By Hannah Rowen
I have regressed to high school. I am quarantining in New York City, in my childhood apartment with my mother and father. They are wonderful people, and I continually feel grateful and lucky that I am here with them.
But again, I have regressed to high school, which I imagine is few people’s greatest wish. It might be for the few who were sociable in high school — they had a core friend group, maybe even were class president — and I applaud them for their social precociousness. I, however, will never long for the sweetness of 16 again. Like most Stanford students, in high school I spent the majority of my free time doing homework in the kitchen and, on special occasions, in the living room. This is once again my new normal. Netflix was then, and is now, a treat reserved for the weekends. In high school, my dad would wander into my room at 9 p.m. every night to make sure my windows were open. Each night of quarantine, he has completed this task, knocking on my door and barging in before I reply.
There are however two notable differences between then and now. In high school, I was allowed to wear shoes in the apartment and was not allowed to close my bedroom door, and now I’m not allowed to wear shoes in the apartment and, after an amicable negotiation, am allowed to close my bedroom door.
In high school, I also interacted with few people each day; my grade had 50 girls, and I saw about nine other people at dance practice after school. As a result of my limited social circles, I had an ability to remember every conversation I had with someone, almost verbatim. It was both creepy and sad. This recall turned out to be a distinct curse; instead of seeming attentive when I remembered someone, I seemed like that kid in a Disney, made-for-TV movie who picks up the pencil her crush drops in the hallway and sniffs it. Once I got to Stanford, I became more forgetful. I could not keep a record of every conversation I had simply because I was interacting with so many people daily. I would, however, still remember the first time I had met people, their names, and their faces. At Stanford, where forgetting first introductions almost is the norm, this also gave me creepy-pencil-girl vibes.
I first noticed my inability to remember all the conversations earlier this year. I met up with a friend I had made in my sophomore year; I didn’t remember that he had a brother. He and I had become friends when I was suffering from a case of mono so severe that it made my brain foggy, making it difficult to remember conjugations in ancient Greek class. Always incredibly good at finding excuses, I blamed my inability to remember on the mono. But then a few weeks later, I found myself needing to ask a friend from freshman year, with whom I had just reconnected, what she was majoring in — which should also give you insights into my abilities as a conversationalist.
Naturally, I have come up with excuses to justify why it took me until senior year to realize how much I didn’t remember. A quick one: The realization was delayed because my comfort zone is being in various states of denial. But in truth, before senior year there was no reason to look back on all these conversations. I did not need to rely on memories because I could create more lived experiences. This year came, and I felt that my time was quickly expiring; I stumbled into the year with one eye constantly turned back on what I had done, who I had met, and one eye looking ahead toward who I wanted to meet again, who I needed to see a few more times before I might not be near them for a long time. The mission statement of senior year was not only to make memories but also to recall them. COVID-19 pausing and then altering the year only heightened that mission statement.
Now, I want to cherish all the memories, to find solace in them — to at least have a healthy relationship with them. But instead, they trap me within their insidious loops, and I am stuck, clinging on too tightly, unable to let go.
In the weeks leading up to school’s end, back when COVID-19 was still an epidemic, I met three people I began to admire greatly from afar and then from up close, as we began to know each other. Two of these people were in my English class. Most of our interactions took place within Stanford’s paradise, a Lathrop classroom, and most of our bonding resulted from deciding we would all take on the role of “that kid,” in class — the kid who speaks up a little too much, gets too passionate about insignificant details of the material, makes pretentious references to texts not directly relevant to the discussion. Nevertheless, I had a deep suspicion we would be able to connect on many other topics, too. I would run into both of these people around campus, and we would engage in small talk that insinuated both parties wished for there to be big talks soon, once the quarter got slightly less busy (an uncreative excuse, if you ask me, the expert).
I met the third person through a club. The first time we hung out, we sat on the Oval during golden hour. I felt I had just met an old friend, and he did, too; that night, in jest and in earnest, he sent me lyrics to a song in “The Muppet Movie,” “There is not a word yet/ For old friends who’ve just met.” Our subsequent interactions simply solidified that feeling, and I longed for spring, when we would be able to take walks around Lake Lag and McMurtry and become real “old friends.” My last night at Stanford, he reached out to me, and we said one last, hopeful goodbye. I have cherished this memory throughout quarantine and return to it in moments that feel particularly dark and endless.
I call these three friend-crushes, the “Inbetweeners,” not to be confused with the British popular sitcom, “The Inbetweeners” (to reference something not at all relevant to this text). I call them the “Inbetweeners,” because we were not yet close friends, but we were more than acquaintances. We had planted the seeds for a friendship to blossom in the weeks to come, so that by the time I graduated Stanford, the Inbetweeners would have graduated to real friends (or at least FaceTime-once-every-three-months-friends), who were lodged into my life for quite some time.
