The Chronicles of the Class of Covid

It was nighttime in Boston. My friend GP and her flatmate sat hunched over a laptop, bulk ordering groceries online. On the other end of the room, I sat slumped against the wall, emotionally spent. Staring dazedly into space, I tried to process everything that had taken place in the last 24 hours. How had a virus, that until a few weeks ago we’d ironically clinked our beers to, cleaved my friend group in such a violent manner?

The previous afternoon, we were all on a beach in Puerto Rico for Spring Break, when we received news of our classes being moved online for a month. The closure had been imminent, but something about it being formally ratified by the university, put everyone in a nervous frenzy. The next hour was spent in a flurry of urgent phone calls to parents, frantic Google searches and distracted conversation. I felt a tingling in my back, as I read and re-read the email.

But, this fog of anxiety dissipated just as suddenly as its came. And in a manner of triage that only college students are capable of, we temporarily put aside all Covid talk and shifted our attention to making the most of our last day of Spring Break. The sun, beach and the drinks certainly helped.

We went out for dinner that night and everyone was in high spirits. We made plans of debauchery for this one month hiatus and joked about how farcical online classes would be. I was scrolling through my phone when my phone buzzed with a notification that the NBA season had been suspended. The blissfully ignorant bubble was burst. Until then, I’d viewed the university shutting down as simply an over protective, better be safe than sorry approach. But the fact that the NBA wasn’t just paused, but had been cancelled altogether set off the alarm bells. None of this was precautionary, it was an emergency.

Our sole focus at the time was to get back safely to Boston and avoid being caught at the airport health checks. After dinner, all of us went to a nearby CVS and loaded up on sanitizers, wipes and paracetamols. The tingling I’d felt in my back at the beach had spread to the rest of my body, and I psyched myself into believing that I was running a fever. I picked up a few extra tablets just in case. The next morning at the airport, we lathered our hands with sanitizers and no one dared to cough or sneeze. Through all this absurdity, I almost took it for granted that we’d all bunker up together and navigate the coming few months of uncertainty exactly how we’d done the previous few years — together.

But, everything changed after we landed in Boston.

Not even an hour must have passed since we returned to campus when I got a call from Sakshi, one of the first friends I’d made in Boston. Her tickets had been booked and she’d be leaving in a couple of hours. Around the same time, news filtered through that a couple of other friends had booked their one way tickets too. The premature arrival of The End induced a crippling fear in me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more helpless than I did that morning. How had it come to this?

Indefinite goodbyes are scary and I noticed a common pattern in them. There would be so much to say so we’d say nothing at all. We’d awkwardly hug and unconvincingly mumble how we’d see each other in a month.

Then there were so many others who left on similar short notice or hadn’t returned to campus itself, that we didn’t even get the chance to bid farewell to. “ Even if it’s just a stupid hug or awkward handshake, you still need to say bye,” my flatmate remarked much later, about these friendships that remained unclosed brackets. By the end of the day, out of our twelve person friend group only eight remained in Boston and by the end of the week, that number fell to six.

Sitting in GP’s room on that first night of the apocalypse, I suddenly became aware of how the tingling I’d felt in my body the previous day on the beach had transformed into something gargantuan. But by that point, I didn’t have the mental capacity to acknowledge the panic of being possibly infected.

Only much later did I realize that this pain that had gradually enveloped me was shock. It knocked me into a horrific daily routine in the immediate days that followed. I’d wake up by 1PM and spend the next few hours in bed oscillating between my phone and laptop. Classes became background noise. Around 4, I’d gorge on a ridiculously unhealthy meal and then sink back into bed in a food coma. The few of us who had stayed back on campus had decided to watch all the Harry Potter movies from start to finish and we’d meet each night to watch an installment of the series. I’d usually end up going to bed by 4am. This routine remained completely unchanged for the first eight days of the quarantine.

Those Harry Potter movie nights were like group therapy. What I remember most clearly about them is how we were all so single-minded about them. Conversation was minimal and we’d disperse soon after the movie ended. But at a time where each departure, be it of a friend or acquaintance, felt like abandonment, there was a strength in numbers. Those couple of hours spent together each night were a much needed escape from reality for all of us.

I think somewhere deep down we all felt this sense of betrayal. We knew that the circumstances were unprecedented and that in some cases, their parents had booked their tickets without even telling them. And even for those who had left by choice, we understood that wanting to be home with family in such a time was only natural. But sometimes, pain doesn’t reason. And these movie nights was our way of dealing with it.

