by Denise Blike
In March, after the airports closed and my US passport was about as useful as a moldy sponge, I got a message from my dean telling me to go home and do my research remotely. Temporarily, she said. How long is temporary, I wanted to know. She said, I’m sure you’ll be back to scouring the Scottish Highlands for knitting needles in no time.
I took a cab from the airport to my apartment near the university. It was the first time I’d been home in months. When I was away on extended research trips, I hired someone to come by every few days to collect the mail and then recycle it immediately. I didn’t need to come home to seventy-five junk mail envelopes or open the handwritten ones to read old news that wasn’t relevant to me anymore. If there was an actual urgent message, there were plenty of other, faster ways to reach me.
I hadn’t left this two-bed, one bath apartment since moving in as an undergrad fifteen years ago. Now, I was still here but with two fewer roommates (three if you counted the summer we sublet the living room). And why would I move? I knew the neighborhood well, the flux of students moving in and out meant that annoying neighbors never stayed long, and besides, I was rarely home for more than a week. I knew there were a few other long-time tenants like me, but I had never met them.
I leaned my bags against the door as I searched for my keys in my shoulder bag. The door opened suddenly, and my bags fell into the legs of a stranger who smiled at me and said, “Welcome home!”
She was a woman my age, maybe a few years younger, with dark hair pulled back in a braid like I used to wear it before chopping it all off after I got tenure. Her eyes were bright with purpose; you could tell she was what people described as a “go-getter.” “It’s so good to see you,” she said.
“I’m sorry, am I in the wrong apartment?” I asked. “Do I know you?” But even as I said the words, I could see my black peacoat hanging from the antique hook in the hallway, the red wooden chair pushed into the Formica table in the kitchen nook.
“I’m Rachel,” the woman answered. She picked up the bags and carried them into the living room, then gently pulled me inside and closed the door.
“Rachel. That’s my name.” I felt rooted to the floor and considered whether or not this was some kind of jet-lag hangover fugue state.
“I know,” said Rachel. “I was your mother’s primary nurse at the home.”
“Oh.” I still felt a pang of guilt for leaving my mother alone in a nursing facility when she was unable to live on her own, while I went and traveled the world. But it was the best decision for both of us. She didn’t want to be mothered by me, and I had never wanted to be a mother. “Is there something wrong? Why did they send you here?”
“Rachel,” said Rachel, taking me by the hands and drawing me to the couch. “I’m so sorry, but your mother passed away last month. She was one of the first COVID victims. I was devastated when it happened. She was my favorite patient.”
“She died?” I repeated. “From COVID?”
“Yes, many of the residents were infected. It’s been a hard couple months for all of us. But I want you to know that your mother mentioned you. At first, I thought she was talking to me. She said, ‘I want to say goodbye to Rachel.’ That was before she went on the ventilator.”
My analytical brain kicked in, saving me from absorbing the information that my basically estranged mother wanted to see me before she died. “Why didn’t I get a call? Or an email? A goddamn telegram, anything?”
Rachel said, “It was so sudden. We didn’t know where you were. The itinerary you had left was several months out of date and there was so much happening at once. I’m so sorry. I felt it was best to tell you in person.”
“How did you even get in here? How long have you been here?”
“Oh, only a month,” Rachel said cheerfully.
“You’ve been living in my home for a month?” The analytical brain froze up and didn’t know what to say next.
“Yes, I had to stay when the stay-in-place orders took effect. I took an unpaid leave of absence after your mother—I was so upset. And then I couldn’t pay rent. The manager wouldn’t stop knocking at my door.”
I followed Rachel into the master bedroom, taking in unfamiliar objects like a stack of library books on the coffee table and a knitting basket on the couch—objects that certainly could have been mine, but I wasn’t certain one way or the other.
Rachel knelt down and unzipped the larger bag. She continued, “I came by to drop off your mother’s belongings one day. There was a spare key to this place. I ran into your house sitter outside, and he said, ‘Rachel! You’re two weeks early.’ So, I went along with it. I wanted to be the one to tell you when you returned. He didn’t know any different. You guys only talked through text, right?” She picked up a stack of folded clothes and opened the walk-in closet.
