On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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I have lived in the teeming country of India all my life. My homeland groans with the weight of 17 percent of the world’s population. (The United States, by comparison, is home to less than 5 percent.) Where there are so many people, there is a lot of noise. Whether in a big city or a small village, it is commonplace to step outdoors at any time of day and hear motorized rickshaws sputtering, trucks honking, bicycle bells clanging, Bollywood music baying from loudspeakers, street vendors shouting, and people chatting loudly on mobile phones. It is impossible to escape the press of humanity. Eventually one gets accustomed to it.
When I was thirty-five, I made my first trip out of India. My husband, Chander, and I went on a charter-bus tour of Europe. It was a beautiful and alien world to me, and I was awestruck by the immense open spaces. I could actually walk on sidewalks without sidestepping hawkers. I could swing my arms without sticking my elbow into a passerby. I didn’t have to talk loudly to be heard above a din. Instead of jostling crowds, there were uninterrupted green meadows, vast apple and pear orchards, and picturesque vineyards.
Our tour ended in Amsterdam on a cold early-November evening. The following day we had a whole morning free before returning to India. Chander had arranged to meet a former colleague outside the city. I decided to visit the Rijksmuseum to view Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch. On his way out, my husband asked if I would be OK on my own. Of course, I told him. Where would I be safer than in one of the world’s most heavily guarded museums? Besides, I had been told it was a mere twenty-minute walk away.
I had a leisurely breakfast and stepped out of the hotel at eleven. The neighborhood was mostly old homes. The trees were almost bare, their skinny branches disappearing into the mist. I tightened my coat around me and set off.
I had been walking for less than five minutes when I grew uneasy. It struck me that I was the only person on the street, the only person for as far as I could see. Even the few commercial establishments in the area were shuttered. (It was the weekend.) The only sounds were the slap of my shoes on the cobbled pavement and the crackle of dry leaves underfoot. I looked at my watch and assured myself the museum couldn’t be far.
Just then I felt a touch at my nape, and I slapped at my neck in fright, ready to fight off whoever had crept up on me. It was just a yellowed maple leaf fallen from a tree. Feeling stupid, I began to walk faster, looking anxiously for some sign of other people. I suddenly wished I were back home in crowded India.
It was the longest, loneliest twenty minutes of my life.
Eight years into my prison sentence, I was transferred to another correctional facility for psychological evaluation and placement in isolation housing. That was thirteen years ago, and I’ve been in isolation ever since. I literally haven’t touched another human being since April 2000.
I am permitted to come out of my cell only once every eight to twelve days, to be placed inside a kennel-like cage for a maximum of two hours. The overwhelming majority of my existence is spent in a concrete box sealed by a steel door. I am haunted by the realization that there are 7 billion other people on this planet, yet I am completely alone, buried alive, as if my jailers wanted to erase my very existence.
To survive year after year without physical or social contact, I must, as a matter of self-preservation, relinquish the very qualities that define me as a human being. Why, if I am to continue in this constant state of oppression, should I remain aware and cognizant? Under these circumstances, death seems a comforting alternative. I do not “live”; I merely exist within my own consciousness. I have no concept of time. Today is tomorrow, tomorrow is today, and the past is the future. Though I struggle to maintain my sanity, it’s a battle I feel I shall lose, and perhaps even look forward to losing.
Where is this God everyone speaks of? Is there anyone out there?
John Catanzarite, H62440
When I met my husband, I was twenty-seven, and he was forty-three. By the time I found out just how old he was, it was too late: I was in love. We moved in together, saw each other through illnesses and surgeries, bought a house together, and eventually married.
Now he will soon be seventy-three and is showing signs of dementia. He forgets the names of people we’ve known for decades and even our grandchildren. He asks me the meaning of words he once knew and is no longer capable of reading product labels. I used to depend on him for advice on how to handle conflicts with coworkers, but now his standard reply is “Did you tell them to go fuck themselves?” He gets angry at any metaphor he doesn’t understand: “That’s stupid! Why can’t they just say what they mean?”
