It’s midnight and I’m still awake, writing by a halo of lamp light. I glance up at my bedroom window and the apartments across the street have vanished into the night. The city is asleep in the gloaming, and I am the last one awake. The world feels gone and lonely, so I go inside my tent.
I live in a four-floor walk-up in New York City with two roommates. They fled the city a few weeks ago, so the apartment has been quiet since. We have no common room, and our kitchen looks like something you’d find in a toy store. We use the oven as shelf space, and anyone invited to the apartment must sit on a bed, narrowing the invitations significantly. My room is too small to fit a desk, so in quarantine, I work from bed.
My room is a mess. Makeup is scattered at the base of a long mirror. Books are piled in crooked towers around the room, and on the bed, a thick, twisted quilt is stained with black ink. In the morning, I wake up to the sun shining on the white walls. I shower and brush my hair into a dripping ponytail. The microwave beeps, and I take out a mug of coffee, then go back to my bed to write. From the street, I hear the distant sounds of people talking and laughing and the church bell ringing each hour.
In the afternoon, I take breaks, reading and making phone calls as I walk along the West Side Highway. The sun sets, and I’m back in my bedroom, writing in the folds of my floral sheets. The shadows rise and stretch and fall on the walls. My mind stultifies in the sameness of each day and, by the end of July, words are leaving my fingers in a slow drip.
Before the lockdown, I wrote in cafes. My favorite one was on 6th Avenue, across the street from two basketball courts. It had scarlet wood paneling and folk music floating down from the speakers. There were only two stools, so I’d settle on one, sipping my coffee, slouched over an iPad. On the other stool, people texted, made calls, sometimes just stared out the window, then the glass door swung, and they were gone. The noises of the cafe—a whistling espresso machine, the humming voices of strangers—staved off the lonely side of solitude. I had company and that gave me energy as I wrote.
When the cafes closed, I searched for alternatives. At my apartment, when the sky turned marigold and the blazing ladders cooled in the shade, I climbed onto my fire escape and wrote. Cars grumbled and growled beneath my feet and a neighbor worked at his desk across the street, his face pensive and bright in the open window. I was happily typing away for a week, until I felt a sharp pain shooting up my back. I brought out a blanket, fashioned a cushion out of a sweater, but the iron grating was narrow and the ache only worsened. So, I moved to the park and resumed my writing on a wooden bench under the ginkgo trees, where the air was cool and alive. Giggles of children bubbled through the breeze and a jaunty piano played old Motown. I wrote until my iPad died and then again the next day. But, after so many hours wearing a mask, I noticed sore bumps around my cheeks and jawline. “Maskne,” a term I learned from my promotional ads on Instagram. Bad skin and a sore back, I resigned myself back to the apartment, where I’ve been writing ever since.
Working and dreaming in bed, I watch the clock move in strange ways. The sun feels slippery. It slips into the sky, bringing a new day, and then slips back down before any new memories are made, and suddenly the day is gone, and a new one comes, and it’s the same thing all over again. I haven’t written a sentence in days. The cursor blinks on an empty page. I write a few words and then delete them. Self-doubt starts creeping in. I wonder if I’ll ever write again. The screen goes black. My eyes drift around the room, pausing at a tall box, leaning against the wall.
At the start of quarantine, I bought a pop-up tent. I had invited some friends to camp out and drink beers on the rooftop of my building. In separate tents, we could make social distancing an event. But the building management closed the rooftop before we got the chance—so, for months, the tent had been sitting in its box.
As I look at the box, a warm idea sparkles around it. I jump out of bed and rip open the cardboard. A bright blue circle of nylon peeks its head. I pull it out, tugging at the rim. The nylon swooshes into the air and blooms into a big blue room. There’s not enough floor space to set it down, so I plop it on my bed—it fits. I climb inside, the tarp floor crunching beneath me and the zipper hissing as I close the door. I scoot to the center and lie down, gazing at the ceiling. It looks tall and far away in the empty space. The nylon curves like the barrel vault of a cathedral and, near the lamp, it glows like stained glass in the sun. My body calms. I feel like a child in an empty box. The walls are daydreams, and the world is anything.
It’s mid-August and I’m writing, slouched over an iPad, the tent collapsed by the side of the bed. As the neighbors’ lights go out and the apartment feels lonely and my words start to slow, I reach for my tent.
Between Screens is an ongoing column that explores how social isolation and an increasing reliance on technology has altered perspectives, social practices, and artistic habits.
Photo credit: Siena Canales