November 12, 2020 | Arts and Culture
influenza a meets gossip girl
During quarantine, the weekend starts when the first song is queued on our kitchen speaker. The music plays as my housemates and I assemble ingredients for dinner (pasta every Friday) and continues until we’ve dried the last dish: BØRNS, Frank Ocean, Glass Animals, Taylor Swift, HAIM…many songs prompt memories of moments that don’t make sense in a pandemic. Like Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” playing on a laptop freshman fall as 12 of us sat, cramped together on the floor of someone’s dorm room, awkward but determined not to show it—or, years later, my friend and I splitting his AirPods as the snow greeted us outside the GCB, “Thinkin Bout You” in his right ear and my left. The memories aren’t just mine: I can picture my housemates driving to see Bleachers at Milwaukee’s Summerfest over their birthday weekend two years ago, or rushing to catch the midnight train back to campus after a Maggie Rogers concert in Boston last fall. Crowded rooms, random gatherings, concerts—now off-limits, these settings have come to mean something new and different in retrospect. Listening to their soundtrack is the closest we can come to recreating them.
My house has been lucky enough to avoid Covid, but our Friday nights remind me of other situations where music and TV stood in for what I missed—getting the flu twice at Brown, both times impatient to return to normal, hectic campus life. With each passing sick day, weekend songs and TV drama helped bridge the gap between where I was and what I wished could happen.
I wasn’t at my high school desk anymore, where trick-or-treaters and their families would pass below the windows of our condo. Here, Halloween festivities lasted two, even three nights—a rush of last-minute costume shopping, pregames turned parties, lost jackets, and cold treks to crowded basements. I was Gossip Girl one night and a black cat the next, and both mornings my best friends and I reunited over coffee to reveal where the night had taken us just hours earlier.
But days after my first Halloweekend, I could barely get out of bed. I remember friends setting paper-towel-wrapped pieces of toast on my nightstand while my roommate stocked, then restocked, our mini-fridge with blue Gatorade. I remember how delicious saltines tasted, and the awkward, lengthy process of positioning myself so my stomach wouldn’t turn, stuffing extra pillows into the gap between my raised Twin XL bed and the cinderblock wall behind it. I remember one friend texting me, “I take it you’re not going out tonight?”—only half-joking. I felt better enough to stumble to the Ratty for a bowl of soup, then worse enough to receive IV fluid in the emergency room. It was a week and a half before I was on my feet again, remembering how it felt to walk across campus in my usual high-heeled boots.
The hardest part was sitting with myself: Between stumbling to and from Health Services, groggy visits from friends and calls with my parents, I spent most of each day alone, not well enough to focus but awake enough to worry. Whenever the virus spiked, leaving me feverish and demoralized, only my Halloweekend pregame playlist could keep me sane. The first few seconds of Migos’ “Stir Fry,” a flurry of cheers and whistles, took me to the entrance of a suite so crowded I’d needed to hold my friends’ hands to keep track of them. Chance the Rapper’s bouncy “All Night” made my best friend and I impatient as we scrambled to choose outfits, 15 minutes late for our destination: “Everybody outside, everybody outside / When I pull up outside all night long.” I rationed A$AP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa” for the lowest moments. In its final minute, the song enters a lighter, higher register, hovering in slow motion for 28 seconds before the beat returns to earth: “Bags and links, jeans and shoes / Spikes and patent leathers, different fabrics mixed together / You and me, me and you / Go away together, we could get away forever…” Headphones in, pillows rearranged, and taking tiny sips of water in pajamas from the day before, I could almost feel myself waking up on the best kind of Saturday morning—half of me still in Friday night, my most recent memories glossing the day ahead, feeling at least temporarily ready for whatever might come next.
“But I got the shot,” I said in weak defense when my doctor told me I’d tested positive for the flu last winter. It could happen anyway.
I’d turned 21 the week before, just old enough to opt for a GCB gin and tonic instead of fake-ID-vodka chased with Ratty orange juice on a Friday night. By day 10 spent with my lights off and eyes half-closed to fight back a headache that weighed down the rest of my body, I didn’t imagine my way back to a pregame. I longed for the busy days that had come to define my world at Brown: morning runs and evening tea, hours at the library between classes, back-to-back meals and meetings, endless plans to bring to life. In this schedule, free time was unfamiliar; I was almost never alone.
I rewatched five of Gossip Girl’s six seasons, depicting the drama-filled social lives of a group of extravagantly wealthy New York City teenagers (played by glamorous adults). Serena and Blair, the two best friends at the show’s center, navigate boyfriends, college applications, family tensions, and invariably action-packed trips to the Hamptons. The show’s world is far from real, but a feeling of real-time connectedness grounds each episode: Serena and Blair never seem to get the flu, yet they do laugh remembering their mishaps of the previous season. Maybe most importantly, Gossip Girl characters hardly ever appear by themselves. Every nugget of made-for-TV gossip or convoluted plot twist is experienced—and debriefed—collectively. Sick with the flu, this is what I missed most—the collective feedback loop of everyday life, what one friend calls “conferencing with the cabinet.”
After the rest of my symptoms abated, my chest cough lingered: I couldn’t make it through a conversation or a five-minute walk without being racked by a post-viral coughing fit. I spent that week shadowed by fear that this limbo wouldn’t end…until, gradually, it did. One day, I made it to noon without thinking about coughing; by the next day, I barely remembered to be grateful. There was too much waiting to fill the space that my illness had occupied. I’d be back at the Rock the next morning, bar hopping that Saturday night, my next favorite song playing or about to play.
I don’t miss being sick, but I do feel nostalgic for the life that surrounded each bout of college flu. My sick day songs of choice accompanied spontaneous, only-in-college-once adventures: nights that felt less like three-dimensional life and more like movie scenes or TV episodes, often featuring one-time guest stars. Yet both times I was sick, my regular cast of closest friends showed up for the tedious, unpolished scenes—the Health Services infirmary and Miriam Hospital emergency room on a Friday night, my blanket-littered dorm room where Pedialyte and cracker sleeves vied for space with a hot compress. When I received my positive flu test, the word quarantine didn’t enter my vocabulary; my friends were welcomed inside the hospital, no distancing required or even expected. Over an outdoor meal last week, a friend asked, “Liza, remember when you tested positive—for the flu?!” We both laughed: we miss it.