I’m not going to divorce him: He’s my husband, and this is a disease. Plus, if the situation were reversed, I know he would take care of me. But — and I feel guilty saying this; I feel guilty even thinking it — I’m looking forward to widowhood so I can be alone.
I learned to be alone from my Native American mother, who cherished the hours when her children were at school. If I was sick, she would send me off with a shove out the door and a cheery “It’s your imagination!” Once, in fifth grade, I was so ill I bolted from class and ran up the stairs to the school nurse and buried my face in the cool folds of her skirt. It turned out I had a form of scarlet fever. But my mother had wanted to be alone that morning.
I don’t blame her. If I had four girls and a husband who was always working and a tiny two-room house on a chicken farm in the Arizona desert, I’d value my solitude, too. My mother taught me to savor being alone as I would a juicy peach, to seek it out and never be afraid of it. I always pictured her flinging her apron in the air with joy after my sisters and I left each weekday morning. I wondered what she did while we were gone. Chores, certainly. She also crocheted endless doilies, her lips moving silently as she counted the stitches. I found out much later what else she did: she wrote, like me.
My own writing habit started one Saturday morning in sixth grade. I woke before everyone else — even the chickens — and climbed out the window to enjoy the cool, clear predawn air and watch the sun rise over the Superstition Mountains. When I smelled the bacon frying, I hunted for someplace to hide. Johnson grass grew tall and plentiful along the ditch next to the road. I carved out an opening in it and patted the grass down into a perfect cushion for my rump. In that spot I was hidden from sight but could observe everything.
I started writing there in the Johnson grass. The grocery-store cashier had given me a roll of cash-register tape, and every day I filled a couple of yards of it. I went to my secret place after school and stayed there until supper time. No one ever asked where I was going or where I’d been.
One day I found a cat in my spot, and I turned and left; I wanted to be alone. The next day the cat was still there. On the third day I figured out that its back legs were injured. It must have been hit by a car. I was overcome with guilt that it had taken me so long to realize the animal was suffering. I got some water and gave it to him with an eyedropper. I brought him table scraps and milk from the big jar in the icebox — just a doll cup’s worth. I did this after school each day, eagerly anticipating seeing my new friend. Then one afternoon the cat wasn’t there. I pulled out my cash-register tape and wrote while my tears blurred the ink.
First that damn cat stole my alone time, and then, when I got that time back, it felt empty.
A dislike of crowds is one of the few things my father and I have in common. Once, when I was little, he drove me across town to a festival, and when we got there and he saw all the people milling about, he turned around and drove home.
My social anxiety emerged in college. I didn’t rush a sorority as a freshman like all my friends. By my junior year I was avoiding the main walkway so as not to run into people. I lived in a single dorm room, ordered takeout, and watched Netflix a lot. I was lucky if I shared a meal with someone a few times a week. I went to counseling but gave up when my counselor suggested I try group therapy.
One weekend, not quite ready to return to campus after a trip home, I parked at a nearby liquor store. Everything about the place was depressing, from the potholed parking lot to the run-down cars in it, to the fact that all the people going in and out of the store were by themselves, like me.
My father is an alcoholic, which makes me four times as likely as the average person to become an alcoholic myself. It’s easy to push this fact to the back of my mind when I’m doing a shot with other people, but sitting in that parking lot, I was forced to confront it. What’s worse, this realization didn’t keep me from buying beer and drinking alone in my dorm room later.
I’ve never stopped resenting my father for his alcoholism. Since that day in the liquor-store parking lot, though, I have become more sympathetic toward him — and also terrified that this disease will become another thing we have in common.
A few years ago my boyfriend accepted a ten-month stint with the National Park Service in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. My teaching job gave me the summer off, and I planned to spend six weeks with him. We’d explore the trails, attend music festivals, and shop at farmers’ markets.
When I arrived, my boyfriend’s schedule had unexpectedly changed. Instead of coming home every night, he’d be gone for five days at a time. That left me alone in his rented government house all week long with no car, no TV, no phone, no Internet, and no neighbors to talk to. Due to the mountains and thick forests, even radio reception was weak.
