NIKKI NORDQUIST - THE FAN
Years had gone by since she had seen such an exotic looking spider or at least slowed down enough to notice one. With her bright red spikes and a pattern on her back, it reminded her of a shrunken dinosaur; prehistoric, majestic and also slightly terrifying. Spiders always seemed so evidently female to Nora. She watched the arachnid from the porch building her web so intricately. There was not a single desire to rip down what Nora so absent-mindedly swat and destroyed dozens of times before this.
She was trapped in her own house, they all were. Never in her life did she think a twenty-first century plague would hit the world and confine everyone to the four walls some found safety in, and others felt imprisoned between. As for Nora, she often felt imprisoned in her own mind. External factors seemed manageable while those who’ve suffered boredom seemed to be imploding.
Among her relationships—well— Jim, Johnnie and Jameson seemed to be her biggest allies. They were like a group of close friends by default. Too much history, but no longer sharing any authenticity. She wasn’t herself with them, but she didn’t know how to act without them. She blew through a few bottles since the whole thing ensued, either reaching the bottom on her own or finishing what someone else had started.
She rarely ever finished what she started. If she had to take a personal inventory, her
life wasn’t terrible though. For the road she had taken since she left California seemed like an ongoing path to self-awareness and transformation. Sure, the therapy and daily yoga couldn’t erase the occasional one night stands or whiskey benders, but it gave way to some balance, allowing her to keep coasting on the open road she was traveling. So to speak.
In Buddhism, something she began practicing in her Californian days—they teach you that emptiness is a goal. For anything’s possible when there’s nothing holding you back—meaning in your soul. For the depressed, the sensation of nothingness is like an underworld, never allowing to you to come up for air and find the sky. That was the line she walked between. Within her quarantined life anything could be possible she supposed, although it seemed like nothing could happen at all.
Nora wasn’t lonely by any means but even liquor starts to taste like water once it gets diluted with enough ice. She was used to her life of compartmentalizing touch and feeling. Realistically, there had to be some craving for real intimacy but fear of disappointment consumed her mind. She was sure a psychologist would analyze this as an unconscious form of a defense mechanism. They’d reassure her she wasn’t just a jaded soul and Nora could carry-on with her free-spirited persona to the outside world. She’d rather starve than weave a wonderful web, only to be knocked down carelessly out of disgust, instead of being admired for all her hungry hard work.
Nora had just got out of work. A job she never really seemed to enjoy, yet she justified it by convincing herself the inconsistency of that industry allowed her to travel whenever she wanted. It didn’t. She walked into the grocery store at 11 PM to stock up. Slightly drained, Nora was unaware that was the last time her job would dictate her decisions. After that day, she would no longer have one. Then she really could do anything.
There was nothing to do. A statewide shutdown was placed until further notice— most of the nation was closing. No one really understood the severity of what was going on. While some news outlets compared everything to the Black Plague, others were brushing the illness off as if it was the common flu. Toilet paper was the only thing completely wiped off the shelves, which seemed wildly amusing to Nora and equally as disturbing when thinking about the intellect of Americans.
She posted something on Instagram regarding her cheeky opinion. People would remark on her odd humor— the occasional person using it to open a door for a conversation she couldn’t be less interested in. One person did reach out, however.
He often commented on things she’d post or write in an unabashed and airy way. This
made her feel comfortable. The little amount of correspondence they did share now-and-again was solely through social media with Jack almost always flattering her. But he had wit and a side that appreciated the kind of fictional literature she liked to submerge herself in. He seemed to truly see her from afar. Nora couldn’t explain it, but everything about Jack felt like it came from a genuine place—one beyond just trying to occupy himself. His presence was non-threatening and intriguing. It had been so long, Nora did not consider the soft spot for him simply for what it was. He was someone she felt a connection with. Which is why she couldn’t explain pulling out her phone in the middle of chaos at the grocery store to text him hello. A man she had one conversation with in-person, seven years ago.
Quick to respond to her ambiguous text with his own sense of mystery, it would be days till she’d reach out again. That was Nora, always popping up and then disappearing.
She was drunk. She officially received word she lost her job. Life was uncertain and she couldn’t figure out if she loved or hated the idea of things being up in the air. Didn’t matter. She simply distracted herself by enticing a friendly stranger.
Jack proceeded to answer her unnecessarily intrusive question. “What I want most in life…as cliche as it sounds…well, both my grandparents and my parents have been happily married for decades. I’d like to find that too. Someone that I can love forever…that’s also my best friend. I guess what I want is to find my person.”
Immediately, Nora felt regret reaching out. In a way, she was disappointed she no longer felt the same about life. There once was a time that’s all she ever wanted—a best friend to love and to hold, but she leaned in to hope too many times only to come up empty. Now, that sort of stuff was all just a pipe dream.
“I want to find a purpose in life…my purpose. Then I want to change the world in a way that leaves my mark.” She responded to her own question as to not leave him hanging. “That’s what I want most.”
“Well, I feel dumb now.”
“Your answer was so grand.”
All in all, Jack’s answer was sweet and naive but she knew then and there he had never been hurt the way most men his age have, or the way she had.
People were starting to die, small businesses were falling apart, hospitals were so overcrowded that there weren’t enough beds to keep up. The virus mostly hit older folks and the severely ill. There was that uncertainty again—something was happening that had never happened before. A fear hung in the air like a deep humidity that hit your lungs the second you walked outside, mixed with gusts of grief. All essential workers still had to go out and face what felt like an invisible war. Healthcare workers, food store employees, postmen and women, sanitation workers; they were the soldiers. The rest of us were just sitting ducks.
Nora put a pause on the poetry she was writing to go make a drink. It was borderline five o’clock. Jack was drinking too. After one, two— well, a few, Nora decided it was time to hear his voice. No rhyme or reason as to why then. They had only been texting a few days. She just wanted him to feel more real than any other behind a screen.