“Hey, you don’t have to do that,” I said. “Those are all just duplicate outfits I keep packed so I can leave in a hurry.”
Rachel hung a white button-down blouse on a silk hanger next to its twin. “Well, it’s not like you’re leaving anytime soon, right?”
I felt like I was protesting the wrong thing and struggled to pull my sleep-deprived brain into focus. “You can’t just move in here without asking! This is my home.”
“I know, I’m sorry. But your mother told me all about your busy, exciting life. Traveling all the time, fellowships and sabbaticals. She made it seem like you don’t really have a home. You travel so much that every room is just a hotel room to you, same as this one. She felt guilty about that, that she hadn’t given you enough security growing up. And now you don’t care about your surroundings. Will it really make that much of a difference to you if I’m here too? Don’t you have to finish your manuscript anyway?”
That was all true, and really, all I wanted to do was take off my boots and go to sleep for the next twelve hours. I was thrown off balance by all these revelations about my mother. Things we never talked about. And here was this perfect stranger, offering a kind of solution to a problem I didn’t know existed ten minutes ago. Something in her voice coaxed this desire to sleep and not think anymore out to the forefront. Maybe the hallucination would resolve itself into a dream that would end as soon as I woke up.
“But where will you sleep?” I asked, like a person taken hostage in her own home who was still determined to be an excellent hostess.
“I can sleep on the couch. Or this king bed is plenty big enough for both of us.” We were about the same petite proportions, though I could tell Rachel had more definition in her arms and shoulders.
“Okay. Fine. But this is just temporary until I go back to work. Or whenever the pandemic ends.” I unzipped my boots and pulled off my blazer before falling into a deep, dreamless sleep. I don’t know where Rachel slept that first night, but by morning, all my bags were unpacked and stacked neatly in the closet.
My work was everything to me, and I had created for myself—at a fairly young age in the field—a kind of freelance historian travel writer job that entailed lots of research trips, fellowships, and the odd few semesters of teaching undergrads when I was wrangled into it. My specialty was cylindrical objects. The sub-specialty was pre-Industrial Revolution cylindrical objects that were integral to keeping a domestic home. My pop culture historian status took off when I published a think piece in Buzzfeed News called, “Consider the Spurtle.” This smooth, close-grained wooden cylinder with a pointed “thistle” carving at the top, was a necessity in Scottish kitchens because of the way it was used to stir porridge without any lumps. Lumps that would have been left behind by less aerodynamic utensils like a spoon. From this simple kitchen tool, I traced the arc of Scotland’s fierce battle to remain independent of the British Kingdom.
I used primary source documents and first-hand practice—the last roommate left because of the amount of porridge that had to be eaten—to enliven what seemed like boring historical minutiae. The irony was not lost on me that I was completely unsentimental about objects, people, places in my own contemporary life. Where I lived, what I wore, what I ate, who I talked to were immaterial conditions that I didn’t have time to think about. I enjoyed hotel rooms because of the consistency. My needs were already anticipated and met promptly without my having to expend any extra energy.
Which was one of the reasons that Rachel moving in had less of an impact on my life than it might have otherwise. The first month of quarantine together was surprisingly easy to navigate. I lived in the past, and Rachel lived in the present and immediate future. What TV show or podcast to put on while she knitted, what to make for lunch and then dinner, what the weather would be like on Thursday when our groceries were delivered.
