Ideally, at some point in 2021, we will collectively and tacitly agree to take 2020 and throw it in the garbage—a necessary step in the process of emerging from the collective mental health crisis that is living during the pandemic. It’s difficult in the moment to remember what “normal” was, because the mind is already working to figure out what a “new” normal will be—a vague concept, impossible to imagine and difficult to plan for. At some point in the near future, the general population will have been vaccinated against the virus and life will return to some hobbled version of its former self. Whatever this will look like will be preferable to isolation; all we have to do is wait.
Remembering the last time things felt “OK” is a difficult ask, only because time has flattened over the course of the year. Yesterday was three months ago, but this morning felt like a year. Here are some recollections of the last time we felt “normal.”
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly my last “normal” night was. Was it the night in early March that I went to a live music show, packed into the subway-car sized back room at Pete’s Candy Shop with more than a dozen others, battling a light cough? Was it the next night, when I inhaled a burrito at an East Village Chipotle after spending the day on panels at an NYU journalism symposium, though there were frequent conversations throughout the day of when the school would go virtual and I made sure to sanitize everything in the restaurant? If “normal” is when was the last time I felt like I could move freely in the world, then it was March 12, when I went out to dinner with my cousin in a near-empty restaurant. Sad that I can’t even remember what I had for dinner!
On Friday, March 13, I trekked to Bowery Electric—a music venue I visit purposefully infrequently, but now would spend so much money to attend—to see Gothenburg band Beverly Kills for the third time in a week. They were in America for the first time ever as part of The New Colossus Festival, an international indiepop event meant to replace all of the wondrous Manhattan music festivals that have come and gone over the years. I was there because I was newly obsessed with them (any fans of fellow Swedes Makthaverskan or Westkust, basically anything on Luxury Records, would be, too) and know that just because a band you love makes it to NYC once, doesn’t mean they’ll ever return. Their set was brief, so we headed to Bushwick for some carousing, and eventually, I found myself headed home at 4 or 5 in the morning after introducing them to the American tradition of 40-oz malt liquor. It was much messier than I’ve been in many years, but a perfect way to bid farewell to normalcy.
Towards the end of February, I took myself on a self-date to an art exhibit I had been putting off seeing until its very final day and then met up with my youngest brother who was in town for a work meeting at a ramen restaurant in the Lower East Side. We sat at the bar, crammed shoulder to shoulder with strangers, one of whom we asked to take a photo of the two of us together that we could send to the rest of our family. Not a particularly noteworthy day on its own merits, but a good one, made especially so in retrospect. A few days later, I was off to CPAC, and the rest is, well, you know.
Seeing as I am hard-pressed to remember anything beyond two days in the past, reaching back through the sludge and the anxiety of the majority of this year was difficult. But after consulting my planner, I have pieced together this puzzle. On March 10, probably a few days after I got a gel manicure that I would later remove at home, I went to a friend’s house and watched, for the second time in two weeks, Contagion. We sat next to each other on the couch, shared Thai food, and breathed in and around everyone’s personal space, as friends do. Watching Contagion wasn’t a particularly entertaining experience then, and I recall we all sort of laughed nervously about how our lives were going to change in ways that we didn’t know. Maybe I did something after that— I have a vague memory of being briefly panicked in a grocery store as a woman glided past me wearing a surgical mask and disposable gloves, but that could’ve been from any time, really. Because this is my memory, and also, my life, I’ll stick to this as a pleasant memory, and one that I hope to recreate once this cruel war is over.
My birthday is March 13, and to celebrate, a guy I had broken up with back in February took me to Here’s Looking at You, a strange, small, and delightful restaurant in Los Angeles. We had a tartare that was memorable, along with a bunch of other things that were not. If I had known that would be the last restaurant meal I would eat for the rest of the year, I perhaps would have chosen more carefully and chewed slower. Then again, if I’d known that guy and I would break up two more times over the course of the pandemic, perhaps I would have chosen to spend the night with a dating app rando as a farewell to the feeling of having options. Afterward, a bouncer checked our temperature at the door of a bar, which seemed weird to me back then, and the two of us fought over 19th-century toothpaste, which was not in any way out of the ordinary. We had Dolly Parton tickets for the next night, but the show was canceled, as it should have been. Dolly’s given us so much this year, including a vaccine (sort of), and I would never forgive myself if I had been part of a crowd that harmed her. Still, this is the second time immune systems have prevented me from seeing Dolly (the first time, in 2016, my white cell counts were too low from chemotherapy to be safely part of a crowd). Hopefully, there is a third chance and no further illness to come between Dolly and me or Dolly and anyone, for that matter.
