For years now, I’ve been going to restaurants, bars, movies, and parties alone—a practice which is not as supported in our culture as you would hope. Sometimes I am ignored by waitstaff to whom a woman sitting by herself is invisible; other times I get free drinks and food at places where I’ve come to know the people who work there and they, in turn, know me as that Girl Who Always Comes in Alone—who brings a poetry book or philosophy essay out to the bar. Sometimes this practice scores me a boyfriend for 3-6 months. Most of the time, anymore, I don’t even bring a book because it feels too weird/sad to sit and read while conversation and laughter swirl around me, as if I’m a rock in the stream of human sociability.
I spent much of my marriage alone in a room at the opposite corner of the house from where my then-husband lay on the couch in his office, both of us writing (he seemed to find a lot more pleasure in this process than me, for whom sitting all day trying to make a poem produced angst). In the first years after C. and I separated/divorced, I spent many weekend mornings at Café DeWitt (in Ithaca, NY) on a bench in front of a wall of fish tanks, feeling like a fish myself suspended in a glass wall of isolation visible to all the couples and families brunching around me. I would sometimes glimpse a guy there with whom I’d formerly had a one-time, athletic sexual encounter. He and his girlfriend, a stunning blond, would be sitting at a table across the restaurant dressed as if they were about to work out or had just rolled out of bed. How I envied them as he read the newspaper and they both sipped coffee and looked totally relaxed. It seemed incredible, to me, that there were people who could take such casual intimacy for granted; there were women who inspired in their men a desire not just to have sex but, afterwards, breakfast at a cute café. Oh, I did have a boyfriend at the time but as is so often the case in my life, he was not there. I don’t even know why anymore. When we did go out in public together, I would try to grab his hand and he would drop mine. (He did other, nice things, like attempting to make a banana cream pie for my birthday. But in my mind our relationship was often characterized by my feeling alone and unsupported.) It was only 6 months after our breakup that he decided he really wanted to be with me and by then, I’d had enough.
On the night, this past fall, when my last relationship ended, I took myself on a date to see Midnight in Paris at the fancy-pantsy cinema downtown (they serve dinner/wine in the theater). Before the movie started, I walked in my high heels through the surrounding empty mall and ended up staring out a wall-length window at the lights of Canal Street; palm trees whipped by breeze and the city extending in a soft, twinkly darkness beyond my line of sight. I remember being concerned that the tears on my face were ruining my eyeliner and would be visible when I headed back into the bright lights of the lobby, where I would be deemed not only sad but unattractive.
What to make of this ongoing pattern of loneliness? In part it can definitely be attributed to me. Like many writers, I tend to get my sense of meaning and reality more from what is going on inside me than what’s happening out there. I avoid opportunities to volunteer, or host, and any social events I’m not sure will be fulfilling; and I feel a smidge suicidal when called upon to stand around at a child’s birthday while my daughter jumps in the bounce house. These behaviors/attitudes help to keep me outside of things. But this whole issue of painful or missing relationships goes a lot deeper than that, to places in my past I can’t even disclose here because they are scary and painful; things that only leave me numb, now, when I think of them.
As I am now in another relationship (?) in which the other person has dropped out of sight, I was dreading the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, when couples, families, and groups of friends wear (sometimes outrageous) green outfits, drink, and joyously converge on my neighborhood in a way that just highlights my sense of separateness. Typically of the way I usually experience this event, as I walked to the store yesterday morning I was the only person on bustling Magazine Street not wearing a shred of green. However, my tacit “fuck your parade” message did not give me a sense of empowerment. So after I put my groceries away, I suited up in a sequined top, shorts, heels, and a strand of green beads (there are plenty to choose from in a glittery sprawl on the mantle in my daughter’s bedroom, like a Mardi Gras altar), and walked out, thinking of getting a beer and just being part of the festivities. And so with a go-cup of Blue Moon, I walked down Magazine toward Jackson,figuring walking would give me something to do (rather than stand around alone). I passed several parties going on at bars and houses; musicians playing on porches. The street was closed but the parade hadn’t reached us, so green-clad groups were walking down both sides of the street. I noticed that whereas I'd pictured most of the parade-goers as families or couples, there were a lot of younger people strolling in loose assortments. My hair grew heavy and sweaty and I draped it over my shoulder, scanned the crowds on the sidewalk through sunglasses, and actually felt kind of powerful, like there was a caption in my mind reading: “A beautiful woman walks down the street…” That is what I would want it to say. And I was also giving myself a pep talk so I wouldn’t feel pathetic for being there without a friend or lover, which went something like this. That this was like a birthday or other personal celebration for me because no one could know how much it takes, sometimes, for me just to leave the apartment, be brave, and try to have some joy...that I could think of this parade as representing what my future is going to be like, as opposed to a lonely and sad past...that at this time next year I absolutely WILL NOT be alone, and I am sure of that. (Though no, I’m really, really not sure. But I so want it to be true.) And when the edges of my happiness began to feel stretched and I could feel the other awarenesses, a current of anxiety and despair, starting to push in, I kept telling myself that the bad feelings are temporary and soon I will kick ass.
...I was telling myself this when my daughter’s father called, pissed because the closed/blocked streets made it difficult for him to deliver Sara to me and get on with his weekend plans with his fiancé. After that, I spent the rest of the afternoon depressed, though Sara and I did stand at the corner of my street, amidst a profusion of garbage including shreds of cabbages thrown from floats, and I caught her some beads but, to her vocal disappointment, no toys. And that was that—for now.