A short story by R. M. Dolin. This is part three of the growing friendship between Tara and Marcos. Read Parts 1 & 2.
“Unfreaking believable,” Tara mutters from under the mask she special ordered just for this clandestine rendezvous. Her nervous fidgeting ramps up with the random temperament of anyone pushed to the edge of anxiety by isolation. Even though she has no where to be, the snail’s pace of the numerically short line made long through social distancing wears on her patience, mostly because it’s hard to maintain proper separation when you’re so distracted. “I risk coming out here for this?” she blurts out not realizing her volume’s been ratcheting up.
“Excuse me?” the short but rugged construction worker of questionable immigration status in front of her politely asks while turning around.
“Huh,” Tara responds before her brain connects his reference. She notices straight away from the dirt-stained spot on the front of his mostly plaster-coated mask, he doesn’t much worry about proper care and cleaning.
“You were asking me something?”
“No,” Tara manages to meek out through her embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I was just verbalizing something.”
He takes his time looking her over trying to ascertain her deal. “Whatever,” he concludes while abruptly turning back around.
Tara anxiously looks once more for any sign of Marcos, first along the self-service checkout lines, then over to the paint section before landing back to her languishing line. “You see,” she blurts out to the construction worker, I was supposed to meet someone but he no-showed.”
The man turns part way around smiling congenially beneath his dust-stained mask while calmly reaching into his plaster splashed jeans to dig out his phone. He smiles politely again to prove he’s not rude but not so much as to indicate he’s interested in whatever she’s going on about. Of course Tara can’t see his smile but gets by the way he immerses himself in text messages that he’s not into talking with strangers.
“Even in times of crisis men behave like men,” she spontaneously continues though it’s not clear why. “I planned my entire morning around meeting here like we agreed, but does he show? I mean why talk big about meeting if you don’t really mean it?” Tara pauses for a moment convinced she’s done. “These are not normal times,” she continues with increased agitation. “A man shouldn’t suggest to a lady that she risk leaving home against doctor’s orders, for a rendezvous you don’t plan to honor.
“Ah-ha,” the construction workers comments without looking up from his phone.
Tara looks back exacerbated. “Keep your end of the compact, that’s all I’m saying.”
The construction worker who’s starting to question the wisdom of grabbing a cup of Joe before heading back to the job site looks up from his phone. Then without pause or pretense, he yanks down his mask revealing a huge smile. He steps uninvitedly toward Tara, which causes her heart to pulsate in fear. She’s frightened even more when his fist fiercely flies toward her face. “Marcos, my brother,” the suddenly intrusive man shouts, “good seeing you.”
Before Tara can turn around, she hears the voice already committed to memory. “Christian, I see you’ve met my friend,” Marcos says while working through an elaborate handshaking ritual that starts as a fist bump followed by many complicated macerations before finishing with some sort of back-of-the-hand slap.
“Indeed,” Christian sardonically answers while smiling at Tara. “She was just commenting on the reliability of men in the age of COVID.”
Desperate for some sort of something that can rescue her embarrassment, Tara preemptively interprets. “My friend, Paul- ina,” she quickly adds, “was supposed to buy my coffee-”
“The coffee you don’t like?” Marcos interjects grinning.
“Yes,” Tara continues, “and when she didn’t show I had to pay for it myself and I barely had enough cash.” Of course it’s a lie, but only a small lie that doesn’t cause harm so it’s not really a lie. Marcos smiles without judgment, which reminds Tara why he made such an impression when they met last week. She simultaneously notices that he too has pulled his mask down around his neck in direct violation of the Governor’s edict. She’s about to say something about it, but gets interrupted.
“Why don’t you come by the job site anymore?” Christian prods with sudden seriousness, “the guys are going hungry on account of you.”
“Got kicked out,” Marcos answers with equal abruptness. “Some lame-ass inspector said if I came back, he’d fine me for operating without a license.”
“Then get one.”
“No way in hell I pay a license fee just for the privilege of paying taxes, when they’re the bastards who did this to me,” Marcos angrily counters. “I was cooking in the best restaurant in town before they went COVID-crazy, now look at me, selling freaking food on street corners like a homeless bum.”
Tara’s drawn into the dark unrequited way Marcos glares at his friend, a languished look of pride tempered in bold bitterness smeared with an anger seeking justice not forthcoming. She gets it, truth be told, she too has begun to imagine acts of defiance that could somehow convey to uncaring politicians how hurtful they’ve become; how what they’re doing is not right and has to stop. Coming here was an act of defiance, the governor specifically said no unnecessary movement yet here she is.
She suddenly wishes there had been COVID police at the entrance, then she could tell Marcos how she bravely let the officer know in no uncertain terms that she’s here because she feels like it, governor be damned. But alas, there wasn’t a COVID cop at the entryway so she has no story to share that can demonstrate her simpatico. But that doesn’t mean she not angry. It doesn’t mean she compliantly okay with all COVID’s taken; starting with her dignity and ending with her frustration at not being able to decide for herself what risks she should tolerate. But one simply does not stand in line at the coffee kiosk at a home improvement store espousing radical views, even with seemingly sympathetic cohorts. That would be even worse than acting on rebellious impulses.
“You either do or you don’t,” Marcos repeats with a grand grin.
“I’m sorry what?” Tara stutters rejoining the group.
“Do you think it’s fair I deny Christian and his crew breakfast burritos just because I need to make a statement opposing repression?”
