Malkovich jumped on his owner and practically knocked him down. Hunter kneed the dog in the chest. He didn’t hurt Malkovich, but that was unacceptable behavior for a dog, whom he’d gotten from the rescue only 6 months ago. Malkovich, sometimes called Malkie, was a medium-sized mutt of unknown origin with short, but soft fur, a mottled black, white and brown.  Hunter was so glad he got Malkovich when he did because the entire world was under quarantine. Literally. 

Hunter lived with 2 roommates in a quaint, old house in the middle of the city, because nobody could afford to live alone anymore. The disparity between rich and poor had widened and the middle class, which had flourished for years, was dwindling. He liked living with roommates, and was happy to be quarantined with people because who knew how long it would be until he could even touch anyone again, let alone simply go to dinner with people in a restaurant. That’s one reason Hunter was glad to have Malkovich – a companion who he could curl up with and wrestle with and pet and just…hug; a warm body. Sometimes Hunter thought that perhaps he didn’t really need a partner. After all, humans could be so complicated, and just when he thought he understood women, he didn’t. 

“Malkovich, come here boy. There will be no jumping. Now, just lie here on the couch beside me while I talk to Amelia. We’re going to do a video chat. She’s pretty awesome. I’m glad you like her.” 

Hunter dialed Amelia on his computer, which made some strange beeps, and some audible sounds that resembled the ringing of a phone. 

“Hey, Sweetie. I thought it might be you,” Amelia answered in her smooth, honeyed voice. “I was just lying here working on my short story.” Amelia was on her bed, several pillows behind her, with  her laptop propped up on her knees. Her hair was matted, her eyes without makeup, a bit swollen and bloodshot from staring at a screen too long. But Amelia never really needed much grooming to make her look appealing. She was a natural beauty, with deep coffee colored eyes, shoulder length blue black hair, and skin that never displayed wrinkles or blotchiness. Hunter could stare at her all day and never grow tired. 

“Look, Malkovich. Do you see that beauty? That’s Amelia. Isn’t she gorgeous?” The rambunctious canine lifted his ears when he heard the name Amelia. He had taken a liking to her, even though he had only ever smelled her, but never felt the touch of her soft hands on his fur. Malkovich barked at the screen.

“Hello there, Malkie,” Amelia replied in a squeaky, childish voice, the kind of voice that women use to coo to their babies. “How is my favorite dog? Hunter, how’s the no-jumping training going?”

“He’s still jumping. I think you’d rather talk to Malkie than me. You didn’t even hear me call you gorgeous.” 

“Oh, Sweetie, stop flattering me. Seriously, I feel like you are just saying that so I’ll like you.”

Hunter covers his heart, feigning emotional pain. “Amelia, my love, you mistake me. I am gen-u-ine. I can’t stop thinking about you.”

Amelia giggles. “Alright, you win. One compliment a day, but that’s all you get. I suppose I should just say ‘thank you’.”

“That’s more like it, Gorgeous. So, do you want to read your story to me?”

“No. I don’t like to share until I’m finished. Then, you can give me feedback. You’re my harshest critic.”

“Don’t you want me to be honest?”

“Of course. I hate bullshit. Just so long as you’re tender.”

Amelia’s room couldn’t be more different from Hunter’s. She had decorated with lots of feminine touches – tons of plants, art pieces that convey emotions -Modigliani-type women in colorful garb, impressionistic flowers painted in wide, brush strokes, a scene of a street in Paris at night after a rainstorm, some craft pieces she got at art fairs, a framed screen with all her earrings hanging on it for display, and photos of her favorite people on the dresser. 

Hunter’s room  was pretty masculine, or rather, typical-guy-in-his-30s decor – with very little art except for an abstract painting he got from a friend, some unframed photos of times gone by, a framed poster of his favorite Star Wars movie, a map of the constellations on the ceiling left by the previous renter, and a bulletin board with essential information all over it, including drawings of some inventions he was working on. 

