It could have come in as a Romance, for such it is,
but on the whole, I think it belongs here in Mature.
Damon sank to his knees before flopping back on the grass, his arms extended. The warm spring sun flowed over him like the hands of a sublime masseur, gentling and calming nerves worn shadow-thin by months of stress.
He turned his head away from the sun, opened his eyes. Far above, a bird circled without moving its outstretched wings. He sat up, settled into a comfortable position, took a deep breath, closed his eyes again, slowly let out the breath and emptied his mind.
Somewhere, far away, a phone timer was chirping. Not a loud sound, it took a couple of repetitions to penetrate, get his attention.
His eyes still closed, he rolled his shoulders, took a deep breath and smiled at the sound of leaves in the breeze. He felt better, more relaxed.
Opening his eyes, he gave a slight gasp of surprise. Seated in front of him now, almost within reach, was a woman, also sitting in lotus. Older than he by some years, the woman was also dressed in hospital scrubs. She'd taken off her shoes and Damon was struck by the simplicity, almost the innocence, of the image she presented. As he watched, a bird flying overhead cast a momentary shadow on the sunlit sole of one foot.
The hospital grounds around them were quiet, disturbed only by the sounds of birds.
The estate had originally been a wedding present to his young bride from Peter Addison, an industrial baron in the late 1800s. It became their full-time home, for the woman was soon expecting and her doctors recommended peaceful surroundings.
Emiline Addison had died in childbirth, along with the son she had been carrying. In mourning for the rest of his years, Addison never remarried, instead devoting his spare time to the house and grounds.
Over the years, he spent a small fortune importing and arranging plants from around the world, creating and lovingly tending acres of flowers, trees, fountains and even a small waterfall. It was his legacy to a wife who had died before it was properly begun.
Addison's will directed the bulk of his estate be used for the foundation of a medical college specializing in obstetrics; the rambling, three-story Gothic Revival house he'd built for his bride became its first campus. The once-small college had since grown into a major teaching hospital and, while it had expanded far beyond obstetrics, the head of that department was still, by custom and common understanding, first among equals.
The main facility was now housed in a very modern eight-story tower. The original house still existed 125 years later, but was now used for primarily for administration, with some of its original facilities - the grand and high-ceilinged main hall in particular - sometimes rented out for weddings and other special occasions.
Peter Addison lived on however in more than just the hospital. Despite the occasional legal challenge, that part of his will requiring the preservation and maintenance of his beloved greenery was still in force. Indeed, Addison College now derived a not-inconsequential portion of its income from charging admission to the gardens. They were a popular site for tourists and local residents alike and in good weather were generally filled with appreciative crowds.
One corner of the garden featured a rambling web of high hedges. Less than a formal maze, more than mere lines of shrubbery, the rambling bushes occasionally enclosed small glades of soft grass. These too were available to the public for small family gatherings and romantic picnics. Local yoga and tai chi schools often held classes there in the summer and fall.
The gardens had been closed to the public when the pandemic struck and still remained so. Hospital staff had however been permitted to continue using them, provided that proper care was taken -- social distancing and such.
The decision had been a wise one, the gardens proving an invaluable mental health resource for hospital staff stretched to their limits. The ability to take a short break and wander the quiet grounds was a balm to stressed nerves. The maze area had proved popular as well for those simply wanting a little privacy in the midst of crisis, some solitary peace and quiet.
Perhaps borrowed from Chinese custom, a pair of shoes left across the entrance to one of the glades became an indication that the space was occupied, a request for privacy.
Damon had forgotten that when he'd taken his lunch break in the maze.
The woman took a deep breath, opened her eyes and lifted her head. Seeing Damon awake, she smiled. That smile,  he thought, I've needed that smile all morning.
"Hi," she said. "I hope you don't mind my joining you. It seemed a perfect spot."
"You're very welcome here," he replied, trying to smile himself. "It's not every day I come back to such a lovely sight."
To his amazement, the woman blushed slightly, averted her eyes in apparent embarrassment.
That's a really nice smile,  he thought to himself. Why haven't I seen her before?
