2020: between heartbreak and hilarity.

by Michael King

For better or worse, I held myself together until the ripe old age of 25. Then, beneath an audience of golden October leaves, I wrecked myself and fell apart. My first love crumbled on impact, skittering across the concrete, and I shattered right there with it.

I sat down to write about it months later. Given time and space, I finally felt ready to revisit that harrowing morning, the paralyzing days that followed, and put it all onto paper. If I can understand the story, figure out where it belongs along my bookshelf, I imagine it won’t be able to swallow me up.

I wrote about myself in the second-person, further distancing myself from the moment. I became an omniscient narrator, critical and a bit mean-humored, and the me from that morning was now ‘you.’ You wake up and, for a good five minutes, you ask yourself just where in the fuck you are. The writing was cathartic, and it spilled out of my hands without effort. I finished it before my coffee line had vanished and, unsure what to do next, passed it along to a friend.

Days later, she returned feedback: I’m sure this felt good to get out, she said, but it’s not your best work. It doesn’t sound like Michael King. Your best stuff isn’t this severe. Your best stuff is somewhere between heartbreaking and hilarious.

The advice changed, forever, the way I approach hard stories. Not only when I’m writing them, but also when I’m making sense of something I’ve done. There’s humor in the mistakes, sure, but there’s heartbreak in what led us to make them.

So it is that I’m approaching putting 2020 to paper.

In March, my emotions were a slingshot ride. I woke up, most mornings, and felt a sense of wild hope, breaking into a run across a shuttered Manhattan and noticing the stubborn arrival of flowers and sun. I carried this momentum into the afternoon, working with determination to make something of the day. Then, without warning, there was despair. My voice breaking over the phone the moment I said hello to my sister, my eyes flooding like broken dams looking out at sunny, empty New York.

For months, I saw no one I knew in real life. On a run, I’d hear a song and imagine seeing my mother again at an airport, and I’d break into sobs, stumbling to a bench and letting the emotion take hold. On one such occasion, I glanced up to see a woman walking her dog, watching me and crying, too. We said nothing to one another.

Gradually, as late spring and early summer began to take hold of the city, we began to venture closer to one another again. A friend, stationed at a hotel for healthcare workers, asked if I’d be willing to come to his room and watch Drag Race and drink wine with him. When I arrived, he made me pull on scrubs before entering, coached me to walk like I knew what I was doing. An hour later, sitting on his bed and drinking rosé from plastic cups, I glanced across at him and felt rescued.

I’d imagined another summer of kickball games, boozy brunches, and crowded bars, but it was a summer of books and blankets in the park, wine and beer pulled from backpacks, music played over Bluetooth speakers. Hiking across Queens and Brooklyn and Manhattan to grab a beer from the breweries of each. Pizza enjoyed on the sidewalk, tears in gratitude of friendship, rehashing what exactly happened on the night the man fell from the roof (and, thankfully, survived).

June arrived, and it brought heartbreak along with it. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. Their stories echoed across the globe, and our communities grappled with wounds long left ignored. Pride month became inextricably intertwined with Black Lives Matter, feeling more like the original Pride marches, and every corner of the city was covered in messages of mattering. For a moment, the world seemed to pause, to listen.

I lost my job in the Fall, and the home that came with it, and I spent a solid two weeks staring down the pathways ahead of me. What kind of story could I write, I asked myself. I felt exhausted, defeated, and tired of mining myself for hope. Stubbornly, I stood up and started looking for apartments, knowing a lease would be harder to obtain without a recent paystub. Election week arrived in that muddle, a series of sleepless nights that reminded me of the trauma of 2016 and the knots it left behind in me. It came and went, and soon a treasured friend and I were moving my belongings to my first chosen home.

The first time I hugged my mom this year, we both cried. I have cried more this year than any other, and I have learned to let hugs last as long as they can. Once, on a long drive, I heard my niece Lynnlee working to distract my niece Ivy, and Ivy broke into wild laughter. The sound struck deep, unburying something deep within me, a hope I’d kept sheltered in these hard days, and my eyes flooded with tears.

Sometimes, when I think back on the way I lived my life before this pandemic, I’m not sure I still have the energy in me to go back and live that way again. Even now, I find myself fatiguing earlier, longing for home and for bed, bracing for the possibility of long stints of time without being witnessed by loving eyes.

But 2020 won’t live on as ‘the year without stories.’ It was the hardest damn year, but it was not without stories: There was the ill-fated bike ride, the impromptu lip sync on 60th Street, the glitter night at Ross’s place, nights smoking and laughing on a fire escape, Thanksgiving getting tackled by gigantic dogs, and a hundred others.

It was heartbreaking, and, in the rarest moments of rescue, it was hilarious.

It was the year of broken plans, of postponed to postponed again to canceled, of running by shuttered windows and trying to remember what it all felt like before. The year of margarita toasts at computer screens, at meaningful glances with strangers, of stubborn warmth pervading the long chill. It was the year of corporate attempts at empathy, reaching our hands, instead, for each other’s, of shedding the thick skins we pulled on to try and feel safe. The year we felt like orphans in our own homes, grieving as a status quo, building with tired damn hands, the year of stubborn damn stories. It was the year we could no longer escape ourselves, glancing at ourselves in the mirror simply so we could feel seen again, finding our long-held flaws, our broken, breathing bodies, finding ourselves suddenly beautiful, strong, brilliant. It was the year of light bending itself to stretch into the deepest cracks, breaking through brokenness, illuminating us.