Day 27 of 121: Virtual Birthday Party
By Luna Laliberte
I turn 21 today. I’ll be hosting my own party via three services. Those that want to come couldn’t choose between FaceTime, Skype, and WhatsApp, so I decided to just do all three. I wish we could have my party in-person, but we aren’t allowed to do things in-person anymore. Everything is virtual now. And for good reason, I suppose.
I pull on the string that turns on the only light in the room. The fan starts turning. The room is still dark, the corners sheathed in shadows, but I figure that if I open the blinds for the window, I’ll have enough light that I can show up on screen. The rest I do from habit. I set up my plastic chair next to my desk, connect my laptop and phone to their chargers and set up a glass of ice water to the side of my desktop. I spend the last few minutes arranging things around the room. I shift the Game Gyaru poster out of Trinity celtic knot I got from Ireland closer to my display. My square is sparse, just a table,a bed, and some kitchen counter space. But it’s my square, so I do what I can to liven it up a little. I make sure my hair is parted to the right, and that my lipstick is pink enough to look natural, but not too pink as to draw attention. I undo the first three buttons of my white blouse, then do them back up, then decide to just keep the first undone. My phone buzzes with my alarm for 3PM. It’s time.
I connect to Facetime on my iMac, Skype from my laptop, and WhatsApp on my phone. Set up is routine. My birthday, March 17, falls right in the middle of the worst season. Social distancing is at its worst – or best, I guess – during the months of February to May. Everyone over the age of 18 and not married lives alone during this time. They say it’s the best way to keep everyone safe. So, we do it. I glance around my government mandat
ed quarantine square, at the white walls, white bed sheets, white kitchen counters. White chairs, white desk, white fridge. White is easiest to spot dirt. White won’t lose color when you clean with bleach. White is the most common color, the preferred color. White is the color the government supports.
My mom is the first to join. She hates that we have to be apart every year now. I personally don’t think staying away from my family helps lower the spread, but I don’t want us arrested for disobeying the law. Besides, it’s not that bad. My residential square is small, but it’s enough room for me. I can hang up as many posters as I want. I can bring a small TV, and all of my computer monitors. I can play my music as loud as I want, until 11pm. So long as I pay the $650 every month on time, I can get unlimited internet. It’s usually doled out in data bytes and sold as a commodity, but my landlord’s sweet on me. In these times, you take what you can get.
My mom starts off by asking what I had for dinner, if I bought enough water to last me the next two weeks, whether or not I’d taken my supplements today, so on and so forth. It’s the same worries every time. I do what I can to reassure her, lie about my supplements – I hate swallowing pills, so I only take one per day instead of the recommended three. I haven’t noticed any difference, and we all still get sick regardless of the pills. I don’t think it really matters.
Daniel and Jon join, the two cousins closest to my age that still talk to me now that we’re older and busier. All of my family uses WhatsApp since it’s easiest to communicate with our relatives overseas. Then Sarah, my best friend from high school, cues up on Skype, and I accept her call. She invites her boyfriend Sam and another friend of theirs. I don’t know them, but I don’t deny their invitation. The more on my video call party the better. Some of my college friends, the ones I still manage to talk to after years without in-person classes, join on FaceTime. I end up with about 13 people attending my virtual birthday. It’s nice to know I have 13 people who care enough to take the time to call. Quarantining gets lonely, y’know?
Chatting is hard with this many people, but we manage. We’ve learned to take turns in our conversations. We know how to mute ourselves if we aren’t talking. We’ve arranged our house furniture to have that requisite white wall background, and we know to schedule meals around virtual chats so that we don’t chew on mic, and we know how to speak in-person quietly so as not to disturb the conversation happening on each other’s phones. Our lives have changed to accommodate the technology that both facilitates and eases the pain of our isolation.
