One of my neighbors pushes a stroller down the road on March 29. The deadline that was my 14 days in quarantine was an empty promise. As the COVID-19 situation continues to worsen in the U.S., I and others will remain in quarantine for some time. And I have no idea when it will end.
The view from my seat traveling March 20 from Aarhus to Copenhagen. I was one of four passengers on this flight. Fewer than 24 hours before this, I had learned I would be leaving Denmark and returning to Missouri. I was one of many college students pulled home early from a semester abroad because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At this point, I had not yet begun to process the complicated web of emotions that tangled my mind.
A self-portrait, taken with a long exposure in my Chicago hotel room at around 5:30 a.m. on March 22. At that point, I had been awake for three hours. My overnight stop in Chicago was my last before I arrived home in Missouri and perhaps the most anxiety-inducing. I couldn’t sleep and, even though it was much safer than the airport, I couldn’t bear to be in that hotel room one minute longer than necessary.
The sunrise from my room on April 1. One of the most difficult things about gazing out a window is that it gives the illusion of being somewhere you’re not. In this case, it gave the illusion of being free to wander. I could gaze out at the rising sun, I could hear the birds and wind rush past. I could even feel the heat of the day rise as the sun warmed my room, but it was all an illusion of being outside, a substitute for the wandering I could only do in my mind.
My laptop is reflected in a glass picture frame on April 2, 2020. I had resisted turning to Netflix for as long as I could. I had work to do, photographs to make and a book to read. Then, the work was finished. The book sat idle. I burned through shows like my life depended on it. I watched four series of television in as many days, alongside a few movies when I didn’t feel like committing to a series. I usually managed to find something productive to do each day while working from the room I lived in, but there were definitely some days where I never left my bed and sank bittersweetly into the boredom of doing nothing.
LEFT: My friend Dasha Vilchinskaia gets a closer look at me during a WhatsApp video call on March 27. Vilchinskaia and I met in Denmark. She was the international program’s sole student from Russia. In the two months we were both in Europe, we became quite close, having shared a duet of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” at the local karaoke joint and swapped stories about our lives outside of Denmark while walking through the rain-soaked downtown of our host city. I miss her dearly. RIGHT: My wrist, illuminated by window light during my descent into Chicago on March 21, 2020. Before I left for Denmark, my mother gave me the bracelet I wear on that wrist. It is the twin to one she wears. She told me that, while she understood that bracelets like this are cheesy, she wanted to give me a reminder that I have someone in my corner, even from across the ocean. She told me she’d understand if I didn’t want to wear it and asked that I put it on my nightstand and look at it every once in a while. I’ve not taken it off since she gave it to me.
The bedsheets I slept in while in quarantine, photographed on April 2. These sheets are not mine. They belong to my older stepbrother, who stays in this room when he is home on leave from Japan. The sheets and blankets are rustic and outdoorsy, a perfect reflection of what my brother values. Everything in this room feels borrowed. The bed and sheets are my brother’s. The chair I sit in and the chair I turned into a makeshift desk are my stepfather’s. My mother’s old coats hang in the closet. I was alone in this room for two weeks, yet surrounded by remnants of those I love.
A stuffed pheasant hangs in the upstairs level of my parents’ house, photographed on March 29. In many ways, staring out the window of my borrowed bedroom and walking the same circles around the backyard every afternoon, I felt like this taxidermy bird. I appeared to be in motion but never actually went anywhere.
My wet footprints, soaking into our back porch on March 25. My family and I live in a more rural part of Missouri-- thank goodness. Being able to at least leave my room and venture outside, without the risk of coming within six feet of someone, was one of the most surprisingly exciting parts of my quarantine. For most of my life, I’ve been content to spend most of my time indoors reading or working while my stepfather and brothers run and play outside. Yet, having been forced inside, there was suddenly a part of me that needed, with the strongest urge, to spend part of my day roaming our backyard, desperate to feel something other than carpet under my bare feet.
My brother Ayden stands separated by fire on March 25. I was in my quarantine room, on the phone, when my mother started to yell at me to come outside as quickly as I could. I thought the house was on fire. I was only partially right. My stepfather and younger brother had decided to do a controlled burn of our field. The two of them used rakes and shovels to control the small blaze, giving our field a chance to grow fresh as spring went on. The fire helped ensure no one was ever within six feet of one another.
