Luna the cat

Emma Spicknall left home to finish college in a brand-new city just as COVID hit. Here, the University of Baltimore senior recounts her youthful year in quarantine. This is her first published essay.

I have always found comfort in the quiet moments of life. Life is what happens to us between cacophony and noise. I grew up in Southern Maryland on a pocket of farmland dwarfed on every side by metropolitan centers. I took my driver’s test on a road with pitched signs that warned to watch for horses and buggies crossing the road, quaint silhouettes on cautious yellow. Traveling to the mall necessitated an entire day of planning, and “public transportation” was a ghost of a phrase that died without so much as a whimper.

Years before I was born, my parents sought the same silence I later would. But practicality begets unconventionality with every new generation. In late 2019, at the age of 24, I made the decision to move out of my parents’ house to attend university and gain some semblance of independence. Relocation was more out of necessity than anything else: It was too far to drive to Baltimore every day, to pass the chicken farms and schooners on the Bay and transform them into city concrete in my vision. But I was ready for it, I decided, to change my definition of life from passive to active verb.

I scooped my cat, Luna, up in my arms and took off. I was amazed by things in the city that no one else seemed to notice. Perspectives are shaped by the sounds that played when you were born. As a small child, thunder terrified me because my life was so still.

I learned that the roads don’t sleep. Every night, when I looked out my window, there were more pins of light on the ground in headlights than there were in the sky. The stars I watched every night as a child were kept hidden behind the eternal glow of light pollution. Silence became a commodity to be bought and paid for with insulated apartments and brick walls.

If you’ve never lived alone, it can be difficult to explain just how alienating it can be, especially as a single woman. Hearing the constant thrum of city life outside was disorienting; realizing I’d have to fill the silence inside was crushing. I took to talking to myself, Luna my partner in every scene.

But as I grew used to it, the steady drumbeats of Baltimore’s heart, punctuated by the arrhythmia of sirens and the basslines of music in passing cars, kept me grounded. There was new noise in my life, in curves that I imagined in different depths, up and down like the waves of the Chesapeake. With the backdrop of noise, life was something I did, not something I had to find.

I created a new routine within the noise. I would start my day with the whistling of my kettle to make coffee. In the evening, I’d light a candle, the wooden wick crackling and burning; my father, a heavy smoker in his young adult years, was too sensitive to sweet aromas for me to do so at home. Fire on a vanilla candle was my act of rebellion and growth.

My driver’s test was a moot achievement in a sprawling city center with everything I could ever need within walking distance. One afternoon, on a whim, I walked to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, called by the rolling waves. It was nerve-wracking at first. I have never been the kind of person to travel alone. But Baltimore has a way of easing the heart, of washing away the last vestiges of anxiety. I remember a woman complimenting my hat, a silly bright-green knit of Kermit the Frog that didn’t fit anything in my wardrobe. I thanked her, and the smile she gave me was a mirror image of my own.

I sat on the concrete steps and listened to the gusts of wind rolling in the tides. I could visit the aquarium, take myself on a shopping spree, or study at a café. I had no particular place to be. Spontaneity meant freedom.

Then the coronavirus hit, and the city’s music flatlined.

Baltimore became a very different city almost instantaneously. Everything turned into familiar quiet. I’d pull open the blinds at 2 a.m. on sleepless nights and look out from several floors up to see two cars where there were 20 before. They idled at the stoplights, waiting for the signal to change, the exhaust pipes coughing with the last gasp of the city’s normal pulse. Like modern horse and buggies crossing along a highway: slow and meandering, surrounded by high rises and apartment complexes, displaced and alone in time.

I watched the city change from behind that apartment window, coffee cup in hand and Luna’s tail swishing next to me. The lights that danced in front of her eyes from her bird’s-eye view have disappeared. Sometimes she’ll butt her head against my arm, asking me where her entertainment has gone.

Even she seems lonely, with only me to answer her. I’ve called my parents on speaker so we can both hear someone else’s voice, small talk to ease my uneasy new life. As a child, I was never comfortable with phone calls. The distance between each end seemed too big a gap to bridge. I’ve gotten used to it now, a skill honed by necessity.

“Mom,” I said once, “it’s been a while. How are you?”

“Same old, same old. But it’s good to hear your voice,” she told me. “Have you been okay? What have you been up to lately?”

“I’m fine,” I said, as my fingers clenched around my phone. It was still jarring for me to remember that only Luna was in my orbit, that my daily events were something to be reported rather than experienced. “Tell me what you’ve been up to.”

“Stuck without anywhere to go.” She laughed, a self-deprecating sound. Isolation, like the comfort of quiet, runs in the family.

I’ve become more familiar with how Baltimore looks behind glass. My own aquarium, a space I’ve decorated to make the limits of my world seem less constricting. I am fortunate, I know, to observe the city from comfort and safety. These days, we must find hope in the moments of silence between catastrophe.

There’s a billboard facing my window. It changes every so often. I’ve taken to judging the change of months by the new messages. It’s been about a year now, and it’s hard to recall every one of them, but from my glass fishbowl, one remains in my memory. We Miss You, the Baltimore Aquarium said. A fish beckoned me back, a lovelorn message from a distant sea. Is it possible to miss a place I’ve hardly ever known?

Yes, I decide, as I press play on a video of cityscape sounds to fill the empty air. It is.