This is the third installment of The Last Normal Day series. It also appears in my book Lockdown in Hell World.
Part 1 by Samantha Irby
Part 2 by Zaron Burnett III
Parts 4-5 by Chris A. Smith and Shane Ferro
Part 6 by Kim Kelly
Part 7 by Julieanne Smolinski
Part 8 by Josh Gondelman
Part 9 by Jeb Lund
Part 10 by Joe Keohane
Part 11 by Linda Tirado
Part 12 by Aisha Tyler
Death is the capital of Uruguay
by Luke O'Neil
On January 1, 2020 the first normal day of the last normal year 177 people were killed by guns in America including people who used the gun on themselves. That’s almost twice as many that are killed on the average day in a typical year in our exceptionally average and typical country but by and large those deaths and the ones on the following day and the following day and the following day were invisible to most of us. No one cares about traffic in a city they don’t live in. Two days after that we assassinated Qasem Soleimani the Iranian general and I remember being worried that untold numbers of people were about to die in the coming months and I was right about that just for the wrong reasons.
“I think it is entirely possible that this is going to be a catalyst inside Iran where the people celebrate this killing of Soleimani” Ari Fleischer said on Fox News that night and then Mike Pompeo went on and said “We have every expectation that people not only in Iraq, but in Iran, will view the American action last night as giving them freedom” and it occurred to me that the way we talk about the bombing violence we export to other countries is similar to the way we talk about the gun violence that we insist upon inflicting upon our own country in that in both cases it always comes framed in terms of extending freedoms and I suppose that’s true in the sense that a bullet and a bomb do provide their target with a kind of freedom.
Refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic is a kind of freedom too.
On March 11, 2020 my last normal day I went to tell my therapist I wasn't going to see her anymore because I was moving soon and it felt like it was this big thing in my life like this momentous occasion and I felt conflicted and guilty about it like I was abandoning her and she said surprise motherfucker I was about to tell you I'm leaving too and we both said haha and then I went home and didn’t leave for weeks. No that’s a lie before I went home I went to the YMCA one last time for a swim and I had the pool almost entirely to myself which is a kind of luxury although how much pool can one person use. Liquids will take the shape of their container and gases will expand in volume to fill their container but a person stays the same size until they die and then they become very small.
I paused to take a break in the shallow end by the giant window overlooking the square outside and it was quiet save for the occasional siren from the nearby fire station and although the sun was shining it felt like everything was blanketed in snow. At this point I was still behaving normally in a world that wasn’t which is honestly quite a reversal based on how things typically go in my brain. I asked the lifeguard if she thought it was safe to be in here and she said yes they were taking every precaution and I felt better because we want to be told things are fine by authorities even if the authority in question is just a college kid whose entire enforcement apparatus amounts to a whistle. I thought about how annoyed I would usually get when they would kick us out when a lightning storm was coming through but lightning is different than a virus I guess because you can at least see it for an instant.
In that last visit my therapist encouraged me once again to try to find something productive to do with my time besides drinking and going to the gym and looking at the news all day and I said I would but I was lying except for the stop going to the gym part because that decision was made for me and without my input almost immediately after by the famous mouth poison. I said I had been sleeping very poorly and she said I should look into getting more tryptophan in my diet you know like the stuff in turkey that makes you sleepy on Thanksgiving she said and I said I have heard of it. Apparently it can also improve your mood she said and I said that’s crazy. Apparently there’s a lot of it in pumpkin seeds too she said. Then I told her about a poem I had read called We Lived Happily During the War by Ilya Kaminsky and she hadn’t heard of it but she never had heard of anything I referenced. I said I thought the things everyone else does when they read that particular poem such as wow and holy shit and then after a few minutes of sitting there with my mouth open after putting it down I thought like everyone else does after reading any particular poem fuck it fuck a poem it doesn’t matter the poets have been trying to get us to see how terrible war and unnecessary death is since the invention of both poetry and death and it never works. The poets have lost that one in a rather lopsided defeat I am sad to report.
The thing about my therapist leaving was that she was going to start transitioning into remote therapy even before the virus she said and I have to say that was a pretty prescient decision on her part. Perhaps I should have listened to her more intently all this time about everything else. I asked her if she thought I had gotten any better since she first started seeing me a few years ago and she said I was a hard one to figure out and that I had definitely taken a lot of steps forward but then I often take two steps back so it’s progress of a kind but not. After one good week of doing better I always think welp I’m cured baby time to get back to doing whatever the fuck I want and that’s not a responsible way to manage anything whether it’s your mental health or a country under a pandemic.