Then, Don't be stupid. You haven't seen an unmasked face inside the building for months.
"Sorry if I embarrassed you," he said. "I'm Damon Ozarowski. 'Oz' works, but not..."
"Not 'Doctor Oz'. Gotcha." She smiled again.
Easing herself out of lotus but still sitting, the woman stretched her arms up and back. The movement pulled the scrubs fabric tight over her bosom. Damon managed to avert his eyes before she caught him staring.
She reached for her shoes and socks. "I'm Piper Coonage," she said, fighting a sock which was refusing to go on straight. "Psychology."
That would explain it,   Damon thought. I'm never up there.
Having got her footwear on, the woman looked at her watch, rose to her feet. "What do you do in this fine facility?" she asked.
"I'm a resident... Well, I was about to start my residency in cardiology," he said, "when this all started. I've been mainly in ER and ICU and covering the third floor since then."
The third floor of the hospital had been hastily converted to provide emergency intensive care facilities for an anticipated flood of seriously ill patients.
"Ouch," she grimaced. "I hear they're keeping the third floor ready in case of a second wave."
"Yeah. It's been empty for weeks, thank God."
Piper examined the man before her. She guessed he was his mid-to-late 20s, but the clues were mixed. Lean and of medium height, his curly brown hair had a much-too-early scattering of grey at his temples. Fatigue lines etched the corners of his eyes.
He looks tired,  she thought to herself. I've seen photos of aged young men with eyes like that, ones coming off Omaha Beach and Hamburger Hill. He looks older than he has any right to be.
Then, remembering how she had looked in her mirror this morning, Well, so do I.
As the two started to leave the glade, Damon paused, motioning her through first. Nodding at the gesture, she passed him. He smiled privately at being able to watch her as she led the way.
Of average height, the woman was slender and Damon guessed she was maybe 40 years old. Accustomed to scrutinizing women his own age or younger, he was surprised to find himself realizing that she was more than a little attractive. He had trouble keeping his eyes off her scrubs-clad bottom as it shifted gracefully from side to side with each step.
As if reading his mind, the woman stopped, turned to him.
"You can walk with  me, you know, Doctor," she smiled. "No need to just follow."
Damon noticed a small dimple on her chin and found it intriguingly attractive. Uncertain what to say, he merely nodded in reply.
As he caught up with her, Piper shook her head, shifting a long blonde braid from one shoulder to lie along her back.
"When does your residency kick in?" she asked, "Or are they still waiting on the possibility of a second wave?"
"The latter, I suppose. They don't seem in any hurry to give us a date. It's not an unmixed blessing; I've been getting a lot of experience in others areas, especially as the hospital is coming out of emergency status and patients with normal problems are coming back. It's been like an extended transitional internship."
He looked sideways at her profile as they walked. "What's it been like in Psychology?" he asked.
Her lips were full, shapely and Damon was startled to find himself wondering what it would be like to kiss them. He turned his head away.
"Busy," she replied, "But most of it has been supporting the staff here."
He gave a wry smile. "Nobody gets sick like doctors and nurses."
The admission caught her by surprise and she laughed delightedly. "So true. But the psychological impact has been very real. It's been a PTSD fugue for many of them -- and not just doctors and nurses. Everybody coming to work here has had to manage the same fear, carry their own part of that burden - all the way down to the almost invisible people like cleaners."
His smile grew less thin. "'Invisible people'," he said. "It's a good term. Who ever pays any attention to somebody with a mop?"
"And  the orderlies and  the clerks and  the cooks and  the techs," Piper continued. "They've all been coming in and keeping this place going, saving lives. You get a different perspective on who makes a difference in real life -- and it hasn't been steroid athletes or silicone actresses."
"Not around here," he agreed, trying not to snicker at the terms.
"How long have you been meditating?" he asked.
"Years. My parents were hippies and it splashed. You?"
"I took it up in med school. It seemed a good way to deal with the stress."
"That it is," she agreed.
