So Lonely I Could Die: What I Have Learned About Loneliness
It’s the summer of 2016, and everything is perfect. I’ve moved into an apartment in a beautiful neighborhood with a great roommate. I have a handsome, well-to-do boyfriend. I’ve started a new job in the city. The college years, and the year that followed, were often unkind, but spring this year brought promise. I resolve to grow herbs and flowers on our fire escape. I am twenty-three and I have it made, I think.
(I don’t, but you knew that, didn’t you?)
My boyfriend’s name is Mackenzie. He is tall and warm. I let him drive my car. His mother remarried into wealth, and his pompous stepfather likes me. I have a rare, acerbic wit; I am a Yankee curiosity, a girl who could handily match his boy. Mackenzie is a year my junior, smart in some ways, painfully naive in others.
I see future in this boy. I give him two books for his graduation gift and write in their endpages like a greeting card: To many more walks. Yours, Kate.
On the last day we are us, we get dressed up and go to the aquarium, and take a late lunch over the harbor. He orders Grey Goose; I get rosé. I wear a white dress and red underwear. We come home and make love in the hazy afternoon sun.
I don’t know it’s the last time. If I did, maybe I’d have insisted he stay and hold me a little longer. But I didn’t, and he slipped away, not knowing it was goodbye.
The night it happens I’m alone. Afternoon slides into darkness, a day gone without notice. I put on a rom-com. I paint my nails. I wait.
I’m jonesing for junk food, so I walk up over the hill and get fries and a shake at the Park Street McDonald’s. On my way home through the Common, it starts to pour. My sandals take on water like a sponge. I squelch up to the third floor and towel off. The fries are cold and the milkshake is cloyingly sweet. I regret ever wanting them. I am still alone.
This is his fault, I think. He went out at three in the afternoon for drinks with a family friend who could get him a lucrative job and sank seven beers in two hours. How selfish, how irresponsible, how inconsiderate. He’s off God-knows-where with God-knows-who. He’s with his friends. He’s with some other girl. He’s avoiding me. He’s deceiving me. He doesn’t love me. Nobody loves me. This is my fault.
I feel as though my loneliness might kill me. I tell him this, the last thing I say before the nightmare voices chase me to dreamless sleep.
Here’s a truth: the morning after an anxiety attack is worse than a hangover.
Mackenzie and I meet on a bench by the reservoir. This bench may be the same one where, three summers earlier, I met my very first lover for the very last time and let him tell me about Scottish football clubs and realized he loved me. It looks different in daylight. So many things do.
“When did you change your mind?” I ask.
He says, “When you said you were going to kill yourself.”
This is me. This is who I’ve always been, I think. But it’s not. I wanted to make this little boy love me. I brought him ice cream and smoked hookah and sat on his kitchen counter, inviting him in. I wore a white dress and red underwear.
I resolve that moment to never be anything other than myself, to lay every ugly card out on the table, so nobody can ever say I took them by surprise.
I cry in the dressing room at Target. I cry at Finding Dory at least three times. I cry on the way to the Cape and on the way home. I cry during the cookout at Zach’s. I cry during the Pops. I cry when my sister comes in to hug me. I cry until there is nothing left.
On the morning of July 5, my mother has had enough. We drive two towns over to the hospital where I was born. Morbidly, I wonder if perhaps I’ll die here too.
They draw blood—standard ER procedure, even if the affliction is mental—and my veins struggle to catch. You can’t even bleed right, my twisted brain hisses.
I tell them what they need to know. I’ve been exhibiting symptoms of depression and anxiety since… oh, I don’t know, probably since I was eight? No, I’m not taking any medications for it. I saw a child psychologist once, at sixteen, a social worker at twenty, was in and out of my university’s useless counseling services for four years. No, I have never made any concrete plans or attempts on my life. But yes, I’ve thought about it.
Dr. Haines nods. I leave with a prescription and a psychiatrist’s appointment.