This was no ordinary romance. They’d never even touched each other. They couldn’t, due to the quarantine, and the fact that a contagious virus had swept the earth, infecting millions of people. Contact with strangers was no longer an option. Hell, contact with people you knew was not an option unless they lived with you, in which case they were difficult to avoid. Ironically, Amelia and Hunter had started talking online a few weeks before the quarantine went into effect. Now, online was practically the only way they could communicate. 

A few times they violated the quarantine by meeting on a hiking trail. The first time they met, Amelia wore a scarf on her face, but the next time they both wore scarves around their faces instead of the popular masks that many people wore, mostly because there was a shortage of masks. People started creating all sorts of weird masks that may or may not have kept moisture droplets filled with virus particles from going up their noses, but it was the best they could do in a pinch. So people made costumes out of the masks. Some people took it to the extreme and wore the full costume; they started dressing like their favorite movie characters, complete with masks. The streets started to look like a Cos-play party or a Comicon. That is, until cities started going on lock-down, one by one. 

Roads that typically were like parking lots due to traffic congestion were now practically empty. Playgrounds lacked the laughter of children, schools closed, streets emptied of human life, hiking trails closed, the hub-bub and din of people in restaurants and bars halted. The only places people were allowed to go were grocery stores, hospitals, and doctors’ offices. The world was muted and eerie. Occasionally, one would see workers fixing things or trucks transporting essential goods, but for the most part, the world was like Sundays during the blue laws. It was on pause. As surreal as it was, there was a sort of peacefulness about it. 

Amelia and Hunter had the good fortune to meet a few times before the total lock-down. Theirs was an old-fashioned courtship, out of necessity, not religion or parental controls. They had no choice but to move through the relationship slowly. 

It was a brisk, cloudy day, which cast a bluish light on the trail. They met at the trailhead of a beautiful forest that surrounded the city, adorning the landscape with dense woods of pine-green conifers. The trails meandered in many directions, sometimes with steep elevation, sometimes with gradual slopes. Contrasting the clamor of the city nearby, the woods offered the relaxing swish of soft wind through the trees and the rhythm of their feet as they walked. Occasionally, birds would offer a song or a cluster of insects would serenade them with a fluttering vibration. 

In actuality, they both took a chance being alone on a trail in the middle of the woods as strangers. Perhaps because they could no longer trust the world as a safe space, they decided to trust each other. 

Much like the Arabic women who conceal their faces with niqabs, Amelia hid her face behind a scarf. Hunter hadn’t thought to wear anything on his face, but they didn’t get close enough for him to breathe on her.

It was quite awkward, meeting a virtual stranger on the trail, but making sure never to touch. They had met in the video chat room, but now they were close enough to hear each other’s real voices. It was an interesting phenomenon, meeting a person in the flesh as opposed to talking online. True, you could see their movements and hear their voices on video, but there was something altogether different, the nuances of movement, inflections and intonations that could not be detected in the audio online. The way someone smelled, the way they looked without distortion, the energy that emanated from them. You could walk and talk, you could play, you could interact without constantly having to pay attention to the screen. Hunter was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to determine the difference between real and virtual anymore. But, when he met Amelia, he knew the difference. This was real, even if they couldn’t get more than a few feet from each other. 

Amelia got there first. She was nervous, her stomach churned, she sweated a little, even though it was darned cold outside. “Why am I nervous?” she pondered. “We’ve talked online numerous times. But I guess this is different. This is … real.” 

She was debating whether to leave her scarf off for a moment, so he could see her, but then she didn’t know if she could trust him, having never actually met him before. What if he had just pretended to take this all seriously, but then insisted on coming too close. She decided to leave the scarf wrapped around her mouth and nose, as previously intended. Amelia was dressed in tight jeans, hiking boots, a warm tan jacket and a cute, purple hat pulled down around her ears that she had crocheted. 

They had agreed to meet in the parking lot to make sure they got on the right trail. Amelia kicked some rocks and kept her gloved hands in her coat pocket. 

“Hey, Amelia!” Hunter called out. 

