I really miss jeans. Specifically my favorite pair: dark washed, with two big pockets in the back, three brass buttons down the front, and a cropped flare on each leg. I haven’t worn them since March—it’s now June.
They were the pants I wore on my first day of freshman year only a few short months ago. It was a bit of a struggle to pull them on that day—the material was still coarse and stiff, not yet worn enough to recognize the shape of my body. My now favorite jeans were then new and uncomfortable. But so was starting college.
Soon those pants came to know the cool metal chairs on Locust Walk and the stickiness of frat-house couches. They were stained by coffee in Stommons and crumbs of dining hall food. They suffered my clammy hands nervously wiping them during midterms. They were softened by their routine Friday morning washing in the Quad laundry room. My jeans fit comfortably pretty quickly, but my adjustment to the foreignness of college took some time.
Penn was especially overwhelming at first, charged with a kind of kinetic energy that was simultaneously inspiring yet pressuring. Everyone seemed to be in constant motion: running to class, to a club meeting, to finish a project, to an interview. I felt—and still feel—pressured to accomplish and propel myself forward, succumbing to the grind culture and irrationally fearing mediocrity and failure. My existentialist nature became heightened, my thoughts often interrupted by the nagging question: am I doing enough?
I tried to focus more on the little accomplishments, like getting dressed in the morning—actually picking out an outfit instead of stumbling out of bed and heading straight to class like I wanted to. That simple action felt like an affirmation. I felt that if I looked somewhat put together, then I was put together. Dressing up to greet the day felt like a prophetic declaration, an attempt to predetermine that the day would be productive and exciting since I got ready for it.
It was specifically opting for a pair of pants that weren’t sweats or leggings that had this effect. There’s just something about a crisp pair of jeans that makes you feel like a person—this subtle sense of accomplishment and relief that comes with peeling them off at the end of a long day.
But I haven’t worn a pair of jeans in four months now.
They’ve sat in my closet at home collecting dust since March when I joined the exodus of students from Penn due to COVID-19, moving out of my dorm room in what felt like a panicked fever-dream. It was surreal: the end of my freshman year was prematurely delivered and traumatically disfigured by a global pandemic.
The days of strolling down Locust with my headphones in—heading to meet friends for lunch or to grab Windex from CVS or to a study session in Van Pelt—feel like a lifetime ago. The only places I go now are my bed, my desk, the kitchen and back again. Last week was the first time in months I saw a friend’s face in person—albeit 6 feet away—and not floating pixelated on a computer screen. I rarely leave my house aside from runs and sanity walks. Baggy sweatpants and oversized sweatshirts have become my quarantine uniform.
It’s a disheveled look, but that’s precisely how I feel: haggard, unmoored and saddened by the chaos of everything. Recently I’ve been looking at a lot of old pictures and videos, drowning myself in some of my favorite memories to compensate for the ones I feel have been stolen from me: the freshman Spring Fling I’ll never have, the long goodbye hugs I didn’t get to give my favorite seniors, the euphoria of actually handing in my last final of the year, the slow and bittersweet pack-up of my dorm room.
I’ve been doing a lot of daydreaming, trying to imagine what those moments would have looked like. But these attempts often leave me feeling unfulfilled and helpless. I can’t change the past. And I feel guilty for getting upset over losses that feel so trivial and unimportant against the backdrop of the world’s current catastrophic state.
Imagining the future is equally unsettling: it looms with tremendous uncertainty and is clouded by an extremely demoralizing and devastating reality. I long for a sense of stability and normalcy, to go back to my routine and resume this new chapter of my life, to wear my favorite jeans again.
But returning to the “normal” of the past may no longer be possible. I have no clue what else the future may hold. Though this scares me, I’m trying to be hopeful, to search for some silver linings. Perhaps this time isn’t a pause, but a reset. Perhaps we will emerge from this experience refreshed and eager to start anew. Perhaps we will be more appreciative of the simple mundanities in life, like grabbing coffee with a friend and getting dressed in the morning. Perhaps our generation, indoctrinated with perfectionist tendencies, will learn to be kinder to ourselves about being “productive.” Perhaps we will be kinder to each other and prioritize making in-person connections over virtual ones. At most, perhaps we will learn that as much as we may try to be in control, sometimes things—like my freshman year of college—just don’t go as planned.