Ennui in the Age of COVID-19

This story is unusual in that it’s organized by dates rather than by chapters. I don’t know how or when this story will end. It evolves over time, reflective of what has happened, is happening, and might happen during the pandemic. I refuse to get political in this. I have my opinions but I’m not going to inflict them upon anybody. My readers deserve more than that. Moreover, the non-political aspects of the pandemic are more interesting than having one character scream at another for wearing or not wearing face masks. Someone becomes depressed. Someone thrives. Someone’s dream comes true.Someone changes career plans. Someone develops PTSD. Someone burns out. Someone feels frustrated and gets angry. Someone gets sick. Someone discovers a new talent. Someone becomes empathetic. And someone falls in love.

Please keep in mind that my stories are not sequential. Unless it’s a multiple-chapter story, what happens in one story doesn’t necessarily carry over to others. For example, while Prudence and Penn were in a romantic relationship in my last story, they probably aren’t in this one. (Sorry Jeanne.)

There may be some strong language in this story. Alcohol use and non-graphic sexual encounters appear in this story as well. There will be nothing in this story that can’t be said or seen on many current TV shows. I want to be sensitive to my readers but I also want this to be realistic. Thus, my rating is M™.

March 04, 2020

Governor Gavin Newsom issued a State of Emergency in California due to the first death from a contagious disease, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. California suspended in-person classes at state colleges and university. Many students were unconcerned, confident that it was a temporary bump in the road that would be over in a matter of weeks. Ellowyne and her coterie weren’t terribly worried and paid little heed to the news about COVID-19. Penn, who was in his senior year of a nursing program, paid a little more attention, but he considered the news coverage to be pure hype rather than a real, dangerous malady. They decided to forego a spring break holiday and used their time to catch up on papers and assignments, and to get some well-deserved rest and relaxation. They proceeded with planning Rufus’ birthday party, which was going to be ten days later.

March 14, 2020

Everyone was in a festive mood as they celebrated Rufus’ birthday. Prudence, Lizette, Amber, Ellowyne, and Penn took Rufus to Leon’s, his favorite gastropub. They plied him with nachos, poutine, wings, shots of whiskey, and Belgian beer. Three pretty servers brought out Rufus’ birthday cake and encouraged everybody to sing “Happy Birthday” to him before he blew out the candles.

After Rufus had blown them out, Lizette asked, “What was your wish?”

“No, no. Not telling,” Rufus answered, glancing at Ellowyne. “Otherwise it won’t come true.”

Prudence exclaimed, “I hope you wished for some geeky birthday presents! Here, open mine first!”

Rufus opened Prudence’s gift, which was a hoodie. “Cool!” he exclaimed. “Monty Python’s Killer Rabbit! Thanks, Pru!”

“Now mine,” Lizette said. It was a book entitled The League of Regrettable Superheroes, and a t-shirt embellished with Pi to dozens of digits that read, “Born On Pi Day 3.14.”

“That’s going to be a great read,” Rufus said. “Perfect shirt, too! Thank you!”

“Here’s mine,” Amber said as she handed her gift.

“A LEGO Space Shuttle Discovery? Thanks, Amber! I love LEGOs.” Rufus exclaimed.

Ellowyne’s eyes were a little downcast because she feared her gift wasn’t as cool or geeky as what the others had given him. “It’s a Mars globe. It reminds me of the snow globe, the first present you gave me, only it’s red dust instead of snow”, she said.

“I can’t believe you remembered that,” Rufus said. “I mean, we’ve known each other for such a long time and I thought you forgot about it. Thank you for such a thoughtful gift.”

Penn grinned as he gave Rufus his present. “Old chum,” he said. I looked long and hard for something that would convey to the world exactly who you are. So, with no further ado, here you go.” The gifts were three t-shirts. The first one read, “I’m Not Just a Nerd. I’m the King of the Nerds.” The second read, “Engineers Do It With Precision” And the third said, “Science Gives Me a Hadron.”

Rufus laughed so hard that he nearly snorted beer out of his nose. Liz, Amber, and Pru dissolved into giggles, and Penn chuckled uncontrollably. Ellowyne forced a smile and light laugh, but she was puzzled and oddly uncomfortable. She didn’t know what engineers did with precision and had no idea what a hadron was–but it sounded a little risqué.

