Anyone who is to be happy, then, must have excellent friends.
“What is the matter with me? I will do something dreadful if I am not careful,” she thought, and turning her face to the wall, began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.
— “Adventure,” Sherwood Anderson
I am standing outside the hotel. My hair sticks to my neck in the hot, damp Atlanta night. Forty-six thousand people pour in and out of the building, clogging the streets and lobby. Their collective voice is so loud it nearly—but not quite—drowns the music blasting from the open hotel doors. In the middle of this chaos, I am watching two young men holding up signs offering free hugs; one offers “awkward hugs,” the other “deluxe hugs.” I see several hugs unfold. The awkward hug involves hair-stroking and hip-thrusting; the deluxe hug involves the young man (slight of build and the more handsome of the two) picking the person up and swinging them around. I want a free hug. It seems like a silly, spontaneous, adventurous thing to do. I am here to take chances. I am here to make connections.
I walk over to the man offering awkward hugs and say that I want one. He eagerly obliges, and it is as silly and awkward and fun as I’d hoped. I don’t want the deluxe hug. Or, more correctly, I do want it, but I am afraid that he won’t be able to lift me. I am only half-way through a 40-pound weight loss, and my body feels heavy, ugly. But the young man insists, and to my surprise, he lifts me easily. My friend takes a picture. In it, I am smiling madly.
This is Dragon*Con, an annual convention in Atlanta, Georgia. It is a three-day celebration of all things science, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. People come from around the world. Many of them wear costumes, dressing as their favorite character from TV or film, video games or comic books. Everyone here has at one time or another been described—either by him- or herself or by someone else—as a geek or nerd or freak or weirdo, or maybe all four at once. These are names we wear with pride—at least for the weekend. My friend Chris, who is here with his wife, compares Dragon*Con to a little-person convention: “It’s the only time I get to be with my own kind,” he says. This suggests that what draws us here is not simply a shared hobby or interest—things we do—but a shared identity, a way of being what or who we are. I am hoping this is true and that I will, at last, find my soul mate here at this convention. I have said on more than one occasion, “If I can’t find a man at Dragon*Con, then I am definitely going to die alone.” I have pretended like I am joking, but I am not. That this is far too much pressure to put on one weekend out of one year in my whole life is not crossing my mind. I have an agenda, and I plan to see it through. Awkward and deluxe hugs are only the beginning.
There may be more people living on Earth today than at any other time in history, but more than ever—at least for those of us in wealthy, industrialized nations—we are living alone. Living alone is a luxury, a privilege. By the time I arrive at this Dragon*Con, I will have lived alone for 12 years. I will have enjoyed those years. I will have enjoyed the freedom to keep a house as clean as I like or to leave the laundry to pile up until it swallows my bed and I have to sleep on the sofa. I will have acquired two cats. They will fill me with joy: Look how they frolic! Look how they play! Look how that play turns into a tornado of fur both cute and terrifying! They will also fill me with anxiety: I am out numbered. I am discovering petrified piles of barf on a daily basis. Have I crossed the line between lady with cat and cat lady? I will have enjoyed the freedom to come and go as I please, to do what I want, when I want, to surround myself with only my friends with whom I share interests. I will feel that, by eliminating any romantic entanglements, I will have edited my life the way I edit my writing: Remove all unnecessary repetition. One group of friends—my own. One mother and one father—my own. That is precisely enough.
Of course, when my father is dying and I am alone at night and there are no witnesses to my grief, save for the cats and that giant pile of laundry eating my bed, which I wrap my arms around in an approximation of a hug, I will think that perhaps I have cut too much from the story. I didn’t anticipate that key characters would be erased without my consent. I will long for someone to see me awake at 3 in the morning. To notice how I am eating. To see me sneak away to my car where I cry until I can hardly see and, at the same time, eat Publix cupcakes, jumbo cupcakes, expensive jumbo cupcakes kept in the display case and also dipped in chocolate. Sometimes I do this sitting in the parking lot at work. Sometimes I do this while I drive to and from the hospital to visit my father. I steer with one hand and stuff my face with the other—driving while grieving is not a moving violation, but it should be. If anyone notices the weight creeping on, edging me up from “curvy” to “chubby” to “fat,” no one says anything, and I am grateful but also wish, perhaps, that someone would. It is when my father is dying that I realize that maybe I am not just living alone, but lonely.