At first I thought I could handle the time by myself. I’d brought schoolwork and plenty of books to read. And I’d still have every Saturday and Sunday with my boyfriend. After the first week or so, though, the isolation began to wear on me. When I couldn’t take the silence, I talked out loud, sang made-up songs, and cursed my boyfriend for having taken this job in the first place.
I’m a runner, but it was so hot and humid I had to leave the house at 6 AM for runs. By eight I’d be done and have a whole day in front of me. I often went back to sleep. My vacation was beginning to feel like a prison sentence.
One Sunday, three weeks in, my boyfriend and I drove to the store to purchase a bird feeder. From then on I stopped sleeping so much and stayed awake to watch the birds. I soon had several American goldfinches coming to the feeder regularly, delicate creatures with high-pitched songs. I couldn’t get enough of the way they ate sunflower seeds. I was in love.
For an hour or so every morning I got to commune with other living beings. When they’d had their fill and flew away, I wished I could do the same.
Upstate New York
When I was ten years old, I ran away from home because my mother had been acting strangely. I know now she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but at the time I couldn’t make sense of her behavior. She would sit endlessly in front of the television and play video games and rock back and forth. I could wave my hands and yell and push her, but she wouldn’t budge. One morning I woke and saw her in the bathroom cutting her hair off and laughing. That’s when I left.
We lived in the projects of Long Beach, California, and I rode my bike to the ocean. The traffic was scary, and drivers shouted at me. Hungry, I stopped at the dumpsters behind Taco Bell, because there were always unopened packages of broken taco shells in them. When an employee came out the back door and saw me, I ran.
I stayed gone until dark. The streetlights were out in our neighborhood, and I heard sirens and gunshots, so I headed to a friend’s house and knocked on his bedroom window. He let me climb in and sleep there, and the next morning I snuck out.
This went on for three or four days. Finally I returned home because I needed clean clothes and a shower. I figured my mother would be worried sick and would probably pull me by my hair and smack me. I opened the door apprehensively.
My mom was in front of the TV playing video games. She didn’t even know I’d been gone.
Having lived with others my entire life — siblings, parents, husbands, children — my fantasy is to dwell alone in a cozy cottage, self-sufficient and self-contained: I sip coffee and look out my curtained window at a neat yard with colorful flowers. My wooden kitchen table is where I both eat and write. My living room has a couple of overstuffed chairs and a comfy love seat. I walk or ride my bike everywhere and visit good friends whenever I want.
Or maybe my cottage is perched on a cliff by the sea, remote and weather-beaten. I soak up the ocean air and roam the rolling hills nearby and see people only occasionally. My children and grandchildren come for long visits, and we bond deeply, but then they go home, and I am alone again, content.
That’s the fantasy. Here’s the reality I foresee: I am in a nursing home, lying in bed, staring out a window and feeling forgotten. My children and grandchildren, though loving, lead busy lives, and I see them infrequently. I am ill, in pain, and desperate for company, having long ago stopped romanticizing being alone.
I was lying awake one night at the age of thirteen when I realized I hadn’t talked to anyone all day. Not only had I managed to remain silent during school, but I had kept my mouth shut all evening at home with my family. This felt strangely like an accomplishment, akin to finishing a thick book. I wondered if I could stay quiet the following day, too. Why not an entire week? I began making plans to avoid any scenario that would force me to communicate.
Really I wouldn’t have to do much different. The transition from junior high to high school had not gone well for me. I had only one friend, and he was getting sick of my following him around. I also hadn’t hit puberty yet, which was painfully obvious from my high-pitched voice.
The next day, a Tuesday, was a breeze. Nobody talked to me at school. Avoiding conversation with my family was tough, but I was one of five kids. As long as I did my chores and homework, shot hoops by myself, and kept my mouth full at dinner, I could stay on track.
By Wednesday I was finding my goal easier than I’d thought. Most classroom seating assignments were ordered by last name, and “Zavoral” placed me in the back, well outside the teacher’s notice. At lunch I didn’t want to be seen eating alone, so I found a boys’ bathroom near the faculty lounge that was rarely used, and I ate behind the locked door of the toilet stall. I spent the rest of the period walking a zigzag route around campus and occasionally waving to imaginary friends.
