Other Selves The Fierce Triumph of Loneliness
“Living alone as a woman is not just a luxury but a refusal to bend.”
I am terrible at sharing the bed. When my boyfriend travels out of town, my first thought is how much space I will take up in the bed while he’s gone. I know people who claim to sleep on their same side when their partners are gone, the place reserved for the body of their loved one like the seat at the table for Elijah. I sleep with my limbs giddily starfished across as much of the bed as possible, a self-aggrandizing compass reaching for the edges of the map. When my boyfriend comes home, I’m happy to see him and I also miss the whole space of the bed. I return his half to him grudgingly, making no secret of how I miss sleeping alone.
The night I moved into an apartment by myself for the first time, I unpacked boxes and ordered a pizza. When the pizza arrived, I was jolted back to a particular suburban memory. In middle school, my parents would go out for date night and leave me in the house by myself with instructions to order a pizza for dinner. The sound of the door closing when they left was a small and giddy freedom; I was entirely alone, rendered invisible, and belonging to no one but myself. My unmitigated joy at the simple fact of being left alone was perfect in a way that very few larger, adult joys have ever been able to recreate since.
I never did anything transgressive or even interesting on those nights—I’d watch a movie and probably fall asleep on the couch. It was about the solitude: the lack of obligation to arrange my face in a way that someone else would understand. Even at age twelve, I understood the weight of that burden, and the relief of its absence. It was the banality of those nights I longed for, doing nothing, but doing it completely alone. I imagined adulthood would be a long night like this, ordering a pizza in an empty house—forever.
I was an only child and a lonely kid, which meant I spent a lot of time alone reading books. Classical literature was full of heroes—the vast majority of them were men—who were heroic because they were alone. The quest narrative was one in which a man whittled away from himself all societal bonds and then, having perfected himself through loneliness, returned triumphant to society. Society was still there waiting for him because it had been tended by women, who were never alone.
In popular culture we have “the bachelor pad,” and “the bachelor lifestyle,” but no such phrases for women. Women who live alone are objects of fear or pity, witches in the forest or Cathy comics. Even the current cultural popularity of female friendship still speaks to how unwilling we all are to accept women without a social framework; a woman who’s “alone” is a woman who’s having brunch with a bunch of other women. When a woman is truly alone, it is the result of a crisis—she is grieving, has lost something, is a problem to be fixed. The family, that fundamental social unit, dwells within the female body and emanates from it. Women are the anchors of social labor, the glue pulling the family, and then the community, together with small talk and good manners and social niceties. Living alone as a woman is not just a luxury but a refusal to bend into the shape of patriarchal assumption and expectation.
As a private tutor and college counselor to students at European boarding schools, and through various lucky coincidences, my job has often necessitated long-term travel, moving from one student’s house to another, staying somewhere in my students’ time zone to work with them on Skype in between school holidays. As much as anything else, what I loved about travel was the solitude. Loneliness felt aspirational, like a large hotel bed—blank and luxurious and endlessly comforting.
Traveling for work meant I spent a lot of time in train stations and airports, noticing how sites of arrival and departure are also sites of relationship: couples parting and reuniting; families running toward or away from one another; one person breaking from or returning to the unit like a high school math problem about relational distance, the trajectories of two objects, mapped with dotted lines, always returning to each other. I moved through these scenes like a ghost yet felt astoundingly whole. I wasn’t lonely because I had aimed at being with someone and missed—the way women are often portrayed—but because I had aimed squarely at being alone, and hit the target.
I lived in Barcelona on my own for a handful of months. My apartment was up seven flights of stairs in an old, strange building, its lobby and staircase as huge and dilapidated as an abandoned opera hall, all flaking opulence and rubbed-off gold paint. My job meant I kept weird hours, and the city kept them with me, as I indulged a casual and haphazard relationship with eating and sleeping. More than once I began to make friends, to find myself invited into a group of people. But I never pursued those friendships. Loneliness felt like a project to which I had to commit all of myself.
I took long walks around Barcelona, often leaving my phone in my apartment and getting lost on purpose, trying to find my way back to landmarks. I eavesdropped strenuously on conversations in bars and coffee shops, piecing together the gaps within a language I was still learning, trying to tune my ear to pronouns and verb tense. I listened to strangers flirting, their bodies moving in and out of each other’s space. I listened to drink orders and laughter spilling out of restaurants at the end of the night. I listened to everything but myself.
I allowed myself to turn from participant to spectator. Like the hero in the stories I had read as a kid, I placed myself adjacent to but outside society, and began to understand its workings when I stopped trying to fit myself into it. I drifted invisibly into the background, making everyone else’s story more important than my own. I listened without wanting, learning that the world was larger, richer, and more detailed than the reactions I could generate from the people in it.
