Social Isolation – Stuck at Home Ch. 01

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Well, life has gotten strange lately. With COVID-19 raging through the tri-state area, we are all working from home and shopping once a week with masks on. I think everyone is going a little stir-crazy, and the dogs in my condo complex have never been walked so frequently!

The condos are angular groups of 4 that stretch back into the woods from the main road. I’ve lived here for 12 years, and although there is always turnover, I have gotten to know a lot of the families. My wife was much more social, however, and after she passed away two years ago, my social circle contracted. I still go out with the guys in the neighborhood every month, and there is always someone to say hi to on the way to the mailbox and I’ve seen a lot of kids grow up in the time I’ve been here. Overall, it’s a nice place to live. My unit looks out over a stretch of grass and a small lake that was carved out when the place was built.

Social isolation, though, has not been that big a deal for me. I work from home already designing websites for different non-profits around the country. I used to meet with a new client in person, of course, but now I can do that just as easily with a web meeting, and everyone feels safer. I do miss shopping more frequently-I have gotten into the habit of stocking basics and then going out to pick up whatever I feel like cooking. It gets me out of the house, and I can find better ingredients based on whatever’s fresh or in season.

Anyway, enough about my shopping habits. All that has changed, and like everyone else I am stocked up and cooking from the freezer. Last night, for example, I thawed out a turkey breast and made myself a mini-Thanksgiving dinner: roast turkey, homemade gravy, a sweet potato baked with honey and black pepper, and green beans. The leftovers made an excellent lunch today, and I sat inside on my laptop, setting up a new homepage for the Riverkeepers. Outside, there was lashing rain and gusts of wind that whipped across the surface of the lake. Only a few cars went by all morning, and only the bravest or most desperate neighbors walked their dogs.

Suddenly, my eyes focused on a strange sight. Through the rain, I thought there was someone out by the lake. I set aside my laptop and went toward the sliders to get a better view. Sure enough, I made out a figure huddled on one of the lakeside benches, feet up and hugging their knees, draped in a dark poncho. I couldn’t see their face-the hood fell forward to cover it.

Something about the pose, and the incongruity of someone sitting there in the pouring rain suggested a problem. Rolling my eyes at myself for sticking my nose in, I grabbed a long raincoat from the closet and a huge golf umbrella. Rather than get my shoes wet, I kicked them off and opened the door, stepping onto the wet slate outside. Even under the shelter of a deck, the rain caught me in the face. Committed now, I popped the umbrella up and held on with both hands as the wind tugged at it. With a deep breath, I set off across the sodden grass.

The squish of my feet was inaudible thanks to the wind, and I didn’t want to sneak up on whoever it was sitting there. When I got close, therefore, I tilted the umbrella back to show my face and said, “Hello?” in a normal voice. The huddled figure didn’t move. “Hello?” I said more loudly.

With a jerk, the head came up and turned toward me. Streaked mascara on pale cheeks was the first thing I saw, then a red nose and a lower lip caught between small, even teeth. The pieces came together, though, as the brown eyes widened with recognition.

“Amanda?” I asked hesitantly, “are you OK?”

A laugh that sounded like a sob broke from her lips. “Hey, Steve…” she started to say. Then her head fell forward and before her face disappeared beneath her hood again I heard another sob.

Forgetting the rain and the soaked bench, I sat beside her and covered her with the umbrella. I was holding it with my right hand, leaving my left hand free to pat her shoulder cautiously.

“Amanda…what’s up?”

“Nothing,” came the muffled response. “Just mom drama.”

That wasn’t unusual. Her mom was notorious in the complex for loud parties, neighbor conflicts, and problems with her two kids. Matt, the older one, had left a couple of years ago and didn’t visit. Amanda graduated last year and as far as I knew was home from college because of the COVID shutdown.

“Well, she is pretty good at the drama stuff, isn’t she?” I said, trying to lighten the mood.

“Uh-huh” she said just loud enough to hear.

“Do you want to come dry off and then try to figure things out?”

She hesitated, which was completely understandable given the invitation by an older single neighbor, the social distancing restrictions that were in place, and her emotional state.

“Hey…” I said disarmingly, “I just hate seeing you upset and I can’t sit on my couch and watch you sitting in the rain!” She looked up as I spoke and I gave her my best non-threatening grin. My hand left her shoulder and returned to help hold the umbrella in place during a gust of wind that blew the rain sideways off the lake.

“I pendik escort guess I could come inside,” she admitted, searching my face. “I’m so cold!”