I said it was kind of hard to think about anything else at a time like this when we’re waiting to find out how many people are going to die so most nights what I do is I say fuck it I’m going to drink a gallon of alcohol and then I do so even though I don’t really want to. Self medicating is very good it’s like punting on first down every time you get the ball and occasionally running 70 yards the wrong way for a safety. I said it feels like it felt when I thought we were going to go to war earlier in the year like a creeping and overwhelming sense of existential dread but it was tempered with a sense of something like stolen valor because while I didn't know who they were or how many people would be killed throughout all this I was fairly certain I was not going to number among them and so the despair felt unearned. Everyone knows they are going to die but it is also an impossibility to hold on to for more than a moment it’s like looking directly into the sun.
Death is a fact but it’s easy to forget and there are lots things like that right where you know them to be true but you don’t know them know them like someone could ask you what the capital of Uruguay is and you’d go shit shit hold on then they’d say Montevideo and you’d go I knew that. And you did know it too you just couldn’t access it. Death is the capital of Uruguay is the point.
I only remember any of this because I wrote some of it down at the time in the newsletter. I don’t normally remember what happens on certain days do people really remember that sort of shit?
Ok maybe it happened like this. On the last normal day I was wrenched out of sleep like a fish on a hook and I clambered out of bed and I slipped on the old shoes I keep by the door and I went outside to the porch and I sat there shivering in the cold watching the long tail of a plane graffiti the sky white and it looked like it was heading straight downward at a ninety degree angle and I thought holy shit it’s plummeting! but no it was just a trick of perspective and eventually it disappeared and went wherever it is planes go. For a couple of minutes those people’s lives were my problem and then they weren’t. Now they’ll just go on to live for a while and then die in some other way I won’t ever have to know about like pretty much everyone else ever.
The last time I was on a plane was in January to go to New York to do my Hell World book reading at The Strand and so many people came I thought this is going to be my year man. Things are about to happen. Sometimes I try to outsmart the system by flying to New York instead of taking the train but you can’t fix it it takes four or five hours to get to New York no matter how you try to get around it. I won’t be going back to New York any time in the foreseeable future and that makes me sad but on the other hand think of the money I’ll save!
I drove to Dunkin Donuts for what would be the last time in a couple months that plane morning with a frosted windshield I couldn’t get to clear up so I had to keep firing the wiper fluid which would work for a second and then it would freeze almost instantly and I basically kept having to do that for five minutes until I got there. I thought about dying in a plane crash and so naturally I thought about a song by Albert Hammond who I had weirdly gotten really into around then and it went like
Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord, have mercy on me
'Cause I don't wanna die in an air disaster
And I don't wanna die in a freeway pile-up
And I don't wanna go like a fading chorus
And I don't wanna die for no good reason
And I just wanna go on and on
I just saw a while ago there was some sort of online tribute to Joe Strummer due to it was his birthday and that dude’s son Albert Hammond Jr. was going to perform I guess and I realized one way to get people to remember you when you die is to write something as good as London Calling so maybe I should try something like that how hard can it be.
On the way back from Dunkins I had to stop in the middle of the road because there was a family of turkeys which I guess is called a “rafter” crossing and I stopped because of course I didn’t want to kill them and that seemed strange because I must have caused the death of so many turkeys in my life. I guess the difference is it’s only acceptable to me when turkeys are killed by the millions when someone else is doing it and I don’t have to be there while it happens.
I just read an article that said maybe the reason a lot of people seem to generally not give much of a fuck about the over 200,000 Americans that have died from the virus in the past seven months is because we’ve been so successfully conditioned to ignore the deaths caused by our endless wars around the globe. Remember how it was a whole thing when George Bush made it so we couldn’t look at the coffins coming back from the Middle East?
They say that infants develop object permanence by about the age of two meaning that they come to understand that objects and people continue to have a separate and permanent existence even when they’re outside the bounds of their immediate sensory experience but I don’t know that we necessarily always hold onto that ability when we get older. Sometimes I look at my wife sitting over there on the couch eating cereal like she is right now and I remember that she is an entirely separate entity with her own internal life and all her own fucking things going on.
