By Monday morning, I must have looked almost as awful as I felt, because the first thing my father said when I sat down at the dining table was, “You’re not going in to the office today.”
I bristled under his treatment, and retorted, “You need me there. Karen’s still not back from maternity leave, and Wexler’s out until Wednesday, which means Mrs. Veslen is sure to call.” Bundling my robe closer about me, I fought off an involuntary shiver and plunged my spoon into the neatly sectioned grapefruit half my mother had set at my place. The juice scorched my raw throat on the first bite, and I put the spoon neatly beside the small plate, not wanting to eat any more.
“Besides,” I continued, sniffling hard against a threatening sneeze. “I left a bunch of files unsorted, and I can do theb, huh…” I grabbed for the cloth napkin beside the placemat and cupped it to my face against a wet “Hehh-shh!”
“Bless you.” My mother got up from the table and went into the living room, coming back with a box of tissues. I pulled a handful from the box and stacked three together, knowing that I’d blow right through any fewer layers and be left with a mess on my hands. Unfortunately, it was like trying to force air through library paste, and I had to blow a few more times before my nose felt even vaguely clear.
“As I said before,” Dad offered once I’d tucked the wad of tissues into my robe pocket. “You’re just in no condition to go into the office today.”
I sighed and nodded, grudgingly admitting that he was right. “Okay.” Even though I was wearing my winter flannel pajamas, the room felt cold, and I shivered as a breeze wafted past me. The thought of snuggling under the bright Amish quilt on my bed and reading mystery novels all day seemed pretty good right about then. Although living with my parents again made me feel like I was five years old, and they tended to fall back into those same patterns, it seemed fitting just then.
“Why don’t you go get settled in your room, and I’ll make some hot chocolate.” Mom seemed to read my mind just then, recreating one of my favorite sick-day rituals from my childhood.
“With barsh-bellows?” I snuffled and swiped my hand under my nose.
“I’ll see if I can find some.”
“Great.” I trudged up the flight of stairs to my second-story room, opening the door onto a space that hadn’t changed much in the past six years. The cornflower-printed wallpaper looked as cheerful as it had when I’d fallen in love with it at thirteen, when I’d declared that my old pink and white bedroom was too “young” and that I was more sophisticated than that now. Mom had guided me subtly toward a timeless and sophisticated blend of bright pine furniture and blue accents. The look we devised was not frilly or fussy, but wasn’t masculine either. It was simply restful, and I enjoyed looking at the collection of Swarovski crystal objects I’d collected over the years, one for every birthday and a special glass vase with deep red glass roses to mark my graduation from high school. Golden light from the window set off the facets of each piece as they sat on the sill, casting rainbows on the walls at certain times of the day.
under the blue and white Amish-inspired quilt that covered my full bed, drawing
the sheet up under my chin. Although my head felt even stuffier since I’d come
up from the dining room, the simple act of cocooning myself under the covers
made me feel a bit better, and I smiled to myself as I reached for the murder
mystery I’d placed on my nightstand the evening before. It was set in
Fifteen minutes later, I was immersed in the world of Tess Monaghan when I heard a knock at the door. Or, rather, a soft kick, as I assumed my mother had both hands full with mugs. She always brought me cocoa, but rarely drank it herself, claiming she needed to keep the extra weight off. She drank cinnamon tea instead, a local brand rich in cinnamon oil and clove.
“Cub id,” I called, reaching for a tissue. When the door swung open, I forgot exactly what I had been doing. Cory Marshall, not my mother, was standing in the open doorway, mugs in both hands and a smile on his face that radiated from his blue eyes.
“House call,” he announced, looking around for a place to put the mugs. I cleared off the corner of the nightstand nearest my bed and patted it, drawing back slightly as he set the mugs down. “Your mother let me in, then asked me to bring you some cocoa.” He seemed amused, and I spluttered out a response.
“She did?” The mere idea that my mother would allow a young man she’d never met into my bedroom, after what Scott had done, floored me, and I made a move to get up.
“Whoa, whoa.” Cory placed a gentle hand on my shoulder and eased me back down. “I explained who I was, your mother gave me a ten-minute interrogation, then she sent me up with these mugs.”
I attempted to protest, but what came out was a loud fit of sneezing. “Heh-shmmm! Ihh-shoo. Huh-chhh!”