At Dragon*Con, I am not in costume, but neither is the man sitting across from me. He smiles, but leans forward in his chair, radiating an intensity that I find unsettling. He is handsome, but I feel no attraction. Beside him is a man in a Stormtrooper costume. Beside me is a woman in an R2-D2 T-shirt. We are sitting in circles of chairs in one of the larger hotel banquet rooms and are all here for the same event: Lightspeed Dating. This is like regular speed dating but faster—only one minute instead of five. This is a popular event at Dragon*Con and at conventions like it. The television network TLC recently aired a show about it, which they called Geek Love, hoping, I suppose, that no one watching would remember that the book whose title they were borrowing is about circus freaks, cults, self-mutilation, murder, mayhem, and incest. I have watched that show, and I have come to Lightspeed Dating anyway.
While my father was dying, I made some frantic and failed attempts to meet a man, fall in love, and get married—something my father always hoped for me, and something I always assumed I had plenty of time to let happen. Somehow, though, it has been 12 years since my last relationship, and my father is gone, and all of it happened so fast, and now I feel like I am running out of time, if not already out of time, to ever make that kind of connection. And so 50 dates in 50 minutes sounds like exactly the pace I should be keeping—should have always been keeping—which is why I signed up for Lightspeed Dating. I am certain that one of these men will be my match. If I can’t find a man at Dragon*Con…, I remind myself.
The bell dings, and the man across from me begins our conversation. He asks me if he should just tell me all his dirty secrets now, or save them for later.
“Later,” I joke. “If you’ve killed a man, don’t tell me.”
“I have killed a man,” he says, still smiling but looking away. His eyebrows furrow a shade, and he shrugs. “I’m a soldier.”
I feel like an asshole. I try to make a joke, say “That’s okay, that’s not like murder,” but I only make things worse. I always imagined that I’d be attracted to a tormented-hero type. It always seemed sexy and appealing. I imagined him clinging to my waist as I stroked his hair, soothed him back to sleep, quieted his demons. It seemed so appealing on Buffy. But right now, it’s just freaking me out. Later, I will think about this man, whose name I won’t even remember, who has taken life, who has fought and who perhaps still fights for a cause just about everyone has dismissed as pointless, who is scarred, maybe haunted, and who is searching for connection, as I am, and I will hate even more the awkward laughter, the surely noticeable crossing of my arms, the leaning back in my chair. But in the moment, I only count the seconds for the sound of the bell and the moment he’ll no longer be sitting in front of me.
Loneliness is a fairly modern problem. Nearly 10% of adults are lonely. Loneliness is described as a “feeling state,” in that it may not reflect an objective reality. One can feel lonely, even if one isn’t alone. Despite being a “feeling,” it can have physical effects. Chronic loneliness can cause hypertension, heart disease, psychosis. If I am honest, I have been feeling lonely for a long time. These 12 years, I haven’t been stoically, or defiantly, celebrating my singlehood. I call myself the groundhog of dating. Once a year, I stick my head out of my hole, see a frozen wasteland and crawl back in. I’ve tried every kind of online dating I can find: sites for everyone, sites for Jewish people only, sites for book people only, and, apparently (without realizing it until I met my dates) sites for creepy people only. I’ve had some nice dates that I thought were going well, but then never heard from the guys again. I’ve had some horrible dates that I thought would be the last I ever heard of the guy, but then couldn’t shake him for months. I’ve had obscene messages left on my phone. I’ve escaped a near assault. I’m to blame, too, though. I’m not a groundhog. I’m a skunk spraying the world with my musk of desperation. And even though I know that this is no way to behave, I keep at it. I think it was Benjamin Franklin who defined insanity as doing the same thing the same way over and over and expecting a different result. Insanity or loneliness—after a while it’s hard to tell them apart.
The girl to my left is talking to a man wearing a C-3PO T-shirt identical to her own as if Yoda himself had used the force to bring them together. I am talking to a man who tells me he works as a BDSM dungeon master. I pretend this is ordinary. The bell dings, and now, I am talking to a man dressed as Luigi. He works in a haunted house here in Atlanta. He tells me he likes scaring the black women best. The bell dings again, and I am talking to a man who sits with his hand on my knee, his leg wedged between mine—my own personal space invader. The bell dings again, and now, I am talking to a man named Kirk. Yes, he is named after that Kirk. Yes, he’s a fan. He’s funny. He’s nice. I like him. We’ve all been assigned numbers, and when the dates are all over, I write down Kirk’s number as a possible match. We are allowed five matches, so I write down four more numbers, though more or less at random. Later that night, I get an e-mail listing my mutual matches. There is only one name, but it’s the one that counts: Kirk. If I can’t find a man at Dragon*Con…, I think.
I have read a lot of books about lonely people. In these books, the loneliness seems beautiful, meaningful. Of loneliness, Marilynne Robinson, in Housekeeping, writes:
“For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.”
