How long until we can touch?

The sun beats down on the empty suburban streets as if it’s still summer. Just weeks ago they were filled with people racing to make the train for work. Climbing into their cars to hit the beach. Now they’re deserted. Eerily quiet besides the lone cawing of a crow and the rattling sound of the delivery guy’s bicycle as he glides along the pavement.

Nathan arrives at the house. A typical Federation. The Rising Sun motif on the front gable nods to the new dawn of Australia at the time. The country is yearning for a new dawn now. The whole planet is.

As he creaks open the gate and follows the brick pathway through the neatly manicured front yard, Nathan carries the warm cardboard pizza box in one hand and his smartphone in the other. He shoots a quick glance at the photo of the guy who made the order as he reaches the front door.

His name’s Jason and he’s as hot as the weather, Nathan thinks. He looks a similar age, early twenties. Probably rents the house, Nathan decides, unless he lives with his parents.

Nathan knows what he’s meant to do right now. He knows the protocol. But Jason is just too damn cute to miss out on seeing in the flesh. He rings the vintage doorbell and is surprised it still works. They often don’t with these old homes, he thinks. No dog bark greets him. And neither does Jason. He rings again. After a few more seconds the door ajars to reveal the fraction of a silhouette.

‘What are you doing?’ Jason asks through the door. His voice is deep and accent thick.

‘Sorry,’ Nathan says, his facemask rendering his words opaque. He realises he’s made a mistake. ‘I’ll leave it right here.’ He slowly crouches down and places the pizza box on the welcome mat. He then turns and makes his way back to his bike.

Just as he reaches the front gate, Nathan hears the door open fully. He turns around. Jason is stood in a plain white tee and grey sweatpants. He’s as tanned as his photo suggests and his blue eyes even more piercing. His wavy blonde locks look like they’ve been bleached from days on end spent at the beach.

‘Sorry, mate,’ Jason says. ‘Gotta follow the rules and all that. Self-isolating.’

Nathan pauses and offers a brief nod. ‘All good, mate. I get it. I shouldn’t have hung around. Hard to beat old habits, right?’ He realises his question is laced with flirt as soon as the words come out of his mouth, but he doesn’t regret it.

Jason gives a small smile. ‘All good. Come back round in ten days and you can come in for a beer.’

Nathan laughs as he climbs on his bike. His suspicion must be right. This delivery app might as well be Grindr, he thinks. ‘Deal. See ya then.’

‘See ya.’

Jason picks up the pizza box and shuts the door.

Three Days Later

Nathan throws on a t-shirt and some gym shorts, even though he’ll be going nowhere near the gym. Instead, he’ll be socially-distancing at home until it’s time to get back on his bike and make some money. It’s not really what he wants to be doing right now, but with most of his friends either losing their jobs or having to use up their leave to stay home, he feels fortunate to have work.

Nathan hasn’t been able to stop thinking about Jason since he dropped the pizza round. This is unlike him. All of his relationships to date have resulted from a pick-up in Stonewall followed by going back to his Darlo apartment. His longest lasted three nights.

He wonders what Jason is doing now. It’s only a week to go until he can take him up on that beer – if he wasn’t joking. It’s always hard to tell on the scene. If he really is gay, Jason thinks as he nestles into his sofa and turns on the TV. Maybe he was just messing around. Nathan thinks of himself as pretty straight acting and talking, so maybe Jason couldn’t even tell.

He’s just my type though, Nathan thinks as he starts trawling through Netflix. He’s already binged all the good stuff, but what’s left is better than nothing. Better than going on Grindr and seeing all the guys he can’t come into contact with now. Or scrolling through all the positivity quotes on Instagram and the memes on Facebook.

Before he has a chance to pick a show, Nathan’s phone begins to vibrate. Mum. He considers ignoring the call but decides that wouldn’t be right. He swipes the FaceTime call open and is greeted by both his parents sat far enough apart so they’re not touching, but still able to fit the screen.

‘Hey, guys. How’s it going?’

‘It’s good!’ His mum beams. ‘Have you heard the news?’

‘What news?’

