It wasn’t the joke. It was the feeling of being in on it. We’d trickle out from one room and spill into another and look into each other’s eyes and resolutely declare how gorgeous everyone was. Not enough of us believed in our own beauty as much as we believed each other’s, so inevitably someone would deflect with a comment about how drunk they were. That’s when the incantation came in handy. Three, two, one, sober.

It’s been half a year since I decided to take time off school. The world doesn’t let me forget about that. I have to explain it to someone new every week. I may not be attending classes but the quarter system has tarnished me to the bone and I can’t stop resting my brain on its clockwork. I kept myself busy fall quarter; I was working full-time at a nonprofit, holding down three nights a week at a bar, freelancing, coming home to work on my play, hosting rehearsals on the weekends. Everything is fatter now—my bank account my Korean vocabulary my level of cumulative disillusionment me.

It’s been about a month since every job and commitment from fall quarter came to an end. I’ve been in bed for the majority of this month. I go to the movies because often that’s the only appealing enough reason for me to get out of bed and it’s the least I could do for myself—to try to get out of the house every day. I’m rested but not having fun. Maybe fun isn’t the right word. Maybe fun is an obvious luxury. No one’s having fun.

Everyone tells me to find myself. University guest speakers, Youtube productivity ads, my parents. Spend this time finding yourself. I don’t know what that means. In the creative circle, it means to find your voice—why you need to be the one telling these stories, or a particular style with which you tell stories. I don’t really know what that means either but I do know my writing sounds different depending on how I feel. For a long time last year I was obsessed with short choppy sentences. Right now I want to write with no commas. I’m really only using commas at all because I realize at some point I have to compromise with the audience’s need to understand. I don’t read into this very much. I think it just means I’m bored and whiny and maybe apathetic. Or maybe that it feels apt for the pacing of time right now. An unflinching, somber crawl.

At school, my friends used to joke that if you counted three, two, one, sober, we could make each other sober up instantly. Maybe we had pointed at each other on ‘sober’? It’s all hazy already. I don’t remember nearly as much of freshman year as I claim to. I still think about this joke sometimes. Its wonderful pretend-play. Pretending is all I want to do for a living and there’s a stunning shortage of it right now. There’s no reason for me to get drunk these days so there’s naturally no reason to play sober. Each day is surreal and detached and yet does not offer escape. We’re floating gracefully in our own suffocation. No level of denial is permitted here. This experience is growing a tail so long that it can no longer be written away as a short, weird time. I’ve lived 5 percent of my life in the pandemic. It’s 50 percent of my adult life. The idea of COVID is so destructively non-poetic that I want to smash my keyboard every time a piece of writing turns into something about COVID. I hate the capital letters. I hate putting acronyms in personal essays. But everything I write eventually bows its ugly head toward the subject because it is no longer possible to assign meaning to things outside of this context. We can’t three, two, one this away.

I don’t do anything these days except watch movies and fuel my smartphone addiction. It’s become regular exercise for me to sift through names in my head, so they don’t sink too far into the abyss. A warden making rounds to check on each cell. Just in case someone’s actually dying. Nevertheless I don’t take the luxury of all this lightly. The privilege of possessing this time at all. Who knows when I’ll be able to rest so fully again. The feeling of my thick winter comforter casting a weighty embrace over my bare legs. The closest thing to paradise I could ever believe in. So when I feel the fomo (another acronym, this whole essay is shot) creeping in, I gently bat it away and relish being with my family.

We never actually three, two, one‘d anything away. But we shared something in the moment of collective denial. We were in on the joke, in on each other being in on the joke, in on our own denial, our own low-budget witchcraft.

I couldn’t be any more sober. Three, two, one, and now what?