Updated: Oct 14, 2020
As you might have been able to guess, things in Ann Arbor have become incredibly strange, incredibly fast. After returning from spring break on March 7th, my friends and I were quickly confronted with the reality that Coronavirus (COVID-19) was going to affect Americans much, much more than we’d anticipated. Luckily, there were no reported cases in the state of Michigan at the time, but CNN and NYT alerts were, no less, buzzing incessantly, telling me that Seattle and LA and Westchester were finding more and more cases by the hour. Every storefront or restaurant I walked passed sat dark, only illuminated by the white printer paper taped to the door: CLOSED FOR THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE.
Everyone was on the brink of panic; most were still skeptical, but this didn’t stop them from stocking up. Grocery stores, convenience stores and the like were swarmed by provision-hungry insatiable animals. Soon, there was no toilet paper, paper towel or hand sanitizer to be found.
A few days later, universities across the country began enacting their emergency plans. They all did what they thought they had to do; some moved their classes online while others cancelled school entirely. At many schools, students were given a short time period to pack their things and leave. At others, students were not allowed to return from spring break and were forced to live with the fact that their last weeks of college went by without their knowing. Of course, Michigan was among the final few schools to enact their emergency plan. Until we got the email, my friends and I sat around, nervously looking at each other and out the windows as if an update could be scraped off the sidewalk.
The email knocked on all of our inboxes simultaneously. The University of Michigan was to move classes online for the rest of the school year.
This was pretty good news. We no longer had to dread early morning alarms and hours spent dozing off in a monotonous lecture hall. We were hopeful and, in more realness than I’d like to admit, we were happy. My friends and I declared we would stay in Ann Arbor and wait out the virus together. It seemed like the right thing. Afterall, if one of us got it, we were all going to get it, one way or another, right? But that was before a single case of Coronavirus was confirmed in the state of Michigan. The threat felt so far that it didn’t cross our minds as we made a list of activities we would do during the upcoming weeks and months of long, unproductive days in Ann Arbor. The list included top chef challenges, paint twister, bar crawls, and other events that would be absolutely forbidden in the days ahead.
But alas, a case was soon confirmed in the county next to that of Ann Arbor, and the tides consequently, inevitably changed. Yes, it was finally happening. Yes, we were unprepared and naïve and stupid. Yes, we know.
The virus was knocking at our door. He poked and prodded at the lock on the door but we were just barely able to keep him from grabbing each of us by the throat. It became harder and harder to breathe in our home. Our house was practically running on Coronavirus conversations and microwave popcorn. We couldn’t get ourselves to talk about anything other than Trump’s newest announcements or the threat of domestic travel restrictions - and when I say “we tried,” I want to make it incredibly clear that we set a five minute timer during which we established a “no-coronavirus-talk” mandate. But of course, this method proved ineffective. We could not escape.
The White House made many announcements that week. The first of them recommended that we don’t expose ourselves to groups of 100 or more -- fine, we’ll (begrudgingly) stop going to bars. That one would be okay. Next, they set the limit at 50 people -- okay, this is where it became inconvenient, annoying. Soon it was 10. Ten people. We were mandated to avoid being in groups of ten people while living in a house of 13. The number soon dropped to five.
On March 13th, we received an email from the University of Michigan saying that all graduation events for the year of 2020 were officially cancelled. The University apologized and recommended that all students with an alternative place to go should evacuate campus as quickly as possible. Now, you see, not only were tears dropping like a summer downpour, but our plans to remain in Ann Arbor were on the rocks. This was really the moment when it all went to shit.
That night I took out my journal and began writing this (very uplifting and hopeful) note in angular cursive lettering:
Today was 50x worse than yesterday, and 100x worse than the day before that. We have no way of knowing how big of a physical threat this virus is. It could be at our front door or it could be nowhere near us and it could just all be a big overreaction… but who knows.
With this, it was officially over. We no longer were in the midst of a theoretical virus threat, but the virus was everywhere. We all started to have moments of anxiety where we felt convinced we had fallen subject to this novel contagion. But we had no way of knowing because of the lack of testing resources available. Not only that, but many who would have tested positive were also not able to access tests and, as such, inevitably passed it along. So, Coronavirus strolled unimpeded across Ann Arbor. It was everywhere because it was nowhere.