Then Amber took a sip of her cosmopolitan, walked over to Rufus, and kissed him on the lips. Lizette and Pru followed suit. Ellowyne was terrified. She had never kissed any boy, and she wasn’t sure she was ready to kiss Rufus. Were they friends? Something more? What would a kiss mean? Her heart pounded, her stomach did back flips, and her knees got so weak she was glad she was sitting next to him. She leaned over and kissed him shyly, gently, and sweetly on his lips. She was so caught up in her anxieties that she didn’t notice his arms around her and that he kissed her in return.

Prudence leaned over to Lizette and whispered, “Looks like someone’s birthday wish came true.”

They barely finished kissing when a sixty-something woman with purple hair approached Rufus. She got between Ellowyne and Rufus, applied red lipstick and kissed him on the lips and cheeks, smearing it all over his face. Everyone at the table laughed except Ellowyne, who scowled and glared at the woman. Then, Penn spotted three student nurses from his school. “Judy, Beth, Nancy! Come celebrate my best bro’s birthday!” They toasted Rufus with their drinks, and kissed him as well. The pretty servers who brought out his birthday cake, watched the display, put down their trays, and kissed him, too.

Then Penn stood up, downed a shot, and said, “Oh, what the hell!?!” He kissed Rufus on the mouth, which made everyone in that section of Leon’s roar with laughter.

The bartenders announced that it was last call. Rufus and Penn ordered one last shot, while the girls opted for virgin cosmopolitans and Cuban libres.

After the drinks arrived, Rufus smiled and stood to talk. “I appreciate all of you more than you can imagine. I am so lucky to have you as friends. Thank you for making my birthday special. And here’s to you.” He toasted them with his shot, sat down, and then said, “I hope we’re not going to suffer too much tomorrow, I mean, later today.”

While Rufus was referring to the inevitable discomfort of a hangover, something insidious was stirring, something that would impact not only their social group but the world itself.

March 15, 2020

Around 11 in the morning, Amber texted Rufus. “I’m trying to get in touch with Penn. Do know where he is?”

There was no reply. So Amber sent another text to Rufus, again asking him if he knew where Penn was. Again, no answer. So once again, she texted Rufus about Penn’s whereabouts. When there was still no response, she decided to call him.

“A-well-a everybody’s heard about the bird. B-b-b-bird, bird is the word…”

Rufus groaned when his phone rang. Why did he have such an obnoxious ringtone? He didn’t even like “Family Guy”. But more importantly, who was calling him at such an ungodly hour and why?

“Good morning, sunshine,” Amber said brightly. “How does our birthday boy feel today?”

“Do you really want to know?” Rufus asked. His mouth was bone dry, his muscles ached as if he’d run a marathon, his stomach was as woozy as if it was on an extreme roller coaster, and his head hurt like someone had split it with a sledge hammer. “I feel like crap, caca, Number 2, feces, guano, merde, sh–.”

“Merde. And you said you don’t know French. Très bien!”

“What do you want, Amber?”

“Oh, Rufus. I do feel badly that you have the bottle flu. But you will live to drink another day.” Her tone turned solemn. “I’m trying to get in touch with Penn. He isn’t answering texts and calls go to his voice mail.”

“He was probably smart enough to turn off his phone,” Rufus grumbled. “So what’s so urgent that you’re trying to reach him?”

Amber said, “Well, this COVID-19 stuff sounds serious. There are experts saying that it’s a pandemic and we might have to be in lockdown. We might need to wear masks and gloves and wipe off everything with bleach. But others say this is nothing or a hoax and we don’t need to do anything different. I’d like to get Penn’s opinion since he knows this stuff.”

“That makes sense. I’ll tell him you’re trying to reach him.”

“I really hope you feel better. You were so sloshed last night. But it was a great party! ‘Kaythanksbye!”

His head feeling as if it was stuffed with sawdust, Rufus laid down and tried to sleep. But no sooner than he had drifted off, his phone rang again. This time it was Prudence, also asking about Penn. And, as soon as Prudence hung up, Lizette called, also asking about Penn. By that point, Rufus was getting irritated. He was about to turn off his phone when he received a text from Ellowyne.

