I woke up to the sound of the rain pouring outside. I sighed, annoyed by the fact that the endless downpours of spring in Istanbul had still not ceased. I hate the rain. It’s monotonous, it makes everything appear gloomy, and I always get soggy in it.
I was wearing a pair of pink sweatpants and some T-shirt that I can’t really remember. I didn’t feel like changing because a) I was in quarantine, b) no one apart from my family was going to see what I looked like, and c) I was lazy. This had been my mood for the last week and a half — my routine resembled a newly divorced cat lady’s daily schedule:
Catch up with classes.
Sulk a bit more.
Stare at my fat cat, Pamuk, in awe.
Wish I was back in Berkeley.
Go to sleep.
Well, not entirely. I also binge-watched TV shows and ate in between. But that was, for the most part, what my schedule looked like. Why was I sulking? Well, that question has many answers: The world was falling apart and nothing made sense anymore. I had been forced to return home to Istanbul two months before my planned return date from Cal. I was quarantined in my room, because I had come from abroad. I couldn’t see any of my friends. I was lonely.
I think the main reason why I felt lonely was because I was trying, and failing, to understand what I hoped to do in the future. The pandemic has made it even more difficult to visualize what the next few years, let alone months, will look like. Time feels infinitely static. Yet I hoped that fantasizing about the distant future would allow me to cope with the stress and instability that the pandemic has caused. I thought that planning for my future, as I had always done before, would make me feel normal. And I hoped, above all, that it would at least make my birthday feel normal.
Unfortunately, overthinking didn’t help me achieve much. It made me feel as if I was standing beneath a storm of my own scattered, unidentifiable thoughts. I held up a bucket, hoping that I could catch some of my thoughts and make some sense of them. I wanted to force the water droplets of my thoughts to come together to form a sea or an ocean, but I couldn’t even get them to form a puddle.
I petulantly walked downstairs and heard my dad faintly wishing me a ‘Happy birthday.’ I remembered that he was sick. He tried to smile to cover up the fact that he wasn’t feeling well, but was failing miserably at this small act of deception. He had become as white as the living room couch he was lying on. He looked terrible.
Instead of making a big deal out of my dad’s situation, my family and I were lying to ourselves, hoping to convince each other that my dad wasn’t sick and that there wasn’t a worldwide pandemic raging outside. We tried to imagine that so long as he was within the chambers of our house, he was going to be okay, and that everything was normal.
Before returning to Istanbul, I was sick and trying to quarantine myself in my dorm room. I had a fever, and felt as if my entire body had been drained of energy. I thought I had the coronavirus. The doctor at the Tang Center could only say that I had a viral infection that they couldn’t identify. Looking at my dad, I could see the resemblances between our sicknesses. I hadn’t been able to lift my hands. Now, I watched as my dad’s fingers shook as he tried to hold his glass of water.
I wanted to believe that he had the coronavirus because that would confirm that I had had it too, that I was the reason he had it now. I wanted my 19th birthday to be remembered as the day I was in quarantine and the day that my dad was fighting for his life.
I wanted everything to be dramatic, because it would give me a story to tell.
It was infuriating to know that people around the world were fighting the pandemic, getting better, or getting worse and dying, while I was sitting in my house, sulking, just because I had to adjust my class schedule to my new time zone. I was annoyed because even though it felt as if time had stopped, I was still getting older.
In the kitchen, mom and little sister hugged me. “Happy birthday,” they chanted, as if they were performing a scene from a play. It’s not an important day, I thought. It’s just day nine in quarantine. The only difference is that today I turn a year older, while the world, consumed by the pandemic, gets sicker. Not wanting to sound unappreciative, however, I simply smiled and said ‘thank you.’
I grabbed one of the mugs in the kitchen, made myself some coffee, poured milk in it, and gulped as the rain continued to dribble. Our daily routine began:
My dad sneezed.
My sister attended her online classes.
My dad blew his nose.
My mom went on her conference calls.
My dad fell asleep.
Annoyed by the repetitiousness of our schedule, I went back upstairs to catch up with classes. All of the moving around from Berkeley to Istanbul meant that I had missed a lot of work.
Staring at my computer screen, trying to understand what my math professor wanted me to do for that week’s lecture, I began to fantasize about what it would have been like to stay in Berkeley and keep attending classes there. It was ironic that, instead of dreaming about an alternate reality, I was living in one, and imagining what my normal life would have looked like.
What did “normal” look like now, anyway? What would ‘normal’ be next year?
Was ‘normal’ going to sleep in my dorm room? Saying good morning to my roommate as I hastily snoozed my alarm, not wanting to wake up? Was it putting on some clothes, grabbing my backpack, and heading to class? Pretending that I knew what I was doing with my life as I scurried from one lecture to another? Or was it not knowing whether the rest of the semester was going to be online, and calling my dad to check flight information? Learning that I had to leave the room I now called home, having to abruptly pack my belongings, and not being able to say goodbye to my friends and professors? Getting on my flight back to Istanbul, acting as if I wasn’t sick?
Normal was having no one sit next to me on the plane, because it was only half-full. Normal was reading an old edition of the Turkish Airlines monthly magazine because, given the circumstances, they couldn’t print the new ones. Normal had become landing in Istanbul without my dad welcoming me with a hug, because of social distancing. Normal was having to quarantine myself for 14 days in my childhood bedroom, haunted by my past selves whispering ‘Joke’s on you, there is no future.’
The world was changing, and we had to adapt to it. I had to adapt to it.
Listening to the echo of the downpour, I accepted its endlessness. I also accepted the fact that “normal” was no longer a part of the narrative.
I realized that it’s okay to not always see what’s ahead of me. It’s okay to be stranded in a storm of rain, to get wet, and feel soggy. I realized just how trapped I had felt. Instead of hopelessly standing in the rain, I began dancing in it. The pococurante disharmony of the pitter patter transformed into the most peart melody I had ever heard.
— Defne Karabatur, ’23, Istanbul, Turkey