The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Courtesy of The SALT Institute
For the past six years, I’ve lived alone in a remote one-room cabin: solar power, outhouse, open shower. I’m fifty-five and have two former wives who would find it hard to believe that their once gregarious ex has become a contemplative hermit.
What’s bad about living alone? The possibility of choking on a bite of sandwich, or falling off a ladder. Watching a sunset by myself.
What’s good about it? Taking a nap whenever I feel like it. Having nowhere to go, no one to meet. Watching a sunset by myself.
I scrape up enough odd jobs to make about ten grand a year — all it takes for a person (uninsured and pensionless) to live frugally among the critters, far from the blackouts and the freeways. I have plenty of time to think and work on projects: I’ve dreamed up a campaign to convince NASA to send a poet into space. Last week, I covered the deck railing with boxes of spring flowers. Yesterday, I started building a maze with a glass top so I could figure out which of the local lizard species is the smartest. I’ve invented a new parlor game and pieced together a prototype. (Now whom shall I invite over to give it a try?)
Sometimes, climbing into bed at night, I realize I’ve neither seen a soul nor uttered a word all day. I like it. I used to think I needed people the way I need oxygen. Now I’m pretty much convinced that oxygen is enough.
After I graduated from college, I landed an internship in Brussels, where I moved into a tiny one-room apartment. It was my first time living alone, and I was far from friends and family. For several nights, I cried myself to sleep.
There were nine other apartments in the building — two on each floor. My neighbors were mostly foreign-exchange students from various European countries. Though I sometimes joined them for a beer, I felt like an outsider; they all attended the same university program, whereas I was working.
Then a minor transformation took place in our building. The Italian boys on the third floor decided to put their bedroom furniture in one apartment and their kitchen furniture in the other. In the evenings, we naturally began to congregate in this newly created communal space. We all brought chairs from our apartments and began to cook and eat together every night. After a few weeks, we were the tightest group you could imagine.
I spent seven months in Brussels, and by the time I left, I thought of my apartment simply as my bedroom.
Carrboro, North Carolina
My dad worked hard his whole life, often holding down two jobs to support his nine children. A month after he retired, at age sixty-eight, he had a stroke.
He recovered, but as time passed, he started acting a little strange. He’d put his shirt on inside out, or his shoes on the wrong feet. One summer evening, he took the garbage out and didn’t return for an hour. The police brought him home and told my mother that he had been pounding on some woman’s door three blocks away, demanding that she let him in.
My mother eventually decided to put my dad into a nursing home. It broke my heart to see him spend his remaining days there. I wanted to quit my job and care for him myself, but that wasn’t possible, so I went to see him as often as I could.
At Thanksgiving that year, I decided to bring my dad to my house to have dinner with my husband and me and some of our friends. In the middle of dinner, Dad began singing a song from his youth that I had never heard him sing before: “A jim jam jingle is a jumpin’ jive,” he sang. “Makes you nine feet tall when you’re four-foot-five.” We all laughed, and someone asked Dad if he knew any more songs.
He smiled wryly and answered, “Yes, but I’m not telling.”
Later that evening, I took him back to the nursing home. I knew it would be hard to leave him there, but I thought I could handle it. I walked him to his room and started to help him take off his coat. He turned to me and said, “Lorraine, I didn’t want to come back here.”
“Dad, this is where you live now,” I explained.
“But I don’t want to live alone.”
His green eyes pleaded with me to take him home, and I burst into tears.
“Dad, I’m sorry,” I cried. “I’m so sorry, but I’ve got to leave you here. Please forgive me.”
His eyes held mine as he said, “Oh, Lorraine, I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
For several weeks after that, every time he saw me, he would repeat those same sad words. Four months later, he died
Kirkville, New York
Wrapping the single filet I had requested, the woman behind the seafood counter said, “Gee, you must be the only person in the family who likes fish.”
“Actually, I’m the only person in the family, period,” I replied.
Caught off guard, she stammered something about why people usually buy single pieces of fish. But she shouldn’t have worried. She hadn’t insulted me. I like living alone.
