Taking a Vacation at the End of the World
What if the world is always ending?
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The week before my vacation to Mexico, one I’d planned for the past seven months, the one my kids and I were supposed to take at what was supposed to be the end of all of this, I called my friend and asked her if I should cancel.
We were all vaccinated. Our trip would be to a place where pandemic precautions were taken seriously. A lot more seriously than in Iowa, where no one was masking, not anymore.
I’d waited so long for this all to end, but it wasn’t ending. There was no finish line. And what did we do? Did we cancel and wait for another finish line? Were we irresponsible? What did it mean to be responsible? The whole burden of the pandemic had been shrugged off on every systematic level until it sat squarely on my shoulders and I had nowhere to go. No right choice to make.
“Would there ever be a right time?” my friend asked.
I texted another friend who only half-jokingly noted, “You either get COVID on vacation or COVID in Iowa.”
So, we tested and we went.
I do not know if it was the right thing to take a vacation at the end of the world. But we did it; we went. It was so warm. We had a lot of fun. I went down a zipline and saw what seemed like the entire Mexican city speed past me. I screamed and my children laughed at my fear. We snorkeled, and my son saw so many fish he shouted, and the shout gurgled through his snorkel, and I thought he was drowning. And when I realized he was just happy, we all laughed at my fear too. We had room service hamburgers. We all fell asleep together listening to the ocean.
On the second day, I listened to a woman give me a sales pitch for what was “most definitely not a timeshare” but was probably a timeshare. I didn’t have to listen to her pitch. But I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to ask her about the secret history of the resort; I wanted her tips on the city; I wanted her story. At some point, after telling her I was a writer and her asking me what that was like, I told her our jobs were very similar. We needed something from people, and we got that by talking to them. She didn’t seem to trust me much after that. Nor should she.
But before she stopped talking to me and proceeded to only talk at me, I’d asked her about what seemed to be all sign but no signifier: the disease. Everywhere people were masked, there were regular cleanings, hand sanitizer, and social distancing. And yet, no one had ever uttered the word COVID.
She leaned in and told me how cruise ships kept being turned away from ports because they’d become vectors of disease. So, at night, the resort would let passengers get off at their dock and take buses back into the United States. She said the hotel had won humanitarian awards for allowing that to happen.
Later, I asked the concierge about this, and he either didn’t understand or pretended not to understand. I couldn’t find any evidence online. I thought about how much of what’s happened these past two years has happened quietly. A conspiracy of silence. Like the bar in my town that remained open during the shutdown and no one said anything much, or the county officials who went overseas, the school board members who let their kids have large house parties, things we simply do not speak of—diseased passengers quietly disembarking in the night. And when our children go looking for the evidence, it simply will not exist. We will be able to manipulate the narratives, and in the retelling, we all did the right thing.
On the third day of vacation, my daughter asks me if the world is ending.
She’s reading a kid’s version of The Left Behind books. I read the adult versions when I was just a little older than her. I remember reading through the first three with fascination and then the rest with boredom. By the fourth book, the apocalypse was repetitive and tired. I dropped off as a reader. I’d been raised on doom, and by 14, it all felt so passé.
The first news story I watched as a homeschooled child was about the raid on the Branch Davidian compound. And our pastor preached about the End Times, about attacks on people of faith. I heard the adults talk about Ruby Ridge while I helped clear the table, hoping to divine what signs and wonders they were speaking of.
I tell my daughter that yes, over 800,000 American worlds have been ended by the disease. Each an apocalypse, a cataclysmic event. I tell her, what I heard a pastor say once, that she didn’t believe in the apocalypse. The End Times, as written about in Revelation, is the fever dream of the Apostle John, writing about the disease, death, and war he witnessed in his own time. The lush metaphoric landscape of his dreams allowed people to see within them their own endings.
The first recorded example of John’s dreams being taken literally happens somewhere between 160 and 180 in the Common Era, when a Christian named Montanus uses John’s revelations to predict the end of the world. From there, it became a Christian tradition to declare the end of the world.
What if there is no one big end? But what if there are only many small endings, sharp and hidden, like so many pieces of glass?
I am trying to tell her that this is how we live now. We live in disaster. That we cannot wait for before to return. Before will never return. The times have already ended. I don’t mean this cruelly. I mean this as an acknowledgement of all that we’ve lost and all we’ve yet to lose. There is no beginning and no end. It’s all beginnings and it’s all endings. And it always has been. It’s all grief. It’s some joy. And baby, I only know one way into the abyss and that’s head first.
Okay. Okay, she says. She’s tired of my explanation, and the day is warm. And we are by the pool. And when I look, I can see a pool that reflects into the ocean, water and light reflecting on one another, until the end result is a bright brilliance and a world with no edges. I’m tequila soft by now, and so are the rest of us. A woman who looks like a stubbed-out end of a cigarette dances by the pool wearing a “Let’s Go, Brandon” shirt. I want to tell her to just say, “Fuck the president” like an actual adult. But I don’t. Near her are her soft white American daughters, and beyond them, water and light and a world that seems to reflect only back on itself.
We are all bright and beautiful and, for a moment, happy.