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Diet Coke at the End of the World

Diet Coke at the End of the World

by L. R. Encinas

. 5 min read

A woman in her early thirties looks around sweatily at the other Costco carts. She’s dressed like she just got back from the gym. (She did not. She’s been wearing those workout clothes for days, and yet.)

The carts are full of water, rice, pasta, and other food storage staples for the inevitable national quarantine. Her cheeks are flushed like she had a really great workout. (Once again, wrong. She’s on the verge of a panic attack and she’s been stress eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs.)

Nevertheless, she persists — she came for one thing, and one thing only. Her eyes lock on the cases of Diet Coke.

*Record scratch — freeze frame.*

Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got here — buying cases of Diet Coke in the midst of a pandemic while my fellow anxiety-ridden Costco shoppers buy water and toilet paper for the End of Days. Nope, I’ll take my doomsday right outta the can.

When the realization and subsequent panic set in that COVID-19 would be a part of our lives for the next several months, I, like any rational person, thought about my loved ones. Will my grandparents be OK? My small children can’t remember to flush, so how am I going to help them remember to wash their tiny little Corona hands? What shall become of moi should there be a rumored Diet Coke shortage??

The Corona of it all is too much for my little lizard brain to process, so I’m holding on to a few things I love. For one: my family, but we’ll see how I feel about them after six weeks of quarantine. There has been one constant in my life before my kids, my husband, an iPhone, or a good bra. It’s Diet Coke.

I’m proud and equally embarrassed to say I want a cold Diet Coke while my eyeballs calcify from an eternally refreshing Twitter feed. I want to throw a caffeinated one back while I turn my nervous energy into organizing every drawer in my house with the dull lull of HGTV in the background. Diet Coke, I’ll see you in hell. In a weird world with so many unknowns, I need some consistency.

My Diet Coke origin story begins as many do: laced with an underlying trauma. This one is early morning seminary in nature.

Seminary began at 5:45 a.m., which means I was waking up around 5 a.m. or earlier. I didn’t go every day, but when I did, I was exhausted. My mom — a woman who drank nary a sip of juice or soda during my formative years — got me hooked on the stuff. She first turned to the can because she, too, was exhausted from driving me to seminary at such an, ironically, ungodly hour.

In my practice of Mormonism, Diet Coke is the best I got. Thankfully, I grew up in the South, and Coke (a term that encompasses all sodas, regardless of name or label) is more acceptable as a breakfast drink. I love the smell of coffee, but I love the taste of tin and aspartame in the morning. At this point, my bones are disintegrating and I’m riddled with precancerous cells, and I still couldn’t be happier when I crack open a Diet Coke as soon as I’m vertical.

My storied personal history with Diet Coke has a colorful cast of characters.

My best friend, who gave me a sterling silver charm bracelet as a high school graduation present with the timeless words: Diet Coke engraved on the charm in cursive. My missionary companion (also a drinker), who would walk to Sonic with me every day for “morning exercise” to buy a 44-ounce Diet Coke. The countless McDonald’s drive-through attendants who have known me, and I’ve known them, and yet we never acknowledge the frequency of my visits, or that I see them more than my own parents.

Not all Diet Cokes are created equal. Any connoisseur knows that. My favorite mode is, of course, right from the can. It’s full of carbonation; it’s consistent; it’ll never let you down.

Second, in a huge fountain drink. And I have a controversial take here — pebble ice is, obviously, preferred immediately, but it melts too quickly and waters down the Good Stuff. I’m a purist, so I don’t often mess with the Dirty Diet Cokes and the newfangled syrups the kids drink these days. I want an enormous regular Diet Coke with regular-sized ice cubes. As God intended.

Lastly, Diet Coke from a bottle. The plastic-leaching flavor reminds me of a class pizza party. It’s flat. It’s meh. This is a fact — ask any Cokelier. (@CocaCola, I’m letting you have Cokelier as a free ™ on me.)

No matter the occasion, Diet Coke is a good choice. Breakfast? Diet Coke. Lunch? Diet Coke with a lemon wedge. Bar scene with friends after work? Diet Coke with a lime wedge. Afternoon pick-me-up? A large one-dollar Diet Coke from McDonald’s. Which I then stick directly in my knock-off Yeti to keep its ice-cold integrity. I am an innovator.

We live in the best of times and the worst of times, and the thing about Diet Coke and those who drink Diet Coke is, without debate — we’re fun. When have you seen someone drinking a Diet Coke who looks sad about it? Who do you want with you when the world is burning? I’ll tell you who — a gal with a Diet Coke can in her hand.

The culture of Diet Coke is one of triumph. When I was at BYU during the uncaffeinated Dark Ages, I had to walk uphill both ways to the Mav south of campus to get a Diet Coke and smuggle it into the library in my purse. Successfully drinking such delicious contraband was a simple pleasure.

When I was in the MTC, my angel friend would leave Diet Cokes in the bushes by the Provo Temple for me to pick up on preparation days. When I got done pushing each of my three human babies out of my body, the first thing I wanted was a Diet Coke. And today, hanging off the edge of the world at Costco, storing the necessities like my ancestors taught me, I was prepared.

Of course I’ve asked myself why I love a Diet Coke so damn much. Why am I compelled to drink it every day? The most obvious answer is usually the most correct — I’m clearly addicted to caffeine. That much is sure. I’m a functioning adult and, like the familiar feeling that led me down this path, I’m tired. I know there’s other more holistic ways to cope, but we’re all just doing our best out here.

Sometimes it’s the little things that get you through something big. Like raising small kids and building a career. Like waking up at 5 a.m. as a teenager when you need more sleep than ever. Like having schedules and health and everything secure be suddenly insecure, and all you want is your family, an internet connection, and a can of Diet Coke by your side.

(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)