by Saffron Sener
Almost every time I have video called into school or extracurriculars from my bed, I am asked about the weird wall space above me. My bed is tucked into an alcove, six or so feet wide and three or so feet sunk in from the rest of the wall. When I am just a head in a Zoom square, the blank wall corners stretching above me look simultaneously like they’re dozens of feet tall and encapsulate me into an unusually small room.
I wonder, if to all these new faces I see in my classes, whether I am memorable as a person or as a video square. Do they associate me with my voice, face, movements, as we might in a normal semester? Am I a person? Or do they remember me by my background, my room, my head as a foregrounded, flat object laid across these things? The girl with the weird walls. Do they remember me at all? And I, to them - when I think of the new people I have met through my Zoom classes, I think of them as these faraway characters. People, yes, but people I don’t really know, no matter how many lectures we attend together-apart.
At the beginning of this semester, I told myself I wouldn’t write anything about COVID. Not even words like these which are not necessarily about it but rather existing during it. I just felt like writing words related to this pandemic would grant it a sort of finality I didn’t want to give up. It already chokes every conversation. It is on the tip of all our tongues, all the time. COVID must be talked about, yet we all want desperately for it to have never existed, never crossed our minds. Last Spring, I studied abroad in London. COVID shut the Italy exchange program down in late February. Since that moment, my time abroad felt like it was slipping from my hands; one after the next, programs got shut down. My program, UCEAP English Universities, was the last in Europe to get the “go home” email - mid-March, almost exactly nine months ago. I remember refreshing my Gmail app every thirty seconds, dreading the announcement but wishing it would just get to my inbox already, the stress of knowing what was to come, but still hoping maybe it wouldn’t weighing me down.
But, I can’t do it. I’m going to kind of write about COVID. It’s raining, and the internet in my neighborhood is completely out until several hours from now. I’m writing this on the Notes app. My life, at times like this, feels like it barely exists beyond the confines of my room. So precarious, wired carefully to the rest of the world by a finicky stable-unstable Wifi connection.
On my walls hang the art I have accumulated over the past few years. The walls are less cluttered than years past, because I figured when I moved into this room in August that a less overwhelming space may help yield a less overwhelmed brain for the upcoming online semester. Two prints from the East Bay Zine Fest, and two from the East Bay Print Sale, which typically would take place on the same day in December, resulting in me spending too much money as I rushed from West Berkeley to Oakland before the artists I loved had their tables cleared out of stock. A print from a zine fair in London, which I was too afraid to put on the corkboard of my dorm there but had to shove into my luggage when I moved out almost three months early. A tapestry of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights - it’s right by my desk, and I wonder if people can make out what it is when I talk to them on Zoom. A tapestry of cows that I got at a food market in London, behind my laptop. A risograph calendar from Wolfmann Books in Oakland, which I forget to turn at the beginning of each month.
One of my favorite parts of a semester is accumulating new things to adorn my walls. Prints, postcards, tapestries, post-it notes - anything I can make stick. But these things that are on my walls now feel wrong. They’re of a different world, one before nine months ago, one where I wasn’t confined to my room for 95% of the day. They are my things, but they feel old, outdated - foreign, in a way, like I found an old box in the attic and unloaded its content onto my walls. Bygone, perhaps. I love these things, but it is difficult to see them when they are all I have to see.
Like my walls’ decor, my classes feel strangely not-mine. The Zoom gallery squares are a collage of faces and names, people I won’t know beyond this screen and won’t know me either. The mysterious, seductive anonymity of unknown others in a lecture hall has been replaced by the ability to stare at myself for a whole lecture, or entirely erase my peers and pin my professor to my screen. An hour never feels like an hour, more like a day or a minute. I struggle to feel like a real student, or even person, and not just a collection of thoughts stuffed into a body.
I should go for a walk, but it’s still raining and oh - it gets dark at 5:00pm now.