there is always a pile of ‘to-reads’ on his desk?” 

Jeffrey just shrugged and continued looking out the window. 

It was about five minutes later that Jeffrey turned to Barbara again. 

“Would you care to grab a cup of coffee with me? I’m not too into drinking alcohol and this one glass of champagne is already kicking my ass. A cup of Joe would do me good right now.” 

Barbara nodded. “Let me grab my purse and tell Mr. Martin we are leaving.”

“No, let’s just slip out the door. No need in setting up a situation for the office to believe we are having some sordid affair.”

Barbara nodded again. She turned her back on Jeffrey, went to get her purse from the guest bedroom and decided she would meet Jeffrey outside. 

Later that night….

“You have got to be kidding me! Cindy doesn’t like the drunk guy? Why’s she always standing next to him then? She really needs to learn how to NOT send mixed messages!” Jeffrey continued to talk about Cindy and her ability to charm the pants off any man. Barbara was only half listening. She had her eyes fixed on Jeffrey’s strong chin, and sharp cheekbones. He had the most beautiful dark brown eyes and long lashes. She wondered why he didn’t have a girlfriend hooked on his arm or living at his place. Maybe she would casually ask him. 

“Hello, earth to Barbara!”

“Huh?” was all she could respond. She did not understand what he had been saying. She was so fixated on his facial structure that she tuned out the entire conversation. 

Barbara turned her head to look straight at Jeffrey. Without a pause, he leaned forward and gave her a light, sweet kiss on the lips. He pulled back to see her response. She didn’t know what kind of look was on her face, but he saw it as a go-ahead because he leaned back over and covered her mouth with his. His warm breath was pleasantly sweet and before she could even think about it, she was returning his kiss. Soon, they were in an embrace as if they had been lovers forever. 

Barbara pulled back. “Um, is this like a one-night type of thing or are you interested in me? I don’t like to just hook up if it’s for a one-night stand.”

“You are gorgeous, Barbara. If I was that lucky to have you for myself, I would fall over, or maybe jump for joy.” Jeffrey was smiling and his face was a little red. 

“Well, I don’t mind the attention. I was admiring your good looks earlier anyhow.”

“Yes, I noticed.”

“You did? Oh, that is embarrassing.” Barbara felt her face turning beet red.

“Don’t worry, Barbara. I was admiring you, too.”

After this, Barbara and Jeffrey began their relationship; just two weeks before learning about the virus. They spent most of their free time together so she assumed if one of them got sick, the other would too. It was the isolating and social distancing she didn’t like. She loved having Jeffrey over after work. Sitting with him, watching the news, talking about their day; that was her dream come true, she had always wanted a relationship like that.

Two weeks later…

“Jeffrey, where’s your mask?” Barbara asked through her mask.

“What? You’re all muffled under that thing. Take it off! We are outside, it is safe to breathe the fresh air.” 

“Yeah, I’m not so sure about that. Didn’t you hear that the city has over one thousand new cases of the virus since learning about it two weeks ago?” 

Barbara would have continued saying more about wearing protection, but Jeffrey was already a few steps in front of her on his way to his car. They had planned to get takeout tonight and sit outside for the meteor shower. Knowing her luck, there would be so much cloud coverage that she’d miss all the shooting stars. Jeffrey didn’t care. He just loved spending time with Barbara. 

“Um, Jeffrey, I’m not so sure you should come over tonight,” Barbara said meekly.

“Why not? Don’t you want company for the meteor shower?”

“Well, I do but I’m a little nervous because I never see you wearing a mask. I don’t want to get the virus. On the news they said that you don’t have to even show any symptoms to spread the virus.”

“Barbara, are you kidding me? I feel fine.”

“I know, but…”

“Yeah, well, I had better head back to my place then. I’ll watch the meteors alone. Well, alone with my germs!” Jeffrey turned and walked away before Barbara could even think of how to respond. 

She felt her stomach turn and felt tears behind her eyes burn. What if this broke them apart? What would she do now?

Once home, Barbara sat on her lounge chair on her small patio. She couldn’t help but wonder if Jeffrey was watching too. Was he thinking about her? Was he wishing he was there with her? She figured she could call him, but shouldn’t he be the one to call her? Shouldn’t he apologize for just walking off when the point she was making about the virus was real? The whole virus situation was unfamiliar for everyone. He really couldn’t be mad at her because she wanted him to wear the mask at work, could he?

Sitting, thinking about what the next step should be, Barbara heard the doorbell chime. Who would stop by now? With social distancing, she knew her friends were all home with their families. She stood up slowly, continuing to go through a list of people who might be on the other side of the door. 

Upon reaching the door, Barbara reached out and turned the knob. There, on her front step, was Jeffrey, with a mask covering his mouth and nose. He also donned a pair of blue latex-free gloves. She stared at him, not knowing what her response should be.

“Barbara, if I have to decide between wearing a mask or not seeing you, I’d wear two, and it is below normal. I’ll wear the mask for the next fourteen days if you will just spend time with me. I just want to sit with you, hold you, share your day with you.”

Barbara felt tears come to her eyes. He will do that for her? Never in her life had someone done what she asked, just so they could see her. Was this what true love was all about?

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