“Come on!” I said, standing up and holding the umbrella for her. She stood and took her place next to me under its shelter. I kept my free hand off her and she walked close beside me as we squished our way across the grass. Her sneakers squirted water with every step, and her poncho flapped around her.

When I got to the sliders, I pulled the door open and stepped aside for her.

“Don’t worry about the floor,” I told her. “It’s waterproof! Just go straight through to the bathroom there and you’ll find towels and stuff. I’ll bring you some dry clothes.”

She pulled her hood back, revealing a tangle of long, straight blonde hair darkened by rain. She nodded and then her sneakers squeaked across the composite floor. The door closed and locked behind her as I kicked off my flip-flops and hung my jacket beside the door to drip.

With her taken care of for the moment, I ran up the carpeted stairs to get my own situation sorted out. Wet clothes went into the bathroom hamper. A quick towel-dry took care of my hair. I pulled on fresh shorts and a shirt. Once I was decent, I rooted through my drawers and collected an old pair of pajama pants that had a good drawstring, a pair of flannel boxers, my smallest T-shirt, and a Michigan sweatshirt left behind by an old girlfriend. After a moment’s thought, I added some thick, wooly socks to the pile and carried it downstairs. I left it on the table beside the bathroom door, but the shower was still running so I didn’t knock. Instead, I went into the kitchen and started a fresh pot of coffee.

Five minutes later, the pipes clunked as the water shut off. I gave Amanda a second to find the towel and get dried off, then I knocked gently.

“Hey, Amanda?” I called through the door.

“Yeah?” came her guarded reply.

“There are dry clothes and stuff right outside the door. I’m going to go upstairs and get some coffee-do you want some?”

“Yes, please!” she said emphatically.

“How do you take it?”

“Milk and lots of sugar!”

“I’ll be back in five minutes,” I told her. As I walked upstairs, I made sure she could hear my receding footsteps. Always a gentleman, right?

When I came back down carrying two cups of coffee, Amanada was standing by the sliders patting her hair dry with a towel. The wind was buffeting the door, and I don’t think she heard my soft steps on the carpeted stairs. I paused at the bottom, feeling amazed and guilty and drinking in the sight before me. She was wearing my flannel boxers and T-shirt, and although they were big on her, the fabric was soft enough to drape sensuously on her curves. Her ass was a delightful swell under the plaid shorts, and with her arms up, her breast was outlined by the taut white cotton of the shirt. She looked out at the rain and pulled her hair forward over her shoulder to dry the ends with soft strokes. Not wanting to barge in or look like a stalker, I actually backed up two steps and announced myself.

“OK…coffee’s ready if you are!” I said cheerfully as I came down the last 2 steps again.

“Great!” she said as she turned away from the nasty weather outdoors.

She accepted a cup and then curled into the oversized armchair next to the couch. I pushed some papers aside and sat down where I had been working half an hour before, my laptop close at hand and files everywhere.

“I’m sorry if I interrupted your work,” Amanda said softly.

“Hey…it’s no big deal. I don’t really need to keep a schedule, and I couldn’t leave you sitting out there in the rain, now could I?”

“Well, I appreciate it. I don’t know what to do when she gets like this.”

“Like what?” I asked gently.

“Like drunk and freaking out because she’s too scared to go out, but she wants me to go out and get everything she wants.”

“Yeah…I can see how that would get old!” I said with a sympathetic smile.

“If she wasn’t such a hypocrite about it, I wouldn’t mind her being scared.”

“Hypocrite how?”

“Well, she’s not too scared to call a different guy every time she gets wasted and wants to hook up. It’s like her…it’s like she gets horny and her brain stops working!”

“I thought that was a guy thing,” I said with a chuckle.

“Well, she’s been doing it for years,” she answered bitterly. “And I don’t know who these guys are, or where they’ve been, or if they wash their hands or anything! For all I know, they came straight from the corona-virus store and licked all the countertops in my house.”

When she said that last, a wry smile crossed her face for the first time. Although watching her dry her hair had been captivating, this was something else-she was gorgeous! She had relaxed enough and dried off enough that I saw her clear skin, bright eyes, and beautiful features up close for the first time. Thank God she was looking down at her coffee cup when she said that. If she had glanced up, she would have seen me before I could compose my reaction to her.

As it maltepe escort was, I recovered pretty quickly and laughed at her acerbic joke.

“Doesn’t sound very safe over there,” I observed.