He sounded deep and confident. There was almost a twang to his words she couldn’t put her finger on. The sensation of his voice coming through the receiver to her ear felt almost as good as the whiskey rolling down her throat from her lips.
It was junior year of college, Nora had just broken up with her long term boyfriend whom she was sure she’d marry. He redefined love for her after her first heartbreak. Yet— don’t they all? One after another come to redefine your prior misconception of what you conclude love is—until you’re disillusioned once again.
And you know what?
That’s the price you pay to keep searching for the one.
Her roommates benefited most from her lack of interest in anything more than a brief conversation or drink with a man. A year she found herself no longer obliged to love but a group of women who somehow answered to a ring leader— dependent on her every mood. The ring leader, being recently single and scorned, required a symbiotic outlook on their repeated drunken girls’ nights. Nora found this extremely difficult to conjure enthusiasm for, but tried her best. No realistic ending was in sight when she spoke to the male population anyway.
That night was different. Nora was more in her head than she had been. When you’re drinking without any intention on talking to the opposite sex, you drink— a lot. Maybe she didn’t get a good enough buzz before they left the dorms. She broke free and waited by the bar for a drink, planning on ordering several in a row to get started.
Pushing the brim of her glasses up against her nose and proceeding to flip her long auburn hair to the side of her thin body, she waited anxiously for the bartender to approach. Someone else arrived first.
He had eyes you couldn’t forget. The warmest shades of blue, a contrast to his dark hair and pale skin that almost matched Nora’s own flesh. He looked at her wide-eyed with a grin. He was tall with a slight bit of facial hair that he clearly hadn’t figured out what to do with yet. He donned a black vintage jacket that may or may not have been leather. Either way, that’s how she remembered it. A pair of green tea shots, a number exchange, and the ring leader jealously pulling her away from the male’s gaze who went by the name Jack.
Nora surprised herself by remembering the brief interaction so vividly, inadvertently thawing her cold composure.
“I can tell from a mile away you’d be a hard one to tie down.” He proclaimed.
He wasn’t wrong. Never did she consider herself someone easily won over, especially with her leery sense of sharing emotion. Of course, once someone crossed that line of attaining her vulnerability, she was all in. A bit of a rabbit hole she’d find herself falling— which is why she went to great lengths to avoid any such thing.
“I don’t like dating.”
“Yet for some reason I have a hunch you’re a closet romantic.”
There was a pause. For the first time in a very honest time Nora had nothing to retort.
Jack continued, “You know, I’ve read your writing over the years.”
“You— you’ve read my stuff?”
“I’ve always admired you, Nora.”
She tried to make light of words that seemed so disarming. “That’s unfair, my work is open for the public to dissect. You have an upper-hand at assumptions!”
“Nah,” he brushed her off. “I’ve just always been a fan.”
Another pause on her end.
He added, “Always will— even if we never talk again after tonight.”
A warm fervor fluttered from Nora’s diaphragm and welled up to her heart so intensely and unexpectedly she could have jumped out of her skin. For a moment she dangled the word love on the tip of her tongue– in which she quickly bit down hard when the obvious sense of derangement simmered.
“Do you want to go to sleep with me?” Nora asked as calmly as if he was in front of her.
“Like, stay on the phone with you?”
“Yes.” The energy of the conversation gave her a sense of entitlement to ask without any explanation.
“Alright.” It was almost 4 AM.
The 28 year-old’s hypocritical heart was difficult to manage. She detested romantic cliches and the thought of emotional attachment sounded synonymous to having chronic food poisoning. With her love of people and a passion for words, she never stayed away from the edges of affection for too long. That was the plight of the writer. There are always narratives dying to be born and itching to be discovered. So the writer must go down paths despite his or her self-preservation, often times without anything to show for one’s self but a muse. Shakespeare once said: “These violent delights have violent ends.”
For the artist, those delights simply end in stories.
Finally, Nora woke up to her first unemployment check. Filled with guilt and relief, she made her monthly car payment— just staring back at her bank account more secure than ever before. She couldn’t go anywhere, she couldn’t do anything. The whole world had coined the term ‘social distancing’ since it was mandatory to avoid in-person interactions. For the first time in forever, humanity was called to use their brains for innovation since the life everyone once knew had been ripped away. From then on, the money would flow in abundantly.
The public safety enforcement to self-isolate worked out to Nora and Jack’s advantage. Within the year of her leaving California, Jack did the most spontaneous thing of his life by abruptly moving to that same state— unknowingly. He headed over with his friends after a long-winded breakup. It was a trite expression, but two ships passing in the night was what they had always been, one degree short of missing each other, never really noticing. Well, she hadn’t. For now, they could tell themselves it was only the imposition of the nation’s regulation keeping them apart. Yet, even if they were allowed to see each other in person, distance was already against them.
“I always had this feeling about you. That if we got to talking, we’d just click and that’d be it.”
“But how did you know?” Nora protested.
“I don’t know how. I just knew.”
“I have issues, Jack, you know.”
“Nora, so do I.”
Nora thought back to her past and all her complexities. There was only one that had ever been able to truly understand her. What’s a first love if they don’t? It’s coated in pureness and fantasy. As innocent as Jack’s words were, she knew he’d never be able to handle her.
Falling asleep every night together turned into an every morning wake up call. One morning, Jack texted her eager to discuss a story she sent him— admitting he flew through chapters he had no intention of devouring. This admission only made Nora want him to devour other parts of her that weren’t printed in ink. They had been on the same page for this long. She was more than curious to discover what other ways they’d align.
“Nora, you’ve got mail.” Her mother, an essential worker, called down to the basement where she lived.
Nora walked upstairs pleasantly confused. Being the private visionary she was, she secretly wished that one day she’d receive some mysterious mail from an admirer. Old souls are always the ones that long for a shred of fiction in the darkness of realism.
“Well? What is it?”
Hesitant to open the package in the presence of another, she hadn’t a lick of patience to wait. A note– and a pen designed as a relic from a book they shared a deep fascination with.
For when you write our story one day. Use it well.-Jack.
