The coronavirus has unexpectedly interrupted all of our lives. All of us at UNH were obviously saddened and sullen to hear from our administration that our temporary two-week absence from campus would be extended for the rest of the semester. It was an unfortunate yet necessary precaution to take as we heard from the news about developing cases across the country. Words never heard before like “social-distancing” and “self-quarantine” were adopted into the public lexicon seemingly overnight, and we braced ourselves for a moment truly unprecedented in our personal experience as Americans.
My greatest hurdle through the first weeks of the shelter-in-place mandate was the incredible task of staying home all the while maintaining my sanity. I was almost never home during high school. After school, I’d work. And after work, I’d be with my friends. I spent more weekends at my best friend’s house than my own during high school. There was an unspoken understanding that their futon in the basement was my futon. So after three years of post-high school commuting along with the years of previous lodging, my parents’ home was the last place I wanted to be. This was my first year at UNH, and the fact that I was once again returning to Merrimack, New Hampshire didn’t give me any feelings of elation.
My life has never felt so halted as it has these past weeks. Besides the weekly video conferences and the headaches from doing academic work somewhere other than a library, I have never gone through such a standstill. Since my high school graduation, I’ve been committed to using my time as productively as I could so that when I finally got my degree, I would feel safe. I saved every paycheck I got from work, I never missed a homework assignment, I took my creative ventures seriously, I watched what I ate, and I didn’t drink or smoke (for the most part). But as the nation shut down, there wasn’t much I could do to push myself forward besides academics. I could’ve gotten some hours from the Hannaford I worked at down the street last winter break but succumbing to an incurable virus wasn’t worth the risk. I tried to record music, but with my parents and siblings always home, there was no way to find moments of peace where a guitar or vocal take didn’t have my cousin’s parrot chirping in the background or my dad’s voice thundering from upstairs because of his partial deafness. The problem-solving mechanism in my brain fried itself, and I’d just sit at my desk chair, my internal voice screaming “WHAT THE FUCK?”
For years I’d treated my professional and personal affairs like that of a disciplined gardener. Precision in the trimming of the hedges and color-coordinated flower beds. The grass never grew above an inch. But this shelter-in-place… this enforced lack of effort; the supreme order to DO NOTHING for once… turned my blood into oil and short-circuited my motor skills. Movement meant nothing when the world was at a pause.
My well-kept garden quickly deteriorated. The hedges resembled broccoli crowns, wild yellow daisies sprung up between my patches of blue and violet carnations, and my once beautiful lawn of grass was long enough to resemble a member of Led Zeppelin’s hair. My garden, my life, had returned to its natural form. My own hair was getting too long. And it was only going to get longer.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to the fact that I’m a pretty cynical person. I don’t expect much from people, and I certainly don’t wake up each morning with any real excitement for all of the wonderful and splendid adventures to come from today! That’s only become truer as I’ve gotten older. With the constant juggling of school and work coupled with a high-functioning addiction to the news, you lose the sense of wonder you had as a kid.
But after being stuck in my childhood home for long enough, I remembered that’s what it was: my childhood home. There were stories here. There were birthday parties, sleepovers, and high school girlfriends. “I’m going to get my bike tires pumped,” I thought to myself one morning. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in six years.
The happiest memories I have from being a kid come from riding my bike around my neighborhood. It was how I made my first group of real friends: Daniel, Kyle, Tighe, Aaron, and Aidan. I remember perfectly the first time I ever heard them at the door. It was the summer after third grade. I heard my dog barking, I opened the door, and there was my classmate Danny with Kyle, another kid who went to our school.
“Hey, we were going to ride around and were wondering if you wanted to come,” said Danny. I don’t even remember how he knew where I lived. But anyways, I got my bike, and off we went. I don’t remember how everything fell together exactly, but I know that was the start of everything. My first real group of friends.
I feel like I was never home that summer. All I can remember is being tire-to-tire with these new comrades of mine, exploring our neighborhood which seemed never-ending to me. Soon we went further than just a couple of blocks. I remember the first time we trekked to the gas station a mile away. I got a cherry ICEE and a Hershey’s chocolate bar. We’d walk to the gazebo next to the store and stay there for hours, doing whatever 9-year-olds do. I can’t remember exactly what that was, but I recall plenty of bruises and sunburns. My bicycle wasn’t just a menial activity to us anymore. It was our way of exploring and learning about what was beyond our street. It was my first taste of freedom; I was growing independently from my parents.
With the thanks of my uncle’s electric air pump, I got one of the bikes in my garage to work without any issues. It hadn’t been used in around seven years. I hadn’t ridden on a bicycle since at least 2012. So I broke the dry-spell and went for a ride.
I traced through my neighborhood feeling its endlessness and its stillness all over again. The winding of the streets, the dips and scrapes in the pavement. I rode by Tighe’s old house where I used to play Super Nintendo when my mom wasn’t there to pick me up from the bus stop. I recognized the dirt road where I noticed the locust on the inside of my arm on my way home from school in 5th grade. I sped down the street where Kyle Barrows shot me with an airsoft rifle when I was 12, and I took a lap in the neighborhood where Danny used to live. I remembered being 15 leaving his house so stoned I could barely drive my bike home, a five-minute trip becoming a half-hour odyssey.
When I got home, the sun was starting to set. As I pulled into the driveway, I looked at the yard and saw us pretending to smoke candy cigarettes we got from the ice-cream truck. I saw Danny as the 11-year-old hellraiser he was, and I saw myself: an overweight freckle-faced twerp grateful for his company.
The stillness of this month has given me the gift of looking back on a period of my life I haven’t had the time or ability to look back on. It was a beautiful collection of years where the most I worried about was what I’d do when it got too dark and I’d have to say goodbye to my friends, eager to see them again the next day. For the first time since leaving for UNH, or perhaps even before then, I truly feel like I’ve returned home. And as I wait to return to school, I don’t mind retracing some old steps in the meantime.