During the pandemic, Gina goes on a punishing bicycle ride to try and shake herself out of her acute ennui.
|Image generated with OpenAI
“Dammit,” Gina hissed as pain stabbed through the cramping muscles of her right thigh. She pedaled slowly up the long hill on the rural road five miles north of town, laboring against gravity’s pull on the pounds she had added during four months of pandemic lockdown. Back when she biked two or three times each week, she seldom felt this near to cramping. After the recent forced inactivity, however, her legs weren’t what they used to be.
The July mid-morning sunshine beat down through the vents in Gina’s bike helmet, tickling her scalp with rivulets of sweat. The day had already crossed from cool to warm, and salty moisture matted the drooping strands of her hair.
“Push through it,” Gina grunted. “Push, push, push!” She syncopated her thrusts, easing up with her cramping right leg and powering the last fifty yards of the hill mostly with the strength of her left leg. She didn’t celebrate when she made it to the top. Instead, she concentrated on slowing her booming heart. As she glided along the hill’s level crest to the slightly downhill section just beyond, she let her right leg dangle alongside the bike, easing the cramp.
That’s when the first wave of nausea nearly knocked her off balance. She yanked the stretchy neck gaiter she used as a mask down over her chin and gulped at the air, trying to stifle the rising bile in her throat.
Gina hadn’t planned a bike ride when she woke that Sunday morning to the scent of pancakes and bacon as Rodney made breakfast in the kitchen.
During her years without a boyfriend, she often longed for the presence of someone doing something as simple and intimate as cooking breakfast. She had dated a series of interesting but ultimately incompatible men off and on from high school leading up to her mid-thirties, but none of those relationships had gotten beyond being “fine.” She didn’t know if she couldn’t find a partner whose personality fully complemented her own or if she was just too picky or the victim of bad luck. But when the first red flag rapidly morphed into complete sentences of frantic semaphore emanating from a sinking ship, she just couldn’t justify staying with anyone who wasn’t right for her. No one would pull her under. Much as she hoped for a fulfilling romantic connection, she knew she’d rather be alone than with someone who wasn’t the right person.
She had approached 2020 with an optimism that seemed contagious. So many of her friends seemed to think this would be the year that interrupted the malaise drifting over everyone’s life. The brewing, apathetic discontent that led to the election of 2016 seemed to have faded, replaced by glimmers of hope for a better future. “Optimism” may have been too strong a word, but she and many people around her were gently clasped by a cautious aspiration that something resembling “normal,” whatever that was, might return in the coming year.
A coworker introduced her to Rodney at a New Year’s party. He seemed to be some sort of a self-employed web designer, but Gina put aside that mild concern. She admired his above average looks right away. His dark eyes and sweeping hair overcame a thin but ready smile. And his strong shoulders and long legs made the slight rolls around his midsection less noticeable.
More important than appearance, Rodney’s public personality appealed to her. He generally seemed interested in her right from their first conversation. They’d had the odd luck to meet after midnight, so there was no awkward New Year’s kiss to indulge or avoid as the clock inescapably ticked away 2019. Instead, he offered to wait on the sidewalk with her until her Uber arrived. The busy night for ride-shares gave them fifteen minutes of quiet conversation time, and that was long enough for Gina to get the impression that Rodney actually liked her. Often, the people who claimed to love her seemed not to quite like her. But there was something in the way Rodney looked at her. Or maybe she was wishing something into existence that wasn’t really there. Either way, it was enough to convince her that she might like him as well.
Gina’s nausea settled slightly after a few hundred yards of easy pedaling and some downhill drifting. The breeze against her face transformed her queasiness into a mild rumble where her midsection folded uncomfortably a foot above the bike seat. The weight she had gained during the pandemic seemed positioned in exactly the worst spot, pressed against her stomach.
She tried to breathe deeply through her nose, letting the scent of the open fields work its aromatherapy magic before she had to tackle the next hill. Sweat seeped into her eyes, so she pulled off her sporty sunglasses and tried to wipe away the sting with the backs of her riding gloves. But she managed only to drive the sweat deeper as the rough fabric reddened her sensitive skin, giving her irritated eyes the appearance of tears. Her stomach still worried her, but at least the dark lenses would hide the illusion that she had taken her bike out just to have a good cry on such a beautiful morning.