With this, we were thrown in the theoretical deep-end of the real world. We were not only scared -- too scared to go to the grocery store or even to see our friends next door -- but we were lost. As second semester seniors, we held those last two months of college with such esteem that words couldn’t even do it justice. Those were all that we had left before it was real, and reality was the last thing I was ready for.
We didn’t know if we should cry and yell or drink; because, as we all know, there are only two ways to solve a problem in college: scream or get drunk. We chose the latter without hesitation.
We tried to make the best of it, we really did. We dressed up in our caps and gowns to move our couches onto our lawn where we played music and ate pizza. We drank wine and sang and, eventually, each of us sat down quietly in an unsettling silence. We tried to tell each other we would never leave Ann Arbor, that we couldn’t go home, not now anyway. But our truths were repeatedly proven to be nothing but fantasy -- theoretical, wishful thinking at best.
There was enough of a chill in the air that day to remind me that I was, in fact, existing in the real world, not a sadistic dream or confusing science experiment. The sun briefly waved hello but I shrugged her away indifferently. There was nothing she could do for us here, not now at least. Everything was silent and everyone was fragile. The wind echoed our stillness. We spoke not a sound.
When the mild chill became more of a cold, we numbly moved the couches back inside and put on another White House conference about the virus.
“This is one of those moments,” I said, in a bit of a timid whisper, “that, for the rest of our lives, we will remember exactly where we were.”
Rachel squeezed my shoulder. A few tears were shed. For the first time in my life, I felt like history books would include me; not as a central point, but as a person in the world during this time of fear. We listened as Trump stumbled across his angular sentences, lacking a sort of wholeness in his language. His words felt empty, but sounded very hopeful.
All cafes, restaurants and bars were ordered to either serve food for take away only or shut down operations completely. Police officers began popping up like whack-a-moles across town. Some were stationed at local grocery stores or convenience stores to hand out gloves and monitor the social distancing and capacity regulations, while others just roamed around in a manner that was seemingly more visible than before the virus threat.
Rumors started to spread about our nation’s next steps. The National Guard had already been deployed in New York to monitor a domestic travel lock down on the horizon, and with New York being both the epicenter of the virus in the US and home to nine out of our thirteen, their families desperately wanted them home. Understandable, definitely. Especially at a time when the pasta and canned food aisles at every store were desolate.
I, on the other hand, did not move to start packing. Instead, I stood up and awkwardly walked downstairs to my room. I felt my hands go numb as I climbed under the covers of my slightly-too-hard bed. I felt the walls closing in, the pounding of my heart in my throat and knees and arms.
I made no plans to leave. With my family home being only 45 minutes from Ann Arbor, and with my car at school, I didn’t really need a plan per se, but I also had no intentions of leaving despite my parents' requests.
So, I stayed put. I sat with my legs criss-crossed on my friends’ beds as they hastily threw their momentos into stuffy boxes to be FedEx shipped back to their hometowns on either coast. I looked for new ways to spend my time. I wrote more in my journal, started a new TV series and very quickly watched the entirety of season one. I did laundry and my best to carry on like business as usual, albeit a very bleak and lonely version of said usual business.
“You know, maybe this will be something that, someday, we’ll think back on and laugh,” Jenna said, as we sat together in our orange-stained wood kitchen. I traced the edge of the table back and forth with my left pointer finger.
“Eh, I’m not really so sure, I mean, I guess I don’t really know,” I said, already void of hope.
Meanwhile, the US economy plummeted, unemployment surged, demand went up when supply went down, travel from Europe was suspended, and was soon followed by the suspension of travel from the UK, Ireland and Canada. Italy had been rapidfire producing journalism to beg that Americans step up and handle COVID-19 better than they did; but of course, Americans aren’t exactly known for their listening skills.