Nathan’s dad rolls his eyes. ‘Don’t you follow what’s going on in the world, Son? Still no new cases in Wuhan.’

A rush of guilt and relief surges through Nathan. He knows he should be keeping up with what’s going on more closely, especially where his parents live. But he’s got enough to think about here in Australia. And the situation feels worse here now anyway.

‘That’s awesome guys,’ Nathan says genuinely. ‘I’m really happy to hear that.’

‘Things aren’t so good where you are,’ Nathan’s mum says with her brow furrowed. ‘We’ve been watching on the news. Stupid Australians on the beach working on their tans and not taking the right precautions. I hope you have been?’

Nathan bites his lip. ‘Yes, of course. Only going out if I need to pop to the shop. Wearing my facemask. You don’t need to worry about me.’

‘And not still doing that silly delivery job?’ Nathan’s dad asks. The intensity of his eyes sends a chill down his son’s spine.

‘No, Dad,’ he lies. ‘I already told you that.’

‘Good,’ his mum says. ‘Okay, well hopefully this will all be over soon and you can come and see us, okay?’

‘Maybe you’ll consider coming home for good,’ his dad adds.

‘Don’t start that now. You’re the ones who sent me here, remember?’

‘Yes, to study,’ his mum bites. ‘And to find a nice girl. Which you still haven’t done.’

‘Exactly,’ his dad says. ‘So if you’re not going to find a nice girlfriend there, we’ll find you one here.’

‘Okay, I’m going,’ Nathan says abruptly. ‘Glad you’re both well. Don’t worry about me. Goodbye.’

When he hangs up the call, Nathan notices he has a text message from an unknown number.

Hey mate, it’s Jason. Pizza boy. Getting sick of tinned food and can’t keep ordering junk. Could you do me a favour and pick me up some fresh fruit and veggies? I’ll transfer you the $. Let me know.

Nathan sits staring at his screen for a few minutes, reading the words over and over. How did he even get his number? That’s when he remembers. He messaged Jason from the app to let him know his pizza was on its way. He must have saved it. He must be gay.

Nathan didn’t need to debate it much longer. He replies: Sure, I’ll be round in a couple of hours.

*

Nathan rings the doorbell and waits. His backpack is filled with as many supplies as he could find, which was pretty limited, but he did his best. Kale, potatoes, bananas, sourdough, and eggs – even a pack of toilet rolls.

Jason opens the door. He’s wearing the same clothes from the other day and looking just as hot, Nathan thinks.

‘Hey, mate,’ Jason says. ‘Thanks so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.’

‘No worries. I’m a delivery guy after all, right?’

Jason laughs a touch more than necessary. Nathan’s smile grows bigger.

‘Wanna come in?’ Jason asks. ‘I’ll keep my distance, obviously.’

Nathan holds his breath for a few moments and the silence borders awkward. ‘Sure.’

As Nathan follows Jason down the hallway, his mother’s face flashes before him.

Inside, the house is brighter than Nathan imagined. It’s clear that it’s been renovated not long ago. They enter the kitchen, which is appended by a dining room, which is appended by a small coutyard.

‘This place yours?’ Nathan asks, placing his backpack on the dining table, beginning to unload the goods.

‘Nah, it’s an Airbnb. I came back early when we were told they were closing the borders. I was backpacking around Europe.’

‘Oh yeah?’ Nathan wonders who we is.

‘Yeah, it was awesome over there. Sucks we had to cut it short, but I understand. I’ve been in self-isolation ever since.’

Nathan gives a small nod. ‘It’s rough, hey.’

‘Sure is. But it won’t be long to go. How much do I owe ya?’

‘Fifty’s fine.’

Jason looks down at the supplies. ‘There’s more than that here. The toilet paper’s worth more than that alone.’ He takes a hundred dollar note out of his wallet, pauses, and then puts it back. ‘Guess I shouldn’t hand you this. Just in case. Can I transfer?’

Nathan tips his head. ‘Sure. I’ll text you my details later.’

Jason opens the fridge. ‘Want a beer?’

Nathan shrugs. ‘Sure. Why not?’

