When Nightmares Become Reality

BY Holly Burns | | Pandemic Diaries

I couldn’t get out of Berkeley fast enough. It didn’t even occur to me, in the five hours I spent driving, that I was leaving a place I had worked for five years to get to. That all the progress I had made during my short time at the university would be sort of stunted.

All I could think about was being close enough to my mother to help her if she were to become ill. I arrived in LA after navigating my two-wheel drive convertible mustang with bad tires through a road closure, 9 hours of intense downpour, a snowstorm in the grapevine, and the pitch-black darkness of the Mojave. It felt like I was moving between worlds, as if I were on some mystical solo journey.

Along the way, I thought about how different people in my life were navigating what was happening all around us. A few of my housemates wanted to “take advantage of the ridiculous airfare” and solicited volunteers to take over their work shifts, while others worried about their severe asthma and diabetes. I thought about my mother and brother, who have been homeless for over a year, and how a pandemic would affect their situation. I was dizzy from the thought, envisioning a complete disaster.

Road trips have always been therapeutic for me. I’ve always loved stopping for gas on the highway and feeling the energy of the empty land and road. This time, though, the same sense of panic that I had witnessed at grocery stores also filled the rest stops. I was reluctant to touch the door handles and to use the restroom. In the bathrooms, I overheard conversations — everyone was fleeing. A woman said in the stall next to me was talking on her phone. “Yeah, it’s spread everywhere now,” she said, and let out a deep cough. I held my breath as I washed my hands.

*

Before I came to Berkeley, I attended community college, part-time, while working full time at a hair salon. I shared a small two-bedroom apartment with two of my brothers and my mother. We owned two beds: one for my brothers and one for me and mom. This was a small space occupied by large personalities. During my final semesters at community college, things began to crumble. The older woman who owned the building sold it to a company that was eager to flip the building for a profit. Construction began immediately on all units, apart from ours. Tenants packed their belongings and vacated due to rent spikes. The only thing protecting us from the same fate was our housing voucher. The company couldn’t legally raise our rent and make us leave, so instead they started the process of constructive eviction. All the progress we had made by struggling and sticking together was trumped by a company with dollars signs in their eyes. Business is business, I guess.

That was in 2018. Soon after, doctors found a tumor in my dad’s head. Glioblastoma brain cancer. When we first reunited I asked of him two things: stay alive and have one dance with me. Neither of those things happened.

I arrived at Berkeley in 2019. In my first week of classes, I got a phone call telling me that his wife, my step-mother, died in a car crash. She was driving down a 2-lane highway and was hit head-on by a semi; she died upon impact. My sense of reality became even more surreal. That first semester was agonizing due to grief and paralyzing anxiety and insecurity. My classwork mounted and I felt like an imbecile trying to match the caliber of the young and articulate students I sat next to. My professors used words I had never heard. I didn’t belong in this place; the grocery store clerks weren’t friendly. I started smoking again.  

I’m now in my second semester. I was determined to do it right, to be more than just “okay.” I vowed to maintain a 9-to-7 work schedule; to exercise at least 3 times a week; to meditate twice a day. It started out well: I had acclimated to living in my 25-person co-op and was re-elected house president for a “second term”. I started utilizing the study room, which was where the most serious students worked. I began my work-study job at the library to help ensure I didn’t accumulate any debt while finishing undergrad. I was exhausted — like everyone else — but I was doing it —like everyone else.

My surroundings became familiar and helped solidify my new identity. I was sick twice at the beginning of the semester and a housemate assured me, “It’s Berkeley, trust me”. And given the amount of stress I’d felt lately, I believed her. When I first arrived on campus, I truly felt like a stranger; Berkeley was a place where a person like me didn’t belong. That feeling started to change my second semester. I was attending events with guest lecturers and made a point to ask a question each time. In a room filled with thinkers, I was determined to be part of the conversation. Each time I raised my shaky hand not knowing what to ask but did it anyway. I wanted to belong to the moment. “Little Holly girl” from the trailer park raises her hand she dares to ask questions. I started taking more notes during the discussions that featured alumni and imagined a future for myself. This future looked nothing like life predicted for me as a young girl.

My housemate Mila and I met up each morning for coffee, a cigarette, and twenty minutes of writing. She was there for me when I felt I couldn’t handle the pressure of Berkeley, she would rub my shoulders, smudge my body, douse my wrists with Agua Florida, and said prayers for me. When news started to emerge about the coronavirus, she was on top of it, almost to the point of obsession.