On the afternoon of New Year’s Day, Rodney called to see if Gina would like to meet him for – and he was specific about this – ice cream. The unusual nature of the date (not coffee, not drinks, not dinner, not a movie – but ice cream on a winter holiday afternoon) somehow made Gina more inclined to say yes. The first day of 2020 seemed like the perfect opportunity to change her life. For the better, she hoped.
Ice cream led to dinner after the childlike thrill of having dessert before the main course. Their conversation closed down the restaurant and continued well beyond midnight. They shared their first kiss in the wee hours of January 2. That led to breakfast the next morning when he stayed over, sleeping gentleman-style on the living room couch that first night. Before January ended, he was staying over each weekend, easing his way into the bedroom at Gina’s shy invitation. By mid-February, Rodney had a drawer in her dresser and a shelf in the medicine cabinet of her one-bedroom rental’s tiny bathroom. By the beginning of March, Rodney was staying over each night. It seemed natural to Gina, then, that she give him an apartment key. To her quiet surprise, Gina discovered that she was more or less cohabiting for the first time in her adult life.
The fledgling couple watched TV while cuddling on the living room couch, sometimes catching fleeting news reports between rom-coms and streaming all the Oscar-nominated movies. Gina was curious about the reports of some kind of new super-flu, but Rodney assured her that it was nothing to rob her of worry. “It’s far away,” Rodney assured her. “Nothing will happen here.”
Gina treasured the seven years she had lived in this New England college town. She liked how her apartment was an easy, well-lit, safe, ten-minute easy walk to the pleasant shops of the town center. She drove when she needed to, but her job, two grocery stores, and a range of pleasant restaurants were all within walking distance.
She had biked these rural roads many times. These outlying neighborhoods and farms were only fifteen minutes away when she pedaled steadily. Indoor exercise didn’t hold much appeal, so she didn’t have any equipment in her apartment. For her, exercise meant getting outdoors for snowshoe excursions or hikes with friends along the wooded trails or an occasional low-expectation jog during the temperate spring and fall. She had no interest in joining the 5k races that often snaked through town, other than sponsoring her friends who ran to raise money for good causes. Sometimes the race route even went by her apartment, and she’d cheer the runners from a lawn chair while sipping orange juice.
When she had to name her favorite activities on a dating app, biking usually topped the list. The breeze generated by biking made it an ideal activity for the hot summer. She didn’t mind putting on an extra pound or five through the cold winter months spent curled up with books because she knew she’d lose the weight when the seasons turned.
During a normal year, she’d have been riding these country roads for two months by July, and she might have updated her dating app profile. But the first half of 2020 had turned out to be anything but normal, for Gina and the world around her.
When the pandemic inevitably hit, Rodney told Gina that his apartment lease had lapsed. Gina still felt slivers of new-relationship thrill, so she ignored slender fragments warning signs and asked him to stay with her during the initial lockdown. “It can’t last long,” Rodney reasoned. Gina considered the situation and found no reason to disagree. Besides, she thought, he had nowhere else to go and no one wanted to go apartment shopping during a semi-lockdown, however brief it promised to be.
They soon fell into the rhythm of Zooming into work each day, Gina from her bed and Rodney from the living room couch. She liked to tell him about her accounting job for the non-profit college scholarship service. She didn’t actually help select the recipients, but she kept the books so that the money could reach as many worthy students as possible. He nodded and said, “uh-huh” and “tell me more” at appropriate times. But he never talked about his work. After a time, she suspected his headset-crowned virtual “meetings” might have morphed into remote games of Halo and Minecraft or the rabbit-hole time-sucks of TikTok videos, but she didn’t want a confrontation. He kept out of her way while she was swamped with more work than ever. Some of Gina’s friends posted to social media about how bored they were with a reduced at-home workload. But she found every moment of the workday filled with details more intricate than anything she had encountered at the office.
Their evenings together on the couch had devolved into binging one Netflix series after another, Rodney munching on chips or chocolate, Gina starting with carrots or beet puffs but soon reaching for his chips as well. In March, they sat close and snuggled in front of the television. By April, the couch had become an expanded staging area for the snacks spread out between them as they inched farther away from each other. As the weather warmed, ice cream entered their lives again as a pandemic comfort.
