I’ve rarely had this time to myself. College life did not condition me for long hours spent immobile, with no obligations after 7 p.m. My instinct to stay busy has made me stalk the kitchen, looking for plates to clean or cans to reorganize. I can’t help but fidget. Thinking of the future only begs more questions. Where will I be living and working? How will I make the transition to adulthood under such precarious circumstances? Prolonged distractions drag my attention back to the present: conversations with childhood friends, a stroll around Yale’s secluded greenhouses, a night of dancing with my roommates under the influence of Dr Pepper and Bacardi. My life inches along now, punctuated by brief excitements like the baking of a vegan chocolate chip banana bread, but defined by long periods of tedium.
On March 13, the midpoint of spring break, I returned to my off-campus apartment in New Haven. That’s when lockdown with my three roommates, Vish, Jonathan and Karti, first began. Vish and Jonathan had lived with me all year at our Dwight Street place — Karti joined to avoid infecting his parents, but really so that he could spend time with friends. Senior year had withered away, but our company together felt like a part of college we could hold on to. Karti played soccer on Cross Campus with a couple friends most afternoons, each of them trying to keep six feet apart. Jonathan went on the occasional run, but often just talked about how excited he was to use his new rollerblades. Vish tried out old Indian recipes and tested them on us. It usually didn’t take us more than 10 minutes to eat it all. I spent hours obsessively cleaning, sponging every speck of dust I could find in my room. My obsession only exacerbated my restlessness, so I stopped. The four of us stayed busy, out of choice rather than necessity.
For the first time all year, we spent hours together in the same common room. Jonathan and Vish were both the type to refuse stillness — in part, because they were still college juniors. Jonathan took on numerous small projects: reading the book “African Dominion,” experimenting with Ugandan curries, and trying to get financial aid from his native Danish government. Despite his obsession with productivity, Jonathan lived spontaneously. One night, he pulled me away from my computer and we spent 30 minutes choreographing a 10-second reggaeton dance video. Vish also dedicated his time to productive activities, committing hours each day to his student activism and reading hundreds (if not thousands) of pages for his graduate history courses. He interrupted his work flow with three-minute games of online chess — I didn’t realize until this point that Vish ranked in the 99.99th percentile of global chess players. Over dinner, he taught us about Indian politics, a deeply personal subject that consumed his mind. Karti, like me, was a senior, and therefore far more preoccupied with trivial tasks. We played darts, watched YouTube, and yelled jokingly at each other whenever one of us turned the sink on as the other showered, making the water scalding hot. When we weren’t together, Karti was usually calling another friend, unable to go more than a couple hours without social interaction. Our whole apartment buzzed with conversation and laughter.
Before our routines could settle, Karti got sick. It began with fatigue and body aches, and sent Jonathan packing to his girlfriend’s apartment, a move he had been planning anyway. The next day sent Vish and me scrambling, from making phone calls to disinfecting surfaces and researching online diagnoses. Karti’s fever spiked. The first step was an unpleasant, but necessary quarantine. Karti could not leave his room except to go to the bathroom. What had felt like light and communal labor between the four of us now became a constant stream of chores. Vish and I were responsible for cooking, cleaning and calling family members. We sent updates to Karti’s family every few hours. We called Yale Health nearly every day, but the answer was always the same — no testing. New Haven was running low, and Karti was both young and healthy.
After a couple days of fevers over 103º, our days centered around caretaking. Vish and I were rarely overwhelmed — we knew by this point how to fill Karti’s warm water bottle while wearing protective oven mitts and how to drop off food without entering his room. But we were hardly relaxed. Every couple hours came a groan asking for more water, or to report a new temperature. Classes kept me distracted, rather than focused. On the third night, Karti lost his balance and collapsed into the bathtub at 4:30 a.m. with a 103.7º fever. Bleary-eyed, Vish and I woke up to the sound of Karti pounding the floor with his hand. We lumbered out of our rooms and to the bathroom, where Karti pleaded for water. After taking some cautious sips, he was able to stand up again, stumble to his bed, and take a Tylenol before falling back to sleep. Adrenaline kept me and Vish up for another hour.
