March 30, 2021

ONONYE | Creating Connections, Mask Edition

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Last week, I thought I saw one of my good friends in Zeus. By good, I mean actually good. We were in the same new member class for our law fraternity, we currently sit on an E-board together and he’s a great mentor to my younger brother. But, I ended up waving at a stranger whose confused face confirmed that he was not my friend, which prompted me to scramble into a seat hoping that no one around me saw the awkward interaction. I proceeded to text my friend to tell him about the horrific moment. 

Confusing a stranger with my good friend is just another example of the awkwardness that is masked interactions. Over a year into the pandemic, wearing a mask has become second nature to me. They aren’t uncomfortable even when I’m running on the treadmill in Noyes and they’ve forced me to keep up with my laundry so that I always have a clean mask to wear. They have become second nature to the point that watching pre-pandemic shows with characters not wearing masks makes me uncomfortable. 

However, masks have made it nearly impossible for me to recognize my friends on campus. While writing this article in the Uris Cocktail Lounge, I had to text a different good friend to confirm that she wasn’t the person sitting two seats away from me. To the probable horror of the “not-friend” I looked at her side profile way too many times before getting a text from my actual friend that she was not in the library. This was even funnier because that friend previously admitted that she walked past me twice a few weeks ago trying to make sure that I was the person she thought I was before coming to say hi. 

I can’t blame masks completely for these awkward encounters. I should be able to recognize my friends regardless of whether or not they are wearing masks. However, the truth is the pandemic has completely changed the way that most students on campus relate to one another. Although I’m in Ithaca, the only people that I really see on campus are my little brother and my immediate friend group. It feels like I’m connected to the other students on campus, but truthfully I see them a lot more often on Zoom than I do in person. 

Although I talk to her multiple times a day, my best friend on campus hasn’t actually been “on campus” since last March. However, between E-board meetings, catch-ups and ranting about homework, it feels like she’s been here in the same way that my other friends who live just a dorm away from me are. Walking to central campus the other day, I saw a good friend who has been in Ithaca the entire year, but who I hadn’t seen since a party the week before campus closed down last March. However, I see her on Zoom calls and social media almost weekly and it took us a few minutes into the conversation to realize that we hadn’t actually seen each other in-person since campus reopened. 

If this was a “normal” school year (to my slight embarrassment!), I would’ve seen that friend at least once a week at a frat party or at a friend’s birthday dinner. All this to say, the pandemic has made it hard to make in-person connections with my casual friends. The friends that I only saw at parties. The semester-long friends that looked over my essays and sent me notes when I missed a lecture. The friends who I knew were always in Libe Café and served as a necessary interruption to in-depth study sessions. The friends who I only saw weekly at chapter and G-body meetings. The friends who were my close friends’ friends. The friends that I don’t schedule to see, but who were always just around. 

We relate to people differently now. I wave at random strangers hoping that they’re the right person, because there’s so many people that I haven’t physically seen in over a year. And when I do see them, they look different than they did a year ago. They’ve cut their hair (or dyed it!), they’re wearing sweatpants instead of dresses (or the other way around) and I hope that I can get their faces right just by knowing what their eyes look like. And when I do get them right, I am way too excited to connect with a friend I haven’t seen, wondering when will be the next time that I can hug them or share a meal. 

Most of my columns finish with an assertive matter-of-fact ending or with a call to action. But, I can’t think of a perfect way to end this one except to say that I am praying (literally) that the days for meaningful in person interactions return. I’m hoping that my casual friends haven’t forgotten me and I’m encouraging you to wave at random strangers in the hope that they’re either a friend you haven’t seen in awhile or that they force you to text that friend out of embarrassment. 

Anuli Ononye is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at aononye@cornellsun.com. Womansplaining runs every other Wednesday this semester.