Dora Guo

I grab my coffee from Starbucks and rush out the door. I walk past a man playing his saxophone and couples sitting outside of a coffee shop sipping their warm drinks. No one seems to be in a rush besides me. For once, Yale seems relaxed. Unlocking my phone and pulling my headphones back on, I type, “Hey sorry sorry I’m almost there,” and send it to Leo. 

I speed-walk to the theater and pull open the heavy door, my shiny black high-heeled boots clicking on the stairs. I walk into the belly of the golden theater. The seats are dark red velvet, and set pieces are flung around the shiny stage. Leo stands in the middle of the platform, and our director sits in the front row giving him notes.

“Hey bub, we started a few minutes ago,” Leo says, jumping off the stage to come hug me hello. “The show is going to be great,” he comments with a wide grin, barely able to hold in his excitement.

I smile back. “I know it will be,” I say. I collapse into the plush theater seat and take out my computer, ready to take notes. I always love rehearsal. Leo is hilarious and incredibly entertaining to watch. I also love my job. I’m producer and stage manager, and it’s one of the only times I truly feel like I get to be who I want to be —a badass. 

After rehearsal ends, our director leaves, and it’s just Leo and me. We sit on the stage and chat. I talk him through what else needs to be done before the show opens: props, design deadlines, tech schedules, and a multitude of other details. Before I’m even halfway through my list, he interrupts me.

“Do you want to go to the Ordinary and get a drink?” he asks.

“Nah I can’t, I have plans. I’d love to another time though,” I say, smiling widely. 

“Well in that case I think maybe we should go back to the situation we were in pre-apocalypse,” he offers bluntly, chaos twinkling in his eyes.

He’s referring to the post-breakup situation that landed us somewhere between dating, best friends, and friends with benefits. Many said it was unhealthy and confusing. It was also incredibly hard to get out of because feelings for him were, unfortunately, incredibly hard to shake. I did get out of it though, and we’d been just friends since school restarted.

I sit back, startled. My mind starts to reel. I’m tempted, but I shake the thought clear. I don’t regret what happened in the past, but it’s also not something I can go back to.

“Leo, I love you a lot, but I can’t do that,” I say, kissing him on the cheek and hopping down to the ground. “I’ll see you later.”

As I leave the theater, I take a deep breath. The cold air is harsh and crisp. Colorful leaves lay on the ground, creating a sidewalk mosaic. I adjust my leather jacket as I brace against the fall wind. My friends and I are closer than ever. I appreciate my family more than I could imagine. Freedom after quarantine feels full of possibilities. 

 

My eyes snap open. The fantasy of Yale in the fall is still replaying in my head. It wasn’t real and hasn’t happened, at least not yet. I sink back into my pillows, letting my eyes close again. Even before the south Mississippi sun peeks through the curtains, reminding me that I’m still in quarantine and that the world hasn’t ended yet, my mom scurries into my room in her fluffy blue polka-dot robe and sits on the side of my bed. I’m half asleep — actually more than half. It’s 8:30 a.m., and I went to sleep a mere two hours ago. Of course she doesn’t know this. The first thing I see is the Walmart logo. My mom scrunches up her face in confusion and hits her phone with the pad of her finger.

“I need to order these groceries, but it’s not letting me,” she says. 

I roll over, squinting at the bright screen, and mumble some kind of an answer. I touch the option to choose a pick-up slot and wait for the page to load. There haven’t been any slots open for almost a week because so many people are scared to go shopping in person. Picking up groceries is less risky. It often instructs to check back early in the morning to see if any slots have opened up. Friday from 3–4 p.m. pops up on the screen. But it’s Wednesday, and we’re already out of almost everything.

“Okay, I did it,” I say with a sigh. She smiles at me, says thank you, and quietly closes my door. I’m in darkness again.

Many hours later, I wake up to my real alarm. The one that’s programmed into my old phone, not the one programmed into my new life. I reach my legs out from under my comforter and off the side of the bed. They dangle in the air until my body follows. I rub my eyes, willing them to awaken. Grabbing my clothes, I stagger through the hallway to the bathroom and settle myself in front of the large mirror. My dyed red hair has begun to grow out, exposing the three gray hairs I’ve earned in my 21 years. Otherwise, I look the same — pale skin, green eyes, dark circles.

I’ve always had an “unquiet mind.” In high school, I often worried about being on breaks. Weekends were fine, but when Christmas came around I knew what would happen. I would have too much time on my hands and therefore too much time to think. I would drive myself crazy because my mind wouldn’t stop. Ever. And if I thought about the wrong things, a terrifying panic attack would follow.