I vividly remember my last normal night which was, ironically, spent with a group of coworkers. It started as a very normal day. Five of us had been trying to get together for brunch for days and just couldn’t get our schedules to align, but on February 29th, we’d settled on a time and a location. I wore a dress for absolutely no reason because it was a casual brunch, the purpose of which was to consume as many mimosas as possible in the two-hour unlimited mimosa window and not fall off my stool. It was the first time my partner was meeting this group in a social setting and I recall being nervous because he is very hit or miss with people—but when he and my friend Shehroz sat together and realized they were drinking soulmates, it seemed silly that I had worried at all. We left the brunch place and went to a bar up the street. Then another bar up another street. Then a bakery up yet another street and then to one more bar back down a street we had already walked. We weren’t looking for anything in particular, just a vibe that felt right. Loud music, drinks that were only semi watered down, and (for me) mozzarella sticks.
It was a haze of fruity cocktails with shots of Jack and at some point all of us discussing the Premier League in comparison to the NWSL. We made plans that day to attend a soccer game together in May to celebrate my birthday. The last bar we went to was packed. You had to snake around a throng of people just to get to the bathroom and it wasn’t weird that a few strangers touched my shoulder to signal they were trying to get by after the Backstreet Boys had drowned out the sound of their excuse me. At the end of the evening, my partner and I stayed in the city; he was housesitting for work and I was too drunk to take a train home to New Jersey by myself. We walked (I stumbled) down to Rector and talked about how much he liked my friends, all the things we should do this summer with them, and the trip to Spain we had planned for October. It almost sounds fake that any of this happened this year at all.
In late March, a friend texted me: “In some years, we will be graying, emerging from our hovels, and somehow run into each other, and be like, the last time anything was normal, we drank beer and danced at a parade. A PARADE on the cusp of a society-destroying epidemic,” so I know exactly what I did on my last normal day.
I was in New Orleans for a conference and stuck around a few days, as I’d planned. It’s all sort of a hallucinatory haze, in part because the fun seems like a dream and in part because I was often foolishly and happily drunk. I went to a house party with someone I’d just met and picked crawfish off of a communal table. I spent afternoons losing at pool to strangers in the Marigny and evenings sharing sloppy plates of food with friends before converging with more friends and going dancing in airless rooms. Everyone I encountered was in some sort of denial, I think: I distinctly remember having a conversation about the enormity of what was surely about to happen. “I just realized how easily it could transmit through money,” one of my new pals said.
On March 8th, I went to that parade, where I danced with strangers, and from the parade to an acquaintance’s house, which was packed with people talking about local politics. I chain-smoked, indoors. The next night, feeling nervous but not entirely willing to admit the normal times had ended, I took a book to an outdoor bar near where I was staying and met this guy:
Shortly after I recorded this video, an older woman was escorted out by her companion in the middle of a violent coughing fit. I immediately left.
Alexis Sobel Fitts
Though I’m sure there are other, later evenings, the night that sticks in my memory happened at the end of February. I’d been mildly dreading a book party, for a variety of silly reasons I can barely remember, and arranged to meet an old coworker for a quick catch-up dinner just before. We stumbled into a Korean restaurant nearby and, over big bowls of jjigae, spent dinner listing off a series of mutually-shared fears: the upcoming presidential election, the journalism industry’s steady cratering, the continued reign of tech barons. As we walked to the event, she confided in me that one of her best distractions of all the dour stories as of late had been following news of the coronavirus in China with obsessive precision. It was the perfectly engineered distraction, she surmised: Captivating and horrible, but far enough away that she didn’t feel any personal connection. Reading the stories of health professionals working to control it was engrossing, much like a crime mystery. (We were still smirking a bit at the name: CORONA-virus.)
We arrived at the party, where we crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in a wood-paneled room with leather couches and a boudoir vibe. I ate some mini hors d’oeuvres served on communal platers and left early because the subway was shutting down for service. It was a perfectly fine party, though I remember thinking the evening might have been better spent at home with a book.
On February 7, I went to the gay bar with Jezebel comrade Garrett Schlichte to watch the Super Bowl. It was my neighborhood joint, The White Horse Inn, and my favorite bartender had cooked up a bunch of hotdogs for everyone to share. Another person brought chili, and someone else brought chips, and soon, there was a veritable feast for every gay person in East Berkeley to enjoy. Garrett and I sat outside for most of it and smoked what felt like an entire pack of cigarettes, as we do when confronted with the heterosexual spectacle of violence that is the Super Bowl, even when shrouded in the comfort of our favorite homosexuals. We walked back to my place after dark, and stopped only on a whim at a Domino’s I’d never seen before. We went inside, like some sickos, to order a pizza. A very nice woman yelled on the phone, and asked us to show our Uber Eats app for delivery. We told her we were not rideshare drivers, and she started laughing. “Don’t you know it’s the Super Bowl right now? What are you doing getting pizza for takeout?” We shrugged, at a loss for what to tell her, and she yelled on the phone some more and disappeared into the back. A few moments later, she returned with a pizza, still hot from the oven, and said: “Take this. They’re an asshole, they can wait longer for their pizza.” Garrett went to pay, and she said, in a stricter voice, that we should scram before she changed her mind. And so we did. When we finally got back to my house, I gathered some firewood, and the two of us devoured that pizza in the warm glow before us, happy as two people could ever possibly be.
