Keep the radio on. At night, the television. Old sitcom reruns are best, the comfort food of late-night entertainment. All the sets are familiar, the laugh track a thick blanket of companionship, the characters the best sorts of friends: they dole out their love in easy one-liners; they ask for nothing in return.
Take yourself out to lunch. Order a beer. If it helps, create a back-story. Research your city’s convention schedule. You’re a tax attorney. You’re a funeral home director. You’re a turkey hunter or a university-funded ethnographer.
It’s not that important to understand what an ethnographer actually does. If anyone asks, make a deep-thinking face and say, “What do you think an ethnographer does?” Nod meaningfully during the answer, and record it in your notebook.
Anyway, most of the time no one will ask. They’ll leave you alone with your book, or soundless baseball highlights on the corner television. Pretend to be comfortable inside your own skin. In the mirror above the bar, watch people struggle through chit chat and marvel at how complicated a contraption is the human relationship, how difficult to get one into the air and keep it aloft. Congratulate yourself on avoiding such troublesome projects.
Nod politely to the neighbors. Make small talk about the weather, the recent disappointments of your local sports franchises. Listen to their complaints about the weekly trash pickup, which never gets all the garbage from the curb: on windy days it blows up and down the block, delivery menus and styrofoam containers and the tiny bones of delicate, edible animals. Someone should write a letter, they say, or make a phone call. Do we not live in a society? Are we not civilized? First it’s the trash and then people are pissing in the alleys, drug peddlers are moving in from the west, and how long before junkies start defecating in the middle of busy intersections? How long before someone takes a bullet? It happens. It could happen. Don’t you read the papers?
During this conversation there’s a high probability one of these well-meaning-if-not-particularly-enlightened neighbors will use a bit of coded language—thugs or animals or the wrong element—forcing you into a difficult moral dilemma. Remember: These aren’t bad people, they just grew up in a different era. They’re fearful of the unknown. Remind yourself you’ve got your own problems. It’s not your duty to educate the world. Anyway it’s best to blend in, to not make waves, because you need these daily communions, meaningless as they might seem. Some days these are the only people you’ll speak to.
At the bodega around the corner where you buy your tuna salad and cigarettes, inquire about the owner’s kids, the nephew who’s been in and out of prison. Complain about the weather, the trash in the streets, et cetera. It’s almost like real life. It’s almost enough.
You were an only child, and your parents moved every few years. You spent much of your childhood waiting to leave or be left. You spent much of your childhood entertaining yourself, building imaginary worlds and inhabiting them as if they were real. Your real-life friends, they never learned to behave in precisely the ways you wanted them to. You cried a lot, but you learned to hold it in around others, especially boys, whose cruelties you witnessed often enough to know how merciless they could be.
When you were four you invented a brother, who you named Dave. He was a rancher in Wyoming. At the time you lived in Connecticut. How did you know about Wyoming? Public television, probably. When you described the details of Dave’s life to the neighbor, an elderly woman who lived alone and in summer afternoons fed you popsicles in her backyard, you must have been too convincing, because eventually she approached your mother to inquire—ever so delicately—about this brother of yours. Was there some mental or behavioral deficiency that had required your parents to ship him off to the American West, leaving you alone and longing for your lost playmate?
Your mother laughed and cleared everything up, but after that the neighbor lady seemed wary of you. Sometimes when you banged on her sliding-glass door she didn’t answer, even though you knew she was home because she was always home. Frankly that lady could have used an imaginary sibling of her own. Someone should have told her it’s perfectly normal to pine for a person who doesn’t exist. Most people don’t exist. Only the unimaginative are satisfied with the world as it is.
Don’t let anyone tell you it’s weird to see a movie alone. Ditto a band, or an art show. Who decided these were social events?
Early afternoon movies are best, as they’re populated mostly by the elderly, who smack their lips while eating popcorn and talk over the previews but they’re preferable to young couples, whose cooing and canoodling only remind you of the things you came to the movies in the first place to forget. In the dark of the theater, close your eyes and feel the collective vibrato of all these bodies around you. Allow yourself to be held by humanity’s embrace.
Dress for the life you want, not the one you have. Shower each morning. Put on pants, even if you have no intention of leaving the house. This is more important than you might think.