When I read this, I think it is beautiful and right, and it gives me hope. Later, I think: This is utter bullshit.
I am absurdly naive. I assume everyone at Lightspeed Dating wants what I want. I imagine moving to Colorado where this Kirk lives. I imagine the postcards we will send at Christmas: us before a fire, looking smug in white sweaters. I do not imagine that we won’t actually ever see each other again. I don’t imagine that he is already married with children and was only looking for a quick way to get a little strange. I will be absurdly disappointed when these last two scenarios turn out to be true.
Kirk is my only match. I can’t meet a man at Dragon*Con, as it turns out. I shrug it off and go to a Buffy sing-along. I wander the streets of Atlanta, watching the characters go by. A man dressed as Jack Sparrow sashays drunkenly down the street. He swigs from a water bottle filled with a brown liquid; he says it’s rum. A cop waves him over. I think this Jack has taken the act too far, but the cop only wants to take his picture. He pulls out his cell phone, and the fake Jack Sparrow poses, then swishes on. I imagine that we are indeed quite a spectacle. Am I a part of this spectacle? Or am I more like the sports fans and insurance sales people sharing the *Con hotels, who wander about with the open-mouthed, glassy-eyed astonishment of one at a sideshow. I think I am neither. I think I am totally invisible.
For those 12 years I live alone, I also live without sex. This was, I suppose, mostly by choice. I could have chosen to have sex with someone I didn’t love—there were opportunities—but I didn’t. Maybe I should have. As the years go by, they start to weigh on me. I start to notice that in the movies or on TV, when they want to show what a remarkable loser someone is, they will say that this person hasn’t had sex in two years. I am six times that lost. This becomes reason enough to avoid intimacy, even as I feel it making me a little bit crazy. Even as my imaginary romances—with friends, celebrities, handsome strangers spotted at the grocery store—slip from amusing diversions to mental obsessions, I think, Better this than to have to explain. My condition becomes chronic, my heart diseased. To wish for a hand on my hair is not to feel it, craving gives me nothing. I have a job, a good job. I travel. I make excellent peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. But when I run into a classmate from high school, the first thing she asks is, “Are you married? Do you have kids?” And because I have to say no, everything that follows sounds like overcompensation, and I try not to resent the sympathetic tilt of her head, the assurance that “It will happen someday.” I try not to tell her that her child is creepy and that I’d rather have two cats and no kids than that weird goblin-monster clawing at her breast, but I think she can maybe see it in my face and maybe she can also see that it is only about 95 percent true. And then, because she didn’t ask, I tell her about my excellent job and my exciting travels and the deep, deep sleep I get eight hours a night, seven nights a week. We both walk away feeling smug and envious. Some will tell me not to blame her or the millions like her. They will tell me that we are built this way—humans are social animals designed for relationships. They will tell me that I am stronger than most, that I am lucky, and, most of all, they will tell me I won’t be alone forever. I don’t know if they are right. I don’t know if I want them to be. I am lonely, but I also take a strange pride in my loneliness. I think that I am stronger than most, god damn it, but also that I am tired and maybe ready for a break.
On the last day of Dragon*Con, I am dressed as a zombie bridesmaid and flagging down a cab to the Atlanta Aquarium. A man asks me if I am okay. He thinks I’ve been assaulted. I tell him I’m fine, that I am here with the *Con, and he looks confused but walks on. A woman wearing a Dragon*Con badge stops and says, “Wasn’t the zombie prom last night?” She says it with clear contempt, and I consider actually eating her brain. Instead, I just shrug and focus on finding a cab.
Zombie bridesmaid wasn’t my first choice of costume. I wanted to dress as the character Lily from the movie Legend, the one starring Tom Cruise and unicorns. The one he doesn’t talk about. I even found a pattern for Lily’s dress and conned my mother into trying to sew it for me, saying I would help and by help, I meant sit and watch Legend on repeat until my costume was ready. Unfortunately, though my mother once made incredible costumes for me when I was a child, I don’t think she’d used her sewing machine in 25 years, and despite her best efforts, the night before the *Con, I had not a Lily costume but a lopsided mash of satin and frayed thread.
So I bought some zombie makeup, shredded one of the four bridesmaid dresses in my closet, and felt pretty pleased with my improvisation. The zombie prom was the same night as lightspeed dating, so I figured I’d save the costume for the next night. I think this was not the best decision as I wait for my cab, not only the lone zombie without a date to the prom, but the sole zombie who missed the prom completely. I think I will never find a cab.
