In March 2020, the world stood still. What would come next, nobody knew. I watched as a bustling community dispersed from Morningside Heights. Friends I had only just made, friends I had known for years, scattered through the air, over oceans and across state lines.
For the first time, my life was plotless. I felt stunned by the sudden distance from others and yearned to claim ownership over my life. I spent hours scrolling through old photos: some of friends at a bustling party in France, others of a sunset over the Hudson from Riverside Park in June.
I would start at the beginning of my camera roll and scroll until March 13, 2020, my last day in New York. Each time, I hoped the pictures would not end there. I wanted the roll to continue unraveling, offering new sequences of my former life. I thought if I believed it was possible, the pictures would open like doors. If I had the will, perhaps I could pry them open to new realities.
This proved to be wishful thinking. Those first few days of quarantine, I had the same routine each day. I had returned to Hyde Park, Chicago where I grew up. My old room remained as it had always been: spaceship sheets smoothly folded over my duvet, Tintin prints hung along the wall, copies of The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby left untouched since high school. From my windows, Hyde Park appeared to be silent, everyone hiding from the winter cold and close contact. Instead of the bustle of city life, I watched the dying days of a Chicago winter—the sun peeking out meekly through a haze over Lake Michigan.
In the mornings, my sister and I would walk along the lakefront. The grass was soft underfoot, yellowed from a months-long cycle of freezing and thawing. We would walk toward a peninsula jutting into the water, loop around its lighthouse, and circle back toward home. Like our walk, conversations started and ended at the same point: When would these days end? Due to the hours spent inside, the days would slip through our fingers like handfuls of sand. Lunch, then mostly silent afternoons, and dinner. Again, and again, and again.
As our activities stood still, the world turned to spring. Sensing the stillness of our streets, the natural world leaped into view. Unusually daring, the neighborhood cats would spend hours climbing along our garden fence, searching for prey. From the same window, I watched two cardinals build their nest between the branches of our redbud tree. On windy days, their nest seemed so fragile. I often worried it might blow away, or that one of the cats would catch their young.
A few weeks passed, until one night I noticed a shallow, uneven quality to my breath. I felt a tickle in my lungs, deeper than ever before. Then I was overcome with dizziness and asked to be excused from the kitchen, hoping it might end with an early night in bed.
That night was the beginning of many weeks of invisible, internal change. Some days, I woke up feeling completely fine. I would go down to the kitchen, fix myself breakfast, and walk up to my room one landing above. I would then sit at my desk and get to work, only to feel a narrowing in my throat and a rapid pulse in my chest. This pulse was so persistent that I could hear it in my inner ear. I would try to level my breath with the entire power of my focus. I told myself everything would be fine, if I could just get back to class and pretend my mind was present, then maybe my heart would stop racing.
In those early days of April, tests were in short supply. Popular knowledge barely advanced beyond the fact that some cases resulted in severe illness, whereas others were merely asymptomatic. I fit somewhere in-between, in that most mysterious category: I was a “long-hauler.”
Over the next month, my heart and lungs took on an unwieldy life of their own. They were most unruly at night. I would wake with my breath rattling. More often than not, I felt angry, as if I had been betrayed. I knew it would be no help to call out for my mother or sister or to contact a friend. They could comfort me, but nobody could fix this.
Housebound, I sought a tether. I did not turn to baking or learning a new language on Duolingo. Instead, I did what my entire life had conditioned me to do. I grabbed a snack and settled in front of a screen. I binged TV series for hours on end.
I had been binging Netflix and HBO long before the calamities of 2020. As a kid, I passed hours laughing at Michael Scott’s antics on The Office. With my eyes closed, I could picture the plain furnishing of the group’s study room at Greendale Community College on Community. I was a member of that first generation to come of age with a limitless selection of streaming material. In painful boring circumstances—I could rely on the deft click of a remote for escape.
A quarter of a century ago, David Foster Wallace presciently prophesied a country of people locked away alone, watching endless video loops. In the 1990s, he opined that TV is an artifice below the humane art of literature. Wallace believed TV made its spectator a voyeur on false premises. He wrote that the spectator thinks they see real people; however, the people appearing on TV are aware of the spectator’s presence and contrived in their every act. As a result, Wallace argued, TV coddles the alienation of its spectators by fooling them into believing in the realness of their digital company.
While struggling to catch my breath, I epitomized Wallace’s archetype of a sad, isolated American watching TV, but I couldn’t have cared less. 2020 was the year that TV saved me from the brink of numbness. I received the escape my lived experience could not provide, and when I needed it most, TV offered fiction’s greatest gift: a reminder of the endless opportunities for human connection, past and yet to pass. Gradually, as I binged one episode after another, something inside me awoke.
I first turned to The Sopranos. I needed the familiarity of a show I had seen before, set locations and dialogue I had known in better times. Each episode I watched was a work of art I had consumed but never savored. I saw Tony Soprano, a sociopathic mobster, cry as a flock of baby ducks fly away. And as I watched, something inside me loosened. I understood his struggle with the constancy of change because it was my own. At the time, I didn’t know what would happen to myself or all the others struggling with greater pain across the world. Yet, I felt certain that my small struggle was shared by others.
While the worst of my symptoms slowly abated, my strength remained uneven. I experienced long periods of fatigue. After short walks, I would sometimes feel a tremor in my legs. I never knew what to expect, I only knew that I did not have control. Control was a myth of the past; it had no place in this present. Meanwhile, the days grew longer, and the shadows of the maple trees outside my window shorter. On days when I was too weak to leave the house, I called relatives and friends. At the end of one call, my uncle recommended a new show: High Maintenance. When I asked what it was about, he told me something along the lines of “nothing and everything.”
This was what I needed the most in those long weeks towards recovery. Watching High Maintenance, I saw “the Guy” deliver drugs to clients throughout New York City. It didn’t matter that the script of the show was far from the life I had been living in New York. I observed the unique lives of each client unfold, kaleidoscopically shifting focus and perspective. I encountered a girl growing up alone in a Brooklyn brownstone, playing the same Billie Eilish song again and again. I watched an Asian immigrant father, stuck between the old country and the new, resort to the resonance of music for connection with his wealthy, assimilated son. I was transfixed by how exquisitely these stories told the truths of human experience.
Decades before Wallace wrote about TV, art critic John Berger suggested that mass-produced images claim ownership of their spectators’ lives by dictating their desires. Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing that the material glamour of an image—a certain brand of cigarettes, a particular style of home in reality TV series—promises its spectator a life envied by others. I experienced something beyond this promise while watching The Sopranos and High Maintenance: the liberating pathos of art. I witnessed human lives unfold, their fates contingent, their connections to one another tangential. As these lives met mine, the prose and the passion of human life surfaced once again.
I will never meet these fictional people. Maybe Berger and Wallace had a point: these characters will never become my friends. Although a year has passed since those early days of quarantine, the fundamental realities of my life remain the same. I intersect with others more rarely than before. Like many, I feel less sure of my place in the world. I never know when my footing will give way.
Yet, the routine of life has picked up again—classes, work, friendships, and plans for the future are all in motion. Despite the massive change of the past year, life continues. Throughout it all, I have not forgotten the daydream of faces and unknown places on a screen. On gray, biting days, when life appears inhospitable, I know I can step away, if only for a moment. Wherever I walk, these faces and places remain. And when I remember I am never alone, my world comes into color.
Editor’s note: Jacob Mazzarella is a spring 2021 columnist; no opinion editors had a role in the writing and the editing of this piece.
Enjoy leafing through our fifth issue!