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. Instead, someone becomes anxious. 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, 2020

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 stay-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.”

March 20, 2020

At 7:30 AM, Penn thought he could head home after a grueling 12-hour shift. But it was not to be, for the nurse manager begged him to stay until 11:30. Bleary-eyed and weary, he wanted nothing more than to get some rest, but other nurses and doctors were as exhausted as he was, and he felt it his duty to work as much as he could. His stomach grumbled and he realized he hadn’t eaten anything since he started his shift the previous night. He gulped down a disappointing cup of coffee. It was thick, sour, and bitter, and had probably been brewing all night. He donned the face mask he’d been wearing since he first came into work, and went back to the emergency room to meet and treat new patients.

On the outskirts of San Francisco, Amber started her day around 10:30, and meandered into the kitchen of her lavish home. Marisol brewed her some fresh coffee. Amber smiled as she remembered that Lizette always called it “weasel poop” coffee. She leisurely nibbled on a chocolate croissant, one of Marisol’s specialties, and perused the newest issue of Cosmopolitan. Online classes would not start for a few days, so she enjoyed the time away from her studies. Come fall, she would start law school at Stanford, so she would have less downtime. She hadn’t yet picked a specialty, although she was leaning toward becoming an entertainment attorney. It sounded like a glamorous field. Her father suggested she go into corporate or securities law, saying that wealthy people needed good lawyers to protect their interests. Ah, enough thinking about that. Amber immersed herself in her croissant and Cosmopolitan.

Meanwhile, Prudence was immersed in meditative yoga. She was frustrated that she couldn’t go to her favorite hot yoga studio, but she could do some poses and chant on her own. When she finished, she joined her parents in the kitchen for some lunch. They embraced healthy eating habits, and all had a delicious lunch of stir-fried tofu and vegetables with brown rice. However, Prudence missed having doughnuts and cookies with her friends. She missed them. Sure, there was always text messages and FaceTime, but it wasn’t the same as hanging out in person. She saw several news stories about hospitals being near capacity with COVID patients and wondered how Penn was holding up.

Still in the ER, Penn looked at his watch. He stayed much later than 11:30 PM. Around 2:15, he asked Cindy, the nurse manager, how much longer he’d be needed. She averted his eyes because she heard that from every staff member in the ER. Everyone put in extra hours. Some nurses put in 16 to 18 hours. A few worked around the clock. “Penn, I need you. Can you work until 5:00 PM? You did that in Iraq, didn’t you?”

Penn was irritated. “Afghanistan. Three tours. And I will work until 5:00 but no longer. I have to get some sleep. I’m not going to be safe working nearly 24 hours straight,” he answered.

Cindy rolled her eyes. “They’re putting up cots in the staff lounges so nurses can sleep between shifts,” she said. “I’ll need you back here at midnight.”

Penn was too cross and frazzled to reply.

About the same time, Lizette was reading the news on her phone. She saw the stories about the strain the pandemic caused hospitals, in terms of equipment and manpower. She thought about texting Penn but didn’t know when he might be at work.

She received a text from the veterinary clinic at which she volunteered. The clinic didn’t need her quite yet, but she might be needed the next week. Lizette was so excited to go to UC Davis, the top-rated veterinary program in the country. She was also so happy to be close enough so that she could commute to classes. It was heart-wrenching for her to leave friends back in New Orleans when her family moved, but she didn’t have to give up her new friends in San Francisco.

Lizette then checked Facebook, and saw a friend request from her ex-boyfriend back in New Orleans. Jamal was the first boy she had ever kissed. He was smart, tall, and handsome, and he made her laugh like no one else could. He took it badly when she told him she had to move, but they tried to continue their relationship long-distance. It worked well enough in high school, but it fell apart when Lizette decided to stay in San Francisco for college rather than go to Tulane, where Jamal was going. Jamal ended their relationship and cut off all contact, which broke her heart. She was curious as to why he contacted her. Maybe things weren’t over between them.

Meanwhile, Rufus and Ellowyne were having a great time in quarantine. Neither developed any symptoms of COVID, so they decided to have some fun. They played chess, Scrabble, and video games. They tried to cook but were woefully inept, which they found hilarious. Sometimes, they streamed programs and movies. Rufus introduced Ellowyne to old movies: cheesy sci-fi and horror, film noir, movie musicals, and dramas. Late that afternoon they watched An Affair to Remember, which left Ellowyne crying. Rufus embraced Ellowyne and let her weep on his shoulder. Between sobs, she said, “This was such a beautiful love story, the way they returned to each other and how much Cary Grant really loved her. You were so right to recommend this movie.” Ellowyne pulled herself from him, and looked intensely into his vibrant brown eyes. She said, “These past few days while we’ve been quarantined have been incredible, and I think we’ve gotten to know each other in ways we never expected. You are an amazing man. You’re sweet and kind. You’re the smartest and funniest man I know. I love you.”

