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This is the ninth installment of The Last Normal Day series. To read more about the project and find the first one by Samantha Irby about gas station food and racing to get home to Michigan just as the virus began to spread go here. To read the second about being a Black man wearing a mask in the first days of the pandemic by Zaron Burnett III go here. To read the third by me Luke about moving house just as the pandemic kicked off and death and my usual type of weepy shit go here.
To read the fourth by Chris A. Smith about surfing in San Diego and moving his mother into an assisted living home and the fifth by Shane Ferro about working in night court in Queens go here. To read the sixth by Kim Kelly about moving to Philly and leftist organizing go here. To read the seventh by Julieanne Smolinski about giving birth to three children over the course of the Trump administration and finally being ready for some personal space in February 2020 go here.
To read the eighth by Josh Gondelman about walking his dog in the dead of night and how quickly the unthinkable becomes baseline “normal” go here.
Please be sure to also read Jeb Lund’s previous Hell World piece from earlier this summer. It was “one of the good ones.”
It's Been Today Forever
by Jeb Lund
Retrospectively, I wonder if I would have spent five years begging for the chance to cry if I'd have known that what finally triggered it would be a quesadilla.
It's not that I can't physically cry. I do it all the time. I cry at TV, movies, the radio, books, magazines. After I became a dad, all composure at the sight of hurt or unhappy children vanished forever. My sadness remains on a hair trigger, even for marketing. I managed to mourn throwing away a disintegrating refrigerator magnet with an adorable cartoon recycling can on it. Can-Do was cheery and kind-looking, and all he wanted was to remind me to save the planet while he held my collection of improbably ruthless fortune cookie fortunes to the fridge (Summer, 2003, in my twenties: "Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century!"), and here I was throwing him away—his welcoming wave and faded and cracked smile falling away from me into the dark of a garbage can as I whispered a Judas goodbye.
After 9/11, I spent months periodically getting catastrophically ripshit on Milwaukee's Best, listening to a CD anthology of great historic speeches, lying on my back on the floor of my apartment, letting tears stream from my eyes, past my temples, into my hair. I didn't even live in New York or lose anyone in the attacks. For some reason, I wanted to crawl into the disparity between the great aspirations that drove the 20th Century and the mush-brained verbally incontinent junior warlord in the Oval Office. I needed to affirm, with brutal contrast, the lethally incurious and assured world I was living in.
No, the problem is that I can cry for stupid shit—I'll weep like Niobe for every low-rent drama that mashes the fathers-and-sons button—but not my stupid shit. Weeping is reserved for something vague and external, more conceptual than real—not for anything trivial like personal expiation. If I need a cry, I can go fuck myself, but if I want to make watching The Right Stuff intimately uncomfortable in mixed company, or even if I don't, someone up in the brainworks cranks the faucet all the way open and rips off the knob for the last five minutes, when Ridley spies Yeagar walking out of a plume of black smoke, and Gordo Cooper becomes the greatest pilot that anyone has ever seen.
So it went for a whole election and nearly one full presidential term. First, watching the person I married disappear into postpartum depression for years—making hash marks like a prisoner to count weeks between conversations, counting on a hand the number of wakeful hours per weekend day—then watching only parts of them return years later. Then, covering the worst election of my lifetime, having the president's allegedly coked-up pants-pissing firstborn follow me on Twitter and start retweeting me for tap-dancing on Ted Cruz's electoral grave in Rolling Stone, dragging with him 8,000 bots and counting, so that every new piece I wrote critical of Trump was greeted by what one could only hope were automated DMs that threatened me along a series of clumsy but effective conditional statements pairing my presumed identitarian flaw (Blackness by association, Jewishness, homosexuality) with whatever historic form of murder most intimidatingly applied to it.
Looking back now, I can see where I started sinking into my own basic-bitch slough of despond sometime in early 2015—long before the eliminationist mix-n-match Trump bots swung into action—when I was taking care of my son full time at home all day, attempting family time at night, then writing into the early morning and never getting more than four hours of sleep. The editor I trusted most and flourished under got turfed via self-sabotaging bureaucratic revanchism much further up the org chart. I started living near a panic attack whenever I published something. All the aging I'd managed to skip between 25 and 35 appeared virtually overnight, like someone had burned my Dorian Gray portrait.
