I met William and Emma over a year ago when I started graduate school. Those two are the quintessential couple in our academic program: They conduct quality research in their respective laboratories, study hard for exams, and still make time for close friends and for each other.
When the three of us go out for coffee, William always seems to more carefully consider Emma’s contributions to our discussions regardless of how emphatically I attempt to make my points heard. This attention to her extends to all aspects of their relationship but particularly to the gifts that William puts together.
William called me late one April evening, his latest installment to our weekly constitutional of COVID-19 quarantine check-ins. Over the course of our friendship, I had become his trusted advisor on all things special, covert, or both. It was up to me to field his ideas, provide critical analysis on logistics, and discuss implementation strategies for maximum FUN.
On the docket this evening was Emma’s rapidly approaching 25th birthday. William wanted to discuss a “Zoom Prom” for her celebration because she had never attended a formal of any sort before. He wanted the party to be her birthday gift this year.
Emma and her family came to the United States in 2005; she is a first-generation college graduate and Ph.D. student. Emma is a role model for her sister and a paladin for immigrant families across the United States.
The coronavirus ground her Ph.D. to a halt, leaving her helpless to command her professional trajectory and seemingly calling her worthiness for this journey into question. Emma’s normally upbeat and smiling personality masked her reality to friends and co-workers.
For William though, these were common discussion points she would bring up in conversation. She trusted the only boyfriend she ever had. His awareness fortified the need to give Emma the best prom surprise anyone could ask for.
There are four staples to a perfect prom: classy car, outfit, dinner, and flowers. Some of these prom tenets were easy for William to prepare for. Classy car: 2015 Kia Optima in the garage. Check. Classy outfits were home grown as well considering tuxedo rentals were far from an “essential service” in our state. This left dinner and flowers.
William planned to pull out all the stops from his cooking repertoire for Emma’s prom: ribeye steak, grilled mushrooms, baked asparagus, and scalloped oysters. The operation was simple: collect necessary ingredients at 3 p.m., pick up flowers at 4 p.m., and have dinner on the table by 6 p.m.
In preparation, farmers market inventories were surveyed, the Kia was fueled, and friends RSVP’d. While all this came together behind the scenes, Emma was eagerly awaiting a “couple’s photoshoot” scheduled to take place on the evening of April 25. William’s script had been finalized.
The important day had arrived. William left his home at 3 p.m. to collect all the necessary supplies. The first grocer was crowded with frantic quarantine shoppers searching for high-value items such as chicken and rice. As William would later put it, “the lines were insanely long and all the steak was gone, guess everyone else was preparing for prom too.”
It was a story retold at a second and third grocer. Behind schedule now, William rushed to multiple farmer’s markets in search of potatoes and steak. Sold out. It was already past 5 p.m.
Time was running short and William became desperate to salvage what remained of his previously air-tight prom plans. The desperation culminated as he rolled into a nearly empty parking lot, greeted by the bright green lettering of his friendly neighborhood Dollar Tree.
Fortunately for William, the store had Emma’s favorite flowers in stock: plastic tulips, pink roses and dragon snaps. Flowers blessed by plastic immortality are truly the most literal way to demonstrate hopes for an everlasting love. On the drive home, William picked up some Chipotle to-go and the dinner table was set by 6 p.m. Right on schedule…
“Babe, are you ready for our photoshoot,” William called up to the second floor.
Emma gently padded down the stairs wearing a maroon sundress; her long hair fell gently around her shoulders and framed the small turquoise necklace resting around her neck. William wore a freshly pressed black suit and bow tie with a light blue button up and black fedora. In contrast to the mute colors of his attire, a bright pink plastic rose was placed in his breast pocket.
William clutched a handmade bouquet of plastic flowers and stood next to a chalkboard sign: “Welcome to 2020 SARS-CoV-2 Formal!” Tears began to gently trickle-down Emma’s face.
“Would you, my love, accompany me to this dance?” he said in the tone of a confident man, still uncertain if she was truly surprised.
A photography area was set up on the far side of the room. It consisted of a Canon T3i nestled haphazardly in a 3-bulb living room light stand. This was a professional-homemade solution that provided lighting perfection for the off-white backdrop. True to his word, William delivered her a living room photoshoot, with pictures ranging from the goofy to the classic prom poses of late.
“Would you please run upstairs and pick a tie out for me, I want to change my look a bit for the next set of pictures,” William said with a smile as he adjusted the lighting fixture to troubleshoot some pesky shadows.
It was 8 p.m. After Emma skittered up the stairs, William scampered over to his laptop and logged in to Zoom to greet and instruct all the guests. The computer blinked as each successive prom attendee logged on, until the screen flashed like a disco ball from a long-ago prom ceiling. William’s stage was set.
On cue, the tears began to flow down Emma’s face. Her Zoom Prom was filled with best friends from across the country. Everyone had flown in for her big day but unlike school sponsored proms, Emma’s also came with wine. Lots and lots of wine.
Her prom went late into the night with friends reconnecting, dancing to “Jailhouse Rock,” and Zoom iterations of the classic “Never Have I Ever” drinking game. The festivities and joy that evening made the difficulties of quarantine disappear for Emma because she had finally gone to prom. She was happy.
Against the backdrop of a COVID-19 quarantine, I learned a simple lesson from Emma and her best friends that night: regardless of where you are on life’s journey, it is always best to share it with the ones you love.
Rosstin Ahmadian is an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Mexico.