Jason pulls a bottle from his otherwise empty fridge and gestures for Nathan to do the same. Jason tilts the neck of his beer to Nathan’s, a small overflow foams down his hand. ‘Cheers, mate.’

‘Cheers.’

The pair clink their bottles and take a swig.

‘So, what have you been doing while isolating?’ Nathan asks.

‘What, you mean apart from watching porn?’

Nathan laughs. ‘What else is there to do when you’re stuck at home?’

‘Nah, I actually draw. I mean, I used to, when I was a teenager. Was the only thing I liked at school. But I kinda just stopped doing it. Never really knew what I wanted to do with my life. Just taken random jobs since leaving school and saved enough money to see the world. And look how that turned out.’

Nathan rolls his eyes. ‘Bloody typical, right?’

‘Yep. But we can’t complain. People have it a lot worse. I know I’m privileged to even get to travel.’

Nathan’s taken aback by Jason’s genuine humility. Even though he’s physically attracted to him, he’d assumed he’d be an arrogant Eastern Suburb’s guy. Probably the son of some rich business owner who allows him to spend all his time surfing and picking up girls – or guys, he still isn’t completely sure. Perhaps he’d been too quick to judge.

‘Wanna sit down?’ Jason asks. ‘I’ll sit on the other sofa so we’ve got enough space between us.’

Nathan laughs as he sits down. ‘Thanks. So, you’re drawing again?’

‘Yeah, I am. That’s one good thing that’s come out of all this. Got my creative juices flowing.’

‘Can I see?’

Jason offers a half-smile that makes the hairs on the back of Nathan’s back stand up. ‘Not yet. Maybe soon.’

There’s a silence that stretches on a few moments, but it’s not uncomfortable. Nathan realises he feels at home, something he didn’t expect.

‘So what about you?’ Jason asks. ‘What’s your story?’

‘Well, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m Chinese. I moved here as a teenager to study.’

‘Oh yeah? I wasn’t sure if you were born here. You don’t have much of an accent.’

‘Yeah, it’s faded over the years. My parents get annoyed when they speak to me, think I sound too Aussie now.’

Jason laughs. ‘Nothing wrong with that, mate. So whereabouts in China are you from?’

Nathan opens his mouth to respond but holds back his words. ‘Outside Shanghai. Do you know China?’

‘Not very well. I’d like to go one day.’

Nathan isn’t convinced Jason is telling the truth.

‘Hey, do you wanna stay and watch a movie?’ Jason asks, picking up the remote as if he already knows the answer.

‘Sure.’ Nathan leans back into the sofa as Netflix chimes to life. ‘Nothing about quarantine or pandemics, please.’

Jason smiles, scrolling down to comedies.

*

Nathan’s eyes flick open. He shifts his vision towards Jason who is also asleep on the adjacent sofa. Nathan resists the urge to stare at how handsome he looks when sleeping and checks his phone.

‘Fuck,’ he says aloud.

Jason opens his eyes and looks equally as disorientated. ‘You okay, mate?’ He rubs his eyes and yawns. ‘I’m jetlagged, what’s your excuse?’

‘My shift started an hour ago. I have heaps of missed calls on my phone. Shit.’

‘Shit, yeah. You’re a delivery guy, right?’

Nathan jumps up and starts pacing around the room. ‘Yeah, but I also work at FoodWorks in Newtown. Worked I should say.’

‘Hey, why don’t you just say you feel a bit ill? And that you’re having to self-isolate?’

Nathan pauses for a few moments. That isn’t a bad idea, he thinks. ‘I could, I guess. But I need the money.’

There’s a bloated silence. ‘Look, I didn’t end up spending half as much as I thought I would on my travels. Let me give you some cash. Whatever you’d get paid for the time you should be self-isolating.’

Nathan’s eyes widen. ‘I can’t do that.’

‘I’m serious.’

There’s something about Jason’s tone that Nathan likes.

‘You can stay here if you like,’ Jason continues. ‘We’ll keep our distance, obviously. Just in case. But it could be fun. We’ll keep each other company.’