Rodney liked to cook, which Gina admired for a while. Eventually, she wished he paid more attention to the fat and calories as he prepared their meals, but she didn’t complain. Healthy pandemic eating was a challenge for everyone. She paid for deliveries from the local grocery store and did the dishes. She assumed every woman should be thrilled to have a boyfriend who cooked and couldn’t quite understand her nagging mix of resentment and guilt as each evening’s meal approached.
Gina let her bike drift to a stop in one of the few patches of shade along the otherwise treeless stretch of what she thought was rolling farmland. Then she became vaguely aware that she was in some kind of neighborhood with widespread ranch houses set back from the country road. She planted one foot on the pavement while keeping her other foot on the pedal as she tried to steady the storm brewing from her stomach to her brain.
Since childhood, Gina had hated nausea. If she woke sick on a school day, she would lie as still as possible in her bed, curled into a fetal position with the covers pulled over her head. Her mother knew to give her privacy then. Most often, a few moments of peace would help her will the nausea away, and she could rise to eat the two slices of dry toast her mother would prepare for her. That would keep her stomach calm until she could tolerate whatever mystery the school lunch had in store.
As a new wave of nausea climbed her torso into the base of her throat, Gina straddled the bike and bent low over the handlebars. She closed her eyes and cradled her face in both hands, a position of supplication worthy of a saint, hoping that sensory deprivation would calm the roiling waves within her stomach.
No one knew how dangerous the virus could be. Some scoffed at masks and distancing, but others said the only way to get through this was to be cautious. Gina leaned toward caution in many aspects of her life, so she had spent most of March, April, and May sequestered in her apartment with Rodney. Everything seemed simultaneously timeless yet still so temporary – as if each moment held eternity in an instant. The issue of his contribution to the rent floated unspoken in the COVID-free interior air.
Their relationship seemed to take on its own holding pattern of artificial intimacy as the days crawled by. They got along fine, okay, adequately, insert any neutral adjective or adverb, but the forced immersion of their time together always cast an awkward shadow. They never fought, but they shared no moments of joy either. They never cried, but laughter was as rare as the infrequent and unavoidable trips to the convenience store when they had forgotten to add tampons or razor blades or condoms to the grocery delivery order. In fact, condoms became less and less a necessity as their sex life slipped into the stereotypical routine of a boring, married couple, as if the forced familiarity of the pandemic isolation had accelerated their evolution into premature middle age. They felt secure with another body next to them during the long, uncertain nights, but they seldom reached for that other body as they had most nights as February turned to March.
“You okay there?”
Gina was snapped out of her stillness by the unexpected voice. Her head shot up, and she pulled her gaiter mask over her mouth and nose automatically, a habit she had developed rapidly during the infrequent outings of recent weeks.
An older woman stood twenty feet away beside a mailbox in the front yard of a modest one-story house Gina hadn’t really noticed until that moment. “Starter home” or “senior home,” Gina had heard them called, bookends to adulthood. You could begin being a grown-up, often as a part of a married couple, in a house like this before moving on to better things, whatever those better things might be. And/or you could be found dead in one of these places by the cleaning person who comes in once a week. That 911 call would be like a final curtain call for the landline within.
Gina didn’t know how long the woman had been standing there. She was tiny, barely five feet tall with her surprisingly excellent posture, and whippet-thin. A face gaunt with a life fully experienced surrounded bright eyes that could belong to a teenager. Gina couldn’t guess the woman’s age. Could be sixty. Could be ninety-nine and three-quarters. She wore a full-length fleece bathrobe, orange and yellow plaid and much too warm for the July sunshine, belted around her skinny waist. Her hair was cut short and seasoned with more salt than pepper. Her tiny feet were sheathed in fuzzy slippers an unexpected shade of periwinkle blue and sported matching dots of color on her sockless toenails. A triangle of green bandana dangled loosely around her neck, possibly for masking purposes or maybe just another splash of color.
She looked at Gina with gruff sympathy. “You don’t look so great, missy,” she said.
Gina’s breakfast chose that moment to begin its urgent climb from her stomach into her throat.
