I decided to move out of New York City in early March, during a blizzard. It was my best friend’s birthday, and convincing her that bar-hopping during a blizzard was a disastrous idea took approximately 25 minutes and a personal sacrifice on my part that involved running the half-block to the bodega for gin and cookie dough. The moment I found myself hurdling through a blizzard, with a bottle of gin under each arm and a roll of cookie dough in my back pocket, was the moment I decided it was time to relocate.
A few slightly drunken, distinctly desperate phone calls secured me a summer bedroom in Athens, Georgia with two of my childhood friends. They promised me a summer full of front porch swings, mint juleps, and fraternity parties. Two days after I arrived, one friend accepted a job processing salmon in Alaska, and the other moved back to her parent’s house to take classes at the community college. Suddenly, I was living in a three story house on the outskirts of a college town, completely alone.
I spent most of that first week lying on the pin-striped sofa in the living room, re-watching The Office, drinking cheap vodka with orange juice, and ignoring calls from my family. When my legs grew stiff, I would get up and wander through the musty heat of the house. During the school year, eight girls from the University of Georgia filled the space, but they had all relocated for the summer. I would peak into their vacant bedrooms, wander through the kitchen, practice P90X in the basement, and eventually end the tour by collapsing on the small mattress I had claimed in the third floor’s corner bedroom.
After a week of this, I realized I couldn’t spend four months alone with Netflix, and began searching for work. I had hoped to spend the summer folding breezy bohemian dresses for pregnant women in a downtown boutique, or organizing books at the library, but it seemed that every respectable job was filled by bearded townies or depressed college students, taking a summer science class. I called a high school boyfriend of mine who lived in town, risking the chance of rekindling our dreary relationship in the hopes that he could point me towards employment. He recommended the offices of Copytalk, a company that took dictations and transcriptions for financial services professionals.
Their office was located in the historic downtown section of Athens, and the clatter of computer keyboards could be heard from the parking lot, despite the building’s brick walls and single window. In the evening, the hum mirrored the chorus of the cicadas. By the end of the summer, I found their combined din unbearable.
I was hired on the spot, after completing a test to determine the speed of my typing, administered by an overweight man wearing pink-tinted sunglasses. He was covered in tattoos of naked women, only half hidden by the sleeves of his green polo shirt.
A week later, I found myself sitting in the corner of a large room filled with outdated Microsoft computers, wearing noise-canceling headphones, tapping my right foot against a black pedal, transcribing notes from bankers and insurance salesmen. I was what the company called a “Scribe,” what the voices dictating called an “Operator,” and what my mother called a “Stenographer.”
For six to eight hours a day, five days a week, I would move my sore fingers as quickly as possible over a sticky keyboard, writing about life insurance and death benefits until my eyes became too bleary to see what I wrote. The boredom was thick, and I would often find myself, fingers posed over the keys, staring out the window, imagining what the warm sunlight would feel like on my hair.
Most mornings, I woke up to the whirring of the ceiling fan. There was a wonderful sadness in drinking coffee alone in the kitchen, and driving through the wide, tree-lined streets at eight a.m.. I was transient, a shadow across the landscape.
Each morning, I would type in silence for a few hours. None of the scribes spoke to each other, but groggily worked through their shift in slippers and sweatshirts. In the afternoon, I would spend my time wandering through downtown Athens and the University of Georgia campus; exploring bookstores or napping on the lawn behind the library. Each evening, I would go for a long run through the Botanical garden trails, leaping over roots and often clambering to a halt to stare into the eyes of a deer. In the oppressive heat of the Georgia summer, in the back woods, I felt the most connected to myself: slick with sweat, sidestepping gardner snakes, and sprinting through fields peopled with telephone poles. At eight p.m., I would return to the office to work until eleven. My favorite moment each day was driving home in the night, with the windows down, through the glow of the campus lights and the surrounding pastured farmlands.
This was my routine, Monday through Friday. At first, the silence of my life was nauseating and noticeable. Often, I would realize in the shower that I hadn’t spoken out loud in a number of days and begin to talk or sing to myself, just to ensure that I still knew how. Other days, I would hide in the corner of the local coffee house, simply to surround myself with chatter.
