by David Beaumier
Mike can’t believe that Eli wants to have one last party.
“Everything’s going to shut down next week, we might as well have one more bash before our cases really go up.”
“And what if this is how our cases go up?” Even as Mike protests, he knows that the cleaning they’re doing together is to prepare the house.
Eli wipes down their minimal countertop space. “I’ll make sure to tell people they can’t come if they’re sick—especially with a fever—we’ll keep it under ten people, and I’ll send everyone home by eleven.”
Mike resists rolling his eyes. Out by eleven means he’ll be lucky if people leave by midnight. “As long as you clean up afterward.”
“Cross my heart. And, of course, I’m inviting Benj too.”
Mike had already planned on texting him, so that saves him the trouble.
Their apartment can hold a good number of people, despite its size. It consists of a tiny kitchen that looks out over the living room. The living room has a brown carpet that Mike imagines would be described as a shag rug, but he really isn’t sure. The bathroom is equipped with a fan so loud that it feels like you’re in another world when you use it. Plus, they have a small balcony for friends that smoke.
Benj arrives early while Mike and Eli rest in that liminal space where it’s too soon to put French fries in the oven to cook, but they don’t really have enough time to do anything but laze around until people show up.
“Hey babe,” Benj gives Mike a soft kiss on his cheek. “What’s happening?”
“No kiss for me?” Eli complains, poking his head out from the kitchen with a drink in hand.
Benj smacks him on the ass.
Mike laughs and pulls Benj back to him. “My naughty nurse.”
For most of the night, Mike sits on Benj’s lap on a camping chair they have set up in the corner. Eli plays and cavorts with every guest, flirting outrageously.
“Do you think he’s trying to get laid before the announcement tomorrow?” Benj murmurs in Mike’s ear.
“What announcement?” Mike asks.
“Yeah,” asks Eli’s eavesdropping friend Emma. “There’s an announcement?”
“Didn’t you hear?” Mike thinks the guy who’s speaking is named Paul maybe. “The governor has some big speech. Probably to put the state in quarantine.”
“What? No!” Eli cries out. “I can’t be locked away from my adoring public!”
The group becomes distracted, and Mike turns his attention back to Benj. “Quarantine for everyone? Does that mean I can’t see you?”
Benj reaches up and strokes Mike’s hair. “We can probably do socially distanced things—six feet apart and such, but if things get bad at the hospital, I really shouldn’t visit you, with Eli and all.”
Mike nods. Eli had already decided to skip a conference a couple weeks ago. With COVID cases spiking on the east coast, he didn’t want to risk attending since he was immunocompromised.
“So, is tonight our last night together?” he asks.
Benj’s smile is a little sad. “For a little while at least, but that’s why I’m here now.”
Eli’s voice floats over to them. “Drinks? Anyone? I’m going to make another.”
Mike stands and pulls Benj out of the chair. “Let’s head to bed then. I want to be able to focus on you.”
Benj’s smile perks up considerably. “I’ll see you in there.”
Mike trails after Eli into the kitchen. “Benj and I are off to bed, don’t forget to clean up after you’re done?”
“Of course, and everyone out by 11pm.”
Mike glances at the clock on the stove that reads 10:45pm. “Sounds good.”
“How is it that I throw a party and you’re the one who’s getting laid tonight? You don’t even like sex or people, whereas I like everyone indiscriminately.”
Mike rolls his eyes. “What about Emma?” he pitches his voice low.
Eli glances out at the living room. Emma sits on their futon taking up most of the couch, and now has her shirt off exposing a purple bra edged with lace. “I already turned her down once last year. I don’t want to lead her on.”
“You’d know better than me.”
Eli shrugs. “Yeah, I don’t want to be an asshole, even if this is my last chance. Do you think Damian would be interested? I think he’s trans, too, so that could simplify things.”
Mike leans in and kisses him on the cheek. “Only one way to find out. Enjoy the party.”
Eli heaves his shoulders and dramatically places a hand against his forehead. “Farewell!”
Mike returns to the living room and says his goodbyes before heading to the bedroom.
Benj has already undressed by the time Mike comes in. He strips down to his underwear and lies down next to him. He loves the way the shades of their skin shift and how soft Benj feels against him. Mike cups his bearded face. “You know I love you.”
“But the best thing is you’re nice and warm.”
Benj laughs. “You’re too sweet.”
“Really, I’m glad we can just be here, together.” Mike gives him a soft kiss on the cheek, and together they fall asleep to the sound of each other being.