Make lists. Without them it’s too easy for a day to slide into chaos. It’s okay to write “take a nap” on a list, or “read a novel,” or “take a walk.” Everyone needs reminders. Everyone needs structure. There’s a distinct pleasure to crossing each item through, a quick slash, like slaying an enemy.
Unstructured time, that’s the real enemy. Too much unstructured time leads to reflection, and reflection leads to the twin dark forces of worry and regret. Silence, too, is an enemy. Silence wants to smother you, it wants to pin you to the floor and sit on your chest. Silence will ignore all your cries of uncle, will give you tittie twisters until your nipples are purple and throbbing. Don’t let silence into the room. Not even when you’re feeling strong. Not even when you’re feeling up to a challenge. Trust me on this one.
In many ways, living alone gets easier as you get older. You settle in, grow accustomed to your own slow rhythms. Most of your friends are married. They’re having kids, or they’re talking about kids; they’re clearing spaces inside their lives for kids, kid-proofing their kitchens and cutting back on their drinking and researching birth doulas on the internet. These days they ask less and less of you: happy hour beers every few weeks; to water the plants or feed the cats while they’re away on vacation. Friendships at this age are milder, easier, without the complicated passions and shifting allegiances of youth. When you’re together, you mostly gossip about other friends you haven’t seen in a while, speculate about what sorts of idiot messes they’re making of their lives.
Remember: Nothing good can come from wondering how these friends speculate about your life when you’re not around. Anyway, the truth is they’re probably too busy to think much about you, one way or another. On social media they’re always emphasizing their busyness, and you can only assume those claims are true. When they don’t call or email or text for long stretches of time, remind yourself about their harried lives. When they post pictures on social media of their spittle-covered children, hit ‘like’ and go browse for two hours at the record store. Cook yourself an elaborate dinner and parcel out the leftovers into single-serving Tupperware containers. Remind yourself how lucky you are. No one nags you about your drinking. Life could still take you anywhere. You can masturbate pretty much any time you want.
Not that you’d consider yourself a loner. You’ve had girlfriends. You’ve had relationships, of various length and quality. You almost got married once, but swerved away from that life at the last possible moment. You’re not the kind of person to use the phrase “dodged a bullet”—only insufferable dudes in striped button downs and backwards ballcaps would use such a phrase—but let’s be honest: you probably dodged a bullet. As did she. Last you heard, she’d taken up with a man more temperamentally suited to the exhausting endeavor of human coupledom and moved to Michigan.
Remember: You’re not lonely, you’re only regrouping. You’re gathering your strength. You’re working on you. Soon, when the time is right, you’ll launch a full-scale assault on the world’s available stores of happiness. Your current situation, this holding pattern, it’s a choice, not a predicament.
When you were a kid, because your parents moved so often, you were envious of people with roots, kids with aunts and uncles and cousins a car ride away, whose teachers already knew them because they’d taught their siblings, sometimes even their parents. These spiderwebs of connection, tethering them to the world.
But as an adult, too, you’ve tended to be nomadic. Maybe it gets in the blood. In twelve years you’ve lived in ten apartments in four cities. None of these cities has felt like a final city. You think of them, now, as phases: the North Carolina phase, the D.C. phase, the Iowa phase, the Philadelphia phase. Actually you think of them this way even when you’re in the midst of a particular phase. There’s always a slight remove: how will you describe this place, this life, to the people you encounter in the next one?
Now that you think about it, your girlfriends, too, you’ve tended to think about in phases: the Maureen phase, the Kristen phase, the Taylor phase, the Kristina phase, the Carol phase, the Kate phase, on and on. Each of these phases like a possible life, a thing to try on, like a suit, turning one way and then the other in front of the mirror, finally shrugging it off and telling the sales clerk you’ll keep looking.
Take up smoking. Quit smoking. Take up running. Quit running. Take up smoking again. Try meditation. Try yoga. Try a vegetarian diet. Wear only natural fibers. Become a new person. Become a hundred new people. Become a guinea pig. It’s important to have projects.
Okay, maybe you’re a little lonely. You can admit that, can’t you? Everyone’s lonely sometimes. It doesn’t have to be permanent. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently the matter with you. Mostly it’s luck and circumstance. You’ve got good qualities.
