They had agreed to meet as soon as the quarantine was over, so on the morning the all clear is announced, Jay slides into his corolla and heads north. At the military checkpoint at the Los Angeles county line, he texts his friend Andy, who moved to Seoul when the second lockdown was announced.
“I’m driving up to meet Chloe.”
It’s almost midnight in Seoul, but Andy responds right away.
“That’s huge man, I heard they lifted the travel restrictions. You’ve been waiting a while. It’s going to be hot.”
“I’m going to marry her,” Jay texts back.
“Is that a joke? You’ve never even met her in person.”
“When you know, you know,” he texts back, before throwing his phone onto the passenger seat.
The drive from L.A. takes him less than five hours and he’s earlier than planned, passing stately looking homes with large For Rent signs hanging outside. It is almost noon, but it is overcast, the fog like a pest with dull teeth, gnawing on his bones.
For two years, a state of quarantine has been like a flickering light. It’s made a mark on the Berkeley campus. Windows are shuttered and classrooms have collected a thin layer of dust. As he walks towards the archaeology building, a herd of deer look up, offended by the intrusion.
While he waits outside the unassuming brick building, he looks at her photo on his phone, the one he had seen first on the dating app. She is wearing a sweater which hangs suggestively off her shoulder. Unlike the other women on the app, she’s not wearing any makeup. A natural beauty, she has thick, heavy-looking hair and warm, friendly eyes. Under the prompt, “A special talent of mine,” she is holding a birthday cake with an ironic smile. When Jay had showed it to Andy over Zoom, he had shrugged it off and made a swiping motion. Andy figured he had it down to a formula: women with exotic travelscapes wanted adventure and no strings fun. Those holding pets or their friends’ children wanted commitment.
Before Andy left for Seoul his philosophy was to Zoom often and with many, meeting a long succession of women between quarantines to eliminate the ones with whom he had no chemistry. Jay finds the whole calculus exhausting and cynical. For him it has only ever been Chloe. It wasn’t only her photograph, anyway, which piqued his interest. It was what she had written in her profile. Currently living in Berkeley, California, I’m a nomad looking for my way home. He messaged her right away. Over the next few days, he learned that she was a doctoral student in the archaeology department writing a thesis on migration practices and residential mobility of ancient civilizations.
“What exactly is it that you do?” He had asked, only mildly intimidated by her intelligence.
“My dad jokes that I’m digging to find my roots. I’m a missionary kid, you know?”
He understands. He’s got two passports but nowhere that feels like home. He had lived in South Korea for two years to complete his mandatory military service. It had been his mother’s only wish for him to hang on to dual citizenship. To have a ticket back to the country that she left to chase a dream sold to her on the silver screen. It was a place that he felt he should know but which felt alien to him. He had been eager to return to what felt familiar, but had come back just as the first outbreak had seized L.A. Many of his friends and their families left for Seoul and he found himself back on KakaoTalk again, rising as they were going to bed, or playing video games with them into the early hours of the morning, only later realizing that for them it was the afternoon and they had nowhere to be. The worst was when he contracted the virus himself. When he had his whole family at the touch of a screen but no one to lay a warm hand on his feverish body.
The campus is eerie in its emptiness, with only two figures walking at a distance from each other through the overgrown grass. He texts Chloe to let her know he’s arrived, his heart a fist in his chest. The figures in the grass come together and embrace. For a moment he is alarmed, until he remembers that there haven’t been any more cases for the third day in a row. Several minutes pass with no sign of her. He wonders, briefly, whether there is some aspect of her life that she has concealed from him. Just as he’s about to take out his phone to call, he sees her at the top of the stairs enveloped in a halo of light. She is wearing flip flops with jeans and a black T-shirt, moving with an elegance that’s somehow eluded the screen.
The fog seems to dissipate and he feels too warm in his jacket.
“You went with the green shirt,” she says with a wink, pinching the T-shirt at his shoulder. “Good choice.”
He flinches. When did it become instinct to retreat when touched? He stuffs his hands in his pockets, realizing too late he’s missed the right moment to hug her.
“You’re taller than you seem on screen.”
The comment inserts some distance between them and he wishes there was a mute button to press so he can scream and relieve the tension building inside him.
“Is it weird that I’m nervous?” he says. Until this moment he has found her easy to talk to and it’s unsettling that he’s finding it otherwise.
“There’s no way you’re as nervous as me,” she replies with a smile.
“You’re right,” he says. “We should be competitive about it.”