As I worked on my next book manuscript about knitting sheaths, I came to depend on her regularity. Rachel said she had been Head Nurse at the nursing home. She threw herself into similar management of my apartment with lots of charts, lists, and new rules every day to maximize efficiency of the output, which I guess was keeping us from getting sick and dying. She always made two portions of whatever she cooked and brought one to me in the second bedroom that served as my office. There was always enough toilet paper in the bathroom, so I wasn’t having to dig through the wastebasket to find lipstick-smudged tissues to wipe my ass. In this way it wasn’t so different than living in hotels with room service and daily housekeeping. I reasoned that I wasn’t exploiting Rachel, this seemed like a fair trade in exchange for her being housed while unemployed, and besides, she appeared to enjoy taking care of me. A few weeks in, she started laying out outfits for me on the side of the bed that I still wasn’t sure she slept on. I came out of the bedroom one morning to find her dressed exactly the same as me in a crimson mock turtleneck and black jeggings. “It makes it easier to do laundry this way,” she explained, even though I hadn’t said anything.
Everything was delivered to the apartment and addressed to Rachel—sometimes with my last name and sometimes with hers. Either way, neither of us went outside for months. The two black cotton masks Rachel ordered early on stayed sealed in their packaging. I ended my workdays by pedaling furiously for an hour on a stationary bike, thinking blissfully about nothing, not even wool gathering practices of the 18th century. Rachel found slow yoga routines that made her look like she was moving underwater. Sometimes I heard her from my room talking to friends on a video chat that was always hilarious and fast-paced. “Rachel, you are SUCH a sweet-heart,” one female voice said, emphasizing a pause between “sweet” and “heart.”
The morning I sent off the final book manuscript to my editor, I stood up from my desk and walked around the apartment in a daze. I noticed the furniture was still all there, that was good. In the bathroom, I saw double. There were two identical hairbrushes laid by the sink, two toothbrushes in a cup with two toothpaste tubes. Not so much his and hers, but hers and hers again. I didn’t remember ever owning a matching set of towels and washcloths. Identical shampoo bottles side by side in the shower and razors suction-cupped to the tile. I wondered which I had been using all this time. I wondered if Rachel kept track.
In the kitchen, she stood up from the table and greeted me like she had the very first time we met. “Rachel!” she exclaimed. “It’s so good to have you back. Here, I made us coffee and French toast. We can watch TV together.”
I was overwhelmed by her aggressive solicitousness, which had formerly been just background noise to me while I worked. “No, thanks,” I said. “I think I’ll just read in my bedroom.”
Her mouth dropped open like a child’s. “Why don’t you want to spend time with me? I’ve been wanting to share stories about your mother and hear what she was like when you were growing up. I’ve been waiting patiently for months for you to be done.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Why would I talk about my mother with you? Anyway, there’s nothing to say. I thought you were going back to work soon and looking for your own apartment.”
“I mean, I’ve been waiting for the call, but I haven’t heard anything.”
“We’re in a pandemic. Of course they need you. Just show up again one day.”
“I thought you liked me taking care of you? I’ve enjoyed our little lives here.”
I took my coffee and turned away. “I still prefer to read by myself, sorry. Thank you for breakfast.”
A china plate shattered on the linoleum, followed by a mug of coffee crashing into the sink. “I can’t believe this!” Rachel wailed. Her unbraided hair hung in front of her face as she steadied herself on the red chair. Not knowing how to respond, I scurried away into my room, locking it behind me.
For the rest of the morning I thought about how to get Rachel out of my home. An internet search told me there were something called “squatter’s rights,” and besides, it would be more likely for the landlord to evict me instead since I violated the two-week guest policy in my lease. And still, in the background, Rachel was something substantial I could use as a touchstone in this period of stillness in my life. I was confronted with the temporary life I had made for myself over the years in this place. A home had always been just a stopover and was now my world. The mismatched thrift store furniture that bloomed in alleyways after finals week. The faded museum re-prints of Kandinsky and Malevich taped to the walls that I always meant to get framed. “Black Square” looking more like “Printer Running out of Black Ink Square” these days. And now I was motherless, more alone than I’d ever been, and guilty about how little grieving I had done compared to Rachel. All at once I was seized with anger that a complete stranger was upending my life, a life I didn’t much care about once the quarantine was over. This was enough.
Rachel was sitting on the couch knitting and watching a British baking show when I came out in the late afternoon. I sat gingerly at the edge of the couch. She didn’t look at me. “What are you knitting?” I asked.