Gina had discovered within a few weeks that Rodney’s cooking repertoire was limited to about four basic dinners of chicken varieties with an accompanying starch and veggie. Gina never complained. The meals were satisfying if unexciting, and Rodney always made enough for a solid supply of leftovers. Still, the food consumption without corresponding calorie-burning activity nagged at the edge of her thoughts. She hadn’t shed her extra winter weight and suspected that she was adding a few more pounds as summer began. Her bathroom scale gathered dust at the back of her linen closet, shoved into the darkness back there like a childhood trauma. This was a pandemic, Gina reasoned. She tried not to worry over her slightly expanded stomach and thighs when death was, literally, in the air. She made allowances for her own shape, just as she did for the several extra inches she noticed muffin-topping over Rodney’s boxers each morning.
Breakfast during the workweek was cereal or bagels, which was fine, Gina supposed, but Rodney insisted on making a ridiculously extravagant morning meal every Sunday. He rose early, scrambled half a dozen eggs, fried a full package of bacon, grilled stacks of pancakes loaded with blueberries and smothered in butter and syrup, brewed a gallon of coffee, and poured a carafe of orange juice. There was even toast, just like her mother gave her all those years ago. But Rodney insisted on half an inch of sugary jam that oozed over the crust and onto the neighboring eggs.
“Eat, sweetie,” Rodney urged as she stared ahead at the breakfast table earlier that morning.
“This is too much,” Gina said, stifling a belch as she looked from her half-eaten food to the dirty dishes already piled high in the sink.
Rodney laughed. “You know you want more.”
Gina swallowed and place her fork firmly beside the plate. “That’s just it,” she said. “I don’t want more. This is too much.”
“You can save it for later,” Rodney urged. “You’ll be hungry again this afternoon.”
Gina sighed. “It’s not just the food,” she said. “This is too much. This.” She swept a hand to indicate the table, the sink, the kitchen. Rodney. The pandemic. The entire planet.
Rodney’s face was blank. “I’m not sure I understand,” he said.
“Me either,” Gina replied, pushing back from the table and getting to her feet. “I’m going to take a bike ride.”
“What?” Rodney asked. “You haven’t finished eating. And the dishes.”
“This is something I have to do,” Gina said, as much to herself as to Rodney.
As Gina squeezed the handlebar grips and stared desperately at the woman by the roadside, the vomit rose almost before she knew what was happening. All those years of warding off her nausea through stillness and strong will had abandoned her. Without warning, her gaiter mask bloomed dramatically with partially digested breakfast, puffing so far that Gina could glance down and see its elastic blue fabric as her sunglasses slipped down her sweaty nose and fell to the ground.
The mask expanded like a cartoon balloon and trapped the first wave. Gina felt the warm, slimy mess cover her nose, lips, chin, and jaw. She needed to inhale but the vomit blocked her breath. She choked and coughed just as the second, even larger wave lurched forth.
The weight of her vomit pulled the gaiter from her face as it sludged down around her neck. A second stream flew out farther than Gina imagined was possible, covering three-quarters of the distance between her and the older woman, who stepped back deftly, as if she’d seen a generous share of projectile vomiting in her life. Those bright eyes widened, and her mouth formed an “O” of surprise and sympathy. A blob of vomit flipped from Gina’s dangling mask and dropped onto her shoes. It looked almost identical to the pancake batter Rodney used, almost as if partial digestion had returned it to its nascent, unbaked state, part of a great cycle of life, all matter evolving and devolving.
Mortified, Gina put her hands over her mouth, but that only forced the third wave through her parted fingers, spraying vomit in every direction. Some fragments tapped her stomach and thighs like a child’s extended index finger trying to get a parent’s attention. Somehow, vomit refracted its way up to her eyes and forehead. A wet chunk struck her left ear with a sound like a lapping ocean tide or a big dog’s overly friendly licks with a wide, dripping tongue.
Gina dropped to her knees, gravel indenting her skin, and huddled over her fallen bike as the fourth wave came, this time weaker and with just a few globs that she recognized as the deep purple of blueberries. The fifth wave was mostly a dry heave, an abdominal flex of muscles weakened by months of neglected sit-ups. Gina finally found herself empty.
“This is something I have to do,” Gina repeated as she pulled her helmet from the back of her hall closet.
Rodney hovered nearby. “Please tell me what’s wrong?” he insisted.
