I’ve written a new book, Love in Isolation, that I’m serializing here and in my Facebook group, Patio Chat with Tess Thompson. So check back often for the next chapter.
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Love in Isolation
Today was going to be the day I finally took the seat next to her on the bus, acting casually, as if I hadn’t obsessed over doing so for over a year. I was going to slip her a note, introducing myself and asking her if she would like to meet for a drink or coffee. Instead, the governor of Washington ordered us to stay home as a way to prevent the spread of Covid-19. He shut down the schools and all non-essential businesses. They’re calling it social distancing. I’ve been social distancing my entire life. Just when I was about to take a leap into the world and approach the object of my affection, my plans were thwarted.
I live in a world without sound. I’ve been deaf for all my forty years. My disability naturally distances me from others.
Her name is Bronte. I know this because she carries a tote bag with her name sewn into the fabric. She lives directly across from me in an apartment with a balcony. I can see it quite clearly from the window of my apartment. Only a skinny alley separates us.
Bronte has light brown hair she often wears in a loose bun at the nape of her neck. If she wears makeup, it’s not evident. Her fair skin appears dewy, with a slight blush to her cheeks. All of which gives her the air of someone from another time. If I were a more fanciful man, I might suspect she was a figment of my imagination.
We wait for the bus at the stop in front of her building. While waiting, she reads on her tablet. A yoga mat sticks out of the top of her tote. When she gets on the bus, she continues to read, never looking up so that I might catch her eye. I depart before her, so I don’t know where she goes to every morning. In the winter she wears a red wool coat with a hood that reminds me of Red Riding Hood. During milder, rainy months that we have so often in Seattle, she wears a pale green raincoat. During summertime, she doesn’t ride the bus. Instead, she spends time on her balcony tending to her flowers or reads.
These facts have led me to this assumption. She is a teacher.
I assume, too, that’s she’s kind and thoughtful. When the bus is crowded, she always gives her seat to the elderly. One time, she gave it to a pregnant woman.
This afternoon I finished my work early. Without the commute, I was able to speed through the latest project. I’m a computer programmer for a company that makes accounting software. It’s not exciting but the work suits me. Supposedly I’m some kind of technical genius. The language of programming does not require much interaction with others. My team communicates with me via email or messaging.
I made a sandwich for a late lunch and ate it at my desk. I watched for her, hoping she would come out to the balcony. However, the weather was cold, and a wind blew with a ferocity that chilled one to the bone. I didn’t expect her.
I was wrong. She appeared, wearing her red coat and knit hat over her long hair. Her pots were empty of flowers this time of year, but she went to them anyway, digging her hands into the one the color of the summer sky. Then, she bowed her head. Her shoulders shook. Was she crying?
My heart skipped a beat. What had happened? Was someone she knew sick? Was she hurt or sad or worried? I drew closer to the window and put my hand on the glass. If only she knew I was here and that I would help her if she needed. But like the bus, she didn’t look up to find me.
She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her coat and drew in a deep breath. A split second later, she disappeared inside, closing the sliding glass door behind her.
I paced for a few minutes, trying to decide what to do. There was an urgency to my thoughts, perhaps because today had been the day. I had the note tucked into my laptop bag. I’d promised myself. If the world hadn’t shut down, I would’ve given it to her.
But this crying—this was unexpected. What could I do?
That’s when it hit me. I would write her a note and put it in the window.
I’m not really a drinker, but I had a glass of whiskey. A small shot of courage. Then, I flattened the box from the toilet paper that had come this morning. I’d been unable to find any the last time I shopped, so I’d ordered it online. People were going crazy about the toilet paper. I’m not sure why. Did they think we would be using the bathroom more during the virus?
I used a magic marker and wrote in big letters.
BRONTE, MY NAME IS ELLIS. WE RIDE THE SAME BUS. MAY I HAVE YOUR EMAIL?
I hung the sign in the window. And now I wait.
The first day of isolation I spent watching the news with Mother. She’s seventy years and in fragile health after fighting cancer last year. When news of the virus first started to spread, I’d worried about bringing it home to her. I work with little children all day and as much as I love the little buggers, they’re like walking germs. Even in less scary times, I’d worried about carrying the flu home to Mother.
When we got word from the governor that schools were closing for at least two weeks, I went numb. I don’t have a lot in my life. My sweet first graders, my wonderful mother, my potted flowers and my books are it. I knew isolation was for the best, but still, I took the news hard. When I came home and told her I was not to report to work for at least two weeks, I pretended to be fine, when really, I wanted to cry. Mother worries about me, as if I were ten instead of thirty-seven. The last thing I want is for her to spend any of her precious energy on me.
