Senior year in my biochemistry class, my friend passed me a piece of paper where she had drawn out all the organelles in the cell. Next to a few of them, she had written a zodiac sign in pink ink,. I looked at the paper and scowled at her, whispering, “no, no the Nucleus is Leo, the microtubules are Libras.” I corrected her drawing, assigning Gemini to the Lysosome — as they’re supposed to be very toxic — and Capricorn to the mitochondria — no explanation needed. As I passed it back to her, I bumped into my friend, sitting next to me who was meticulously taking notes. She had almost a page written. The lecture had just started, was I already that behind? I quickly turned my attention to the slides projected on the cracked whiteboard and attempted to copy everything I could’ve possibly missed. Every so often throughout the rest of the class, I turned back to my friend as she continued to pass me the paper again. We went back and forth switching Leo and Libra placements. The bell rang and I let out a sigh of relief. I had the next period off and so did my note-passing partner in crime. We quickly met up with another friend and headed out the school doors with one mission in mind: buying chicken wings from a restaurant near downtown.
We had established this tradition a few months prior, when we were all in the library trying to get work done and a group of sophomore boys came in, bringing with them a strong and delicious smell of wings. My friends and I had looked at each other as soon as the smell settled into the library, weaving its way through every bookshelf and notebook. After a lot of back and forth, I awkwardly went up to them to ask them where they had got the wings from. One of the boys, through his sauce soaked mouth, grumbled the name of the store and I ran back to report. We decided to go the next day and the tradition was established to get wings every Wednesday.
In the picnic tables near my friend’s parked car, we devoured the wings as if we had never eaten chicken before and as we talked about senior year and how ready we were to leave high school. I remember saying, “I swear everyday feels the same going from class to class, I’m ready for a change.” As I said this, my friend, who was nodding, tossed a slightly spicy wing into her mouth and immediately her face changed. She began to tear up and I remember all of us laughing so hard that soon we all had tears in our eyes.
My mom was calling me downstairs but I made a conscious decision to pretend I didn’t hear her. I was in the middle of something very important. My head pounded, my eyes raced across my computer screen, and my fingers skated through the trackpad as I fixated on the task at hand. I was on Cool Math Games playing Papa’s Pancakeria — the best Papa’s game — and I was falling behind on orders. I haphazardly assembled some blueberry pancakes and watched in horror as the customer gave me a three-star rating. Frustrated, I closed out of the window and went downstairs to help my mom make some lemonade. As my anger cooled off with each sip, I walked out to the backyard where my dad was planting some flowers. He said something along the lines of “It’s a good thing school got canceled, now you’ll learn how to garden.”
It was April 11. I bent down to help him plant the flowers and soon we were off, sowing seeds all around the edges of our backyard. Beaten by the sun, I stepped into the shade when my friend, the same one who couldn’t handle spicy food, was calling me. I ran back into the house and we began to talk. First about movies we’ve been seeing. I had just recently rewatched Fantastic Mr. Fox and she had just watched Grand Budapest Hotel. We were insufferable to be around. Then we moved on to talking about people who went to our school, what recipes we wanted to try out, what we think Michael Cera does in his free time, etc. Hours passed and soon we were on a powerpoint presentation which we had started a while ago within our friend group. Dubbed the “Quarantine Diaries” every night or so my friends and I would hop on to make a slide about random Entries such as “What Club Penguin Puffle I think everyone is” to “Ranking all root vegetables” spurred on intense intellectual discourse.
I zoomed my friends as we added slides, my laptop overheating on top of my duvet. The fans were spinning and the whole computer let up a wiring “zzzzz” noise, but I didn’t pay too much attention. Someone had dropped an embarrassing picture from middle school and we all screamed with laughter. I remember seeing my little zoom window outlined in yellow as I had laughed the loudest.
Often times throughout the pandemic I find myself imagining the post-COVID-19 era. A time when classes won’t cause eye strain and bumping into strangers will mean you only exchange apologies rather than fear of infection. I have a very grounded idea of what I expect to happen when the pandemic is over.
I plan to head up to New York City. I’ve only been there once, briefly, en route to New Jersey of all places. This time, however, will be different. I plan to walk around and explore the city and somewhere along the way I plan to accidentally bump into a cast member of SNL — preferably Pete Davidson but I’m not opposed to Colin Jost. I’ll say something so profound yet comically impeccable that they’ll have no choice but to invite me to the taping of the show. I’ll go and guess who is delivering the opening monologue? My celebrity crush since middle school, Dev Patel. His jokes aren’t that funny — I’m sure I could have done better — but I’ll politely laugh. He will notice me in the crowd and immediately offer me a role in his upcoming movie, clearly drawn in by my natural charisma. I get on set and immediately but to the surprise of no one, the camera will love me. The director will approach me after my scene, which was filmed in one take, and shower me with compliments — he’ll also fire Dev Patel as there is only room for one star in the production. The director tells me that someone wants to talk to me and I turn around to see no one other than Oscar-winning actress, Meryl Streep DRA ’75.
“Meryl, so good to finally meet you,” I say — we’re already on a first name basis. Meryl will probably shake my hand excitedly.
“I love your work” she’ll say and I’ll frown. I’ve never acted before.
She’ll clarify, “Your performance in the Aesop Fables Play in third grade was impeccable”. Oh I remember now.
“You must be referring to the time I played the role of ‘the net’ where —”
“Your only line was ‘whoosh’ as you pretended to be the net that caught the lion in The Lion and The Mouse. Yes that one.”