On Thursday we had a substitute in English who needed to check attendance. As each student responded to his or her name with “Here,” I knew my plan was shot. Or was it? The teacher finally made it to the end of the roll: “Jeremy Zavoral.” I stared straight ahead, waiting for him to scribble “absent” next to my name so I could keep my streak alive. Then Amber, a popular girl who sat next to me, nudged my shoulder and said, “Jeremy, he just called your name.”
Surprised, I said, “Oh, yeah, I’m here,” in my prepubescent squeak. My experiment had come to an end, but I didn’t care. Amber actually knew my name!
The first time I stepped into my apartment after my fiancé, Anton, left for Afghanistan, I suddenly no longer wanted to live there. The place didn’t feel like ours anymore, having overnight become just mine to care for. But where else was I to go? So I removed pictures of us from the wall, stacked his books neatly in a cardboard box, slid everything of his into the back of a closet, and tried to remember how to be alone.
In the days before he departed, we’d made love constantly, feverishly. I’d hoped he would leave me with a baby, something to hold on to if he didn’t come back. When I got my period a few weeks later, I had never felt so empty.
I stopped ordering pizza, because every knock on the door made me envision two young soldiers there to inform me that Anton had been killed. I stopped watching the news, then stopped turning on the television entirely, because any mention of Afghanistan caused my gut to contort. I would sit on the couch in that silent apartment and imagine myself learning of Anton’s death: the phone call or knock, the first moments of realization, the response. Like a child seeing how long she can hold her breath, I would see how long I could sit with the thought that he might die. I needed to know that I would survive.
My apartment was three blocks north of a hospital and five blocks east of a funeral home. Every time a black hearse passed on the street or an ambulance siren wailed through my open window, my jaw clenched. I began to dream nightly that a large man with an indistinguishable face broke in, put his hands around my throat, and raped me. I’d sputter awake, sweating and shivering. I slept with my hand on the cellphone, the ringer set to the highest volume. One night it rang, and when I answered, I heard a man yelling in Arabic. I envisioned Anton held captive at the other end, hooded and lying before a firing squad on the cold floor of some underground hideout. It was nothing more than a wrong number, a cruel coincidence, but I cried until I vomited. When the sun came up, I called in sick to work.
I avoided telling anyone where Anton was, including my coworkers, my boss, my friends, and even some family members. The only thing worse than not talking about it would have been to talk about it. I was afraid I would get looks of pity or a token “Thank you for your sacrifice.” I dreaded revealing the truth because I knew it would transform me into that girl whose fiancé had gone to war. I was alone with my fear.
E. Ce Miller
Watching my grandson, Ryan, play on my computer in the middle of a summer day, I feel sorry for him. This time last year he had two neighborhood friends, and I’d take them all with me on long evening walks, making each trip an adventure: hiking the old railroad tracks, taking narrow paths in the park, exploring the hills and valleys behind an abandoned building site. I did a lot of yelling at their rowdy behavior, but I thoroughly enjoyed their interesting conversations. This summer, however, we’ve seen his friends only a few times as they are busy doing other things.
At the age of eight Ryan is filled with energy and has nowhere to spend it. Going places with me alone just doesn’t excite him anymore. I wish we could go to the local pool, but it’s been unusually cool and wet. So we stay indoors, and he amuses himself on the Internet. Today he is looking up animals and people with deformities, and he keeps calling me over to look. Maybe we’ll go for a ride later and look at houses again. Ryan’s father is not around, and the way his mother leads her life, I worry I might end up raising him, in which case I will need more space. On our rides we often see groups of children his age riding bikes and playing in a field, and I’ll notice Ryan watching them almost wistfully. He’s begun to say that he can’t wait to return to school. It seems sad for a boy to want summer to end.
Now he sighs and backs up in the computer chair.
“I’m sorry you don’t have anyone to play with,” I tell him.
“That’s OK.” He shrugs and sighs again. “I just play with people in my mind.”
Suddenly I feel as lonely as he does. I smile to keep the tears away.
