When Anika Chandok’s Bakersfield middle school shut down last spring and her classes went online, it felt like the beginning of an adventure. “I was in my pajamas, sitting in my comfy chair, “ the thirteen-year-old recalls. “I was texting my friends during class.”
“Then I received my academic progress report. I was an A and B student before the pandemic and now I was failing three classes.” Anika gathers her wits and shakes her head, trying to clear her thoughts.
“The academic slide left my mother in tears. My mom insisted I create to-do lists and moved my workspace into the guest bedroom to pull up my grades.” Pausing to take a sip from her water bottle Anika looks at her therapist Laura Mitchell Moore who gives her an encouraging nod.
“Over the summer my basketball and debate camps were canceled. My family postponed a planned trip to Vancouver to visit my extended family.” She presses her thumb and forefinger into her eyes, then continues. “I formed a pandemic pod with four or five close friends but the girls bickered. Subcliques formed and I and my best friend found ourselves excluded. The pod fell apart.”
Anika swallows, removing her hairband and retying her hair into a ponytail at her nape. She notices distractedly that her fingers are shaking, as she remembers how the return of in-person schooling last fall brought some relief but with some of her classmates still at home, teachers had to shift their attention between in-person kids and those online, leaving students feeling disorganized and behind.
The biggest blow came in October when Anika’s 78-year-old grandfather died of Coivd-19. Her mother flew to Canada for six weeks to help her grandmother. Her father, grief-stricken and withdrawn, had little energy to cook or clean. Diwali came and went without the usual celebratory feasts, fireworks and prayers.
“It was super, super hard. I didn’t know how to feel. All of the people I look up to, they are all, like breaking down,” says Anika as she stops to take out a piece of gum from her handbag. She unfurls the wrapper and pops it in her mouth. She read somewhere that chewing gum will help keep you from crying.
Anika thinks back on how she grew anxious about going to school—afraid she would catch the virus and spread it to her parents. Some classmates didn’t believe Covid was real and some wore their masks down below their chins or dangled them from their ears. Students talked and laughed in clumps, without social distancing. Anika’s stomach churns with grief as she recalls her grandfather’s death and the depression circling like a hawk in search of a field mouse. “They don’t understand how quick it all can change everyone’s lives,” she finishes in a rush.
To stave off boredom, Anika turned to social media for solace. She gave herself makeovers and posted the results on Tik-Tok. She cut her bangs then added a pink streak to her hair. She added four new ear piercings with a safety pin, some of which have still not healed. She shaved part of her head.
Her grades have started falling again. “Every day is the exact same,” she says to Ms. Laura now. “You kind of feel like, what’s the point?”
“Time’s up Anika but I want you to say the words, ‘It will end. I will get through this.’”
“Okay,” says Anika and stands, adjusting the straps of her mask. She gathers her bag and her water bottle and puts a hand on the door handle.
Behind her, she hears Ms. Laura stand.
“I’ve got to go.”
“Anika, I want you to say these words and we’ll be done for the day.”
Anika turns and the warm, animated look on Ms. Laura’s face melts her defenses. Her therapist is just about her only friend. It is a thought so utterly sad she has to fight off a bout of sudden, manic laughter.
When Anika speaks, the words come out so quietly they are almost gone before they arrive. “The pandemic will end. I will get through this.”
She leaves the office, waiting until she is in the elevator to fold over and cry.
Patrick switches off the T.V. just as KQED 7 is reporting on the number of Americans vaccinated as of this week. The commentator’s enthusiastic voice fades as he announces that seventy percent of the country is expected to be vaccinated by summer. He turns to Vandana who’s engrossed in a romance novel from her favorite writer.
“Are you ready to turn in, Vandy?” he asks.
“Yeah, I’ll finish it tomorrow.” Vandy sets the Kindle down on her nightstand and turns her body to face Patrick, feeling her breathing slow down as she smells his soap and Old spice.
“You know it feels wrong to say this in light of all the loss, pain, and misery people have endured over the past year, but I feel scared about the pandemic ending.”
Vandy casts her mind back to her last professional outing which was exactly a year ago: The Silicon Valley Tech Lawyers Summit where she and her fellow counselors nervously giggled as they greeted each other with elbow bumps and then squeezed into a poorly ventilated room to hear a panel about new copyright regulations.
We’re so lucky we didn’t all get seriously sick, she thinks now. But, remembering that day is a helpful reference to who she was then to who she is now: a healthier person who feels better in her body.
Patrick turns to her, cradling her body in the curve of his right arm, and asks quietly, “Why do you say that?”
“I haven’t boarded a plane, eaten in a restaurant, or gotten a manicure in a year. No wonder my back hurts less, my stomach is less bloated, and my nails no longer chip and peel.”
Vandy stops talking to yawn, covering her mouth with the back of her left hand as the memories run through her head like a slideshow. When her court appearances dissipated, so did the anxiety that usually accompanied her as a litigator—as did her stress-related rosacea. Clearly, the demands of flying around the world while keeping up a high-maintenance grooming routine were depleting her in very obvious, physical ways.
“I like feeling less Type A,” Vandy says with a lump in her throat as she snuggles into Patrick’s embrace. Within minutes she is asleep, her dreams filled with dancing through life with nothing more challenging than the Burbank Bakery running out of almond croissants.
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