Isolation brought us together  

Daily connection comes in different ways during pandemic

Two+girls+hiking+through+tall+trees

Moona Nandi

Chaya Tong, right, and her friend Miriam hike at Port Costa.

My friend Miriam and I FaceTimed every single day of lockdown. 

While in school, we saw each other daily, but never called on the weekends. The pandemic changed all of that. 

She first rang on March 13, a date now seared into both of our minds. 

“Did you hear what the superintendent said?” she asked me.

On that day, our high school, along with others across the country, closed for what ended up being the rest of the year. And while the lives we knew shattered to pieces, a new routine slowly rose to replace it. 

In our new lives, 5 o’clock is social hour. From our separate bedrooms, we simultaneously press the FaceTime icon, and for the next hour, maybe two, our faces share the same virtual screen. 

In some ways, we actually became closer.

 “I like you better over FaceTime”, she tells me one day, three weeks into lockdown. “Why,” I ask, checking a notification. My phone tells me we’ve spent over 30 accumulated hours together. 

“Because,” she continues, “at school, we only talk about homework or our class schedule or how it’s too hot for track practice.” This is true. “But on Facetime, we talk about other stuff.” Also true. 

Since the pandemic, our conversations have changed. It was our shared love of writing that originally brought us together at the beginning of sophomore year. Unlike before, we now linger on the subject. We exchange ideas for stories, and even share pieces aloud. Stakes are low when you’re reading to a phone screen. We learn more about each other, beyond what classes and teachers we have. 

At school, we see each other in the context of our environment, but now, we suddenly have years of backstory to tell. I learn that she almost went professional in ballet before high school. I get acquainted with her parents and dogs. We give each other room tours.

When California progresses into phase II of opening up, Miriam and I decide to meet face-to-face for the first time in three months. We pick the spot: Port Costa. It is a place I had talked about even pre-pandemic, a quiet dirt road on the edge of the Carquinez Strait with a view of the water.

I text her all morning, and on the ride there I text her logistics, directions. When I finally hop out of the car, she waves, and I cross the parking lot to meet her. Instead of hugging, we stand six-feet apart, masks on. Everything is different. On FaceTime, we would have launched into immediate conversation, but now I feel the sudden need for a drawn-out greeting. The physical space between us feels awkwardly large, but I also can’t gauge how many steps toward her would mean potentially inhaling a deadly virus. 

After poking around the outdoor vendors, we walk up to the hillside for a hike. As we tromp through the dry grass, I take in the girl six-feet away. While FaceTime allowed me to see her more than ever, it had taken the details I loved most. Now, I notice the highlights in her hair that FaceTime carelessly smudged into a single dark blob. I notice the smattering of freckles the poor lighting of my phone washed out. Her eyes and hands move consistently as she talks, and I find it strange. I had grown accustomed to randomly frozen facials, and garbled audio. In real life, I didn’t strain to catch her words, and we didn’t maintain constant eye contact while we spoke. I had stared at her face every single day for the past three months, but I could barely recognize her.

We lapse into casual conversation as we hike. But I can’t shake the feeling that everything is wrong. She’s the first friend I’ve seen since lockdown, and I suddenly feel awkward. On FaceTime, we spew every thought that pops into our minds at one another. Now, it’s … quiet.

For all the ways human communication has suffered during the pandemic, I’d argue that the greatest thing we’ve lost is silence. Though I love talking to my friends on FaceTime, the sessions leave me exhausted. There’s the physical factor of course: Squinting at a tiny phone is bad for your eyes. But the greater exhaustion is mental. I’m desperate to avoid awkward silences, long stretches where we are forced to stare at one another’s face on the screen. So I babble. A lot.

When we get to the top of the hill, we stand in silence, six-feet apart, staring out at the bay. At last in the same corner of the world, yet our minds drifting to different places. I’ll never know exactly what she was thinking about at that moment, that single second on top of the world. She never opens her mouth to tell me. I’ll never know if she agonized over the silence, her mind grasping for words, but coming up short. Or if she was simply marveling at the view. But I’m OK with that. Face to face, we no longer need words to make up the distance between us.

When we get back to the bottom, Miriam turns to me. 

“Chaya, there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.” 

I listen, staring out at the open hillside around us. She tells me that she’s grateful. Grateful for the past three years in high school together. Grateful for our track seasons. Grateful for all the times we stressed out together, and all the times we laughed. Grateful for our 5 o’clock hangouts.

 I tell her I’m grateful for us, too. 

The conversation ends, and we walk the last few feet in silence.

“It’s not like this is goodbye though,” I say as we near the parking lot. 

“Yeah,” she agrees.

It  isn’t goodbye. Ten minutes from now, I’ll text her on the ride home, and the gray dots on my screen will tell me she’s on the other side, texting back. In a couple hours, it will be 5 o’clock. We will dutifully open the FaceTime app, and we will talk for an hour, maybe two. 

But in a way, this is a kind of goodbye. 

At 5 o’clock, we’ll go back to fearing silence. Over FaceTime, I would never say something like, “Wow, Miriam, you’re the only thing getting me through this pandemic.” And even if I did, my words would be lost in the mindless blabber we use to fill the gaps in conversation. Over FaceTime, we won’t enjoy the wordless pleasure of being in one another’s company. 

Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” I say let there be silences.