When I was a senior in high school, I spent a few months working at a nursing home called Oak Hill that was located in the middle of a flat field without a tree in sight. The residents’ days were routine and consisted mostly of I Love Lucy reruns, bingo, and diaper changes.
One stormy afternoon at lunch, a resident named Luella refused to go back to her room after the dining hall had closed. “I can’t go until I’ve fed my cat!” she yelled.
“Luella,” I replied, “you don’t have a cat.”
She did, she insisted, and she had to feed this fictional feline immediately. There was nothing I could do but wheel her against her will back to her room. I will never forget how her screams echoed down the hallway: “My son is a police officer! He’ll lock you up for this!”
When we reached Luella’s room, I saw cat posters covering the walls, a cat-themed blanket on her bed, and a stuffed cat on her rocking chair. Her mood changed immediately, and I agreed to find some bread for her precious “pet.”
I sat in Luella’s room for three hours that day and watched her break bread into tiny pieces and hold them up to the stuffed cat’s mouth. She told me about her family in Hawaii and the grandchildren she’d never met. I showed her a picture of my prom dress and promised to stop by and see her on the night of the prom. By the time I left, Luella had talked herself into a deep sleep. Afterward a nurse told me that she hadn’t had a visitor in a year.
I quit working at Oak Hill four days later and didn’t keep my word about showing Luella my prom dress. I found out she passed away a few months after that, presumably without ever meeting those grandchildren. I sometimes wonder if she resented me for not coming back. Other times I selfishly think she probably wouldn’t have remembered me anyway. One thing is for sure: I haven’t forgiven myself.
My first husband and I eloped to Lewiston, Maine, on June 18, 1980, and spent the night in a motel near the heart of downtown. I woke the next morning and saw my wedding outfit — a pale-ivory dress stolen from Bloomingdale’s — draped over the room’s only chair. Sunlight filtered through heavy beige curtains adorned with images of the American Revolution: eagles, drummers, a frayed Old Glory. An empty pint of vodka lay on the bedside table, and the ashtray was filled with the butt ends of joints. (My diaphragm case had also been used to hold ashes.) My new husband’s side of the bed was littered with matchbooks and snack bags and loose newspaper pages, but he wasn’t there.
The clock said 10:30. The room was empty, including the bathroom. Maybe he’d gone out for doughnuts, I thought. As far as I was aware, he didn’t know anyone in Lewiston. We lived in Boston, two hours south.
I put on some clothes and watched a western on TV. Bored, I got out the phone book and looked up my old last name and my new one, then watched more TV. After three hours I was growing hungry. There was a cafe just across the parking lot. I didn’t have the room key, so I propped open the door with the phone book and went to get something to eat.
“One?” the waitress called to me from the cash register. I nodded. She told me to sit anywhere, and I took a stool at the counter. The place was a quintessential diner, like something from an old movie: the waitress with her hair in a bun and her snug uniform, the pies in the plastic pie case, a pair of flies circling.
“What are you doing in Lewiston?” the waitress asked, filling my coffee cup.
“I’m on my honeymoon,” I said brightly, feeling mischievous and rebellious.
She looked for a long moment at this young newlywed, hung over and alone. Then she patted my hand and said, “Well, congratulations, dear.”
© Rita Bernstein
As an only child, I was alone quite a bit and entertained myself with books whose fictional worlds often seemed more real and vivid to me than my own. When I was reading Old Mother West Wind or The Chronicles of Narnia or The Borrowers, I never wanted for companions.
Painfully shy, I kept to myself at school. In first grade I began keeping track of the children who, like me, hadn’t spoken up in class. As long as there was at least one who remained mute, I had an ally in my silence. But after the last quiet child found the courage to speak and join the world of noise and belonging, I felt completely alone.
Because I was so invisible, the school-bus driver forgot my stop in the afternoon from time to time. There were no other children who got off with me, and I was too afraid to proclaim my existence. Every day after school I boarded the bus with a mounting fear that he would forget and I would never get home, where my mother’s sturdy presence always made me feel safe.
Other times I felt entirely too visible, my peers supremely aware that I never spoke. I wanted to talk but couldn’t be sure of my voice. How did the others manage to utter words so effortlessly? Whenever I went to the classroom drinking fountain or the pencil sharpener, I was sure all eyes were on me. I worried that the water would splash me, or the pencil lead would break off due to my awkwardness.
