A Dialogue of Two Authors

By Elaine Zhou & Saf Shams

Image Source: South China Morning Post

“COMMANDER LYMPHOCYTE CELL! Please prepare for the next line of defenses!” the innate immune cells signalled as they scrambled towards me.

“Yes,” I mused, watching the front line’s fierce counter to the COVID-19 pathogen…

While I did not contract COVID-19, it felt like I was fighting an immunity war throughout my first year of “Zoom university”—one fought between my conflicting needs and wants. 

Lucky Elaine, whose front line held out! 

Mine retreated at the first sign of conflict, leaving me to contract COVID-19, fighting a true immunity war. It was not fun. Moreover, I contracted it during the worst possible time: January exams. Thus, exiled to the second floor of our family home, existing all alone, I had to conjure a way to both survive as a human being and, more importantly, as a student.

I wanted to attend school like any other year, in-person, amongst friends. No, I needed to. Because being forced to stay at home for the whole year of school during COVID-19 took a huge emotional toll on me. The worst of them erupted during January exams. I was so done with online schooling that I had no motivation to touch my studies whatsoever even with only a week left before my final exams. I ended up cramming for all my January exams the night before, pulling all-nighters until my eyes just couldn’t do it anymore. And don’t get me wrong, I knew staying at home would help reduce the transmission of COVID-19 so it was the safer way to go…but I wondered how I would make it past the next semester, which was—oh boy—going to be fully online again. 

If enlightenment could be achieved through cutting off ties with mortality, then I must have been pretty close to it. Alone and left to my own crippling thoughts, I had to figure out a way to make sure I lived to see the next day and accede to Quercus’ demands.

Though I do not know if I got off luckier than Elaine, being an English and History major and all. At the end of the day, my endeavour came down to my ability to twist incoherence together into flowery prose and pass it off as an essay for those two subjects. Of course, that was achieved only after I had managed to get out of bed and make sure my oximeter (a tiny device that tracks oxygen levels) reading was, like the marks my family expected of me, over 90. Marks, after all, determined my future, and the oximeter determined my ability to strive towards it.

If enlightenment involved sorting through what bitterness I held onto, how I resented the COVID-19 circumstances, and why I saw no end to the fog, then I might have been on track. Confined to my mind’s lovely paintings of what could have been happening without COVID-19, I had to keep my moodiness in check. 

And though I was certainly also juggling the unending weekly assignments, discussion boards, quizzes, and tests of ECO101—a mandatory course for Rotman Commerce students—I must say that Saf got the rougher end of the stick. While Saf had to constantly find sources of inspiration to twist what he terms “incoherence” into flowery prose, I really only had to “see” out of my misery to motivate myself and pick up my life again.

At least Elaine can have a claim at having a life, which was continuously and irritatingly attempting to break up with me… 

What kept me going, surprisingly, was the thought of the friends I had never met in person yet forged a unique bond with (thank you, Internet), and those I wished to see again. The whole pandemic not only upturned the process of making friends, but brought down a situation where even the closest of companions were separated. Yet, those friendships lasted because they held onto something better than the crisis we faced. Something hopeful. Those friendships lasted because of promises made, plans arranged, and hopes placed on a future where people could, and would, meet—not through a two-dimensional digital rectangle, but in person. I had to keep holding on. Living—because I needed to—and writing those hellish essays because I had to sit beside my friends and ask them what the answer to the multiple-choice was when Fall next came.

And I think that’s what kept me going. The realization that I only had to step away from and peer beyond the tiny looking glass I was so focused on to move forward. That stems from my family who was always beside me when I was being unreasonable and passive-aggressive and a complete mood-downer in the days I spent sulking in my little shell of a looking glass. I watched how they were able to genuinely smile at the moments of happiness in the wide beauty of a field that surely existed outside my looking glass: watching a flower bud finally unleash a blossom of colour, sniffing the aroma of an oh-so-yummy-looking platter with their mouths watering, taking little night walks in each other’s company when the raven sky illuminated with the moon’s mystic glow and the air oh-so-fresh and tranquil. I thought, “why can’t that be me, too?”

Strolling up to second year, I savour the soothing aroma of my earl grey, thinking back to that time when a simple highlighted “NEGATIVE” resulted in the greatest outpour of positivity. So here’s a cup of normalcy to me, and to those cells who lost the front line—the capital, even—but never gave up the fight.

Now lounging in my just-moved-in condo for year two, I am more than ready for an in-person fall semester. I will hug tightly the soft plushy memories of the past—of my family, and of the field existing beyond what my looking glass can see—as I kick open my bubble to sashay back into normal.

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