“So does this mean we’re breaking up?”

The coronavirus shutdown was going to be hard on everyone.  Except maybe Boss.  Cats can stand solitude.  But even Boss seemed subdued and out of sorts when we heard that Floggin’ Brews was going to have to close for the foreseeable future.

Brita heard about it during one of her work shifts, and seemed more upset about Floggin’ Brews being closed than the fact that she was going to spend the last part of her high school senior year on-line.  Brita had been working at Floggin’ Brews since the beginning of her junior year, which was a long, long time for a 17-year old.  It had been gratifying to see her growing up and becoming more confident in her own skin.

But when she heard that all bars had to close, and people without “essential” jobs were supposed to stay home, Brita lost it and started to cry.  At first I thought it was about losing her paycheck.  Brita’s job involved helping us clean the place from top to bottom every week, and while it was very part-time, Mikhel made sure her hourly rate was well above minimum wage. And Brita was saving every penny she could for college.

But it wasn’t that.  As I gave her a hug and assured her that we’d find some way to pay her, she shook her head and sniffled into my shoulder, “No, not that.  It’s, it’s . . . (sniff) that it’s safe.  It’s a safe space.  And where will people go?  And not just this place.  Like, schools.  And coffee shops.  Where will kids go?”  I felt stupid for forgetting that Brita had a lot of queer, trans, and gay friends whose lives were far from stable, and it hadn’t been that long since her own parents had kicked her out for being trans.

“Let’s talk,” I said as Brita got her crying under control.  “Go find a booth and let me lock up.  I’ll join you in a bit.”  There wasn’t anyone in the place except us, and Boss.  The community had been “social distancing” for a couple weeks, and the bar had gotten progressively quieter. 

I made a cup of hot chocolate for Brita, a cup of tea for me, and heated up some of my emergency cinnamon PopTarts, which made her smile when I put them in front of her.  She gave one final sniffle. “The cherry ones are still better.” 

I retorted, “At least these aren’t blueberry.”  It had become an inside joke with us, and made her laugh.

We talked for about half an hour, with Boss curled up next to Brita.  Brita wasn’t worried about herself – she loved Susan and Deb, her foster moms, who had assured her that she always had a home with them.  But her friends Dani, and Oliver, and Mac, and a bunch of others I hadn’t met, felt safer in specific public places than they did where they lived.  And some of them moved from couch to couch.  And what were they going to do now?  “And if I have to stay home, how can I know what’s going on with them?”

I blinked at that.  “Can’t you call them?”

“What, you mean like on the phone?” Brita said, and then paused.  “Well, we do text a lot.”

“Sorry.”  I smiled ruefully.  “I forget that no one uses the phone for just phone calls anymore.”  Which lead to a talk about video chats and how she could set up a regular check-in call for her friends.  Which gave her other ideas about how to connect on line, only some of which I understood, but which made Brita feel better. 

By the time she left, she was already planning half a dozen things.  I gave her a big hug at the door, and told her we’d let her know when Floggin’ Brews could re-open.  “And in the meantime, you have our phone numbers.  Stay healthy, and stay in touch – let’s video chat every once in awhile.”

Brita stiffened.  “Oh no.  I forgot – I won’t see you, or Boss! Or Mikhel.”  Her eyes started to tear up.

“Oh yes, you will.  This won’t last forever, and we aren’t going anywhere,” I said, hoping I was right about that.  “And I’ll video chat from here, so you can see Boss.” Brita seemed satisfied, if not happy, with that response, and left after promising to be in touch by the end of the week.

I locked the door behind her.  The “open” sign had already been turned off, and I pulled all the window shades down before wiping down all the surfaces for the evening.  It felt like a funeral, especially when I suddenly realized that Mikhel might want to take Boss home to live with him. 

Floggin’ Brews had never felt empty to me. Boss lived there, after all.

When I was done, I poured myself an Oude Tart and sat at the bar, thinking. The issue of safe spaces wasn’t one that affected just Brita and her friends.  The kink community that met and played at Floggin’ Brews included all sorts of people whose lives were going to be turned upside down, and some of them had precious few resources to deal with that.  And I’d have to talk to Mikhel about what we could do for the staff.  I was entirely certain he wouldn’t let them go if he could help it, but I didn’t know how deep his pockets were.

And how do you stay a community if you can’t see each other?  Or, especially, touch the people you’re used to touching, in whatever way you care to do that?  You can’t exactly flog someone through Skype.  Groups had started cancelling their munches, parties, and classes when the coronavirus had started to hit the area, but we’d had a fair number of people who had dropped in more than usual.  I had a feeling they just wanted to see other kinksters, and to reassure themselves that Floggin’ Brews was still there.  But now even that couldn’t happen.

