Alice Mao

I

I switch my duffel bag from arm to arm as the PHC watches helplessly from six feet away. The random assortment of toiletries, pajamas and books weighs into the crook of my elbow, leaving angry welts along my forearm. I set the bag down, and it glares at me like a forsaken pet. We’re in the COVID “Playpen,” the small, fenced-in area with warning signs at every boundary. Passerby stare at me like some rare zoo exhibit, and I wonder if I should play along. Snarl? Claw at the fence? Twirl? 

We wait for my new room key. And wait. And wait. My first-ever class at Yale, 9 to 10:15 a.m., comes and goes.

II

I open an empty minifridge. After calling about 15 different contacts from Yale Health, I hear a knock at my door, and open it to find a freezer bag full of turkey sandwiches and a microwavable box of chicken tikka masala. 

Every day, I complete an emailed survey, picking between various deli sandwiches and wraps as well as a few “hot” meals. I’ve been told on multiple phone calls that as one of the first COVID cases at Yale, I’m one of the university’s “guinea pigs.” I guess I should get used to the frequent glitches in the meal survey.

III

After 48 hours in Bingham Hall, I’ve familiarized myself with every square foot of my new home. Of the five available bedrooms in my suite, my key unlocks only my own. Labels for “Person A” and “Person B” hang over the stalls and sinks in the bathroom. The empty shower constantly reminds me that I am the only person here. In my selfish wish for companionship, I imagine the arrival of a “Person B.” A co-positive, if you will. A co-problem.

Above the couch in my common room, there’s a huge duct-tape rendition of the Hopper crest. I examine it for hours between classes. On Zoom, my classmates notice the glaring green design in the background and comment on Hopper’s merits. Instead of explaining why I’m not in Silliman, I’ve begun to pretend I’m living in Hopper. “Yeah, I love Hopper’s community! Uh-huh, the room layouts are great!”

Across from the duct-tape crest, I add my own decoration — a countdown where I mark each new day spent in quarantine with a tally mark. I press the pen aggressively onto the drywall, hoping the ink encapsulates the monotony of the day and releases it onto the cracking paint.

IV

How to pass the eternity that is the half-centimeter between tally marks? I spend two hours a day on phone calls: Yale Hospitality, the COVID-19 Hotline, Conferences and Events and a various assortment of Yale-affiliated nurses and doctors. In order to organize the stream of “203” calls I receive, I interrupt every caller when they begin speaking and ask them for a name. Post-isolation, I still retain a series of contacts in my phone entitled “_____ the Nurse” or “_____ from Hospitality.” A personal favorite is “_______ who is bringing me my EpiPen.”

V

I call my dad at least twice a day. Both of us had mysteriously contracted the virus on the 15-hour drive from Chicago to New Haven. While I isolate in Bingham Hall, my dad quarantines himself in his apartment.

On day five, I learn that my dad’s symptoms are far worse than I had thought. While I only have a slight cold and a general sense of exhaustion, my father struggles to sit upright for extended periods of time. In an effort to keep me at ease, he has managed to conceal his condition until now — when he falls asleep in the middle of the call.

I sink to the floor of my Bingham common room. My dad, newly single, has no one to take care of him. Does anyone even know he’s there?

VI

In the three days before my move to Old Campus, I became closely acquainted with about five people… all of whom were contact traced shortly after I tested positive. We waste away the summer evenings on Zoom calls. I share my worries about my father and apologize over and over again.

VII

The Silliman-wide GroupMe explodes with warnings about “that girl who tested positive” and pleas to “be more careful.” Within a week of stepping on campus, I’ve become Silliman’s biggest problem. My friends jokingly say I should revel in the fame. But I worry that I will be known exclusively as “COVID Girl” once I return to the Silliman courtyard.

Beyond Silliman, word has spread that a first year has already tested positive for the virus. On one of my first days of class, I find myself in a breakout room with a student who begins to discuss the terror of Old Campus. “Can you imagine?” he asks. “Thank God it’s not me.” I play along.

VIII

 On the eighth day of quarantine, my dad begins to recover. To the surprise of the juniors residing on the “healthy” side of Old Campus, I skip across the Playpen. I participate in virtual Chloe Ting workouts in the common room. In a final act of rebellion, I rip the duct-tape Hopper crest off of the wall, leaving a glorious, sticky residue on my hands. That night, I devour my chicken tikka masala.

IX

I spend my last 24 hours in quarantine packing my duffel bag and lugging it jubilantly back to Silliman. Over the next four days, I return intermittently to visit the window of my contact-traced friends, yelling words of encouragement and bits of gossip to the second floor.

X

Three days after the move from Old Campus, I receive an email from a junior who identifies herself as “B-A11A friend.” She had found my name on an ID card that I’d left in my old bedroom in Bingham Hall. As the newest occupant of Bingham A11A, she informs me that she will be adding to my tally wall.