Our fridge, where we usually fight tooth and nail for a square inch of space, is now baron. Our coffee mugs are all packed tightly in bubble wrap or shattered in the garbage behind the house. Nobody speaks. We all instinctively sit around, sharing awkward, blurred glances with the twelve sets of eyes welling up and boiling over beside us. My legs shake compulsively, awkwardly. For the first time, I feel nervous with them. Without a spoken word we all simultaneously collapse into one another. We sob in each other’s arms, ridding ourselves of the silence and numbness that had consumed the better part of a week. It was finally sinking in that I had spent much of the last four years taking what I had for granted. I was always anticipating another morning at Literati -- my favorite bookstore that is now closed indefinitely because of the virus -- another trip to Falsettas for tequila, another Skeeps night, another night or afternoon or morning to all be together.
No more than five minutes later we managed to collect ourselves. Our faces were as still and tortured as porcelain statues. We, again, found ourselves enveloped in a muddled, shared silence.
Each day, fewer of us remained in Ann Arbor. Saying goodbye became something of a ritual; I’d stand alone and wave from just inside the door frame to avoid the chill of the not-yet-spring air with eyes blurred from warm tears. I’d blink and blink until they ran down my cheeks and over my lips. I often tried to grab the tears with my tongue -- the salt tethering me closely to reality.
After I said goodbye to the last friend to leave, my eyes were drawn to the garbage bags that had been left alongside the house. They were stuffed with unopened food and provisions: jars of peanut butter, wine bottles and innocent tide pods that all sat abandoned, useless. Each of them was a gentle reminder of abandonment, of the urgent departure and the immediacy of the world we live in today.
The house fell into a numb sleep. I quietly walked alone to the basement and took off my socks. I sat cross-legged and expected to feel a sudden surge of complex emotions. But instead, it was all still. It was the first moment of physical and mental solidarity that I had but it felt hollow and bare and uncomfortable. I felt awkward and suddenly terrified. The pantries were empty and the lights all off and there were no dirty dishes in the sink. We had suddenly spread across the country, silently and gracefully, like a nimble dancer with her pointed toes.
I felt my throat tighten but only slightly. I heard not the shifting of doors or the gentle lullaby that is a familiar footstep. I did not hear the TV playing in the living room or the fan that becomes silent after having been on for long enough. I heard nothing but an incessant, demanding silence.
I was left then to think, to decide for myself what I was to do. I could have and maybe should have driven home that first day. I could have and maybe should have left one of the other days between then and now -- how many it has been, I could not say -- but still. I still am here, sitting still at my desk. I cannot make myself move, I cannot even unstick my fingers from these keys for I know that when I do, I will have to leave this place. I will have to go back to my family and put them at risk. I will have to leave behind the place I have called home for four years and the friends who made it feel like that. I will have to get a job and contribute something to the world although with all the layoffs and economic troubles, the last thing on anyone’s mind is hiring, undoubtedly. I cannot get myself to leave, for in my mind, the only place to go holds far too much uncertainty.
The state of the world still feels fake even after all that time has passed. It makes me wonder if time really is all that it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes it’s so gentle and lenient and others it’s so stringent that it would shock even the most violent of characters.
In my 21 years, I have never before seen time and history so blatantly, unabashedly flirting. They joke and meld and, soon, it feels like they’re mocking me. Like they’re playing it all out in front of me like a performance in the Globe, where they exist not only outside and away from me, but also within and beside me and, in many ways, because of me.
You see, this is not so conceited as it seems. Because at the end of it we are all just actors, no matter the role we play. We are all specks of dust in an ever-expanding universe filled with matter and antimatter that operates solely on theory, numbers and archaic algorithms. And in this scheme we are no more than any other thing. It matters not to the universe who falls subject to this virus. It also matters not who lives and who dies, who remembers or who forgets. We are all the same in the eyes of the universe. Each day this world feels more and more like a maze with no end and no beginning; a brightly colored, seductively disguised trap.
Of course, this will be forgotten. It may take years or generations, but at some time in the human future, we as a species will let the memories of this horrific world lazily drift, float to the back of our docile minds. We will forget about the death and fear and pain that echoed off each interaction and each breath taken.
But until then, the sun will rise and she too will set. Her blades cut decisively into sharp shadows, split across stubborn trees. She will bring plants and birds to life and she will watch as they sing and chirp. The trees will bloom and bees would hum and then, only then, would our silence be satiated. Only then, would time and history disembrace. Only then could the world resume and show her teeth in ways of love and not fear.