“It’s not. Between her mood swings and the guys, I feel like I don’t want to be there, but there’s no way school is going to open up this year.”

I knew what I wanted, of course, but I didn’t want to come right out and say it.

“Well, for right now, you can hide out from the rain and figure things out. Do you want to call her?” I asked in a gentle voice.

“Not yet,” she said with a sigh. Then she paused and looked up from her coffee. “Can I stay here until the rain stops?”

“Of course, Amanda. Whatever you need.”

Her eyes remained on mine for a quiet few moments.

“You guys have always been so nice,” she said in a solemn voice. “I’m really sorry about Grace. She was always so friendly, and she even made my mom act nice.”

“Yeah,” I said with a deep pang of sadness, “she was pretty great.”

“I’m sorry to bring it up, Steve. It’s got to suck.”

“Thank you,” I answered in a soft voice. “It does suck, even after a couple of years. But…” I said more firmly, “I know that Grace would do whatever she could to help you out, and I will, too. So let me know what you want, okay?”

“If I can stay until the rain stops, that would be enough. Can I throw my clothes in the dryer, though?” she asked.

“Of course. It’s right around the corner there.”

“Thanks. If you need to do work or something, I can just…” she began.

I could tell she didn’t know what to offer, so I made a suggestion.

“You stay down here with the dryer and the TV. I’m going to go up and start dinner, which you are welcome to stay for if it’s still raining, okay?”

“Okay,” came the grateful response and a small flash of smile.

Collecting my files, I stacked them on the coffee table and closed my laptop.

“Best part about working at home,” I said, “is that I can quit whenever I feel like it!”

With that, I stood up and grabbed my coffee cup. At the bottom of the stairs, I paused and looked back. “Come up if you want more coffee,” I urged. “Otherwise, there’s stuff in the little fridge there if you get thirsty. And there’s a phone charger by the fridge,” I said as I turned.

“Okay,” she said with another small smile.

As I climbed the stairs, I questioned myself closely. I was helping her because she needed help, right? She was young and beautiful, but that’s not why. Right? I didn’t know who it was when I went out there to help…it could have been anyone, so it’s not like I set this up. Set what up? I asked myself. Having a nubile young woman wearing my clothes, drinking my coffee, and curling up in my armchair? Oh, my God, I said to myself…get your mind out of the gutter!

Those unproductive thoughts rattled around my brain as I sliced beef and mushrooms for stroganoff. As I put a pot of water on to boil, I heard a muffled voice floating up the stairs. Since I was definitely an interested party, I felt no compunction about eavesdropping on Amanda’s end of the conversation.

“Are you kidding me? He’s staying?” I heard her say angrily.

After a long pause, she replied to whatever crap her mother was spouting. “I’m at a friends house.” Another pause. “Well, I don’t feel like you’re being very careful when you let some guy in and then tell him he can stay!” Finally, after a long wait, I heard the words that I was secretly hoping for: “Maybe I’ll just fucking stay here, then!”

The sad thing about cell phones is that you can’t slam them down like we used to. I heard Amanda toss it, though, and the clunk as it skittered across the coffee table. I rattled the pasta water and went back to my cooking, my spirits soaring.

Ten minutes later, I heard soft footsteps on the stairs.

“Hey, Steve,” Amanda said from the doorway.

“Hey!” I said, turning from the cutting board as if surprised.

She was leaning against the doorframe, one foot on top of the other. One arm was pinned to her side against the wall, and the was crossed over her belly. I noticed with a glimmer of amusement that she was holding a beer. I also noticed that her arm was pushing her breasts up delightfully so that they strained against the thin fabric of the T-shirt I had given her.

“Whatcha making?”

“Beef stroganoff, egg noodles, and salad.”

“It’s still raining like hell,” she said, tossing her head toward the windows. “Is it okay if I stay and have dinner with you?”

“Of course!” I assured her. “You can stay for as long as you need to.” I didn’t want her to know that I had heard her conversation, so I distracted her with some sarcasm: “Even if you do help yourself to one of my beers!”

“Sorry,” she said with that wry smile emerging again.

“Do you like tomatoes?” I said, to keep the subjects moving along.

“Anything,” she said simply.

“OK. Go relax downstairs and I’ll bring this down when it’s ready.”

“Thanks,” she said, her eyes locked onto mine. “That’s really nice.”

“Amanda…I’m glad kartal escort to have you here. I’ll do whatever you need. Now go chill for ten minutes.”

“Kay” she said, and with a quick twist, she was gone.