She was looking in the opposite direction. When she turned to see him, it felt like she had known him for a long time. She felt much more at ease. “Hey, Hunter. Air hug!”

They both made this seemingly ridiculous gesture, standing 3 feet away from each other (they were supposed to be 6 feet according to the new social distance standards), and put their hands up around invisible bodies, doing a European air kiss on both cheeks. And then, they laughed heartily and genuinely. “Crazy, huh?” Amelia snorted.

“These are crazy times, Little Lady,” Hunter said in some weird, Texan accent. And they laughed again. “Shall we?” he asked as he pointed towards the trail. 

“Most certainly, Sir,” Amelia replied in a distorted British accent. 

Hunter had not worn a scarf or a mask, so Amelia got to see his face. He had a short, chocolate brown beard, a sizable nose, which was the perfect fit for his strong face, and kind, hazel eyes. His cropped hair could hardly be seen beneath his blue beanie. Even though she had seen him online, this felt different. He was handsome in a rugged, imperfect sort of way. She liked him so much more now. The churning in her stomach changed to a warm feeling, a stirring of a different kind.

They walked for a few moments in silence. They both thought that they would chatter ceaselessly, the way they did online, but the reality of the moment and the quiet of the woods made them both silent for a while. They thought this would make them nervous, the kind of nervous you feel when you don’t think you have anything to say to a first date, but for some reason, the initial silence felt comfortable, not forced.

The silence gave them a bit of time to ruminate. Amelia wondered, “he’s taller than I thought, but I like his face. Actually, I hadn’t really thought about how tall he might be. I like the sound of his voice. But I wonder how long he can go before he’s going to want sex? I mean, don’t most of the guys nowadays expect that’s going to happen? How long can we keep this up? Why am I even attempting to date in this quarantine? Although, if this works out, maybe we can be each other’s person. Maybe, we’ll move in together and then we don’t have to worry about infecting each other. What the hell am I thinking? Am I crazy? Maybe he’s like the other guys I’ve dated recently, who just tell you what you want to hear. Amelia!! Give him a chance. For God’s sake!!”

Hunter had his own private thoughts flash by his mind. “I like her. But it’s so hard to tell if she really looks like her picture on the video chat. I hope she takes the mask down later so I can actually see her. Oh, come on, Dude. I’m sure she’s fine. Yea, but sometimes these girls lie online. For heaven’s sake, give her a chance. You haven’t even talked to her yet. She’s fine. But what if I don’t really like her and then she’s the only one I can go near in the quarantine? What if I get stuck with her? Hunter! Get a grip. She’s fine. You like her. Say something, you idiot.”  

After a few more steps on the trail, they both talked at once. “This is…” 

“Yeah, wow, it’s…”

“This is different, huh?” Hunter managed to get a full sentence out.

“Different than video, you mean?” Amelia asked.

“Yeah, and weird. I’ve never dated someone that I felt like I knew already, but who I can’t even…”

“Touch,” Amelia finished the sentence for him.

“Yeah, I guess that’s what I was gonna say.”

Another moment of silence. And then, “Shit,” they both remarked simultaneously. And then they laughed. And that’s how it began. They laughed and they walked and they talked. 

Hunter only got to see her eyes, but he knew that they were kind and wise and sensual, and sparkled with life, eyes that he could look at for a long time. After hiking for a few hours, he was smitten. 

When they finished their hike, they gave each other another air hug and air kisses. That’s when Hunter said, “Can I see your face, just for a moment. I’ll walk further away.” 

Amelia took several steps towards her car and said nothing. Then, she turned around and pulled her scarf down. “Hey! Sneak peak!”

Hunter stared at her for a long moment, knowing he might not see her again in person for some time. She was more beautiful than he imagined. She was more beautiful than her distorted video image. He put his hands to his heart and yelled back to her, “Beautiful. You’re beautiful.”

Amelia grinned her widest, toothiest grin. She made a flirty gesture with her body. “Thank you, kind sir. You only get one compliment a day.” Then she pulled up her scarf, turned around, got into her car and drove away. 

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