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Romance in the Time of Covid

The late afternoon sun pokes through the front-facing windows of 927 Brewery, casting elongated shadows as it bounces off tabletops and shines through the amber hues of partially emptied glasses.

A thirty-something man enjoys a flight of craft beer and gazes at the concert posters and photos that cover the walls of the well-worn taproom. Behind the short bar, a bearded man wipes his eyeglasses with a towel, turns, and glides through a set of curtains. He soon returns, accompanied by the clinking of clean beer mugs. He places them within reach of the taps and nods his graying head in satisfaction. He notices that the man has caught the eye of a fellow patron, a pleasant woman dressed casually in a sundress, sandals, and a cute little short-sleeved sweater. The awkwardness of the eye contact soon fades as both patrons recognize the mutual interest.

So begins another page in the never-ending story – Boy Meets Girl in the Time of Covid.

They remain seated apart for a while, sharing rueful smiles as they dance the sadly familiar “moving of the mask.” On, off, sip, savor, repeat. Their eyes connect between each taste, checking to see if they were doing it correctly. It seems both silly and serious, as flirting sometimes does. After a while, she decides some real conversation might be pleasant. She casually asks, “Would you like to go outside? We can chat and enjoy the fading sunlight and the sweet-salty taste of the ocean air.” He smiles agreeably, grabs his mask and cap, and politely waits as she makes her way to the door.

They continue a cautious conversation on the outside patio.

“This is a cool little place,” she offers. “Is this your first time here?”

He shakes his head slightly. “No, actually, I stopped in here one afternoon, before all the craziness of Covid. It was quite busy. The guy behind the bar was hustling to keep glasses full and conversations going. He wore comfortable shorts and sandals, as I recall. I wonder where he is these days.”  

“Across the street,” a fellow patron answered, pointing to a winetasting room filling the curving intersection on the opposite side of the narrow block. “Still wears the shorts!”

“Good for him!” she declares. “All the bartenders where I live wear camo and cowboy boots: a different world, a different everything. I love the variety of people in Cambria. You can talk to ten strangers, and odds are they will be from ten different places.”

He nods in agreement and asks, “So, where is home for you?”

“A small place called Wilseyville, up near Sandy Gulch. Beautiful country, lots of trees, horses, and cows. I grew up there, and even though I travel a lot, I still call it home. It was a safe place to ride out this terrible pandemic, but frustrating to be stuck where nothing much has changed over the years. Overall, though, it is home.” After a thoughtful pause, she continues her story.

“I heard about Cambria from a neighbor. She mentioned that a local girl had landed a great job and moved down this way with her husband. I only knew the girl to wave to, so we probably wouldn’t recognize each other if we passed at the Farmer’s Market. I do remember her love of camo-themed clothes, which she can wear ‘cause she is such a pretty girl. Anyway, I looked up Cambria on the internet, and it seemed like a great destination for one of my freelance writer road trips. So this visit is a bit of a working vacation.”

 She watches him take a sip, then asks him about his journey to the Pines by the Sea.

He gazes up at the surrounding hills, and answers. “I used to come up here with my parents during summer vacation. We would use Cambria as our home base and take great overnight trips to the campgrounds up through Big Sur. It seemed like a place from another time, and I guess it is. I’ve come back on my own a few times to recharge and connect with the environment. Right now I’m in town on business.”

“Ha, something in common!” She smiles. “Working and enjoying this great little town. What kind of work do you do here?”

He starts to reply, then quickly stops as he sees a Q-tipped colored head peering over the steering wheel of a slowly passing car. The driver’s eyes narrow when she spies the couple. She grabs a notebook and pen and furiously scribbles something with her left hand as her right simultaneously raises a small camera and clicks off a few shots. She takes a hard turn onto Main street and disappears behind the frozen yogurt store.

“Well, that was weird,” whispers the woman.

“Not for Cambria,” he replies.

He perks up a bit and smiles. “To answer your question, I am a (stage whispers) consultant, doing some analysis for the local Services District. I’ve learned saying you’re a consultant here is like saying NIAGARA FALLS to the Three Stooges. SLOWLY I TURN, STEP BY STEP, INCH BY INCH AND I….” He notices her puzzled look and adds, “The Susquehanna Hat Company to Abbott and Costello, maybe?”

She looks at him and says, “Three Stooges? Abbott and Costello? I’m sorry, I don’t follow politics.” She waits for a beat, then whoops out a “NyukNyukNuk,” followed by a loud “Hey ABBOTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!”

Oh my god, she’s perfect for me!”

Oh my god, I’m perfect for him!”

Any reservations about continuing the evening fade away. A different type of energy takes over.

“So, where are you staying?” he asks, mentally calculating the distance to any of the local hotels.

“The Bluebird Inn, on Main Street,” she answers, checking her guest key to be sure. “It’s in a good location and more affordable than the places on Moonstone Beach.”

“Wow, what a happy coincidence! I’ve been staying there for a week now. I’m finally getting used to the sound of the streets rolling up around 9:30.”

“Speaking of things shutting down early, I could go for some food. You’re practically a local; where do you suggest?” She then corrects herself with, “Oh, I’m sorry, I should have asked if you would like to join me for a bite.”