Something I think about a lot is the idea of the final joke. Like we'll all obviously joke online through almost everything no matter how bad but someday there might be a thing where we don't want to anymore. Whatever the last joke is going to be it won’t be funny.
On my last normal night before they started running the death toll odometer on the TV regularly Sarah Palin appeared on the show The Masked Singer and performed Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-a-Lot in a pink bear costume. “This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done, that’s for sure,” she said. “But it’s all about fun. It’s unity. This is all good. This is something that our country needs right now, too.” And then immediately after it ended president Donald Trump came on the TV to reassure the country about our approach to the virus and fucked up like three things instantly that his people had to walk back. You could actually feel the strangeness of the programming transition as it happened and I don’t think I could write anything in here that more accurately summarizes the place we are in in 2020 except for maybe this next thing.
I just saw an extraordinary photograph taken by Noah Berger for the Associated Press of a sign outside of a building in California. Senior Center the top of the sign says. Come Join Us the bottom says and then in the middle it reads Wear a Mask Wash Your Hands Social Distance Stay Safe and all around it the entire local world is engulfed in flames because California is currently on fire like it often simply just is. And then I read that there aren’t enough people to fight the wildfires in the state right now because they usually use prison labor for that particular task and so many of them aren’t available because they’re on lockdown sick with the virus due to the governor there and governors everywhere else pretty much left them to die.
In my last normal week some random food magazine asked me if I wanted to write about the history of lemonade stands in America and I was like uh then they said they’d pay me a good sum and I said can I be political and they said ok and so I said ok and so I was doing my little research and writing my cute little jokes and japes and so on and the line I wanted to draw was from how the lemonade stand is this iconic American thing that is supposed to teach children about running a business and the glories of capitalism and so on and I wanted to get up to the era we’re in now where kids are starting lemonade stands to help pay off their classmates’ school lunch debt and their mommies’ cancer bills and then I randomly came across a picture someone had posted of a young boy and his friends and they were selling toilet paper for $2 a roll at a little stand with a sign and everything and it said Don’t get left behind next to the emoji of a smiling piece of shit and the whole overarching metaphor for the piece and everything else for that matter basically wrote itself.
About thirteen years ago when we were first moving into the apartment we finally left in April in the middle of a pandemic I was having trouble getting the mattress and boxspring up the narrow stairs so I rigged some sort of half-assed rope system by which I was going to hoist them up over the second story back porch and get them in that way and I was struggling with it it was just me and Michelle and her mother and I guess it probably looked like I was going to fly off the side of the porch to my certain doom and the neighbor next door the retired veteran who hates Trump and loves the Red Sox but also hates them sprang into action and came over and saved the day. Sometimes I still think about being launched off the side of the porch like being tossed in a trebuchet and I wonder if I landed on the mattress just so if I would’ve been alright.
I was thinking about that because just around my last normal day we found a house to move into in the suburbs and I spent those finals weeks of normalcy trying to throw out all the shit I’d accumulated over the years week by week and I started to get really nervous about contending with the fucking mattress again because I am far weaker and a lot less fearless than I was back then. I get weaker and less fearless every single day and I guess it just goes on like that forever.
The thing I did when it came to going through my old shit and deciding what to throw away or not was to make like Orpheus and just don’t look back. You can’t look back or the spell will be broken. Throw it all away. Every day of that last week I’d pack up a box of things that were once important to me until they were not and deliver them to the good will store until they closed due to the sickness and whatever was left I guess I was meant to keep forever so I did.
All of your weird methods of blocking out the sun have been terrible Michelle told me after we got the curtains set up here in our new home. We were talking about the various shitty apartments we’ve lived in over the years. The last one we moved into when I was twenty eight which is a child’s age. I wonder what I thought about back then I said. I have no idea. I have no idea what sorts of things were going through my mind that long ago. She said when she first met me I had curtains duct taped over the windows and I gather I was either too poor or too stupid to figure out how curtain rods worked at the time.
Every home you do not buy or every apartment you do not move into is a closing off of a potential future you imagined for yourself however briefly. The light in here is very nice you think as you’re walking from room to room. I could see myself living in that light for a long time you think. And then you find out someone else came in and offered like $50,000 more in cash than they were asking and you go ah well I guess I’ll just go fuck myself and you keep looking for slightly worse places to live in towns you’ve never heard of and then you convince yourself the place you wanted sucked anyway to soothe the loss of that potential life you had briefly imagined for yourself within those walls. Fuck that place you think. Fuck that potential life we might have made there. It’s like when you get rejected or dumped by someone and instantly all of their flaws you had managed to overlook become readily apparent.