Beaming from ear to ear, Nora could hardly compose herself. Still, she shook her head at how extreme he was— so sure she’d write about him in the future when they barely scraped the surface together. But Jack was deep and so was she, and deep down they did know each other.
“This is insane.” Nora rolled her eyes. Evidently, she had a knack for doing that when she was resisting any type of sentiment. Jack was kind enough to point that out during their many times video chatting.
“I think this is beautiful, Nora.” Her mother assured her much to her chagrin. “You’re finding joy with someone during a terrible time in history.”
“He lives hundreds of miles awa—”
“Which is the beauty of it.” She interrupted. “You two are truly getting to know each other for who you really are and there’s already chemistry.”
The hopefulness in her mother’s voice was out of the ordinary. “Cherish happiness while you can during this crisis. You haven’t left the house in almost a month. I barely hear you talk about any of your friends since you lost your job.”
Nora nodded, twirling the pen between her fingers like a wand, wondering if they ever would have a real story. Most times, dating as an adult never amounted to anything very monumental, although the current state of the world defined that term.
They had a routine. Together they’d watch a movie while they were face-timing so they could see each other’s every reaction to every scene; view every facial expression, hear every yawn or little laugh. It was torturous and exciting to be teased in such a way. And in a way, Nora felt protected from falling too hard for the man that had opened up quite a bit from the last time she ever saw him. Sometimes she’d look over and he was just staring at her. Even through the phone she could tell he was lean and when he got up to walk across his room he appeared taller than she remembered. He had grown into himself. A handsome face, a full beard, eyes that she tried to avoid making contact with.
Just as stuck behind that screen was he safe. Jack and Nora shared their own private world. She felt a security in knowing he was there. And if she couldn’t get to the phone he’d wonder where she’d gone. How two people could find hours upon hours of topics to discuss was beyond both their comprehensions.
The movie ended. The two of them, still wide awake.
“God, you are beautiful.” He told her as she faced the camera without any clothes on.
“Let me see you.”
“You mean, like that?” He tipped his phone below his face.
“Mhm.” She replied smugly.
“It’s always an eye for an eye with you isn’t it?”
Nora winked. “What do you think?”
It wasn’t something that either of them had done so intensely before— unprecedented indeed.
Their conversation moved to the sound of each other’s voices and away from the visuals. Her words became more full of breath and less audible with each movement her body made under her white comforter. Jack spoke with the same carnal assertiveness she invariably imagined in a counterpart— domineering, specific. Her legs began to shake— harder than they had ever, at least without another body entwined with hers. He said her name, exhaling lowly. There was a euphoria escaping her body from more than between her legs. A unique experience that terrified her. Never in her life did she think this would bring her to a climax more impressively than a casual hook up or anything she’d find on porn.
She could feel him— a man she’d never even touched before.
He spoke softly for a while after. Unconventional pillow talk. “You were the dream girl in college.”
“And I’m not now?”
“Now you’re mine.”
A reminiscent time in her life before heartache, immediately came to mind— tugging at her with angst. This was crazy.
Jack followed that with saying, “I’m not looking to just be your friend.”
“I feel so connected to you, Jack.”
“Me too, Nora. Me too.”
When they’d be able to see each other was still undetermined. Whenever that was, she knew they’d be in deep.
That night she fell asleep in a deep meditation, relishing in the transcendent state. She practiced counting her breath until she could no longer keep track of time—until a feeling of peace filled her heart like sunshine. She reached her right hand over her heart and pictured Jack lying next to her sharing her blissful affection. Nora had traveled the world; ridden on the backs of strangers’ motorcycles, gotten spontaneous tattoos in random places— she impulsively left her hometown to move cross country with barley any money in her pocket, yet this was by far, the most reckless thing she’d ever engaged in.
Nora’s fourth government paycheck came in. She felt powerful in a way, yet undeserving, and unnerved when her sister told her that morning she’d be joining the front lines with other healthcare workers. She’d be helping homeless patients that were suffering. Never was she before, but Nora had become a recluse over the past six weeks. She fearfully avoided the outside by talking to Jack, almost forgetting a pandemic was still at large. Her anxiety stayed stuffed far within the muscles and bones of her body. It never occurred to her why she was feeling so on edge. For her, doing her due diligence by remaining home was more of an inconvenient blessing than a struggle.
“Why don’t you take a walk? Get some fresh air.”
“Mom, I’m fine.” Nora insisted.
“Okay, I’m just worried about you.”
“People are dying. I think I’ll be okay.”
“Alright, it’s just you haven’t been sleeping.” Her voice was reluctant but determined. Nora could see the marks on the sides of her cheeks from wearing a mask all day. “Have you been taking your pills?” She pressed.
“Yes, mother. I have been. In fact, I’m going out right now for some air. I’m heading to the liquor store.” Nora promptly grabbed her mask and secured it around her ears. Right before closing the door she peeked in the mirror. A mask, rubber gloves—she looked so sterilized and soulless.
Jack asked her to meet his friends over a video chat that night to drink and play virtual games. What a strange time to be alive.
“Aren’t you supposed to be social distancing?” Nora asked. The second she did she could tell in his response he was taken aback by her tone.
“Well, it’s just a small group. We’re not really acknowledging the whole virus.” This comment infuriated Nora more than she realized. Pandemonium didn’t seem as heightened where he was. But how could one ignore the news? The grave topic was inescapable no matter how far one distanced themselves. It was not only infecting people’s lungs, but their conversations. Days later, there would be a fight.
And yet, his friends were approachable and in a way she felt like she knew them too. She reacquainted herself with her close comrade as well, Jameson. They played nostalgic college games and laughed about life. This was the new normal. If someone had told fifteen year-old Nora this would be her social life at twenty-eight, she would have said they’re full of shit.
“This is the girl, everyone. She’s it. She’s the one.” Jack kept saying to his friends, pointing to Nora, unsteady with intoxication.
