October 8, 2020 | Feature
where relationships start and covid doesn’t end
When my parents dropped me off in front of Keeney in September 2018, we were all thinking it: I would never really live at home again… Except winter breaks. Except freshman summer.
Except quarantine. I had already stepped out of my childhood and closed the door, holding my foot over the edge of a life I wanted so much to drop into. This independence required all the flags of teenage rejection: the eye-rolls on FaceTime, the monosyllabic texts, the “you just don’t get what it’s like to live at Brown” rants. I spent my first year bristling at my mom’s hail of questions and at my dad’s unrippled silence.
Back home last March, I bit off conversations, stuffed myself into my room to glaze away the hours “working.” But as I realized my friends would indefinitely remain muffled voices in my headphones, I took a big-girl breath and decided to re-meet my parents.
For my mom, I set aside the pretense of eternal homework on weekends to renew our tradition: Sunday Baroque radio and a long bike ride in the bitter hills. I let my mom gush about yet another of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and tried to hear what she loved in the cellos that sawed my nerves. Later, as we rode, I laughed with her about the icy sweat on our necks and the family of Canada geese babbling on the roadside.
At first, my dad and I mostly pelted each other with our respective political anxieties at the dinner table. As the spring unfolded, I began to accompany him on forest walks like I had when I was five, and I let the leaves remind me of the love we share for quiet. Pausing at the old quarry in the woods like we always did, he pointed to a pine tree polka-dotted by woodpeckers, and I showed him an eft and a memory from school.
As I stepped back into their life, we softened. My mom left me in peace; my dad checked in with me. And I was able to give them my time when they wanted it.
This fall, I hesitated about returning to a restricted Brown. I had two friends at home, and I would never get the chance to live with them again.
Depending on texting for social interaction has not been good for my anxiety. I’m an overthinker: I analyze a missing exclamation point or a terse abbreviation and immediately jump to conclusions. In an article entitled “Are All My Friends Mad At Me?” Katie Heaney writes, “If the vibe with a friend seemed off over text, there was (and still is) little you could do about it except text more—or wait and hope you’re wrong.” For the first few weeks of quarantine, I felt paralyzed with anxiety as I waited for friends to text me back or ask me to FaceTime.
So, when a friend of a friend from home whom I had flirted with over a year ago reached out, I wasn’t expecting much. I was deeply depressed and we had nothing to talk about. Small talk was impossible—with nothing to fill our days, the usual “what’s up” quickly became boring. He texted, “let me know if this is too fucking ‘middle school sleepover’ energy but…” and we began to text about things that usually only come up during 2 a.m. pillowtalk or long, drawn-out dinners.
For our first FaceTime, I put on mascara and a T-shirt (that I hadn’t already slept in). I’m usually hyper-aware of how I’m being perceived: I worry about my appearance and my social skills, if I’m being funny or engaging or, ironically, genuine enough. FaceTime eliminated the usual stressors. Only one tiny rectangle of myself was visible, and I could hang up whenever I wanted. But I didn’t want to. We brushed our teeth together on the first date, and I went to bed feeling happy without any caveats. My relationship history has made it hard for me to navigate boundaries and express my needs, but I told him exactly what I was thinking every time we picked up the phone. This summer, time was abundant, and digital communication encouraged long conversations, making our intimacy easy and uncomplicated.
In September, he drove from Nashville to Providence to visit before heading to his school in a nearby state. Our first in-person walk from his car to get takeout was awkward, but we quickly fell into step. Two days later, we decided to embark on something I thought I’d never try: a long-distance relationship. Over FaceTime, I told him how much I missed him. He joked, “Don’t make it weird. We’ve only hung out three times.”
For my middle school friends and me, today’s “new normal” of socially distanced interactions has been our norm for years.