The government order to close every nonessential business, including bars like ours that didn’t serve take-out, went into effect in three days.  Which gave us a little bit of time, if I could figure out how to use it.

I was so deep in thought that I was surprised to see that Boss had hopped into my lap without my noticing.  I gave Her some skritches.  “You have any good ideas, Boss?  You usually do.”  She gave a stretch and one of Her looks, and then my cell phone rang.  It was Mikhel.  “Hello?   Yes, I’m still here.  Boss and I are plotting.”

Mikhel snorted.  “I should hope so.  Stay put, I’ll be there in about ten minutes.  Let’s talk.”

He arrived nine minutes later. 

I’d been working at Floggin’ Brews for about 18 months and suddenly realized I had no idea where Mikhel lived.  Not far, apparently.  Though that assumes he was home, and I try not to make assumptions. 

I’d pulled a notebook out of the office and already started to jot down some thoughts.  Mikhel sat down next to me and nodded at the notebook.  “What’ve you got?”

I chewed on my pencil a bit before answering.  “I think that Floggin’ Brews is going to lose a lot of money.  But the bigger thing is the community that meets here.”

“Exactly.  How are we going to support them?”

I wasn’t surprised that he was already on the same page.  “I’ve been thinking of what people need most from us. What does the community give to them?  What will they miss when they can’t be here? And I’ve decided I don’t really know, at least not for anyone other than myself.  So I think we should let them tell us.”

“Fair enough.”  He got up.  “I think I’m going to need some tea.  Can I make you some?”

I shook my head.  “Thanks, I’ve already had my quota for the day.”  I had to ask.  “Are you going to take Boss home with you?”

Mikhel looked up from the teapot.  “Boss?” She had been curled up on a nearby stool and popped Her head up to look. “Do you want to move in with me for the duration?”

She gave Mikhel a look and made a yowl so disdainful I laughed out loud.

“She’s exaggerating,” he said with a smile.  “My house is not that messy.  But no, she’s not going to move out.”

Not sure why, but that made me very happy.

Once Mikhel was back with a cup of Constant Comment, we began talking about options.  I was right that he wanted to keep paying the staff.  And my hunch that his, or Boss’, pockets were pretty deep seemed justified – Mikhel didn’t flinch at my suggestion that, whatever we did, we didn’t charge anyone for it.

“So,” I said.  “We have three days.  I think we need to reach out to everyone, and invite them to let us know what they think they’ll need to get through this, and what they have to share.  And we can build something like an on-line mitten tree.”

The teacup stopped halfway to Mikhel’s face.  “A what?”

“Um, I guess that just what I call it.  You know those Christmas trees in banks and workplaces, with little tags listing things you can buy for someone in need?  Or decorated with donated mittens and scarves?”

Mikhel nodded.  “Oh, those.  Yes, I always thought they were a little too cute for their own good.”

“You’re right, they’re cute.  Intentionally.  Because it makes people feel good about helping others.”

“So you want cute?”  Mikhel smiled.  “Not exactly the vibe that we’re known for.”

I felt the beginnings of a blush.  “No, not cute, but something that makes people feel good, whether they’re asking for something or sharing something.  Though,” I said, thinking, “there will be plenty of things we can’t give.”

“Such as?”

“Food.  We can’t deliver food because we don’t sell it here.  And there are people who are going to miss having a safe place to be.” I thought of Brita and her friends.

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” said Mikhel.  “Floggin’ Brews can’t deliver food, but you can.  Or I can.  Or Nick.”

I’d forgotten about Nick’s food truck – he’d been gone for the winter, working his other seasonal job, and the weather hadn’t yet gotten warm enough for him to return.

As if he knew what I’d been thinking, Mikhel continued.  “I’ve already contacted him – he’ll be here in a couple days.”

“That’s great!”  Nick made the best pancakes I’d ever had.  And his food truck seemed to be able to produce whatever it is you most wanted to eat.   “But there’s one thing we really can’t provide.”

“I know,” said Mikhel.  “Touch.  Physical presence.  Play parties.  Scenes. Being able to be in a group with others who also have kinks.”

“I was going to say ‘anything physically sexy with someone you aren’t living with.’  But that’s basically it.”

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to be creative.”

My eyebrows went up a bit.  “Oh?”

“Yup.  I have some ideas.”

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