Sometimes you look at a house or apartment or condo and the fucking guy in the suit is showing you how the light switch works and you’re going haha and he’s going haha and you go how recently was the vinyl siding put on and he says I’ll have to check and then you walk around and you see a room and your entire life expands to fill that room. 250 square feet of a life and you think I could see myself dying in this room someday but you won’t you’re going to die in some other room and you don’t know what it looks like yet. Some room you can afford to die in.
Somewhere in the middle of all this in the middle of the new normal I posted four photos to Instagram from the last couple weeks before the thing started and captioned them the last time I had hope the last time I had fun the last time I went on a date with Michelle and the last time I jerked off in a doctor’s office. I suppose the latter two are self-explanatory.
We went to our favorite local pub in the town we don’t live in anymore and in the photo she’s smiling real big in the way she does and I am making a gross face in the way I do and we had no idea that we would never go there or pretty much anywhere we liked to go ever again before leaving the area. I would have appreciated it more had I known at the time. I would have appreciated a lot of people and things a lot more had I known I was about to lose them.
In the doctor’s office I was trying to find out if it was too late for me to bring a child into the world at this point in my life and I guess it technically isn’t via what happened when the cum doctor looked at my cum under the microscope and said it’s perfectly normal cum but I don’t know if this is the type of world or country I can feasibly wrench a soul out of the void and drag them into. Sometimes I feel bad if I invite someone to like a party or a show and they don't end up having a good time so I can’t imagine what it feels like to do that to someone only it’s everything they ever have to do and experience in their entire life however long it might last. Sorry! Hope you had a nice time.
The last time I had fun was a picture of me at the end of February in the middle of a crowd at Emo Night Boston the monthly party I host and DJ with my friends and I’ve got both my hands raised in the air and this look on my face I don’t recognize in myself which I gather must be joy and everyone around me is dancing and singing and sweating and spitting and spilling beer on each other and they’re frozen still in time in the midst of it all now with no idea that it was probably the last time we’d do anything like that for the foreseeable future.
The last time I had hope was right around then too it was at the University of New Hampshire and Michelle and I had driven up there for a Bernie Sanders rally headlined by The Strokes one of our favorite bands in the world. When we got there the line was so long outside and it was so cold the type of cold where you draft off of strangers’ body heat and use them to hide from the wind and don’t think twice about it. Inside the lineup of electrifying speakers like Cornel West and AOC and Bernie himself and Nina Turner explained to a crowd of around 7,000 people in no uncertain terms that a better country was in fact possible and that we were this close to getting there.
Turner asked us all to raise one hand for ourselves so I did and we all did. Then raise another hand for someone else she said and she asked us to fight for someone we don’t know as hard as we would for ourselves and for a couple weeks there when things were still normal I actually thought that enough of us in this country meant it but I was stupid to think that.
Later on in the night The Strokes played “New York City Cops” and everyone crashed the stage and it seemed like the beginning of a new era and it was just not in the way I thought it was going to be and then we walked back to the car along the slick hilly iced-over streets of Durham taking the tiniest possible steps hoping we wouldn’t slip and break something because if we got hurt we might not be able to afford the medical bills and I wondered what it might be like to not have to worry about things like that anymore and I thought something is going to change man and it was about to indeed just not in the way I thought it was.
Somewhere along the way on the ride home we got a call that the bid we had put in on the house we live in now went through and Michelle was so happy and I was so mad because I didn’t ever really believe I was actually going to become a homeowner in the suburbs and apparently I did a very bad job of hiding my disappointment. All of the things I was never going to be able to do again spread out before me in a temporal cartography of loss. All the concerts I wouldn’t go to now that they’re much further away to get to and all the friends I wouldn’t visit and all the restaurants and bars in the city I would probably not get around to checking out and I saw my entire life getting smaller and the expanse of where I could go shrink and we had a bad fight about it but the joke was on me because all that shit disappeared for everyone and now everywhere is the suburbs and there’s nowhere to go no matter where you live. It’s a kind of death in a way like Montevideo but we’re mercifully still alive just not in the way we thought we were going to be.