Approaching the hospital entrance, both of them shrugged inwardly. The laminated passes on the lanyards around their necks got them past the masked security guard before they began an entirely humourless medical screening. Even though they had been through the process just hours earlier and even though they're been nowhere but the hospital's private gardens, the entire procedure was repeated. One part of them resented the necessity -- and the people involved in it. Another part took comfort in it, for the hospital was justifiably proud of its successful efforts at limiting community transmission. Not without basis were the whistling-through-a-graveyard wall posters on every floor: Keep this the safest place in the city!
Once through, masked again, the two went their own ways.
Damon had just settled into lotus the next day when he heard soft footsteps on the path. Piper stuck her head around the corner of the hedge a moment later.
"We meet again!" he said in welcome.
He has a wonderful smile,  she thought to herself.
"I recognized your shoes," Piper said. "I hope you don't mind."
"No, not at all," he said, waving his hand at her former spot.
"Don't mind me," she said, pulling off shoes and socks. "I'll just need a minute."
"Take your time," he said.
From behind her, the sun suddenly silhouetted her form through her scrubs. Damon closed his eyes and tried think of her as just a colleague.
He failed. His eyes opened to see Piper sitting in lotus in front of him, hands on her knees. Her eyes were closed and she was rotating her shoulders to settle in. Entranced, Damon watched her breasts move under her thin scrubs. She took a deep breath, slowly let it flow out. Her eyes opened suddenly. Damon was able -- barely - to shift his glance before she caught him staring.
He thought so, anyway.
Piper smiled. "You didn't have to wait."
Damon found himself uncertain how to reply, turned his head. When had he last been this awkward?
"You're worth waiting for, I think," he said. That's better.
When he turned back, it was to see her calmly looking at him, a small mischievous grin on her face.
"Girls get to look, too," she smiled.
"Piper," he started to stammer, "I'm..."
"You're cutting into our lunchtime, Damon," she cut him off, her smile now confident and forgiving. Ignoring his obvious embarrassment, the woman closed her eyes and took another deep breath.
"So," she asked, walking back to the building. "That's two times in a row - am I going to have to beat off a jealous girlfriend?"
"Not now," he said. "We broke up late last year and nobody since then -- COVID, right?"
Damon noticed the rings on her left hand. "You're married, I think."
"No husband now," she said softly. "Jamie died last fall, before all this started."
"Oh," he said. "I'm so sorry. What happened?"
"Small-cell carcinoma," she said. "And he didn't even smoke. How strange is that?"
"Rare," he said, "but hardly unknown."
"Well, they didn't catch it until it had metastasized. The hospital here tried everything, but it was like throwing nerf balls at a rhino." She stopped, swallowed deeply and began walking again. "And four months to the day after his GP caught it, he was gone."
"Oh, crap," breathed Damon. "That's horrible. How old was he?"
"I'm sorry," he said again. "That's way too young."
She shrugged a little. "I guess being so frantic over the past few months has been the silver lining in all this. I've been too busy to let it tear me apart."
"How long had you been married?"
"It would have been 15 years this September."
The woman sighed. "It doesn't seem that long."
"Any kids?" he asked.
"No," she said softly. "We had a daughter, but she was stillborn."
"Oh. I'm so sorry. That must have been very hard."
"It was a long time ago. Maybe being young made it easier. But yes, it hurt. It still does."
Damon saw a tear running down the side of her nose. Instinctively, he stopped, took her by one arm and took her in his arms. She tensed for a brief moment, then, accepting the intended comfort, relaxed into his arms.
The hug lasted a long time. I've missed this,  she thought to herself.
And May became June.
Piper had said on the way out of the gardens that she was going to take a day off, do some much-delayed shopping and cleaning. To his amazement, as they were entering the screening process, masks in hand, she'd kissed his cheek, a quick peck,
"I'll see you Monday, Oz," she'd said. "Have a good weekend."
Without meeting his eyes thereafter, she'd emerged from the screening line, stepped into the elevator and was gone, leaving the young man still standing with his hand on his cheek.
Two trainee nurses had giggled as they walked by.
That had been Thursday and today was Friday. Without Piper...
It seemed odd to him. Strolling down the path leading to the maze, his thoughts kept returning to her. He'd never felt this way about, well, an older  woman. And she was  older, right? Like least 10, maybe 15 years older?
