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At my first in-person reading event in two years, I realized I was suddenly at a loss of what to do in the campus garden, waiting to absorb our professor’s new work. Should I smile? Make eye contact? Introduce myself to the person next to me like I’m seconds away from communion wafers?
Instead, my feet twitched nervously as I watched everyone pile into picnic tables, spilling into the sunlight. Mr. Cleates stood perfectly off-center from us, thumbing through a mix of printed pages and magazines, laughing whenever a loose comment burbled up.
He was just as I remembered before quarantine stole us all away, although his stern gaze seemed softer, his smile lighter, lifted from the weight of constant commuting. He wore quarantine well. He would spot a familiar, ex-student and break into a grin, happy we’d made our way here from different states, midterm schedules, and hectic deadlines.
“You’ve got this Mr. Cleates!” my roommate, Alice, shouted playfully next to me. Instinctively, I wanted to jab her in the ribs, to murmur that you shouldn’t yell at a reading, only nod. Don’t clap, only finger-snapping. But in return, other students whooped in encouragement.
I let my guard down, my shoulders relaxing. Mr. Cleates laughed, announcing the title of his first story. He quipped back at a student in the front row, pointed at another, and slowly I understood this reading for what it truly was.
One by one, I recognized the faces that were once tiny pixels in their own corners of the virtual universe. In one moment, we’d gone from a maze of Zoom grids fiddling with mute buttons and spotty Wi-Fi, to feeling the same Santa Fe breeze together. Shaded beneath blocky sunglasses, a student I’d only known in quarantine now sat across from me as a living, breathing person. He hadn’t been the two-dimensional picture dotting my screen. He was here, he had made it; just like everyone else. Sure, there were others I never met. Some were entirely new faces like Alice. Still, others were ones I’d known pre-quarantine and after, as if it was just a blip on our radar.
Mr. Cleates shuffled his papers, clearing his throat. “Alright,” he smiled. “I guess it’s about time I begin now, ain’t it?”
Just like that, he began. His voice filled our little nook, and we all breathed in quiet relief, happy to absorb the writing of one of our own. This is what we’d been waiting for in the silence of quarantine. We’d been waiting for each other’s voices to rekindle the magic buried in our own words. We were stuck in pandemic stasis behind firewalls and viruses waiting to be relit once again. Now, listening to him, it made sense why we’ve been able to come back time after time from the ache of history.
It was our staying power. Whether we sang, painted, or wrote our way through it, our staying power only magnified until the day it brought us together again.
Brianna G. Reed is a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
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