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Lessons from Loneliness and a Laptop Screen -- creative nonfiction from Ella Mask

At school, I thought I had friends. We bent our heads together and checked to make sure no one could hear, swapped gossip and first kiss stories and nightmare dates, snickered when the chemistry teacher called out “the ladies in the back row.” But I knew, deep down, my smiles were hollow. I sat on the outskirts of the conversation and nodded along when they wanted me to, pursed my lips when they shared something sad. I floated between care that made my chest ache and indifference that numbed my tongue, suspended in friendships to be the role of the stress ball.

I guess I played it too well, because they bent me, molded me in their hands, and built me into a shape I didn’t recognize.

I became familiar with loneliness. It had a sour flavor, like sucking on a spoiled lollipop, that coated my throat as the glow of my feed illuminated my dark bedroom. Eventually my scrolling thumb got tired, but I kept looking at the Friday night parties, the Saturday dances, the Sunday brunches, and, like a masochist, stayed in bed and in my own misery.

Sitting at the lunch table, pushing my cardboard hamburger around the cafeteria tray, the conversation swirled around me and settled in my lap. I didn’t bother adding to it. When the bell rang, I dumped my burger in the trash and trailed at the group's heels as we walked to geography. Ms. Fitz explained globalization, they whispered about boy drama, and I found a mole on my wrist that looked suspiciously like Australia. I studied my arm, ears burning, and tried to swallow the sour taste in my mouth.

The days trudged on, with only the changing seasons to break up chapters of the same routine. March started the same way—but then, with a bang, the school doors slammed shut and the laptops swung open.

Most of my friends were excited for two weeks off, but those promised weeks tumbled into months, and the routine began: roll out of bed, log into a lecture in my pajamas, mute the mic, and watch the minutes tick down while my mind was somewhere—anywhere but here. I stared at squares on the screen, windows into my friends’ homes, burning their couches and tables into my memory.

Those friends slipped from my grasp. I reached for a hand to hold and clasped air. Months of staring at video calls tattooed the backs of my eyelids. I saw the girls I bumped shoulders with, saw flashes of their lives through the camera, the size of a thumbnail on my screen. I wanted to cut up those snippets, snapshots of lives I used to be a part of, before we went from talking five days a week to never at all.

An ache thrummed in my chest, stretched my skin tight, pounded at the base of my skull. The cavern in my heart yawned wide, cracking open further each time I took a rattling breath. The air was too thin, too stifling, in my room. My lungs shuddered at the effort. I yearned for that fake closeness, those manufactured smiles and looks, but maybe it was all real. Maybe I did love them—or maybe I loved the idea of being with someone, to carry this burden with me.

I turned off the camera and cried.

In the space between night and morning, a gap I knew intimately well, I imagined telling those girls about my problems. Maybe they could lift my load before my knees hit the ground. I texted the group chat once—but this was all wrong. Their stress ball shouldn’t have a mouth. They never responded, and I never tried again.

Time bled on sluggishly. The school year finished and warm weather filtered through the window. The sun knocked on my door; I didn’t answer. What good was summer break if there was no one to share it with?

I ate an ice cream cone on an empty playground, back pressing against the slide and toes sifting through the sandpit. I’d become familiar with being alone; the ache constantly hummed between my ribs, but it didn’t pang as sharp as before.

This is what I learned about losing friends: some days, I’d do anything to be at that lunch table again, uncomfortably aware I did not belong, but trying to prove myself anyway. When we returned to school, masks on and head down, I made eye contact with their cluster. A quirk of my eyebrow said, Don’t you remember me?

Maybe my telepathic waves were too desperate. All of them turned away and stared out the window lazily, like I’d be a smudged memory if they looked at me again.

During quarantine, did anyone miss me at all?

After passing our old table and seeing my seat had been replaced, I got my answer. I dug my nails into the foam cafeteria tray so I wouldn’t splatter the applesauce cup down my shirt, breathed in one two three four, and ate lunch in the bathroom stall.

When that loneliness came crawling back, dark and reeking of desperation, part of me wanted to be their stress ball again. Surround myself with talking bobbleheads like nothing had changed since the pandemic started. But really, there was no returning to what once was.

Now I see that nothing has stayed the same, and that is everything.

In the two years since Covid-19 began, I’ve shed my stress ball skin, the one I shrugged on without complaint, the role I played to perfection. I’m re-molding myself into something new. I’m not doing it alone—I’ve found new friends, people who will take me as I am and love me regardless. They taught me solitude becomes so much sweeter when it is chosen, but the sweetest taste is turning to them instead.

A lifetime ago, it seems, I was the girl in quarantine. Boxed into the corners of my bedroom, watching life drain away like my laptop battery. Some days, it’s easy to shut myself in like quarantine never ended, back when my loneliness seemed to define me. But in the years-long whirlwind of sickness and self-isolation, this is what I learned: my greatest healing has come from reaching out and loving again.


Ella Mask is a high school senior who loves to write and doesn't ever plan on stopping. Her proudest accomplishments include: Finalist in the New York Times Student Editorial Contest and Essay National Qualifier in the National History Day Competition. She is also published in Cathartic Youth Literary Magazine. When Ella isn't staring down an empty Google Doc, she's probably petting her cat, taking pictures of the sunset, or hanging out with her best friend.

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