He stopped in the middle of the path as a thought struck him.
Except that she wasn't.
For some reason, she didn't seem  old. Her smile was as youthful as anything he could imagine and as for...
She's out of your league, Oz.
She's beautiful, she's got a solid career, no doubt a bunch of impressive friends her own age.
Even if those sweater puppies seem pretty impressive under those scrubs...
And why would she be interested in you, anyway?
Damon was happy to find 'their' spot unoccupied. He left his shoes across the path as he entered.
He sat down in his usual place, stretched a bit, tried to settle in. The tranquility he sought escaped him however. It hadn't rained today, but grass seemed damp. He shifted, frowned as the ground now felt lumpy. The sun was too hot, but having moved into the shade, it was still too warm. And visions of Piper kept intruding.
Why would she be interested in you, anyway?
Eventually, he got to his feet, started to leave. Bending over to pick up his shoes, he had another thought.
Making sure that the shoes were centred on the path, he went back inside. Looking around, he confirmed that he would be invisible from the path, and, checking over his shoulder, from the hospital tower, too. Hesitatingly, he stripped off his shirt.
Folding it neatly, Damon placed it on the grass. Stepping out into the warm sunshine, he did a slow Sound-of-Music spin with his arms extended, feeling the warmth on his skin. It felt better. He  felt better. Damon realized that he was sick of being enclosed, enclosed in sterile hospital wards, enclosed in masks, enclosed in - come to think of it - clothing.
He shrugged, looked around again. His pants and boxers followed his shirt and he stood naked in the noon brightness. It felt odd. Damon was accustomed to being nude indoors -- bedroom, showers, that sort of thing and, yes, he'd been skinny-dipping on occasion, but then nudity had been an almost unseen substitute for a bathing suit. This felt different somehow, welcome - and welcoming.
He walked around the glade, feeling the sun on his body, warm air on his skin, soft grass beneath his feet. Feeling a breeze on his sex was odd but hardly uncomfortable.
It all felt good. It felt more natural, closer to what it should be.
To his surprise, he found himself becoming partially erect. He wondered for a moment if he should do something about that, discarded the idea.
Instead, he picked a spot and, being careful not to sit on anything important, lowered himself into lotus. Setting the timer on his phone, he took a slow, deep breath, held it, began to let it out.
Damon became aware of his phone chirping, He took another deep breath and began to breathe out slowly, opening his eyes as he did so. And almost jumped a foot off the ground.
Sitting in lotus just in front of him was Piper, dressed in what he was wearing, which is to say nothing. A small pile of clothes -- normal clothes, not scrubs - rested on the grass beside her.
Her eyes were closed, her breathing slow and rhythmic. Her hair was out of its usual braid today; a cataract of honey flowed down over her neck, shoulders and breasts. Her broad shoulders were back and a very faint, very sweet smile was on her lips.
Damon's jaw dropped a little in surprise -- and, yes, in admiration. Piper's figure, for so long only suggested under the sexless, ill-tailored scrubs, was remarkable, her full breasts high and firm, her stomach flat, her legs sleek. To his male eyes, her soft brown areolae and nipples were perfect. Her upturned feet hid her sex, but Damon could see some soft curls of blonde hair just above one ankle.
She can't be in her 40s,  he thought to himself.
His medical training kicked in, started pointing out clues and his mind brushed his protest away.
Yes, she's in her 40s.  he thought, and, yeah, so what? She's gorgeous!
He found his heart beating just a little faster at that realization.
So why haven't you noticed that before, champ?  he asked himself pointedly.
Piper obviously spent some time outdoors in a bikini; there were distinct tan lines on her bosom and hips. Damon found those intensely, unexpectedly erotic.
Moving over her bare body, his eyes noted the faint stretchmarks left by a dead daughter.
What do I do when she wakes up?   he thought. Looking down into his lap, Damon found himself stiffening again, just a little. He raised his eyes to see Piper looking at him, blue eyes open and calm.
Still in lotus, Damon had no idea what to do next. Yes, he'd been with girls. Yes, he'd... but, no, he'd never been in this situation.