I feel loneliest when I am in a crowd.
And it’s not about my individuality drowning in a mass of people, and neither is it a remnant of my childhood fear of physical contact. It’s about my awkwardness – how strange I feel with myself, and how strange I feel with others, trying to fit my body and its alien elements into my every interaction, and trying to have it come out normal. Natural.
They say all you need is confidence, but that’s not really it, because confidence comes and goes, like some magic I don’t know the rules to yet. At times I swagger as though with purpose, but then I open my mouth to speak and it goes, hiding away. I look in small corners where lost things are most keen to hide, but nothing.
And they say to be a writer, is to observe and understand people and their motivations. I used to watch people go past and not one of them – even the tall gangly teenager in deliberately shabby uniform, nor the somewhat piss-drunk person in unintentionally dirty clothes – move like they are out of place with the world. Sometimes I wondered (still, I wonder) if it’s just me. If somehow I’m destined to go through life a little out of tune, always out of step, a few notes too late, a stumbled cadence there. They say we never envy the less fortunate, but I do. What is living, if you don’t recognise yourself?
So I took a vacation from expectations, from people. It was easy back then, when routine was what I made of it, and I lived with young single women who had independent pursuits and only wanted you to come back and do your duty by them and cook dinner, as per the roster that was stuck stubbornly to the fridge. There was a time we were more like sisters, but people flitted in and out and you had to make do or be left behind. Nobody likes being left behind.
But those days I left myself behind. I walked alone, I sat alone, I had lunch alone (with the newspaper, if I was terrified, or staring at people, if I was brave). Mondays were made for being alone; the local arthouse cinema had tickets cheap before 4pm, and the faculty of music features its students in a weekly concert during lunch, all throughout semester. I’d buy an almond croissant, sit a few chairs away from an elderly person (looking at them, I found, they were perhaps the most sure people I had ever seen), and try to eat discreetly while some virtuoso performed. It’s hard to eat amid such talent. Harder than it is to eat alone, which is an act both vindictive and vindicative, and therefore easy to swallow. It feels rude to chew when someone is being so brilliant before you and for you.
And then I’d watch a movie. It’s a fair walk from the music hall to the cinema, and if I was early I’d make my way to the independent bookstore (I swear I only fall into the pattern of a ‘hipster’ existence by the clumsiest of accidents) and talk myself out of buying books I’ll only finish reading in a few years. I’d choose a movie based on the reviews I’d read for about a week, which meant that I watched the most random things.
One of them was a semi-documentary of a Mongolian farmer, filmed like a labour of love. A sheep giving birth, captured in a single, nervy, bloody, daring, unmoving take.
Another was a 3D movie – Coraline, which I only watched due to my then-untainted admiration for Neil Gaiman. It was lovely, but I was constantly reminded of being surrounded by the over-70 crowd clutching ice cream cones. Not that a crowd is the right word; it was more a smattering of people. I developed a taste for near-empty cinemas and pastries almost immediately.
And then there was Balibo, which made me discreetly wipe my tears away with my hijab; very useful in times like those, and if you intend to carry tissues but always forget to. I don’t usually watch movies like that one, but it was beautiful and tragic and haunting, after. It had a climax of savagery and blood, and as the tears started pouring and I hid my face in my headscarf, one of my hands clutching a small box of cereal, I felt this painful urge to hold somebody’s hand.
Lately, I have felt that pull I did in the cinema – that strong yearning to touch someone and mean it. I don’t like to repeat all this Zen, new-age kerfuffle about energy and qi and wavelengths, although I can accept their existence. But I want to hold your hand and feel like I can implicitly understand you, even though I’m just imagining it. I want to hug you and feel our shared existence converge in an instant. I want to link my arm in yours and remember what it was like when we braved the waves together, the way we did when we would share each other’s breaths long past midnight, telling stories from our childhood in hushed whispers used only for the early morning. We greet each other by grabbing the other’s hand and arm, pulling them close and pressing our cheeks together, whispering wishes in each other’s ear.
Lately, that is what I think I need. Being alone prepared me to understand myself, but 6,000 kilometres away, years gone (has it been years? It feels so new, still) I feel lost again, near unhinged. I know what I want (what I think I want), but not what I need. I know I am angry and frustrated, and I know I can be alone, but I fear I cannot do this forever. ‘Forever is always changing’, I read, and once I looked forward to Forever, like it was something I deserved. Now I think twice.
Sondheim wrote, matched to music and chorus, ‘But alone is alone, not alive.’ I am practical, and I cannot beg you come home. Even if you do, I don’t know that we will ever be near enough to hold each other for a moment, still with purpose, as though gaining strength through osmosis. And I am practical and cannot leave here to go.
But I miss you, I miss you. I miss people and places that aren’t here and I wish I didn’t have to. I miss time I no longer have but we grow up and away and we’re forced to.