APR '20

Meditations in an Emergency

Quarantined far from home, two international students are forced to ask the hard questions.

By Darshita Jain
& Luis López Levi


Darshita Jain (NAJ 2020) is the lit editor at F Newsmagazine. She oscillates between being the human version of a question mark and an exclamation mark.

Luis López Levi (NAJ 2020) is a former arts reporter, avid podcast listener, vinyl enthusiast, and lover of folk music. He never turns down free chips and guacamole.

Illustration by Ishita Dharap

Day 17: Thoughts from Home

Luis López Levi

In the afternoon of March 12, my friend Darshita and I hung out for a while in the MacLean Cafe, with that magnificent view of Lake Michigan. I filled up my thermos with the school’s coffee and winced a little at the taste. Not great, but I was ready for that; in fact, it was oddly comforting. We reached a lull in our conversation, one of those lulls that doesn’t feel awkward, but rather shows our mutual comfort with each other’s silence. We kept looking at the rooftop of the Art Institute, towards the lake and Chicago’s wide downtown parks, their still leafless trees awaiting spring. This view, one that I have had the privilege of breathing in nearly every day, one that I had seen in every season, was what triggered the breaking of the silence, as she said, “It doesn’t even look like all of this is happening, you know?”

I was getting ready to say goodbye.

I was really preparing for it, foreseeing all the bittersweet emotions that come with ending a chapter of your life. The last day of school, the final presentation. Commencement. Taking as many pictures with classmates and friends as you can. Meeting everyone else’s families, the people you’ve been hearing so much about for the past couple years. Finding the least awkward way to hug someone when both of you have diplomas or flower bouquets in your hands. Holding back tears, or letting them flow, wiping them off with the sleeve of your gown, joking about messing up your makeup. Getting caught off-guard by something someone else said that made you chuckle, and then made you cry a bit more.

I was also preparing for the less obvious “lasts.” The last meal in the cafeteria, the last day stressing out about something in the student lounge, the last elevator ride, maybe crowded, maybe solitary and a lot faster than expected, the last random lecture or performance or show or all-of-the-above. The last movie at the Film Center. The last stroll around the museum. The last ID scan at the entrance. The last time I picked up any random publication or zine or art book from anywhere on campus. These “lasts” feel oddly sadder because they don’t include a ceremony, or with a clear before and after. They just sort of fade away.

I struggle with endings. I tend to keep myself in a state of denial until it’s too late. I try to keep a sense of normalcy until the very last possible moment. By doing that, I tend to forget to start to close things. I assume I can do them later. I end up feeling like delaying something for fear of straying too far off from a routine often results in frustration.

I text a friend
where are you
which is code for
please tell me these new deaths
are not yours this time

Sarah Kay

Now every day that passes makes it more certain that I missed my chance for any sort of closure.

Not much time has passed since classes were officially suspended. On my last day of activities on campus, we gave a tour to a brilliant poet/critic who was a candidate for a faculty position. On that same day, we went to an amazing lecture, had lunch and toured the campus. That last day our cohort sat together in a lecture, chatting while waiting for it to start. Yes, we were catching up on how scary everything was starting to feel, but we were also just joking around, sharing stories about trips abroad, and then, once the lecture started, looking at each other and smiling whenever we heard something interesting, bookmarking the moment for a conversation in the near future. It’s the sort of thing we did all the time in class. And it is becoming increasingly likely that that will be the last time, at least for a long time, that we’ll have all been in the same place together.

Every day that passes makes it more certain that I missed my chance for any sort of closure.

Everything was so uncertain, and yet part of it felt so normal too. We visited the library, the fashion studios, the student galleries. During that tour we got the email that the school had finally declared all classes and activities canceled for the following two weeks, to plan to resume classes remotely later. It all instantly changed.

That moment really did feel like the eye of the hurricane. Yes, we were starting to take precautions. We pumped hand sanitizer into our hands every time we entered a building. We would see more people wearing face masks, more people touching the elevator buttons with tissue papers and pushing the revolving door with their forearm. The “elbow bump” took the place of the handshake, at least for the time being. But buildings were still accessible. We still got to talk for a bit in the grad lounge. We still ran into people and said “Hi,” and had brief conversations and talked about everyday things like meeting each other soon and going out for coffee and returning borrowed equipment and books and picking stuff up at their studios.

To abuse another overused phrase, it all feels like a dream. Both the then and the now. More than a dream, it feels like I was knocked out, like I suddenly got punched in the face and I’m feeling dizzy, trying to regain my balance. It feels like the ice cracked under my feet and I fell into a pool of freezing water, where you can still discern basic shapes and colors, but they look so vague, so distant.

