Updated: April 19, 2020 1:26:50 pm
Unlike the grey gloomy, forlorn winters of the cities of Midwest, there is something cheerful and calm about Georgia winters. Even on the harshest days, it is possible to take a walk. Unlike many other places in the US, when people ask “How are you?”, some actually pause for your answer; they don’t walk away, carrying a nodding football on their shoulders, leaving people like me wondering: why did you then ask?
It is Friday, the last week of March, and we have been under self-imposed isolation for almost three weeks. Outside, the sky is bright blue and the trees are a cheerful green. There is sun but the air is still nippy: the kind of chill that lets you peel an orange outside and eat it then and there. I have been doing that often: on my balcony. Oranges boost immunity, they say. I have also bought a juicer and have discovered the pleasures of freshly-squeezed orange juice once again — I had totally forgotten how it tasted after drinking store-brought orange juice all these years.
When the virus starts to invade the cities of America and people don’t take it as seriously as they should, I am driving back from a small American city on the southern coast of Georgia. In a couple of days, I would be traveling to Texas for a conference. As I take the country roads to my home, I don’t know that people have started to discuss the possible cancellation of the conference on Twitter due to the fear of being infected. The cancellation of a writer’s conference due to a virus seems absurd to many at that time. By the day I pack my bags and print the two papers that are due at the conference, a large number of people cancel and the organisers decide to reimburse relevant fees. The attendees stand divided. Like many American conversations, it becomes a question about individual choice: I am going, but I will not judge your decision. I wish we had known that the Olympics would be postponed, that entire countries would be on lockdown, that the national guard would be called upon for help in some of the places.
During the first few days of self-isolation, a strange uneasy feeling dominates my days. It is still my spring break and the pandemic isn’t yet a national emergency. I had told myself that if I didn’t go to my conference, I would use this time to catch up on reading and writing, but I am not able to. Like a heavy, unread book, the unease sits on my chest and refuses to leave. It is like a story that I am trying to say, but unable to and I feel guilty that I know this secret. On most days, my achievement is making a glass of orange juice. I walk down from my upstairs bedroom to the kitchen and make fresh orange juice. On some days, I cook good food and post on social media and count my likes. I am ashamed of my shallowness and how my priorities have changed so quickly due to a cancelled conference and a new virus. I feel confused and by the end of the week, when universities start to cancel face-to-face classes for the rest of the semester, this uneasy feeling grows to become a mild panic. There is something terrible in the air. Like most immigrants, I start to worry about my family back home: should I go home? Should I stay? I still don’t know what this rapidly mutating uneasy feeling is. The winters are still bright and green, but they start to feel forlorn even without the grey Midwestern skies and the snow accumulated on the sidewalk.
By the fourth week, a cough or a sneeze causes immense anxiety. I blame it on the green pollen that covers my balcony and my car and my windowsills but since I don’t believe myself, I call people to talk about my allergy and repeatedly tell them that it is the pollen. If they don’t explicitly agree with me, I get angry, and repeat the information, until they agree with me: “Don’t worry. It is not COVID-19.” I talk a lot to my old friends. I reach out to recent friends. I reach out to make new friends who I had known only virtually on social media. I worry that they are carrying that feeling: the weight of the unread book, the untold story that is hanging on the shoulders like guilt from the past. One day, I panic. My friend who is a psychiatrist — an old friend — calms me down, even though they often tell me that I am their shrink. We are now each other’s shrink. I am the shrink of a shrink. Thank you, coronavirus.
School re-opens. I start taking classes on Zoom. The most exciting part of the first day of classes during this new normal is trying out new virtual backgrounds. I don’t have a green curtain and I am bad with technology so I end up looking like a character from a sci-fi movie, my face made of pixels. We tell ourselves that this is the new normal and I am trying to fit in because I have finally found out what that strange uneasy feeling that sat on my chest was. It was grief. The new normal has come at the cost of an old world. For the rest of our lives, we will grieve that old world. It is never going to come back.
Aruni Kashyap is a writer, most recently of His Father’s Disease: Stories, and, a faculty at the University of Georgia, USA
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