Before watching Deathly Hallows pt.2 , the six of us decided to make Butterbeer together. We found a recipe, hunted down ingredients and then proceeded to make something that tasted like the potion that Dumbledore drank in Half Blood. But, the end result didn’t matter. Because amidst all the spilled drinks, inaccurate proportions and general chaos, I felt a small ray of hope. A feeling that there was still a little bit of the college experience to juice out of our recently formed bubble.

The next day, I was out of bed before noon. The body pain had gradually receded as the shock settled into acceptance. Unknowingly, I had floated into The New Normal.

I was seated in the living room of my apartment, texting Sofia, one of my friends from the student newspaper. Her message instantly changed the tone of our conversation from the lighthearted realm it had existed in until then.

Of course, I’d seen the email. A few hours ago, the President of the University had informed us that the rest of the semester would be completed online, all dorms would have to be vacated and that graduation had been postponed indefinitely. Like everyone else, I too had held on to the small yet powerful shred of hope that we would all be back in a month, or the latest by summer. But I’d grown so immune to all the bad news from the past few weeks that I just accepted it with quiet resignation.

I told Sofia I had seen the email and how it had made me feel. ‘ I’m so glad we are friends. Please let me know where you end up’, she replied. The email had felt like a sucker punch, but this message really stung. It was the first time I became aware of the metaphorical full stop that had been put to our college life.

Some of the most important friendships in life and especially in college aren’t the lifelong ones. It’s the low maintenance ones. The guy on your intramural football team, the friend you meet exclusively at parties, the one you get lunch with because of your matching schedules, the person you meet at weekly club meetings. Or as in my case, the friends I made working at the student newspaper.

You might not think of these people often but that doesn’t imply they don’t mean a lot to you. And no matter how hard you try, they can’t be completely replicated online. These friendships were one of the first casualties of the abrupt end to college.

The morning after the email was sent out, I was awoken by a call from AlHassan, one of my closest friends from BU. Still half asleep, I answered and told him I’d call him back in a couple of hours. His response is still ingrained in my memory.

“ Take your time, Shubi. This isn’t easy at all, so stay in bed for however long you need to”.

All the pain from the night before came rushing back. Even in my barely conscious state, I was able to notice the despondency in AlHassan’s voice. When we got on a call a few hours later, I realized that there wasn’t much to say, but a lot to talk about. Both of us had a lot of questions, but none of the answers. Sofia’s message helped me process the news while the call with AlHassan helped me understand its poignancy.

I had many such calls with my friends in the weeks that followed. Each of them was an attempt to make sense of the situation and our emotions. But mostly, these calls were a show of mutual solidarity. A realization that we had to be there for each other in a way that we’d never been before. I learnt something very important in these early weeks of the pandemic — pain unites.

There was something comforting yet unsettling about these calls. I saw such dark shades of anxiety and helplessness in the friends I considered most put together and laid back. That scared me the most.

I got a message from Kunal one day, asking to get on a video call. I’ve known him my whole life — we went to the same school, lived in the same building and studied at colleges just three hours apart. So while we met often, we never really called or for that matter, texted each other. But that week, we got on call, where we actually checked up on each other and spoke about how we felt. If Kunal and I were discussing our feelings, surely the world had turned upside down.

I noticed changes in my dynamic with the friends that I was quarantining with too. It’s important to understand the context behind all these changes. It was early Spring and the virus was wreaking havoc on an unimaginable scale. Death tolls, unemployment rates and business closures were charting new highs every day. A lost graduation and an incomplete senior year paled in comparison to all the suffering in the world at the time.

I could see that people around me were hurting, but there was a guilt attached to that pain. We weren’t able to fully own it. Here’s something else I’ve learnt about pain — it demands to be felt. The more you try and run away from it, the more it gnaws inside you. And in those early months of disarray and turmoil, the only outlet we had for our pain was each other. Only we could fully understand and empathize with each other’s predicament.

Conversations became so much heavier and deeper. Dreams, fears and feelings were spoken of in a way they’d never been before. Why hold back now? For a generation that grew up perfecting how to hide its emotions, vulnerability and intimacy became standard currency. For a generation that mastered running away from our emotions, we had nowhere to go.

You know that feeling of how a car journey feels endless when you’ve never been to the destination. But the return feels shorter just because you know exactly when it will come to an end? That’s how the early months of the pandemic felt.

With the vaccinations now on the horizon, we can finally see the first flickers of light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve thought a lot about the day when this will all end — will it be a very tangible moment of emancipation? Will the normal programming of our lives be immediately restored? Will the changes made to our inner circuitry in the past year remain post vaccination?