Make a list of your good qualities, and put stars beside the ones that strike you as especially noteworthy. Put on upbeat music. Crack open a beer. Think of all the possible lives that are waiting out there to be snatched from the ether. Anything could happen still. You could move again. You could change careers. You could go back to school. You could live in Europe. At the very least you could visit Europe, once you take care of some bills, once you get your financial life in better order and maybe a few other aspects of your life in better order. The point is no one can tell you not to go to Europe, and you won’t have to put that hypothetical trip on hold because of a kid, or someone else’s job, and once you get your money right you can buy a ticket and sublet your apartment and take off for as long as you’d like. Sure, there will still be plenty of good reasons not to go to Europe, but they’ll be your reasons, rather than someone else’s reasons, and the possibility, it’ll still be out there, off in the distance, a little twinkling star, this version of your life in which you chuck it all and go to Europe and maybe while you’re there you change every single thing about yourself, become new to yourself, become reborn.
Please note: Therapists do not have well-developed senses of humor, at least not on the subject of suicide. They tend to kind of flip out about it. It’s best if you keep those jokes to yourself.
That engagement, several years ago now, you broke it off after having what you refer to as “kind of a freakout.” Remember to laugh when you describe it this way, always laugh, and by your laughter reassure the listener that whatever mental difficulties you experienced in the past are tucked away there, safely. You no longer worry about your brain literally splintering apart. These days you get out of bed easily. You never have to give yourself a pep talk about leaving the house. You no longer have nightmares about men in white coats hooking electrodes to your extremities and making worried faces at computer monitors. You no longer research psychoses on the internet. It’s been years since you typed your age and “onset of” in a Google search bar. Most days you feel perfectly normal, or if not exactly normal at least functional. You feel like a human: you have a human head and you have a human body and they’re not at war with one another; at the very least they’ve arrived at a temporary truce, one that with any luck will soon result in a long-term peace accord.
Maybe just don’t talk about the engagement at all. Maybe there’s no need to ever bring it up again.
Your parents worry, but the good news is they live several hundred miles away, and you rarely have to see them in person. On the phone, your mother asks if you’re going to church. She asks if you’re dating. “Are you depressed?” she says. “You sound depressed.”
Develop a special voice for when you talk on the phone with your mother, the voice of a television news anchor, chirpy and bright. It’s exhausting, keeping it up, but it’s worth the effort, and afterward you can sink back into the couch, pour yourself a bourbon, turn on the television. Sure, go ahead and have another. Who’s counting? It’ll help you sleep, and anyway you’ve earned it.
Though your mother’s right, you should go on dates every so often. You’re not a bad-looking guy, and you’ve read a lot of books. You’ve developed a knack for knowing what not to say.
Take these women out for drinks. Take them out for dinner. Take them bowling. Take them to a concert. Take them to the Asian supermarket near your apartment to shop for exotic ingredients. Cook a meal together and then take them to bed. Since these women don’t travel in your usual, admittedly limited social circles, when the time comes it will be easy enough to disappear. Tell them you got back together with an ex. Tell them you met someone else. Tell them you’re not quite ready for anything serious and you don’t want to waste their time. Tell them whatever you think they need to hear. You’re not in the business of love, not at the moment. You’re in the business of self-preservation.
Remind yourself, whenever necessary: This isn’t your life, this is only a prelude to your life. Real life begins when you decide it begins: any day now; it’s coming; you can feel it. This loneliness, or alone-ness, whatever it is, it’s just a temporary state of being. You could change it all if you wanted to, and you will, soon. You’ll get a wife. You’ll get a dog. You’ll post pictures of your wife and your dog on social media sites and watch old friends come out of the woodwork to congratulate you on your choices, to welcome you back into their tribe. You’ll buy a house. You’ll take vacations. You’ll post pictures of your house and your vacations to social media sites and these pictures will be a testament to your mental well-being, to your ability to navigate and even conquer the world. Everything’s fine, these pictures will say, no need to worry anymore.
If you ever feel down, if you ever feel like chucking it all and moving to Greece or Islamorada, if you ever find yourself a little too close to a window ledge, just look at all those ‘likes.’ Tally them up like a videogame high score. Say it again and again, like a mantra, like a prayer: This is a life, this is a life, this is a life.
Mike Ingram’s work has appeared in EPOCH, The Southeast Review, and Monkeybicycle. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and currently lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches at Temple University.