Alan ripped off his tie after fumbling through his third attempt at a Windsor knot.

“Damn it! This tie is impossible,” he murmured.

Alan remembered how Ellen would loop the end of his tie up, over, and around itself with the finesse of a balloon artist at a kid’s birthday party. His cousin’s wedding would have been the last time Ellen camped underneath his chin performing her feats of acrobatic dexterity. Alan closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He searched the air for the sweet smell of Ellen’s hair. The stale hotel room air startled him back to the reality of the twisted mess around his neck. He ripped it off and reached for his smartphone only to pull away just before he touched it.

Tear-drenched mascara streamed down the side of Kathy’s face. Kathy traced her quivering thin lips with the nearly pristine sanguine red lipstick she purchased before all this happened. Although she loved the color, she only wore it once for the party on New Year’s Eve back in 2019.

“I look like a circus clown,” she would say.

Frank, on cue would respond, “Kathy, you have a natural beauty, which cannot be made more perfect with make-up.”

A mirthless smile emerged on Kathy’s face. She grabbed the arms of her chair, pulled herself up, and stared at the reflection in front of her.

“You can do this Kathy,” she told the image in the mirror.

She then grasped a handful of tissues and dismissed the meandering black tears from her face. Kathy’s smartphone began to vibrate and dance across her vanity.

She pounced on it, swiped up with her thumb, and called out, “Alan!?” She heard the faint sound of her own name and tapped on the speaker icon. “Alan, are you there?”

“Yes, I am here,” a much louder Alan called back.

“Is everything OK? Are you alright?”

“Yes, I’m struggling with this damn tie.”

“Alan!”

“I’m sorry, I know I told you I wouldn’t call but…

“I can’t believe this night is finally here.”

“If I can just get this tie knotted, I will finally see you live and in person.”

“I assume you got the table outside?”

“Yes, they said they only have outdoor seating.”

“I still can’t believe you got on a plane. You know they say it’s still not safe to fly. “

“I know, but I thought if I didn’t see you, I would just die.”

Alan sat at the end of the hotel bed and listened to the nervous silence at the other end of his smartphone. He pushed himself off the bed and wandered around the quiet room with no particular purpose. The sound of shaky shallow breaths began to emanate from his smartphone, which progressed to pitiful whimpers, and then culminated into a full-blown sob.

“Kathy, are you OK?”

“Al, I don’t know if I can do this.”

“I know, I don’t know…” Alan caught a glimpse in the mirror of his most recent attempt at a Windsor knot “…if I can tie this stupid tie.”

“Alan!”

“Kathy, I know you miss Frank. God knows I miss Ellen too.”

“Is it wrong what we are doing? — This awful pandemic!”

“Kathy, I know how you feel, I feel it too, but this is right.”

“But I somehow feel like we’re cheating on them.”

“What we have, doesn’t diminish how I feel about Ellen or how you feel about Frank.”

“I wish we could somehow talk to them and tell them how we miss them and how we feel about each other. I know they would understand.”

“Are you looking to ask them for their blessings?”

“I know I’m being silly; I know it’s stupid.”

“I’ll tell you what, why don’t I bring Ellen to dinner and you bring Frank?

“Alan, stop. Don’t make fun of me.”

“No, I’m serious it will be a kind of double date.”

“Alan be serious.”

“I am serious. But I want separate checks and after dinner we are not inviting them back to your place. You know how the two of them can talk. They’ll never leave.

Kathy’s sniffles evolved into a couple of loud snorts and then a shared chortle.

“Alan you make me laugh and you always know the right thing to say.” Kathy grabbed the tissues on her vanity and wiped her eyes. “OK, well hurry up and forget the tie.”

“Remember, 7 p.m. sharp in front of the Overflowing Cup on Union street. “

Alan ripped off his tie, grabbed his jacket from the bed, looked at his watch, and ran out of his hotel room. He jumped between the closing elevator doors and found himself alone inside the empty elevator. He hit the lobby button and began to descend. He fumbled around his jacket pocket for his mask and placed it on his face. The elevator reminded him of the one in New York Presbyterian. He rode it up and down every day hoping for the good news that never came. Those four weeks were a nightmare, which still plays out in his mind every day and ends the same way. Ellen’s weak lungs pushing out the words, “Please Alan, say you will love again.”

In the dark night, the horns beeped and the sirens roared as Kathy danced with the moths underneath the street light in front of her apartment waiting for her Uber driver. Steve arrived. Kathy hopped into the car after he showed her his credentials and greeted her with an enthusiastic “Hello!”

Steve was polite, impeccably dressed, and very friendly; just as his reviews promised. His welcoming mask had imprinted the words: Hi, my name is Steve.

“So, what’s the occasion? People usually go to the Overflowing Cup for a special occasion.”

“Well, I’m going to see the man I have been in love with for over a year and half — for the very first time,” Kathy proclaimed with giddiness.

Steve looked up at his rearview mirror.

“Really? So, you’ve never met him before — this man you’re in love with.

“Well, no, not in person. Oh, and he told me to bring my husband.”