A half hour in, I take the cupcake I bought yesterday out of the fridge. My phone is getting hot and my laptop’s fan is whirring loudly. We don’t have much time left, so my callers sing happy birthday while I sink a candle into pink frosting. About five of them glitch out on the last few notes. I close my eyes and pretend to make a wish. My family and friends clap, and it’s out of synch and clipping the audio, but I smile politely. I thank them for coming, and they thank me for hosting them, and then hang up one by one, taking time to personalize their goodbyes. My phone dings and I tap it to see I’ve gotten five new gift-cards sent to my email. One of them is $50 from my mom, and the subject reads Here you go babyg et yirswlf somthing n…
I can’t help grinning. Oh, Mom. Four years of virtual living and you still can’t type for shit. Sarah’s manicured nails call my attention back to my laptop.
“Do you got a few minutes left, hun? I’ve got some tea you’ll love to sip at,” she croons.
I touch my laptop’s keyboard. It’s definitely hot, but not burning. “I’ve got five,” I declare. “Gimme the scoop.”
Sarah leans forward as if to tell me a secret, and for a while all I can see are the pores on her nose and the perfect shine of her cherry red lip gloss. “Ohmigosh, okay, you’ll never guess this. Remember Margaret from middle school? Huge glasses, always with her nose in a book, big nerd vibes?”
I don’t. “Uh huh,” I say.
“Yeah, well, she’s with Rashawn now! Can you believe that? Never-used-a-condom-Rashawn! Gunna-join-the-Crypts-Rashawn!”
“Oh, wow.” I guess I should feel surprise, but I have this vague sense of concern that lasts for a few moments, and then nothing at all. I don’t know Margaret, and I barely remember Rashawn as that scrawny black kid all the teachers hated in high school. I don’t care much for them anymore. I can’t care for them anymore. Sarah was always better at staying connected with those we used to know.
“ExACTly!” She squeals. “I know, I can’t believe it either! It drives me crazy every time I see their Instas. You’d never think that kind of thing will happen, right? Especially not between nerd and gang reject. But it does! And, get this, and–” she leans in even closer to the camera. The only thing on screen is her neck and the small heart-shaped locket Sam got her for their first-year anniversary. “And they’re not observing self-quarantine!” she whispers-shouts.
My eyebrows rise. “That’s ballsy.”
Sarah’s face comes back into view, eyes wide and mouth open. “Um, that’s illegal. They’re, like, walking around fucking Coney Island and getting ice cream and posting about it and shit. What are they even thinking?”
I frown. “That’s stupid. It’s only a matter of time before the task force brings them in.”
“I know! They’re so dumb for posting it online, but like, it’s even dumber doing it in the first place. It’s people like them that make that Chinese virus keep coming back.”
“You mean COVID? SARS-2?” I interrupt.
“You know what I mean. Ugh, god, if only they would just stay inside and be normal like everyone else, maybe we wouldn’t have to all be inside every spring, y’know? I can’t believe it.”
Sarah keeps talking. I stare at the perfectly drawn arch of her eyebrows, at the tiny flecks of concealer peppered around her face, and I wonder. How did we become friends again? All I remember is feeling so lonely after I moved to Bay Ridge. Sarah was the first to talk to me when I transferred schools. Rebecca, the girl bully of the school, had dunked my copy of Deathly Hallows into the toilet. Sarah walked in and within seconds was fighting for me. I was mortified. I was in awe. We walked out of that bathroom covered in bites and bruises. For that year, we were inseparable.
High school was almost the same. It was only when she started step-dancing and I joined the digital art club that things began to change. She bought herself makeup, and I bought myself a drawing tablet. She went out Friday nights after rehearsals, and I stayed up late animating. I was so enamored by the way she braided her hair, so besotted with how the corners of her mouth dotted her smirks, so taken by the laughter kept in her brown eyes, that I couldn’t see us drifting apart until it was too late.
She met Sam and started dating, but I stayed single. Her parents began watching FOX news, and my mom tuned in to CNN. Sarah was accepted into Brooklyn College, and I moved on to Rutgers University. And through it all, we stayed connected, poking each other on Facebook, liking each other’s Instagram posts, and keeping SnapStreaks nearly 100 days at a time. We have each other’s back, like we always have. But now it’s from habit. It’s from having always done it and not knowing how not to do it. It’s a loyalty to routine, not to each other. Sometimes it hurts too much to think about that truth.
