Curtin ’23: “Time Away Offers Clarity”

The following essay was written by Rory Curtin ’23 as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction.

Pulling off a winding highway into a run-down gas station, Anabel DiMartino [’23] checked her phone. An unexpected text flashed across her screen: “hey this is crazy but me and lila are looking a third roommate for an apartment in western mass this semester.”

After a long, hot morning of driving with her mom, the text was the last thing she expected. The pair were en route to New York City to get Anabel’s first tattoo from an artist she had been following on Instagram for years. After six excruciatingly mundane months living at home in Red Hook, New York, the trip was something Anabel had been looking forward to.

Merging back onto the wooded Taconic Parkway, Anabel was flooded with immediate exhilaration. For months, she had been mulling over her prospects for the impending semester. “It seemed like everyone was making a decision,” she says. Returning to campus felt like a question burdening everyone she knew. She had been texting with peers often, checking in on what their plans were. Seemingly everyone was wary of what campus would look like in the era of COVID-19, but no one was certain enough to actually make alternate plans.

Anabel had found the opportunity she was looking for in Mary’s text, even if it came as a total surprise. Move-in loomed in Anabel’s mind as an equally distant and dismal reality. Despite low numbers of COVID cases, she had an inkling that the worst of the virus was yet to come. Feelings of intense uncertainty had been circulating in the back of her mind.

Making small talk with her young tattoo artist later that day, she found out that he had gone to school close to where Mary was looking for a lease. It had only been a few hours since receiving the text, but Anabel responded to the artist excitedly, telling him she was considering moving there next month. Verbalizing the reality of her prospective life only made her excitement grow stronger. On top of that, the coincidence felt like a sign.

Walking out of the shop, she glanced down at her freshly inked chicken tattoo under the clear bandage. It reminded her of her rural hometown, dotted with idyllic farms and chickens just like the one that now adorned her forearm. That place that had been both a haven and prison throughout the pandemic seemed to look back at her as she finally responded to Mary’s text.

The summer months marked a stressful time as colleges across the country struggled to develop plans for re-opening amidst the pandemic. Students, parents, professors, and employees alike struggled to get answers to their burning questions: How will classes work? What will happen to a student who contracts COVID? What will campus life look like?  The option of deferral lingered in the back of everyone’s minds, but it too was mired with logistic uncertainty.

A flurry of emails piled up in the inboxes of Wesleyan students. Each one seemed to pose a hundred questions for every one it answered. Families around the world were tasked with difficult discussions around dinner tables. The safety and well-being of an entire community were at stake, but no one seemed to have a clue as to how the daunting semester would end.

On top of this, many students had been struggling to adjust to the new normal, facing difficulties with online classes, forced living situations, and restricted social life. The pandemic has posed a major threat to the mental health of college students everywhere. According to the CDC, around 3 in 4 people aged 18 to 24 reported poor mental health tied to the pandemic.

For Anabel, quarantine marked a personal low in terms of her mental health, which played a big role in her decision not to return. “I was really not in the right place to go back to school,” she said. “I just needed more time.” The tumultuous nature of the world, coupled with crippling boredom, took a toll on her.

After receiving the text from Mary, Anabel had about a week before she was scheduled to move into her single in the Nics, a mixed first- and second-year dorm just behind Foss Hill. She put off making a final decision, instead of jotting down pro-con lists on anything she could find. As the moment drew closer and closer, the right decision seemed to naturally emerge. Two days before she was supposed to move in, she officially emailed her dean to defer, sitting on the floor of her childhood bedroom, surrounded by unfilled boxes and walls still full of posters and pictures.

Anabel recalls September as a major turning point in her overall happiness: her deferral provided something to be excited about, while still giving her time to work through her feelings. As on-campus students acclimated to an entirely new Wesleyan, Anabel, Mary, and their third friend, Lila, spent the month securing a lease on a house in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and lining up jobs in the area. Anabel’s final month at home in Red Hook was spent doing many of the same things she had been doing all summer: dog-walking, journaling, reading, spending time with her mom. Yet, somehow she began to emerge from summer’s depressive haze as she turned her focus to a new and exciting experience on her horizon.