Maximus, one of our two hunting dogs, wiggles his way from underneath our neighbor’s fence on April 1. Like many stuck in quarantine or who are self-isolating, I quickly turned walking the dogs into an excuse to get out of the house for a few minutes. No matter how many times we walk him, though, Maximus has a tendency to run off when no one is looking. He likes to chase a female or swim in our neighbor’s pond. My mother jokes he doesn’t like social distancing any more than we do.
The airport in Aarhus, Denmark, was empty. Empty of travelers, empty of staff — even the gates to security were closed. I had to ring the bell at the passenger information desk to find someone who could check my bags.
She told me the airport was operating with a skeleton crew, keeping just enough flights for people to get to Copenhagen. A week later, I would read they had canceled all arrivals and departures, closing as part of Denmark’s initiative to limit the spread of COVID-19.
I had been studying in Aarhus since late January in one of the best photojournalism classes in the world. It was coming to an end three months early.
Denmark is in the Schengen Area, a part of Europe where 26 countries have easy travel among them and share a common visa policy. The Schengen Area became one of the hot spots for COVID-19. If you’ve recently traveled abroad, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection requires that you notify them you've been there.
When it came time to board my flight, the crew didn’t bother with traditional boarding procedure. I was one of four passengers.
My next flight, from Copenhagen to Chicago, would have roughly two dozen. My final flight to Springfield, Missouri, would have half that.
In Chicago, I was rushed through customs, had my temperature taken and was asked about potential symptoms by firemen in masks. They were stationed 6 feet apart. I passed inspection.
I was shocked upon seeing O’Hare International Airport. In Denmark, the airports were nearly empty. Those in the terminal were keeping a distance, filling all available spaces like gaseous particles in a jar.
The coffee shop in Copenhagen’s international terminal had a grid of taped boxes people could not use and a designated pick-up point for drinks where customers could stand only by themselves.
In O’Hare, people crowded around the McDonald’s. Against my better judgment and desperate for a meal that wasn’t airplane food, I joined them.
After I landed in Springfield, my mother picked me up at the airport. We did not touch as we sat in the car together. Once we arrived home, I left my bags in the garage for 48 hours and washed all my clothes.
I made my way upstairs, to the guest bedroom my older brother stays in when he’s on leave from the Navy. My mom had figured the upstairs, with its own television, Xbox and bathroom, was preferable to my downstairs bedroom.
Over the next two weeks, I would barely see my family, although I could always hear them.
My mother worked from home, and my younger brother was finishing his senior year of high school from his bedroom.
Nothing is more isolating than listening to those you love live, just out of reach, while you gaze out the window, accepting that you are doing the right thing.
My first week of quarantine passed fairly easily. My classes through the Danish program had shifted online, and my week was filled with meetings as our class finished a group project.
A combination of jet lag and anxiety would wake me up anywhere between 3:30 and 5:30 a.m., and I would continue working on my part of the project.
Typically, I worked 16-hour days, taking breaks only to eat and check in with the others in my group. This consumed my mind and narrowed my focus as I finished the first week.
The second week was more difficult. By the end of Day 9, I felt restless and directionless. I had energy but nothing to put it toward. I paced my room.
I felt unproductive, and I felt guilty, watching other photojournalists cover COVID-19 as I sat on my bed.
Then I felt guilty for feeling guilty, knowing that my quarantine was keeping others safe and staying in my room was far from the hardest thing COVID-19 has caused.
Perhaps the biggest salvation was being able to go outside. I live in the country and could use my backyard or walk to the nearby pond without the risk or fear of meeting someone else.
For the first time in years, I walked in the yard without shoes, appreciating the cold squish of mud around my toes. For the first time in my life, I sat cross-legged in the sun and did breathing exercises to the voice of a guided meditation app.
Once a day, I took the dogs to the pond for a swim or a walk around a paved loop by our house. My mother and younger brother would often join me, and I would walk on the opposite side of the road, the dogs bouncing back and forth between us like pinballs.
As my quarantine came to an “end,” little changed. Missouri is under a statewide stay-at-home order, an important step in limiting the spread of COVID-19 and flattening the curve.
I knew this, and yet there was a part of me that thought, illogically, that once my 14 days were over, everything would return to normal. I had done the same thing on the plane from Denmark — I convinced myself that once I returned to the U.S., I would be able to live my life as I did before.
I suppose these are the tricks I played on myself to remain hopeful, self-centered as those thoughts may have been.
This quarantine, this pandemic, is not just happening to me. It is happening to all of us. When talking with friends and family, over the phone or video chat, we find it difficult to talk about anything other than COVID-19.
It is an experience that, in one way or another, is shared. And that makes self-isolation a little less isolating.
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