Over the years, my friends, family, and myself have all called what I’m describing different things. One of my best friends from Yale recently started calling it Becky the Bitch Brain, providing a mean girl persona that I can rally against. My dad calls it anxiety, something he knows well. He’s struggled with his own unique brand of it his entire life and has always felt guilty that I inherited it. The name I used for many years wasn’t quite as witty or logical as my friends’ and family’s. All through middle school, high school, and sometimes even now I’d often say that my brain just hated me. It was the only explanation I could come up with.

I skip makeup today, something I almost never do at Yale, and finish getting ready. Then, I start my COVID-19 routine. The days are unbelievably normal. Daytime has never been difficult for me. My mind doesn’t stay silent, but it doesn’t usually have enough time to sit and stew.

Every day is almost the exact same. I go to Zoom classes from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. I have lunch. I either do work or laze on the couch. I watch the news for an hour and a half with my parents, starting at 5:30 p.m. We watch two versions of the national news and then the local news. I retreat to do work until dinner. We eat while watching a movie. We clean up dishes. We wipe everything down with Clorox wipes. I work out for an hour. My parents take showers and go to bed. But after all of this is when my “day” really starts.

Once the lights in the house go out, the silent darkness presses in. My house has many, many windows. The front and back walls, which are both easily viewable from the middle, are all glass. See-through curtains hang from them limply, brushing against the ground lightly, moving constantly. No one lives around us. The houses on our street are weekend and summer homes owned by people who live in New Orleans. The yellowish street lights illuminate a space that is mainly dead. Except for my house.

Throughout my entire life, I thought my house was terrifying at night. I would tiptoe around, scared to look out the windows into the darkness. I was convinced a face would be peering back at me. Leaving my room to get a snack, I stared directly into a hallway that led to shadows that hid my worst nightmares. The house was so silent that any interruption, even just a creek, made me jump. I heard footsteps that belonged to no one. We live right on the water so sounds reverberate strangely and do uncanny and even unearthly things. I’d seen bright green eyes staring at me through my bedroom window when I was little. I was constantly on edge.

I’m no longer scared of my house being haunted, because now I know it is. I’ve become the ghost. Night after night, I wander around my home. I continue on living while everyone else is blissfully asleep. I live a completely separate life, unknown to those around me. And the things that have been pushed back into the closet of my brain slowly open the door and peek out. Then, they rush at me.

Sometimes it feels as though my brain is full of noise. It starts with a worry or an insecurity, and then my brain explodes. It goes to the worst-case scenario, that someone doesn’t care or that I’m a failure, and it won’t stop. Thoughts rage at me from every direction and gradually fog up my brain so there’s no room left to think. The thoughts keep going round and round, deeper and deeper. The logical thoughts are crowded out by the noise, and there’s nothing I can do about it except ride it out. Late-night vent sessions help sometimes. In the really bad times though, I don’t even want to speak. Other times, it comes in sharp pains rather than constant chatter. It’s a shriek, sudden and terrifying. I think about certain things, usually my own mortality, and it triggers an extremely short but aggressive panic attack that takes my breath away. My eyes widen, and I sit up, startled, gasping for air. These attacks usually come in waves. For months they won’t happen, and then it’s every night. Luckily, they never last long, and they always happen in the dark.

Throughout the years, I’ve learned a lot about how to deal with the way my brain works. I know what triggers me and why, when to let my mind spiral and when to try and stop it, the aggravating cons and the rewarding pros, and finally, which situations make it better and which ones make it worse. I also learned that at Yale, it wasn’t as bad. I was usually with people until at least 3:30 a.m., and with Leo around all junior year I was rarely alone in the darkness. The closeted thoughts couldn’t catch me. But in isolation, with no one present past 10:30 p.m., my brain has ample time to revisit its old tradition — rejecting silence. But now I have a new weapon against Becky the Bitch Brain. From midnight until 6:30 a.m., I live in a mix of fantasy and reality. When my mind has too much time on its hands, I imagine things.

The fantasies are hopes for the future. I imagine a world in which Leo and I can just be best friends, I have the strength to say no when I should, my mind is quiet, and life is full of reunions and new beginnings. When the quarantine is over and everyone can return, maybe I’ll have worked through the things I’ve needed to. Until then, I can do this. Even though it’s nowhere near the real thing.

 Smoothing my hands over my colorful map-patterned comforter, I unlock my phone. It’s 3:30 a.m., and there’s a message from Leo. “Are you still up?” it reads. I smile but ignore it. My house is completely silent, but my brain is full of noise. I close my eyes, and suddenly I’m no longer in my room. It’s fall, and I’m in New Haven.

 

Names have been changed.