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Have you ever heard of a knitting sheath? They’re these things that fit on your belt and hold one needle in place so that you can knit one-handed basically, while walking or watering the garden. There are old lithographs of Scottish women hauling bags of peat moss on their backs while knitting with these sheaths while they walk back home.”
Rachel frowned. “So, you’re saying I’m too lazy to do more than one thing at a time?”
“No, no… I don’t know. I’ve just been thinking about how many things these days are built for a single purpose, which usually you only use once, and then they collect in drawers, disposable pieces of junk that a marketing company convinced you that your life would be made more efficient and streamlined if you only bought this one thing. Like, did you know there are blogs dedicated to ‘hacking’ shitty IKEA furniture that is so lackluster and disposable on its own that apparently I could walk around the neighborhood and pick up half-dozen of the same brown particleboard LACK side tables and turn them into a fucking chandelier? Why not just have a real chandelier in the first place that will actually last for hundreds of years?”
“I guess. But still, it would be nice to have more than one kitchen chair,” she said, nodding to the red chair at the table.
“Why? You wake up earlier than I do and are usually finished by the time I come out of my room. And it’s not like this quarantine will last forever. I’ll have a spare useless chair once you move out.”
A new expression I hadn’t seen before came over Rachel’s face. Sharp disgust she tried to mask by rolling her eyes. “Do you never have friends come over? I get it, professor. Everything is built in obsolescence. Even people are disposable. Which is why you only care about your work and nothing else. Not even the fact that your mother died.”
I stood up and used my authoritative voice, the voice that put sexist colleagues in their place and intimated there was no room for discussion. “That’s neither here nor there. So, we agree then? No need to try to make this place ‘homier’? It will all be over soon.”
Rachel looked at me. “We can still share this time together though. Even if it doesn’t matter in the end.” She looked so sad right then, presumably at the thought of being on her own. I sat down again.
“Of course. I’m not a monster.” I couldn’t keep the guilt from creeping back in, unbidden.
“Actually, you can help me with something,” she said, brightening. “I need to get ready for my Zoom happy hour. Wait here.” She went to the bathroom and came back with an armload of make-up palettes, brushes, and lipstick tubes that looked like stunted tongues. She also balanced two wineglasses and a bottle under her chin.
“I’m terrible with make-up,” I said. “You don’t want my help.”
“No,” she said impatiently. “I need a mirror. All you need to do is keep looking at me.”
I turned to face her. I didn’t ask why she couldn’t use the bathroom mirror. This felt like a challenge for me to prove that I was capable of connection, of empathy. We toasted each other: “To Rachel! To Rachel!” and drank.
Rachel began by making a blank palette of her face, wiping it with cotton balls dipped in witch hazel. Then she opened jars of foundation and skimmed a sponge wedge across the jar lid. She pulled my wrist towards her so that the veins bulged under my thinning skin. She dabbed the sponge gently and murmured “good.” I felt proud. I held very still as Rachel looked into my eyes and blended the foundation across her forehead, nose, and chin. Next came concealer to cover up purple undereye circles that I was sure existed on my face not hers. Then, a metallic setting powder I could taste on my tongue. We sucked in our cheeks as she streaked blush on the diagonal. I leaned in close as Rachel applied eye shadow and held my breath as she painted on the eyeliner in a single swoop on each eye. I couldn’t help it, my lips parted too when she applied volume-enhancing mascara. We took a break to drink another glass of wine before coming to the lips. At that point, our faces were inches apart, I could smell the salty olives she’d eaten mixed with the wine’s bouquet.
The final touch, a sweep of red lipstick the color of emergency vehicles, of stop signs. Without warning, Rachel cradled my face in her hands and kissed me. She held her lips to mine for a full five seconds before pulling back. She grinned. “Sorry, no Kleenex handy. Do I have any on my teeth?”
“No.” I shook my head and then almost fell off the couch in my haste to leave.
