I don’t remember whether the Atlantic article or the sore throat came first. One was unmistakable: it spelled out just what I was doing wrong. The other was less sure, only a little tickle at the back of my mouth, underneath my tongue. I tried to ignore both.
We feel like we’re breaking some kind of rule, we had said the night before. We were outside, six feet between the grand total of two of us. I was spinning and doing cartwheels in the Mini Bald Spot grass; she accidentally called her boyfriend and we laughed. It was 8:30 on a Sunday night and we were high on nothing but each other’s presence after almost six months apart.
But according to the article, we shouldn’t even have been talking. The louder you are, the more the virus spreads, it said. Memories of my friend and me flooded my mind: hollering on a walk through the Arb; conversing loud enough that, in the quiet Second Street neighborhood, it sounded like shouting.
I thought about texting her the article. But no; what good would it do?
Until dinnertime, I kept my sore throat to myself, too. I had memorized the other symptoms, and I wasn’t having any. Well, maybe a bit of diarrhea. Queasiness, too. And come to think of it, maybe my exhaustion and my spinning head were more than typical return-to-campus fatigue?
I panicked. Called Security, who called SHAC, who told me to call my New Student Week supervisor. A person, a person who knew me, would know about me. Would know that I might have coronavirus.
When I got on the phone, the first thing I said was: I’m so sorry. I burst out crying. I think I would still be a puddle of tears if he hadn’t said: It’s okay. I’m not upset. You did the right thing.
I thought of the article. Because Americans are loud. We shout and we laugh and we talk too much in class and we get bad reputations when we go abroad, even before it was assumed we were carrying a deadly virus with us. Possibly, in part, because we are loud.
And then, there are other things that we don’t like to say, to even whisper. Things like: I might have coronavirus.
For the next two nights and one and a half days, I holed up inside my room and tried to tell as few people as possible. I canceled outdoor meal plans and in-person work and hoped nobody would figure out why.
I reluctantly called my roommate to tell her that she might not be able to move into our room. SHAC told me to stay there, so I did. But when I had to walk into the hallway to use the bathroom or across the Mini Bald Spot to pick up meals, I felt like shouting, “I have symptoms! Stay away! And get help!”
Except—that would involve shouting.
So I did my own version: calling SHAC again and again until they scheduled me another test and moved me to isolation. There we go, I thought.
Now I’m out of the way, no longer a risk, stupid stupid stupid me who might have brought coronavirus to campus. Did I get it on the plane, where I shirked into my seat while others slipped their masks off of their nose? Or earlier, at the gate, where I knew as well as the airline that blocking off every other waiting seat did not constitute six feet?
Or did I get it when I was talking too loud?
No matter. In my mind, it was all my fault. Or, if I didn’t have it, then it was all my fault for letting my anxiety turn a sore throat into a deadly virus and getting in everyone’s way and messing up this whole great college experiment.
You did the right thing. The words were still there, but only an echo in my mind.
Two days later, I got that new negative test back. I called SHAC first, this time, then my Dean of Students Office point person and my Area Director. Apparently, with isolation comes connections. Let me out of here, I said. I’m negative! I was shouting, now, because nobody was around.
Wait, they whispered back. At least until a second negative result in the symptomatic range. We’re still consulting to see if even that can set you free.
There was nothing I could do.
But the next morning, when I woke up with my stomach aching of diarrhea—worse than before, not from any virus but from the food they were giving me when I apparently might be sick with one—my shoulder twitching from the recent memory of blood running down my arm after the worst flu shot I’ve ever gotten, my body longing for someone else to hold it (oh god if this was only one week without a hug how would I make it through), I did two things.
One: I broke down. I called my mother on the phone and I cried as if I were in my bed at home, as if she were holding me.
Two: I let myself admit, fully, entirely, that this was not my fault. Not if I had single-handedly brought the virus to campus. Not if I had imagined my symptoms entirely. Not even if, somehow, shouting with a friend who had tested negative had somehow called COVID to my very lungs. None of it was my fault.
Because we have been set up to fail. By a loud, obnoxious country that likes watching its own mouth move too much to wear a mask. By an institution that claims to be a community with a system that wasn’t even set up by the time I needed it. And when somebody is sick, what they need most is not even a system, but family. Friends. People.
The people of Carleton have been good to me.
Not only my case managers, but my friends, professors, and bosses have checked in on me daily. One brought me fresh tomatoes from her garden and apples from her tree. It is not their fault that someone with this virus cannot be held in another’s arms like they so desperately crave to be. But at home, I would have had my mother’s comfort food outside my door, my father’s reassurances and my sister’s music and my brother’s jokes filtering through the cracks.
If I have any fault in the matter, it was choosing to come back without asking myself: could an institution ever do enough in a pandemic to keep me safe, and feeling safe?
I’m out of isolation now. As it turned out, another negative test in the symptomatic period was sufficient to secure my release.
On the day before classes started, while I moved back into my room and hugged my roommate, the whole ordeal was already fading like a nightmare into the recesses of my mind. But it’s still there, somewhere. I’m not cartwheeling on the Mini Bald Spot anymore. Just sitting on the grass, surrounded by people, feels giddily precarious enough.