She proceeded to take a swig unconsciously at his every comment. It was getting late and Nora was getting tired of speaking to other people. When you’ve barely talked to anyone for weeks at a time, you could only handle so much interaction. Between that and the ever-so-essential liquor store run, she had had enough– except of the trusty comrade she had by her side.
Nora woke up with puke on her clothes and an empty can of beer next to her bed. She didn’t even drink beer. Some of her books had fallen off her nightstand. After a few attempts she finally stood up despite the spins. When she did, her foot grazed a piece of ceramic and she quickly fell backwards where a bruise had already developed overnight in the same location. Her statue of Buddha—shattered.
She carried on upstairs. Her mother hadn’t gone to work that day. Instead, she was sitting with the bottle of Jameson, waiting for Nora at the kitchen table, infuriated.
“You told me once you got back from Cali things would be different.”
“And they have been.”
“Do you even know what happened last night after I noticed you stopped laughing with your friends—which kept me up by the way.” “I had to carry you back downstairs and pray you didn’t fall after you hugged the toilet for hours.” “Where are your pills?”
“I’m not lying. I told you, I’ve been taking them.” Nora snapped back. She could smell puke in the strands of hair falling in front of her face.
Her mother stood up and poured the remaining half down the drain. What Nora wanted to say was, “Look on the bright side, at least it’s half full.” To even consider joking like that, she was definitely still drunk.
Jack reached out to Nora several times that day, all which she ignored. The impending anxiety from drinking a revolting amount of alcohol started tingling up the back of her neck. Once it reached its pinnacle she would no longer be able to control anything that would come after. Waves of paranoia and delirium came forth like a natural disaster.
Something wasn’t okay. Something was bad. Maybe it was the pandemic. No, it was— Jack? Nora was convinced. Fear, nervousness, twitching— another collection of familiar relationships she couldn’t escape.
“I feel something bad happening.” Nora winced, cradling her head back and forth. “Mom, I’m scared.”
In the past when Nora displayed moments like this her mother would take her to the hospital. In 2020, the hospital was the last place anyone wanted to go to seek refuge. What was once a safe haven for the healing was now a gateway straight into the heart of a contagious battle.
“What if he’s hiding something? What if there’s something dark about him?” She grabbed onto her mother like a child afraid to go to sleep. “I feel like there’s something I’m missing.”
“Nora, honey. It’s just the alcohol and the PTSD.”
Nora pulled out one of her other pills prescribed to sedate her distant mind. She could not let Jack into the torment of her world. He hounded her to let him in, but once she did, she knew she wouldn’t be able to let him out.
“That was a good one.” Jack said wiping the beads of sweat off his head smiling at her through the screen.
They had taken up virtual yoga together. A pursuit that deeply enriched Nora’s life. She was glad he was also getting satisfaction from it too. Jack didn’t know Nora pulled back on her drinking habits. He was just seeing the side of her she liked more. She was getting more writing done and even started biking on the sunnier days.
“I’m going to go make dinner. I’ll call you after so I can see you.” He winked.
“You can see me right now.” Though she knew exactly what he meant.
“Well, if we lived together that part would be much easier, now wouldn’t it?”
Nora was taken aback. Always defensive, always smitten— she never really knew how to reply. Last week he told her to apply for jobs in California again.
“You’d get sick of me.” That she meant.
“No way, we’d probably just end up married. I mean, dive in head first at this point, right?”
“I told you— I’m not looking to be your friend, Nora. It’s all or nothing.”
“Head first?” She recited.
“Mm, yes please.”
She rolled her eyes and clicked out of her video setting so she could shower. They really were so far from each other—both with chosen paths. In fact, a few months before Jack came into her life, Nora had booked a cheap ticket to go visit California. The trip was roughly a month away now, but there was no end in sight for her life in quarantine. He told her once the pandemic was over, he’d visit her as much as he could. She wanted so deeply to believe in their spectacular pipe dream. Maybe, just maybe they’d have a fighting chance.
Nora dreamt of candles and fairy lights illuminating a cabin when she went to sleep. There was a fire, but not too hot to disturb the ambiance. For some reason, a giant quilted blanket on cozy couch stuck out vividly as man walked toward her. Certain dreams grant the dreamer the power of omniscience—she knew without seeing a ring, that she was being proposed to. Who the face standing in front of her was— well, she did not have that much dream power.
When she woke up she sent Jack a yoga mat for his birthday that was in just a few days. He kept insisting his birthday wouldn’t be grand without her there.
He was Nora’s friend. Just her friend. One that never crossed any lines, yet Jack saw something on social media he didn’t like and was interrogating her about the whole thing— anxiety up and running. At times, their situation was exhausting. Was she really going to commit herself to someone she hadn’t seen in years? Someone she’s never even laid with? He had already cut all ties with anyone else. Nora, being a pointless stubborn, was reluctant.
“I’m not your girlfriend, Jack.”
“Which is it, Nora? You want me some days and other days you’re going to make me question what we’re doing? What is it with you?” He did not skip a beat to call her out on how hot and cold she was on the days she pulled away from him— as he saw, it was often.
The longer she stayed captive in her house, the more the days took a toll on her optimism. That week the government closed all national and local parks in her state and another wave of panic poured over the country. Part of her couldn’t help but debate if humanity was turning into herded sheep. She shrugged the idea out of reach. Instead, ruminating over the idea of realistically seeing Jack seemed further and further away.
“You’re just so far.”
“You think I don’t know that? I don’t need to be reminded.”
She didn’t tell him, but Nora did oblige. She removed all potential suitors from her roster of text messages. It was pointless when she only wanted him.
Jack was drunk and insisted on talking to her before sleep. She wanted to let him stay with his friends, he barely spoke to her all day anyway. But he was worried. Jack told her he didn’t want her to think he was one of those guys who gave all his attention to his buddies. Scars from a burnt out flame. It was important for him to say goodnight to her every night.
As expected, she rolled her eyes at his compulsive affection. There might have been a chuckle thrown in too. She didn’t want to force him to do anything he wasn’t ready to, but the willing gesture made her feel like she could ease up on her defiant self-protection. Suddenly, Jack got very serious.
