With this selection of a short story by Mohini Malhotra, we continue our new series of original fiction or poetry by writers who either published their first book at 40 or after, or who have yet to publish a book. Writers interested in submitting work should see our guidelines.
by Mohini Malhotra
It’s almost nine on a Saturday morning in November and rain is pelting the windows. Just as well, since I’m spending this morning at a board retreat. I pull a red stole over my nightgown, finger lipstick on for some color — but not too much to look made-up — pull unbrushed hair in a pony-tail, grab a mug of coffee, and sit in front of my laptop.
Faces pop up like portraits in a gallery. I miss galleries. What is it about flyaway hairs on Zoom that are invisible in real life? Everyone comes on and starts to smooth their fly-aways, the novices usually smoothing down the opposite side of their heads…Hello people, we are nine months into this…
I should not have binge-watched The Queen’s Gambit till 4:30 am. Nor drunk glasses of red wine, like I was keeping up with Beth Harmon.
The Board Chair calls the meeting to order. First agenda item is to meet the new board member.
“I won’t repeat Julian’s stellar profile, you all have seen it. Julian, welcome to our board.”
I forget his profile, was in an email several months ago. A lawyer…I recall wondering why we’re adding K Street lobbyist types who cozy up to whomever pays the bill. Since when do lawyers care about poor kids getting an arts education? My vote was outnumbered. Sometimes it’s just about who brings in the bucks on these non-profit boards…
“Thanks for inviting me to join, it’s an honor, I’ve always admired this organization.”
I look up from my coffee mug to see the source of this baritone voice. His dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail, silvering at the temples. More artist-ish than lawyer. Around my age, somewhere in the fifties, I guess.
The Board Chair screen-shares a list of the committees and calls on the Chairs to introduce each one, starting with me. I launch into how the strategic planning committee will design the next five-year plan; our pivot (“word of the year, ha ha”) from in-person to online and the possibility of going hybrid in the post-Covid era; expected funding challenges; ending with an affirmation of our redoubled commitment to the youth from low-income families in these trying times.
Julian has an emoji clap in his rectangle when I finish.
After everyone’s done, the Chair asks Julian to choose a committee to serve on. Feels like a beauty contest. He picks mine. Speaking of which, I check my settings, and quickly hit ‘touch up my appearance.’
Next, we go into break-out groups to talk about why we serve on the board as part of the ‘bonding/renewing our commitment’ portion of the agenda. I love break-outs, such intimate spaces, and the excitement of discovering who the algorithm matches me with.
Seriously? Pathetic, but that’s what my world has come to…
Mark, Sandy, me…and Julian are in break-out group #4. Mark says blah blah. Sandy says blah blah. I say more blah. Julian talks about his pro-bono work representing DACA kids. He was a theater major before law school, stills acts in small theaters in New York. He’s moving to DC in four months and plans to teach an acting or playwriting class to the kids in the program.
I’ve always loved the name Julian. Like Julian Barnes…
We’re buffered back to plenary.
An hour later, the chat box lights up. I welcome the distraction from the eye-glazing talk of audits and fund-raising strategies. It’s a private message. From Julian. “Are you free to catch me up on your committee?”
“Sure. And welcome.”
“Thanks. And red becomes you.”
Am about to respond, “And blue, you,” but what if I hit ‘message everyone’ by mistake? Can the host read the private chats too…? This session is being recorded.
So, I just look at him and our eyes lock. Can we both be looking straight into the camera above everyone’s faces a la Zoom-training tips, at the same time? He raises an eyebrow. And they say you can’t read cues on Zoom…I say those people can’t read cues period. I quickly look away in case the whole room sees us seeing us.
The retreat is over. We all wave, and like apparitions, one by one we disappear, the remaining growing larger and larger as each human-in-a-rectangle departs.
My inbox has a Zoom calendar invite for 5 pm. I accept.
I’m wearing a black dress. Even slipped on high heels. Visibly red lipstick. Scheduled a Zoom meeting at 4:50 pm (Participant 1) to check myself on video, smooth down any fly-aways in advance. I pour myself a glass of red wine, and hit the link at 5:07 to be not-too-eager. He’s there in a denim jacket over a black t-shirt. His face fills the screen, and his eyes are a warm brown. There’s music playing.
“’Cheese Cake,’” I say. “My favorite piece of Dexter Gordon’s.”
He smiles a hello, and raises his glass to the screen. I do the same, “Clink, cheers.”
“Black becomes you, too,” he says. “But then, just about any color would, I think.”
“So, what did you think of the retreat?” I ask. I’m a little nervous. Have been on one disastrous Bumble date since a friend forced me to sign up last month.
He enjoyed the retreat, everyone was so welcoming, so committed…
“My husband used to play the sax,” I interrupt. “This piece, especially.”
He raises that same eyebrow. “He stopped playing?”
“I lost him. Two years ago. Cancer.”
We both sip quietly. And the music stops.
“I’m not used to…have not been on a date, well only one earlier this month, and it wasn’t great, my friend made me sign up for one of these dating sites, said I can’t mourn forever, although sorry, this is not really a date, although it’s kind of feeling like one and…sorry, feel like I am babbling which I… “
“He was a very lucky guy to have been with you for… how many years?”
“Twenty-eight. We met when we were in college. I have two grown daughters. Tell me about you.”
“She left me for someone else, after 20 years together. A rich lawyer, way richer than a civil rights kind of lawyer. We have a son, in Seattle.”
How much more could his eyes say? They are luminous on my screen.
“So, you’re into strategic planning?”
He laughs. “Bad deflection. More like I plan strategically.” He plays more music.
“Wonderful. Another favorite. Grover Washington. ‘Wine Light.’”
We gaze at each other.
“Can I kiss you?” He leans in close.
I do too. We kiss.
It’s called a touch screen after all.
Mohini Malhotra lives in Washington, DC, is an international development economist, adjunct professor, and founder of a social enterprise (www.artbywomen.gallery). Her fiction has appeared in the anthologies This Is What America Looks Like and Stories for Home, and in literary journals Gravel, West Texas Literary Review, Silver Birch Press, Flash Frontier, and A Quiet Courage, amongst others.
Photo by Alexander Sinn on Unsplash