“That sounds fantastic,” he quickly responds. “Let’s start walking. We’ll decide along the way.” She reaches out and lightly places her hand on his arm, and says, “Sounds like a plan!”

The man behind the bar is fussing with a playlist, skipping through songs until he stops on a rollicking, aggro-country Americana folk tune. Neither one of them could identify the music, so the barman explained. “It’s called “Buddies and Barbs” by a local singer-songwriter team. It tells the tale of the ongoing dialog that passes between Cambria’s tribes. It is sung and played in two different keys at the same time.

“Sounds kind of painful,” she says in a puzzled voice.

“You have no idea,” the barman replies, glancing at a faded green flyer that bore his image, and the washed-out words “vote for …” then a smudged something.

Armed with this bit of local lore, they say goodbye and head out to continue their adventure. He suddenly stops, asks her to wait by the door for a quick minute, and dashes across the street. He returns carrying a bottle of Pinot Noir. He gallantly proffers the wine. “To a great evening, and yes, he still wears shorts.”

They walk towards the East Village. The two now-cozy visitors decide to get something from Indigo Moon to enjoy back at the Inn. While they wait for their order they savor a relaxing evening cocktail. By the time they reach the Bluebird, they are familiar as old friends.

With food and wine in hand, they silently question, “Your place or mine?” She points to her room, unlocks the door, and waves him in with an exaggerated bow. He places the food and wine on the dresser. She brushes against him and reaches into the bag, forgetful of what they had ordered but not caring.

The assorted cheese plate calls out for an accomplice. Two tumblers of Pinot oblige. They each take a slow sip of the wine and begin to nibble on the cheese. A candle burns, a curtain closes, and a duvet finds itself tossed carelessly to the floor. Soon, the cheese is finished, but not the nibbling. Each looks to the other for a signal. The room heats up. Clothes start to fall away.

“Wait,” she says suddenly. “I am totally into what we are doing and definitely want to continue. But I have to be certain that we take all the right precautions. Do you have…”

He smiles confidently and reaches for his wallet, enjoying the building excitement. He opens it slowly, reaches in, and gently extracts the very thing needed at this moment. He notes the slight outline it has left on the soft leather. He places it on the nightstand, gently smooths the creases, and shows just how prepared he is with a slightly trembling hand.

She takes it from him, studies it for a moment, and quietly sighs, “Moderna. Two doses. Oh, yes!”

Things begin to accelerate when another thought creeps in. Not wanting to break the mood again, she slips her hand into her nightstand and says seductively, “I brought something special with me, just in case a night like this might happen. I… I’ve never used one of these before with another person, so I’m a bit nervous. Maybe you could help me with it?”

Now delirious with fantasy, he agrees faster than Meatloaf by the dashboard light. She brings her hand up and slowly reveals what she has in mind. She looks him deeply in the eyes, places it in his eager hand, and says, “This is for you. Swab me. Swab me good.”

“Are you sure about this?” he asks.

“What an odd question,” she answers. “This is a time when you absolutely do not want me to be positive. Now enjoy the best fifteen-minute wait you will ever have.”

“Hey Abbott indeed,” he thinks as he unwraps the rapid test kit.

In the blur of passion, neither notices the growing tendrils of smoke beginning to fill the room. The insistent beeping of a close-by alarm breaks through the fog, causing them to jump up in confusion. Confusion quickly turns to alarm. Small fingers of flame dance atop the dresser, consuming the carelessly discarded swab packaging.

She grabs a half-empty tumbler of Pinot and pours it over the spreading flame and watches, fascinated, as the remnants of the assorted cheese platter melt into a weird little fondue.

He grabs a towel from the bathroom and wets it in the sink; a painful, slow process. Water dribbles through the regulator installed on the faucet. With little time to waste, he gives up and drops the slightly damp cloth atop the smoldering mess, creating a Picasso-like bas relief of a picnic gone horribly wrong.

Under heavy pounding the door yields, and the room fills with first responders, led by a small but forceful Fire Captain. Her ice-blue eyes take in the scene, and she quickly gives an order to her crew. “FOAM IT ALL DOWN!” They do so with great enthusiasm.

Mission accomplished, the Captain offers a smart salute to the cooled-down couple and orders her team out. As they leave, a newly-minted reserve firefighter, shaken by her first encounter with live danger, receives some brotherly advice from a red-headed engineer who ends his pep talk with “…and this is why we always keep a supply of rice cakes handy.”

Wrapped in  rumpled sheets and wearing flimsy paper slippers, the couple watch the firefighters depart. They are grateful, albeit a bit embarrassed by the whole messy event. As the truck rumbles past, the captain gives him a slight smile and a wink. He remembers that he is scheduled to meet with the Fire Chief and his team the next day.

“Well, this is a story that won’t be featured in my next travelogue,” she says with a chuckle.

“Amen to that” he mutters. “I guess we should get some rest. My room is undamaged. We can sleep there.”

She nods and adds, “Plus, we are already swabbed, so…”

They join hands and disappear into the Bluebird, as a car slowly rolls by. A nearby streetlamp briefly illuminates a Q-tip colored head. With the seething sound of an outraged “consultant indeed!!!” and the click of one final picture, all becomes silent in Beautiful Cambria.