Breathe In, Breathe Out

Luke O’Neil

This essay appears in our third print edition.

An alarm went off at a hospital in California on the freezer they store the vaccine in and next thing they had twelve hours to get over eight hundred doses administered before they spoiled. “Needles into arms” is what they say on the news now all the time to describe the process because I think they think it has the stentorian cadence of “boots on the ground” and people on the news love to pretend they’re involved in a military exercise. Jabs is what they call them in the UK. “I’m not ‘aving the jab,” I saw a woman from over there say recently, and it was funny in the way everything they say over there is funny but it also wasn’t.

So the race was on and the administrators were telling everyone to call whoever tell them to come by like when you’re throwing a finish the keg party or when a seagull screams over to his friends about a bounty of sandy French fries. About two hundred of the doses being stored at the hospital belonged to the county so they ended up back in the hands of the local sheriff and he said they thought about using them on the inmates due to there was an outbreak among them but they “didn’t think there was enough time to gain consent and organize a safe protocol” and I bet they didn’t think that. They gave them to the staff instead so they wouldn’t catch anything off the unattended-to prisoners.  

I guess in the end the hospital got all the vaccines out the door just under the wire so it’s a happy story. I wonder how long it will be before people are breaking into pharmacies to steal vaccines instead of other types of drugs if people still do that I haven’t checked recently. I joked about texting my old dealer to see if he had any vaccine on hand but if for some idiotic reason he actually did I probably couldn’t afford the markup and besides his shit was always terrible. 

Meantime forty-two people in West Virginia were accidentally given antibodies for COVID instead of the vaccine and people in Kentucky lucked into getting shots they weren’t expecting because a pharmacy there just randomly had them waiting to go sour any minute like hundreds of them did in Wisconsin and millions of them still well could depending on how badly we fuck the rest of this process up. In Florida various counties are running Eventbrite pages where people can sign up to get access to the vaccine. “My parents have been refreshing the site every day to get in the queue for vaccines like it’s the first day of tix sales to see Bruce Springsteen,” someone told me. In New York Governor Cuomo said he would fine hospitals $100,000 that don’t distribute all of their supply within a week but he would also fine them $1,000,000 if they were caught giving them out to anyone who wasn’t in the proper priority eligibility list. I have no idea what the plan is in Massachusetts. I looked at some nicely made graphic on the state website that said maybe I could get it between April and July and then I thought about calling my doctor to ask but I remembered how much of a whole fucking thing it is to even get in touch with her so I decided I’ll just go and fuck myself. I briefly crawled out of my little hole and saw the grim shadow of the country’s pandemic inaction and now it’s COVID for another six months.

We got a new Speaker of the House here in Massachusetts and they had the guy Ron Mariano on the news the other night and the reporter goes “How do you think the vaccine rollout is going here in Mass.?” and he goes “I have no idea.”  

“Are you looking into it at all, or?” the reporter asks and he paused and looked at her like she just told him to eat a plate of shit and he goes “…I just got here.” While that is technically true he did just become the Speaker he’s also been in the House for thirty years so who is to say what just getting somewhere actually means temporally speaking. Thirty years ago I barely knew how to find my own dick. I just got here.


Those are just some of the stories about incompetence around the vaccine not the ones about malice. Whenever we’re examining the systemic violence of the American healthcare system or any other aspect of our society for that matter it’s prudent to ask is this incompetence or intentional malice and the answer is almost always por que no los dos?

The prompt for this issue of the magazine was something about breathing and coming out of 2020 with a sense of resilience and a commitment to community or whatever and all of those stories if I’m being honest are making it hard for me to hold onto any of that type of thinking for very long. None of the above transpiring was how I was supposed to have gotten through this. And before that none of the way the rest of the previous ten months happened. I thought like: it will only be a week or two until they get it under control ok maybe it will be a couple months but it’s fine we’ll just chill out at home for a while ok maybe by the end of summer things will be back to normal and it’s warm out we can just be outside all the time no alright then the holidays it is we still have the holidays to look forward to and the new year will change things perhaps and oh thank god the vaccine is here. Now they’re fucking up even that part of it and here we are and it’s the next year and the prior year hasn’t even ended yet.

Everyone always thinks the new year is going to change things for them like the calendar turns over and then you’re a different person but it doesn’t work that way. Everyone thought the same thing about the day Trump left office but that’s also a lie. Not that it’s just going to stay 2020 from now on now it’s more like it was always 2020 this entire time.

Anson Chan


“Stop breathing / Stop breathing / Breathing for me now,” this song by Pavement I’ve had stuck in my head for twenty-five years goes. “Write it on a postcard / Dad, they broke me. Dad, they broke me.” That reminds me I’m not currently speaking to my dad due to uh a politics mishap which is such a stupid and predictable thing to have happen at this point in time. I’m going to be fucked up for the rest of my life if he dies from COVID or anything else for that matter before we smooth things over but I’m also not going to be the first to call on account of being Massachusetts Irish Catholic trash so you can see why we’re at an impasse. He and my mom sent me a video of them singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” at the piano which is something we’ve done together every year for as long as I can remember but not this year. It was nice that they did that and it made me feel a little bit better but it sort of had the air of a hostage video. 