My family lived on a third of an acre in Southern California, and I loved exploring the property by myself. I knew the fragrance, the leaves, the bark of every tree. Around the age of nine I began to wander down the road, where I found a patch of shrubbery that I magnified in my mind into a woods. I would climb down the escarpment to sit amid the chaparral beside a trickle of water that I called a stream. I would build tiny stick homes with pebbles for furniture and listen for rustling in the brush, the sudden fluttering of a bird’s wings in the leaves. I was waiting for someone to discover me, to behold me, to rescue me from my solitude.
Van Nuys, California
I’d been watching Josh since our hike began, but I doubt he noticed. Nine-year-olds think they’re invisible to adults. He had already shoved two of his classmates on the steep, rocky trail, and they had nearly fallen. Then I had to stop him from kicking over an ant colony.
“This is a nature preserve,” I explained. “We’re here today to learn how precious living things are, and how to protect them. This includes all of you.”
Josh looked embarrassed, but he nodded.
As docent I’d be leading these seven schoolchildren and their parent chaperone through the preserve for four hours. We continued, stopping to identify animal tracks and scat, cougar scratches on trees, and plants with medicinal properties. The children were eager and excited to be outdoors.
At one point I asked Josh to come with me off the trail; I needed his help. He hesitated, but I smiled reassuringly and told the others to wait while we looked for something special.
After turning over a few rocks, I finally found a scorpion nest. Josh and I examined the slow-moving arthropods, and I explained that they have eight legs and a venomous stinger.
“Now I’ll call the rest of our group over one by one,” I said, “and you explain what you’ve just learned.”
Josh looked unsure but agreed. The kids were fascinated. I warned them never to go looking for scorpions on their own, especially not on a warm day, when the creatures would be more active.
At the creek Josh was the first to hold a newt in his hands, and he handled it perfectly. I told the other children to follow his example. As we climbed the creek’s embankment, I noticed Josh reaching out to help a classmate.
After lunch I proposed an “alone walk”: I would go a little ways ahead by myself, and then each of them would follow at ten-minute intervals. Since they weren’t teenagers, I offered to let the children walk in pairs, but everyone wanted to try it by themselves. I lined them up in order by size. Being biggest, Josh would go last, and the chaperone would follow him. I instructed them to stay on the trail, pay attention to every sound and smell, and watch for any animal tracks or habitats. Then I went ahead and was soon out of their sight.
The more secure and confident children came slowly, looking at everything. The less sure raced up the trail to find me. When it was Josh’s turn, I backtracked a short way to meet him. He came hurtling along in a panic, backpack missing, eyes wild. Then the chaperone came running up with Josh’s backpack in his arms.
Nothing had happened to the boy; he was just unnerved by being all by himself in the woods. I was able to calm him down, and the rest of our hike was peaceful and fun.
“You had a lot of impact on my son, Josh,” the chaperone said to me before getting on the bus to leave. “You’ll never know how much.”
But I did know. Though I’d been retired from social work for several years, I still remembered Josh. As a toddler he’d been found in near-catatonic condition after his drug-addicted mother had left him alone for three days.
Santa Rosa, California
In 1988, after a year of slipping deeper into mental illness, I was dumped into a psychiatric hospital where patients were often confined for years and given whatever treatment was currently fashionable. The building where I was kept was at the rear of the property and faced away from the rest of the campus. It was home to those who’d been deemed “treatment resistant.”
The patients’ rooms were minimally furnished and dreary. There was a large social room, where everyone smoked, and next to it a long hallway lined with imposing doors. These doors led to the “quiet rooms,” used for solitary confinement. They were six by ten feet and empty except for a plastic-covered mattress on the linoleum floor. Patients were put there when they did something wrong, and I was almost always in one.
When you are alone in a small room for days on end, with no one to talk to and no books or magazines or pencils, tiny encounters with others become huge. For instance, at noon an aide would bring my lunch, and I’d try my best to trick the person into saying a few words. “May I have some mustard?” I might ask just to hear a yes or no in response. Sometimes I’d plead desperately to be let out.
