Monday, September 1, 2020: I arrive on campus at 9:50 a.m., right on time for my 10:00 a.m. testing slot. I took a red eye from Seattle and I’ve been waiting in the Philly airport since 5:00 a.m., so I am tired but still functioning. All I have with me is my little carry-on suitcase, since I had been on spring break visiting my boyfriend in Los Angeles when we got the news from Swarthmore in the spring. Nearly all of my things are still in a storage box somewhere in Mertz. It is extraordinarily surreal to be standing here, in Ben West, with everyone around me wearing their masks and standing six feet away. I find myself squinting to recognize people with only their eyes visible.
I get my test done and walk to Willets, where I will be moving in as an R.A. My room is a double, with the exact same layout as the one I shared with my best friend freshman year. College staff moved out one bed, but left the two sets of desks and chests of drawers. I spend the rest of the day moving my boxes from Mertz and setting up my room. It sounds ridiculous, but I burst into tears when I open my suitcase and find my favorite pair of shoes, slightly squashed from their six months in storage. I bring all of my most special belongings to school; it helps me. It is a relief to be reunited with some of them. Others feel strange, like relics of the distant past. It is vaguely spooky to be on the first floor completely by myself. I pad down the hallway alone in bare feet, avoiding a dead cockroach. It doesn’t smell like Willets. The bathroom is large, echoey, and empty. Despite the fact that I have slept two hours in the last thirty-six, when I get in bed I can’t fall asleep. It’s hot in the room and the insects outside are making noise. It’s silent at night at home. I am acutely conscious of being alone in the building.
Tuesday and Wednesday: The first years move in. My hall, Willets First North, is home to only twelve people besides me. I’m not supposed to physically help with move-in, so I sort through my things on the floor with the door open, waving to families as they come by. It’s lonely. I start to make friends with the other RAs in Willets and, to my incredible relief, find that they are extremely cool people. Thank God. Only one of my good friends was slated to be on campus this semester. I was really, really worried that this semester would be high school all over again: trying to make friends with people, unable to understand why it doesn’t click with them. Lying in bed, I try to focus on how cool the other RAs are, and how nice the freshmen seem. It’ll be good.
Thursday and Friday: Going to Sharples is sad, but peppered with the pleasure of seeing the Dining Services staff again. You have to reserve a slot to eat in advance, and nothing is self-serve. You pick a side of the plastic curtain that bisects the serving room and get your hot food there, then wind through the building until you collect your condiments by the back door and exit. Absurdly, I miss the ice cream and the big ketchup dispenser the most. Sharples is extremely open and empty feeling. Most of the time, it’s just me and the Dining Services staff in the big room, handing me an apple and two fast-food packets of ketchup.
There are a few spots of happiness. There’re so many people outside on the lawn, enjoying the sun, eating in huge, socially-distanced circles. Everyone’s wearing their mask religiously. I’ve never seen the lawns used this much, and that’s nice. There are people kicking around a soccer ball. The area behind Sharples — from the old Phi building to the tunnel under the train tracks — has been plowed up, bare empty earth. It serves to contribute to the surreal feeling I’ve had all week.
I take my first years on a walk around campus, since many of them have never physically been here before. I haven’t been past Parrish yet; there’s no reason to have gone anywhere except Willets and Sharples. The surreal feeling among the academic buildings is so strong that it’s hard to maintain my cheery tone as I wave at the buildings and describe them. I’m trying to project my upbeat energy with just my eyes and my body language, unable to smile visibly behind my mask, and it’s draining. There’s absolutely no one beyond Parrish. I see perhaps one other student and a staff member leaving Sci Center. I keep thinking that the emptiness is just temporary, but it’s not. Beyond the huge windows, Sci Commons is utterly deserted. I keep walking.
Saturday and Sunday: The other Willets RAs and I have planned a scavenger hunt for all of Willets, hoping to give our residents something to do. Orientation is completely virtual and only two events are synchronous, so all they really have on their agendas is sitting in their rooms watching pre-recorded videos and going to Sharples. I’ve spent most of August worrying about them: alone, in a different place, and isolated in a way that college freshmen never have been before. My little sister is a freshman at Duke this fall. In between worrying about my residents, I worry about her.
I have concluded that being alive in a pandemic is exhausting. I don’t like being in my room all day, but leaving it seems like too much work. Where am I going to go, anyway? All the academic buildings are closed. The maximum occupancy for the lounges rules them out most of the time. Every single person that I would normally spend time with, study with, speak with, cry with, is gone with the exception of one. I wish I could go to Cornell and sit in one of the high-backed chairs that overlooks the Crum. That’s my favorite spot to write papers. I put on “folklore” and walk circles in my room. I go for a walk at night around campus, one of my favorite things to do in normal times, and feel soothed: the emptiness is to be expected at this hour. I feel like I have stepped through a hole in time, and I’m wandering around in the fall of my sophomore year, taking a break from Chem 10 study groups. It’s comforting. With the music in my ears, I can’t hear the cicadas either, which is good, because they’ve been driving me crazy. At night I choose between window closed, no noise, too hot, and window open, too loud, but cooler.
Monday: Classes begin. On Monday I feel overwhelmed with joy at seeing other students’ faces, and at seeing Vince Formica’s enthusiastic smile. It’s really exciting and it washes away some of the sluggishness that I’ve been feeling. In the afternoon I go outside with the other Willets RAs to take first day of school pictures. It’s a weird experience even though it’s happy, because although this is the first day of my senior year of college it does not feel like it at all. I smile extra big so that it reaches my eyes above my mask. We’d take a picture of all of us with arms around each other, but that doesn’t adhere to social distancing. So we don’t.
Tuesday: I have six hours of Zoom classes today, and I feel like I’m going insane. One moment I am fully immersed in the class, feeling the symbiotic energy of group learning for the first time in months, and the next moment I want to leap up from my uncomfortable wooden chair and bolt outside at top speed. A three hour seminar on Zoom is difficult in a way that it was not in person. I pace circles around my room when we take breaks, feeling irrationally trapped.
Wednesday and Thursday: Classes are bright spots in my day, but I struggle to motivate myself in between. Being outside makes me feel better, but what I really want is to go to Cornell or Underhill. I miss my best friend so much. I wish we were roommates again. My residents seem to be doing well, but I mainly pass them in the hallway and the bathroom. There’s so few of them that Willets seems unpopulated. I call home and hear that someone from home attempted suicide a few days into her freshman fall. The news makes me uneasy and paranoid, like my deeper fears are being validated.
Friday: I’m thankful for the end of the week, but it doesn’t really feel like the end of the week. Lying in bed, I reserve a spot for lunch, clicking through interminable loading pages in the GET app, and trudge through Sharples. I go back to my room and eat on the floor. I’ll be losing track of the days here, definitely. At eight, I have the interest meeting for my dance group. I review my emails and notes in preparation. I know that once the Zoom meeting starts, it’ll make me happy: I love seeing everyone’s faces, the faces of my friends. In the time that passes before it begins, though, it seems daunting and exhausting. As the minutes tick down, I sit at my desk, with my desk light as close as possible to illuminate me against the flickery amber Willets overhead light. I put on a big smile and lean too close to the webcam, doing my best to project pleasantness onto the screen. Everything’s going to be okay. Sorry for the grainy image, I’m doing my best. It’s dark in here. One down. Eleven weeks to go.
Photographs courtesy of Hannah Watkins.