“I am alone. I have always been alone. Alone is what I am.”
— Loren Eisely, “All the Strange Hours”
My bedroom is small—crowded from floor to ceiling with books. Books on the shelves. Books stacked on the floor. Books overflowing onto the dressers and multiplying. Twin stacks stand atop the clear glass tank that houses a slow-moving python. Their sharp corners poke out from beneath my mattress, my pillow. My wall space is similarly dominated. Large frames hold colored pencil drawings, paper saturated in color and medium hung for display. Yellow paint peeks from between them, an adolescent choice I have yet to grow out of.
My room is a constant of smells: the sting of earth from the snake’s small home, the fleeting scent as a match is struck, the waft of a candle. The crackle of a wooden wick becomes white noise in the clutter. Behind the glare of glass, a moth beats his wings silently against the window. He flutters helplessly between the two panes. Soon I will forget about the poor creature until I find it, days later. Stiff. Curled. Its brittle legs turned to the sky just outside the screen. Its wings gray like dust.
Last summer, I climbed a mountain alone. Nothing could be heard except the crunching of stones beneath my feet, the grinding of my heels as they were pressed deeper into the trail. The dust settled on my socks, turning them an uneven shade of brown. My cell phone was buried in the folds of the bag on my back. For the first time in months, I was truly alone. The lack of noise ungrounded me, stretching time like a rubber band. Everything slowed as the peace of solitude seeped into my bones. That lonely Massachusetts peak centered me, pulled me back from our world and into the present.
Being truly alone is rare now, especially when another voice is a button away. We carry companions in our back pockets, connect via profile pictures, tweets. Something happens to us when it turns off. Like a room darkening around us, the mind closes, and then expands. We notice things that often go unchecked—the grooved texture of a towering oak tree, the feel of it beneath our palms, the exact color of the sky, robin’s egg blue, the way our breath sounds as it pushes against our diaphragm. There is tranquility in this kind of solitude, a tempting beauty that draws me into its embrace.
I don’t fear contact with others. I simply dislike the necessity of it. Within the slim, cold metal of my cell phone lies an immense weight. It sits on a shoulder and demands attention. Every time a stranger talks to me I feign a smile, offer up a witty comment or fleeting anecdote. I am not unkind, but past the persona, a part of me curls inwards like the larvae of a fruit fly flees sunlight.
When I was a child there was nothing that could stop me from seeking the quiet solitude of the outdoors. I was a girl that could spend hours outside without realizing it. Sometimes I explored the landscape with friends, but often, I was alone—playing out imaginary scenarios in my head, creating little nooks where I could read and hide. I was the only one I knew who would spend hours after school nosing about the trees behind the middle school, upturning rocks and laying among fallen leaves with a backpack as a pillow. My family lost me on several occasions to the scenery along the Connecticut River, where we would go every weekend. The moment we arrived, I would be gone among the sand and the green woods beyond the shore. I would spend hours crafting nature into a small cave of foliage—twisting vines together, dragging branches and pulling plants by their roots until there was shelter for me along the forest floor; my own room; a space to be alone.
As an adult, I baffle those I’m close to with my complexity. I hang out with friends, but sometimes I’ll go weeks without asking to hang out. When I’m not busy, there are always trips to eat, movies to watch, and plans to make together. My relationships with other people are carefree and thorough. I always have someone to turn to when I need it. When I crave affection from my boyfriend, I demand it; too much and I’ll push him away, gasping for air. The quietness that comes with solitude draws me like a temptress away from the world of consumers and producers, of phone calls and text messages. The complexity lies within this disconnect. For most of my life, these artificial connections were the things that keep me happy.
The perpetual loneliness of spending time by myself sneaks up on me when I’m not looking. It will be late at night, usually. The phone goes unanswered; a book lays by my side, untouched. Loneliness settles in my bones, weighing my limbs down on the bed. I curl into the womb of my comforter, immobile. The feeling comes in waves, and when it pulls back, grief remains like a barge half buried in the sand, skeletal and broken from the elements. The debris stretches far and wide, lingering even after I have fallen asleep.
A few months ago, I visited the Bronx Zoo with my boyfriend, Lukas. We spent hours quietly walking through the bird house, flinching when a songbird swooped too close to the walkway, eyes wide at the array of shapes and colors the avian came in. A calm drizzle outside had kept the park nearly uninhabited. We had the entire bird house to ourselves.
Outside, the walkways were fitted with cobblestones and flanked with evergreens and towering trunks. The foliage bright with the turning colors of autumn. The season had just begun to change, and leaves swirled around our feet as we walked.
A great maple leaf lay in the middle of the walkway. It was a stark yellow, and its three points spread bigger than my hand. To the protest of my boyfriend, I stopped to pick it up. The stem was long enough for me to pinch between thumb and forefinger. I spun the giant leaf, admiring the slight change in its color. Mustard flecks. Orange veins. I had never looked at a leaf so carefully before.
Lukas tried to part me from my prize for the rest of the day, but I refused to leave it to rot on the ground. I smuggled it back to the car. At home, I taped it against the yellow backdrop of my room, using my fingers to spread each point flat against the wall.
My room has become a sanctuary away from the noise. I sit with my back to the headboard, legs lost beneath waves of azure sheets. A hardcover rests on my knees, and my back curves towards its pages. Resting above my temple, a yellow burst curls away from the paint. Its points are brittle, crumbling as I flip to the next chapter.