Too pooped to plop, Bob merely crumpled into the nearest chair to monitor the cats as they emerged from their drug-induced stupors. Having finally arrived at an airport hotel after a 15-hour endurance test, we were emerging from our own moving-induced stupor. Our relocation gymnastics that day had ranged from a broken elevator to a quarter-mile footslog through Dulles International Airport like berserkers on a raid—eyes agog, hair amok, tongues distended, clothes saturated with dirt, sweat, and fears—lugging two cats, two carry-ons, and a bag to be checked. Now it was nearly 10 p.m., and none of us had eaten since last night. Like a deflated berserker, I scavenged for food.

Food. The word echoed like a mantra through my guts and drove me past hotel-lobby snacks. I stumbled out the door and into the unknown avenue of airport lodgings. From an Uber, I had seen a 7-Eleven. Not what I had in mind, but a source of food nonetheless. And a Denny’s a few blocks farther. Should I walk that far? Could I walk that far? Before contemplating such complexities, the implausible ruckus and neon-blue allure of a boisterous bar enticed me across the cul-de-sac. Implausible because I was inured by ubiquitous lockdowns. Ruckus because the DJ had pumped up the noise. Boisterous because it was Friday night and people (real people, not Zoom avatars) clumped around tables, clinking glasses, feasting on entrees (not groceries or takeout) and laughing.

Laughing—the incantation either mocked the Zombie Apocalypse or caricatured Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Granted, the COVID pandemic is no match for Poe’s pestilence, and the Oyster Bar and Grille—though amply provisioned—was hardly Prospero’s castle. Yet merrymakers reveled with the same quintessential abandon of a non-infected safe haven.

Threading my way along the boundary of orange concrete parking curbs, my senses were piqued by the bar, yet my sensibilities restrained them. Teetering between disjointed realities, and knowing I could not dwell in both, I pondered my alternatives—a masked convenience store promising pre-packaged predictability, or the unmasqued pub pulsing with perfumed provisions and people-rich tang. Stomach raged against intellect. Food, I chanted. Food. Food. Food. A portal appeared and in a death-defying leap of hunger, I tore through the veil that separated me from epicurean debauchery.

Food! I ordered two grouper specials. The bartender, who doubled as my waiter, sized me up as such professions are wont to do.

“From up north?”

I nodded. “Just moved here. Just. Got off the plane an hour ago. I’m staying across the street.”

It was his turn to nod. “Florida is in Phase One of reopening.”

Ah, the party scene now made sense. Virginia seemed like more than five hours and a thousand miles away. Not only had it been a long day, it had been a long week, starting with Bob driving our car down here. After cramming a butt-load of administrative details into two days, he parked the car in our new garage, flew back to Virginia, and rented the car that we loaded with cats and baggage when the movers left.

Based on our vet’s advice, we decided to fly with Ron and Nina rather than subject them to a three-day road trip. Get everything over at once, she suggested—sort of like ripping off a band-aid. We dosed them with gabapentin, restricted food and water to prevent smelly incidents, and packed them into their airline-approved in-cabin carriers. That was the easy part.

As organized as I had prided myself in being, last minute details had cascaded into eleventh-hour foibles. The cleaning crew arrived too early; the movers left too late. The airport shuttle driver unapologetically dumped us as far away as possible from the special accommodations counter where we needed to check in. After presenting the requisite health certificates, we hauled ass to TSA, where we requested a private screening—no way did we want to chance escaped cats on drugs running loose around the airport. After regrouping and rehydrating, we made it to the gate with enough time to dose the cats again. Three hours later, we checked into a pet-friendly airport hotel. The movers would arrive two day later. Tomorrow, we would retrieve the car, run errands, and have dinner with friends.

Dinner. Food. Food! The aroma of fresh seafood restored me to the present moment. The bartender handed me two orders of local grouper. Real food. Still take-out. But the clientele promised otherwise.  

“Thanks,” I said.

“Welcome to Florida,” he smiled.

Published by Patti M. Walsh

A storyteller since her first fib, Patti M. Walsh is an award-winning author who writes short stories, novels, and memoirs. Her first novel, GHOST GIRL, is a middle-grade coming-of-age ghost story based on Celtic mythology. In addition to extensive experience teaching and counseling, Patti is a Hermes award-winning business and technical writer. Visit www.pattimwalsh.com.

4 thoughts on “Unmasqued

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