I was at the gym the night of March 10 when my friend in public health texted me from upstate to tell me to get ready to social distance. “I don’t think people get how big of a deal this is going to be,” he said. I didn’t want to believe it. I continued my workout and walked home and had dinner, like I’d always done. But by the next night, I was freaking out and went at 11:30 to the “organic” bodega around the corner and bought $100 of soup. Just in case. “What are you afraid of?,” asked me a young woman standing with her friend in line behind me. “Panic,” I said.
Life changed so much between then and now, though we still haven’t finished the soup. A few weeks before at an apartment party, I was made aware of Jackbox games, and bought a bunch of packages of them on my Switch, which unlike the PC versions of the games, cannot be played online. You have to have people all in the same room to play. I’m still waiting to get my money’s worth out of them.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
In early March, I took a flight to Key West to join a group of women I mostly didn’t know for our good friend Maud’s bachelorette weekend. The virus had been in the states for months by then, but information in the U.S. was scarce by design—masks hadn’t yet been mandated, and the stories in the mainstream were still just a trickle, complex science pieces of the sort that I didn’t quite understand. No one was yet an armchair epidemiologist on Twitter. Yet I still felt a bit nervous getting on the plane, wondering if “something” might happen, though I don’t think it registered that “something” would be so deadly. I was more stressed about the fact of a bachelorette party, with people I didn’t know.
It turned out to be the best thing I could have done. We tooled around in a boat under the tropical sun in the Florida Strait, took a haunted trolley ride, visited Hemingway’s home (fuck Hemingway, but my god did he have a fantastic art deco bathroom), went to a drag show, ate scallops, and laid in the pool at our hotel with White Claws and several pool floaties the other women had stuffed into their carry-ons. (Two of them worked at Instagram.) By the time I returned, our office was closed. As the long weeks of isolation turned into months, and Maud and several other friends had to cancel their weddings, I held onto my little Key West weekend as a sweet memory and new friends I made, back when bopping along busy streets and doing key lime shots with strangers didn’t feel life-threatening. It occurred to me later that my last normal night out, the day before I flew back to Brooklyn, was the same night we met Robert the Doll. Should have taken it as an omen.
Not to be dramatic, but my last normal night was probably back in late June 2019, maybe the day before my boyfriend got diagnosed with a rare cancer. Nothing has felt normal since then, and the covid-19 pandemic just made my already weird and fucked-up new normal a little more aggravating. But I still have a couple of specific pre-lockdown nights that I look back on and think “ah, yes, that was the last hurrah.” The first was in late February, when I was getting ready to go to a Smiths dance night up in north Brooklyn. I’d been going to these dance nights since I first moved to the city in 2013, but the DJ who hosted them was moving soon and was gearing up to host his last two ever. That night was the second to last one, and I debated even going. Concerns about the pandemic’s spread was finally gearing up, for starters, but also… I was feeling a little lazy (I’ll just go to the grand finale in a couple months, I told myself). But something compelled me to throw on some clothes and call an Uber. At the time, I joked with my friends that I was really “risking it all” that night, going to a grungy, no-frills metal bar with sticky floors to dance to sad boy bullshit. At the time, nobody really talked about the virus being airborne, so I thought that as long as I had my hand sanitizer I should be okay.
Ha. Ha ha ha ha!
The following week or so, my boyfriend and I went to Lake Placid to go hiking. He was gearing up to do his final rounds of chemo, and while I was becoming increasingly paranoid, we figured that as long as we washed our hands frequently and didn’t touch anything with our bare hands, we should be okay. On our last night, we went to some cool restaurant, not realizing that it would be the last time we would eat inside a restaurant for the rest of the year. Not long after, lockdown hit, and a new normal began. It’s funny to look back at all the little precautions we took—hand sanitizer especially, and thinking about all peppering of headlines here and there about covid-19 numbers climbing. I had a feeling things were going to get bad, but I definitely didn’t know it would look like this.
I recently found the receipt for my last normal night out in my wallet. (That’s how often I clean my wallet, or maybe how rarely I’ve been out and about collecting receipts and other detritus this year.) Some friends and I met up at Barn Joo on Union Square for the type of casual after-work get-together that once seemed nice, but not particularly out-of-the-ordinary, where you crammed into a restaurant entryway to wait for your friends out of the cold, breathing all over a bunch of strangers. Anyway, my biggest memory of this night out is that after a couple of moments’ hesitation, we ordered an absolutely enormous dessert to share. We therefore became, by accident of history, an expression on a kitschy needlepoint pillow: Life is short. Get the dessert.