Nathan thinks for a few beats. His heart and head wrestle, but he ultimately goes with his heart. ‘Okay. I could still do some deliveries, I suppose.’

A wide smile stretches across Jason’s face. ‘Cool. You better let them know.’

Nathan gives a quick nod, goes into another room and calls his boss.

He wonders if he’s lost his mind.

*

‘Okay, monsieur – your dinner is served.’ Jason points towards the dining room.

‘Thanks, mate. You really didn’t have to cook for me.’

‘Of course! You’re my guest, aren’t you? I used gloves the whole time just to be safe.’

Nathan smiles. He finds it sweet how this guy’s being so cautious. He thinks about his mum and how she might like him. In another lifetime, perhaps.

Nathan takes a seat at the dining table and Jason places a plate of steaming spaghetti Bolognese in front of him.

‘I’m guessing you eat meat, mate?’ Jason winks.

Nathan tries to contain a smile. ‘I sure do. Thanks.’

‘I know we should be eating this with red wine,’ Jason says, ‘but I’m all out. So we’ll have to stick to beer.’

‘Beer’s good.’ Nathan lifts his bottle to knock against Jason’s. ‘I can bring red wine when I next go to the shop. Cheers.’

‘Cheers.’

The pair tuck into the meal.

‘I’m obsessed with pasta,’ Jason says twisting the spaghetti in his fork. ‘Never used to be but I got the bug in Italy.’ He realises what he just said and winces. ‘Bad choice of words.’

Nathan laughs. ‘You’re all good, mate.’ His smile slows, before coming to a halt. ‘How was it out there? Had it all kicked off?’

Jason takes a bite. A rebellious string of spaghetti dangles from his lips before he sucks it out of sight. ‘Kinda. We’d actually moved on from there when shit really hit the fan. We were in France when we realised it was time for us to get home.’

Nathan can’t contain his curiosity any longer. ‘Who were you travelling with?’

‘My friend, Tess.’

Nathan takes a swig of his beer. ‘Is she your girlfriend?’

Jason smiles with his eyes. ‘You know I’m gay, right?’

Nathan breathes his relief. ‘Okay, I had a suspicion. But I wasn’t completely sure.’

‘Next, you’re going to tell me you’re not.’

Nathan fauxs a frown. ‘I’m not.’

There’s a brief silence before they both break into laughter.

‘Okay, good,’ Jason says. ‘Otherwise, my radar is right off.’

A short silence.

‘I’m glad you are,’ Jason continues. ‘I think you’re really hot.’

A warm feeling permeates Nathan’s body. A feeling that’s completely new to him. ‘I think you are too.’

Jason swigs his beer. ‘I’m glad we’re on the same page. It’s actually quite… hot, isn’t it? This situation.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Just the fact we can’t get close. These days things can move fast, it’s kinda nice for it to move slow.’

Nathan smiles his agreement. He hadn’t thought of it that way.

‘You take my bed tonight,’ Jason says out of nowhere.

‘No, it’s okay. I’ll take the sofa.’

‘I insist.’

Once again, Nathan knows he’s fighting a losing battle. ‘Okay, sure. Thanks.’

‘No worries. Least I can do to thank you for bringing the supplies. Wish I could be joining you in there though.’

Nathan smirks. ‘So do I.’

The Next Day

Nathan rolls over and inhales with his face on Jason’s pillow. He can’t quite put his finger on the scent, but it makes him feel good. A masculine smell. Not body odour, but not a fragrance. He wonders if that’s what Jason’s skin smells like. He thinks about how he would taste.

As if on cue, the bedroom door opens with Jason standing in the doorway. He’s wearing his grey sweatpants but this time no t-shirt. In the morning light, Nathan can make out his tan has been replaced with an insipid hue. His beachy hair is slicked back with sweat. Dark circles frame his bleary eyes.

They’d stayed up longer than they should talking through the night, but the facemask confirmed this was more serious than lack of sleep.

‘Uh, hi,’ Nathan says.

‘Sorry to alarm you, mate.’ Jason’s voice is barely audible through the mask. ‘I feel rough this morning. Been up much of the night. Cold sweats.’