The next morning, Benj sleeps in, which is a little unusual, but Mike figures he had too much to drink, making this a prime opportunity to spoil him with coffee. This proves difficult as the house no longer appears fit for human habitation. Eli’s door is ajar, and Mike can see that no one ended up spending the night with him, which makes Mike wonder why Eli couldn’t have even bagged up the empties if he wasn’t distracted. In addition to the scattered bottles of cider, beer, and a few shameful hard seltzers, plates smeared with ketchup perch throughout the living room, each with a round of fry crumbs surrounding them. At least Emma’s shirt isn’t on the futon anymore. He has to take three pans out of the sink to wash them before he can even clean the French press to make coffee. The grinder shrieks into the morning silence, but he catches the kettle before it starts to sing. He can hear Eli groaning in his bed, and he leaves half the press on the counter in sympathy—and hopefully to jumpstart cleaning. It’s not even 10am by the time he’s back in his room with a plate of toast and two mugs.
“Good morning starshine, how’d you sleep?”
Benj grunts and rolls over.
Mike blinks at this. Benj is usually out of bed doing push-ups when he wakes up. “I brought coffee.”
“Blessings upon you, my child.” Benj sits up and drinks. “Is this a lighter roast than normal?” he asks.
It’s the same roast as the last time Benj came over. “Maybe I didn’t add enough grounds,” Mike says. As the early riser, Benj usually makes the coffee.
“Gosh, what was in that wine last night?” Benj rubs the back of his neck. “I feel like I’ve been hit by an anvil.”
They sit and eat quietly, Benj not seeming too interested in the food.
“I think I just need to go home and keep resting,” he says.
“Okay,” Mike says. “Text me after the governor’s address?”
Benj leans in and presses his forehead against Mike’s. “Of course, babe. Stay in touch, no matter what?”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Two hours later, Eli wakes up, and Mike has already recycled all the empties and stacked the dishes so they’re out of the way of the counter. This means that the microwave is blocked, but the problem of cold coffee is one for Eli to deal with. He’s leaving Eli the vacuuming and general washing up since the party was his idea.
Eli sits down in front of him at the small dining room table and takes a sip of his iced coffee. “I was thinking we should go on a big grocery trip before the announcement tonight. Since things will probably close down for a bit, it might make sense to go before there’s a big rush.”
Only after Eli finishes the dishes do they leave for the grocery store, which felt eerily abandoned. They picked up at least ten boxes of pasta, jarred sauce, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, pesto, canned beans (green, black, and chili), pounds of frozen spinach, plus a lot of canned fruit. “We’ll make our own fruit cups!” Eli had said. Now, everything put away, a new dry foods area has been created in the corner just on the other side of the counter.
That evening, they watch the governor’s address.
“This is Washington’s ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ order. This includes a ban on all gatherings… It is still safe to go outside using social distancing of six feet, but only for essential purposes… These measures are more stringent, our goal is the same: To reduce social interactions where this highly contagious virus can spread… Here is what the order will do, effective for a minimum of two weeks. It essentially requires every Washingtonian to minimize physical contact with others… This order will immediately ban all gatherings of people for social, spiritual and recreational purposes.”
Their governor wasn’t the most eloquent of men, but at least they understood the message. Mike feels a sinking in his stomach. Up until this point, he believed that maybe he could still see Benj, but Benj was right. At least the order is only for two weeks.
He texts Benj, I’m glad we got to spend last night together.
He doesn’t hear back from him that night.
The next day, Mike wakes up and checks his phone first thing. Still no text from Benj, so he video calls him. The phone rings for a solid ten seconds before connecting.
“Hey, babe.” Benj is still in bed, his collarbones bare and uncovered as he reclines on some pillows.
“Are you okay? Your voice sounds scratchy.”
“Oof, I think I’m still hungover. I feel all hot and stuff.”
Mike feels his heart drop. He knows that Benj hasn’t worked with any of the COVID-19 patients at the hospital, but surely there’s been the possibility of exposure. “Have you taken your temperature?”
“I can go do that in a little bit. How are you, babe?”
“I’m alright, scared I guess?” He pushes his pillows up against the wall so he can sit upright. “It makes sense that it would drive you nuts to stay here, and I know the place isn’t big enough for me to feel okay having you here.”
“And I still love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“I’m going to go take a shower and take my temperature, I’ll let you know what happens.”
Mike gets a text five minutes later.
