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It is Thursday, January 13. I have a sore throat and a stuffy nose. I took a rapid test, but it came back negative. I was surprised to feel a genuine tinge of disappointment. A few close friends, including Damir, had already tested positive. They had been sharing screenshots of their results.
I look at my phone quizzically, as if I thought it had an answer. Were they proud? That couldn't quite be it. Perhaps they were gloating. In any case, I felt left out. I wanted to be part of a group—part of something bigger than myself. I had always struggled with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). From the time I was a child, I remember wanting to be the same, but also wanting to be different. I would vacillate between the two, unsure of where I stood.
There was that one time in high school when a kid named Dan called me a "terrorist," but I don't recall it being a big deal. No one really cared that we were Muslim. But I knew we were different—a curiosity but not quite a threat, at least not yet. I still marvel at Dan's grasp of global politics. When few others were, he was sufficiently aware to have already perceived an association between Islam and terrorism. One might even say he was woke, at least in a somewhat counterintuitive sense. He saw color, and apparently he also saw religion.
Friday, January 14. In the pandemic's early months, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic that attempted to impart wisdom on the young and disaffected. Originally, it was meant to be part of a commencement feature, addressed to hypothetically graduating students. I had forgotten about it.
I'm looking back now at what I said. It's been almost two years.
One somewhat more practical piece of advice I can give you is to write in a diary or a journal, especially during a plague year. Writing things down allows you to remember what you felt at particular moments in time, and years from now you can read what you wrote at a difficult time in your life, and, in the process, you'll be able to learn not just from other people's experiences but your own.
So much for that. I do in fact journal, but I can't ever seem to sustain it. Aided by bursts of reflective intensity, I'll pick up my Bullet Journal and scribble some profound thought—in the vaguely unreadable cursive I learned in elementary school. Whenever I try to look back and reacquaint myself with what must have been piercing insights, I am at a loss. The cursive, aesthetically pleasing but impenetrable like a Joan Miró painting, all blends together, and I am overwhelmed. I find myself angry at my elementary school teachers for their unwitting role in my future inability to remember how to live well.
But I digress.
It was early morning. I gingerly approached my rapid test. Why not try again, I thought. This was the moment of truth. My cold-like symptoms had gotten worse. If not now, when? If not me, who? I waited patiently as the red lines started coalescing. I was entranced. I felt my heart beating faster and faster. I was ready.
And so the red lines come, as they inevitably do. Do you know that in-between liminal space, when the lines are in the process of appearing but not yet apparent? I am there, in that moment. The red is dark and bold. The lines themselves seem to be beckoning me closer. Could it really be? It was.
The culmination of a two-year journey. I texted my COVID-positive friend group. They too had been beckoning me, with their rapidly accumulating reserve of COVID-related in-jokes. Wasn't this what I wanted, or what I thought I wanted? To feel part of an ever-growing collective, that this was a moment to share, the building blocks of a language I hoped future generations—my as of yet unborn children and grandchildren after them—would never have to learn. I wanted them to be free in a way that we never were.
I saw the years and decades unspool before me, as if I were watching a Terrence Malick film while submerged underwater. The universe gives and the universe takes, I thought to myself. God sends flies to wounds that he should heal. There was the way of nature. But I also knew that there was the way of grace.
I saw the children, pained looks on their faces.
—Father, what side were you on? They asked me, dutifully citing passages from my Atlantic essays.
—Are you referring to the "forever culture war," child? I replied.
—Umm, dad, no. We're talking about the second American civil war.
—Oh yea, that.
I was getting carried away. In my own mind, the days had become like weeks. The weeks had become like months. And, before I knew it, the months had become years. I stare at the COVID rapid test, soon to be discarded. I had made a mistake. From all the happiness podcasts I was listening to (e.g. Good Life Project, How to Build a Happy Life, Happier), I knew that I had to stop living in the future. I should focus on my breath, ideally by using the Headspace app. I knew this! I had even created a daily appointment in my trusted calendar to remind myself.
I stare back at the rapid test, again and again, not exactly sure what to do next. Minutes pass. I am loitering, wasting time, knowing that I probably shouldn't go to Whole Foods right now, because despite my relative COVID laxity, I would still feel guilty if I knowingly spread the virus to the wonderful people who also like to shop at Whole Foods.
An hour passes. The clock ticks 4 o'clock in the late afternoon (though because we don't really have clocks anymore, such a description reminds me of my own obsolescence.) It is getting dark. There is no way to hold back the darkness, I think to myself. I wonder—briefly—if there is a deeper metaphor to be excavated from this unlikely observation.
Late afternoon on a Friday is a peculiar time in the abbreviated lifespan of a day. The day is ending, bleeding into night. It is a time of reflection but also reckoning. My phone beeps (or did it vibrate, I can't quite recall?). I receive a text message. There are two emojis. On a different text chat, some friends are asking me if I'd like to join them for dinner. It is that feverish time when denizens of the city scramble to secure their evening activities, lest they be left behind to contend with their own mortality. Well, I just found out I have COVID, I tell them. I feel a coldness. They protest with what appears to be feigned enthusiasm. One of them says to me, but after dinner we're going to a party at Dave Eggers' brother's house. Apparently he lives in DC, another clarifies helpfully.
I think to myself, these are all valid points and most likely true. That tinge of disappointment still etched in my memory from the previous day returns. Was there no way to win with COVID? Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
I wanted to be with my friends, regardless of whose house it was. But I also wanted to be with my friends who had just tested positive. Maybe we could devise some sort of COVID-positive party, where we wouldn't allow anyone to enter without proof of a positive test (two red lines). Someone, somewhere, must have thought of this already. My ingenuity has its limits, after all. But perhaps it was best to simply rest and relax. It had been a long December.
It was a worthy aspiration, albeit one I couldn't meet. Instead, I found myself getting into a fight on Twitter. The words came back to me, slowly at first and then insistently, as if it were a clock ticking or a bird humming. There is the way of grace. But there is also the way of nature.