I will get better, I decide, and it will be enough to save us.
It’s too late to save us, I realize eventually. But it’s not too late to save me.
I have plans to travel to Jersey that weekend for a show, but given everything I’m not sure I’ll go. I text Bryan, my best friend, to tell him so. My phone rings immediately. Bryan only calls if he needs something.
“I won’t tell you what to do,” he says, “but we want you to come.”
So I go, of course. I drive three lonely hours through the winding highways of Connecticut, as if I’m running from something.
“Do you really and truly have a boyfriend?” he asks as soon as I arrive.
I nod, the easiest answer. “Does that ruin your plans or something?”
At first it’s like it always has been, drinking beers and playing games. But late into the night I slip away to cry alone by the pond, for everything that’s been ruined, for lost chances. Bryan lays next to me in the grass and asks what’s the matter. I don’t remember, exactly, what I say, but in my mind it is everything: all the disappointment, the pain, all the longing, and all the love in my wasted heart.
He holds me while I cry. He presses his lips against my neck. He slips into my tent beside me and, despite my protests, sleeps with his arms around me. In the morning, he rises before me. When I emerge he smiles. It rains all morning and the sun comes out in time for the show. Bryan lifts me on his shoulders and I soar.
Nothing happened, I tell everyone. Yet I’ve always lived on our little intimacies. I recount them all on my drive home: the night we came home and raided the freezer, those times I lay awake in the bed next to his, all the ways we’d let each other down. Nothing happened, I tell everyone, I tell myself.
The sky over Connecticut looks bluer. Maybe it’s just me.
Summer passes in solitude. I take long, destination-less walks by the river, down Newbury Street, to Batterymarch. I take too many Instagram pictures. I wait for him to miss me.
The basil plant I thought I’d killed blooms again. Sunlight makes its leaves shine emerald. I make Caprese salad. I make chicken parmesan. I make strawberry daiquiris. We have guests for the first time.
On Monday afternoons, I take the train to the bus to see my therapist. The first time I go, I’m so nervous it feels as though my organs might fall straight out of me. But in time, I learn. Some evenings, the sight of the city glowing from the Longfellow Bridge is reason enough to live.
By the time he remembers to leave me for good, I have nothing left. My grief is over. I’d spent summer waiting for the worst of it, the final and unimaginable, but it had already passed. I’d survived without even knowing it.
Days later, I climb up on a new lover’s rooftop. We kiss and nearly lose our balance. I have never been so high.
I wake up with tar on the soles of my feet, and feel light.
I write letters, to Grace in Iowa, to Harriet in Aberdeen, to the new lover. I spend Labor Day weekend on Bradley Beach. A hurricane offshore makes it unsafe to swim. I sit on shore in the dull yellow light, feeling wild as the tides.
Late in August, the sunflower I’ve been growing on the fire escape blooms. It is a pathetic little thing, sparse yellow petals as slight as a baby’s little finger. It is so beautiful.
What I have learned is that there will always be loneliness. There will be long nights and cold beds. There will be longing: for the friend who understands you, for a set of arms to hold you, for sleep to come, for dawn to break. There will be letdowns and loss.
It’s when you’re alone with yourself that you’re forced to face who you are. You learn what remains of you when no one else is left. You will be the same, whether you’re taken or left. You love to cook, to read, to walk by the water. You are blunt and awkward and nasty. You are sensitive, scared, stronger than you think.
In time, nothing will remain but stories. Time will make them both easier and harder to tell. The pain dulls, the memories fade. You will inadvertently break promises: I’ll never forget you, or I’ll always love you.
In the end, there will always be you, the multitudes of you. Everything you used to be. The girl who burned postcards and believed her horoscopes and wrote love notes in endpages, who was spiteful and tender and just wanted to be loved. You will learn to sit with her a while, to stroke her hair and tell her it will be okay and forgive her. On those lonely days, you’ll find she is company enough.
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