My apartment’s terrace was nestled among nearby buildings within a network of laundry lines and chimneys and picnic tables, struggling roof gardens and barbecues and outdoor parties, an open-faced warren of other people’s lives. I watched humanity swarm and choose itself again and again, the couplings and groupings that sutured people together, aware that this loneliness, the same luxury and limited time offer as the job that sent me around Europe, was going to end, was not sustainable, yet part of me wished it could be.
Back in New York, I was forced to do the slow, small, and unglamorous work of living better. I cleaned my apartment when no one was coming over, and cooked elaborate meals with no guests in mind but myself. I began to learn to say “no” to things, to define space for myself. I considered decisions longer, and hurt people less. With no one else’s needs into which to escape, it becomes much more difficult to skid through life on self-delusion and comfortable ignorance. Living alone is a confrontation with the mirror, a removal, if only for certain hours of the day, from the social contract, outside the systems of manners that grow up around women like strangling vines. It is becoming the witch in the forest, powerful and watchful and silent, setting visitors on edge.
I had been living alone in Brooklyn for a year and a half when my boyfriend, Thomas, and I decided to move in together. We started dating long-distance at almost the exact same time that I’d finally gotten my apartment. Yet right from the first day, as I moved furniture up my stairs and ignored text messages from him, I knew that this relationship was probably the one. There was a tumbling sense of inevitability, a dread of permanence, at the bottom of my stomach. He didn’t live in New York at the time, and I was glad this was the case. When I looked directly at our relationship, I had to admit that I wanted to come home to this person every day. But I also wanted to come home to myself.
The idea that we progress in a clear trajectory from single unit to couple form, and achieve a sort of emotional success by doing so, seems wrong to me. Love is about what we give up when choosing to knit our life against someone else’s—to make a home in the shared bed, and enjoy the small talk between bodies within the inhabited space. A paired life is not an aspirational state, but a compromised one. Loneliness is not the terror we escape; it is instead the reward we give up when we believe something else to be worth the sacrifice. With Thomas, the world seems less relentless, more forgiving, with fewer trapdoors and teeth. We thread ourselves through the other’s difficulties, offering the answers we can’t get to on our own, making the jagged edges of each day cohere. Living with a partner, when it’s truly good, is easier in almost every aspect, from the lessons in forgiveness, to the heap of congratulations society offers traditional couples, to the very literal benefit of combining resources and splitting bills.
Love, in its closed circuit, can be as antisocial as staying home alone and not talking out loud for days. At its best, love turns its face away from good manners, proves itself the opposite of small talk. I have often told Thomas that I love spending time with him in the same way I love being alone. I have been surprised by how many of the lessons are transferrable, how partnership demands the same confrontation with the mirror.
I once thought people entered into relationships to hide from themselves, to burrow into an obsession with another person’s regard, and escape the facts of their shortcomings. Loving someone else, and joining our life with theirs, asks us to sit down with the brutal facts of ourselves, to sift finely between what is true and what we wish were true, in order to understand what we need and what we can offer. Love is a stark accounting of oneself and one’s partner, wiping away excuses and avoidances, insisting on responsibility.
But there are so many things I miss. I never get to the middle of the night in the home that I share, those empty hours when I wasn’t worried about keeping anyone else awake. Now I eat three meals a day and I hate it. I drink less coffee. My own simple, boring health, my obvious contentment, frequently disgusts me. While I am happy with my choices, I know at once that they follow a narrative approved by forces larger and less benevolent than myself, a narrative I am not happy to know I perpetuate.
The things I miss could be seen as childish, a state of being in which I was never obligated to consider anyone’s needs other than my own. Women are pushed out of childhood so quickly, shoved without ceremony into the heavy social obligations of adulthood. Living alone is a reminder that we can make our bodies antisocial, hoarding our selfishness and our silence. Loneliness and solitude are privileges of thoughtless and full-throated adulthood traditionally handed to men and kept from women. They are the strange and rich pleasures of the world beyond the social, beyond the structures of home and family. Choosing the domestic actively, out of love, is a sacrifice worth making, whether this is to make a family involving children or simply with a partner, but it is still a sacrifice.
Living alone as a woman takes on outsize significance because it offers the right to a full self obligated neither to family nor to love. Because we are often denied this fully formed and selfish reckoning, it is difficult to give it up after finding a way into it. There is a mourning in that letting-go, as though I am not passing naturally from one stage of maturation to the next, but coming back from something rarer and more precious, something that should be guarded closely. No matter how committed I am to the life I’m building with the person I love, some part of me reaches back to the fierce triumph of loneliness.