At first, Rufus didn’t respond. Finally he said, “I have loved you from the first time we met, and I’ve wanted to hear those words from you. But I need to know. How do you mean it? Do you mean you love me as a friend? I remember you said that long ago, and you’ve probably told it to our friends. Or do you mean you love me in THAT way?” He tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress a hot tear that threatened to trickle down his face.

She wiped his cheek with her finger. “I’m so sorry. I was an idiot to tell you—or any of our friends—that I loved you as a friend. At the time, I did. I guess I was too wrapped up in my stupid ennui that I wasn’t sensitive or receptive to your feelings. That was the dumbest and most selfish thing I’ve ever done. But what I feel now—no, you’re not just a friend. What I feel is far more than that. I do love you in THAT way. Please, let me show you.”

Wordlessly, she took his hand and led him to his bedroom.

March 21, 2020

Rufus awakened to find Ellowyne gone from his bed. Did she go home? Did she regret what they did the previous night? He threw on his robe to look for her. But before he could do so, Ellowyne sauntered into the bedroom with a tray. “Good morning! I made avocado toast.”

He raised an eyebrow when he looked at the breakfast she prepared. “Um, I think something’s not right here.” 

Ellowyne looked at the tray and squealed. “OMG! I forgot to toast the bread!” She and Rufus dissolved into laughter until both of them were in tears and Ellowyne snorted like a pig.  Rufus had never heard her laugh like that, and he thought it was adorable.  

“We are so going to starve to death,” Rufus said. “I’ll put the avocado into the refrigerator and maybe later we can try making guacamole. Do you want anything that I won’t mess up?”

“Do we have any ice cream?”

“We do! Penn made sure we had several pints. We finished a pint of chocolate fudge last night. Or this morning,” Rufus said, grinning. “We didn’t get much sleep, did we?”

Ellowyne scrunched her nose and smiled. “That’s it. We can live on our love.”

“And avocado bread!” He ducked when Ellowyne playfully threw a pillow at him. “I love you,” Rufus called out from the hallway. 

“I love you more,” Ellowyne answered. 

Pru was in the middle of practicing Tai Chi when her phone rang. It was Ellowyne, wanting to FaceTime.  She usually didn’t let anything interrupt her meditative workout but Pru had a hunch this was important. 

“Hi Pru! I hope I’m not interfering in something important,” Ellowyne said. 

“No problem,” Pru replied. “I was parting a wild horse’s mane.” She noticed the perplexed look on Ellowyne’s face. “It’s a movement in Tai Chi. So what’s up?”

Ellowyne looked absolutely radiant. Her blue eyes sparkled, her cheeks were flushed,  and she flashed a gleaming  smile. “Rufus and I are officially a couple. We’ve even changed our relationship statuses on Facebook.”

Prudence wasn’t completely surprised. Because of the way Ellowyne gushed when she talked about falling in love with Rufus, Pru thought they might finally get together when they were quarantined.  “That’s wonderful. I always thought you two belonged together. And I’ve never seen you look so happy. Congratulations.”

Rufus wandered into the living room where Ellowyne was Facetiming Pru. “Hey, Pru,” he said. “How are things with you?”

“Okay,” Pru replied. “Just getting some exercise.”

Ellowyne looked at Rufus and said, “Maybe we should get some exercise.”

“I thought that was what we were doing last night. And this morning.” He and Ellowyne chuckled. Prudence blushed.

“We’ll let you get back to your wild horse’s mane.” Ellowyne noticed that Rufus looked confused. “I’ll explain that to you later,” she said to him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Meanwhile, Penn was immersed in the Sisyphean task of taking care of COVID patients in the ER. No sooner he had one patient stabilized and sent to the intensive care unit, he got a new patient, as sick or even sicker than the previous one. The pace reminded him of his days as a medic in Afghanistan, tending to one wounded soldier after another. He tried not to think of the soldiers  we could not save. He hoped his COVID patients would recover, but he was uncertain of their fates. By the time he reached the end of an 18-hour shift, the days and nights became blurred. He couldn’t remember the last real meal he had, the last time he slept for eight hours, or the last time he showered and shaved. Penn cursed the lack of personal protection equipment (PPE). He and other nurses in the ER wore tissue-thin isolation gowns and had to re-use their face masks and shields meant to be worn only one shift. His spirit was crushed, and he didn’t know how he could cope much longer. 