“You don’t understand, Nora.” His face that she enjoyed looking at so much contorted into a struggled emotion.“I’m not a religious man, or spiritual like you are. But I guess you could say I believe in something. Something bigger than us.”
She didn’t say a word. Her chest was on fire with uncertainty and joy. She simply continued to listen with a reverence that one does when another bares their soul.
“Did you know I pray? Most nights before I go to bed.” At this point he was beginning to slur.
“Well I do.” He put his hands on his temples and rubbed them. “I thank God for you coming into my life. And I thank God for you.”
Nora swallowed hard and stared back at his glassy baby blues. Time felt slow in a divine way for the first time since quarantine.
“And I’m blessed to have you in mine.” She responded.
It was true, as skeptical as she was of the whirlwind attachment they had for each other, (one a psychologist would never agree with) Nora told herself she deserved a relationship with someone who truly adored her. Someone who made her feel like passion, even at their age, could still be pure. They were playful and full of potential and old enough to take things seriously. They’d fight, but they were only human.
A few tears trickled down his cheeks. He took his glasses off to wipe his eyes that were closing by the second.
“See, I didn’t want—”
“Go to sleep, Jack.” She told him.
“You don’t understand. You’re the love of my life, Nora.” She left the video on, watching him fall into his own peaceful slumber until they’d wake up together.
“You won’t remember this in the morning.” She whispered. In a twisted way, it was Nora who wished she wouldn’t. Because for her everything would change. Head first.
The viral world kept spinning despite the offbeat development of Nora and Jack’s feelings. Things were starting to ease up in the city he resided, making her pending trip seem possible. But while things eased up for him to visit friends and stop in local stores, her county remained a petri dish for infection, heightening all her neurosis and her attitude.
Jack’s texts became more infrequent with each day. She often tested his affection when this would happen to confirm it was still there. The flirtatious banter became weary. Then, like the thousands of others Jack lost his job.
Jack moved back in with his parents in Northern California, things changed. He stopped asking to see Nora’s face.
“But your parents know about me.” She’d protest through text messages.
“It’s different here. I can’t just drop everything.”
Her heart ached to connect with him. She knew he didn’t have the privacy they shared in weeks prior, although he certainly had the time.
“Can’t I just hear your voice…to say goodnight?”
“I’ll just call you tomorrow.”
Jack didn’t call Nora.
It was happening more times than not. After an entire day of being ignored, when Jack finally called he was incoherent, triggering other toxic memories from what seemed like a lifetime ago for Nora.
She had had it.
“Can you stop calling me while you’re drunk?”
And he did. Jack stopped calling her every weekend.
Only two weeks left until her flight. They’d just have to get through two more weeks of frustration. Jack frequently commented on the struggles distance would impose despite his original approach of reckless abandon. Nora was constantly trying to recapture that first-time gusto in ways that confused him or made them both anxious. There would be no untangling of the brewing resentment, just their quiet desire to hold on to a last straw. The feeling of being lonely when she supposedly wasn’t alone at all crept back into her recollection. He didn’t ask to see her body anymore. The imprint of his voice was starting to fade. Over the last six weeks he had become her best friend. Now all she had were books and television.
“I’ll make more of an effort, Nora. I will.” He’d pacify her and she’d believe him.
Jack did try and make an effort though. It wasn’t the same. Nora was so in tune to what was happening she’d jump in and out of fondness for him. He’d fall away from her again. She’d play her games— sometimes threatening to cut it off completely. She couldn’t though— not with a mere five days left before her trip. She couldn’t separate her paling dignity from him until they had face-to-face interaction. That’s what they needed to get back to that first place. All she wanted was for him to tell her was they’d get through this. Jack with his youthful, unwavering faith.
The day before she left another package arrived for her. This time, she was expecting one. When he found it, he was so thrilled he couldn’t keep it a secret from her. Almost a month ago Jack ordered her a gift but the package never came. They kind of both gave up the idea it ever would. Yet there it was in a tiny parcel— in the nick of time. She unwrapped the beautifully crafted wood. It was a music box. A poetic gift at best. She opened the tiny box to the delicate sounds, like magic to her ears. Nora shut her eyes softly and listened.
No one knew she was leaving. No one but her mother who had recently overheard several upsetting talks her daughter was having. She was worried for Nora’s health— physical and mental. Nora was taking a huge risk pursuing travel for something so non-essential, especially to the logics of the world. She made all plans in spite of Jack’s lack-luster enthusiasm. With an open-ended ticket, she truly felt things would turn around—even in the face of their last conversation left on open-ended terms.
Hope is a such a deadly thing— but it will also kill you if you don’t hold onto any.
When she landed she didn’t text him like she promised. Ideally, it would have been because she forgot. But Jack went against so many things he said to her since the beginning of their relationship (a term he insisted on using) she didn’t see fit to follow his inclusive request. Even still, there weren’t words to express how much Nora longed to wrap her arms around him. Every cell in her body lit with anticipation.
Her hair was darker now than the night they first met. Compared to all the times he watched her falling asleep, she had made sure to put on mascara, blush, and a lipstick that would not stain. He was pulling up to the driveway of her stay. A quaint place of minimalism set in the back of what could only be described as a treehouse. This was going to be quite the first experience. She put down her glass and opened the teal- colored door.
Nora woke up with Jack’s arms wrapped around her, nothing but the sheets covering them. Something was wrong. A flash of her mother dumping the Jameson down the sink came to mind. She slapped her hand against her clammy forehead and turned over to Jack who was awake, staring at the ceiling.
Her eyes widened with fear— his mirrored disappointment.
“I outta have half a mind to leave right now. I almost did last night.”
Jack stepped inside, tall and lanky as expected. Just as he said he would, he wore jeans and a t-shirt. No more leather jacket. Nora— nervous, awkward, and unsure of how to act, was already several drinks deep. Certain measures had to be taken.