When we reflect on this time in our lives, I think we will be surprised to realize that it all just lasted for a year. Maybe we might come to see it as a blip on the radar. But, something that might get lost in our retrospective perspective is time. And how it held no meaning in 2020.

It was all a matter of timing.

‘Are you ready for the real world?’ From interviews to inner introspection, it’s a question that pops up everywhere for college seniors. And just as we readied ourselves to jump off the ledge of the college bubble, the virus pushed us back in and plunged us into uncertainty.

Overnight job prospects faded, acceptance letters were rescinded, LinkedIn connections went AWOL and the future became foggy. Being an international student only worsened the jeopardy and I remember the first few months of the pandemic being riddled with endless question marks.

Seeking reassurances about the future, I set up a Zoom meeting with one of my journalism professors during this period. But, over the course of the call, I realized he was just as flummoxed about everything as I was. He told me about the challenges he was facing with online learning and I spoke to him about how grades felt so meaningless in such a time. It was a very open and vulnerable conversation about the fears and challenges brought on by the pandemic. The gravity of the situation started to sink in.

As the pandemic dragged on into the summer and beyond, I noticed two things. One, the initial fog of uncertainty started to give way to possibility. Hobbies were revisited, passions were deepened and career paths were reevaluated. We understood the fickle nature of the moment. That doing anything apart from what you love or saying anything aside from what you mean is a form of crime.The changes in the outside world were matched by the stirrings on the inside.

Two, I noticed that the Class of Covid fell down a few rungs on the Hierarchy of Pain. The loss of a graduation and a quarter of a semester paled in comparison to those who had to forgo more than a year of an authentic college experience. Conversations with my younger cousins and juniors helped ease the burden of self pity I’d been wallowing in. The reversal of the commiserations offered would have been comical had it not been so tragic. Maybe we weren’t the unluckiest batch.

But even today, each time I think about college, I feel gutted. The memories hit in sudden bursts, accompanied by a sharp pain. Weirdly, the more obscure the memory, the more it stings. The dorm party from freshman year I’m not sure how I ended up at, the all nighters spent in the library, the preciseness of the planning that went into getting on the T without having to buy a ticket.

On the day of our graduation, I had a Zoom call with a bunch of friends. For those few hours, it felt like we were all back in the room together. Like collectors at an antique store, we went through each joke and anecdote in the catalogue from the past four years and laughed just as hard at each of them. After the call ended, I remember feeling extremely happy, then extremely sad. It was the realization that our college time-capsule had been corked. It would be a long time before we could make new memories, but it was too soon for nostalgia.

I often wonder, is this something everyone who recently graduates from college feels, or is it different for our year? Will it always be so gutting or does it unclench over time?

A couple of days before my final departure from Boston, I went over to one of my friend Seb’s apartment to say goodbye. Over the course of the evening, we began to reflect on the past four years — memories, learnings, experiences, relationships, friendships — and tried to understand how all of it had shaped us. We paced around his apartment living room, airing our ruminations and realizations. So completely embroiled in our conversation, we found we’d ambled out onto the balcony. I remember this very vividly because I remember the question I asked him as we looked out onto Gainsborough Street.

‘If you could go back in time and talk to the person you were four years ago, what would you tell him college was like?’

It was a question that stumped us both. For the first time that day, we were speechless. There was no way to communicate my relationship with Boston. No way of explaining the impact all the people I’d interacted with and built friendships with in the past four years had on me, without being overwhelmed emotionally.

In my four years I experienced things I’d never felt before — passion, love, ambition, independence. Things that words really can’t do justice to. There was no way to articulate how I’d grown and changed as a person. But, if I really had to go back and tell the person I was four years ago, what college was, I’d tell him — ‘You write now. But, college will make you a writer’.

By the time Seb and I ended our lengthy retrospection, the sun had set, the sky was purple and it had started raining.

Boston had read the script and set the scene.

It would take an hour to get back home, but it was a walk that passed right through campus. It was a chance at goodbye that I wasn’t going to let go.

There wasn’t a single soul back on campus apart from the two of us. For that one hour, Commonwealth Avenue transformed into Memory Lane. We stopped for a few moments at each place of significance to me on campus — my college building, the student newspaper office, my dorm from freshman year, Pavement Coffee House, the FitRec. Sensing the occasion and my pathos, Seb took a step back to let me say my goodbyes. And take some pictures. He also indulged my little soliloquy explaining what each of the spots we stopped at meant to me.

Given the lack of closure, we were all left to find our own endings to this chapter of our lives. The rain kissed purple evening walk back through campus was mine.

The world runs on stories. So do I.

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