I have regressed to high school, and in doing so regained my ability to vividly remember. Perhaps I never lost the ability but got bad at exercising it from a lack of practice. Now, almost embodied again in my high school self, I can recall the conversations, each passing “let’s grab a meal!” the last place I saw someone on campus before we said goodbye. For this, I am grateful.
That said, my mind has acquired a filter, which, much like my Brita now hostage in my room back on campus, I have no control over. Instead of remembering the road trip I took freshman year with one of my best friends or the countless cast parties, I think of the Inbetweeners. The memories, in rough outline, go like this, “An Inbetweener and I walked out of English class. We paused at the stairs. He made a joke.” Each time I replay these moments, I am tortured. For one, after the seventh time of replaying a joke, it’s no longer funny. But more devastatingly, the moments lack any sort of character development or narrative arc, and I’ve become rather anal about those devices through pursuing the creative writing minor. Without a satisfying end, the memories of the Inbetweeners just make me feel sad. They serve as reminders that these friendships cannot be properly realized — no matter how willing I am to come across as desperate and message these people, expressing my interest in friendship.
I thrive socially in some, but few, environments. Certainly, Zoom is not one of them. While in person, I like to think my awkwardness and sometimes imperceptible sarcasm is endearing, it is unequivocally baffling and discomforting over Zoom. Zoom silences petrify me; they should be considered, definitionally, The Void. “What’s the craziest technology story you’ve heard recently? Of like, people walking into Zooms when they shouldn’t,” I once blurted out, after a particularly long silence over Zoom. The question caught my friend off-guard, and I considered clicking the “go faster” button when he sputtered, trying to think of an answer. (It was this conversation that prompted my other friend and I to create a Google doc, “Stupid Shit I’ve Said On Zoom.”)
In a moment of exuberance, two weeks into quarantine, I Zoomed with one of the three Inbetweeners — the one with whom I shared the hopeful goodbye. We had little to say, but great desire to connect. I complained about social distancing, about regressing to high school. He wasn’t finding quarantining as stifling, so it seemed as though we couldn’t commiserate together — a default conversation topic of my other Zoom calls. I felt boring to talk to, distinctly un-fun, and self-conscious that my complaining about quarantine had sounded whiney and ungrateful. I wanted to ask him so many questions to get to know him, but I didn’t want to ask overly deep questions and overwhelm him. To do so over a video call would have felt absurdly, even laughably, intense.
I tried to think of stories I could tell him, but I suddenly couldn’t remember any apart from my dad continually checking to see if my windows were open, and luckily, I had the smarts not to deep dive into that vat. After a bit of small talk and sparse moments of genuine joy and connection, we said goodbye, this one less grand and more tragic to me than our last. More tragic because it confirmed what I had feared all along: that becoming friends over Zoom is a lofty (even hubristic!) goal. I don’t expect the Inbetweeners to reach out to me, nor do I expect that if they were to, a secure friendship might emerge.
I wonder how I can find comfort in the lost or unrealized friendships. I wonder if a day will go by in quarantine where I do not think of the Inbetweeners, where I will not hope that they reach out to me, where I will not wonder if they have thought of me at all. I remind myself continually that I have not disappeared — that of course people think of me — but it seems so unlikely that the Inbetweeners would, amidst all the chaos and pain that surrounds us daily.
So I remind myself that there are far more important things I should be thinking about right now, that I should not be thinking of myself. That works for about 90 minutes.
Last week, on only hour seven of screen time, I found an excuse to text an English class Inbetweener; it was imperative I understood why he had stopped liking my tweets (@herowen_). I texted him as a joke, but of course underneath it, I sought attention and validation, two things I’m very honest about on my twitter (@herowen_). The Inbetweener told me I shouldn’t care about online attention; I told him he shouldn’t tell me I shouldn’t care. He explained that analyzing “electric attention” is not the best way to gauge if someone enjoys talking to me. I fought back, given that almost all attention is now of the electric sort. But then he sent me a compelling text that shut me up. “I remember everything,” it read.
For the first time in weeks, I felt genuine relief. The amount of relief almost embarrassed me. I had not known that there could be such comfort in verbalized confirmation that what I remember is not just within my own mind. It is real and vivid to someone else, too. What a comfort it is during this time to hear that someone remembers, for I find myself each day living vicariously through my memories; now I know that someone else is living within them, too. I am not wandering through them alone.
With this knowledge, I am able to detach, to stop the obsessive replays. The memories seem more protected in the hands of two. I needn’t relive them to keep them alive.
However overactive my imagination is, I cannot imagine what my future, or really any future, looks like at all — no part of it. Since I received that message, I have texted sporadically with the Inbetweener. I don’t know when we will next see each other, nor do I know if we will ever be good friends.
But for now, I know this much; we remember everything. How we smiled in unison when I suddenly understood his joke, how we made our mouths frown to stifle our giggles, how we walked over the wood chips towards the Library and even in the late afternoon, the day felt so young.
Contact Hannah Rowen at herowen ‘at’ stanford.edu.