Penn was working with yet another sick patient when he felt his phone vibrate. When the patient was sent to the ICU, he took five minutes to use the bathroom and guzzle coffee the consistency of sludge. At last there was something about which Penn could be happy. The text was from Rufus, and it said, “Thanks for the extra special things you got for me.”

He laughed for the first time in days. He texted back, “Way to go, buddy!” Penn texted Pru, Liz, and Amber. “You three owe me $75!” 

He then went back to his patients, feeling upbeat if for only a few moments. 

March 23, 2020

Lizette was awake at 8:00 AM. While she enjoyed the break, she was ready to dig into her coursework. She only had two pre-veterinary science classes in her final semester: biochemistry and human physiology. Spirits high and a delicious bran muffin on the desk, Lizette signed onto State’s online platform, ready to get started.

Prudence woke up early as well. Like Lizette, she was anxious to get back to learning. She was taking movement science to satisfy her kinesiology major. She took courses in anthroposophical health studies and alternative health practices to satisfy the requirements of her holistic health studies minor. She was eagerly anticipating starting the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at State in the fall.

Penn was eating breakfast at the hospital cafeteria when he logged onto State’s school of nursing site. He was taking two courses other than his clinical practicum. One was informatics, an online course for which he was well-suited because of his computer skills. The other course was, ironically, epidemiology. At the beginning of the semester, he didn’t think it would be an interesting subject but as the pandemic unfolded, it became relevant and exciting. Then he looked at the time on his phone. His 15-minute break was over, so he scarfed down the rest of his omelet and scrambled back to the ER. 

Amber lazily hit the snooze alarm on her phone. She didn’t like starting her day before 9:30, but she wanted to get some coffee and see what wonderful treats Marisol had made for breakfast. The delicacy of the day was chocolate croissants. She had finished all the coursework for her pre-law degree, so she took classes that sounded fun. She studied anthropology, world music, and French. She smiled to herself when she remembered the times she teased Rufus about his inability to speak French. Even a Mensa life member didn’t know everything. 

Rufus was at his desk when Ellowyne woke up. A double major in mechanical engineering and engineering science, he had what he considered an easy semester. He had only three courses: a seminar-based course in mechanical engineering that was meeting on Zoom even before the pandemic, Bayesian statistics, which he could do at home since he had the necessary software, and academic writing, which would be vital for his PhD. Ellowyne went to the kitchen and came out with juice and avocado toast—made this time with actual toast! She kissed him, sat on the bed, and opened up her laptop. When she was a college freshman, no, when she was still in high school, she wanted to be a poet. She wrote a myriad of poems ranging from haiku to blank verse to sonnets, all variations on a theme of ennui. She opened a file that contained her earliest poems and another that consisted of her college coursework. Ellowyne sighed for the first time in over a week. Her style had never matured. Her work was maudlin, trite, and whiny. She was self-absorbed and wrote about nothing  but her “great” ennui. She remembered the time she participated in a poetry slam. Her friends tried to discourage her, but she insisted. Rufus and Pru were in the audience to offer moral support. She wept when she was heckled so badly she was forced off the stage. At the time, she thought it was because the audience simply didn’t understand. But now she realized that her poetry simply wasn’t very good. She closed her laptop and slipped out of the bedroom so Rufus wouldn’t hear her cry. 

But he did hear her. He found her curled up on the sofa, ugly crying. He sat next to her, smoothed her hair, and asked, “Ellie, what’s wrong?”

She blew her nose and said, “Before I logged into my poetry independent study, I opened the file of the poems I’ve written in college. I also looked at the poems I wrote long ago, from high school, even middle school. There’s no change in my style, no growth as a writer. And it’s all about ennui. Looking at the world, wondering why it made me so glum. But it’s not the world that needs fixing, it’s me. I can choose to wallow in woe or actually live in, interact with the world around me. And I’m going to live in the world. But what can I write about?”

Rufus wiped away her tears, and gently asked, “Can you write about something else? Love? Happiness? Hope?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure I have the words.” She buried her head in his shoulder and sobbed. “And I don’t think I’m very good.”

“What? Why would you say that?”

“I haven’t told you or anyone else that all of my classmates have been accepted into Master’s of Fine Arts programs. I applied at State and a couple of other programs and was rejected. I’ve only had one poem published in State’s literary magazine, even though I’ve submitted dozens. My GPA is only 3.25. I do well in every subject, usually getting an “A”, except in my writing classes. Last year my advisor suggested I consider another major but that would have put me back at least another year. I don’t know what to do.”