When the fit showed no signs of stopping, Cory pulled a brightly patterned bandanna from his back pocket and shook it open, placing it into his hand and then thumping it with his other fist like a catcher readying his mitt for a fastball. He raised his covered hand toward my face, gently placing his other hand between my shoulder blades. The sensation of sneezing into a handkerchief while someone else held it was odd yet comforting, much the way I’d felt when Cory had given me his handkerchief at the mall on Saturday.
A few moments later, I felt the fit dissipate, and Cory drew back slightly, removing his hand from in front of my face. Although his right hand and arm remained behind my shoulders, he used the long fingers of his left hand to fold the bandanna in half, then raised it again to my nose. I placed my hands on both sides of his and blew as hard as I dared, surprised at the soft resilience of the cloth.
“Better than Kleenex, wouldn’t you say?” He pulled his hand away, sensing my discomfort, and I adjusted the handkerchief a bit to find a dry spot into which to blow again. Paradoxically, blowing made me sneeze again, but the sound was well muffled, and the pressure didn’t cause the ripping sensation in the back of my throat that I dreaded with a big sneeze.
“Blessings.” Cory waited until I’d given my nose another swipe and folded the cloth up again, placing it delicately beside me on the quilt, before he offered me the mug of cocoa. The chocolate, by that time, had cooled off just enough, and the richness of the drink was soothing as it went down. I took a few more sips than I’d intended, trying to buy myself a bit of time.
“I hope you don’t mind my stopping by.” His voice was gentle, apologetic. “I know I should have called, but I was worried about you and I had a little extra time – my classes don’t start until one.”
“That was nice of you.” I said, hoping it would not sound like a “get lost” to him. I just couldn’t quite bring myself to open up to him fully and I was still in shock that he was even there, sitting next to me and looking at me with those soft blue eyes.
“Oh, I, uhm, washed your handkerchief.” I pulled open the nightstand drawer and took out the white square, offering it to him. My eyes darted to the brighter bandanna I’d just used, and might well need to use again, if my nose didn’t start behaving. “Maybe it’s a zero-sum game, though.”
Cory laughed and accepted the clean handkerchief, shoving it back into his pocket. “Good enough for me.” He got up from the edge of my bed and walked toward the window, lightly touching the collection of crystal figurines. This early in the day, they just sparkled in the light, not yet throwing off hundreds of tiny rainbows.
“These are great.” He lifted up the first figurine I’d ever received, a delicate cat curled up into a loaf shape, asleep.
“Do you collect anything?” I asked, eager to keep the conversation going.
“Just traffic tickets,” he said, then added, “No, no, I’m a perfectly safe driver.” He placed the crystal cat back down on the sill, sniffing at the air. “Actually, I don’t really collect anything, except – “He broke off abruptly, his eyes narrowing into slits. Turning neatly away from my window, he let out a huge sneeze that sounded remarkably like the mating call of some large animal I’d seen on a PBS nature special. “Huuh-ershoo! Heh-shhh!”
I flipped the covers back and got out of bed, but Cory warned me off with a shake of his head. “S’okay,” he ground out, unable to get his hand to his back pocket before another sneeze erupted from him, louder than the previous two. “Heh-shooo!”
“Aaah!” My mother had apparently just come into my room when Cory sneezed, and she yelped in surprise at the intensity and volume of the sound. I was grateful that Cory, not she, had brought up the mugs of cocoa, otherwise the brown liquid would have been spattered on the walls and over the carpet. Mom placed a steadying hand over her heart, regaining her composure a moment later.
“Sorry, Mrs. Carlson, I didn’t mean to scare you.” Cory came over to sit on the end of my bed, pulling out his handkerchief and scuffing it against his nose before my mother could offer him a tissue.
“Just startled.” She assessed him carefully, then turned her gaze on me. “And are you feeling any better?”
I slid back under the covers, grabbing the bandanna Cory had lent me before it could shift beyond my reach as my legs formed long lumps under the quilt. “I’b doig okay,” I assured her, congested again. I wish that Cory’s sneeze had startled me, as a good rush of adrenaline always seemed to clear my sinuses in an instant, but I had to settle for blowing my nose into the bandanna again, not a terrible prospect in itself. It was a bit like an adult security blanket – at the very least, blowing into the large square seemed much more trustworthy than a flimsy paper tissue, no matter how much Kimberly Clark and others raved about their “stronger” or “softer” products.