Mike’s making lentil soup. First, he fills his pan with olive oil, and then he fills it up with onion, carrots, garlic, and any vegetables that are about to go bad in the fridge. Once it’s all softened a little, he adds tons of water and his lentils. In two to three hours he will have enough soup for himself and Benj’s dinners for the next week.
“Is it safe for you to go over there?” Eli asks. He’s sitting on the other side of the counter.
“Well, first, we don’t actually know if he has coronavirus. Second, I won’t be going inside. I’ll just drop it off on the porch, and I’ll be wearing a mask, so there won’t be contact at all.”
“Okay. Yeah. That all sounds reasonable.”
Mike was laid off from his job at the bagel shop downtown a few days before the stay-at-home order was put in place, and Eli is working remotely now while still in grad school. Eli wasn’t eating as much as he used to, probably due to not going out on many dates and being home all the time. When Mike asked how Tinder was going, Eli just said that he couldn’t trust anyone to be exercising the same level of caution he was.
“I can’t really take any risks, but it’s fun to flirt.”
Eli’s condition means that Mike does all the grocery shopping for their apartment now, borrowing Eli’s car and saving the receipt to be paid later with the bills.
And Benj is sick. He hadn’t been allowed to return to working at the hospital due to his fever that wouldn’t break. He was tested a few days ago, but they still haven’t heard back on whether or not he was positive.
The soup is prepared, and Mike packages it up in one of his largest containers.
“Can I have some of this?” Eli asks as he’s carrying Benj’s portion out the door.
“I mean, I guess a little. I’m hoping it lasts me all week.”
He closes the door, not bothering to lock it since Eli never leaves. It doesn’t seem to ever be necessary anymore except when they sleep. The drive over to Benj’s house is about ten minutes, though it would be a huge uphill walk to wind through the nearby college campus and then through downtown. Being able to drive Eli’s car makes a huge difference in his ability to traverse the city. If he could afford it, he would go on more drives just to be alone. That and his trips to the bathroom feel like the only time he can have space from Eli, who he loves, but a week of seeing no one else is starting to grate on him. At least quarantine is only supposed to last until the end of May.
“Please can I see you?” Benj asks.
Mike is propped up in his bed, as has become their goodnight video call ritual. “You know that Eli is immunocompromised. I can’t put him at risk.”
“We can wear masks. I just…I miss you. It’s been so long since I’ve had any sort of, you know, affection.”
“I don’t think I could want sex any less than I do now. I’m sorry, it’s like a switch has been flipped in my head.”
Benj’s laugh is electronic and hollow. “If Eli were available I could just borrow him for a night.”
Mike twists the sheets in his free hand. “Is there anyone at work, someone you’ve already been exposed to, that you could, I don’t know, make an arrangement with?”
Benj stiffens. “I thought you didn’t want to open the relationship.”
“I might have some people in mind. I’ll let you know.”
They say their goodnights. Mike lies awake thinking how grateful he is that Benj tested negative for COVID. He almost wishes he had been positive because now he could still contract it. Benj never pressured him for sex before, but they used to spend so much time together that sometimes it would just happen naturally. Now, Mike closes his eyes trying to imagine a world where he and Benj don’t see each other for another month, maybe longer.
Eli wakes up coughing. Mike hears him while he’s putting on tea and immediately goes to the bathroom to pull out their thermometer. Eli is only wearing his pajama bottoms, and Mike is relieved not to walk in on a naked roommate.
“Here,” he says, handing it over.
“Maybe you should wear a mask in here,” Eli says as he covers his mouth.
“If you’re sick it’s because I got you sick. I don’t see how we can quarantine from each other in the same apartment.”
They wait about thirty seconds and the thermometer chirps happily: 94.8.
“Uh,” Eli says. “That’s unusually low, even for me. Maybe it’s broken?”
“Just hold it under your tongue for longer, then start it.”
After a minute under the tongue, Eli presses the button again: 97.5.
“Oh shit, what if it keeps going up?”
“Try it again,” Mike says.
They wait another minute, and then start it up one more time: 97.6.
Mike breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s a good thing. Not a confirmation, but still good. How’s your energy?”
“It’s not bad. I have a bit of a headache.” Eli pokes at his own face. “I think it might just be allergies.” He laughs nervously.
“I’ll call Benj. He might have some advice, or at least know where you can get tested.”
