There are few things more instinctively terrifying to a 20-something girl than being alone. It is crippling and demoralizing, forcing you to resort to a desperate defensiveness. “I choose to be alone, I wanted this.” But, as with all things that seem incredibly difficult at this age, when it is forced upon you, you will learn to adapt to it. You adopt it as a part of your nature. You get used to it and it stops bothering you so much.
The first and hardest lesson you have to learn is that there are different dimensions of aloneness, and the loneliest ones of all are the least expected. While waking up by yourself when you have a secret want for morning warmth will be felt acutely, being alone with company is a whole different animal. You will learn a specific, biting type of alienation that is drunken aloneness when you are surrounded by a room full of strangers you pretend to know, and that will make you an in-your-bones kind of tired. This is the kind of tired that you will wish you could un-know.
Eventually, though, the sting subsides to quiet resignation and you will tell yourself and the people who will listen that “it’s not so bad” after all. You stop looking to others and, instead, look to yourself for peace of mind. There will be a breaking point where being sad becomes exhausting and unnecessary. With little choice, you will allow the loveliness of waking in the company of sunlight and nothing else be enough. You’ll learn to enjoy eating in whatever manner you choose, even develop a bit of smugness about it. You are your own most forgiving company. Creative inspiration will spring from quiet moments where, before, you looked for conversation. Your patio will become a temple of cigarettes and breathing in the December chill and you will gradually wean yourself off of the want for company.
Weeks, months, maybe even years will pass and you will be proud of your integration with aloneness. When people say that “you can’t learn to be with someone until you are comfortable being by yourself,” you will smile knowingly like you “know that feeling” and turn to look at something that is not there, feeling good about yourself. Feeling like you have arrived, or emerged, or transcended.
But then, accidentally, you will meet someone. All of a sudden, the cliché “you won’t find it until you stop looking” becomes real and you will smack yourself on the forehead when you’re eating dinner by yourself (as usual) and tell yourself to snap out of it in your “reasonable” voice. There is no being reasoned with, though, and the inevitable fall will occur as it always does. You will attack this blossoming whatever-it-is from any angle you can: what’s so special about him anyway? Aren’t you too old and too seasoned to be feeling this high school giddy when he smiles at you or touches your hand? The first time he kisses you, you will feel your heart flutter like a goddamn butterfly while you simultaneously berate yourself for letting it happen. You won’t be able to put your finger on why he’s different, but he will be different.
Suddenly, your aloneness will be invaded. You will introduce your Starbucks to him — the one you used to frequent every day from six to eleven like clockwork — even though he will not be able to understand its significance. The barista, who used to flirt with you when you ordered your triple mocha, will smile at you wryly and toss a short, dismissive, “have a nice day” at you. Never have you been so happy about falling out of favor with someone. You want to say, “this is my place, and this is special to me. This is where I would go to be around people without being with people.” How do you explain to him that coffee and strangers saved you from numbness? He will sit across from you at the table that seemed to barely have enough room for just you, before, but both of you will fit just fine. Snug, but just fine.
You will do mundane things together, like hang Christmas lights in a canopy above your living room and go to the mall just to walk around and count the rich women with perfectly coiffed hair. It will make you feel young in a way that is not embarrassing. Almost a relief, it’ll also be terrifying because it feels right and you are so used to feeling right all by yourself. He will ask you for commitment without even understanding the weight that commitment to another person carries for you. Saying yes, however, will be natural rather than daunting. It will all come so easy but the part of yourself that thinks it knows better will keep chanting “easy come, easy go” in the back of your head.
Then one day, you will tamper with the amphetamines you swore you would never touch again, trying to prove to yourself that you are no less to susceptible to their pull than you used to be. You’re wrong. He meets you at the parking deck and, though you don’t tell him, your hand is shaking as you take his and you feel sick to your stomach as he holds it tighter to keep the trembling at bay. With your face buried in that space between his shoulder and his cheek, you breathe and catch the welcome scent of cigarettes and coffee on his jacket. To calm your racing heart, he takes you to sit on a cement hill overlooking the city and the two of you split a bottle of red wine as he talks to you about the time he was young and fell down a flight of stairs but went to school anyway instead of telling his mother. Suddenly, through your drugged restlessness, you will collide with a moment of stillness in which you realize how much you’d like to keep him here, right beside you. How, even if it means that someday you’ll have to learn all the painful lessons again, right now you’re willing to unlearn aloneness to be with him. His skin against yours satisfies something in you like a good meal of mashed potatoes and chicken pot pie on a cold day and you are surprised to realize that you’ve been hungry — you had no idea this whole time. The self-destructiveness that you had rationalized as a coping mechanism and made light of because you’re just twenty and still carried lingering remnants of that teenage invincibility — will start to repulse you. There is nothing like being cared about to make you start caring about yourself again.
And so begins the process of un-learning how to be alone all the time. Who knew that reversing the process would be so hard? In all your busy preparations for steeling yourself against loneliness, you buried the parts of yourself that knew how to be not-alone. Now, you find yourself steeling yourself against a different kind of challenge. On a Saturday night, armed with his kiss goodnight, you start digging for the fragments you’ve kept “out of sight, out of mind.” You dig and you dig, piecing back together what you’d once wanted so badly to deny, and learn to share yourself again.
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