F Words

“Who likes fleece?”

Holly was ferociously flipping through the pages of a Land’s End holiday catalog, a quizzical expression scrunching up her forehead.

“Sheep, I’m guessing?” Jeff said.

“Some humans must, too,” Holly chuckled. “Just look at the brightly colored articles of unnecessary clothing on these over-smiling, cartoonlike people, all ensconced in fleece.”

They were sitting on the couch, killing time before the next round of pandemic-imposed cleaning, cooking, or Zooming.

“Who are these people?” said Jeff. “Do we know anyone who wears this stuff? And if so, can we convince them to keep their coats on?”

“You’re funny,” Holly said. “Not Fiona Hill funny, but funny.”

Jeff smiled. “Hey, how many other fabrics besides fleece can also be used as verbs?”

Holly straightened up from her slump, ready to compete. “Great question! Lace? Yes. Cotton for sure.”

“Well, canvas?”

“Absolutely. If we remove the accent from lamé, would that count?”

“Hmm. A bit of a stretch,” said Jeff. “No fabric pun intended. What about mesh? Is it a fabric?”

“Frankly, you and I are probably among the least fabric-oriented people on earth. But let’s count it in. What about felt? And what exactly is felting? Mary Ann mentioned it on the staff call this morning. She’d learned it from her late mother and seems quite passionate about it, especially now. To stave off the boredom.”

“Is Mary Ann the one who said her life would be so much more interesting if only she’d been named Simone?”

“Yes!” Holly laughed. “So, what the hell is it? Is felting a process, a fabric, or an unearthing of feelings better left unexpressed?”

“Is it the good turtle soup or merely the mock?” asked Jeff. “Honey, let’s face it. Unlike Mary Ann slash Simone, yours was not a family who felted OR felt. Yours was a family that said witty, wounding things to each other and then went to your rooms and rued about it for the next thirty years.”

Holly sighed and got up off the couch to stretch, leaving a bevy of dented pillows Jeff started to pound and fluff. She headed to the kitchen to dump the catalog in the recycling bin and poured herself some apple juice. “Want some?” she called out. Jeff was already standing behind her in the tiny space.

“Sounds delish,” he said.

“God, I’m SO bored, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Everybody is. But I start from the premise if you’re not a conjoined twin, do you really have anything to complain about?” He poured his juice and put it back in the fridge.

Holly took a big gulp. “I guess I’m a little jealous of Mary Ann and her passion for felting. Maybe we need a hobby.”

“I miss the gym,” said Jeff.

“Of course you do. I keep thinking about that young gal we saw on Second Avenue last week. When we risked our lives and took a walk outside.”

“The one screaming into the phone?”

“Yeah. Without a mask. Though was she on the phone? Everything’s a blur. It looked to me like she was directly beseeching God in the heavens. She was looking upward and begging him to make a guy fall madly in love with her. I think she was calling God. With all that pent-up pandemic passion.”

They headed back into the main room and to what they were calling their desks even though it was simply individually carved-out spaces at the dining room table. Holly clicked the jellyfish cam on her laptop, taking a deep breath as she watched them balloon up and float like sodden parachutes.

“So, Marty had two more MOHs this week,” said Jeff.

“Oh no. Gosh, that is too bad. They are carving that poor guy up like a pumpkin.”

“Yeah. And he had his first wellness appointment. Finally.”

“You’re kidding. How did it go?”

“I feel really old that my brother is now in the wellness appointment stage of life. They asked him to say all the words he could think of that started with the letter F.”

“Could he get past the obvious? Jesus! How did he do?” asked Holly.

“Not well apparently.”

“We’ve got Fs!” Holly was jazzed. “Felt, fleece, fabric, Fiona. Let’s practice spewing F words as a hobby. Even though we don’t need that test yet, we could start cramming now. This is fantastic! Another F. Also, falter, flag, fail, fenestration…”

Jeff coughed. “How about phlegm?”

“That’s a P, you idiot,” Holly said.

“I know; I wanted to be sure you were sharp enough to play this game.”

“Haha. Listen, I’m thinking we need a system. Like working our way through F words using the vowels.”

“Start with Fa words, then Fe words? Interesting,” said Jeff.

“Exactly! Fascist, fanatic, farcical, farthing, fatwa. Then feather, feign, felon, fervent. Or we could flip — another F! — through the dictionary to see where the abundance of F words falls by a vowel. I’m giddy!”

Holly leapt up and crossed the cluttered room, stepping over shopping bags of paper products.

“Do we still even have a dictionary? We could do this online,” said Jeff.

“Yeah, I’ve got the old one from college somewhere. Here it is.”

