This story is by Mansi Bhagwate and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Diya stepped on a piece of gum, “No, no, no!” she moaned.
She was running late to meet with Marcus and could not afford to go back to her apartment to change. If she missed the bus, she would have to walk twenty blocks to the restaurant in those wretched platform heels she was wearing. Marcus was coming to see her all the way from New York City and the least she could do was be there on time. The throng of post-quarantine, cage-free humans hustled and bustled to get on the bus. Diya made a face at a wiry, bald teenager who shoved her as she struggled to step inside. She limped to an empty seat and pulled off the gum from the bottom of her evil sandal with an old TJ-Maxx receipt. Not wanting to haul trash around to her blind date with Marcus, she threw it under her seat. The wiry teen glared at her. She shrugged.
Diya lived alone in a studio apartment in downtown Philadelphia and started working from home when the city went on lockdown. She woke up early, exercised, cooked three meals a day, and kept her spirits up by giving herself mani-pedis, enrolling in e-learning, and making her bed every day. It was wonderful until it wasn’t. As the redundant news coverage played on her computer and as Diya hung up on her cousin after having an endless argument about his nutty conspiracy theories, she felt the walls close in on her. Her studio became smaller and confining, her pretty patterned sheets turned into a dull grey. The full bed grew and spread into the entire space, cold and hard. The warmth of her body pillow felt synthetic. Dishes and takeout containers were piling up in the sink. In her millennial loneliness, she reached for a glass of online dating. She searched for companionship: friends, boyfriends, and workmates. Nothing. She widened the age gap, sexualities. Nothing. She was screaming in a void. In her desperation, she went as far as New York City, and that was when she met Marcus, a flicker of light in the deep dark abyss of quarantine.
Her phone buzzed.
Marcus: Can’t wait to see you. XOXO.
Diya bit her thumb as she suppressed a smile.
Diya: Can’t wait to hold your hand for real. Mwah!
Marcus was a decade older than Diya but it didn’t matter. He was a chef, out of work and looking for a connection. Diya found Marcus stranded on an island of despair, much like herself. They checked in on each other every opportunity they got. Diya sent him photos of sunrises and sunsets from her window and he sent her pictures of fancy vegan dishes he had whipped up. When they spoke on the phone, Diya told him about the time she was bullied in high school for her weight, and Marcus listened with rapt attention. Neither of them brought up wanting to see each other on video. Diya preferred the mystery, the anticipation.
“I am coming to Philly,” Marcus said the day after stay-at-home orders were lifted.
Diya let out an excited howl and jumped on her bed, “That would be so perfect.”
The night before her big date with Marcus, she tossed and turned in bed. She wore her satin nightgown and slept on Egyptian cotton sheets with an absurdly high thread count. The air conditioner was on full blast, so she opened a window and stepped on the little balcony. The night was hot and steamy, the moon like a spotlight and she was Juliet, waiting for her Romeo on a Verona balcony. She leaned on the banister, her hair tickling her shoulders, warmth spreading through her body.
“Marcus,” she whispered.
It was hot and windy when Diya got off the bus and walked towards the best vegan restaurant in Philadelphia. The wind pushed her flowy off-shoulder dress against her body revealing unwelcome curves. Marcus waited outside the restaurant for her with a bouquet of lilies, looking this way and that. She waved at him. He smiled and waved back. As she began crossing the cobbled street, Diya twisted her ankle and lost her balance. She grabbed a passerby by his shoulder and steadied herself, heart hammering in her chest, mortified at her tactlessness. Cursing those diabolic platforms under her breath, she walked towards him like a foal learning to take her first steps. Diya moved her purse self-consciously over her pillowy gut. Marcus looked shorter in person, muscular but shorter. He wore a pastel purple shirt, with sweat stains under his armpits. Diya held out her arms to give him a hug, but he leaned in for a peck and ended up landing wet lips on her ear. Diya wiped off the spit discreetly. They were seated outside under a canopy that offered respite from the sweltering heat. Marcus sat down and smiled, revealing a chipped tooth she had somehow missed in his photographs. He mopped his leaking brow with a hand towel and ran his hand through greasy, thinning hair. The server placed two glasses of water in front of them and Diya pounced on one, gulping it down.
“So hot,” she said to no one in particular.
“Do we know what we want?” the server asked.
Diya raised her eyebrows at Marcus, “I will let him decide.”
“A minute please,” Marcus said opening the menu, nodding his head here and there.
Diya waited for him to put the menu down and focus on her but he was immersed in it as if reading a thriller. She cleared her throat, “So, here we are.”
Marcus ran his tongue on his teeth grinning, “I know right.” He looked around the place taking in the ambiance, “This is a quaint restaurant. Good choice.”
“The best one here.”
Diya reached for her glass but it was empty. Marcus slid his own towards her and she guzzled it down. Diya looked straight at Marcus and he looked back at her. Little scenes she had rehearsed played in her mind in a continuous loop, scenarios devised to make conversation, but she had nothing to say to him. Sitting there passively, making eye contact felt odd as if he was a stranger. Marcus looked at Diya and raised his eyebrows, smiling once again at her. Why wasn’t he saying anything? She realized she had been doing all the talking on their virtual dates.
Marcus cleared his throat and opened his mouth to speak when the server came back and he placed their order. He moved the empty glasses around and mopped his face again. Marcus smiled at Diya and then suddenly, he winked at her. Diya was taken aback, offended at this indecent gesture.
“What was that?” she questioned.
“What?” he said genuinely befuddled. Then before she could answer, he offered her a paper napkin, “Your mascara is running from the sweat. You may want to fix that.”
She excused herself, her face matching her cherry red dress as she ran to the restroom. Sure enough, her mascara was runny and her foundation had caked all over her face becoming blotchy.
“Stupid summer,” she grunted and wiped off all her make-up, reapplying the eyeliner and lipstick.
When she went back outside, Marcus sat winking at no one in particular with arms and legs crossed. The Peruvian fries, spicy Dan Dan noodles, and Korean tempeh sandwich were waiting for her.
“Is that a tic?” Diya asked casually.
Marcus’s pale face turned a splotchy pink. He nodded, took a deep breath, and dipped into the Dan-Dan noodles. The silverware clinked as they ate the surprisingly delicious fare in silence. The server came back and asked if they would be ordering dessert. No was the resounding response. Marcus paid the check and the two of them walked out of the restaurant. Diya remembered all the things they had planned to do together: the Liberty Bell, Independence Mall, Penn’s Landing. They hesitated on the sidewalk, the dress clinging to Diya’s plump body for dear life. Marcus’s eyes wandered from head to toe. He tucked his thumbs in his pockets putting up a wall between them. Diya was crestfallen.
“It’s so hot,” Diya said, “I just—I don’t feel like doing anything.”
Relieved, Marcus gave a shaky laugh, his eyes going heavenward, “It was a pleasure. I will be heading back then.”
They shook hands and parted ways. Diya walked to the next block and sat down in the shade of the bus stop, still clutching her bouquet. The lilies were dull and wilted. They felt heavy, unwanted.
“Oh, Marcus,” she buried her face in her hands, feeling drained, whether from the heat or the date, she wasn’t sure. Her feet ached.
Diya sighed. The abyss pulled her back in.