She knew how much Jack liked to drink, finding every occasion an excuse—and she was prepared to get on his level. They weren’t where they used to be. If she attached herself to an inevitable moment of real physical connection and he was belligerent, she’d be crushed. If anything upsetting happened, at least it’d be glossed over with alcohol— they’d have a fifty-fifty shot to feel completely alive or numb to it all. Then, Nora could deal with either outcome.
After a subtle embrace, Jack immediately started opening doors and checking the locks on windows.
“Um, Jack? What are you doing?” His facial expression was telling her she was the odd one for not getting it.
“This is just something I do. I like to survey a place I’ve never been.”
He shrugged. Okay. She threw him a beer. They were to do this together.
His large hands flicked the remote to find some music for them. Bewitched, Nora couldn’t look away from his profile—in the flesh.
“Are you going to let me touch your face?”
Once in a conversation, Jack expressed how he particularly hated when people did that.
“With you? Yes.”
For no apparent reason, Nora leaned up and licked his beard.
“Really? Really? I said you could touch my face, not lick it all gross like that.”
She remained staring with smiling eyes that sparkled.
Jack couldn’t hold back a grin either. “Don’t do it again. I’m warning ya.”
Jack knew Nora. She was absolutely going to repeat the salacious act. He’d be quicker than her. He turned his head and their lips met for the first time. Her arms eagerly reaching around his neck for the kiss they clearly had both been waiting for— maybe even seven years.
“I told you not to get drunk like that.”
“So now you’re telling me what to do?” She turned her body so she was fully facing his— still bare.
“Yes, I am. I just wanted a nice first night with you. We leave this apartment to grab drinks and the second I get up and you start flirting with a group of guys— who weren’t attractive I might add.”
There was a meek part of Nora’s personality that only certain people could access. Jack was one of them.
“I’m truly sorry.” She admitted without any objection.
“I know why you did it— to get a rise out of me. You forget I know you.” Shaking his head, he said under his breath, “making me look like a fool.”
Nora was quick to snap back. “Kind of how I’ve felt these last few weeks while I stood by as you pulled away from me? You knew I’d be visiting.”
“All we’ve been doing is bickering. I thought we both established— the distance is just too hard.”
“You suddenly established that. I’m here.”
“I’m sorry.” He said as carelessly as when he proposed a future together.
“So what? You finally got to fuck your college crush after weeks of seeing the most intimate parts of me--whenever you asked. Now you can check me off the list?”
“Jesus, Nora. Why do you have to be so mean?”
She was on the verge of tears.
“Do you even remember what you said to me last night?” He asked her, returning to his gaze above him.
“Do I want to?”
“You told me you loved me. I wasn’t trying to take advantage of you.”
“Well, I wasn’t trying to be serious.” She said.
The conversation ended but another one started with their eyes. The room was freezing. She was had not let go of his forearm the entire conversation, which he allowed. Jack began inching closer to her chest. She followed. The warmth of their bodies was defrosting the previous night’s impression, pressing skin to skin.
The inside of Nora’s thighs were still shaking underneath her silky white sundress, all the while she sat across the dinner table with Jack’s best friends. His friends welcomed her with their own eagerness. It was easy to see how he loved them.
“Jack’s been wanting to meet you for a long time,” one of them said.
Nora blushed. “Well he seems to have a lot to say when I’m video chatting with you guys. But we’ve both been excited to meet each other.”
Nora was quickly corrected. “I didn’t mean since you guys started dating. I meant, well…Jack’s been wanting a chance with you since he first saw you. Even before you started talking he’d bring up your name.”
Speechless, Nora glanced over at the man she found so handsome who had no idea she was trying to catch his eye.
It was only her second day there but Jack didn’t want to do anything after dinner. He didn’t seem too keen on spending alone time with her anymore; instead he suggested they go back to his friend’s house to relax. Nora needed help getting it. If he didn’t want to stay out why couldn’t they just lay together all night in each other’s company— like the countless nights they dreamed up behind a screen? Didn’t he want to go back inside her?
“Jack…he’s complicated. He’s really a sensitive guy. I’m not sure why he’s being so vague towards you. I really can’t tell you enough how much he’s been waiting for this,” the other friend carried on. “The one thing I can say is he’s loyal.”
On their drive back to the apartment, Nora shut her eyes in the silence. Jack used to insist the term ‘infatuation’ did a disservice to what he considered their amour-propre. She thought about how minutes before she stepped out of her house, luggage packed and ticket ready, he told her some of his buddies were coming to visit and he’d need to split up their time.
Originally, they both agreed staying a week together would be their test run as a couple. Nora tried to seem open-minded with how casually they settled things before she left. Her impression was that they’d go on at least one real date. So, after all the time they invested in each other she couldn’t be spontaneous as she lead on. Nora wanted to be put first. She wanted to wake up next to Jack and watch movies all day without him keeping his ears perked for his phone that incessantly rang for plans.
Back at the her apartment Jack couldn’t relax. Anxiety was something Nora could smell on others from a mile away. Convinced that was it, he quickly shot down her notion.
“I’m not anxious, will you stop throwing that term around? I’m just restless.”
She didn’t want him upset. She promptly scooted over on her knees to massage Jack’s jittery limbs. It felt so normal, so unremarkable . He closed his eyes and fell asleep on her while she finished the movie alone.
Nora lay on her stomach as Jack pushed inside her, breathing her name in her ear. He reached for her hand to squeeze, mimicking the intensity of her pelvic muscles wrapped around him. From what they fantasized to what it was— this part was everything.
“What time is it?” She asked breathlessly, sprawled out on the bed in contentment.
He rubbed her cheek without turning his view away from the phone. “It’s 10 AM. My friends said they’re already drinking.”
Amongst other things that morning, Nora had to swallow her selfish need to keep him in bed all day. There was no debating the subject. She would either share or stay in her apartment by herself.
