I didn’t expect the almost-de-feathered chickens Brent slapped onto my table to smell so much like the raw chicken you’d buy in a grocery store, given that I’d seen these bodies clucking and walking around only minutes earlier. The transition from “chicken” to “poultry” was startlingly swift.
But sometimes I wonder, if I’d carried out my summer as planned, if I’d done my internship and went back to Harvard, would I ever have had these thoughts? Would I have realized that journalism wasn’t the field for me? Would I have committed to changing concentrations? Would I have mustered the gusto to commit to an even less employable career path? I can’t help but think the answer would be no.
When I left home for the first time, I tried to imagine what it would be like for my younger sister. The bedroom down the hall is suddenly quiet. A pair of running shoes rests by the front door, unmoved. Drives to school, once hastened by Taylor Swift’s entire discography, feel strangely quiet without company. But the truth is, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t comprehend what it meant to be the one left behind — until now.
Jen took her coffee with milk and one Sweet’N Low, iced in the summer. I handed her the pink packet, grabbing two Equals for Bruce before rushing to the donut rack for his glazed jelly stick and ice water with a plastic straw. Will took his coffee black with two Splenda and George usually asked for a milkshake, but only if Suzy was working (which she usually was). If not, he’d have a coffee and a bagel with extra cream cheese or a hot dog with raw onions, not grilled. I’d hand Lucy, a nurse practitioner, her cinnamon twist and cup of tea just in time to hear her chide George for his order — after all, he recently suffered a stroke. I identified my regulars by their orders long before I learned their names. They called me “Red” before they learned mine.
The parties that happened in those last five days were like corrupted versions of normal college parties. They were necessarily more debaucherous than usual, but more than that, the regular components of a party now felt discordant. The people, locations, and drinks were all the same. But as partying mutated into a four-day-long hangover, there was no distinction between a party and daily life. People spoke bluntly in a mimicry of normal, tipsy party behavior, but now they did so because nothing seemed to matter. If a conversation turned awkward or if flirtation was poorly received, there was no need to blame it on the alcohol or the atmosphere — no one would see each other for months, or maybe ever again.
I was running along the Charles when I first wrote the essay you are reading in my head. At first, I thought I’d touch on how having grown up as a military child influences the way I perceive the world. I imagined sharing anecdotes of driving away from a city I loved and watching it disappear in the rearview mirror, or how I learned to use the cardboard boxes as sleds in a neighborhood-wide game. But that piece was written before COVID-19 began to wreak havoc across the globe. It was the piece I had in mind before we were notified of the University’s decision to send us home, for our safety and the safety of others.
It’s the summer before my freshman year of college, and my mom is trying to teach me as many recipes as she can before I leave for school. One day, she approaches me — she wants me to make dumplings from scratch, all on my own. While I’m usually enthusiastic about cooking together, that day I balk.