Sheets of tears erupted from the sky, which had blossomed with sunlight and birdsong just minutes ago. The tears thudded onto my umbrella, which matched the ominous grey clouds. It would be my first time in a year meeting my friend Zoey in person, and it was already going terribly. I should have expected this. Such sudden storms uncannily mirrored the year's turbulent events and emotions. Gusts of wind whipped against my shins, reality seeping into my skin: the weather was the least of my worries.
My thoughts invaded by the ongoing global pandemic, I realised I'd forgotten my mask. Even after seven months of social distancing regulations, I struggled to recall this simple action, splayed over bus stop billboards and hammered into my eardrums by train station announcements. I wished for the wind to whisk me away, the rain to shroud me from my own fear and shame. Still, I hurried on to arrive punctually for lunch. Much like the virus, I didn't want to miss any opportunity for human interaction.
My shoes splashing in puddles along the lone asphalt road, I neared the mall entrance where Zoey stood. We refrained from embracing, our parents' nagging and the threat of the virus clouding our minds. Yet my heart was dancing in my chest. The virus, which had driven an invisible wedge between so many, had finally brought us together.
"Hey. How have you been?" Zoey's smile hadn't changed. Her eyes were more stunning than in her social media posts -- the centre of our online conversations. I tried to squeeze a compliment from my throat, only for the muscles twist and spasm. The only muscles I'd really been exercising were in my fingers, with all the electronic devices I operated daily.
"Hi..." My lips formed the words haltingly. Cold sweat collected under the disposable mask I'd bought from the convenience store. It was still the two of us walking to the same mall we gathered at every year, but somehow so different. It seemed unreal, like a contrived, forbidden moment. Usually, there wouldn't be a spare second of silence, especially with all the gossip we brought from our respective secondary schools.
But this new emotional distance made sense, considering I'd spent most of 2020 with stacks of textbooks and my glaring computer screen containing humans composed of pixels. Zoey had probably done the same. I'd detested Zoom lessons full of chattering teenagers. However, after many voluntarily muted themselves during home-based classes, I felt a strange emptiness. Online classrooms just didn't have the vibrancy I'd always known. Staring at the grid of profile pictures on my screen, I wondered what the users behind the cameras were doing, and how they felt being on the same network when cooped up in different homes.
These thoughts made our present awkwardness even more palpable. Anxious to dispel it, I rushed towards Zoey, slipping through the transparent sliding doors.
"Miss!" A sharp voice made me snap to my senses. I froze, whirling around. "Miss! Please scan the SafeEntry QR code!" I noticed shoppers aiming their phones towards the posters on the doors. There weren't as many shoppers compared to the pre-pandemic period, yet I felt a resigned solidarity, the same solidarity found among all those scanning the QR code outside buildings. Solidarity stemming from a prior agreement to using your information to map out a national network of COVID cases. The government made links between clusters to single out people to be tested and quarantined. Though I recognised the importance of contact tracing, I scorned the inconvenience and irony of this measure.
Alternating chairs lining the tables in the food court were marred with crosses, formed from striped yellow and black tape. The same tape snaked across the bench seats against the walls, taking the shape of imposing fences, barriers we were forbidden from crossing. A place containing the crux of our childhood memories had become foreign overnight. Dim lighting cast a long shadow over the facades of the stalls, as if in slumber. The soup stall was one of the few left open.
We picked a table covered with the least tape. I devoured my rice and soup, while Zoey picked at hers, eyes straying towards her handphone ever so often. Besides the beeping of robots plying the aisles, all I heard was the air conditioning unit whirring above us. The uncomfortable stagnancy weighing on me, I rummaged my mind for conversation topics, hoping for just the right degree of lighthearted wit to pique Zoey's interest. But long periods of being at home alone in front of a screen had suddenly paralysed me. I'd developed an acute awareness of others' prying eyes and judgmental ears, how naturally my personality was conveyed. Speak, Hasel. Interact like you used to. I set the chopsticks down on the ceramic bowl, trying to relax. "Have you been enjoying the holidays?"
"Well..." Zoey cleared her throat. "I'm glad to take a break from studying. COVID hit hard, you know?" I nodded, expecting her to launch into an animated reenactment of her adventures, like she always did. But she simply nibbled another carrot, before grabbing her marble phone casing and swiping its glass screen. My exasperation rose. Of course. She wouldn't need to utter a word when relying on Instagram to parade every detail of her life since the pandemic. Nowadays, such a gigantic portion of our time was spent staring into the voids of screens, not only eating into our mealtimes, but also our time with others. Here Zoey and I sat, eating the same dish at the same table, yet hurtling down two different trains of thought. We could barely recognise or speak to each other anymore. Was this the "societal advancement" catalysed by the virus, the vortex I was powerless to stop?
Lightning cracked like whips across the sky, followed by low growls of thunder. I took another long sip of the soup. It had lost its flavour and turned inexplicably cold.