Things were so different by him. Masks were optional, as the need for sunshine and lifestyle took precedent. Rules that were set in place seemed more like loop holes. No one seemed to care about hugging or kissing or side-stepping traditional niceties like shaking hands. Nora had no choice but to abandon her fear.
Once she was there, she didn’t mind. She honestly felt like she fit right into an open slot.
Jack walked back over with drinks for the two of them. “I’m glad you’re finally here. I am. I just want to treat this trip like I’m your boyfriend.”
“It already feels like I’ve been with you for a year.”
He chuckled. “That’s hot,” he said and kissed her forehead.
One friend walked up to them. “Where’s the J I know? I haven’t seen you slug one drink.”
“I’m drinking.” Nora could hear the exasperation in his voice.
“You’re usually slinging them back.”
This was a common occurrence Nora already knew of so she couldn’t understand his newfound self-restraint.
Jack’s friend turned towards Nora. “This is the infamous Nora?”
“This is her. The girl that would never give me the time of day in college.”
Nora whacked him on the arm. “If I knew!” Her ears were getting red.
“Relax.” He pulled her in and kissed her on the mouth.
After a second she peeled away, slowly reopening her sea-green eyes. She was fully aware of his dislike for public affection. He stared at her for a moment before rejoining the group.
“Our kids would have amazing eyes. I mean between the two of us? You know that?”
Nora shook her head as they headed back to the party. She had always been on the fence about having children. With the current state of the world Jack was privy to the fact that it made her even more uncertain.
They only had four more days together she thought while he joked with his friends and walked around on his own. Nora was observant, but still wondered if he was thinking about it all. Jack’s whole world was in California now. Nora, passionate and possessive, already knew she’d never agree to play second fiddle to his life’s design. It was clear where his loyalty resided. In that moment, she realized how much they’d been playing pretend.
Dehydrated and alone, Nora woke up in a guest bedroom of Jack’s friend’s house. She eased out of the creaky bed and found him passed out on the couch.
“Come lay with me.”
Barely awake Jack sighed, rolling his eyes. Still, he followed.
“Nice of you to join me.” She slipped in.
He rolled his eyes again and plopped his limp body next to hers on the twin sized bed. “Nice of you to pass out before midnight.” He groaned.
Nora tried turning over to avoid his face but he pulled her close, instantly falling back asleep. Nora, however, could not. His breathing was short and forced. Her head was on his chest, right over his heart that beat faster than it should have been for someone at rest. His chest pumped hard and her cheek moved up and down each time.
There was something deeper about the way Jack operated. Behind a screen he was much more candid. How could she blame him? Nora did her best to protect Jack from the shadow side of herself, with respect to the occasional leaks. “Jack— he’s complicated.” She replayed in her head. If Jack knew how Nora worried about him she was sure he’d rescind away from her even more. So she said nothing, letting the inconsistent beats try and rock her back to sleep.
They sat up, rocking back and forth together. Sweaty and consumed. When it came to a relationship Nora needed a lot of two things and that was one of them. The other—consistency. A part of her knew that traveling across the country putting her health and heart’s defenses on the line might only be to break it. What they had didn’t come around often though. She felt that. After all– she was a closet romantic. They finished quickly so the two could get ready to meet up with his friends. That’s where real life would gut her for her naivety.
Jack was in a sour mood. It was pouring rain. Nora liked the rain. She also liked spots with atmosphere. Jack thought they were just going to a bar to drink— it was a brunch. They couldn’t find the place and when they got there Jack walked in ahead of her. Neither of them knew some of the others in the group—friends of somebody’s girlfriend. The people sitting next to her were engaging and entertaining at least so she was thankful.
“Just lighten up, baby.” Gingerly, Nora put her hand on Jack’s fidgety leg. Her eyes were full of regard that his did not seem to match. It wasn’t really what either of them expected. She suggested he order a stronger drink, maybe a shot; discouraged with herself that she couldn’t think up any other solution.
Jack disappeared a few times, relieving the table from his stoicism. One of his friends who was a park ranger leaned in towards Nora to point out the tattoo on her arm. He asked about the symbolism and where she got it. For the first time in days, Nora truly felt seen. When Jack returned he put his arm around her, commenting to everyone how pretty he thought she was. His touch felt foreign.
Jack wanted to catch a ride back up his way where some of the other couples were headed. Nora wanted to stay in town. But Jack didn’t ask her what she wanted to do. Almost a week had passed and Nora hadn’t visited any of her old stomping grounds. He spoke across the table about where he was going to meet his crew while Nora discarded her silent discomfort by making an executive decision to remain with the rest of the group and explore.
After they exited the restaurant, they both seemed fed up. As she stood there soaked through her polka dot dress, hair hanging from her face, Jack looked down in Nora’s eyes expectant for an answer.
“So you were just going to leave and go out with my friends? Fuck me, right?”
“Does it matter? We’ve done whatever you wanted this entire time.” “It’s not like I’m actually yours.” She threw in.
Jack shook his head defeatedly. “You see, that’s the type of thing you say. Those things. Do you even like me, Nora?”
“Did you even want me here, Jack?”
“Of course I did. I just didn’t realize we were no longer on the same page.”
Of course she liked him. She liked him for his careless cravings for fast food that she herself found cringe-worthy. She liked him for his sleepy eyes, and love for sappy rom-coms, and for his corny dad jokes.
“No longer on the same page?”
“I thought we had an understanding, this wasn’t going to work.”
A deep pain filled Nora’s chest in the exact place she found sunshine two short months before that.
“I’m leaving.” She said.
“Well I’m coming with you.”
“Because I still want to be near you, Nora.”
The movie they put on only served as background noise. Nora’s anxiety was at an all time high— desperate for Jack to hold her. She considered all the times he said he knew her. She reached for her phone to occupy her mind, there really wasn’t anywhere to focus. He fell asleep before the movie even ended.
She had almost been in California for two years at that point. And was just released from the hospital. Her boyfriend at the time, whom she was living with, was still out. She didn’t even remember blinking that night— waiting up for hours for his return. He said he’d be back around 1 AM, but that was never how it went.