Lucky for us, that was the peak — of our anxiety. The next night was the peak for Karti; he sweated out his sickness through five layers of clothing. After that, there was no more late-night banging, and no more frantic WhatsApp messages to parents. Instead, I called my own parents who wanted to know how I was doing. In truth, I was worn out. I hadn’t taken much time to think about myself, mostly because doing so made me more tired. Two days later, Karti’s fever was gone.
Vish and I joked that we had gone through rigorous training to be stay-at-home dads. We perfected our cooking, accelerated our dishwashing, and used enough disinfectant spray to cover the entire apartment twice. In those days, we enjoyed brief moments of pause — a conversation about summer love or a sampling of beetroot juice. One night, we forgot to feed Karti until well past 9 p.m.
Our daily consultations with nurses and doctors left us entirely in the dark as to Karti’s actual illness. Was it coronavirus? The flu? Without a test, it was impossible to be sure. Doctors told us that Karti could leave his room after three days of no fever, so we made him wait four. On day four, and really every day he felt energetic enough to pester us, Karti begged us to cook him Maggi, a type of instant noodle that was popular in India. We refused. His illness had tired us out, and we had no intention of nourishing his immune system with vacuum-packed noodles.
Finally, on day five, freedom. Karti roamed around our not-so-spacious apartment, and within the span of a few hours, life returned to normal. We no longer entered the bathroom wary that Karti might have forgotten to spray the hot water faucet. We tossed the protective oven mitts into the corner of Jonathan’s room, his empty space becoming a repository for anything potentially infected. It took a day or two, but I was able to relax the sirens in my head that shrieked whenever Karti sat down next to me on the couch, or touched my plate with his hand. Karti, and his parents, thanked us endlessly for our support. Frankly, our help was driven more by instinct than generosity. If we were stay-at-home dads, then Karti was, after all, our child.
In the week since, things have gotten slow again. I get up each morning with the sun shining brightly through my dual-paned window, the intensity of the sun a reminder that I’ve woken up far too late. I see the same man from my window every day, standing on the stoop of the house across the street — his hair is frazzled and sticks out on the sides like gray cotton candy. I often watch him walk, his shoulders hunched, wafting hurried puffs of cigarette smoke into the air. By the time the sun sets, I’ve done some combination of skim through the news, finish half my school work, skip a meal, and stare at various screens, in no particular order. The cycle repeats itself without a clear beginning or end. I see the sun less and less, spending more time awake at night than during the day. Lethargy has replaced stress.
But in the descent back to calm, I’ve transitioned to a far more unsettling reality — life is different. Updates with friends in distant places can no longer just be “catching up” — the truth is there isn’t too much to catch up on. Instead of relying on events or actions to guide my frame of time, I hold on to something far more fickle — emotion. I talk more about what happens within me, rather than to me. Perhaps, this time for internal reflection is a silver lining. Or perhaps it’s just plain scary.
I inhabit the same holding pattern — waiting for things to go back to the way they were, while realizing that there is no going back. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that our world is changing irreversibly. But what choice do we have? As the virus sharpens its teeth, I’m scared of the stark future that awaits. I don’t have any answers. Neither do the people I’ve always trusted and loved. Last week, my mom texted me: “I don’t know what to say except that I love you dearly and that we can take it day by day and are together in this.”
Here in New Haven, life goes on, with some changes. The piercing sound of ambulance sirens now rattles down my block every few hours. Each day more pedestrians wear masks. Package shipments are delayed, and local grocery delivery is completely booked. But in many ways, things stay the same. The cherry blossoms on Lynwood Place bloom in mid-April fashion with a flurry of soothing pink. From blocks away, I still hear playful yells from the backyard of the soccer house a few buildings down on Dwight Street. My neighbor still paces his porch, grumbling and muttering. Our bathroom is no cleaner or dirtier than it was in September. Luckily, these small moments of sameness have survived.
Names have been changed.