I made her a cup of tea and left her in the living room with her easel and her watercolors. On the way home I’d stopped for some red tulips so that she might have a beautiful still life to paint.
My apartment has only two bedrooms, a living room that bleeds into a kitchen, separated only by a counter. What the place lacks in space, it makes up for in charm, with arched doorways and pretty wood floors. A bank of windows and the sliding glass door to the balcony brings light, even during dark months. We need that here in Seattle with all the gray days. My windows look directly out to the apartment building across the street, which isn’t ideal. I can only imagine what they think of the homely schoolteacher fussing with her flowerpots all summer. Or, maybe they don’t notice me at all.
When Mother moved in, I made a corner of the living room into a small art space for her where she can paint. Keeping busy is important for her health. Doing what she loves is the best medicine.
Mother’s last chemo treatment was three months ago. The doctors assured us she’s in remission. Her hair is an inch long now, soft and white like a chick. I’m down on my knees every night thanking God for her recovery.
The weather is cold here. Planting my pots is still at least a month away. But I went out to my patio and had a good cry. I’m afraid and anxious. I’ll miss my kids. I don’t know how to prepare lessons for them in this new world. Regardless, I’m going to have to figure out how.
After my cry, I headed inside and made a simple stir fry for dinner. Mother ate well, which pleased me. Then, I left her to watch Jeopardy while I did the dishes.
That’s when I saw it. A sign in the window of the apartment directly across the alley from mine.
BRONTE, MY NAME IS ELLIS. WE RIDE THE SAME BUS. MAY I HAVE YOUR EMAIL?
At first, I simply stared at it, thinking I was seeing things. Then, my mind started turning. Ellis. Same bus. Could it be him?
It had to be. There were only five of us who consistently stood at the same stop. One was a young woman with a backpack, who I assumed was a student. Another was an older woman who worked at a supermarket not far from where I taught. I knew this only because she’d mentioned it once. The other two were men. One of whom I knew. He was about sixty and lived in an apartment in my building. Mr. Sparkman who always smelled of whiskey. I had no idea where he went every day. But that’s not the point here. We’re talking about Ellis.
The last of the regulars was a man I guessed to be about forty. A gorgeous silver streaked his light brown hair. He wears these attractive glasses that make him look terribly smart but also hip and stylish. He never said a word to anyone. My only hint about his life was a keycard he sometimes wears around his neck, which tells me he works at one of our high-tech companies. I’ve never gotten close enough to see his name or just the company logo. I’d guessed him as a computer programmer. Probably some kind of genius or something that makes gobs of money. He carried an expensive leather laptop bag and dressed impeccably, which also hinted of a good job.
Ellis has to be him.
His apartment building makes my mine look like a movie star’s dumpy younger sister. That’s neither here nor there, but I thought it was worth mention because it’s such a perfect symbol of how different we are.
I’d figured he’d never noticed me, a drab middle-aged schoolteacher in my shabby coat. He must have noticed my name on my book bag. How else would he know my name? All roads led to one answer. This was the gorgeous man at my bus stop I’d admired from afar for at least a year. Honestly, I’d have given my pinky toe for the courage to introduce myself. But people like me don’t do stuff like that.
Okay, I told myself. Stay calm and think what to do. He wants my email. This was a strange turn of events in my rather monotonous life. What would be the harm? If he was a creep, I could simply block him.
Oh, hell yes, he could have my email. He could have my phone number too if it came down to that. Stay centered, I ordered myself, and don’t go too Emily Dickinson with fantasies about some man I hardly know.
“Mother,” I said. “I need a sign for the window.”
Fifteen minutes later, I propped it up against my flowerpots.
MY EMAIL IS BRONTETEACHES@GMAIL.COM
And now I wait for the reply.
Thank you for replying to my sign. I can’t tell you how long I’ve debated asking for your phone number or email. Before we were confined to our homes, I noticed you at the bus stop. For months, I’d been gathering the courage to sit next to you, but I always found an excuse not to. The mind of a shy man is elusive. I have many ways of talking myself out of things, especially when it comes to a beautiful woman.
Putting a sign in my window is an odd way to ask a girl for her email, but these are strange times. As the days continue on, one after the other with no end in sight, I’ve chastised myself for not having the courage to introduce myself to you when I could have. Now, we’re stuck inside our homes. I’ve spent a lot of nights wondering how my life would be different if I’d seized opportunities along the way. Maybe I wouldn’t be a single, lonely man of forty, completely isolated as the world shut down.
I’m deaf, which makes it difficult to approach people. Or, rather, it gives me an excuse not to. I can’t communicate the usual way, obviously, which creates complications.
