By Nov. 3, 2016, Wrigley Field’s drought was over, and my sister had ventured a whopping 15 minutes from home to the University of Chicago to study something called “molecular engineering.” I was on my own in high school now, technically, which was almost liberating. I was also up next to get into a fancy college, and that was not as liberating. Going into high school, I knew the games were over, but I still kept up my charade for as long as possible. I wanted to maintain the illusion that I had a sense of wonder, not that I could take a test.
A few days after the World Series concluded, I knocked on the already-open door to Mr. Carlsson’s math classroom once Period B ended. Like most teachers I had known, he wore glasses, but behind those glasses, he squinted a bit, causing creases to appear in his caramel skin next to his eyes when he smiled. I took this as a comforting indication that he was glad to see me. Then, I stared at the second-order derivatives and early transcendental functions on the blackboard like a deer facing headlights. Little did I know that courses I’d take in the near future would make that look like child’s play. I made conversation with Mr. Carlsson, and he kindly interacted with me as I eventually got around to asking for his five-by-five Rubik’s cube to play with over the weekend. After solving the four-by-four, it seemed like the next logical step, and he was the only person I knew who had such a cube.
“Rumor has it they’ll cancel class tomorrow because of the parade,” I said on the way out.
“They’re not going to do that, Matthew.” There was a tinge of dismissal in his tone. He knew better than I did.
Just when I got home from rowing practice, they called it. I knew it. Even though I detest the Cubs, they were good for something on that day. Finally, a day to get a breath in.
On Dec. 6, 2019, I reclined in the shotgun of that same Volvo XC90 from the past 15 years or so, cruising across that same asphalt of Lake Shore Drive with my father in the driver’s seat. For a moment, I saw a flash of joyful youth — that time in sixth grade when he let me pull the gear selector into Tiptronic mode, and we zipped across the coast with a higher velocity than we’d regularly deem permissible. Then the Haze came right back.
The Haze had controlled my life for the past year and a half. Something had happened to me, a split in my mind, and I couldn’t tell why I had the sensation that I was watching a film through my eyes. The days unfolded as I watched myself act as an external character in my story. So, I tried to snap out of it, as if I could, and craned my neck to look at the water of Lake Michigan through the window for the umpteenth time, wave after wave. It is supposed to calm the mind, but somehow the majesty was gone still. I readjusted my position in the seat, wondering why everyone was looking at me funny earlier in the school hallways.
“Big day today, huh?” a classmate said to me during physics class. Big day? What does that mean? At T-minus two hours, my friend called me. “It’s decision day, you idiot.” I assumed she was referring to college admissions, and she was.
The remaining time stretched out in a seemingly endless expanse. The dread covered me like an aggressive species of slime mold, and I had to distract myself from the asymmetry of time. Xbox? Sure. I pulled up some music on my phone and then eventually got up to sit at the dining room table. Somehow, in its mysterious way, reality knocked on the door of my consciousness when the time came. Face your fate. I just felt something that I’ll never be able to explain, and I was right when I looked at my wristwatch. Mechanically, I lifted my face up and out from my palms, cut the Piano Guys track on my phone and got up from the dining room table to ascend the stairs with a gait straight from “The Green Mile.”
I dropped into the proverbial electric chair at my cramped, squalid desk and logged into my email on my computer. Like a drop of tree sap, the clock turned from 6 p.m. to 6:01 p.m. Nothing came. I took matters into my own hands and hastily logged in to the Stanford admissions portal. The first word: “Congratulations!” Nothing else mattered. Sunny California. Say hello to a world of sandstone architecture, a cappella and all-nighters with new friends.
Looking back, the irony is cruel and obvious. One broad lesson apparent in this moment is that many cherished activities and traditions are on hold, and this can make that time feel lost. But I’m 19, so my perspective is limited, and maybe there is more to life than the jihadism, financial disarray and public health crises that I have seen from afar. It is not out of the realm of possibilities that I am being liquified like a caterpillar and transformed into something that seems more sophisticated. Then, I’ll be back to the human being I was always supposed to be.
When I was nearing the end of my time in high school, I used the metaphor of a prison sentence to get me through it. I expected that eventually my “sentence” would be over one day then I would be “free” to explore a new stage of life. When it settled in that this might not happen, my metaphor became useless because the sentence was indefinite. Instead of passively waiting for time to expire, I had to get up and try to engage with events in my life even if there wasn’t the sensation that I’d left the prison. Even if there was the sensation that I was being left behind.
As the world appears to recede, I reflect on the proposition that I may be an entirely different person from that middle schooler who lived in a comparatively chipper state, considering the golem I’ve become, increasingly so over the past months. This pandemic took the light I still had somewhere in me, put it out and then taunted me with the strongest conviction that it would never come back. I started to believe that I was a creature designed to continue to function, continue to write, to create and to live — but each day, each part of my body was slowly replaced with an artificial or mechanical part to the point where I am only a miscellany of engines and gears.
And every time my parents attempt to cheer me up, I imagine myself behind a plexiglass partition at a prison, talking to them through one of those old-fashioned corded phones that I don’t have a name for. “You’ll be up for parole again soon, my son, and next time you’ll be released,” my father says. “It’s all making you stronger.”
Suddenly, I recall that infuriating line from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”: “Sweet are the uses of adversity.”