“Can you defer graduation and apply for a different major? Or maybe transfer to a different school?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

Rufus loved Ellowyne but he would never tell her that her poetry was rather sophomoric. She was wildly creative but only a mediocre poet. He always thought she was more talented in visual art. She could draw with a whimsical, manga-influenced style. He looked at her distressed jeans, upcycled sweatshirt, and handmade silver jewelry. Clearly she was an artist in search of a medium. She could be a textile artist, a fashion designer, or a jewelry maker, maybe all three. “You’re going to figure this out,” he said, “And I will cheer you on, whatever you decide.” 

Penn said, “Yeah. It was bad. She singled me out—made derogatory comments about how she disliked ‘male nurses’ and  she was obnoxious to me about my military service. She kept saying I had been in Iraq when I repeatedly told her I was in Afghanistan.”

April 1, 2020

“April Fool’s Day. How appropriate,” Penn muttered to himself. It was 9:30 AM and he just finished another 18-hour shift in the ER. He managed to get to the cafeteria before they stopped serving breakfasts. His pancakes were cold, his bacon was burned, and his coffee was anemic.  He would have loved a to have a scone or a doughnut and a freshly brewed cinnamon latte with his friends. They texted him several times but he didn’t have the time to reply. He missed them. He missed the way he and Rufus used to make each other laugh until one of them snorted beer out of his nose. He missed listening to Lizette talk about animals and Prudence talk about the sports and holistic healing. He even missed hearing Ellowyne and Amber discuss shopping. Penn really didn’t have many friends. He lived with a bunch of nursing, pharmacy, and medical students. They didn’t interact much because they were all too busy. He kept in touch with several soldiers with whom he was deployed, but none of them lived close. Nursing school was rigorous and he had little time or energy to hang out with anyone but his group of friends. They kept him grounded and sane. Eh, enough pondering. Penn needed to finish his food and get some sleep. 

He had slept for only five hours when Cindy barged into the lounge, yelling at him. “SOMEONE COMPLAINED THAT I WAS BEING UNREASONABLE TO THE NURSING STUDENTS. IT WAS YOU, RIGHT?”

Penn rubbed his eyes and forced himself to sit up. “What are you talking about?”

Cindy was enraged. How dare Penn play innocent! “Someone told the Dean of Nursing at State that I was ‘abusing’ the students, and now the Chief Nursing Officer is demanding an emergency meeting with me. The Dean’s going to be there, too! You did it. I just know you did!”

“Huh?”

“I want you out of here right now! I can’t stand the sight of you. Don’t bother coming in for another shift. And rest assured, I will bring this up at the meeting. I will see that you fail this semester and never get to take boards. You’re going to be nothing. When I’m done with you, you won’t be able to wipe asses!”

With that, Cindy marched out of the lounge and slammed the door. Penn gathered his things and went out to his car. It felt so good to be out of the hospital. He called his advisor and clinical instructor, Kay, to tell her what happened.

Kay was horrified. “Cindy has no authority over you. She can’t make you fail anything and she can’t prevent you from taking boards. You have done nothing wrong. As far as I’m concerned, you have completed all of your clinical objectives and you don’t have to return to that hospital.”

“But what happened to get Cindy so upset?”

“There were numerous complaints from other nursing students. They said they often worked 16-20 hour shifts and only allowed to sleep for six hours in the staff lounge. They weren’t given days off. They were also verbally abused.” She inhaled sharply. “Apparently, Cindy was trying to save money on her unit budget by using student nurses instead of the hired staff. We haven’t confirmed it yet but it seems that she was cutting the hours for nursing staff and relying more heavily on you students. And that was your experience, wasn’t it?”

“I am so sorry you had to deal with that. Next week, could you please stop in and talk to the Dean? She’s meeting with Cindy and the CNO this afternoon, but she will surely want to hear your story. The Dean is considering ending its relationship with that hospital, so students will go elsewhere for their clinical experiences. That will cost the hospital a chunk of revenue because schools pay them to use their facilities. Hearing your story will surely help the Dean make her decision. But now, get some sleep. Get some food. Take a few days to unwind. Take care!”

“Thank you, Kay. I appreciate you.”

Penn started his car to drive home. When he got home, he had received a couple of texts. One was a cute meme from Ellowyne showing a laughing cat. Prudence rickrolled him, and Amber sent him a funny but slightly risqué video. Lizette sent a Keanu Reeves meme. But there was not a word from Rufus until late in the day. He finally messaged, “April Fool’s Day has been cancelled this year because no prank could match the unbelievable crap going on in the world right now.”

Penn opened a bottle of beer and texted Rufus, “Touché, old chum. Touché.”