By June, my craving to be around other people had grown stronger, but interacting normally became challenging. The task of conversation became exorbitantly heavy, and when friends visited town for the weekend or my family called on the phone, I experienced intense anxiety and discomfort. My social skills rapidly deteriorated, and carrying on a conversation became exhausting. The longer I was alone, the more I craved aloneness. By July, sustained eye contact had even become difficult.
Despite this deterioration, the reward for so much aloneness was a growing sense of comfort and contentedness. I found myself constantly amazed by my own cheerfulness, and the pleasure I took in filling each day with peaceful, autonomous tasks and activities.
It rained almost every morning and evening of that summer; the kind of thunderstorms that only exists in the South. The trails I ran became so flooded that I often had to crawl through the underbrush to bypass the messiest bits of the path. One buggy afternoon, I failed to take the precaution of slowing my pace and tiptoeing through the mud. When I inevitably slipped, I landed firmly on my ass in a muddy pool. My hands and shoes were covered with grime, and my legs were splattered. I laughed. I was sitting in the middle of the woods, completely alone, in a pool of mud, giggling. It didn’t matter that no one was there to share the experience. I reached down to freshly muddy my hands, and then smeared the dirt across my face and neck. I felt clean.
I was learning to know and to enjoy myself. I was learning how to be alone. I was surprised by how literature, movies, and mud puddles in the woods could be tender towards me–could be befriended. This joy lasted through the second week of July, and then a fog so dreary descended, it didn’t fully clear until I had moved back to Brooklyn.
All I remember clearly of July is a pervasive sense of loss. My best friend, for whom I had sprinted through snow, decided to transfer to a different university on the other side of of the country. She called me to tell me the news while I was away for the weekend, in the midst of ending a relationship with the first boy I ever loved. I stood outside of his lakeside cabin at midnight, straining in an attempt to locate clear cell phone service, and listened to her yell across the static that she was moving in three weeks. He was inside adjusting the noise level on a Smiths record, watching me coldly and disinterestedly through the screen; she was on the phone, needing me to be strong, needing me to be supportive and encouraging. I remember doubling over, holding my calves with one hand, the phone in the other, thinking: If you cry now, no one will forgive you. Don’t cry.
When he dropped me off in Athens the next afternoon, our relationship effectively ended, I crawled into the walk-in closet in my bedroom and cried on the floor for three hours. I had never felt so alone in my life. I made a mix cd that was just “Creep” by Radiohead and some Ani Defranco track that screamed, “fuck you” a lot. I was incapable of listening to anything else, and would play them in my car repeatedly. I kept to my same routines, and managed to continue to find joy in the coffee houses and country roads of North Georgia. But my mind felt thick with depression, and the aloneness I had learned to wear like a mantle became burdensome and overwhelming. Even the weather (weeks of misty gray), was oppressive and alienating.
There are three types of aloneness that I have discovered. The first is the autonomy that characterized the beginning half of my summer: aloneness that I had chosen. This aloneness, while challenging, was freeing. I had left everyone. The second aloneness is more troubling. This aloneness happens when those you love leave you. The third, and by far the worst kind of loneliness, is when these two converge. I lived in the space created by these two abandonments for three weeks. In August, she moved to Texas, he moved to Romania, and I moved back to Brooklyn.
I found a journal from the first week of my time in Athens. It read, “A truly terrible moment is when you come to understand that the majority of the people you love don’t really love you back all that much. I mean, they love you. But they don’t really need you.”
I was right. We don’t “need” the people we love. In fact, dependency on others for our happiness and contentment leads only to toxic relationships and disappointment. But I was wrong in believing this to be a “terrible” truth. Rather, it frees us to love one another with a precision and intensity freed from self-interest and validation.
I was nineteen when I spent three months living alone, in an empty college town. It was the kindest thing I could have ever done for myself. I am gentler.
We’re all alone in ourselves. And when we retreat into that aloneness, we begin to realize the well of our own selfishness and paranoia, as well as our own fragility and importance. Knowing the depths of our own darkness, light, and shade enable us both to endure the darkness and rejoice over the light in others.
Still, when people ask, “How was your summer?” I reply, “It rained almost every day.”