The last few days I have slept with my blinds up and the curtains open. The fifth floor of my building at the corner of College Street and Crown Street is just high enough to feel even higher. I watch the moon rise over the roof across the road, and I recall the man on the moon, and wonder if he ever gets lonely. I have a lot more time now to think about these sorts of things, in lockdown, here in New Haven, sitting at home and using the internet to talk. Really, this mode of being is not so strange: I already communicated primarily via screens before COVID-19 settled in. I haven’t spoken to my parents or grandparents any other way for almost a year. But now I don’t have a choice; I can’t see my friends, and I wield the ability to end conversations at will with the press of a touch-screen button. For some, loneliness is terror, and the impossibility of human interaction is daunting, but I feel a new quietude, an ease that tastes like the ice cream we always used to have at home in Zimbabwe, the kind they don’t make here.
As I wake up completely alone, with only the bulging droplets of rain pounding my window for company, the peace is powerful and frightening. Day is back, and I’m still here, and I haven’t gone mad. Remnants of the moon are faintly etched into the sky, visible in brief periods when the old clouds have dried up as the sky waits for a new shipment of rain. I walk to the kitchen and gaze at the coffee maker, but resist the temptation to break my Lenten fast. Instead, I drench the tea kettle in water from the overzealous faucet, set it back on its base, and push down the black switch. It swings into action with a satisfying click, and I unload the dishwasher as I wait. I debate taking steps toward the little shelf where my phone is charging, but decline my own offer. I know there are emails waiting: my church’s daily devotional, Yale Today’s COVID-19 perpetual newsletter, a how-are-you-doing message from my mum locked down with my father far away in Harare. All these voices wait on the edge of my reality, ready to tip into my world. I wait until I’m bored and the kettle has boiled, and then maybe I read them.
I love this new life alone. It gives me the space to live in a way I had always tried but never quite knew how to. I cling to my solitude as if it is holy. When everything was normal, I ran from gatherings the moment they ended, jumped on my bicycle, and sped up to my college room to escape the noise. My room was my citadel, a cosy den on the second floor of Pauli Murray College, Entryway H, next to the elevator: two small windows, a fake but genteel fireplace, and an elegant loveseat with old-lady near-paisley greenish-blue upholstery. My tea kettle and five teacups held court atop the fold-up table with painted embellishments next to the fireplace, and above them the glass Mason jar brimmed with assorted tea bags on the window-shelf. I had chosen this stand-alone single room life as soon as I could.
In my first year at Yale, I lived with five other girls. We shared a bathroom and a common room and danced to country music instead of going to Woads. At some point early on, we came to the unofficial and unspoken agreement that we would eat dinner together every night. I am punctual, but my suitemates have never been, and so nearly every evening I waited patiently, and then impatiently, until everyone was ready to go. In retrospect, I wonder why I didn’t just go to dinner by myself. I think I was afraid of the significance of choosing to be alone on my own — though I never saw the problem with being alone together. That simply confirmed that we were, that I was, enough: no distractions, no outsiders, just us — how special to be content with that. That’s how I saw it, and it made it difficult not to interpret my suitemates’ delays before dinner as signs of rejection. They weren’t, but that didn’t mean it didn’t feel like they were.
I stuck with three of my suitemates for sophomore year — Megan, Rebecca and Jenny. We transferred to Pauli Murray College and all had single rooms in a suite. I spent most of my time with other people, different friends. It was a strange newfound freedom. I was no longer beholden to my suitemates for every dinner, and I thought I was happy about that. But I had really only transferred that allegiance to a new group and so I wasn’t free at all. I never thought, then, about why I often felt that loyalty was a burden, even though I knew it shouldn’t be.
Eventually, our suite split up. Jenny already wanted to move out, but telling Megan and Rebecca that I wanted to move felt like breaking up with them, and I am never the breaker-upper. At the time, I had no idea how I would maintain my friendships with them if I didn’t live with them. Now, I think I was afraid that they wouldn’t seek me once I was gone. I chose a stand-alone single room, just down the corridor from our old suite. Rebecca and Megan moved to a double together, two courtyards away from me, and promised to come and visit me. But they went to bed late and I woke up early, and they visited once, maybe twice. I went to them, sometimes, when they were around, but Rebecca was pre-med, and Megan was YDN-invested, and they weren’t often home before I was asleep.
Dinner salvaged us as we ate together frequently in the new dining hall. The food was good, but I rejoiced in the routine. As our friendship resisted the separate pulls of variant interests and starkly different friend groups, I began to learn about myself: Their busyness, which took them away from our meals, did not always make me unhappy. I had my books and tea and I embraced my solitude gratefully. It became easier and easier to do. We grew in a mature way that takes time to understand: in small steps, in long half-hours, over grapefruit and coffee and the comfort of knowing each other as old friends.
At the beginning of my senior year, the same year that is now petering into a virtual and literal end, I moved a courtyard over and a floor up from my old room. Megan and Rebecca continued to live together, same courtyard, one floor up. We were closer this year than ever before. We ate breakfast together and danced to country music in the dark again. The Friday before spring break, Megan and I went on a run up to East Rock for the first time in our almost-four years here, two hours before she was leaving for Texas. We got back in time for her to shower and throw some things together and head off in an Uber. She’s never liked hugs or goodbyes, so we just said see you soon before she went up to her room. Freshman year she waved to me early in the morning, Panera coffee in hand, as I left on the airport shuttle outside Phelps Gate for my first spring break. But our last goodbye didn’t even happen. I wish I’d been able to wave as she was driven away. Midway through spring break, President Salovey said we were going to transition to online learning. No need to return to campus. Those here had to leave, unless they had to stay for exceptional reasons. Being international students, Rebecca and I got to stay. First, we were allowed to stay on in our rooms. But then we had to make way for first responders, so Rebecca moved to Branford College and I moved off campus. Megan is still in Texas.
So here I am in April of my senior year, in a new citadel. I’ve been here for a week and a half. It’s on the fifth floor, as I said, and the windows are expansive. The ceiling is high and the couch is worn brown leather. I had to leave my loveseat in storage, but I brought the kettle and my jar of tea. I have a stove of my own and a pantry for groceries, and I take the airtight bucket of used tea bags and onion skins down to the lobby once a week for the compost company to collect. Rebecca has been to visit me once, and she might come again tonight, to watch a movie. Megan is cleaning up after the hurricane in Texas and I haven’t heard much from her because she doesn’t like technology. Campus is quiet and peaceful. I am too: the most satisfied I have ever been in America. My parents are in lockdown in Zimbabwe, but they have food and they are safe and enjoying the sunshine and their garden. The wall around the house back home makes it easy to self-isolate. Maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable with it now. When I came to America, I knew my home would always be far away, but now, encircled again in my own safe walls, alone without needing to explain why, I feel like I’m almost home.
Even under the separation anxiety and the uncertainty of the future, it feels normal to be content. The elements of me are returning slowly, like wildflowers to an abandoned plot of land. My bed is always made; I eat meals at regular times; I bake apple cake and dance to country music. I draw all the time; I exercise every day; I call my mum. Significantly, I write in my diary and pray every night, because that’s what I do. This is all me. I need my own space more than I thought, and that’s okay.
Names have been changed.