The Distance Between Us

Togetherness became all the more precious in the safe spaces we created for ourselves.

Author: Alysa Guffey

Before I jump in the car, I text my friend a question: “The usual?”

He speedily replies: “Of course!”

I pull out of my driveway and began down the familiar road outside of my house. I make two right turns and, in under three minutes, I arrive at my neighborhood Starbucks. When I reach the speaker box, I say, “Two grande vanilla sweet cream cold brews, please.” I know the total will be $8.62 well before I reach the window.

Now with two delicious coffees in my possession, I text my friend that I will be there in 10. Once I arrive at his house, we sit on the back porch. It is a sunny day in April 2020. We talk about our families and online classes as the birds chirp around us. Naturally, the conversation leads to a discussion of the ravaging virus. When the tone shifts to a more serious one, the birds do not take the hint.

My friend has both Lyme disease and hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the brain, making him immunocompromised and at higher risk if he contracts COVID-19. As a result, he has to be much more careful than many of our counterparts. Even outside, he insists we sit six feet apart. I don’t mind. For the next three months, we make it a reoccurrence to have an outside coffee hang about every two weeks. Each time I visit, the tall trees forge an oasis from the world.

Prior to the pandemic, we would ritually plan coffee dates and talk about our lives. We would share both the notable and trivial details of everyday encounters. Our topics of conversation shifted, as we graduated from high school and went off to separate schools — me to Notre Dame, him to Indiana University. While the content of our conversations changed, the pleasure never wavered.

We share a love for coffee shops. For the sights and smells of the room. For the joyful orderliness of the place, with people either working away or catching up with a friend. When the world upended, we had to find a substitute. And we did.

When we came home for winter break later that year, we replaced our iced coffees with steaming lattes to account for the freezing Indianapolis weather. I had never fully appreciated a good bonfire until experiencing outdoor December visits during a pandemic.

Guffy Covid Essay
The author, left, and her roommate sophomore year, when the space was restricted only to themselves.

In August 2020, I moved into my dorm room for sophomore year — room 349. After living with a random roommate freshman year, I was now living with my best friend. We secured a double in Breen-Phillips Hall. At 180 square feet, the room was just slightly larger than my room the previous year. We quickly settled into the new school year.

Two weeks later, our classes had gone entirely virtual as Notre Dame shut down in-person instruction for two weeks. Our room for relaxation and sleep had turned into our constant classroom. It seemed that at least one of us was on Zoom at any given time.

The entirety of the year, we were unable to have visitors, per the University’s health and safety policies. The room was meant for two to live in, but for many more to visit and socialize. But that year, we reserved the space for only ourselves, sharing both late night chats and Saturday morning brunch from takeout boxes.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, we were both sent to quarantine as close contacts.

Even then, we were in it together, side by side. We trudged our way to the testing center, dragging our suitcases through the fresh snow on the ground. We rode in the same van to the Holiday Inn. However, we were eventually split up and given different hotel rooms.

We never tested positive and were therefore sent back to B-P 349 after five days. I’d like to think our room missed us during that week.

It was the last night of the fall 2020 semester. We were going home the next day. The last time we had left campus for a break, we didn’t return for five months.

After saying goodbye to a few others, a good friend and I laid on the McGlinn fields on an unseasonably nice November night. The vast green area had been the site of numerous soccer games and picnic dinners throughout the semester, but that night, we just looked up at the sky.

Having just finished our finals, we were exhausted. Earlier in the night we had a few beers, but as the clock reached the a.m., we didn’t even have the energy left to drink. Instead, we took a moment to enjoy the peace.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had watched clouds, but soon, my friend trapped me in a cloud-spotting challenge. The clouds moved fast that night while the time ticked slowly, allowing us to soak up the final hours of our third semester of college.

We talked about how crazy life had been that semester, how we hadn’t known what to expect when we returned to campus.

The future still seems so uncertain, I said.

I wouldn’t worry about it, he responded.

I would see him the next week as we only lived about five minutes apart. The night wasn’t a goodbye to each other, but rather to the previous 16 weeks.

We finally said goodnight at 5:30 a.m. It didn’t feel late enough.

It didn’t matter where I was with my friends. The back porch. The double. The field. We were safe — in a world where safety had become a rarity — and together. And that was all we could have wanted.

Rising senior Alysa Guffey, the editor-in-chief of The Observer, will be a South Bend Tribune intern this summer.