The little icon was teasing me, staring me down from its place on my screen.
Sitting comfortably in the corner (as if it couldn’t mock me anymore than it already was it had taken my favourite spot), companionably wedged with the pixelated red heart of Undertale to its left and the achingly familiar grass block of Minecraft below it.
My stomach turned as my phone screen lit up where it lay on the desk beside me. A mountain of notifications marked as unread covered the screen, overwhelming in its reminder of how I failed to maintain conversations.
My fingers fumble the phone, almost dropping it and I squeeze my eyes shut, desperately trying to ignore the twist in my gut and fight back the familiar wave of panic.
When I open my eyes again the three has changed to a two and my throat has gone dry.
‘Might be running a little late – kids still not in bed! Shouldn’t be more than five minutes, though’
The dreaded zoom call, planned just a week ago.
Not dreaded because of the people – no, everyone who I speak to from my course is lovely and caring and so, so understanding.
Or… I suppose it is because of the people. Because I don’t deal well with people. I never have. In a way, I just don’t understand them, I struggle to read them because I’m too focused on trying to follow the correct social etiquette, always so sure that I’m going to mess something up, become a public laughing stock.
Sure that they have formed a secret club and there will be some form of ‘social initiation’ that I will probably fail.
Though, I’m sure I’ve already failed the test seeing as though I can never bring myself to reply to the messages on the group chat.
I so desperately hope that they don’t take my constant silence on there personally. But I can’t explain it to them, I would never be able to find the words to explain how exhausting I find even the smallest amount of social interaction. Or how I could spend hours tweaking my responses to their messages, wanting to make sure that I got the right tone, wrote the right thing, hit the right joke.
How it’s just easier to silently panic over replying than it is to live in fear that I’ve said the wrong thing.
I’m sure that the Zoom icon is taunting me.
If it had eyes they would be staring right back at me, boring into my skull, reading my mind and coming up with an abundance of ways it can make me squirm.
Am I still invited to the call?
They haven’t explicitly said that I could come. Perhaps I ought to read between the lines and not turn up. Maybe they took my lack of public response on the matter as my saying that I couldn’t make it or that I wasn’t interested.
Maybe in this scenario it would simply be best to tell them that I was feeling unwell and so wouldn’t be able to join them. It would probably be a relief to them – after all, they are all a few years older than me, with real lives, real jobs and real hobbies and a real chance to take what we learn on this course to their futures.
They don’t really want me there.
My thumb hovers over the home button on my phone, ready to unlock it and open the WhatsApp chat to send a message to say I was feeling unwell.
It wouldn’t be a lie, and it wasn’t a lie either the countless times before where I had sent a message saying I was sick so couldn’t complete some of the work or couldn’t make it to some of the other group sessions.
But I know that they must think it’s a lie every time I say I’m feeling unwell.
After all, physically I am fine. But I don’t know how to tell them that every conscious moment I am simultaneously exhausted by everything, even thinking of reading a few pages, and yet also completely wide awake, jittering and fidgeting, desperate for my brain to just shut up for a moment.
I close my eyes again, feeling wetness gathering at the corners and I bite my lip to stifle a pitiful whimper. I clench the hand that isn’t holding my phone, finding a vicious comfort in how my ragged, bitten down nails dig into the palm of my hand.
When I open my eyes next it is to find that two minutes have been wasted and three more messages have come through to my phone.
One with the room code and password and link which serve to twist my stomach into knots and clog up my throat and I struggle to breathe.
The next is a photo of two children, tucked into bed. One looks half asleep, eyes looking drowsily up at the person who was taking the photo (the same woman who had been concerned about being late) with a tired smile. The other was far more awake, sitting up in bed and his arm is blurry as he’s moving to grab a book from his bedside table.
The image makes me smile. It helps me to breathe easier.
The final message waiting for me on the group chat is simple, and yet makes all the difference to me as I try to suppress my panic over joining the call.
“I hope everyone can make it this week! I can’t wait to catch up with you all!”
With still shaking hands but renewed assurance I navigated my mouse to hover over the malicious icon.
There’s a few moments after I click it where it doesn’t boot up and I am left with the sudden irrational fear that Zoom itself – the hivemind, if you will – has decided to intervene and save my course mates (my friends?) from having to endure my company.
the familiar coloured bubbles. The screen welcoming me to the meeting and for a brief moment I can’t remember why I was so panicked about joining as I navigate myself to the ‘join meeting’ button and click it, writing in the room details.
It’s instinctive, the way that my fingers type the name “Freddie”, rather than my full, real name which they all know me by. After all, most of my friends call me Freddie by now and hearing the nickname is somewhat of a comfort to me because of that.
I suck in a breath and try to stop the menacing carousel in my mind, going over every possible outcome of what would happen if I didn’t change it to the name that they knew me by.
I type quickly, erasing Freddie and replacing it with the old, familiar letters and don’t hesitate before ticking the box to turn off my video.
I sit back at my desk chair and wait, chewing anxiously on my nails as I wait for the minutes to pass.
I can’t be early.
I can’t be late.
I’ll click join meeting the moment that 7 o’clock hits so that I can’t be judged or mocked for being early or late, I’ll just be on-time. Reliable, boring, safe and on-time.
I can’t help but worry that my course mates will be able to hear how my leg is shaking beneath the desk. The movement sends tiny ripples across the surface of my now lukewarm tea.
I pick up the mug, cradling it in my hands in the hope that it will be enough to stop them from being able to see how my hands are visibly shaking.
I count to ten, I try to slow my breathing down into something more manageable, something more natural. I try to focus on something – anything else.
The dog zipping past the window as she cases the ball thrown by my laughing brother, the smell from the kitchen and the quiet murmurs and laughter of my parents poking fun at each other. Above me I can hear the footsteps of my older brother, home for the weekend and having turned his room back to normal from the make-shift study I had set up for myself in there.
I consider going to grab a blanket, something to hold on my lap properly, something to curl into and make myself small. But as the thought crosses my mind, my eyes flick to the clock in the corner of my screen and something pierces through my chest.
I’m one minute late.
I type in the password at least three times incorrectly before at last being allowed into the meeting.
Nine faces smile at my entrance, calling out cheerful greetings and “glad you could make it”‘s, some just raising their hands in a wave before they return to the conversation they were already having.
I turn my camera on, hiding myself in the folds of my hoodie but smiling at them all the same, nodding along to the conversation.
And about half an hour in, my heart has finally stopped pounding and my brain has lost its fog and I can breathe again.
(you may be able to tell from this short story that I’ve been having a lot of Zoom calls with my coursemates and as much as I love all of them, Norbert acts up every single time and this is what I go through and I wanted to get it out on the page. Let me know your thoughts and if you’ve had similar experiences with Zoom or anything of the sort!