Tara is instantly excited about having the opportunity to show simpatico with her fellow radicals who demand the rights and freedoms she grew up believing were inalienable. This is her moment to join a cause worthy of struggle. To be part of something she so strongly believes in. To at this critical moment in history, stand up and make a difference. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your level of complacency, the moment passes. “I think we have to demonstrate patience,” Tara meekly answers. “Everyone’s doing their best.” Okay, she reconciles to herself, she’s not cut out to be a rebel, suddenly acquiescence seems patriotic; if patriotism can even be applied to an equation concerning health and safety.
“Not good enough,” Marcos fires back looking at Christian for confirmation. “These government clowns were of marginal value before COVID, now not only do they get paid for doing nothing while the rest of us hustle to find two nickels to rub together, they deny us our livelihood while getting fat on job security. Let them eat cake I say; tri leche cake laced with arsenic.”
“You bake it,” Christian eagerly offers, “and I’ll run the lottery to see who gets to gift wrap it for the governor.”
Marcos and Christian laugh at the ironic freedom found in fighting back. While they get that they’ll probably lack the necessary malice to move forward with their conspiracy, it’s nonetheless comforting to contemplate. Tara rationalizes that the very open way they discuss details of their subversion is proof they’re simply blowing off steam, at least that how she’ll explain things to the COVID cops.
“Look man,” Christian announces as he grabs his coffee, “I gotta go. Come by for beers latter, most the crew’s coming; it’s not like they got anywhere else to be.”
“I will,” Marcos vows as they fist bump. “And this time I mean it.”
“Bueno bye,” Christian says, stuffing his phone back in his pocket and heading for the door.
“He and I go way back,” Marcos tells Tara as they watch Christian leave. “I like hanging with his crew, it’s just not everyone’s happy to see me.” After a pause he adds, “it’s complicated.” Before Tara can inquire deeper into what is no doubt a very fascinating story, Marcos continues. “If you have time, I’ll grab a coffee and we can sit outside and visit.”
Tara shyly smiles acknowledging that would be nice while forgetting facial expressions have lost their cache in COVID. It doesn’t seem to matter, Marcos has already interrupted the fact she didn’t say no as yes.
“Where will we sit?” Tara asks on their way out the store.
The clerk at the exit whose job it is to count people leaving and transmit that vital information to the clerk at the entrance in charge of pacing people going in, seems about to say something regarding Marcos not wearing his mask when he’s preempted, “I no longer consent to be ruled by a repressive governor,” Marcos states while pushing past the admonishment eager clerk. He escorts Tara out the door to the far corner of the parking lot, past the assorted banged-up trucks and high-end SUVs. They slow down behind an old Ford that’s alone beside a row of prebuilt sheds. “She ain’t much,” Marcos proudly states, “but she fires up each morning and gets me home without complaints.”
To Tara’s delight, she rounds the back of the truck to finds Marcos has set out a small round table beside the driver’s door with two camping chairs. The table is round and sort of ratty with rust spots sprinkled about, but once he tosses a white linen over it, the ensemble comes to life with a French café je ne sais quoi.
“I made croissants,” Marcos announces, pulling a paper bag from the cab of his truck. “You don’t really strike me as an empanada person.” Marcos helps Tara with her seat before setting out two plates, a small canning jar of homemade preserves, and another jar of softened butter. He hands her a cloth napkin and sits down.
Tara’s about to complement Marcos on preparing such a splendid arrangement, she even considers suggesting it’s romantic, but he supersedes, “As a gentleman, I fear I must confess, all of this is nothing more than an elaborate ruse to see what you look like under your mask.
“Really,” Tara laughs, “what if you discover I have a mustache and crooked teeth?”
“Well,” Marcos chuckles twisting the end of his neatly groomed mustache, “facial hair isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. But crooked teeth, yikes. I’m afraid I’d be in my truck and down the road before you knew what happened.” He adds as an afterthought, “the table and chairs would of course be your parting gifts for being a contestant.”
“And if I don’t have crooked teeth?” Tara asks.
“Then you’re our grand prize winner.”
She looks condescendingly at the old Ford, “Usually people win a new car, not some ratty old truck.”
“Who said anything about winning Esmeralda,” Marcos defensively answers. “The grand prize is me.”
“Oh,” Tara responds through her disappointment, “I could really use a truck.” While saying that, she unties the bottom strings of her mask so she can take a bite of croissant. “Oh my God,” she blurts out blown away by her first bite, “this is amazing!”
Marcos casually sits back in his chair grinning. “My secret’s adding a splash of vanilla and almond extract. Also, I make my own butter from farm fresh cream, ask any chef and they’ll tell you, the problem with cooking in America is you can’t buy high fat butter.”
“Well,” Tara compliments. “This is the best croissant I’ve ever tasted.”
“Then my years of French training’s paid off.” Marcos studies Tara while watching her eat. “Wouldn’t it be better if you took off your mask?”
“Not till I’m done,” she quickly responds. “Can’t risk you snatching something this amazing after seeing my teeth.”
“I am curious though,” Tara states while smearing fresh jam on the edge of her croissant, “why don’t you wear a mask?”
“I prefer to be COVID casual,” Marcos glibly answers.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting the virus?”
“What I’m afraid of,” Marcos begins with sudden seriousness, “is constantly being afraid. I want to get the damn COVID and be done with it already. I’m incessantly sick, sick of being worried about getting sick.” He slowly smiles while looking deep into Tara’s eyes. “If you told me you had COVID, I’d leap across this table, yank down your mask, and plant a big juicy kiss on you.”
Tara is shocked by his forwardness. She’s about to say something to throttle back expectations when Marcos intervenes. “Of course I’d probably get slapped,” he concludes with a teeth baring grin, “but at least I’d get COVID; and get to kiss a beautiful woman who probably doesn’t have crooked teeth.”