Now I have “Breathe in, breathe out / Breathe in, breathe out” in my head. One time we went to see Bush like not that long ago like way after you would reasonably expect someone to go see Bush perform and they were actually really good and he looked great like much better than you would reasonably expect someone to look at this point and the whole time I was standing there thinking this fucking guy. 

Every time someone dies now we all think the same thing right someone tells you about someone you know or used to know like my old friend group chat told me about a couple of our teachers who are gone now and you go was it COVID? I don’t know why it matters. I guess it doesn’t. It’s like the old thing where knowing someone’s name gives you a certain power over them like in curses and shit. One likes to know the name of a person’s killer because it demystifies the unfathomable to a certain extent. 4,000 people died from COVID the other day in the U.S. I suppose knowing that doesn’t make me feel better or more in control of anything so never mind what I just said. 

That Pavement song doesn’t particularly go anywhere it sort of leans this way and that in the wind the way Pavement songs do but the Bush song is a perpetual momentum machine that cuts right to the heart of things the type of song you put on when you want to run up a hill slightly faster than you might normally run up that particular hill. Now I have Kate Bush (no relation) in my head. I guess that’s why they always play it at the beginning of football games at kickoff to get the players excited to smash into each other. It would be a lot funnier if they played something off Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain though.

Michelle says I breathe weird when I’m sleeping but I have no way of determining if that’s true or not. I suppose I could set up one of those video cameras the ghost in the movies kills you on while you’re in bed but I don’t want to invite any more surveillance into my life than is strictly necessary. I’ve been having trouble sleeping throughout all of this but I suppose that is not exactly a unique set of circumstances. Every night when I jolt out of dreams about people I don’t have access to anymore when the ghost slaps me awake I go goddamnit and I roll over and I open up the laptop and I drag down the bookmark tab and I click on one of the “rain and thunder with ocean waves” videos I like and I try to sync myself up with its rhythms and a lot of times it works but a lot of times I just end up reading the comments underneath them from other people laying there wherever else in the world who can’t sleep talking about how good a job the video does at putting them to sleep. “Everyone, just stop typing and sleep!” one I just read says. That’s good advice for a lot of situations. I just read a guy on Twitter talking about sleeping and he said, “Maybe you gotta forgive yourself for the part of the year when you sleep and sleep and sleep and sleep and sleep.” And then he said, “My poor body just wants me to outlive the winter, and I get so mad at it for that.”

I just came back to my laptop and a bunch of dried needles from the Christmas tree that isn’t here anymore had jumped up onto the keyboard while I had turned my back. We paid the fire department $10 to come take the tree to wherever it is unwanted trees go because they were doing a fundraiser for a new truck or something. The town trash guys don’t take trees here and in fact they aren’t even town trash guys they’re some private service because no one here wanted to vote to make their taxes go up so the town just said fuck it no trash collection. 

“I will try not to breathe, this decision is mine. I have lived a full life,” is how an REM song I really like goes. Giving off a real Gen X guy vibe here I understand that but I swear I listen to other bands besides ones that were popular in the 90s. That one was about his grandmother passing on I believe. She was ready to go.

The point about the white noise videos is it’s kind of nice to have something in common with people I’ll never meet all around the world. Usually the videos are just footage that repeats over and over but I often find myself watching intently to see if anything different happens like a wave crests in a new way like a glitch type of thing or a hidden clue but it never does it’s just the same thing over and over. Then at some point I fall back asleep and the ghost goes and rifles through my shit in the closet or whatever it is ghosts do when they’re not being filmed. Last night in one of the Hellblazer comics I read every night before bed now Constantine’s buddy comes back as a ghost to visit him after he dies and they go out to the pub and have a few rounds and his friend who I guess ended up in Heaven which isn’t always a given in these stories says he can drink as much as he likes up there but they don’t let it get you drunk which sounds like some real liberal shit to me. The alternative of going to the other place is a lot worse though based on evidence in pretty much every other issue of the series.

I read an obituary from Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland and his wife Sarah about their son Tommy and it talked about what a kind and sensitive kid he was and always looking out for other people and that sort of thing. Something he used to say a lot when he was sticking up for other kids in school was “Forgive me, but it’s hard to be a human,” they wrote. He was twenty-five and he died by suicide on New Year’s Eve and in his note he said, “Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me.” And then a couple days later Raskin was rushed off the floor in the Capitol as throngs of rampaging Trump supporters ransacked the building looking for someone to take their inchoate fascistic rage out on. For almost two whole days during the coup or insurrection or whatever you want to call it the specific word doesn’t matter I forgot almost entirely about COVID. It was like a breath of fresh air. Not fresh air but a breath of a different kind of air. Just something else I mean. The monotony I had longed to be broken finally was and be careful what you wish for I think is the lesson there. 

I meant to say before that people in bands love to write songs about breathing. I think it’s because you’re standing there with your guitar or whatever and you’ve got a little tune you’ve plucked out of the void and you’re trying to think of things you could sing about over it and you’re conscious of your breath and you go oh right. Breathing in and breathing out and falling in and falling out of love and that’s basically the two things songs can be about because those are some of the only things all of us ever do until one day we can’t anymore. ♦


Luke O’Neil is the author of the new book Lockdown in Hell World and writes the newsletter Welcome to Hell World.

Illustrations by Anson Chan.


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