Granted, I never planned to live alone. It’s been thirteen years now since I moved to Florida, into a house large enough to accommodate my teenage daughter, my fiancé, and me. As things turned out, my daughter soon moved into a dorm room at the university. And my so-called fiancé never even followed me to Florida. The house and the yard became too big and empty, so I replaced them with a cozy condo, which has become my sanctuary. Everything in it is a reflection of my personality.
This past weekend, I visited a friend who recently divorced and now lives in a small apartment right on the beach. Her place is modest, but the balcony is nearly on top of the water’s edge; from it, she can watch dolphins frolic and feel the tropical breeze. She seemed serene in her new living arrangement, so I asked, “How do you find living alone?”
She’d grown up in an abusive household, she told me, and when she was a teenager, all she’d dreamed about was solitude. Now my friend raised her arms skyward and proclaimed, “And to think it’s taken me fifty years to get here!”
Mary Jane Janowski
Altamonte Springs, Florida
Those of us who don’t live alone yearn for empty, sunny rooms to drink tea in, bathtubs we can lie in as long as we want, living rooms where we can blast music no one else likes and dance without being seen. We want peaceful mornings in which to get ready for our day, evenings in which we can collapse on the couch and not cook dinner if we don’t feel like it. We want kitchens where we can stack dirty dishes for days. We want to go for walks without anyone asking, “Can I come?” We want to garden without little feet stomping on the bulbs. We want to walk through the house barefoot without stepping on Lego pieces. We want to know where all our CDs are. We want to let the cats sleep in the bed. We want to wait to do laundry until we are down to our last pair of underwear, the ones with the stretched-out elastic and the hanging threads. We want to stay up late and read, or write, or watch a movie. We want to eat food we are too embarrassed to eat in front of other people — sundaes with marshmallows, sugary cereal, baloney sandwiches, Burger King.
In our nostalgia, there are things that we forget about living alone. We forget coming home to a dark, empty apartment. We forget about the dirty dishes that depress us because there is no reason to do them. We forget about the mornings it takes all our energy to get out of bed and face the day alone, the evenings takeout is not a treat because we’re having it for the fifth night in a row. We forget about crying in hot baths that turn cold. We forget about the silence that is no longer luxurious because it is too long and too deep. We forget how big an empty bed can feel.
Silk Hope, North Carolina
When I was a child, I lived in fear of Bartola. There wasn’t a kid in our village who didn’t know her name. Once in a while, we would see her trudging along the dirt road near our home. She was mean-looking and tough. She held her purse with both hands, wore a bandanna on her head, and walked with a swaying motion.
Bartola lived alone in a two-room adobe house outside the village, with dozens of dogs for company. She’d been around for as long as anybody could remember. The elders said she’d been old in their youth. Some kids speculated that she was a witch. As she walked along in her slow, painful stoop, we would watch her from the safety of our house, ducking if we thought she might glance our way.
One winter day when I was ten years old, my dad got an order from Bartola for a truckload of firewood to be delivered to her home. I had to go with him to help.
The minute my dad stopped the truck at Bartola’s house, we were surrounded by barking dogs.
“Don’t be scared,” Dad said.
“I’m not,” I lied.
As I climbed into the truck bed to unload the wood, Bartola came to the front door. She looked even scarier than I remembered. Her hair was whiter than the snow on the ground. She uttered a few words to her dogs, and they quieted down and sat near her feet as my dad and I worked.
“Sit down,” she said when we had finished, motioning to a large stump. My father and I sat; I listened while they talked. Bartola had a harsh voice. Her gnarled hands looked strong beneath her thin, fingerless gloves. I wondered how they would feel around my neck.
After a while, Bartola asked us into her house. Inside, it was warm but damp and smelled of wet lumber and candle wax. Dripping candles cluttered every surface, and a red-hot wood stove filled one corner. A shelf held jars of food and cans of government-surplus peanut butter. One entire wall was covered with old calendar pictures of Jesus, the angels, and the saints.
“This is my altar,” she said. “I no longer have a way to get to Mass.”
So she wasn’t a witch. She was just an old and lonely woman.
My dad asked why she lived alone, under those conditions.
“I’m not alone,” she said.
Was she referring to her numerous dogs, or to a higher power? I never found out.
