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Providence, Rhode Island. October 30, 2020.

Snow crunches under my Nikes, and frigid air bites my cheeks as I cross the Main Green for the first time since March. Where is the fall foliage? Where is… everyone? Tomorrow is Halloween. Will people party in pods? How does COVID college work? I’m finally home, but I’ve never felt more out of place.

Bob Dylan’s soft harmonica hum of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” fills my chilly ears with existential dread. Between University Hall and Manning, the sight of my three best friends taking photos in the first snowfall brightens my spirits. I start running to greet them, but I stop before they see me. I want more than anything to reunite in their arms, but I don’t know if that’s allowed. Can I hug them if I keep my mask on? Will someone report them for interacting with a visitor on leave? I pull up the hood of my jacket and solemnly tiptoe back towards Sayles.  

Next on my “inbtwn” playlist, which has been carefully curated to soften the sharp void of my impromptu COVID gap year, is “On Melancholy Hill” by Gorillaz. This song brings me solace when I’m high, which I’m not right now, but I might as well be. This scene feels apocalyptic. Trippy. Lonely. Empty. This is not the homecoming I’ve spent the past seven months aching for… But then again, what did I expect?

 

Chicago, Illinois. November 12, 2020.

It’s my first time in Hyde Park since July 2017, when I left my tour of UChicago halfway through because I was getting hives at the mere mention of core curriculum. My friend Alex’s apartment is much more fun than its surroundings—pool floats inhabit the grass-like rug beside the oversized bay window in their living room. Her roommates skateboard into the kitchen, dressed in trench coats and oversized beanies, dancing to “Orinoco Flow” by Enya as we make fried rice.

Alex and I sail away on Enya’s staccato violin to the center of campus. Like most college quads right now, it’s empty. This one might be devoid of students regardless of COVID… Perhaps that’s just my aversion to this place shining through. 

Amidst the chaos, my boss calls me to discuss my progress on script coverage assignments. “Is that a life-sized stuffed giraffe behind you?” she asks through the Zoom screen. I’ve been telling her (and everyone) that the more life experiences I gain, the more material I’ll have to write about. She knows this is just another one of those future anecdotes. 

Los Angeles, California. December 20, 2020.

This cuffing season is a particularly brutal one to bear. Every third or fourth customer I help is buying a tree with their significant other. I smile blankly at them as they quarrel over how many strands of lights to buy for their seven-foot Douglas Fir. “I think we should add one more. Better safe than sorry, right?” The girlfriend looks over at me expectantly. “Right,” I reply, “definitely.”

My coworker roller blades through the endless rows of trees, wishing a Merry Christmas to anyone who meets his line of vision. “You got someone special in your life this holiday season?” His curiosity is genuine. I know he and my boss have been conspiring about which of the guys who have come to visit me at work is my boyfriend. The answer, unfortunately, is none of them.

The one I have my eye on decided to spite me by buying his tree at our rival lot down the road, and as my frigid fingers fumble around in my pocket for my phone to see if he’s texted me back, I realize that only three minutes have elapsed since I last checked. Christmas carols blare from the overhead speakers, but what’s stuck in my head right now is “The Waiting” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I’m growing impatient, wishing on a plastic star tree topper for some real Christmas magic.

 

Santa Cruz, California. December 31, 2020.

It was my rookie mistake taking the scenic route. My dad’s voice in my head is rife with exasperation: “You didn’t Waze your road trip?!” I’ve failed him. I lost cell reception somewhere around San Luis Obispo and am driving on less than a quarter tank of gas. But, the view outside my window is too breathtaking to warrant taking the Five. “This Year” by Beach Fossils reverberates through my Jeep. It cleanses me at the precipice of every new year; I believe every word.

When I wake up on January 1, tired but only slightly hungover, I’m ready to seize 2021. I perch on a rock at Cowell’s Beach pretending to watch my friend Gus surf, but the dots bobbing up and down in the distance are completely interchangeable. “Where’d All the Time Go” by Dr. Dog plays through my AirPods as somebody in the distance sinks and is gone in the blink of an eye.

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Anapoima, Colombia. February 2, 2021.

For the first time in my life, I’m up with the chickens. My morning task is to scream “POLLLLO POLLO POLLO” until the flock runs to me while I sprinkle dried corn kernels onto the nearby ground for them. I let Margarita the donkey out of her stall and another day on the farm begins.

Other than the tarantulas that burrow in the corners of the kitchen and jump out when I’m washing dishes, I’ve discovered paradise… or maybe a cult? It’s a fine line walked by vegetarian cooking, sunset yoga, and communal manual labor in the middle of the forest of central Colombia.

Natalia plays “La Llorona” by Ángela Aguilar, and other slow Latin American alternative pop songs, as we stretch our arms towards the sun setting beyond the grove of mango trees. As I weed the garden I listen to “These Days” by Nico—reflective of life right now. Simple yet complex, mundane yet exciting, and the closest I’ve come to nature in a long time.

 

Tulum, Mexico. June 1, 2021.

The playful disco chords of “Sunny” by Boney M. flood Gitano, a jungle-inspired restaurant in the heart of Tulum. Everyone says this is the new Cabo (though I’ve never been). Maybe it’s the fact that this is my first time in a club since before the pandemic, or maybe it’s the mezcal, but I’m subliminal. “The dark days are gone, and the bright days are here…” Cheers to that. Let’s hope so.

Woods Hole, Massachusetts. July 11, 2021.

The white sand beach is deserted save for my four friends and me. We frolic in the crystal clear waves, “Floating” by Raveena bending our bodies towards the baby blue sky. Later tonight, we’ll share wine and a charcuterie board on the roof of one of the houses by the harbor with Alden’s extended family. They’ll ask the five of us what we’ve been up to since we saw them last summer, and the three of us who’ve graduated will be able to gloat tactfully about moving to New York City to pursue fancy yet understated careers in tech and art. Alden and I will reiterate that we’re only rising sophomores and our biggest concern right now is choosing a dining hall meal plan for the fall—the distance between us and our treasured friends feeling larger, yet our bond feeling stronger than ever.

 

Groton Long Point, Connecticut. August 8, 2021.

Sea breeze rustles my hair as I slow my cruiser to watch a family of deer grazing in the bushes. This is it: the final stretch. I’m “In Between Days.” This song by the Cure plays through my head daily now, the way it bookends each episode of The Inbetweeners.

I’m unpacking boxes of clothes I haven’t laid eyes on since March 2020—an unintentional time capsule. I’m registering for classes and ordering posters for my dorm room, trying to process the fact that when I get where I’m going it won’t be as perfect as it once was or as I want it to be. But this is what I should be doing, and school is where I’m supposed to be, regardless of the imperfect state of the world.

One last family beach cookout, one last swim in the Long Island Sound. August is coming to a close, and it’s time for my seemingly endless summer to end with it.

 

Providence, Rhode Island. September 4, 2021.

Just like that, I’m back. In some ways it feels like I never left. In other ways, I feel an immense amount of distance, but not necessarily difference, between the person I was when I left and the person I am today. Socially, I’m a junior. Academically, I’m a sophomore. Either way, “Time is On My Side”…

I feared I would regret taking the year off when many of my close friends chose not to. I return to Brown feeling incredibly grateful for my chance to hop off the hamster wheel and float through space for a year. Sometimes you’ve got to take a gamble and roll some stones.

And yet, it’s good to be home. 

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