I all but quit drinking, belatedly, for health and responsible-parent reasons, and instead I found myself sitting in front of my computer, staring into a vacancy and wishing I could feel a sudden gravity yank me from my seat and stretch my body into a thin ribbon before snapping me permanently into a void. Eventually, one night, I decided that I should just crawl under the desk and sit there, and I did, and instead of staring into a vacancy, I stared across the carpet at the boxes that my wife had hastily plunked down over a year before and abandoned and wished that the carpet sharks whose existence I was certain of after accidentally seeing a few minutes of Jaws 3 at age six would just get the fuck on with it and eat me.
When I explained this new habit to people, they mistook it for a deadpan gag, so I kept explaining it in the hopes that it stopped being funny and progressed to dull and then naturally epiphanically troubling, but it didn't, and eventually I stopped talking about it because one side effect of not publishing is that nobody is reminded to ask how you're doing, and you no longer have to tell them that you're one tented sheet away from sitting in a fucking fort and you spend a good portion of your nights silently pleading to stumble across the sequence of events that triggers the hysterical open-mouthed purgative wail that you are deeply, desperately, mistakenly certain will press a hidden button and drag you, spent and shivering, to somewhere that feels like normal.
I remember in June of 2017, someone I liked at The Daily Beast asked me to write a piece on why it felt like every day had grown impossibly long, and what actually accounted for our national transition to Trump Time. I never wound up doing it. (Chorus: "Depression!" Fiesta noises.)
Sure, I immediately filed interview requests with therapists, philosopher types, and a smattering of medical specialists and GPs, but I looked up at what felt like moments later and noticed that two weeks had passed, and nobody had gotten back to me. Everyone being too busy to reply seemed like it confirmed the thesis; blinking and losing 14 days seemed to impeach it. In any event, it didn't matter. Around the week that the suggested deadline arrived, I left with my family to California, to bring the kid to the grandparents.
On our last day there, I remember looking up at the sky I grew up under and realizing, for the first time, how truly barren it was of clouds—not just compared to the monumental nimbuses of the Florida I'm now used to, but completely, at all. And I remember thinking, Oh, God, we're all alone, aren't we? and feeling as if I could sense how fast the ground underneath me spun in outer space, and suddenly my lapsed deadline seemed to come pouring over the treetops and wash all over me.
I'd forgotten about it. Not, I didn't want to think about it, but truly wholly forgotten it, an unexpected miracle for a spiritual engine that roars along every day on guilt, with maximum remorse power devouring the present with the past like a road beast eating open highway. For three days or so, Trump Time and all attendant self-rebuke for not addressing it was gone. With great industry from people other than myself, I lucked into being able to live high enough on the WASP scale to travel from one vacation spot Bay Area to another and just fucking forget that a malignant Nazi fathead was dragging us screaming toward the Vegas Reich.
I had felt what seemed like normal, just for a while—the same normal that the liberal class of professional Twitter users daily insisted that This Was Not—but at most it was just a temporary absence of the present. A bell rang, and suddenly guilt reappeared to ask me what kind of entitled motherfucker I would have to be to soothingly explain people's encroaching sense of limitless and timeless despair from a vacation where I just dipped out of their nightmare for a while. I felt ashamed of looking Trumpworld in the eye and being able to just take five, because, honestly, how much normal did I really think I was entitled to? After all, the gradually fulfilling promise of Trumpism was that conservative whites would finally start treating non-conservative whites the way they treated everybody else. As much of the commentariat eventually conceded, a lot of the new normal was millions of Americans' old one.
In fact, little of the new normal was even a surprise. One of the most frustrating ironies of Trumpworld is how everyone could see everything coming: He is the culmination of a series of tests failed by indifference, corruption or active forgetfulness. A gutted IRS, a chickenshit SEC that functions like a turnstile to the private sector, an FBI diverted from white collar crime to chase everything but white supremacist terror, and a Grand Old Party that wrapped itself in the Dixie flag in 1968 and never looked back—all these things birthed Trump and legions of donors so long ago that the stories about them were not so much broken as updated.
To have been astonished at the fascist interests undergirding the privatized carceral state, the GOP's war on democracy, and the increasing attitude among the military and law enforcement that they are answerable only to one party and tasked with controlling the other required sustained disengagement and repetition degrading unto boredom. To argue that things were unacceptable now required pundits to tacitly concede under a flurry of coughs that all the other assaults on civil liberty were more or less livable before. This had always been tacit and euphemized—the cost of doing business, a savvy understanding that these are the way that things are, a Gallic shrug and an insouciant drag off a Gaulouises. It was less so once the realities of Vichy-level de facto enslavement, de jure disenfranchisement, and a democratically contemptuous white-supremacist thugocracy that had previously loitered in the background blustered upstage.