“God, I wish I had someone who I could reach out to like that—not that you aren’t great…”
“I know what you mean.” Mike flashes him a quick smile, and then ducks out of the room. In his own bedroom, he props up his pillows against the wall. The video call rings for fifteen seconds before he just hangs up. Benj is probably asleep. He’s trying to remember the last time he washed his sheets when his phone rings.
“Hey!” he says. He can see Benj is dressed in his bedroom leaning awkwardly over the phone. It’s still strange to Mike that he’s clean shaven now.
Straight to business then. “Eli woke up with a cough. He doesn’t—”
“Does he have a fever?”
“Loss of smell or appetite?”
“Not that I can tell.”
“Keep an eye on him for a few days. If he’s particularly tired that could be a bad sign.”
“He mentioned a headache.”
Benj sticks his head back into the frame so Mike can see him offering a shrug. “That might be a lot of things. Does he have allergies?”
“Yeah, I think so, but—”
“Shouldn’t be a problem then.” Benj starts folding a pile of clothes.
“But should he get tested? How would I go about doing that if he develops symptoms?”
There’s a pause in the flurry of activity on the other end of the line. Benj sighs, picks up the phone, and sits down at the desk. “I don’t think they’ll test him.”
“What? He might be sick, though!”
“He’s fairly isolated, so the chances of him being infected are small, and also he’s…well he’s immunocompromised.”
“Doesn’t that mean he’d need the test even more?”
“It means the hospital may choose to not allocate resources to him over someone more likely to recover.”
“What? That’s fucked up. He’s young, he’s strong, he’d recover with treatment.”
“And he has pre-existing conditions that will make it harder. I’m not saying it’s impossible they’ll help, just…” He covers his face with a hand and takes a deep breath. “Make sure that he gets plenty of rest, fluids, and if he isn’t taking vitamin C, he should start. You should do the same.”
“What about other people who are immunocompromised, can you do anything to help them?”
“I’m doing everything I can right now.”
“What is it you’re doing?” Mike asks, his voice shaking a little.
“Packing.” Benj grins.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to Seattle to help with the protest. People are being attacked by the police on Capitol Hill, and they need medics. I’m only working part time, so I can spend four days of the week down there helping out.” He pauses. His eyes glitter. “Come with me.”
“Come with me. Let’s quarantine together. I made a mistake when I said I didn’t want us to be together. You can come with me and hold down the fort with some friends of mine while we’re there. I want to be with you. I don’t want to find someone at work who I can just hook up with.”
“I, uh, wow.”
“Sorry, that’s just all been building for a while.”
“Of course I want to come.”
“I’m leaving in an hour. Can you be ready?”
“I want to go.” Mike bites his lip.
“I sense a ‘but’ coming.”
“I can’t leave Eli. He needs someone to shop for him, and if he’s sick he’ll need someone to take care of him.”
“Doesn’t he have any other friends who can help him?”
“I don’t know. I’ll check, but I don’t want to just abandon him, and if you’ll be down there, you’ll be surrounded by people, right?”
“But I won’t be surrounded by you.”
“Check in with me next week. Let me know when you’re there safe?”
Benj shakes his head. “I won’t be taking my phone down there. We’re not supposed to have them on us so we can’t be tracked.”
“Oh shit. Well, when you get back then?”
“You sure you don’t want to come?”
“I just can’t now.”
“Okay, talk to you in a week.” And he hangs up.
A tightness seizes Mike’s throat. Something didn’t quite feel right with that conversation, with the desperation he felt from Benj when he asked him to go to Seattle and to leave Eli behind. He draws his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them.
“That sounded rough.”
He looks up. Eli stands in the doorway that Mike forgot to close all the way.
He comes over and sits next to Mike on the bed and takes his hand. “I wouldn’t blame you for going with him, but I’m glad that you’re staying at least for the week.”
“What if he leaves me for not going with him? Things are already hard.”
Eli pulls him into a hug. “Then he doesn’t know what a good thing he’s giving up on.”
And with that, Mike starts to cry.
David Beaumier’s true love is Argentine tango. When he drags himself away from dance long enough to write and submit work, his stories have appeared in EWU’s Inroads, WWU’s Suffix, Whatcom Writes, Psaltry & Lyre, and in the first issue of HamLit. He worked as the Assistant Publishing Director at Village Books and now edits professionally part time. He has a Masters in English Studies at WWU while also serving as the project manager for The Writers’ Corner, which is expected to have a 3rd publication in the fall of 2020.
David’s story “Medusa” was featured in our Winter Issue: No Man’s Land.