"Loneliness is so far out of the conversation that it took me a year to even realize I felt it."
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.
In hindsight, I think I understand how I got to that point. I'd detonated my last serious relationship almost ten years ago, because I wasn't ready for it. The past decade, I'd been traveling the country working odd jobs or busting my ass to get a post-graduate degree, and while my sex life never really suffered, I can't say that either situation was conducive to building healthy relationships.
During all of this time, though, I had a large group of solid friends: friends from back home, friends from undergrad, friends from the days working the bar. I had friends who would stay up all night talking, friends who were always good for a beer on a Monday night, friends who would work on each other's projects, friends who were enough for me. Then, in what I've heard is a natural life change, my friends started to recede. One by one, they got careers, they got married, they got kids, and I… didn't.
Our company had a free (well, we paid for it) employee-assistance program that would set you up with a therapist for six visits on the house. I kept the card in my pocket for a week, but in the end, I didn't call. I felt like I should at least try to get myself out of my loneliness first. I started exercising. I started losing weight. I started, tentatively, dating. I made the effort to get out of the house more. I made the effort to fit myself into the schedules of my friends who had real lives. I made the effort to make the effort. In short, I started getting my shit together.
Then I realized I was in love with my married co-worker.
For a while, things continued pretty much as they had, except that I had a secret now. Sara and I still walked every day and spent our breaks in each other's cubicles. Everything was a little heightened anyway, because we had all been told that our office was definitely being shut down in July and we were all going to be out of a job. Gallows humor became the order of the day. Sara started calling me at home to ask me little things. What was the name of that song? Any tips for shooting in low light without a tripod? I tried not to read too much into things. I started to read too much into things.
I began to feel a little creepy. It's a fine line between keeping a secret and telling a lie, and sometimes I felt like I was getting dangerously close to the latter. I started doing things that I knew she wouldn't like. Sara hated facial hair; I grew a beard. Sara was a health nut; I started smoking again. (Okay, also, I like smoking.) I did this partly to convince her, but mostly to convince myself, that I wasn't trying to win her over. It sounds silly, but it was the only way I could justify continuing to spend time with her, my feelings being what they were and the situation being what it was.
The rewards were sweet, though. Two or three times a day I would look up from work to see her resting her chin on top of my cubicle, waiting to talk to me. My heart did backflips. Despite my strict adherence to boundaries and responsible behavior, late at night I would allow myself to fantasize:
It is the last day of work before the state shuts us down. Around noon, Sara and I slip away to take one last walk before we will, in all likelihood, never see each other again. We walk in silence until the office building is out of sight. I say, "I have something important I want to tell you." She is nervous because she thinks she knows where this is going. I say, "You probably don't remember this, but six months ago, on a Wednesday, you sent me an email asking if we were going to walk."
And I tell her everything. How I suddenly realized I was stupidly in love with her. How talking to her is the high point of my day and the only thing that's made this job bearable for the last half year. How I curse the fact that I met her three years too late. "But," I say, "I don't need anything back from you. I know you, and I know you can't. I just want you to know that I'm so glad that I got this chance to be with you. Because now I know what I want, and I know it's out there. I've been so worried for so long that I was never going to feel this way again. I was scared that I didn't know how to be in love anymore. It's such a relief to know that I can still fall for someone so hard that I don't know which end is up. Please don't feel bad. Knowing you has been a gift. It has been nothing but a gift."
She starts to say something, then thinks better of it. She chokes something back and says, "It's been good knowing you too." We have one long, slow hug. She turns and heads back to the office, and I keep walking.
One day, as the weekly staff meeting was breaking up, Sara stood up and said, "I have a quick personal announcement to make." We all turned to look, and she got shy for just a second before she blurted out, "I'm pregnant!" The room exploded into applause and congratulations, mine loudest of all. I congratulated her and was relieved to find that I meant it. She was so happy, and I was genuinely happy for her. We made some small talk about names and morning sickness, and eventually I excused myself.
I didn't know what I was feeling exactly; I just knew that whatever fantasy I had built up in my head, whatever secret, inner life I had been leading for the last few months was washed away in an instant. It's not that it was destroyed exactly — just made completely and utterly irrelevant. After all, how can a fantasy survive, how can it sustain you in the face of something so real? So wonderfully and undeniably real.
I walked out the door, and kept walking until the office was out of sight.