Nathan’s eyes widen with gritted teeth. ‘Shit.’

Jason’s stance shifts slightly. ‘You reckon I’ve got it?’

‘I dunno. I don’t want to be dramatic, but this shit’s pretty scary. My parents–’ He cuts himself off.

‘Your parents what?’ Jason asks.

‘Nothing. I’ve just heard heaps of stories, you know?’

Nathan can see the fear in Jason’s eyes.

‘Yeah, you’re right. I better call my GP. See if I can get tested.’

Nathan gives a quick nod. ‘I think that’s a good idea.’

‘You should get going,’ Jason says plainly.

Nathan nods. He can’t work out if the knot in his stomach is from fear or disappointment. Or is it a symptom? ‘I know. I hope you’re okay.’

‘Cheers, mate. I’ll be fine. I hope you are too.’

Nathan shows himself out. He gets a small bottle of hand sanitiser out of his backpack and lathers it into his hands before jumping on his bike.

Two Days Later

The rain thrashes against the windows of Nathan’s apartment as if it’s trying to get in. The warm autumn weather has been building up for days so he doesn’t mind the sudden change. He can’t stop himself from thinking about Jason. How he’s doing couped up all on his own.

On one hand, he feels pissed off with him. Who is this guy who out of the blue asked him to bring him groceries and allow him into his house when he could potentially have the virus? But on the other hand, if he is infected, Nathan will feel worried about him. He’d want to be there to make sure he’s okay. Is he insane? Why does he suddenly care so much about some guy he’s just met?

Nathan turns the volume up of the movie he’s been half-watching to hear it over the rain. A text message comes through from Jason.

Hey mate. Had the test. It’s positive I’m afraid. So sorry I asked you to come round.

Nathan’s heart stops. Why had he been so stupid? Without thinking, he picks up the phone and calls him.

‘Hey, mate,’ Jason says.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Am I sure about what?’

‘That you’ve got the virus?’

‘Of course, I’m sure. I took the test and it came back positive. Look, I really am so sorry I asked you to come round. I understand if you don’t want to speak to me again.’

Nathan draws a deep breath. ‘No, it’s cool. You didn’t know. I shouldn’t have come round. It’s just hard to get used to the new normal as they keep calling it, right?’

‘It sure is. Hey, thanks for being so understanding, Nath.’

It’s the first time Jason has used Nathan’s actual name instead of mate. And he even abbreviated it to what his friends call him. It makes Nathan feel good. Probably better than it should.

‘Of course. How are you feeling now?’

‘Strangely, a lot better. At its worst, I had chills yesterday and my cough is still hanging around. But I feel a lot better than I did.’

‘That’s good then.’

‘How about you?’

‘Umm… I feel fine. I think?’ There’s a pause as Nathan thinks for a few seconds. He hasn’t had any symptoms.

‘Maybe you should get a test. Just tell them you’ve been in close contact with someone who’s had it.’

‘Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ll call my GP.’

‘All right, mate. Let’s keep our distance until you hear back, okay? We’ll get through this and I’m still looking forward to sharing my bed. If that’s still something you’d want?’

Nathan beams as if Jason can see him. ‘Definitely.’

‘See ya, mate.’

‘See ya.’

The line goes dead.

Two Weeks Later

The room is quiet except for the penetrating sound of the heart monitor. Jason finds himself counting the spaces between the monotone notes. Each time thinking of something he’s currently grateful for. One. Two. Three. His test came back negative. One. Two. Three. This has allowed him to finally visit Nathan. One. Two. Three. Nathan is still breathing.

He stares at Nathan’s delicate features. His defined jawline. His thick black hair. He remembers the dimples in his cheeks when he smiled. What he would do to see those dimples and that smile again right now.

A nurse enters the room wearing full protective gear. Her hair is deep red but white at the roots. She quickly checks on Nathan before taking a seat next to Jason. She speaks through her facemask. ‘You’re Jason, correct?’

He nods without even realising he’s doing so.