Some days Nora didn’t mind his excessive drinking. If it was just the right amount, he’d come home showering her with truths and emotion and they’d wake up surviving another day together. She wasn’t proud of the reason she tolerated his antics, but sober he would only be half of hers. “This is me.” He’d remind her.
He stumbled in reeking of cheap beer. There was a heavy thud when he fell on the bed, fully clothed– barely acknowledging Nora’s existence. Something was on his mind. She tried for his hand. He pulled away. He was merely six inches from her and she was more alone than she had ever been.
Eventually Nora decided to go back home for good. He’d follow her to her car with boxes and tell her they’d make it work despite the miles. With tears in his eyes he grabbed both her hands and told her she was the best thing that ever happened to him. Standing there, frail as could be– only just making what should be considered a healthy weight for a woman of her height— she could not say the same back.
Nora left Jack on the couch. She cleaned the kitchenette, repacked her suitcase and went into the bed upstairs. He’d find her there several hours later with eyes pretending to be closed. She wondered if he even noticed she was missing. Jack pulled her close. Hands between her legs. Then he pulled her on top of him.
As upset as she was, he entered inside her with ease. They shared a soft silence between them, only them. The fairy lights that wrapped around the spiral staircase leading to her room illuminated their bodies. A private moment in time. They barely moved. Jack and Nora just held each other tightly, their cheeks pressed against each other’s face. She dug her nails into the back of his shoulders until her legs started to tremble. Hearing her gentle moan— Jack could no longer hold himself back either. During a world crisis, they really had begun to fall for each other.
The next morning he’d wake up to go party with his friends. Nora would refuse to go— staying in bed to sleep for no reason at all. Two days were left before she’d go back to her home state.
She sat with a glass of wine (way too early in the day) on her private, temporary balcony. It had just rained. So much for perfect Californian weather. She adjusted her seat and noticed a giant spider web glistening against the fighting sun. Peering close to a creature often repulsed, she studied every detail on the spider’s body, every careful design in her web. Amazed how such a small thing could create something so glorious—all for the sake of survival.
She admired the artistry that nature delivered. It reminded her of a Buddhist mandala, an intricate circular pattern to aid in mindfulness and self-exploration. The spider was no bother to her. Nora found a sense of inner peace with her nearby. In way, she felt less alone. Nora went inside to write. She’d leave her be for now.
Jack didn’t want to come to her that night, knowing they were on borrowed time. The more he pulled away while she was there, the more Nora became undone. She never wanted this in the first place— not anyone profound or anything that could potentially hurt her. But Jack was strong in his conviction of wanting something serious, so she put her trust in him.
She called him again to come sleep with her. Jack was drunk and repeated that if she wanted to see him she had to go to him.
She did– across the country.
The undoing was upon her.
“You’re selfish! You’re immature and selfish. This whole trip has been at your convenience, about your friends, how you wanted things to play out between us…I’m leaving in a few days!”
“I know that, Nora.” Jack’s voice was empty. “I never knew where I stood with you. You were always so back and forth with me in the beginning.”
“You really couldn’t tell from the hours upon hours a day I spent with you then, how I felt for you?” There was a crack in her voice.
“I could at times. I just started to hold myself back I guess.”
“That’s not how it works.”
“Look, I’m sorry.” He said flatly.
“You just tell any girl that makes you feel something, you want to marry them? Is that the way it goes?” She spit back.
“See, this is what I mean. I’m not going to let you twist my words around and get me all worked up. Things change. I don’t know what you want me to tell you.”
She was hyperventilating. Jack no longer wanted her in the same way she still wanted him and she was still searching.
“If you don’t come spend the night with me here— alone, I’m not going to want to see you ever again.”
“I told you I’d come to you tomorrow. Now I don’t really want to see you at all.”
“Just come here now so we can sort this out in person…please.”
She plead in that same meek voice very few people heard her expel.
“I’m done feeling like the bad guy. I’m not going to get anxiety over this.”
“We don’t have to fight—”
“I care about you, Nora. Always will. But I cannot handle this.”
She closed her eyes, infected with emotion. “Then leave me alone.”
He hung up. Nora finished the bottled of wine in hysterics. Before she’d go to sleep that night she’d check all the locks on the windows and doors. Jack would not see her the next day, nor did he ask to see her the day after. Or the one after that.
Nora had just moved back from Cali. A week had passed— maybe. The declining man she cared for already stopped trying to keep in touch.The deliberate refusal to take care of his own mental health issues and alcoholism made her ill. Over the years spent with him, each plea to save himself and their relationship was met with accusations. He called her selfish for needing him while he was struggling. Overtime, Nora began to throw up whenever he’d misinterpret or remind her of how demanding she was. They’d have one more phone call.
“If it’s between you getting hurt or both of us getting hurt, I’d rather it just be you,” he told her.
That was the last time, Nora told herself, she’d ever give her all to a man.
Nora carried her coffee to the balcony, it was her last day. She was empty, but she wasn’t numb. She inhaled sharply once she realized. Her newest comrade was nowhere to be seen. The web— it was gone. She looked around for remanence of the spider’s silk. The balcony was secluded with very little wildlife stirring around. There was no storm or windy breeze that could have knocked it down.
In her heightened state the previous night, Nora did some research on spiders to distract herself. A single strand of silk is stronger than an equal amount of steel. Imagine that? Something she thought to be so fragile. Another fact she recalled: sometimes if a spider couldn’t capture anything, after a certain amount of waiting she’d recoil her web back up inside her and go elsewhere. After all that work.
If Nora hadn’t stayed by herself that day, she would never have noticed something so beautiful, something that made her reevaluate her own spirit. If she hadn’t adjusted her attention, there would’ve been no evidence the web ever existed at all. Nora didn’t notice the quiet tears streaming from her eyes with grace. With the creature’s sudden absence, even the smallest shift in nature can have an impact on another living being, this she knew. Everything had changed. Then again, nothing had.