Many consider middle school a time rather forgotten, marked by multicolored braces, fads deemed “cool” for at most a few months (anyone remember Silly Bandz?), and sweaty dances in dim, overcrowded gyms. Starting seventh grade at a new school, I predicted I’d want to erase the next two years from my mind. Yet, somehow, things eventually fell into place, and I gained a group of friends that never lost touch. After I moved to a different high school, then again when I moved across the country for college, we managed to stay connected—even if some years brought just one reunion at our hometown’s Chinatown festival each summer.
Nearly 10 years later, Covid-19 brought us all back to the same city and nearly the same school (hello, Zoom University). Yet quarantine meant there would be no annual festival meet-up this year, no bubble tea outings or spontaneous hot pot dinners.
Every New Year’s Eve since high school, we’ve played a knockoff online version of Cards Against Humanity over video chat until the clock struck twelve. But when quarantine began, our virtual game nights became a staple of those early, quiet weeks. We chose an online social deception game called Among Us, which Keith Stuart of The Guardian describes as “10 crew members trapped on a spacecraft, carrying out menial tasks…but at least one of them is an imposter who wants to sabotage their work.” Players must find the imposter amongst themselves, leading to hasty accusations, strategic alliances, and impassioned defenses. In recent weeks, Among Us has exploded in popularity, but we still see it as our own little escape from reality.
We rarely schedule our virtual game nights in advance; it usually starts with someone messaging the group chat to see if others are free later that evening. The ritual of game night, these long-lasting friendships, is what I need. The chaos of the world stands in stark contrast to the steady stream of messages in our group chat.
Honestly, I’m awful at online games. After months of playing Among Us, I still don’t fully understand how to complete each task. I’m terrible at lying, problematic for a game based on social deception and strategy. But taking refuge in the online spaceship that houses our group Zoom call—that’s enough.
I don’t make it to every game night, especially since starting school a month earlier than everyone else and moving to a time zone three hours ahead. Even during the pandemic, life and deadlines get in the way. Still, when I hear a soft “ding” at midnight, that distinctive high-pitched Facebook Messenger notification, I’m always tempted to stay up until 3 a.m, laughing my head off at inside jokes and sipping the “tea” that’s inevitably spilled between rounds of Among Us: stories of new and failed relationships, career plans, classmates we haven’t thought about in years… The subjects change as we grow—from middle school to high school to college. But there’s one constant: I’m tethered to them and to these game nights for life, long after quarantine passes.
My corner of the third floor in the toothpaste-colored apartment on Williams St. faces east and south, and in the mornings it’s like I’m in the world’s biggest light box. The peace lily basking in a beam of warm sunlight on my nightstand is usually the second thing I see. The first is my girlfriend’s soft, peaceful face across from my own, unperturbed by the glow. During her last day at Brown in March, we wandered campus together in the kind of shock that turns everything humorous and nonsensical. When she left for the airport, me standing in the middle of Charlesfield as she drove away in an anonymous Uber, we made a pact to see each other again as soon as possible. Month after month of hours-long FaceTimes, Zoom calls, and Netflix Party movies passed slowly and painfully. We wrote long, pretty letters, and pressed flowers against them. We stuffed recipes and poems (from her) and silly doodles and paintings (from me) in the envelopes. I miss you from the moment I wake up, we’d write. In July, she finally convinced her parents to let her book a flight from Los Angeles to Des Moines after three months of long-distance. On the drive back from the airport, the physical experience of being in the same space as each other was overwhelming, but in a good way.
The pandemic has changed the playing field for couples, leaving many to face the problems, aspirations and future of their relationship head-on. Luckily for us, difficult conversations and senseless arguments did nothing to hinder our goal of reuniting. In Iowa, we had water gun fights, picked blueberries, baked pies, and spent a lot of time lying in bed, relishing the ability to do nothing together. Now, we spend our days Zooming into different classes in the same room, cooking together, and making late-night commutes to the other’s apartment. It’s hard not to take all my fear and stress a bit more lightly with the comfort of my best friend by my side.