Many years after my family had moved away from the village, I visited my Uncle Romolo, who had purchased our old house, and asked what had become of Bartola. He told me she had eventually been taken to a nursing home to live out her remaining years in comfort, but had died within a few days. The newspaper had listed her age as 117. A simple wooden cross marked her grave.
When I was seventeen, I took an outdoor-adventure course called Outward Bound. For twenty-one days, I went hiking, rock climbing, and white-water rafting with a dozen other teens in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. I struggled the entire time with a heavy backpack, biting bugs, and obnoxious fellow teenagers who seemed always ready to make me feel stupid. I spent most of my days fighting back anger and frustration, and many nights in tears, ruminating on the day’s failures and social blunders.
At the start of the third week, we were each scheduled to go on a three-day solo excursion. Some of the others talked about the solo as if it were designed to torture them, but I eagerly looked forward to it. I longed for a place where there was no one to watch me fail.
At the start of the solo, an instructor dropped me off along a river. I was finally alone. All I had with me were the clothes I was wearing, my boots, a rain poncho, my sleeping bag, and two plastic bags. In one bag were my tin cup and iodine bottle, to treat the river water for drinking. In the other were a handful of peanuts and dried pineapple bits, a small hunk of cheese, and a wedge of bread. (We were fasting, too.) I couldn’t have been happier.
On the edge of the river, I found a hillock that seemed far enough above the waterline to be safe from flash floods. On top was a copse of trees that created a little hollow. I decided to call it home.
For the first time in my life, I made my own shelter. I cleared away rocks and vines and threw down my sleeping bag. Then I fashioned my poncho into a roof: with my two boot laces and the string from my sweater hood, I tied up three corners of the poncho. I needed two more strings: one for the last corner, and one to hold up the center and make a peak. I walked up and down the river, rustling through grasses and looking behind stones. Finally I found exactly what I was looking for: an ancient, cracked leather boot with a long, tattered lace, easily broken in two.
Later that night, the rain sheeted down. Lightning bolts sizzled through the black sky. Thunder boomed, and water rushed frantically along the riverbed, turning the banks to mud. I lay huddled inside my sleeping bag, perfectly dry under my rain-poncho roof. Rain rolled over the poncho’s edge in curtains. I smelled the rough green scent of wet leaves plastered to the earth. As the wind howled and the lightning exploded, I felt powerful, vindicated.
Anne T. Davis
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I remember when I first learned that thoughts are meant to stay inside your head. I was sitting on my rusty swing set at dusk, swaying forward and back, the heels of my Keds dragging the ground. Another blissful childhood day was ending, and my mind was full of questions. I fell into an easy conversation with myself.
I didn’t know my mother was watching me. To her worried eye, I must have appeared lonely and forlorn, an only child with few playmates.
As the sky darkened, a light came on over the back door. I glanced up to see my mother peering through the door’s calico curtains, listening to me talking to myself. Her gaze silenced me. In her eyes, I saw concern and fear. I saw self-blame for having raised a sensitive and eccentric child. From that evening on, I kept my conversations with myself inside my head.
Now I have just graduated from college, and everything is new and mysterious and frightening. I’m living alone, and I have a lot on my mind. Sometimes I get so absorbed in my thoughts that I realize I have begun to speak them out loud.
In order to assuage my guilt over becoming involved with my six-foot-tall, blond hairdresser, I gave my wife everything except my ten-year-old pickup, my clothes, and some assorted tools. These meager possessions I took to a one-bedroom apartment at the beach. (I don’t know how it is in the rest of the country, but in San Diego, the beachfront area is where all the divorced men go to live alone and “sort things out.”)
I thought I was doing the noble thing by giving all my money to my wife and our seven-year-old daughter, but I soon learned some bitter truths about being noble. Since the utility bill at our home had gone unpaid during the divorce, the utilities — which were in my name — were shut off. My wife had them turned back on under her name, and the black mark went on my record. In order to get the electricity turned on at my new beach pad, I needed to pay the back bill, as well as a deposit on the new account. Being broke, I could do neither.
Living in an apartment with no electricity is a strange experience. I kept a supply of candles handy in case I had guests after dark. (A candlelight dinner loses much of its romance when the light is from multicolored birthday candles set on a paper plate.) I often used a flashlight to make my way to bed. My hairdresser lover was no help at all. She had thought that I would bail her out of her own dismal financial situation.