It feels like forever ago when we were still going about our business. Hopping on trains and buses every day, meeting friends, classmates, faculty, greeting the security guard at the front desk. We were still talking about work due two, three, four weeks from then, still thinking about the calendar towards the end of the semester, thinking about how to prepare for our thesis presentations, about shows, concerts, readings we were looking forward to attending.

It’s like I could already anticipate the pain of leaving this behind even while I was still starting to enjoy it.

Of all the things lost to distance, the one that hurts the most is time.

Day 17: Packing Up My Books

Darshita Jain

I feel overwhelmed by the layered anxiety in the air right now. My hands are raw from washing, and I have a bottle of coconut oil beside my bed to keep them moisturized. I can’t stop refreshing the news — the eternal scroll is real. I make mind maps to figure out what I feel. They all look funny. Feelings range from disbelief to denial to anger to frustration to stir-craziness to plain fear. Fear for myself and everyone I love; fear that I, with fibrosis in my lungs, will die in a country not my own and will not see the people I love again. Sometimes I register voyeurism — I get to be alive in a time when the world is tilting on its axis. And pain. And laughter — I don’t know what to call this. Maybe “coping mechanism,” for lack of a more accurate term.

The hardest part of every day is when my eyes first open. The surreality hits me in full force: I am confined to my apartment if I want to be safe. If I leave, I must arm myself with hand sanitizer, stay six feet away on a six-feet-wide sidewalk from other people, and keep my hands off my own face. It has been 17 days since I touched another person. I cannot. I am “vulnerable.”

There’s a lump in my throat. Everything is heavy. Often, I just stare at the wall. I’ve felt this before. I am not new to depression. We are old friends, neighbors in the same building actually. But this is more. What makes it worse is that no one knows when it will end. A couple of weeks ago my friend Luis and I were having lunch with faculty members and greeting our security guards, asking how the five or six friends I generally run into when I am on campus were. We had a submission due that evening, an article about new criticism. I had gotten a box of fries, mixed my mayo with sriracha and a hint of ketchup, and gotten a coffee refill. When we began to work, the world was still breathing.

are you okay is code for
we are not ok
but please remind me you are breathing

Sarah Kay

Does anyone else feel this way? Like a long time has passed, that the world felt completely different last month? I knew what day I was graduating; I had a timetable for my thesis, a scheduled OPT appointment to extend my visa, job applications lined up and homework to do. I am an international student here, so it was already stressful, having to find a job in my own field if I wanted to stay in the country. This abrupt emptying — of plans and a way of life I had worked hard to get — is surreal. I know I am not the only one. It’s like collective trauma. We’re watching our world change, and it feels like it’s falling apart.

My bed is next to a window. Living in Andersonville, I see a lot of planes flying over my head when I lie down. Over the last three weeks, I look at each plane and feel scared: Is it carrying the virus? My parents asked me to come back home when our school decided to go remote. They are home, in India, quarantined together. There is laughter in their quarantine. They are home and together. I, meanwhile, am stuck in a vacuum of sorts. Will I ever see them again? What will the world look like when I do?

I see a lot of planes flying overhead. Now I look at each plane and feel scared: Is it carrying the virus?

How does one write a thesis when the world feels like it’s burning my skin when it touches me? As an international student, the rules are: You can only work on campus, for 20 hours a week. No volunteering in your field of study, no gigs. Once you graduate you can extend your F1 status for a year if you find a job/volunteer position in your field of study. As of today, 6.6 million people in the US have filed for unemployment. What hopes for a job do I have?

If I get COVID-19, who will take care of me? If I die, will my roommate be thrust into the role of the next of my kin? She didn’t sign up for this. My parents didn’t listen to me when I asked them to stay in, to not go out unless necessary. Every day I watch planes outside my window and wonder if they would be okay. I can see it: If I were home, I’d scream and shout and throw a tantrum. Lock them in and throw away the key.

I think about this, all of this, all the time, all day, every day. It is not one single thought. It is a recognizable cycle now. A barrage of stress that lives inside me. Sometimes I see a poet I love on Instagram and smile; watching a movie makes me happy until a character coughs and I feel the dread creep in. When someone goes out in a TV show, I want to shout, warn them, tell them to stay in. The love on a video call touches me for a moment before it slips away. The life I worked for all my life for feels so far away — I see it for a moment and smile before it’s gone. I remain where I am.  f

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