My 2020: A Tragicomedy, in 4 Acts

(In which we observe the annual tradition of cataloguing all the year’s happenings that are worth preserving.)

ACT 1: THE BEFORE

The curtain opens on a very drunk, neon-tank-top-clad Doug, dancing the night away to ring in the New Year on a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand. He’s euphoric. Finally, after a year of the deepest despair, followed by a year of incredible and soul-excavating world wandering, THIS is the year when he gets to make sense of his life again. To rebuild. To regrow roots. This time, as an English teacher. In Japan!
But not until he’s finished up backpacker life by seeing a bit more of Asia — hands-down the most vibrant, exciting, bizarre, and all-around best continent on Earth. Bangkok✅. Bali✅. Manila✅. Tokyo✅. Osaka✅. Plus countless other little spots too. Along the way, about 100 job applications, 5 interviews, 3 offers, and a golden ticket: the chance to become an expat and live in Japan. It’s the culmination of a dream that he’s kept on the Someday shelf for over a decade.
In our Act 1 finale number, we see Doug jetting off to Guam for a brief, beachy, America-but-not-America intermission, where he eagerly awaits the business visa that will carry him to his new life after switching jobs.

ACT 2: THE DURING

Life on Guam is one last shimmering sea of vagabond days, in the face of pending possibility. He makes new friends, kinda catches feelings for a guy, wiles away the hours on insanely pretty beaches, plays an absurd amount of Pokémon Go almost every day in Hagåtña, and even pops over to the Mariana Islands for a bit, just for good measure.
And then, the whole world just kinda goes nuts. But it all feels ridiculous and alarmist at first. Words like “lockdown” and “face mask” and “quarantine” and “social distancing” start popping up on his News Feed. That last one sounds particularly Orwellian. It all reads like a Bizarro World far, far away, since Guam is still just floating in the Pacific, blissfully untouched. Until it isn’t. The first 2 cases show up somehow, on St. Patrick’s Day.
Then the dominoes start falling. Travel — the thing Doug has built his entire life around for an entire year — becomes impossible. On his birthday, he learns that Japan has decided to shut its borders 🥳. He’s the last one in his hostel who hasn’t fled for home — because he doesn’t HAVE one. And that’s how Guam becomes the thing that’s now 7,000 miles away from Doug’s last goddamn “I swore to myself I’d never-ever do this” resort: moving back in with his parents.
But first, quarantine. 2 weeks without a whisper of human contact, in a cabin in the Poconos. Time passes like maple syrup, but somehow, it still passes.
Afterwards, on that drive back to Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania, it’s mid-April and the world is (invisibly) on fire — his, and everybody else’s. He pulls into his parents’ driveway, wondering what the hell this “next step” that feels like a thousand steps backwards might have in store.

ACT 3: THE ENDURING

The quiet desperation of powerlessness. The sheer, no-end-in-sight boredom of total life upheaval. For a while, entire days are constructed around when to go for a walk. (You know, like a dog.) Then, cakes and pies and cookies become a thing worth making. Then playing around on the stock market with Robinhood. Then reading some classics. Then getting lost in 100-hour RPGs on PS4. Then, when it’s finally warm enough, daily interludes at the pool.
And then, something kind of magical happens. The crushing boredom gives way to creativity. He writes 50,000 words of a “book” (that he still hasn’t finished). He starts amassing freelance writing clients. A kind of absurd amount of money starts coming in — almost enough to replenish everything he spent in a whole year of traveling. The days begin to pass in something of a rhythm again — a dysfunctional, forlorn, this-is-exactly-where-I-don’t-want-to-be rhythm, but a rhythm nonetheless.
He finds some solace in making up for lost time with his sisters and his dad. Still, living with Mom and Dad is… hard. So hard. Doug at 34 is lightyears away from the guy who still felt at home in rural Pennsylvania at 18, and that was before the collection of chemical reactions that formed his mother’s personality just… stopped reacting. She’s “there,” but she’s never really there anymore, and despite his best efforts to make the most of the time with her, honestly, it’s agony to spend time with the wisp of her that remains.
Escapism sets in. Hard. Dating apps are a time-suck, then an addiction — then, miraculously, a path forward. Doug meets a Filipino-New Jerseyan and promptly devotes all his time to obsessing over him — because he’s pretty cool, but also because what the fuck else is there to do in a pandemic?
They become a couple, and it’s pretty cute. They fall for each other — in the middle of the barren lack of prospects of 2020 America. Most of their “date nights” amount to adorable sessions of HBO, cooking something together, avoiding the outside world (because COVID), and cuddling on a couch. He’s Doug’s perfect canvas for blotting out the whole world, the single silver lining to this whole thing. The only thing, actually, that makes his baseline of miserable, defeated bitterness feel bearable.
Well, in retrospect, that’s a crown too heavy for any queen. (And too unfair.) Doug pushes all his discontent and anger and anxiety down and tries to transform it into love. (Spoiler alert: That never ever works.) He gets a job offer for an insane salary in Puerto Rico — but turns it down, partly because the prospect of Japan is still too alluring, but also partly because he’s so totally smitten by this guy that he begins to entertain the “What if?” line of thinking. He makes this guy his whole world for a while. He starts therapy, because he sees how utterly ridiculous he’s being, but he can’t help it.
He moves to New Jersey.
And then — the very next week — he learns that after 6 weary months, he’s actually getting another chance to move to Japan. They’re reopening their borders in October. And he jumps on it.
This puts an expiration date on the relationship, and it immediately extinguishes the starry-eyed flames too. The things Doug had overlooked became the things that made him kind of… done. So he breaks it off, and it’s sad. But then they go to Maine for a (previously planned) weekend getaway, and it actually ends up being the most perfect and beautiful and precious way to wrap up their time in each other’s lives.
A few days later, he packs up the 6-week stint as a Jersey Boy, visa in hand, and finally gets to do the thing he’s been waiting to do all year long.

ACT 4: THE EVER AFTER?

Even in the first 2 weeks, even in quarantine all over again, Japan is a dream. An enclosed dream, in 4 glorious little walls. Tatami floors, shoji doors, and a million other tiny touches make the new apartment feel like all the best parts of Asia. More than that, it’s HIS apartment — a thing he hasn’t had in almost 2 years. A place to call home, at last.
When he (literally) opens his door to life in Japan, it’s like the never-ending red light of 2020 finally turns green. Expat life is the life Doug has been waiting for, all these years, and it feels more like home than home ever did. There’s this beautiful calm to it, an enduring wholeness that’s been missing for ages.
And now, there’s nothing but the fast lane. Freelancing in the morning, teaching all afternoon and all evening, coming home exhausted at 10pm, then eat, sleep, wake up and repeat. Being Sensei Doug is sometimes heartwarming, sometimes a pain in the ass, but always, on balance, a pretty badass career change. Plus, somehow there’s been time for new friends, new restaurants, new kanji, new anime, new masked-up adventures — and, not to jinx it, but new love.
So after all that, what do you know? Our story of this all-the-feels year comes to a close, ironically, just as it began: with a pretty euphoric Doug on a pretty far-flung tropical island in Asia, contemplating how stupid lucky he is to be alive.
Whatever in God’s name 2021 might bring, I know for sure — maybe more than I’ve ever known it — that I am ballsy and brave and stubborn enough to get through it.

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