“Everything,” Gina replied. “Nothing.” She shoved her feet into the old sneakers she had worn the past few years for biking. She saw no sense in spending hard-earned money for fancy shoes that no one would ever see when scuffed Nikes would do just fine.
“You’re being kind of a jerk,” Rodney said. “I hate to say it, but it’s true.”
Gina pulled her bike from its resting place behind the coat rack. She saw that the tires were as flat as Rodney’s tone, but she didn’t hesitate. She knew she could push the bike up the street and around the corner before using the mini-pump clipped to the bike frame. She just needed to get out of that apartment, to depart from this man and this overwhelmingly sweet stench of food. To ride. To have the wind rush past her face. Away from him. Away from here, this place that seemed to smother her. Away to anywhere. Literally, anywhere. Immediately.
“The world is going to hell,” she said.
“That’s not my fault!” Rodney answered, his voice now raw and his eyes shining. Gina noticed he still wore a stained apron. She realized she didn’t know where the apron came from. He might have ordered it online the day before or he may have brought it over from his place when they first began dating. She had no idea. He may have been born wearing it for all she knew. What did she really know about him, after all?
She saw that he also held his breakfast fork. She could see bacon grease, syrup, and saliva glistening on the silver metal.
“I’m going now,” Gina called back to him through a slight gag as she pushed the bike onto the quiet street of a pandemic weekend morning.
Rodney’s last words to her floated through the open doorway: “I may not be here when you get back!”
Gina stifled a laugh. He was as trapped as she was. Where could he go?
Gina felt the old woman’s hand wrap around her upper arm. “Can you stand?” she asked. Her grip was surprisingly strong and instantly comforting.
Gina coughed. She managed to croak out an “okay” and push one foot under herself. Her cramp threatened to return and then relented as she forced herself upward on wavery legs and opened her eyes. The old woman had moved close by then, nearly an intimate distance, and had pulled the bandana over her nose and mouth. She looked like an old west bank robber who had forgotten her cowboy hat but remembered to wear a robe and slippers. Instead of a gunmetal gray pistol, she held a chrome spray nozzle attached to a green garden hose.
“My name is Lizzie,” the woman said. She steadied Gina for a moment and then stepped back three paces. “I figure at least you should know my name considering what I’m about to do to you. You’ll thank me later.”
“What…?” Gina began, but she understood when she saw Lizzie lift the nozzle and point it in her direction. She noticed water dripping from the azaleas behind Lizzie and knew she needed to be watered next, both for cleaning and nurturing purposes. With a nod to Lizzie, Gina squeezed her eyes shut once again. “Do it,” she said.
The first blast hit her shoes, dislodging vomit and sending it into a rainbow spray around her feet. Gina risked a tight-lidded peek and was surprised by how pretty the vomit rainbow was. Lizzie flicked the stream of water to and fro across Gina’s shins as if debating where to go next. Then, after a millisecond of silence, the spray hit Gina’s helmet. The water thrummed against the curved fiberglass like a downpour on blacktop. Gina staggered, slightly dizzy. Lizzie twisted the nozzle, and the stream widened to become less urgent as she sprayed Gina’s face. Gina resisted the urge to raise her hands in self-defense and gave herself over to the cleansing flow. She could feel solid masses of her expelled breakfast, already beginning to crust in the sunshine, break away and drop from her skin.
As the hose descended, Gina squinted enough to make out vomit being rinsed from her t-shirt and bare arms. Lizzie returned to her chest and Gina was thankful for the sports bra that kept the water from abrading across her breasts. Lizzie’s eyes seemed to apologize for the intrusion and moved on to her stomach, which Gina was surprised to notice didn’t feel as fat as it did when she studied it in her bathroom mirror each day. The water glanced off rather than jiggling the flesh.
Lizzie looked away politely as she quickly sprayed Gina’s abdomen and crotch, where, thankfully, very little vomit had come to rest. Lizzie cleared Gina’s thighs and knees. She stopped for a moment until Gina looked up to see Lizzie make a circular motion with her left hand. Gina turned around, and Lizzie repeated the process on her back, butt, and legs where, in some incomprehensible feat of physics, generous deposits of vomit had somehow scattered.