“Thanks!” I heard her call after me. In my bedroom, I looked into the mirror at my pale, unmanicured face—the unplucked eyebrows and nose hairs curling from their caves. The red imprint of Rachel’s lips made my face look like a clown’s. Childish. Like I had eaten too many popsicles.
For the rest of the night, I reread the same paragraph in a book while I listened to Rachel’s laugh echo from the living room along with the other female voices that rose and fell in unison. I had just closed my eyes briefly when I heard someone say, “Rachel, you are SUCH a sweet-heart.” That distinctive pause again. I slept.
I awoke in the middle of the night with a wild thought. I crept out to the living room—by then, Rachel was spending nights on the futon in my office—and muted the TV as it turned on. The DVD player blinked on to show credits from a movie. I skipped scenes about halfway back into the move and stopped at a scene in a bar with three women crowded around a table. I turned the captions on.
Girl 1: “Come on, it’s the least I can do for you after you came over to stay with me when fucking Brad cheated on me, and I had to kick him out.”
Girl 2: “Rachel, you are SUCH a sweet-heart.”
I turned off the TV and went back to bed. I fell asleep again and in the morning my mouth had crushed a red heart into my pillow.
There wasn’t an outfit laid out for me the next morning. I went out to the kitchen cinching my gray bathrobe across my waist, already caught off-guard but prepared to pepper her with questions about what exactly she was doing here. Rachel was sitting at the table with two mugs of coffee in front of her and two bowls of oatmeal, one of which was half-eaten. I walked closer and saw it was the same with the coffee, just dregs left in one mug. I reached for the steaming full mug, but Rachel slid it away from my hand.
“I was thinking,” she said, “about how poor people must have shared dishware in the olden days. Scarcity of resources and all, not like your landlord-class that could afford durable goods.” Her voice was sarcastic and taunting. I had a flashback to how pretentious I sounded last night.
“Sure. Can I have my coffee now?”
“I’m not quite finished with breakfast yet. So, I guess we’ll have to share this one chair.” Rachel patted her lap.
“Come on, it will be cozy. A real bonding experience.”
Before the embarrassment could sink in, and still remembering the feeling of her lips, I said, “Fine.” I perched on her knees, and she handed me the mug. The first sip made me relax as it always did and my weight settled back into Rachel’s lap which spread slightly to accommodate my soon-to-be middle-aged ass.
“This is good. Thank you.”
“Ready for breakfast?” Her voice came from somewhere behind my ear. She held a spoonful of oatmeal out in front of her.
“Stop, I can feed myself.”
“But think, what if it wasn’t just one chair you owned? What if we shared one spoon or one bowl? Think of the demand for cheap ceramics cut in half just from a change in our consumer lifestyle?”
I opened my mouth to argue, and Rachel slid the spoon in before I could say anything. The oatmeal was creamy and salty, offset by the honey and cinnamon. I swallowed. “Shit.”
“Lean back into me.” She took the mug from my hand and suddenly I was pinned by her elbows as she scooped another spoonful of oatmeal. I tried not to think about what was actually happening, just gave into the instinct to feed, opening my mouth to swallow coffee then food until both were finished.
“When was the last time someone took care of you? Before me, I mean,” Rachel said, stroking the wisps of overgrown hair at my neck.
“I don’t know. Never?”
“Listen, we belong to each other right now. We aren’t single-use humans waiting to be taken out by a virus that kills us by talking and singing. We keep us safe.” I felt an embrace and let myself lean back into her, my head against her shoulder.
Yes. I felt desire rising up in me, but it was non-sexual. It was a desire to hold fast to another person and live up to their expectations. Then Rachel shifted in the chair, and I jumped up. “Sorry, sorry. Thanks for breakfast. That was weird. But good.”
She carried the dishes to the sink and washed them like she hadn’t heard me. It was only then that I noticed we were wearing the same gray robe. I didn’t realize I had a second one.
I started getting antsy about receiving a response from my editor, an old-school pro who printed everything out and made line edits with a green fountain pen. I stalked the mail slot from 11 am to 5 pm but never seemed to be there when the mail arrived.
