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True Stories: How I Fell In Love With My Married Coworker
"Loneliness is so far out of the conversation that it took me a year to even realize I felt it."
By Keith McCormick
It started much earlier, but I became aware of it on a Thursday. Wednesday I was out of the office; when I got home, there was an email waiting for me from Sara.
Do you want to walk at 12:30 p.m.?
We had started walking for half an hour at lunch, as an office, as part of a fitness challenge (which are always cropping up when you work for the government). Sara and I were the only two who kept it up after the challenge was over. We liked the air, we liked the sun, we liked each other's company.
We hadn't always gotten along. When I started, I made a few too many jokes, and she gave a few too many disapproving looks. Our timing was always just a little bit off. At one point, I resolved to just keep my mouth shut around her.
Fortunately, that didn't last. Vows of silence never really do with me. I talked. She talked. I opened up a little. She thawed out a little. We ended up bonding over photography, of all things. She was taking a class, and even though I'm not a photographer, I knew enough about film to talk about f-stops, depth of field, and composition. (Thank you, expensive, impractical degree.) We became friends. Work friends. Close work friends.
So, an email from Sara at the end of a long day was welcome, and it was nice to feel like I had been missed. I wrote back, "Was on site all day, ugh. Tomorrow, though. Definitely." The next day, the Thursday, she called in sick, and when I saw that on the white board, all of the air went out of my tires. The day dragged on, and I drank more coffee to compensate. I didn't even realize I was in a bad mood until someone else commented on it. Then I thought, "This can't be just because I was looking forward to walking with Sara, can it?"
Then I thought, "Damn, I think it is."
Then I thought, "Well, what's so special about today?"
Then I realized it was every day. I realized that in the last six months I had talked to her more than I'd talked to any other living person. I realized how much time I spent thinking about her when she wasn't around. I thought about how I wanted to know what she thought about every little thing. I thought about how I compared every woman I date to her. I thought, "Oh shit. I've got a big fucking problem."
I had a big fucking problem for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I'd met Sara's husband, Anthony, on several occasions. He was a very intense guy, but basically decent. I don't believe in God, and I am generally skeptical about marriage as an institution, but I am a promise keeper. I fancy myself an old-school, my-word-is-my-bond kind of guy, and it's the first thing I respect in other people. Plus, I feel like if you love someone, you shouldn't try to fuck up their life.
After that, all of the other objections (we work together! I don't want to mess up our friendship! I don't know if she even thinks about me that way!) seemed relatively minor. So, I did what responsible adults have been doing since the Stone Age. I resolved not to tell anyone about this, ever.
Loneliness doesn't get its due in our modern, socially networked age. People talk about screen fatigue or anti-depressants or cyberbullying, but whatever happened to old-fashioned loneliness? Loneliness is so far out of the lexicon of modern ailments that it took me a good year and a half to even figure out I felt it. (My previous diagnosis was that I had an extended case of feeling vaguely shitty.)
This, by the way, is not an easy thing to admit for someone who is a loner both by history and by temperament. I like long car trips by myself. I like coming home to my own apartment and locking the door behind me. I like being able to do what I want when I want, and not worrying about what anyone else thinks. So it's hard to admit to loneliness without somehow feeling like the last decade spent largely in solitude has been a huge mistake.
Which brings me to the other difficult thing about loneliness. It's hard not to see it as a failing. After all, any reasonable, kind, moderately well-adjusted person should be able to make friends, should be able to meet a mate. It's not like anyone else has anything better to do. In some ways, admitting to loneliness is admitting that you fail at being a social animal. It's also hard to discuss it with friends without it feeling accusatory. It's easy for, "I'm lonely," to come out as, "Why don't you call me more often, asshole?" And if, through some moment of drunken honesty, you do blurt out how you feel, the next time that friend invites you over to dinner just feels like pity.