Anabel recounts a period of hectic adjustment upon moving into the house with her new roommates, Mary Ahlstrom and Lila Blaustein, both Massachusetts natives themselves. “After spending so many months with just my mom and my brother, it was just such an energy shift that took time to get used to,” she recalls. Their new space was a historic three-bedroom hilltop home down the street from a Friendly’s. Surrounded by families with kids and minivans, the three girls eventually embraced an endearingly domestic livelihood.

As the leaves changed, a sort of rhythm emerged as the trio got used to their new life. Anabel threw herself into taking an online creative writing course through SUNY New Paltz, spending her mornings sitting out on their screened-in porch in Zoom class. Mary took up a job at a local children’s book warehouse, immersing herself in a sort of comfortingly mundane work. An afternoon ritual formed around feasting on the fresh baked goods and coffee brought back by Lila’s early morning shifts at a local cafe.

Weekends consisted of outings around the sprawling Pioneer Valley area, known for its rural beauty and distinctly progressive population. A Holyoke native, Mary showed Anabel and Lila around her favorite childhood spots. Sometimes they would throw small parties with another small group of Wesleyan students with whom they eventually formed a COVID-safe “pod.” Their house, however, seemed to be the heart of their experience, where they grew to relish in the comforts of domestic living. Communal TV time, cooking, and dance parties became staples of their daily lives.

A favorite memory of Anabel’s is their Halloween celebration, which entailed a group costume inspired by their recent Netflix obsession: “Emily in Paris.” Their kitchen walls reflected other relics of their quirky communal fixations that included a poster of Michael B. Jordan above the stove and an off-putting ad for kombucha torn out of a magazine in the foyer. Each crevice of the home filled in over the three months with colorful memories from a semester unlike any other.

Their experience came with its respective hardships, however, especially as the trio navigated COVID boundaries. Their newfound independence left them completely independent to make their own decisions for the first time in months. Anabel remembers a few small disputes over visiting friends and a budding relationship in their pod. Being off-campus was not necessarily a cure-all for the arduous negotiations of social distancing.

For Anabel, the experience was one of healing, growth, and reflection. She fulfilled a long-standing goal of starting therapy and cutting back on her smoking habits, allowing for new clarity on what she wanted from her Wesleyan experience. As the end of their lease approached, it was obvious to Anabel that she wanted to resume being a full-time student. The decision unfolded similarly for the other two, who decided moving back on-campus made the most sense financially and academically.  Above all, Anabel recalls, it “just felt right” to come back to the campus they had slowly grown to miss.

Sitting atop her new Twin XL bed, Anabel surveys her new single in Lotus House. Her belongings have begun to settle into the new space she calls home. A jewelry box with a hand-painted purple werewolf that was once perched on the girls’ “Twilight” shrine now holds pens and pencils. “Being back just mostly feels like school,” she says.

For Anabel, this is a welcome change, despite hiccups in acclimating to campus culture, an adjustment most of her classmates have already made. Her time off has offered her clarity in what she wants to major in, and her renewed academic energy has positively impacted her relationship with school. “Taking time off gave me the perspective to get more out of classes and dedicate myself more,” she says.

Five weeks into the fresh semester, she isn’t totally sold on being back, but each day the new normal grows on her slowly. Despite what she describes as a “meh” beginning to the semester, she is hopeful for things to get easier. A lot has changed on campus, but so has Anabel.

As Anabel finishes that thought, Mary and Lila burst into the room, coaxing Anabel to come downstairs and cook dinner with them. They excitedly tell each other about their days, and Mary shows off new jeans she got in the mail, posing in Anabel’s mirror.  On their agenda for the night is more meal-prepping, music-making, and movie-watching. As I follow them into the Lotus House kitchen something above the stove catches my eye: it’s Michael B. Jordan’s smiling face.