After a week, I received a phone call from her on my cell. “Rachel darling, where are you? We expected you weeks ago?”
“Expected me where?”
“Out here in the county, obviously. The transmission rate finally hit zero or close to zero. I wrote it all in the letter. We were going to go over your draft.”
I hung up, apologizing and promising to be on the next train. “Rachel!” I yelled. She sat up from where she was huddled on the couch. “Was there a letter for me?”
“Recently? No, I don’t think so. Just this one from my Aunt Judith, but I haven’t felt like opening it yet.”
“Rachel, this is addressed to me. From June Forrester, my editor.”
“Is it? Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I hope it wasn’t important.”
I stalked around the apartment throwing things into a carry-on bag, cursing that that they had ever been unpacked in the first place. Rachel asked what I was doing with some panic in her voice. I ripped open one of the cloth masks that had been gathering dust on the living room table.
“I’m going,” I said firmly. “You can stay here for however much longer you want, but I need to leave.”
“You don’t understand! You can’t go. You’ll kill me if you go outside.”
I cinched the mask around my ears and picked up my bag.
“It’s true! That’s why I had to find somewhere to live right away before I was evicted. That’s why I can’t go back to the nursing home. I had to stay here. And haven’t I done my best to repay you, cleaning and cooking? Didn’t I wash the walls and vacuum every day? And you can’t do this one thing for me?” I ignored her, but she grabbed my hand. She had a wild look in her eyes like she was cornered. “You know I changed the locks, right? Before you came home. If you leave, I’ll lock the door behind you and then you’ll be trapped outside. Outside with other people who aren’t me, who have the virus. You could die, just like your mother. Then what will you do without me?”
I changed tracks in my head without a pause. “Come with me, then. We can both go to June’s home. She’s very funny and kind, you’ll like her.” Rachel shook her head but kept her grip on my hand. “Please, Rachel. I want you by my side. We can do this together.”
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply like it was her last breath. Without a word, she opened the other mask and fastened it around her face, pinching the nose shut and feeling the seams along her chin for any gaps.
I opened the front door for the first time in four months. We walked out into the courtyard between the two wings of the brick apartment building. The wrought-iron patio furniture was covered in dirt and cobwebs. Scraggly remains of early spring daffodils edged the walkway. I tried to think of where I could take Rachel. Down to the police station? The hospital? She wasn’t even wearing shoes. My cab was going to arrive soon, I had to think.
“Feel that breeze!” I said, nudging Rachel toward the grassy lawn near the curb of the busy street. She had her hands clamped over her ears to make sure the elastic bands wouldn’t slip off. I wasn’t so lucky. The brisk wind pulled at my mask so it dangled off my left ear. I was able to catch it before it blew away completely. Rachel shrieked and then her bony hands were on my shoulders.
“Rachel! Don’t worry,” she screamed and ripped her own mask off. “I’ll breathe for you.” Our mouths crashed together with wet suction. I felt the moist air forced down my throat. I thrashed and tried to say “Stop!” but Rachel’s strong grip held us fast together. As we breathed carbon dioxide into each other’s mouths, my resistance weakened. We looked like lovers locked in a passionate embrace. Rachel was still getting tiny puffs of oxygen by breathing through her nose, but her grip also grew slack. Dizzily, I fell to my knees in the wet grass. Her mouth was still on mine as she cradled my face.
Then, just as suddenly as the forces that pulled us together, Rachel let me drop to my side, and I gasped for air. She forced the wad of our masks into my mouth while I inhaled deeply. The strings and metal clasps caught in my throat, and I coughed and teared and shook my head. It was too late. Rachel held both of my hands in hers.
“Dear Rachel,” she said. “I’ll take good care of your work. You will never be forgotten. Your mother would be so proud.”
My last thought was of the cloth masks closing my airway and how every couple hundred years or so women set to work sewing thousands of masks to keep people safe and alive during pandemics. What a beautiful piece of handiwork.
Denise Blike is an online MLIS student at the UW iSchool and works for Western Washington University. Her companion is a toothless cat named Earl Grey.