I remember a few months later there was a mass shooting at a school. I don't remember which one. Periodically, you might hear a running line among some journalists that, when it comes to mass shootings or school shootings, you write the same few pieces again as your emotions settle to a level of manageable hopelessness: The policy argument piece, the enraged piece, the despairing piece, the numb one, then the raw personal one. After that, you write the vaguely meta piece analyzing this progression before repeating it.
Parking outside my son's preschool, I felt a rumble pass through me, like standing on a bridge as a truck goes by, and I tried too hard to hold onto the tremor and felt it slip away. A little dampness leaked at the corner of my eyes. It wasn't what I wanted. I kept thinking back to the last time I wept uncontrollably. A friend had attempted suicide, and the commiseration-drinking with a few buddies tackily evolved into a kind of a party, until I fled my own room and wound up in a courtyard, crumbling in front of someone I barely knew and then giving them the slip and going on some doomed midnight ramble, as if my problem was mainly one of location. I eventually woke on the stone picnic table on which my suicidal friend had once been found passed out, in a Christ-like pose, surrounded by raccoons wondering which alcohol god had brought them this offering.
That's what I wanted: To finally not be a little or a half- or a lot cracked and feel like I'd been finally demolished. Incoherent bellowing, desperate gasps for air in between shapeless despairing sounds, snot flowing from my nose like so many mucus chemtrails, something at work inside me so forceful that it wrung me out and left me for the scavengers.
Parking at the school again the next day, and every day after that, that little tremor returned. Sometimes the corners of my eyes leaked, and sometimes they didn't, no matter how I squinted and coaxed them. Soon enough, I realized that the shooting had little to do with it. Sometimes the anxiety and sadness shivered through me not when I left my son but when I was about to know he would be safe with me again. Basic math told me that his chances of being shot at school were infinitesimally small, but it wasn't the violence I was worried about.
Every day I'd stop, either after dropping him off or before picking him up, and feel a rush of fear that this was the day he would be different. When he woke up, he would be fine, but something would have changed. His face would no longer default to smiles. Somewhere joy would have started bleeding from him. Some time, when I wasn’t looking, he finally saw the world sufficiently clearly to be afraid of it.
Despite his age, more often than not, he sees the pandemic clearly, and I don't have to worry about how I feel dropping him off or picking him up anywhere anymore.
This is how it happened:
There's a place where I live called Taco Bus. Originally it was just that—a converted yellow school bus from which someone sold tacos and burritos. Eventually the company expanded until a half-dozen dotted the area. They're all gimmick now; you can still order from the bus, but they're parked in front of a full restaurant with regular service counters, tables and full bathrooms. They're not the area's best street Mexican, but they provide a cromulent service and, more to the point, if you happen to be a small boy: It's a restaurant inside a large, brightly colored specialty vehicle. You could call it Taco Rooter, and my son would clamor to go there and drink from the hose.
He still has a small palate, and foods that are fun one day can suddenly turn hideous to him if a phoneme in the name catches his ear wrong. As we neared the restaurant just after the lunch rush on a weekday, I began bargaining with him over what he would eat. To my astonishment, he asked for a taco, something he has arbitrarily decided he doesn't like, after previously showing an affinity for stealing them from your plate, turning them upside down and eating all the meat before returning two sad crescents of tortilla and a slag of unwanted toppings. After pressing, I got him to divulge that he thought a taco was soft, flat and filled only with cheese.
"You mean you want a quesadilla," I said, and he agreed.
It was a nice lunch. The Taco Bus we went to is a few blocks south of the county jail, sheriff's office, and DMV, and I wiped down a tall stool, hoisted him into it, then watched him excitedly watching cop cars, other emergency vehicles, and heavy trucks roll by behind me.
Because he's so young, I find myself narrating a lot of what I'm about to do, then what I am doing, then recapping what I did, not only to put him at ease when things happen but to show him the causal relationships between things and hopefully help him learn to evaluate the connectedness of them on his own. It wards off tantrums, and it's educational filler.