“Let me look at you,” Lizzie said. Gina did two full, slow rotations, her sneakers squelching on the wet ground. “A little air-and-sunshine drying, and you’ll be just fine,” Lizzie said, dropping the nozzle and hose on the ground between them. “Now, how about some lemonade?”
Twenty minutes later, Gina and Lizzie were seated on Lizzie’s back deck, a safe fifteen feet apart in the open air. Gina’s bike, also freshly hosed off, leaned against a wheelbarrow beside Lizzie’s burgeoning vegetable garden. A striped awning muted the sun, and droplets of water beaded on their glasses of light amber liquid. Gina hadn’t shared space with anyone other than Rodney like this since early March, and the lemonade, her settled stomach, and Lizzie’s easy company had loosened her usual reticence with strangers.
“I just don’t know what I was thinking,” she said. “I mean, he seemed more-or-less okay, you know, fine and all. But I’m usually a sensible person. What the hell was I thinking letting this guy I barely knew stay at my apartment during a lockdown?”
“Nothing wrong with giving things a chance, even with this crayola-virus in the air,” Lizzie said. “And you did. Maybe it didn’t work out okay this time. It happens.”
“I don’t know,” Gina mused. “Is it all worth it? You know, men? Love? All that… you know… stuff?”
Lizzie took a long sip of lemonade before she spoke. “There are women who will tell you men are all slime,” she said. “I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers, but that’s just crap. Some men are just right for you, and most aren’t even close. There’s maybe a thousand of the right person for everyone. That seems like a lot, but finding one of those right people is tricky. A thousand isn’t many when there’s something like seven billion people in the world.”
“Eight billion soon,” Gina said.
“Jesus,” Lizzie whispered. “That’s probably too many.”
“Did you find the right man for you?” Gina asked.
“Hell,” Lizzie chucked. “I found five of them over the years, but I outlived them all!” She hesitated. “Three women, too. Hope you don’t mind hearing that.”
“Of course not. Love is love. So… you found love eight times?” Gina marveled.
“That’s not so many,” Lizzie said. “Eight out of a thousand, remember. That means there’s probably nine hundred ninety-two still out there for me.” She laughed. “I’ve been thinking of trying online dating once this kabuki-virus is done. It’s gotta end someday, and I still have some years left. I don’t need romance so much anymore, but it would be nice to have someone to share a cuddle with on chilly nights. Watch a good TV show. Share a cup of tea and the morning paper. That kind of stuff.”
Gina nodded and looked out across Lizzie’s wide backyard to the distant woods. She thought about how nice it would be to have this much space to avoid people who might be carrying this current version of the plague. She could stay out on this shady deck all day with a small breeze drying her wet hair and clothes. No one would miss her. Rodney probably wouldn’t be there when she got home. Or, if he was, she knew he wouldn’t stay long.
She glanced at Lizzie, who traced patterns in the condensation on her class with one hand and ran the other across her spiky hair. Gina wondered if Lizzie would invite her to stay for dinner, but she realized it was a silly thought. They’d known each other for less than half an hour, all of that time spent in the virus-dissipating outdoor air.
Then she wondered if she could get a strong enough Wi-Fi signal to work from here. How about Netflix and grocery delivery?
After a few minutes of companionable silence, Gina asked, “So, it doesn’t sound like Rodney is one of my one thousand, does it?”
“His name is ‘Rodney’?” Lizzie’s eyes twinkled. “That should have been your first clue!” They laughed. “Seriously,” Lizzie continued. “If a little puke makes you realize that things aren’t right between you two, then that’s like a sign from above. Or somewhere. All I know is the one thing, most important thing I’ve learned over the years. Here it is: love shouldn’t be that hard. This koala-virus? That’s hard. But love shouldn’t be hard.”
Gina looked at her bike. She liked the fact that it was a decade old and wasn’t streamlined or slick or perfect. She had resisted the desire to upgrade when this one was just fine. It wasn’t hard to ride. She flexed her thighs, which felt much stronger than she expected. There was no sign of cramping. Her muscles were good enough. And she noticed that her stomach was settled. She wasn’t sure when she would climb atop her bike again and head back out onto the hilly roads, but she knew she hadn’t yet worn out her welcome with this odd little woman who just might be a guardian angel.
For the first time in four months of hiding from the world, Gina felt she was on the brink of something that might reach beyond just fine.