After two weeks in solitary, well past pleading, I’d start talking out loud, just to use my voice. At first it seemed odd, but I’d soon be having long conversations with myself, even though my watchers were probably writing it all down to use against me if I claimed to be sane.
Gradually I’d somehow accept that there was nothing I could do to change my situation; I’d just have to wait until someone in authority decided I was ready to come out. Then the time became mine, not theirs, and the solitude grew a little less heavy. I’d pass the hours inspecting all the irregularities in the floor tiles and wall plaster. I’d locate fine cracks and lines and then imagine other lines connecting them, turning them into elaborate drawings in my head: a Venetian landscape or a busy street cafe. This kept my sanity as intact as it could be, given the situation.
The day of my release was always a shock. I almost wanted to stay, just to prove how tough I was, but once I was back in the smoking room and talking to real people, I’d feel much better.
Since then, that psychiatric hospital (and hopefully most others) have largely abandoned the use of solitary confinement as punishment. Today I’m married and have a house and a career in the arts. But I still start to panic whenever I am alone in a quiet room.
When my marriage ended, I faced the unwelcome reality of being single. But having a career as an educator and a daughter to raise, I wasn’t entirely on my own.
Eventually my daughter grew up, and I retired from teaching. But still I wasn’t alone, I told myself. I had a lifetime’s worth of social connections to keep me company.
One morning I stepped into the tub for a shower, as I had done a thousand times before, then remembered I needed a bar of soap. An impulsive turn to reach for it resulted in a nasty fall: I grabbed the shower curtain, but the rod came down, and my ribs hit the sharp corner of the vanity. As I lay on the floor in pain and gasping for air, one thought flashed across my consciousness: I’m alone.
Clarendon Hills, Illinois
I was dining by myself at a table for four, hungrily devouring a plate of spaghetti, when without a word a mother and her two young boys sat down in the other three chairs. The mall food court had many empty tables. Why had they chosen to sit at mine?
The boys looked to be eight and twelve, and they were Latino, with black hair and dark eyes. The woman was beautiful and petite, just about the size and build of my deceased wife. All three were focused on me. I wondered if they were hungry, but they appeared well fed and well dressed. I continued eating, curious to see where this would lead.
“Are you married?” the woman asked.
I had been married for forty-eight years before my wife died. In the seven months since then I’d been exceedingly lonely. But I hadn’t dated in a long time, and I’d never been bold romantically. If I told this woman I was single, what would her next question be? Was she looking for a place to live? A sexual liaison? A victim to exploit?
Out of fear I told her I was married.
“Why do you not wear your wedding ring?” she asked.
I made up a story about how I’d been painting and had taken it off. In reality I had put the ring away a month earlier, thinking it might be easier to meet a woman without it. Now I wished I hadn’t.
The woman then asked if my wife and I needed a house cleaner. She was trying to find work because she’d left her abusive husband and needed to support her two boys. I didn’t need domestic help, I said. “You seem as if you are kind and gentle,” she said. “And if you have been married for forty-eight years, you must be trustworthy. I would like to find a man like you.”
A warm surge of desire flooded me, reminding me of the lack of physical love in my life. Embarrassed, I told her I was flattered but unavailable.
“Too bad for me,” she said sadly. And she led her boys from the food court.
I returned to my now-cold meal feeling shaken and confused. Why had I lied and said my wife was still alive? Because I was frightened by the thought of a new relationship. And this woman was much younger than I was. How could she be attracted to me? Also the thought of raising two young boys paralyzed me. I am a grandfather of nine. Could I even make room for them in my heart? What little wealth I possessed I had always intended to leave to my son and daughter. Could I deny them to provide for this woman and her children? Not to mention that common sense told me to be suspicious. Maybe she would come to my house under the guise of a housekeeper and do me in. Maybe her husband was her accomplice.
But despite all my negative thoughts, I pushed my chair back from the table and stood up. To hell with “what ifs.” I wanted to find her and tell her the truth, to get acquainted, to take her to dinner and a movie, to lie with her on a blanket in a park while the boys played on the swings. I wanted to feel needed again, to be a provider, to be concerned about someone else’s welfare. I wanted to give and receive love.