“Love, you hear me? You spacing out on me again?” Her voice, teasing with the slightest edge of annoyance, reigns me back in.
I flash her a sheepish grin. “Sorry Sarah, I think I’m not feeling too well. I just got my latest shipment from Whole Foods and I can’t remember if I put on gloves or not when I was putting the veggies in the fridge.”
She gasps and lays her pink acrylic nails over her lips. “Oh god, hun, you’ve got the virus, don’t you? It stays for 24 hours on cardboard! You’ve gotta be more careful baby, you could die!”
I shake my head no but fake a cough. She jumps in her seat even though we’re miles apart, as if she could somehow catch COVID through the screen. “Jesus! Please, go, go get yourself some water or fever suppressant, god. You’d think the government would have a treatment by now, but no. When will this shit end?”
I shrug. “Beats me. I just hope it’s soon. I’m going to go lay down, okay? I’ll call you later.”
“Anytime you need me, just ping, got it?” she says, narrowing her eyes at me. It’s like she’s threatening me to keep her in the loop.
I wink. “Booty call you in three days’ time?” I may not understand her anymore, but Sarah is still a joy to talk to. Just, not today.
Sarah blows me a kiss. “You got it, boo. Later, luv!” She hangs up, and I am more alone than before.
I take a deep breath. My room is stuffy. The ceiling fan is swirling the dust around the whole damn room, but stopping it means stopping the only source of air flow I have. I want to open my window, but it’s sealed shut. We aren’t allowed to open windows except for fire emergencies. Opening it means pressing the fire alarm button, and I don’t want to do that. I pick up Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, drag my chair over to the window, and settle there with a blanket, some fuzzy socks, and a cup of chamomile tea. The sun is setting. I can’t see it fall below the horizon because of the apartment complexes blocking my sight, but I can watch the colors of the sky turn from blue to pink to red to gold, and it calms me, if only for a little while. A single sheet of newspaper floats down the street, forgotten, or maybe abandoned. There is no one outside to watch.
I put my book down some time later. My head churns from reading about moths and butterflies and Cupid and Narcissus and Mary Shelley. I take a second to think, and that second turns into 20 minutes of absently scrolling through my Instagram feed. A new fad has started. Photos of hands trying to touch across screens, fingertips placed gently to match the other’s, couples all over the nation who have been separated because of the quarantine and yearn for each other’s arms. I shake my head and look outside again. To my surprise, I see two people, a man and a woman. They are the recommended 6 ft apart, but their arms are stretched to close the distance. They wear blue plastic gloves and face masks. Their pinkies are linked together. They walk in step with each other. I watch, astonished at this blatant disobedience of the law. They pass around the corner, undisturbed, but I can’t stop staring at the place they left.
I lift my hand. Nails pale, and chewed through. A charcoal stain forever on my right pinky. An impression from my digital pen on my index finger. Dry skin. Papercuts. I close my hand. No one wants to look at me. No woman will want to hold my hand. Not until we at least stop this quarantine.
I know what I want to wish for. I close my palms together as if in prayer. I wish to grasp another’s hands in mine. I wish to do it before my birthday next year. I wish that the virus goes away soon.
Born in New York City, Luna spent most of her summers tucked between the shelves of her local libraries. She moved to Camden, New Jersey, shortly after signing up to become an online homeschool learner for high school. She developed a schedule for herself, so she could work, write, study, and play. She entered college with the idea of becoming a multilingual author, and now she’s planning on graduating as a multilingual author, teacher, and media creator. She credits her explosion of creative exploration to the Rutgers Creative Writing Club. Through RCWC, she found a community of fellow novelists, poets, stand-up comedians, and memesters to talk books with, and she can’t wait to see everyone in-person again.
Luna likes to talk long walks around Passion Puddle and Voorhees Chapel on Cook/Douglas campus. She has a pet cat named Maximillian, and plenty of plot bunnies to spend her summer writing about. Luna is excited to continue her writing career and hopes to find herself being published again soon.