If my mother thought it bizarre that I was using a man’s handkerchief, she didn’t say anything, merely patted me on the shoulder and backed away toward the doorway. “Cory, if you’d like to stay for lunch, I’ll set a place at the table for you.”
“Thanks Mrs. C., I’d like that.” He caught himself as soon as he heard it, then said, “I mean, Mrs. Carlson, not Mrs. Cunningham. You know.”
“That’s quite all right, Arthur,” Mom played along. “I’ll have lunch ready in half an hour.” She closed the door behind her, giving us privacy again.
“Your mom’s sharp.”
“Oh? Usually my friends say my mom’s funny, as in, ‘the milk’s gone funny.’” I pulled my knees up, making a small mountain under the covers.
“Aw,” Cory admonished. “She seems like a real sweetheart. Maybe a bit worried, but aren’t all mothers like that?”
It was on the tip of my tongue to say that my mother had more than just cause to be worried these days, but I bit it back. Although my stuffy head and Cory’s concerned attention wore on my resolve, it just didn’t seem the right time to tell him what had happened. Then again, was there any good time to say, “Hi, I’m Lynn, and my ex-boyfriend…”
“Ehhshoo.” My head jerked down to touch my knees, a fine mist falling over them. “Oh, yuck.” I felt a thin trickle of mucus slip out of my right nostril, and I snatched up the bandanna I’d set aside, pinching my nose within it.
“So,” I said from behind the cloth, wanting to get back to what felt like more normal banter. “You said you collect something?”
I coughed and lowered the cloth again, balling it up in my fist.
“What? It’s very practical, in my case. That’s my favorite one.” He pointed to the cloth I had just turned into a wrinkled ball, and I grimaced.
“And I’ve ruined it.” I flattened the cloth out, trying to smooth down the wrinkles.
“Hardly. Toss it in the wash, and it’s good as new. Utilitarian.” He patted the quilt on my bed. “See, this is a functional piece of art, too. I know, there are quilts that get hung on walls in museums because so-and-so made them, or embroidered them, but this quilt is more valuable because you like it. It keeps you warm.
“Not like Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, where function wasn’t as important as form. You can’t really live in Falling Waters or the Darwin Martin house, or the Guggenheim, can you?”
“Not when they’ve become museums,” I argued, enjoying it. “His Prairie style is very livable, and it blends in with the landscape.”
“But his furniture was impossible to sit in,” he said, and I knew I had been bested, if only momentarily.
“Okay, you win that point, but…” My breath began to hitch, little hih-hih noises, as the tickle in the back of my nose played odd little games with me. I felt on the cusp of a sneeze, but just as I brought the crumpled handkerchief to my nose, the itch would subside a bit. After three rounds of that, I sat back against the headboard of the bed, grimacing.
“Won’t come out?” Cory asked, reaching past me for a tissue.
“No.” I watched as he twisted the tissue into a long, pointy line about as long as a pencil and just a bit thinner.
“Let me try something?” He waved the tissue in my direction, and I sat forward, a bit apprehensive but eager to get the itching to either subside or explode. Carefully, he worked the point of the tissue up my right nostril, stroking my turbinates lightly but deliberately. I could feel the itching escalate, and my face must have pulled up into a grimace, because Cory pulled the tissue out and leaned back a second before I let loose a barrage of sneezing. “Heh-esshh! Shoo! Chhh! Chfff!”
“Ghesundheit.” He waited until I’d managed to blow my nose into the bandanna, then took the sodden cloth from me and tucked it into an inside pocket of his jacket. When I protested that I needed it back, he pulled out a white handkerchief with a red plaid border and placed it into my open palm. “Here you go.”
I almost handed it back to him, arguing that he might need it later in the day, but the thought of being taken care of was too appealing to pass up. Not that I had been faking my symptoms to gain his sympathy, just that he was offering me care and accepting it helped soften the wall that had formed around my emotions after Scott had betrayed me. The idea itself was scary, but I knew I needed to let it happen or I’d be trapped within my little fortress of distrust.