She asked, “How do you feel? You and Penn were pretty intoxicated last night.”

“I feel like something Sybil dragged in. But it was a party I’ll never forget.”

Ellowyne texted, “Have you heard from Penn?”

“No, I haven’t. Amber, Pru, and Lizette have called, looking for him. Are you concerned about this coronavirus thing, too?”

“Well, yes. I want to hear what he has to say about it. The information on the Internet and the news is contradictory and confusing.”

Rufus paused for a moment, then texted, “Let me check something. I might know where Penn is. I’ll text you in a little while.”

He padded into the living room of his parents’ house and found Penn, sleeping soundly, on the couch with his clothes still on but his phone turned off. Quietly, Rufus stole into the kitchen and brought out two big metal pans. Then he slunk back to the living room and clanged them together several times.

“Wake up, dude,’ Rufus hollered. Penn stirred but stayed in bed. Rufus sang Reveille: “You’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get up this morning.”

Penn weakly opened his bloodshot eyes and groaned. “Is it morning already?”

“It’s two in the afternoon! Wake up! The ladies have been trying to get in touch with you.”

Penn muttered. “What do they want?”

“They’re all concerned about coronavirus. After listening to them, I’ve got questions, too.”

‘Don’t worry, old chum. We didn’t drink any Corona so we can’t get coronavirus”, Penn mumbled. He then sat up even though he was dizzy. “You know, I’m not sure what to think of it. I am sure my epidemiology professor is psyched about it. I’ll email her when I’m more coherent. And then I’ll text all of you.”

After Penn left to go home, Rufus texted Ellowyne and told her that Penn was going to get in touch when he heard something.

Ellowyne texted him back. “Are you feeling better? Are you up to hanging out this afternoon? We can watch a movie or something. I’ll make popcorn.”

Although he still had a slight headache, Rufus accepted Ellowyne’s invitation.

When he got to her door, she embraced him warmly. As he leaned in to kiss her, she put her finger on his lips and asked him a question. “Do you need some Chapstick after last night? I mean, you kissed almost everybody last night. If Leon would have been there, would you have let him kiss you, too?”

“Come on, Ellowyne. Last night, I was kissed by a lot of people—strangers and friends–but I didn’t ask for or initiate any of it.”

Ellowyne bit her lip, then asked, “Was there any kiss that was special?’

“Yeah, there was one kiss that meant more to me than all of them.” His eye twinkled as he grinned and said, “The one from Penn!”

“You are so funny,” Ellowyne said, and she playfully punched his arm. She then turned somber. “I guess I feel a little insecure. Was the kiss we shared meaningful to you? Or am I just one of the crowd?”

Rufus stroked her cheek. “You’re never just part of a crowd. You’re special. I’ve always thought so. ”

They walked over to the couch, ostensibly to watch a movie, but the TV was never turned on and the popcorn went uneaten. Eventually, they both needed Chapstick.

March 16

Rufus left close to midnight, and Ellowyne texted Prudence as soon as he was gone. “Prudence! Can we talk?”

Pru had already gone to bed but she was intrigued. Usually, she and Ellowyne texted but something—perhaps her sixth sense–told her to FaceTime rather than just talk or text.

Ellowyne looked absolutely radiant, and her voice was rhapsodic. “Oh, Prudence! I just had the most amazing evening of my life!”

Pru was gobsmacked. Typically, Ellowyne was in the throes of an existential crisis, and she complained about feeling melancholic, lethargic, and bored most of the time. But now she sounded happy! And she looked happy! Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks were flushed. Pru asked, “Ellowyne, what’s going on?”

“Grandmother, Father, and Freddy were gone, so I asked Rufus to come over. We were going to watch a movie but we got, um, a little distracted.”

Prudence cautiously asked, “What did you do?”

“It started out with one little kiss and then another and another. We made out on the couch. We got hungry and ordered in some drunken noodles and panang curry from Thai Me Up, you know, Rufus’ favorite Thai restaurant. We ate a little and then we kissed, and we ate a little more and kissed. A lot.” Ellowyne paused to take a drink of water. “He’s such a great guy! He’s smart and funny and kind. And he kisses so well. At least I think so. I mean, he’s the first boy I’ve ever kissed. But I don’t want to know what it’s like to kiss someone else. I want to be with him. He has the most beautiful brown eyes, and his lips are soft, almost pillow-like. Oh, Prudence. I think I am falling in love with him! Do you think I should call him right now and tell him?”