I lived in my “beach cave” for three months, riding my bike to work, eating lots of four-for-a-dollar macaroni-and-cheese dinners, and saving up my pennies to buy some electricity.
In retrospect, I deserved all this and more for leaving the way I did.
I’ve always been proud of the fact that I live alone and can do as I damn well please. Other men who have divorced tell me — once they’ve gone through the anger, sadness, and denial — that they never knew I had it so good.
About a year ago, when I was looking for an opportunity to volunteer, a close friend persuaded me to come with her to a nursing home and read to patients. I was assigned to visit a forty-three-year-old woman named B. My first thought was What is a forty-three-year-old doing in a nursing home? It turned out she’d been in a serious car accident and severely injured her left leg. Because she had no family and was unable to take care of herself, her doctor had arranged for her to stay in the nursing home.
B. had a wonderful spirit and would often talk about her past relationship with a man she cared deeply about but, for some reason, had never married. She would sometimes interrupt my reading when the plot of the story triggered a fond memory of him.
On Valentine’s Day, I brought B. a stuffed black-and-white dog with a heart hanging from its mouth. I could tell by her face that she had not had a good day. When I gave her my present, she said, “A Valentine’s gift for a lonely woman. How sweet. I’m so glad you’re my valentine.”
The following week, I was really looking forward to visiting B. As I checked in at the front desk, a young woman on the staff stopped me. “Didn’t the director call you today?” she asked. “I am so sorry, but the woman you were reading to died.”
She told me a blood clot had killed B. instantly. Because she had no family, they’d buried her without a service.
I felt sick to my stomach. It was all I could do to get to the parking lot and climb into my truck. As I stared down at the highway, fighting back the tears and pondering B.’s lonely and tragic death, I began to reflect on my own solitary existence. From nowhere, the words came out of my mouth: “Oh, my God, I really am alone.”
My boyfriend held my hand and told me that he loved me but he wanted — no, needed — to live alone. He cried as he explained that he was seeking a more spiritual life in which he could focus on his meditation. He told me not to worry about him, that he would put all his things in storage and live on friends’ sofas until he found a place to live. He said we had acquired too many material goods, and he didn’t want to live that way anymore. He said that his love for me had changed. He said that it wasn’t another woman. He said that maybe he would run off and live with a bunch of monks. He said, “Maybe I’m just not good at living with someone.”
A month later, he has found a place to live that he shares with three other people and isn’t too far from his new girlfriend’s house. When he moved, he took the TV, the VCR, the blender, and many other appliances.
How glad I am to live alone.
Last fall, my partner and I finally decided to separate after a difficult marriage of ten years. One of the first things I did after he moved out was paint the walls: Indian red for my bedroom, sunflower gold in the dining room. My ex had forbidden these colors — they were too aggressive, he claimed.
Perhaps he was right. Maybe the red of my bedroom was too stimulating, because on the nights when our girls stayed at their father’s apartment, I could not sleep. I’d drag my favorite pillow to my three-year-old’s room, where the lemon yellow walls were more restful and her beloved stuffed animals would comfort me.
On many nights, though, no matter where I slept, I lay in the dark, heart pounding, thinking of my girls and replaying all that had transpired in the week gone by. Alternately, I’d feel regret, sadness, guilt, profound love, terror, anguish, and anxiety — most of all anxiety. I was sure I had ruined our lives forever. How would I ever make enough money to support my kids? How would I find the time to give them the attention they needed? How would I find somebody to love me? And what had I gained? The freedom to lie, sleepless and alone, in an empty house.
On one of those unforgiving nights, I lay dead still with my eyes open in the heavy darkness and let the fear take me. It was a horrible ride that shook me to my bones, but I refused to budge. Though the terror threatened to destroy me, I lay still, and it eventually subsided. I had looked fear in the eye and had not been destroyed. I was still here.
In the months that followed, the anxiety lessened. I made a point of enjoying the small pleasures of parenting: precious moments in the bath before bed; silly jokes at the supper table; sweet kisses from both daughters.