April 3, 2020

It was a hot, dry summer’s day. Penn felt the sweat trickle down his face into his shirt. Suddenly, shots were exchanged, and Penn’s heart raced. He had never been in the middle of combat before this as he was a new medic. The injuries to which he tended were casualties of a battle with insurgents or snipers or those wounded from the explosion of an IED. Penn was nineteen years old and he had never experienced combat firsthand. He tried to be brave but he was so afraid. The more experienced medic with him crept toward a wounded soldier but, to Penn’s horror, she was shot. Penn froze. He wanted to scream or cry out, but he couldn’t make a sound. Was he a coward? When it was safe to do so, he and an uninjured first lieutenant moved the wounded soldiers out of harm’s way and then to their nearby Combat Surgical Hospital, which was the replacements for MASH units after the war in Iraq. More medics, nurses, and doctors came to triage and treat the wounded soldiers. The chaplain came to pray for those who were dying or already dead. Penn kept seeing his dead colleague, who left behind two small children. He smelled burned flesh and the acrid remnants of gunfire. Finally he cried, broke out in a sweat, and started to scream.

“Hey, Penn”, one of his roommates called. “You okay in there?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a nightmare.” He used to have frequent nightmares about his tours in Afghanistan, but they abated when he got therapy through the VA. Shortly thereafter, he met his group of friends and got much-needed social support. Occasionally something might trigger his PTSD. It might be a crowded room or a discussion of combat on a news show. The worst trigger was loud noises like a car backfiring or unexpected fireworks. He had begged off seeing July 4 fireworks every year, saying that he had seen the real thing. He thought the worst of his PTSD was over. And now this. When he worked in the ER, he had some flashbacks to his experiences as an Army medic. Now those flashbacks threatened to pummel him into the darkness that was PTSD.

~~~~~~~~~`

Prudence woke up early to meditate and do some yoga. After she had a healthy breakfast of homemade yogurt and organic granola, she logged onto her class websites, participated in a Zoom class discussion meeting, and finished her work for the weekend. She thought about texting her friends but she got distracted when she started looking on YouTube. There were cute and funny cat videos—she decided to send the links to Ellowyne. The Engineers Guide to Cats were old videos but still hilarious, so she sent those links to Rufus. Pru found relaxing videos about birds, including one that lasted for eight hours! Of course she shared the link with Lizette, along with a video of the biggest birds in the world. To Penn, she sent links to videos about meditation and stress relief. He had been working so hard and she was concerned about him. And finally, Amber. Pru considered sending her some Karen videos but since Amber could be a bit of a Karen, she decided against it. Instead, she sent links to clothing, hair, and makeup fails.

By the time Prudence finished, it was nearly four in the afternoon. She actually missed lunch! So she went to the kitchen, grabbed some fruit, and went back to her computer.

Rufus had been crabby that morning. Ellowyne knew that he wasn’t always the jovial person he presented to others, but she had never seen him quite so moody. He woke early to work on his classwork. So when she awakened, she rubbed his neck and asked him if he wanted any breakfast. He muttered something unintelligible and finally asked for an English muffin. Ellowyne brought him some food, then showered. When she was done, he was still hunched over the computer, working with numbers and formulas that most people could never understand. So she went to the living room and did some of her classwork so she’d have a free weekend. She was done studying and clicked on some of the videos Prudence sent her. Around noon, Rufus came into the room.

“Ellie, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I’ve been in a bad mood today and that I’ve been a jerk to you.”

“It’s okay,” Ellowyne answered. “But is something going on? I mean, we’re okay, aren’t we?”

“Oh G-d. Of course we’re fine. These past few days have been amazing. I’m just, just—well, you know, we’re out of quarantine Sunday. You’ll head back to your house and this amazing time we’ve shared will be over.”

Ellowyne embraced him. “Oh Rubear, I don’t have to leave. I can stay here until your parents come home. And when they’re home and I have to return to Grandmother’s house, we’ll figure out ways to see each other.”

Rufus leaned back on the sofa and his mood immediately lightened. “It sounds so silly but I was afraid that what we have here might end if we didn’t see each other so much. But this isn’t an ending. It’s a beginning.”

“COVID or no COVID, I’m here for the long haul,” Ellowyne said brightly. Rufus smiled, shook his head in agreement, then pulled her into an embrace.

One thought on “Ennui in the Age of COVID-19

  1. Ends well. But as the Coronavirus Chronicles continue, I probably won’t always be able to say that. This multi-person friendship is fueled by group hugs and gatherings. Interested to see how they, specifically, navigate our 21st Century plague year(s)!

    Like

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