I hadn’t wanted to look while she was facing me, but I caught a glimpse of her smooth, pale thigh and calf before she got out of sight. Turning back to the salad, I shook my head. Why was she affecting me so much? I really did want her to stay. I did want to help her out with her wretched mom and the boyfriend situation. And-God help me-I did want to see more of her amazing young body. Conflict raged inside me as I finished things up and drained the egg noodles.

When everything was set, I carried two trays downstairs. Amanda jumped up from the armchair and took the one I proffered.

“Oh my God, this looks so good!” she exclaimed. “Can I do anything?”

“You can grab me one of my own beers before you start eating!” I said with a smile.

“Absolutely. Can…can I have another?”

“Amanda…I was totally kidding. Mi casa es su casa, you know?”

“Thanks. Grace used to bring me over and give me cookies, you know?”

“I never knew that, but it sounds like her,” I said fondly.

For a few minutes, we ate and drank in companionable silence.

“This is so good!” Amanda said at one point, gesturing with her fork. “We never have this, but I think it’s my new favorite dinner!”

“I’m glad,” I told her. “It’s always better on a cold or a rainy day.”

“With a bowl full of stroganoff and a beer, I could sit here all night!” she told me happily.

Then she paused, and a delightfully awkward and youthful chagrin crept across her face.

“I mean…”

“Amanda…I meant what I said. Mi casa es su casa. If you want to stay, you are more than welcome. I would feel terrible making you go home to a bad situation.”

“I told my mom I was at a friend’s house,” she said in a soft voice.

“You are,” was my response. “I know you’ve been careful about going out and wearing a mask and all that, and I know I have as well. It is 100% okay with me if you want to stay. The guest room is right here on this floor, and you’d have your own bathroom and fridge and entrance.”

“I feel bad, though…this is where you work.”

“I can put my laptop anywhere,” I assured her easily. “And I can do as much or as little work as I feel like unless I’m on a deadline.”

“Grace said you were like a web designer or something. Is that right?”

“Pretty much. I do websites for non-profits-I’ll show you after dinner if you want.”

“Sure, but can I clean up?”

“God, yes!” I said with a laugh. “You might be the perfect houseguest if you offer that quickly!”

“I’m used to doing it,” she told me wistfully. The specter of her mother hovered in the air.

“Just scrape everything into the sink and throw them in the dishwasher. I’ll finish up the pots and pans later. Deal?”

“Deal.”

I opened up my laptop to decide what to show her and she stacked my bowl and hers. With her free hand, she collected the empty beer bottles and vanished upstairs. I heard clinking and the buzz of the disposal, then the rattle of the dishwasher. By the time I had a sample website open, Amanda was back. This time, she sat at the very end of the couch I was on, her feet tucked up under herself. I turned the laptop screen toward her, but she said “Don’t worry about it!” and scooted toward me until there was only half a cushion between us. I kept the laptop on my thighs and split the angle between us.

For the next few minutes, she admired my work convincingly. When I got to the photo gallery of the Riverkeeper page, a huge smile broke across her face.

“Are those otters?” she asked happily.

“You know it. They’re part of the river ecosystem this group is trying to protect.”

“You should put them on the front page…I love otters! Everybody loves otters!”

“You know,” I said thoughtfully, “that’s a pretty good point. They own the rights to the pictures, so I can put them wherever I want.”

“Front page otters,” she said in a serious voice. “Do you think people want to look at a rock?”

It was my turn to smile. “No…I think the otter has more appeal. That’s such a good idea!”

Her smile was open and proud. Then she raised an eyebrow at me. “Are you being serious?”

“Totally,” I nodded. “I get so caught up in the structure sometimes that I forget what looks best.”

“Are there more otters in the gallery?” she asked in a wondering voice.

“Lots of them. Beavers, muskrat, otters, crayfish, ducks…everything on the river is there!”

“Can I look?” she asked.

I handed her the laptop. “Help yourself!” I said indulgently.

The blue light flicked across her face as she clicked through the images. Her hands were deft and sure on the track-pad, and that fetching little smile tugged at the corners of her mouth every time she saw a picture she liked. As much as I knew I shouldn’t, I watched her intently. My eyes strayed occasionally to the fine line of her jaw or the tucked-back lock of hair behind her ear, but mostly I watched her lips and the twinkle in her eyes. Fortunately, she was intent on the pictures and didn’t see me ogling her. When I realized how blatant I was being, I tore myself away from the tempting sight and reached into my briefcase.

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