I know that fear is still there, perched on my shoulder, but I am trying to make it my familiar. For me, fear means being fully awake after a long, troubled sleep.
When I was a small child, my father was in the U.S. Air Force, and we moved constantly from one bleak and treeless military base to another. He died when I was seven, and my mother, my sister, and I moved in with my aunt and uncle. Before too long, my mother found a small apartment — the first of many we would rent in beehive suburban complexes with names like Fountain Village and Willow Run.
Between the ages of eighteen and thirty, I moved more than two dozen times: changing jobs or boyfriends, following whims or rock-and-roll bands. I packed up and left as soon as anything began to feel permanent. I usually worked as a temp, and “temporary” pretty much described my life.
Gradually, I let myself touch down for more than a year at a time. I went to art school, worked in New York City as a clothing designer, got married, and moved to Seattle. I began to flirt with the idea of permanence. Still, I would dream of houses with no roofs, and holes in the walls where the rain poured in, and missing floorboards where grass and weeds grew into the living room.
After my divorce, when the basement door of my rental house fell off the hinges, I had a panic attack. The shakiness of the house seemed symbolic of my unstable life.
Three years ago, at the age of forty-five, I bought my first house. For a lifelong gypsy, this was a giant step, but it was nothing compared to the leap I was taking by living alone. I had always lived with groups — even herds — of people. To live alone was terrifying, but my small house was big enough for only one.
Three years later, I have settled into this house and found something approaching contentment. My two dogs snooze in the sunlit backyard. My garden teaches me the value of putting down roots. I plant small trees so that I can watch them grow — because I plan to be here for a long, long time.
Just out of college and all of twenty-two years old, my two girlfriends and I rented a tiny apartment in New York City. My room was essentially a walk-in closet adjoining a roommate’s bedroom. (On my entry-level publishing salary, I felt lucky to be living in Manhattan at all.) It was tough for three women to share one tiny apartment. I often discovered my food had been eaten and my shampoo bottle was empty.
Over the six years that we lived there, my roommates and I indulged in many evenings of cheap beer and flirting at Pete’s Tavern, Old Town Bar, and Molly’s Pub. Some nights, we’d all end up kissing blue-eyed Irish boys in some dark corner, and one or more of us would bring our new “friend“ home. We felt safe engaging in spontaneous sex with strangers because we always had two roommates very close by. (Small apartments do offer some advantages.) Now I live alone and wouldn’t dream of bringing home a stranger from a bar. I have no one nearby to hear a frantic struggle or a muffled cry for help. Without meaning to, I’ve traded my sex life for the satisfaction of eating the last bit of my ice cream.
Hoboken, New Jersey
In the paper, the apartment was advertised as “cozy.” I recognized a euphemism when I saw one, but I was six months behind on my student-loan payments, and the price was right, so I answered the ad anyway.
From the outside, the apartment complex looked all right, except for a couple of letters dangling haphazardly on the facade and some peeling paint. The manager explained that my apartment wasn’t ready yet — some minor repairs needed to be done — but that she’d show me one “similar” to the one I’d be renting. It wasn’t the Ritz-Carlton, but it suited my needs. I gave her a check for the deposit that afternoon.
Two weeks later, I opened the door of my new home and found — instead of the tasteful beige-and-tan decor I’d seen in the other apartment — green shag carpet, red-and-yellow-striped wall-paper, and a lurid red lamp hanging by a gold chain from the living-room ceiling. The whole place had a dank, cloying odor — a blend of dirty clothes and baby powder. The kitchen tiles were cracked and chipped, the refrigerator door was spattered with rust, and whoever had painted the walls was either very drunk or very short, because he or she had stopped three feet from the ceiling.
Nobody in the entire complex seemed to do anything constructive — or quiet. The couple next door were always either screaming at each other or blasting heavy-metal music. Directly below me lived an out-of-work carpenter whose wife, frustrated by her husband’s joblessness, constantly pelted him with obscenities. He responded by getting drunk or stoned. One morning, I was awakened by a man and his son setting off firecrackers in the parking lot.