I’ll smile, not knowing what to say to such a glowing yet correct review. She’ll then ask me for my autograph and I’ll sign, writing a little note that says, “you’ll do great things” because I know she’ll appreciate it. I can’t dwell on this for too long. I’m needed back on set. I’ll finish my scene in record time just to make it back to my classes. There I’ll understand everything and bored of finishing all my PSETs within the first week of class, I’ll stumble onto a grad student course where the professor has put up a problem on the board that he says no one has been able to solve, ever. Easy. The answer was six and I showed all my work. Immediately, I’ll be nominated for several awards — in addition to the Oscar that I won for my work in the aforementioned movie..
All of this and much more will happen once the pandemic ends and I don’t have to wear a mask anywhere.
In my room, I have three designated places to sit: a chair by my desk, a chair in the corner by my window, and my bed in the center of my room. Yet at 1 a.m., I am sprawled on the ground, loose leaf paper covering every bit of exposed floor available. I have a test in a few hours in my biochem class and I’m woefully unprepared. Senioritis is not helpful either.
I find it harder and harder to stay motivated in studying as my brain taunts me with the “what does it matter anyway, you’ll graduate soon”. That voice is very convincing but a part of me knows that I should still try somewhat to do well, afterall at this point I was planning on being a biochemistry major. Another part of me recognizes how melodramatic this all is. She knows that if I just go to bed and try my best, the next day, I’ll be fine. This part is the most rational voice in my psyche. But somehow it’s the hardest to listen to. It’s difficult to find meaning in her words because she’s essentially telling me that doing nothing is ok. That going to bed, getting sleep, becoming rested is more important. It makes sense and is comforting but I’m drowned by other voices telling me to be productive, to finish the year strong, to work now and sleep when I graduate. I think back to a few weeks ago and when I went to get wings with my friends. My brain weeds out the memory of us laughing till we cry. I sigh in frustration. Why didn’t I just stay at school? Catch up on notes? Was it worth it? Hanging out with friends whom I see everyday? I groan and all the voices in my head are drowned out by me restarting the Khan Academy video. I decide I have the whole summer to eat wings. I stay up two more hours, go to bed at 3 a.m. and do ok on my test.
Mid-November of 2020, and I’m reminded of when I was on the ground almost in tears over my high school biochemistry class. The parallel is fairly easy to draw. Now I’m on the floor of my dorm, frustrated over organic chemistry. That biochemistry major is slipping through my fingers. I’m rewatching lectures till the words lose their meaning — not that I could decipher any meaning from them in the first place. I’m contemplating a time when I was a “better student”. When I was able to learn and actually studied for exams rather than waited till the last minute. Why am I not that person anymore? I think about the summer before coming to college, where I spent all of my time with my family, taking walks, half-helping with gardening, watching movies. Why wasn’t I doing anything productive? I focus back onto my lecture and move it from 1.5x speed to 2x speed, convinced that will fix everything. I don’t pay attention for long and I make the wise and profound decision to move up and study on my bed. And I fall asleep.
The next day I wake up and I take the exam and I know I didn’t do well. But oddly I am ok with it. I take a walk outside and I think back to the question I asked myself last night: “What changed?” I laugh at how simple the answer is: during a pandemic where all social norms have been turned on their head, the answer to “what has changed?” is everything. And yet there I was expecting myself to reach the same standard that I would’ve in a normal year. There I was berating myself for not being productive over the summer as if it was a normal summer. During a time where it makes the most sense to give myself a break, even if the University won’t, there I was losing sleep over a test in which I can hardly remember my score months later.
When I thought about the future after the pandemic, I used to fall into maladaptive daydreams where I planned to accomplish everything I didn’t get to do and more. That as soon as the masks come off, I’d be racing across the world making up for lost time and somehow find time to recreate “Goodwill Hunting”. Now, I’m not sure.
Even before the pandemic, I had a habit of weighing external issues above my mental health. How could I not when everything around me encouraged productivity above all? In high school, I’d regret days that I spent laughing, emptying my lungs of all the air, because I could’ve been studying. Because I could’ve been “productive”. Yet now as I write, I don’t remember the grade I got on my biochemistry exam. I do however, remember the flavors of the wings we got — mild spicy wings, honey garlic and teriyaki.
During the pandemic however, at least in the summer, I felt myself slowing down more often. This isn’t to say I wasn’t always wracked with anxiety and stress about the future. That stayed and persisted. But I remember finishing movies I had always said I would watch if I had time. Having conversations that lasted hours upon hours about nonsensical topics. Half-helping with gardening. It was then that I was living not for the sake of being productive or “investing in my future” but living to rest and make present-day me happy.
I can feel normalcy creeping back as the pandemic ends. I felt it even before vaccinations were rolled out. When school started, I resumed exerting outrageous expectations onto myself. It was only when I was able to let go of the need to continually push myself, that I was able to finally relax. Looking back, I honestly could not tell you a single thing I learned in organic chemistry but I can tell you exactly what type of Puffle I am — the red one because they “love stinky cheese”.
Now as we enter a post-pandemic world, I imagine everyone will be racing to do all the things they couldn’t, to ramp up and return to the “normal”. But I question if all elements of that “normal” need to be revisited? The pre-pandemic world was fast paced and for people who lived for the future. Now that we are in the future, in one way, I hope to see in this post-pandemic world, an opportunity to live a bit more slower, more intentionally. To live for internal growth rather than external productivity. I hope to see the paradigms shift in the post-pandemic world, where we do not base all of our actions for our “future selves” but allow us to indulge in our present selves.
Aparajita Kaphle | email@example.com