“That is very kind of him,”

“Well, he is bringing his wife.”

“Of course. Hey, I know this shortcut, let’s see if I can get you to this man you’ve never met but are in love with as soon as possible.”

Kathy settled into the ride uptown placing her face next to the window taking in the sights and sounds of the San Francisco summer night. Steve’s alternative route sent them down 5th Avenue past the Iscream Shoppe; one of Frank and Kathy’s favorite places to indulge. It was here Frank first showed signs of strained breathing and when they both started to worry that something might be wrong.

“So, how does your husband feel about this man you’re in love with?” Steve said.

Continuing to stare out the window, Kathy replied in a prosaic tone, “I don’t know, he’s dead.”

“Oh…gosh, I am so sorry. I didn’t know…”

“No, it’s alright, don’t worry about it. I shouldn’t have said it that way.”

Kathy opened the car window just a pinch to let in some fresh air. Steve glanced up at his rearview mirror and looked at Kathy with compassionate cobalt blue eyes and a warm closed-mouth smile. Kathy returned the favor, feeling grateful for a stranger’s response that seemed sincere and without pity.

“Honestly, I don’t know how Frank would feel about Alan. When we wrote our wills, he said that if he should ever pass that I should remarry. But that was a long time ago, and no one could have imagined this pandemic.”

“I think if you listen carefully to your heart, you’ll know how your husband would feel.”

“Perhaps … but since Frank is invited tonight maybe he’ll show up and tell me himself.

Alan hurried down Union Street toward the Overflowing Cup with the urgency of the city around him. He noticed a large, bright colored sign. It had a surreal psychedelic tone to it; something akin to a Peter Max painting. The sign read, Flower Power! Alan darted in hearing the bells clang behind him as he dashed to the woman behind the counter and declared he would like a dozen red roses.

The women behind the counter lowered her bright yellow framed glasses and looked up and over them revealing dazzling blue eyes.

“I guess you know exactly what you want, honey?”

She then removed her glasses and placed them in her gray-streaked blonde hair. What was most likely a large and toothy smile, hidden behind her tie-dyed mask, amplified the crow’s feet around her eyes. She slowly danced behind the counter gathering the materials for Alan’s bouquet singing along with the song playing over the store’s speaker system.

“Don’t be angry, don’t be sad,” she sang behind her mask. She then handed Alan a little white card and envelope. “Why don’t you write her a little note, sweetie?”

Alan tapped his pen on the counter, joining the woman in song.

“Don’t sit crying, talking ‘bout the good times you’ve had,” the two sang with exuberance.

Alan looked up at the ceiling of the shop trying to fill in the empty space on the tiny white card. The women behind the counter wiggled as she rolled the flowers into a cellophane wrapper.

“Well, there’s a rose in a fisted glove.” Alan continued; this time it was a solo.

“You are so beautiful, my love.”

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s, And the eagle flies with the dove,” Alan answered.

The woman pointed to the card, “Tell her she’s beautiful. “

“Oh, right. Yes. “

Alan continued singing and thinking as the woman stood by. About the time the song broke into the chorus, he printed on the white card the words: “So, at last we meet for the first time…” Alan laughed and looked at the woman behind the counter.

“It’s from ‘Spaceballs’; it’s one of our favorite movies.”

“I see, honey.”

“We must have watched that movie through Zoom over a hundred times.”

“That’ll be $69.95, dear”

“I can’t wait to hold Kathy’s hand during our first in-person movie night.”

“Oh my God, Kathy!”

Alan paid the woman behind the counter and ran out of the flower shop and down the street. Alan sprinted the first three blocks, flying past clothing stores, banks, and coffee shops. At the candle store Alan slowed down to a trot struggling to breath with the mask over his mouth and nose. His chest was pounding and sweat was dripping down his face by the time he reached the front door of the Overflowing Cup. He grabbed the large door handle and flew it open. He jumped inside the and made his way through the masked crowd.

Alan stopped in his tracks when he realized the image from his computer was standing just a few feet in front of him. Their eyes became glued to each other as they exchanged shallow breaths. They both stood there motionless and silent amid a crowd of masked strangers. They said nothing, they did nothing, they just stood there and stared. The women standing beside Kathy holding four menus said,

“Are you Alan? Table for four?”

Alan’s eyes were locked on Kathy,

“Yes, I’m Alan.”

“A table for four?” Kathy questioned.

Alan shrugged his shoulders.

“Excuse me, is your other party here?” the menu-holding women asked.

Alan and Kathy fell into each other’s arms and embraced each other tightly.

“Well, um…are they here? They need to be here if I am to seat you.”

Kathy whispered into Alan’s ear, “they will always be here.”

Craig Sherman has lived in the Princeton area with his wife Helena for more than 24 years. They have two sons. Craig has worked professionally in the technology field and has been employed by several companies along the Route 1 corridor such as Dow Jones, Merrill Lynch/Bank of America, and Bristol Myers Squibb. In his spare time, Craig has blogged for the Huffington Post and his works of fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in various online and print publications.

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