I read articles that depicted the virus as a considerably lesser evil than the flu. I sent Mila these articles in an attempt to alleviate some of her fear. Once, in a moment of complete confidence, I told her: “You and your loved ones are more at risk of getting sick from the flu, try and calm your nerves.” I texted her updates from the UC Tang center concerning the virus; I underlined a letter citing the low risk of infection. I told myself it would be okay.

One night, while I was still in a somewhat comfortable state of ignorance, Mila sat me down. She looked directly into my eyes and said gravely, “Mija, it’s coming.” My stomach turned upside down and I started to sweat. It felt like a death sentence.

All I could release from my mouth was a whimpering, “Fuck”. She saw the worry on my face and said, “It’s okay, we just have to be prepared.” I couldn’t imagine what she meant by that. How does one prepare for an invisible disease?

*

In early March I took a trip to LA There, it felt like no one had heard of the virus. The sun was shining and it felt great to drive through the long wide streets of Los Angeles, a welcome reprieve from the dense roads of Berkeley. I texted the co-op group chat: “The Corona doesn’t exist in L.A 🌴😎.” I stayed for a week.

I returned to Berkeley the day that in-person classes ceased. The environment at the co-op changed rapidly. Members left and managers quit. Every chat in the kitchen, every whisper in the study room, every discussion at the dinner table was about COVID-19. Every movement required special care and attention; I covered my hands with my shirt to open the fridges and washed my hands so often my skin cracked. Every cough, sneeze, and sniffle was met with anxious glares.

When it became too much, when I couldn’t stop myself from accidentally hyperventilating, I decided to head back to LA The days leading up to my departure grew longer, and it occurred to me that I might have made a grave mistake by coming back north. The news was terrifying, an endless feed about the number of people dying. I started to think about everyone I knew with “underlying health conditions.” I was convinced that if I stayed in a house full of people, I would inevitably get sick; I spiraled even further at the thought of my loved ones dying and the possibility of complete pandemonium in the streets. Others I know reveled at the thought of collapse. They were ready to see the “shit house” that they called the United States go up in flames.

A trip to the grocery store solidified my impending fears. As if Berkeley Bowl wasn’t already enough of a bonafide shit show, this time the shelves were nearly empty and the panicked eyes of fellow shoppers darted down the aisles. The air was thick with fear; it was as infectious as the virus. Bodies reluctantly crammed next to one another in an attempt to stock their carts with what food was left upon the shelves. All the stoned conversations I’d had with friends about how vulnerable society was, how it was “hanging on by a string,” seemed to be playing out before my eyes.

I thought that once I arrived back in Los Angeles my spiraling mental health would get better. My first day back I went to the grocery store, this was the first day we stood 6 feet apart in line outside and let a limited number enter the store. I stood in the long line as people driving by stopped and took photos; it irritated me to be photographed by random onlookers. A woman began recording everyone as she walked by with a grin on her face. “Can you have a little decency? Maybe people don’t want to be recorded right now,” I said to her. She snapped back at me with a high-pitched valley-girl yell: “It’s for me!”

When I got home from the store, something didn’t feel right. My head was heavy, I felt dizzy and light-headed, my chest was tight, and then came the chills, the waves of nausea and confusion. When I told my partner, who has severe asthma, that I didn’t feel well he looked at me with puppy eyes and said, “You killed me.” He started laughing; I bawled. His cold body, his crying mother, his father, his brother, they all swirled in my mind as he tried to console me from his insensitive joke. It would be another 12 days before I started to feel somewhat “normal.” I will never know whether I was sick from the virus, or from stress.

Meanwhile, I attempted to keep up with my classwork. Talking at my computer felt awkward. Although I could see other faces on the screen, and I would receive delayed and choppy reactions, it reminded me that in reality, it was just me alone, speaking to my screen. I tried to conjure the feelings I felt in person, but class just didn’t seem to matter as much anymore.

We tried to keep going as if everything were normal. We received emails from the school that “sympathized” with students and said how our safety was their “first priority.” I felt ripped off and angry that I had made it all this way to have to settle for online courses. I had fought my way through my entire life, committed myself to education with the firm belief that I would have the promise of opportunity once I was finished, that I would leave smarter, armed with skills that would change my self-esteem and the entire trajectory of my life. The confusion surrounding the pandemic makes the future look grim for many people especially those who are already poor (of course).

Months later, I made my way back north on the same highway that paralyzed me with fear, but this time the skies were clear and the road was welcoming. The sun provided me with comfort and I felt confident in the direction I was heading. But I knew that I had a long and arduous journey ahead.

Holly Burns, ’21
Berkeley, CA