Despite my bloodied blue taffeta dress and rotting complexion, however, I do hail a cab. The driver barely notes my appearance and is more disturbed by the gay pride festival that has recently come to town. I think it is a strange world, indeed, when a man would rather have a flesh-eating monster in his cab than a gay person, but I only groan noncommittally.
As it turns out, everyone is right: I won’t be alone forever. Six months after the *Con, I meet someone online. I fall in love. I make love, and it is like a berry bursting on my tongue, like angels bringing me wild strawberries. I try not to talk about it all the time, to stop strangers on the street and tell them the good news—no not that good news, the news about me getting laid. I try to believe this is ordinary, that the last 12 years were the anomaly, and this is the way life usually goes. But it’s hard. Even as the months go by, I can’t shake the feeling of unreality, like this is just another one of my elaborate daydreams. I hope that will fade as the months turn into years. I hope we get to years. Because, like any chronic disease, loneliness stays with you; it may go into remission but it is never gone. I can’t imagine that even when I do find love again, make love again, that loneliness will always be with me, but it is. It hides like quicksand, a soft spot in a seemingly solid landscape. A wrong step, a thoughtless gesture—even one without malice—and I feel myself sink.
The Atlanta Aquarium is beautiful. Everything seems intensely blue, and sea creatures of every size and shape glide by above and below—the rooms are designed so that you are surrounded by the water, canopied by it. I pause to watch pale jellyfish that seem to flutter in midair, their flesh rising and falling in waves. Watching them feels like drifting off to sleep.
Though this night is a *Con tradition, the aquarium is mostly empty. There are people in costume—Hellboy, the demented rabbit from Donny Darko, the Little Mermaid—but there are also regular folk there, too, including a pack of school kids whose chaperones thought it would be a good idea to take the children to the Coca-Cola plant where they can drink as much sugary soda as their bodies can hold and then bring these children to the quiet and confined aquarium. I’m waiting in line to see the penguin habitat. To see the penguins, you have to crawl on your hands and knees through a narrow tunnel beneath the habitat. Glass bubbles in the ceiling allow you to pop your head into the habitat and have a look around, without, presumably, the inconvenience of a penguin actually pecking you in the face. Behind me are the Coked-up kids who are fascinated by my costume and are touching me and pulling at my skirts. I imagine this is how it actually feels to be a celebrity pursued by the paparazzi—manhandled by a pack of frothing monsters—but I can’t blame anyone but myself. I wanted attention, after all.
One of the kids asks me how I became a zombie bridesmaid and before I can answer, another kid says, “She was in love with the groom, but he married another woman and so she died but now she has come back to get her revenge on him and the bride”—which is pretty much the exact story I was going to tell and makes me love that kid a little, even as I want to put my hand on his face and push him back three feet and maybe to the ground. I tell the kid he is right and that he should be a writer because he knows a good story when he sees one. He seems to like this but is quickly swept up into the crush of his peers, laughing and pushing.
Finally, it’s my turn to enter the tunnel. I get on my hands and knees and crawl in—the kids wrestling and screaming behind me, a crush of *Con-goers in front of me. There is no turning back now. The kids are growing more wild, and their comments are less friendly, more like the teasing I remember from my own childhood, teasing I thought I’d outgrown. I’m feeling trapped. Someone pushes me from behind, and I fall. Fighting to remain calm, I tell the people in front of me that I need to get out. They try to talk me down—Don’t I want to see the penguins?—but they see my panic and let me slip past.
This isn’t how I imagined this night, this weekend. I’ve never felt so at home and so out of place at the same time. Am I a fraud? I wonder. My costume doesn’t fit, because I don’t fit. I thought these were my people, but maybe there is no such thing. I leave the aquarium and catch the shuttle back to the hotel.
I sit by myself on the bus and talk to no one. A girl is crying because she lost her badge, and thus her access to Dragon*Con. Her boyfriend comforts her, says they will find it, but she doesn’t believe him. She is lost, trapped in a feeling state. I look out the window and watch the moon. I don’t know it yet, but there is a man out there, looking for me. We will find each other and I will find it sweeter for having waited so long to taste it. I don’t know this yet because all I can see is this sky on this night. I look at the moon, as pale and fluttery as the jellyfish I’d just seen in the aquarium, and it is the only light in a dark sky.
Rachel Luria is a two-time winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project and a contributor at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Her fiction has been recognized by Glimmer Train as a Top 25 Finalist in their Very Short Fiction contest. Her stories have appeared in Dash Literary Journal, Literary House Review, and Yemassee. She is the coeditor of the recently published anthology Neil Gaiman and Philosophy. In 2006, Luria earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of South Carolina. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College.