I’m looking through the box of “things he gave me” when the thought occurs to me. It’s a good time to be lonely. I’m holding his red sweater, stolen. The monster he bought for me at Comicon. The colourful string of lights he got for my dorm. It’s undeniable, even after a year and a half of being single, I’m still lonely. It’s an ugly thing to admit. Shouldn’t I have settled into single life by now? Did love put emptiness into me when it left, a space that only it can fill?
Well, even if I am lonely, 2018 is a good time to be.
On a day when I can waste 2 straight hours playing candy crush, 1 more scrolling through my Instagram feed, and another 5 after I open Netflix, I never have to sit in the mud of loneliness. I can be mindless for 8 hours without even coming up for air. I forget to eat. I forget to be lonely.
Technology-induced mindlessness is like a fog; you walk into it with purpose, sure that you know your route, and soon it’s all around you. The longer you stay, the harder it seems to be to get out of it and the less you want to. When you do get out, your smartphone beckons you back like a will-o-the-wisp. Your bed becomes a den of charging cords, Cheetos and blue screens. Your Mom asks you to “join the land of the living”. But at least you are not lonely. You can’t be when you’re not thinking, sucked into the muggy world of technology.
I was alone a lot as a child, and sometimes lonely. But I didn’t have a smartphone to encourage that obscuring fog to roll in. Instead I drew scenes from Harry Potter. I made up games. I counted pennies and organized them according to how shiny they were. I confronted loneliness with a head tilted curiosity. Like a word scrawled on the back of my hand, to be found in the dictionary later. It didn’t bother me much, and was usually washed away before I remembered to look at it again. I was too busy being curious.
2018 is a good time to be lonely. Especially when you’ve left behind that childlike ability to fill the world up with your imagination and keep it at bay with creative business. Instead, you can ignore your loneliness. Constantly consume technology, like a pac-man, instead. It’s only when you’ve been mindless for too long that you realize you’ve eaten your way into a hallway of ghosts.
I’ve found myself in that cobwebbed corridor more often than I’d like to admit. What has been even harder to admit is that when I was with him, I felt much more like a person than a pac-man. I guess there’s something undeniable about the void that love leaves in you after you have to let it go.
We were together for three years. We were a history-debate induced rivalry, turned friends, turned high school sweethearts. It was my first love. It started with a kiss at a party and then we tumbled into a relationship. We went to prom together. During A-levels we took all of our classes together. We joked about co-dependence with ease. Technology followed us into our nights and into all of our time apart. When I was with him, technology wasn’t a fog of mindlessness but a safe haven. Written proof of the love story I was living. We finally parted after a summer of living together, convinced that technology could carry us through long distance, when he chose a university in England and I chose one in Abu Dhabi.
We broke up like a tooth extraction done slowly. It happened after 8 months of long distance. The break up wasn’t because we didn’t love each other; we had continents, different lifestyles and changing goals to contend with. They got the better of us. But for a long time, I hated to admit that I was lonely. Sad, of course, but lonely felt unfeminist when I was surrounded by amazing friends. Am I not the “strong” and “independent” female protagonist in my story? Why did the lack of him make me feel so empty? I decided that it didn’t.
When I first packed all of the things he bought me into a box, I imagined myself healthy and “doing surprisingly well”. It was the end of 3 years of being his girlfriend, I saved crying for the shower, I went to class. I flirted. I let mindlessness fill up that summer. I loved the fog- look at me! So independent! Not wallowing.
He and I did those nice, oddly formal check-ins that happen when you’re so used to thinking about someone else’s well-being, their day, and what they had for lunch, that it would be too painful not to know, at least, that they’re okay, and they didn’t spontaneously decide to hate you. I deciphered his messages, I crafted my own. I waited, forcing myself to wait for longer and longer between each message. I was NOT lonely.
But still, it is a good time to be lonely, especially when you have classes to attend, part time jobs to run to and dorm parties to get embarrassingly drunk at. When I wasn’t doing that, I let the fog roll in. I watched Gilmore Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale, shows he and I wouldn’t have watched together. 9 months after the breakup we met at the mall. Afterwards we would agree that it had been melancholy and stilted, but at the time, I told myself it was nice.
It wasn’t until I went to the city of love that I realized, yes, I was lonely. I stopped letting the fog in while I was sitting by the Seine, there was soft music playing from a speaker and a bottle of wine being passed around. Paris is just about the worst place to be broken-hearted but I took a page from my younger self’s book. I treated loneliness curiously. I dissected it in my journals. I let it become poetry. I wallowed. I stopped being a pac-man and went out into the world instead. Loneliness is ugly, and it makes you feel ugly. I had to learn that it did not define me.
It would be great to be able to write that the loneliness went away, with this realization.
2018 is a good time to be lonely. You don’t just have the tech fog to keep it at bay, but the invented narratives of social media as well. When curating an Instagram feed, a series of funny tweets, or a Facebook album, you trick yourself into thinking that you can’t be unhappy when you’re living the story that those pictures and captions tell. My days in Paris, aside from dissecting loneliness, were filled with Instagram-worthy adventures and coffee shops. I created a narrative out of my life. I told myself that I was the girl in the pictures. I could admit that I was lonely, but only to myself. The world would never know. Then my ex and I met again in England, for our mutual best friend’s birthday, and things finally felt normal between us. I let myself really feel how much I missed him. I got over my fear of him knowing that I did by telling him. “I miss you”. Our post-romance relationship finally felt like something real again. Something tangible.
Telling him that I missed him helped me to start feeling less alone. I let go of the image of myself that I’d been crafting so carefully and I found out that he didn’t have to be pushed into my past. What I felt afterwards was a mixture of relief and sadness. He and I both marveled at how easy it had suddenly become between us, despite the confused feelings. I was finally being honest.
It’s easy to live with loneliness in 2018. But it is also easy to become comfortable in it. To make a home out of it. Technology will help the fog roll in, and you can convince yourself that the characters from your TV shows and movies are part of your life. You can post well-curated Instagram photos and tell yourself that the smiling person on your feed is you. It is almost- almost- like not being lonely at all. Except that you are a pac-man. And ignoring loneliness hurts.
So, while I sit on my bed, looking through the box of things he gave me, I remind myself to feel it. I am lonely. To write it on my hand, like a word to be looked up in the dictionary later. And maybe one day I’ll find the aching has been smudged away, but the box and all the good things that love gave me can still be opened any time.
Artwork by Laura Callaghan