“Let him get some sleep. Talk to him later,” Prudence suggested. “And I need to go to sleep, too. Goodnight”

After Ellowyne ended their FaceTime chat, Prudence sighed and rolled her eyes. “Just like Ellowyne to fall in love during a pandemic.”

~~~~~~~~~~~
Prudence woke early despite her long talk with Ellowyne. She was going to text her, Amber, and Lizette to get together for their morning coffee and cinnamon rolls, but she remembered that all restaurants and bars were closed by order of the governor. So she brewed some coffee and heated a couple of toaster pastries, and texted Amber and Liz that they could take their Monday routine to the phone. She didn’t text Ellowyne to join them because she was so happy and excited. Poor kid probably didn’t sleep all night!

Lizette was the first to answer. She had a jumbo blueberry muffin and a steaming cup of Earl Grey. “Morning, Pru! Who else is coming?”

Before Pru could greet her, Amber texted her in response. Marisol, the Stanhope family cook, prepared a delicious breakfast of strawberry crepes with homemade whipped cream and orange zest. As Amber texted Prudence back, Marisol prepared some freshly ground kopi luwak.

Lizette queried Amber, “What kind of coffee are you having? Is it that weasel poop coffee?”

“It isn’t weasel poop,” Amber replied. “it’s coffee beans that have been pre-digested by a civet, and—um—okay, fine it’s civet poop. But you, my dear veterinarian-to-be, should know that civets are not weasels. LOL.” Then she asked, “Where’s Ellowyne?”

Prudence stared at her phone, then said, “I didn’t text her. I think our Ellowyne has something else to think about.”

Amber texted, “What?”

Lizette wrote, “Is it her ennui getting worse because of the pandemic?”

“Okay. But you can’t say anything to either her or Rufus. Promise?”

Lizette and Amber said they promised.

“They made out last night.”

Amber and Lizette were utterly without words. Finally, Lizette wrote, “Well, it’s about time. He’s been crushing on her forever.”

Amber texted “WOOHOO! Atta boy, Rufus!”

Pru said, “But wait—this is the good part—Ellowyne seemed happy. She was like a whole different person. No complaining, no fatigue, and no ennui!”

Her friends were dumbstruck. Nothing ever seemed to assuage Ellowyne’s ennui. Shopping, dining out, going to gardens or the zoo—none of it changed her mood. But a good snog with Rufus did what nothing else could do.

“Let’s hope this is the start of a great romance,” said Amber. “And if they keep this up, Ellowyne might never be gloomy again.” She paused and texted, “Oops, I need to go. Marisol is going to the grocery store to pick up food and essential supplies, and she wants to know if there was anything I might like.” After she hung up, Amber told Marisol, the Stanhope family cook, what she wanted. “Some Ghirardelli truffles and coffee ice cream. It needs to be Ben & Jerry’s because no one else has any coffee ice cream as good as theirs. And don’t forget some strong white bread flour and whole wheat flour for some of your delicious sourdough bread.”

Prudence and Lizette continued to chat. “I hate to admit this, Pru,” Lizette said. “I was always kind of hoping Rufus would give up on Ellowyne and turn to me.”

“Yeah, I was, too,” Pru responded. “I think Amber hoped the same.”

Lizette said, “I’m not sure any of us could ever compete with his fantasy of Ellowyne. I hope she can.”

Penn received an urgent email from the School of Nursing. It stated that senior nursing students would receive clinical time credit for working at the hospital because the emergency rooms were getting overwhelmed with sick patients who had COVID. Of course he was going to do it. He had done several tours of duty in Afghanistan, where he was an Army medic, and saved the lives of fallen soldiers. He figured that a viral pandemic would be nothing more than fighting the flu, and that it would be all over quickly.

To his chagrin, he also received criteria to figure out under which conditions one could be exposed. Leon’s had been fairly busy the night of Rufus’ birthday party but by the time they all arrived, much of the crowd was gone. Most likely, Penn and the girls were okay. But Rufus was kissed by twelve people, many of them strangers, and he should quarantine for the next 14 days.

