The second lock-down had caught them all off guard. They had been warned of it for months. The numbers were growing. The hospitals were running out of beds. Somehow, they had just refused to accept that such a thing was really possible.
In many ways it was worse than the first one back in April of the year before. The anxiety of the unknown had been replaced by the knowledge that they were in for a long, dark haul.
It was during these darkest of days in New York City when a group of former friends and co-workers received the text from Amy. On the very day the lock-down was lifted, whenever that might be, she was going to a have a party.
The guests would be mostly people from Hartley’s, the bar many of them had worked at. Hartley’s, a downtown fixture for over a century. Hartely’s, which had survived two World Wars, 9/11, a couple of hurricanes and floods and pretty much everything else you could throw at it. Except Corona.
Hartley’s was gone for good now.
None of them had jobs anymore, except Margot and Sharon’s boyfriend, William. And honestly, most of them weren’t feeling very festive when they got Amy’s invite. But she said it was important. They all needed something to look forward to. A reminder that things wouldn’t stay as horrible as they had been.
To emphasize this point, Amy introduced a special rule for the party. Each person had to decide on one thing they wanted which the other party guests could possibly do for them. Nothing which had to be purchased. It had to be something the others could willingly grant, in or around, the time of the actual party.
Greg had originally balked at the whole idea. The party was bad idea enough. The idea of secret wishes was just too much. Too contrary to his mood. Too much an attempt to sugar-coat the difficult times that lie ahead.
But Amy convinced him. She called and told him how important this was to certain people. Juliette, in particular, was having a really bad time of it. She had always struggled with depression. The second lock-down had almost put her under for good. She needed something to hang on to.
So, grudgingly Greg had gone along with it. He had come up with his End of Lock-Down Party wish and sent it off to Amy. His envelope would remain sealed until that day. Everyone participated. Even Tod who had since moved back to San Diego with his family.
Months had passed since then. Christmas had come and gone. As had New Year’s. It was a holiday season canceled or so heavily altered it should have been. The grimmest Greg could ever remember. And the surge got even worse afterward.
Thousands more died. Thousands more got sick. Thousands more businesses closed, never to reopen.
But then, sometime around May, it got better. A vaccine had been approved and had been widely distributed. Treatments had been developed to save many of those who would have died previously. Ever so slowly, the pandemic was contained, if not controlled.
The lock-down was lifted. The party was finally going to happen.
Greg was one of the first to arrive. Amy and her girlfriend Lisa were hard at work getting things ready. When she opened the door to her York Avenue apartment Greg just stood there. It all felt so strange now.
In theory, they were all still supposed to be social distancing and wearing masks. But fuck theory. When Amy saw Greg standing in front of her she rushed toward him and hugged him tightly.
Out of habit he felt the urge to pull away defensively. But then he let himself go and just enjoyed it. Feeling her pressed against him. The warmth of another human. It shook him up far more than he had been prepared for.
He went in and helped Lisa finish making the tapas for the party. The food looked incredible. Given that Lisa was formerly a sous chef at a well-regarded restaurant in Brooklyn, he shouldn’t have been surprised.
The other guests arrived. Those that were still in New York anyway. It turned out that several others beside Tod had left. Marcus and Tanya had gotten married and bought a house upstate. Cathleen, Dave Bicks and Deborah had all moved back home with their parents. Tyler had moved to Los Angeles for work.
Only about a dozen of the twenty or so of those originally invited made it that night. Among them was Juliette, looking beautiful and perky. Not at all the fragile, sullen figure Greg was prepared for given the details of her struggles which Amy had shared with him.
And then there were Ricky, Animal, Enrique and Steven. Four back of house guys known as much for working while drunk as doing their jobs well.
Brittany, Rachel, Sharon, Margot and most of the rest of the servers were also there. So, were the manager and assistant manager. And, of course, Greg and all the rest of the bartenders. Micheal had even driven all the way in from Connecticut to be there.
Things quickly fell back into their old ways. Stories were told about how time had been passed during the lock-down. Fears were shared about their futures. But overall, the most shocking thing about it was how familiar it all felt. Old routines. Old habits. Almost as if it could have taken place two years ago.
It was only when Amy said it was time to open the envelops containing the party requests that the mood changed. It was decided that any envelopes from people not able to attend would remain sealed forever.
They were burned in an over-elaborate ceremony featuring crude commentaries by Brittany and Rachel about what sort of outlandish requests various people had probably made.
The remaining requests were tossed into a huge bowl and pulled out in random order. Three of the first five were all by people wanting to cook or bake with their friends again. Banana Bread was specifically mentioned in two of them.
In spite of Amy’s warnings, there were also several that were sexual. Steve’s was about all the women getting naked. He was roundly shouted down. He offered to get naked himself if that would help persuade them. The rightly deserved abuse would have been downright cruel if hadn’t also been so funny.
Another request was met with a similar response slightly later. Ricky had asked to see Amy and Brittany kiss. Amy was not impressed. Her anger so clear that the mood got heavy and the whole party seemed to deflate.
It was only Brittany’s intervention which saved the situation. “I’ll do it. No problem” she said. “Not with me you won’t” Amy said. “How about me then?” Rachel said. “Works for me. Come here, honey.”
They made a big show of it. Neither was gay. In fact, both had been with their respective boyfriends for years. But they had no qualms about any of it. In fact, as Ricky and Animal stood with their mouths open, the two women went from tender to a far more passionate and sexual kiss. Cheering and jokes erupted as they finished, held hands, and took a bow together.
Amy was clearly still upset. She tried to let it go and not ruin her own party. But the moment had been tarnished. It wasn’t just the nature of Ricky’s childish request, it was the overall feeling that the party had just not been what she had hoped for.
The food was great. The company was good. But somehow, she had built it up in her mind as something which should have been far more monumental and less trivial. She had spent months imagining things that just hadn’t happened.
She was trying to come to grips with her disappointment when Lisa handed her another envelope. It was Juliette’s.
“No, please don’t” she said. Everyone looked at her. “Please don’t open it?” Amy asked. “No. I mean, yes. It’s stupid” Juliette said. She looked extremely uncomfortable and embarrassed. “It can’t be any stupider than Ricky’s” Brittany volunteered. “No, that’s fine. If you don’t want us to….”
“That’s not really fair” Micheal said. “You said that one of the rules for the party was everyone had to make a request and it would be opened whenever lock-down ended. No exceptions. That’s what you said. “No, exceptions.” “
“Dude, if she doesn’t want to do it, don’t force it” Greg said. Michael glared at him. The two of them had never gotten along. More than once they had come close to blows behind the bar.
Juliette interrupted. “No, he’s right. Go ahead. It’s nothing. I shouldn’t have made such a big deal out of it” she said. “You sure?” Amy asked. “Yeah, go ahead. Really.”
Amy looked at Juliette offering her one last chance to change her mind. She assured her that it was fine.
Amy opened the envelope and pulled out Juliette’s letter.
“I just want everything to be normal again.”