I walked the mall from one end to the other several times and went through every store, but I caught not a glimpse of the mother and her boys. I returned to the mall every day that week with no more luck.
This all occurred more than three years ago. I haven’t forgotten, but I try not to dwell on it. I lead a full and busy life. I go to bed each night amazed at all that I experienced that day, and I awaken each morning wondering what the new day will bring. But I have no companion, and I’m still shy about meeting women. Sometimes I fantasize about what might have been, if I had been more bold. It’s probably just my mind seizing on the idea of being young again, but I’ll always wonder if I missed a great opportunity for happiness.
William B. Grove
At the birthday party I turned my head for a moment to get my toddler son a slice of pizza and a juice box, and, just like that, he was gone. I checked the bounce house, the arts-and-crafts table, the TV room. No, no, no. I asked the other children and parents if they’d seen him. Not recently, they all said.
I walked to the front yard and looked up and down the block, a dull panic rising in my chest. Then I came back inside, and that’s when I found him: in the back of the house, away from all the noise and chaos, safely tucked into a corner of the birthday child’s bedroom. He was paging through a picture book so quietly I hadn’t even noticed him the first time I’d checked.
“Don’t you want to go play in the bounce house?” I asked.
He shook his head.
My son had been diagnosed with autism and spent dozens of hours each week in therapy to help him learn social skills. When he sat apart from other children like this, I felt torn. Should I attempt to push him out of his comfort zone, or let him do as he wished? He seemed happiest in solitude.
Almost ten years later my son, now in sixth grade, is attending a carnival at his school. He threads his way confidently through the lines for the dunk tank and the ball toss. Although he still prefers reading, listening to music, or playing with just one friend, he is no longer ill at ease in crowds. In fact, most of the traits that initially placed him on the autism spectrum have disappeared. Whether it’s the result of years of therapy or a naturally occurring shift, I’ll never know. I do know that I rarely allow myself to take any credit.
While he explores, I stand awkwardly on the edge of the schoolyard, avoiding the clusters of parents and the dreaded small talk about homework and sports. I’ve never understood the rules of such conversations. As I escape to a quiet classroom and pull a paperback out of my purse, I realize that my son takes after me. All these years I’ve identified his aversion to crowds as pathological, but it is also my own natural tendency.
Once in a while I ought to find a quiet place to remind myself that though we may seem broken, we don’t always require fixing. What’s “broken” may turn out to be what’s best in us.
Melinda Gordon Blum
Los Angeles, California
Your March 2014 Readers Write on “Being Alone” features a piece by John Catanzarite, a man serving a fifty-year prison sentence for rape and robbery. He spent a year traveling through five states raping, assaulting, and terrorizing women. From the Lodi News-Sentinel, June 17, 1992: “Catanzarite entered a small store, usually a business like a video store or yogurt shop, where a lone female clerk was at work. He spoke to her briefly, then pulled a knife, asked for money, and demanded she undress. At times he would rape the clerk or fondle her.”
He says in Readers Write, “I literally haven’t touched another human being since April 2000.” That’s because in April 2000 he was put in isolation housing for attacking a female medical technician. He held her hostage for two hours and threatened to set her on fire.
Yes, the justice system is flawed, and yes, solitary confinement is cruel in some cases, but not in this one.
In your September 2014 Correspondence Amanda C. says that fourteen years in solitary confinement isn’t cruel in John Catanzarite’s case, because he was placed there for attacking a female medical technician, holding her hostage, and threatening to set her on fire.
Courts are divided as to just how long isolation as a disciplinary measure has to last for it to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which forbids “cruel and unusual punishments,” but I personally haven’t come across longer than eight years in the law books. Just a few months has been shown to promote insanity. In most jurisdictions, if an inmate kills another inmate, he ends up with a few years in solitary and a lengthened sentence.
The moment I wish torture upon another human being, whatever he or she has done, I not only perpetuate the person’s wrongdoing but bring it deeper inside me.