I waited. Past the middle of 2021. Some people started cutting loose at 20-percent vaccination. Not enough, I thought. People got wilder at 30 percent, then through the roof at 50—and then there was a spike in the contagious variants. I got really smug, and on social media I posted stuff that smacked of victim-blaming. I apologized, a lot, but some people still hold it against me, and I guess they have a right.
Then the level flattened. The county finally let me in to get the vaccine when the level hung at 54 percent. I kept hearing that herd immunity needed 70 percent, but polls showed that fewer than 65 percent wanted the shots, ever. My resolve started to crumble.
When we got to 60 percent in the four-county region, I caved.
A social group had been doing meetups for a couple months at a big restaurant. I signed up, paying extra as a single man. I filled out the forms, confirmed my vax status, and signed away the right to sue. I was all, just get me the hell in there.
I showered for a long time. I shaved closer than ever. I mouthwashed, brushed, and flossed, and when the flossing drew blood, I mouthwashed again.
In the car on the way there, I licked my lips. Frequently. And told myself to stop doing that when I left the car.
I was early. And hungry, at a restaurant. Food terrified me then. I waited in the car.
Finally, after watching maybe twenty people enter the place at roughly the start time, I did one last ridiculous breath check, hand sending from mouth to nose, and left the car.
In the banquet room, of course, there were about four times as many men as women. Some guys were either gay or desperate, and started in on each other. I waited, like I'd been doing for months, trying not to crowd the women.
Finally a woman, at least ten years older than I, caught my eye, smiled, and waved me over.
Her voice was a little raspy. "Can I get soft and gentle?" she asked as I sat next to her.
"Uh, sure," I said. "I'm Jed, new here."
I pressed my lips on hers, I hoped slow enough. She put an arm around me. I realized that I was in contact with lipstick, and I almost gasped.
She pulled back. Her eyes wrinkled with her smile. "Nice," she said. "I'm okay opening a little."
"Me too," I said, my smile probably goofy.
Our lips parted this time. I had expected this: her sweetened breath didn't completely hide the recent presence of cigarettes. Today, I was okay with that.
This was a long kiss that really got to me. I shifted my body to face her better, and put an arm around her.
Bonnie pulled back again. Her smile was a little crooked. "My husband doesn't want me to tongue. He'll worry about someone as young as you."
"Okay," I said, short of breath.
"Work the room," she said. "I know Cassie over there would like a visit from you. Also her daughter, if you're all right with that."
She laughed. "My mother told me once about dance cards. Back in her day, when dances were structured and chaperoned, she'd write on a card her chosen partner for each numbered dance." She laughed again. "We're back to that level of promiscuity."
"I can partner-dance," I blurted out.
Her smile waned. "Yeah, my husband wouldn't like that at all."
"Well," I said awkwardly, "thank you for clean, safe kisses." I took her hands in mine. "It's been so long!"
She pulled back her hands and said, "Not this either." Then she restored the smile. "But let's kiss again later."
"Soft and gentle," I said, smiling and standing.
Cassie's daughter tongued a lot, and that floored me. She gave me her address and said she'd be there in an hour, and while kissing my ear invited me to stay the night, and I told her I was hers to command.
Before I left, though, I visited Bonnie again. More soft and gentle, and affectionate. I enjoyed making her smile, and said I'd be back next week.
As I left, looking at the address, I realized that I knew nothing about the person who gave it to me, except that she was 'Cassie's daughter.' And while I remembered the feel of her mouth, I couldn't recall what she looked like.