When Penn called Rufus to let him know he should be isolated for two weeks, Rufus asked, “Are you kidding me? I mean, I was having a great time at the party and finally got to kiss Ellowyne.” He stopped for a moment. “And last night we made out at her house. She’ll need to be quarantined, too, right?”

Penn replied, “Wait a minute. You did what with Ellowyne last night?”

“Well, we made out a little. Okay, a lot. Dammit. I’ve been waiting for this since I met her. After all this time, finally, it looks like things will get romantic and now I might have given her COVID. I can’t believe it.”

“Now, you don’t know for sure. I mean, you don’t know if you were exposed. But it’s better…”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rufus replied. “Better safe than sorry.”

“Which reminds me…”

“Look, we just made out on the couch. We didn’t do anything else. I’m not sure she’s ready for anything else. I’m not sure I’m ready for anything else.”

Penn said, “Okay, I just want to make sure you’re protected, not only from the virus but…”

“Yes, I know. I guess this is what I get for having a nurse for a best friend. Hey, take care of yourself and let me know how things go for you in the ER.”

After he talked with Penn, Rufus called Ellowyne. “Apparently I need to be quarantined because I might have been exposed to COVID Saturday. Last night, I might have exposed you, too. I’m sorry.”

Ellowyne paused, then said, “My family is coming home this evening, and I don’t want them to catch anything. Maybe I could stay with you.”

Rufus’ eyes widened and his cheeks reddened. What was she suggesting? “Uh, sure. You can have my parents’ room. They’re stuck in Italy. It was their dream vacation, a culinary tour of Italy. Sounds like it turned into a nightmare. So you can come whenever you’d like.”

Penn texted Rufus to see what supplies he might need. Rufus told him that Ellowyne was going to quarantine at his house, so Penn brought some things they might need. He brought the necessities: frozen Chicago-style pizza and smoothies, bread, ice cream, whipped cream for Ellowyne, craft beer for Rufus, and some wine. He also gave them a box of surgical masks, gloves, toilet paper, and a little something special for Rufus.

“Thanks, buddy. I owe you,” Rufus said to Penn.

“Don’t mention it. Have fun in quarantine!”

Later, Penn sent a text to Lizette, Amber, and Prudence about what he was going to do at the hospital. “Eh, it’s not going to be a problem,” he wrote. “I’ve been through worse. How are you ladies holding up?”

Pru said, “I was surprised to get that email from State saying that classes were going to be online as of the next week, and there would be no in-person classes for a month.”

“I’m getting anxious about not getting back to my biochemistry lab. I need to get through it before I can start veterinary school,” Lizette said.

Amber said, “It’s nice to get another week off from school!” Everyone responded with smiling and laughing emojis.

Prudence asked, “Where are Ellowyne and Rufus?”

“They’re in quarantine. Together. At Rufus’ house. And his parents are stuck in Italy,” Penn answered.

Almost in unison, Pru, Liz, and Amber said, “Ooooooooooooooooooooo.”

“I think someone’s going to do the deed,” Amber squealed. “Should we create a pool as to which day it will happen? Say ten dollars?”

“Oh, now that’s tacky,” said Prudence. “It should be twenty-five dollars. Put me down for Monday the 23rd.”

Lizette said, “I think they’re both a little shy, maybe naïve. If they do anything, it will be closer to the end of their quarantine, Saturday the 28th.”

“Put me down for the 20th,” Penn texted. “I know how guys are.”

“I know how guys are, too,” Amber stated. “Like that old song, ‘Tonight’s the Night.'”

“Wait a minute,” Pru texted. “I just got a notification stating that San Francisco County and neighboring counties are issue stat-at-home orders. No one is supposed to travel unless they’re going to an essential business, like a grocery store or pharmacy. Restaurants are open only for carryout or delivery. And we’re supposed to wear gloves and masks and wipe down surfaces with bleach-based cleaners to avoid spreading the virus.”

“Ladies,” Penn said. “I need to go to work. I’ll be back later.”

“Please take care and let us know how you’re doing,” Lizette texted.

“Don’t worry, Liz, Penn answered. “I got this.”