She laughs. There’s a crack in the awkwardness and he feels like he can breathe again. In the sunlight her dimples appear more pronounced, and he’s filled with a rush of feeling that she’s finally here standing in front of him.
They walk down to the life sciences building. She wants to show him the resident T-rex they have on display there.
“I come here sometimes,” she says. “When I get stressed out.”
“Yeah, looking at dead things cheers me up too,” he jokes.
She laughs. “I know it’s weird. It just helps me to keep things in perspective.”
He shrugs, relieved to feel the return of the rhythm of their exchanges.
“This guy probably never had to feel nervous about meeting the love of his life,” he says.
She looks a little startled, turning to him with total attention. Has he always known about the hint of green in her brown eyes? He wonders whether it was too soon to say this, though they have told each other they love each other before. He’s told her things he’s never told anyone. Like the time his commander had insisted they go to a brothel and he had felt so homesick that all he had wanted was to place his face in the sex worker’s armpit, the way that he had done with his mother, who he had slept next to until he was eleven. The morning after this confession he woke up feeling naked and dirty, sure she wasn’t going to answer his calls. But she seemed unfazed. Later she confided in him that for much of the quarantine she had slept in the same bed as her roommate so that she wouldn’t feel so alone.
“Isn’t it part of the modern condition, this expectation that we should sleep separately? For millions of years humans have all slept together. We needed it for our survival.”
“Well,” he said. “For what it’s worth, I can’t wait to sleep next to you.”
She turns away from the T-rex and places her hands on his face.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she says.
Her lips are soft and full. For a moment he is only aware of the sensation of her tongue, his pounding heart. Then something unexpected intrudes, the stench of something sour and stale. It conjures his uncle — a two-pack-a-day smoker who had a habit of falling asleep with a cigarette in his hand. He pulls away, confused. Looking over her shoulder, he scans the atrium for the offending item and finds none.
“You OK?” she asks.
“I feel like he’s looking at us,” he says, tipping his head toward the dinosaur. “Can we go back to your place?”
At her apartment, he waits in the hallway for several moments listening to the muffled sounds of an argument between Chloe and her roommate.
When he’s allowed in, she leads him straight to her bedroom. The bed is made but all the other surfaces are covered with books abandoned with overextended spines and papers with illegible handwriting. Her closet is small with items of clothing coloring the floor like a rug.
In their virtual simulations of this moment, he’s only ever seen her from the same angle as she held her phone at arm’s length over her body.
So when she stands in profile next? to him he has the feeling that she is someone else. Someone unfamiliar. He kisses her neck. It is just as he had imagined it would be except it is there again. This time a wet-wool smell. He imagines her dusting off artifacts from an excavation and tries to befriend the scent, tries to focus on her warm, soft skin. But he can’t seem to breathe normally, he’s been holding his breath. When he was sick he had mourned the absence of smells and now he would give anything to go numb again. He pauses to come up for air, kisses her shoulder. Wants to open a window, though to stand and cross the room would make it far too obvious.
“What is it?” she asks.
She knows all of his expressions, knows that something is wrong. He fights an impulse to turn off his video so he is blank to her. It strikes him that he’s never had to lie or pretend with her before.
“It’s just …” he looks across at the vanity, at the framed photograph of two middle-aged people, presumably her parents and thinks of the many intimacies they must have weathered in their marriage. “I feel gross from the drive here. I think I’m going to jump in the shower.”
“OK,” she says. He can tell from her tone of voice that she has sensed that something is up. Then he has an idea, hope blooming that this can still be salvaged.
“Why don’t you join me?”
Afterwards, they lie in her bed, silence a new bedmate lying between them.
She is upset and he can not console her. It’s not going at all the way that he had imagined.
She rolls away from him in the darkness. “You’re not into this, are you?”
“I’m sorry.” He is paralyzed with sadness. The longer he is silent, the more it is apparent to them both that this isn’t going to work. The worst of it is that he can’t tell her why.
In the car he sits for a while, wiping at his eyes, thinking of the echo in his apartment, his only company the tread of footsteps in the unit above him. Starting the engine, he rolls towards the 101 South, but changes his mind at the last minute, cutting through several lines of traffic for the 101 North. Why not keep going?
As the fog burns off he thinks about how for months after the virus he had walked around without a sense of smell, moving through a world stripped of colour. And curious, he thinks, that being aware of her smell has also reminded him that he is still alive.
He pulls over on the hard shoulder of the highway and revives his dormant app, ready to swipe right until he’s found home.
Hannah Michell is a Berkeley writer and author of the novel “The Defections.” Find her work at http://hannahmichell.squarespace.com/