His quesadilla had come in a little box, lying in a greasy bit of the sorts of very thin plastic wrap that delis pack your cheese slices into when you order it by the pound. I'd fished a few of his quesadilla wedges out for him and put them on some clean napkins so he could eat without touching any slimy infectious-seeming plastic bits, wiped my hands, wolfed my food, then resumed hovering near him so he didn't have to touch anything. As he began to dawdle, I recapped how we would need to leave soon, and I could pack up his quesadilla, and take it home. But his dawdling is mighty and intractable, and only ten minutes later did we start to leave. Sick of having wiped my hands umpteen times and suddenly overcome by a new daily emotion of wordlessly imploring all circumstances to stop being such a suffocating fucking hassle, I picked up his quesadilla box and tossed it in a nearby trashcan. From behind me, I heard my name said in a plaintive almost whisper.
"Dad," he said. "Why did you throw away my tacodilla?"
Why did you throw out my tacodilla? In the moment, it still felt a little cloying. Even for someone under six, the neologism seemed faintly self-infantilized, less like he was being a little boy than playing one. He's crafty, and I would not put it past him to somehow know that throwing out a quesadilla was so common as to not be worth comment, but throwing out something special and innocent and adorable and right-sounding like tacodilla bordered on cruelty. The fact that he might not know at all and was instead just effortlessly, naturally guileless and heartbroken made me feel monstrous. My skin felt like liquid, like moments before I'd been an ice sculpture and now had been flash-thawed, my body cascading and collapsing where it stood.
And of course I didn't want to throw any of it away. That's just what I wound up doing because I'd wiped my hands half a dozen times and didn't want to drive around with him sitting in the car near something that he could touch and that might hurt him. Because there is no time in the day for anything anymore, and every extra minute feels worth stealing even if it means losing something else. Because I haven't slept in six years, and I can't think more than two steps ahead anymore, and half of them I'm going to get wrong. Because I don't know. Because I'm a fuckup, and I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm sorry, Bean.
I was afraid to breathe for fear I might gasp and from there hyperventilate. All I wanted to do was take him back somewhere, back to something that wasn't here, but I couldn't tell you where. Location, after all, wasn't the problem, and, as for time, which part of the long downhill slope to the moral, legal, and ecological catastrophe of now should we restart at?
I apologized, feebly, and I could see the wheels turning in his head as he wasn't sure how much to disbelieve me. All he knew was that I broke a promise made to him almost instantly, and that I had an answer I was not sharing. But I couldn't tell him that I did something irrational because I was suddenly terrified of the world we share and, for a brief moment, needed to be able to be rid of a part of it, and I couldn't tell him that each question like that stings like an indictment because I will never have an answer better or less helpless-seeming. I threw away a small part of everything, but all of us have already managed to throw out the rest of it too, and there's no good reason for that either, and the only thing we know is we can't have it back. Not for a long time.
We walked hand-in-hand to the car. I wanted to hoist him in so I could hug him, but he wanted to climb in on his own. We ran the rest of our errands and came home to wait for mom. We sat down to dinner together. We read him stories until he drifted off. My wife tottered off to bed, and, when I knew she was asleep, I walked to the bathroom and grabbed a bath towel, went to my office, stuffed it in my mouth, and sank to my hands and knees and dropped my head and started shrieking as tears gushed from my eyes, until I couldn't hold myself up anymore.
Afterward, I stood outside his door, wanting desperately to go in, to wake him and let every word of love and protection I could dream of spill from me until I ran out of them—to do the Sad Dad version of, as a friend once put it, the coked-up businessman who calls his family from the road, in the dead of night, and demands his wife put his toddler son on the phone so he could tell him how much he respects him. I wanted to pick him up and hug him so tightly that I absorbed his little body and kept him with me forever, indivisible and impervious. But I let him sleep. I put my hand on the jamb and whispered an apology.
I delivered another apology to him the next day, a different one. I didn't tell him that I was sorry that we broke everything before he could play with it, that we poisoned his world before a vision of him lurked even in the distant futures of my imagination. I didn't say that I was sorry that he would never know a life that was not turbulent and harrowed by the catastrophic. I didn't tell him that I didn't know what normal was like when I last saw it. I didn't tell him that I have been frightened of giving and receiving apologies since I was a boy, but that on this account I could apologize, over and over, for the rest of my life. And I definitely didn't tell him that I bawled like a child for everything that had been taken from him and awoke the next day, and nothing felt lighter.
Instead, I told him that I was sorry to have thrown away his food, and that it would be my honor and pleasure to make him a tacodilla any time he wanted one, all the time if he insisted, and I wished so much that he would ask for one that second. But he had already forgotten yesterday. I haven't been able to think of anything else since.
Jeb Lund is a former political columnist for The Guardian and Rolling Stone. He has a Substack he doesn’t update, and a silly podcast with David J. Roth about Hallmark original movies you should listen to instead.