In July, my air conditioner broke, and the management told me it would take weeks to fix. (This was in the deep South.) I headed to the swimming pool to cool off, but found a vat of murky water covered with algae and scum. Then, in August, the parking lot was covered with a layer of asphalt that softened like caramel in the heat and stuck to my shoes, leaving trails of sticky black goo on the floor of my apartment. I felt as if someone were playing a bad practical joke on me.
The last straw was when my next-door neighbor — the one who bellowed at his wife and played Iron Maiden at top volume — asked me if I wanted to come over and smoke a joint with him. His wife was gone for the evening, he said, but she wouldn’t mind. I politely told him no thanks, locked my door, and burst into tears.
Two weeks later, I broke my lease and moved into a small, tidy apartment with white walls, inoffensive light fixtures, and a roommate.
I’d just moved to rural North Carolina and was living by myself for the first time. I told everyone I would be fine, but added an extra lock to the door and bought a phone for the bedroom — just in case.
When I first moved into the five-apartment building, I met my neighbor Cole, an unmarried man in his forties. He introduced himself as the church sexton. I immediately looked up sexton in the dictionary: “A church maintenance custodian.” Cole had a rickety station wagon weighed down with every tool in existence. He also had a slight stutter, especially in the mornings, as if his mouth took a while to wake up. He would lie in a lawn chair on our communal front lawn drinking huge banana smoothies and taking naps with his shirt off. Sometimes he’d wake up, roll over to skim through his tool magazines, then fall asleep again face down. When I came home from work, he’d glance up to ask about my day, and his forehead would be creased by the lawn-chair straps.
Another neighbor, Amy, was nineteen, wore tiny, red-tinted sunglasses and big straw hats, and had a five-year-old son named Joey. They often sat on their balcony, Joey zooming his trucks along the railing and Amy talking on her cordless phone and drinking cans of Busch beer. When she emptied a can, she would crush it with her heel and leave it on the deck. Sometimes Joey knocked a flattened can off, sending it bouncing into the parking lot. Every time Amy saw me, she’d holler, “Come up for a beer sometime!” And sometimes I would. We’d eat pistachios and talk about cartoons and her old boyfriends.
Lilda lived on the other side of Amy and was like a grandmother to Joey. Amy did Lilda’s grocery shopping, and Lilda baby-sat Joey, took him to the park, and baked him rice pudding and Christmas cake. Once, she bought him a Batman kite, which she helped him put together. Joey flew the kite in the parking lot, dragging it through the gravel until it was finally airborne, at which point Lilda clapped and laughed with delight. When the kite got stuck on the roof, Cole fetched a ladder from his station wagon and freed it.
My last neighbor, Bruce, was a pure Southern gentleman, with a large build and a wide smile. He drank sweetened iced tea constantly, sucking at the straw so vigorously that I thought he might inhale it. He had such strong, exacting manners that it was nearly impossible to carry on a conversation with him. After a while, I just smiled and waved. Bruce had an enormous truck and was always hauling something: a bag of dirt for Lilda’s garden, a new dryer for the basement. He listened to country music when he was driving, the radio so loud you could hear him coming a few blocks away. Sometimes it would awaken me at night, and the song would still be in my head the next morning.
We were a strange bunch in that little apartment building, but we kept an eye on each other. Cole lent me his tools to put my new furniture together. Amy gave me tips on how to defrizz my hair. Joey and I played hide-and-seek together. Lilda brought over a pie. And Bruce helped me jump-start my dead battery. Living by myself was lonely at times, but I never felt alone.
Divorce and child-support payments left me living in a one-room box of an apartment. The walls were a dingy white. My sleeping bag was black. The matted carpet was a drab gray. The autumn sky in the tiny window above my bed was often overcast. I joked to myself (there was no one else to joke with) that the room was so old it was still in black and white.
The only possessions I’d resurrected from storage were a dozen pictures of my two-year-old daughter, which I’d tacked to the side of the bookshelf that faced my bed.
One unseasonably golden morning, I awoke to find sunlight streaming in on the pictures as if from a spotlight. The colors — the pink of her baby lips, the peach of her cheeks, the red and green and yellow of her dresses — seemed to vibrate. I lay in my black sleeping bag and cried.
In the days and months that followed, I worked toward reconciliation. Now the three of us are together again, in a beautiful home full of color and life.