From their overstuffed bookcase, Holly pulled off the shelf the formerly brazen red-, now fading rose-, covered dictionary, its spine partially separated and its slammed-shut pages sprinkled randomly in Seurat fashion with a hint of pale, pinkish scattered dots. The carved-out and thumbnail-sized dividers appeared intact, indented with gold letters stacked against black backgrounds, alphabetized in sequence from top to bottom along the right side.

Holly skimmed through the Fs. “It looks like there’s a fairly hefty section starting with Fl. We could maybe zero in on that initially? Flag, flicker, float, floss. Isn’t this more fun than felting?” She looked at Jeff.

“But is it ethical for us to prep for our future cognition tests?” he asked. “And will we forget all this by the time we do take the test? Or what if they change the letter, and this is all for naught?”

“We need to stay focused and practice. What’s wrong with preparing? We always study for tests. If only Marty had.”

“Poor Marty. It’s in our genes, I’m afraid,” said Jeff. “The last time I saw my mother alive she was talking to her dinner plates. ‘Hello, Pretty Plate.’ I actually heard her say that. She was smiling.”

“I’m glad she was smiling. I promise to stop you if you start talking to any form of tableware.”

“Thank you.”

“Look, Marty has been a bit out of it for a couple of years now,” said Holly. “I know you remember the incident when he was eating Tutu’s dog food.”

“In his defense, he thought it was pâté,” Jeff said.

“When have we ever served pâté in this house?”

“Tutu, we hardly knew you,” said Jeff. Their dog had died a few weeks earlier, after a long illness. Holly had cooked for Tutu every night for months, rolling tiny, individual carrot-and-potato balls, the only thing Tutu would eat. She’d line them up in militaristic order on one of Jeff’s mother’s plates. When Jeff offered to help, Holly scowled at the messy arrangement he’d made of the rolled balls and scooted him out of the kitchen.

“He was a good dog,” Holly said.

Jeff coughed.

“What’s with the cough? Should we worry?” asked Holly.

“Not at all,” said Jeff. He cleared his throat. “The doctor also gave Marty the three-words-to-remember-throughout-the-exam test. I think between the three words and the F words, he choked. It was all just too much for him.”

“Okay, we need to practice the three-word combinations too. Can you research those online?”

“Sure. I think they’re pretty random. So, you need to come up with a way to order and recall them. Here’s one: banana, sunrise, chair.”

“Okay,” said Holly. “So, we’re on vacation on an island, sitting and having breakfast. Or we’re monkeys.”

“Do monkeys take vacations?” asked Jeff. “I hope so. Here’s another: village, kitchen, baby.”

“Okay, we’re feeding Ben as a baby in a kitchen in Greenwich Village.”

“Nice. Very smooth.” Jeff removed his drugstore reading glasses. “When will we ever see Ben in person again? I miss him.”

“Me too. But we know he’s fine. Ben will be fine. We’ll see him once it’s safe.”

Five years ago, they had met Ben and his fiancée Mindy for brunch at a Brooklyn restaurant. They were winding up their meal, tempted to order high-calorie desserts, when they heard shots — stunning, abrupt, multiple POPs — coming from outside on the gentrified street. Before registering what had happened, before Jeff and Holly could process what the sound meant, Ben had scooped them up, raced them all into a restroom at a dizzying speed his parents had not successfully managed in decades. They all crowded into one stall, smacked up against the metal walls, the smell of terror coming off each of them, accompanied by a hint of Lysol fumes and potpourri. It was an effective way to get instantly closer to their son’s new fiancée. Jeff and Holly had never been so alert in their lives. “Should we lift our feet, to hide?” asked Holly, as if Ben were some kind of expert in such a situation, rather than a second-year med student. “No,” Ben whispered, “let’s just be very quiet.”

Jeff was sweating profusely on his forehead. Holly later swore she could hear all their heartbeats rhythmically pounding, echoing in unison in the confined space, all of them bug-eyed except for Ben.

Ben was focused, listening intently beyond the stall to the sirens and the yelling voices out on the street. Taking measure.

“We just need to wait for safety,” Ben had calmly reassured them.

Unlike now, it eventually came. They were freed, finally, fortunately.

Holly went to the window and looked down at the empty street. In a few hours, they’d be clanging pots to cheer on the healthcare workers, especially Ben.

“I’m on mute and joining a Zoom call,” Jeff said. He tidied his uncut hair with his hands. “I can’t wait for all of this to be over. I want to be finished!”

“Finnish?” Holly turned to look at Jeff at the table, her arms protectively clasping the dictionary against her chest.

Jeff grinned at her. “Sure. Why not? Let’s be Finnish. I bet they like fleece.”

Photo by Bits and Splits/Adobe Stock


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