For the first time in my life—at the age of twenty-five—I live entirely alone. No family. No roommate. Just me. I’ve been teaching college writing and taking writing workshops while living in the pool house of a local brewery owner in Norfolk, Virginia for just shy of a year. The pool house is 1100 square feet—two floors with nicer furnishings than I’d buy for myself, and French doors that open onto a patio from which I can look out onto the salt-water of the Lafayette River, a tributary of the Chesapeake. A 100-foot long channel—eight feet wide—fills during high tide at the edge of the thin backyard. On warm days, when I can catch the tide, I often peel back a screened fence on the small wooden deck that sits at the end of the channel, drop in a kayak, and explore the city from the water. I like to go alone.
Since living alone, I’ve discovered that solitude is a catalyst for more solitude. Sometimes I stay in on Friday or Saturday night, not because I have nothing to do, but because I’d rather spend the night with myself, processing the week. When I first moved to Norfolk from northern New Jersey in August of 2011, I didn’t know a soul within 200 miles. It was uncomfortable; it made me anxious, lonely. That loneliness faded as I established daily routines and came to some enlightening realizations about my new life: the refrigerator was mine (no division of shelves!); I cleaned when I wanted; I could spin Beatles albums at early hours of the morning. But, of course, the loneliness didn’t dissipate entirely. It never does.
Loneliness lurks in the background like a ceiling fan left on medium speed during the night, sometimes soothing, sometimes distracting. During low tide, loneliness is there in the salty gaseous mud of the channel in my backyard—where hundreds of small crabs scatter, looking for the water that’s retreated and left them exposed. It’s there in the single stained coffee cup next to a stack of books on my long brown wooden table downstairs—a place that reminds me of the caffeinated frustrations of trying to write. It’s there in a white garbage bag full of beer bottles that hasn’t moved in two days, next to my front door.
Loneliness is there in the middle of the night, in the quiet darkness when I awake. It waits in the shadows, in the ringing quiet. Sometimes, when I wake—sweating, confused—loneliness is there, appearing out of nowhere like a ghost, a phantom. I rub my eyes and tell myself it’s only an apparition. It is not real. But over the course of the last year, I’ve learned that there is nothing realer than loneliness. It’s there in the fractured lives of friends who now live hundreds of miles away from me—fractures that travel like tectonic ruptures, making their way to Norfolk. And we feel the earth shake together.
Loneliness is a phone call from a friend who says he mainlined heroin for the first time late Saturday night. It’s the tremble in his voice from half of a dozen states away, unsure of why he did it, but feeling like he might do it again. It’s knowing that he’s successful—that he’s at a place in his life he couldn’t have dreamed of being when he was in college—but that he still decided to roll up his sleeve, tie off his arm with a belt, insert a needle into a choice vein—putting pressure on the syringe—and then walk around wearing band aids for two days before calling and telling me about it while he stands outside of a bar, uncertain of why he now wears short sleeves. Loneliness is the phrase he repeats: “I know you understand.”
Loneliness is a phone call from my mother, who tells me her father—my grandfather—has skin cancer. Loneliness is in the nostalgia that follows when I think of growing up—of Sunday dinners with my family, surrounding my grandparents’ dining room table; of trips to their cabin near a lake in northern New Jersey; of the times before my grandmother died ten years ago, when my grandfather’s health started to deteriorate, when he isolated himself from the family by moving away, beginning to hit the bottle hard. Loneliness is being told by my mother, “you didn’t need distractions” after discovering she’s known for a couple of weeks. Loneliness is my grandfather not returning my calls.
Loneliness is a phone call from one of my oldest friends, who still lives where I grew up, when she tells me—through hysterical tears—that her twenty-six year old fiancé has stage four cancer. It’s the inability to respond with anything more substantial than “I’m sorry” for the better part of a minute. It’s my inevitable retreat—like the tide from the channel in my backyard—to logical advice offered to someone in an illogical situation. It’s short diatribes about finding faith.
I rejuvenate my own faith in a kayak, paddling for hours on the Lafayette River after waiting for the tide to rise. I find faith in the panoramic dreams of waterside homes; the effortless flying of fish from the blue-green depths; the impossible plunge of a bird from 100-feet, surfacing with one of those fish and then soaring away; the salutatory quack from one duck to another; the quiet splash of the perpetual strokes of my paddle, never touching the same water twice, moving me.
It seems to me that accepting loneliness is to have faith—to embrace the tides of life. I suppose that faith comes in many forms. Religion. The goodness, or potential goodness, of people. Spirituality. Work or passion. But to subsist with some form of contentment is to have faith, isn’t it? I find faith in myself, and in a few of the choice people I’ve surrounded myself with, even when they’ve lost it themselves. I feel lonely when this faith is lost—when faith is broken in me or those around me. It’s impossible for this faith not to break now and again. It’s impossible not to experience loneliness. But to run from loneliness—to reject it—is to run from life itself.
On that August night ten months ago when I made the relocation drive from New Jersey to Norfolk with my car full of clothes, books, and records, I remember the loneliness that crept through the air vents like a thick transparent fog that made it hard to breathe as night switched to morning. I remember waking up in a cold sweat in my new bed, unsure of what to do after unpacking. I remember my landlord, Kyle, not quite a decade older than myself, coming over and having a cigarette with me on that warm August morning on my new patio, making me feel like I already had a friend.
Over the course of those first months, more phone numbers were added to my contact list, and I created a network of people I could grab a beer with, could talk about writing with, and could share a laugh with. And yet, loneliness persists like the tides of the Lafayette River—fish jumping, birds diving, baby crabs searching for the water that’s departed behind them.