The nurse checks her notepad and looks back up. ‘My name’s Sophie.’ She suppresses a smile behind her mask as if she’s trying to remain robotic when all she wants to do is show her humanity. ‘I understand you infected Nathan but have now tested negative. Is that right?’

Jason nods again and opens his mouth to speak. He can’t.

‘Okay,’ she says. There’s a beat of silence. ‘Now, I understand you haven’t known Nathan long.’

‘A few weeks,’ Jason finally says through his mask. The medical staff are pretty sure by now he has immunity to the virus but they’re not taking any chances. ‘Well, if you count the time he’s been here.’

‘So, obviously, you knew nothing about his heart condition?’

Nathan shakes his head. ‘He didn’t tell me.’

Sophie lowers her eyes before shifting them towards Nathan. ‘Nathan might not have known either. We managed to contact his parents in Wuhan and they weren’t aware of it.’

Jason focuses his eyes on Sophie. ‘Wuhan?’

She nods. ‘Yes. You know that’s where Nathan’s from, don’t you?’

Jason says nothing. He doesn’t have to. The anguish swirls inside of him at the thought that Nathan couldn’t tell him that.

‘As you can imagine, his parents are incredibly worried,’ she continues. ‘They want nothing more than to get on the next flight over here, but as you know, that’s not possible right now.’

Jason’s eyes well up. ‘I wish they could be here instead of me.’

Sophie pauses for a moment, before staring directly into Jason’s eyes. As if she’s studying them. ‘Jason, Nathan’s parents are very grateful you are here with him.’

Jason shifts his eyes towards Nathan and then back to Sophie. ‘They are?’

She confirms with her eyes. ‘Jason, as I’m sure you’re aware, Nathan is in a critical condition right now. It’s 50/50 as to whether he’ll make it. That’s what the stats are saying.’

Jason says nothing. A single tear glides down his cheek like a scythe through overgrown grass.

‘I’ll be back shortly to check on him again,’ she says. ‘We’re lucky Nathan has his own ward. That won’t last long.’

Jason doesn’t respond. Instead, he resumes counting the spaces between the beeps. One. Two.

Three.

Five Days Later

Nathan opens his eyes. His lids flutter before he darts his vision around the room. A line of beds on either side with people, mostly men, gasping for air in their ventilators. He assumes he’s the only person younger than sixty.

Three members of medical staff appear, two women and one man, wearing masks and full-body protective gear. White spacesuits, just like Nathan had seen on the news. He wonders if this is real or whether he’s already dead? His vision goes black again.

*

When Nathan reopens his eyes, he sees instantly he’s in a different ward. There are still other patients, but this time they’re all awake and off ventilators. He turns his head slowly and his eyes are met with Jason’s. He swiftly inhales and holds his breath.

‘Hey, Nath. It’s good to see you awake again, mate.’

Nathan exhales. ‘Am I still positive?’

Jason looks around for a moment and lifts his mask from his face. ‘No. You’re all clear.’

Nathan breaks into a wide smile.

There’s a pregnant pause before Jason slowly reaches out and wraps his hand over Nathan’s for the first time. ‘Now we can touch.’

Nathan closes his eyes and hangs onto the moment.

‘Hey,’ Jason says, ‘I wanna show you something.’ He takes back his hand and reaches below his chair.

Nathan opens his eyes and moves to sit up but realises his discomfort.

‘Not so fast,’ Jason says pulling a sketchpad out from his backpack. ‘Don’t run before you can walk.’

He opens the pad to reveal a sketched outline of Nathan’s face. Not with his facemask or ventilator on. Not with his eyes shut in his hospital bed. But sitting on his bicycle holding a pizza box. Laughing hard with his dimples on show.

‘Good to see these back,’ he says, pointing to the dimples in his drawing. ‘What do you think?’

Nathan opens his mouth to respond but realises he doesn’t need to. The tears in his eyes and his glowing smile say it all.

Outside, police roam the streets in facemasks, ensuring people don’t get too close or linger too long. The sun slips beneath the horizon as someone else loses their fight. But the war isn’t over yet.

And the sun will rise again tomorrow.

The Nowhere
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