I was prompted to reach out, however, because I saw you crying on your balcony. I’d seen you out there before, watering your flowers. By the way, your flowers give me such joy. I’ve never been able to grow anything. I’m not sure why. Looking at the bright flowers during our warm months makes me smile. I figure someone who can grow such beautiful things must be pretty wonderful.
My heart hurt watching you cry. I guess you could say it jolted me enough to get over myself and reach out. What is it that makes you cry? Has a man broken your heart? Are you lonely and the isolation has gotten to you? Or, have you lost your job and are afraid of how you will pay the rent? Or, is it something different? Whatever it is, and whether you tell me or not, please know that I’m sending warmth and prayers your way.
I promise I won’t bother you if you’re scared by my email. That said, I’m completely harmless and committed to staying inside, so don’t worry, I won’t show up at your doorstep. I work as a computer programmer for a high-tech firm. I’m lucky to be able to work in my office here in the apartment.
Have you been out to get groceries? Before this I always had mine delivered. I find it easier than going to the store. Crowds worry me. I’ve continued to have them delivered, although they won’t bring them up to the fourth floor. I have to go down to the lobby to get them. I’ve also started ordering them for my elderly neighbor. When this started, I made sure he understood he could not go out and that I would look after him. He’s a widower on a fixed income. An income that barely covers his rent, so I often help him out with groceries and medications. Like me, he has no family.
Yes, I’m telling you all this so that you can see what a great person I am.
Anyway, I suppose that’s enough for now. If you write back, I’ll share more about my life. Again, please don’t feel obligated to write me. However, if you’re bored or lonely, I would welcome a correspondence.
What a surprise you are. First, the sign in the window. Yes, a little unorthodox but very clever. Then, calling me beautiful? Well, how am I supposed to resist that? I couldn’t log on to my email fast enough.
In all honesty, I’ve noticed you at the bus stop too. In fact, I’ve often wanted to talk to you. However, we share the same affliction. I am also shy. You can’t imagine the number of things I talk myself out of on a daily basis. Perhaps we’re kindred spirits this way?
I pride myself on my powers of observation, but I must confess I didn’t pick up on your lack of hearing. In hindsight, I should have. There was one morning on the bus where a couple was having a ferocious argument, yelling and screaming at each other. You were the only one who didn’t turn to look at them. I now realize why.
You asked why I was crying. First, thank you for your concern. It’s very sweet. I was not crying because a man has broken my heart. One did. A long time ago now. Since then, I’m careful with my heart. I spend more time between the pages of books than in the real world. It’s much safer there. Fictional characters can’t hurt me.
I was crying because this virus has me scared and sad. My mother lives with me and is recovering from chemotherapy. She’s in remission, but still weak. I’m terrified she’ll get sick. In a way, yes, I was crying about my job. I’m a first-grade teacher and the governor has closed the schools. They haven’t said it yet, but I suspect they’ll close schools for the entire year. I’ll miss the children very much. Actually, I already miss them. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to them in person, which hurts. No hugs or end of the year party where I give them each a framed picture of the two of us together. (I take them at the Valentine’s Day party.) This may sound silly to you, but the children are more than just my students. I love each of them. Even the ones who drive me crazy some days! At this age, they’re tender and sweet and they LOVE their teacher. I’ve not had a lot of love in my life, so perhaps this heightens my feelings. Whatever the reason, I treasure each of them more than they could ever know.
To answer your question, I haven’t been out to get groceries yet. Because of my mother, I’m reluctant to leave the apartment. I’ll have to order some in the next day or so. I’ve never done that, actually. I’m on a tight budget. I count my pennies carefully so that I’ll have enough to fill my flowerpots.
Speaking of which, I’m glad you enjoy my flowers. That gives me extra incentive this year to make them even more beautiful. This is funny, but I never thought about what they looked like to others. I do them for myself and for my mother. She’s an artist—a watercolorist. Flowers are her favorite subjects.
How are you keeping occupied?
Are you a reader? If so, what are your favorite books? I enjoy many genres but don’t care for horror. I’m much too scared of the dark for that!
Do you watch television? My mother and I love anything on Masterpiece Theatre. We’re currently watching a show called Unforgotten about an English female detective. She solves cold cases. The plots are interesting with twists and turns. But it’s the portraits of the people I find the most interesting. Characters with flaws and secrets, all struggling for redemption.
Have you been deaf since birth? Is it all right to ask you that? I hope so. I’d hate to offend you and break of our correspondence before we got started.
Please write soon and tell me more about yourself. Feel free to ask me anything. I’ll do my best to answer honestly.