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It’s late on a Friday night in February. I am in my apartment. A metallic sheen of silvery light ekes through the open living room window. I’m sitting on my couch, watching the light, listening to the sound of the city outside as it churns, exhales. It’s an orchestral sound, vaguely ominous, composed of traffic, foghorns, and contrails of fading conversation. It reminds me of an ocean, breathing. I sit and I listen. Shadows crawl along the walls. The T.V. is off. A copy of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time lays closed on the floor. My open laptop glows ominously on the coffee table in front of me, like a portal into some kind of matrixical underworld. On the screen is an empty Word doc. The cursor blinks maddeningly.
I am alone.
I’ve lived in this city for 6 months. Aside from my coworkers, I still don’t know any one. Faces on the bus and at the gym have become familiar, and a handful of dates have resulted in mornings of momentary friendship, but for the most part I spend my free time sitting alone in my inadequately windowed apartment, attempting to read or write, failing in that effort, and trying instead to convince myself that my apartment does not feel like one of those drawers morticians slide dead people inside of: Dark, small, indistinguishable from the drawer next door.
I moved to the city to write for an online magazine, an event which meant I would be able to call myself a writer — like, a real writer — for the first time in my life. I was ecstatic. I found an apartment with a bay window that overlooked Lombard Street. I joined a gym located just a handful of blocks away. I arranged the furniture exactly as I wanted the furniture to be arranged. I did not anticipate that, 6 months after moving, I would still be lonely and friendless, but, to be honest, at the beginning, the prospect of being alone didn’t bother me. In fact, it excited me.
~Like one of those drawers morticians slide dead people inside of~
I am an introvert. I know this about myself. I enjoy being alone. Moreover — as is true of most introverts, I think — I romanticize the idea of being alone. Upon moving to the city, I imagined that it would say something about myself, being OK with being alone, as if an appreciation for solitude acts as some kind of evidence that one is stoic, and strong, and confident.
As is the case with most things one desires so solipsistically, however, once I obtained the solitude I sought, I found only disappointment, and sadness, and guilt, and anxiety. Which is to say that I found loneliness.
Being alone for any real length of time is romantic only in theory. In fact, all prolonged stretches of solitude — the kind that introverts like me impose upon themselves all the time, the kind that does not actually necessitate being physically alone — inevitably morph into loneliness.
For me, as the nights alone turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, what happened was this: First, the silence of my apartment curdled into a sort of constant static. Next, to keep that static from getting louder, I started telling myself that it wasn’t my fault, what was happening to me — it wasn’t my fault that I hadn’t reached out to or interacted with any of the nearly one million other people who live here in this city or who ride the same bus as me or work out at my gym; it wasn’t my fault that my apartment felt like a morgue; it wasn’t my fault that I’d stopped texting people back and ventured to and from work via wordless Uber rides, and ordered all my dinners in. The problem was that I was isolated — both physically and in that ethereal way other people likely wouldn’t understand — and in that isolation, I was helpless.
It didn’t work; I couldn’t evade my complicity. In time I recognized this, that I was lonely, and that my loneliness was entirely self-inflicted, but by the time I did I couldn’t do anything about it. I felt weighed down by some kind of heavier gravity. I felt like a satellite that’d fallen out of orbit — slowly drifting away into darkness, further and further away from the place I used to be.
In time, my ability to write, like a muscle that I’d neglected, dissipated completely, vanishing into something elusive and vague, a tendril of thought, forgotten.
The screen of my laptop fades to grey, and dies. The sound of a passing motorcycle rips the room in two. In the darkness it sounds like a monster, gnarling.
This is one of the chief ironies of loneliness: For writers, especially, the kind of solitude which lends itself to loneliness is necessary, yet at the same time it’s totally and definitively noxious.
As James Baldwin once wrote: “One writes out of one thing only — one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern.”
Wherein lies the conundrum: How can you meaningfully articulate the experience of being alive if you yourself are only in tune with the broken clockwork of your own anxiety, the echo chamber of your own skull?
You can’t — any attempts at as much will be hollow, and disingenuous. And disingenuous is the worst thing a writer can be. Because without ingenuity, all you’re left with is cliche.
~A tendril of thought, forgotten~
This irony is, of course, in my case, rendered all the more guilt-inducing by a second, sort of sub-irony that I’m now all too aware of: If one-third of the people living in the city I live in, also, would profess to experiencing feelings of loneliness — as recent research into the epidemic of loneliness would suggest—it can be assumed that every one of those 300,000 lonely people are ultimately just as lonely as me. Which means that I am the opposite of isolated. Which means I don’t have any kind of excuse at all.
I’ve been telling myself this a lot, recently. That I don’t have an excuse. That I need to stop this. I tell myself again as I take a breath and close my computer for the night. I tell myself it’s time to go to bed and I’ll start over on making things better tomorrow. I lift my eyes. But it’s then that, with a prick of shock, I catch my reflection staring back at me in the blackness of the T.V. screen.
What I see is a person who looks gaunt and vaguely ghoulish, an outline of man I don’t recognize.
Through the open window, the sound of the city continues churning.