It was dark. Like the smallest sliver of a crescent moon, my roommate’s face was barely illuminated by the flickering glow of the twenty-six candles before her. It was just enough to see her manage a smile, lean forward, and, in a plume of smoke, send us into darkness again.
It wasn’t the birthday she had imagined. But none of the birthdays in the past year were the kind the world had imagined. We’d settled into a groove. A birthday cake, a delivered dinner, and a Zoom call with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung in off-key, off-set rounds. Idle conversation filled the silence as the cake was sliced and passed around to the few people physically present.
“I can’t wait until we get vaccinated, and everything goes back to normal,” one of my roommates said.
The word hung thick in the air, as if burdened by the weight of all it had come to hold. What even was normal anymore? Entire generations would be marked by the days in March 2020 when things were “normal.” Until they very suddenly weren’t.
When everything had first started, I was one of the first to start wearing a mask out of what—at the time—was regarded as an abundance of caution. “I’m seeing my grandma next weekend,” I’d respond when people asked why a 23-year-old, healthy woman would be so overtly concerned about contracting what appeared to be a more contagious flu. I was treated as a fanatic for fixating on disinfecting, overly-worrisome for wearing a mask, and paranoid for the precautions I placed on my family.
And yet, even I did not predict it would last this long. I’d felt a twang of pity for all those who had to celebrate quarantine birthdays in the spring, but then summer came, fall followed, and winter was upon us before we knew it. Each month was met with a new set of challenges, new adaptations to the constantly changing world around us.
But, the pandemic persisted.
Soon, surgical masks became a staple of every seasonal ensemble, and we learned to be social again—at a distance.
And we too, persisted.
Then it was spring again. And while last spring was marked with despair and uncertainty, this one felt different. COVID was still an issue but this time, spring brought something more than seasonal allergies…
I had felt the first glimmer of hope when I first heard about vaccine distribution, the second one when my grandma was able to get her first dose, and the most recent one in the elevator of my lab building. I was sharing the elevator with another woman who had pointed at my feet and said, “I love your shoes!” I had responded, “thanks! They were on sale!” After a short conversation about shoes that lasted the length of our elevator ride, she said, “thanks for humoring a conversation with a stranger.” And without hesitation, I responded, “We’re not strangers, we’re coworkers!”. The woman beamed underneath her mask and told me how much that meant for her to hear. I carried that moment with me for the rest of the day, reaching back into the pockets of my mind for it whenever I felt lonely or isolated.
Because, after all we’ve been through, maybe that was what I missed the most—the chance to make someone new smile. The fleeting interactions and human connections that reminded us that we aren’t alone in this world.
A reminder that, despite how dark it got, there was always a small, silver, sliver of a lining, even when we didn’t believe that it was there.
“Rumya, what’ll you do after you get vaccinated?” my roommate repeated.
I had been staring wistfully off into the distance, my fork suspended above the cake before me. But at that moment, I looked around at my roommates, who, over the course of the pandemic, had spent far more time with me than they ever knew they’d have to. Time that we would have normally spent in the minutia of our separate lives, instead of discussing Avatar the Last Airbender for the one thousandth time, or belting out Beyonce at the top of our lungs, or dissolving into a fit of giggles over exchanged stories of misadventures in romance.
I sunk my teeth into a forkful of cake and, with a smile (and frosting) on my lips, said, “I should probably go to the dentist…”
My friends rolled their eyes at me but their mouths broke out into wide toothy grins, and I was looking forward to seeing more of those smiles on faces old, and new.