The big summit of your 20s is learning how to be alone.
I could write you a list of the events and meals and quiet moments that I skipped in my fear of loneliness, or I could just tell you this. I have “6222 Rose Street'' memorized, the address of the college house where seven of my closest friends lived, whereas I don’t have the faintest idea of what my own San Diego address was. At my friends’ house, I would sit on the sunken couch for long stretches of morning waiting for someone to peer out of their room, sleepy-eyed and slipper-clad, and accompany me on a mundane trip to the store or out for lunch. I could have gone by myself, but I needed companionship to make the maintenance of my life worthwhile. In my frailness, I preferred loitering amongst half-finished boba drinks and year-round string lights to going out into the big, bad world all by my lonesome.
I’m better now, I think. Or at least better at faking it. Less adherent to the idea that someone my age needs to be surrounded by people all the time - that if I’m not, it’s a sign that I’m unlikeable and unloved.
As part of my reformation, I took a solo trip to Oita Prefecture, home of famous hot springs and not home to anyone I know. I planned to write a blog on the experience, entitle it “Dating Myself in Beppu” and write happily and tidily about the positives of spending time alone. And that’s what I did, mostly, but the writing felt flat and regurgitated and brittle - my words dragging my mind towards a reverence of solitude, my heart left somewhere between codependency and connection. I sat on the blog for some time, busied myself by writing bad poetry, then decided to tell you the truth. Being alone is nice, yes, but being together is precious.
Don’t get me wrong; Oita was a magical time.
I spent two whole hours in the Miffy Bakery gift shop, tracing my hands over the cute ceramics and plushies in a very non-COVID safe way. I bothered families on vacation and used my mangled Japanese to form an amalgamation of words that translates to something like, “Take a picture. Is it okay?” complemented with a gesture to use my phone. I used the self-timer function for hours in the Showa Museum (think post-WWII retro Japan) and decided that the Showa era is undoubtedly the best era of Japanese design.
I locked the keys to my suitcase inside the suitcase itself, which was not a great move, but the silver lining was that I got to do things my own way since nobody was around to suggest the reasonable solution of buying a bolt cutter. I sat on the hostel dormitory floor for an hour sawing through the lock with a pair of nail clippers and wondering how closely I resembled a baggage thief. In the end, I saved myself $10 and more valuably, the mental pain of acquiring a single-function item when, lest any of us forget, I am trying to be a minimalist.
I had a full day at Sanrio HarmonyLand, waiting in all the lines and basking in all the cuteness. I was a little sad when I saw groups of girlfriends in their matching fuzzy character hats, but mostly I felt happy to see other people being happy. I ate Michelin Guide curry udon that made my tongue numb and sat next to a salaryman as we slurped down reimen (not ramen, but Japanese-style cold noodles inspired by Korean cuisine). I visited the viewing hells in Beppu, bright red and cool blue and billowing with sulfuric steam. I sang through all the road trip classics on my way there and back - John Denver, Adele, my namesake: the heralded Britney Spears. I walked for miles up and down the Yufuin strip, got buried under warm volcanic sand, bathed in onsen with people who could have been my sister, my mother, my grandmother.
In essence, it was a very nice time.
I drove back home affirmed that solitude is necessary and restorative and wonderful for all the reasons commonly purported: space to reflect and process and be, no obligation to compromise or accommodate, freedom to act on whims.
However, I think that in order to reap those benefits fully, solitude needs to be purposeful. When I set aside time and mentally prepare to be present with myself, I’m great at intentional solitude. Much more often, however, I’m alone by accident.
What that means, then, is that the goal isn’t really learning how to be alone. It’s learning how to be alone when I don’t want to be. But because I am petulant, or perhaps optimistic, I turn my nose up at that latter goal and strive for a more impossible solution: chase more and deeper relationships so that I am never alone when I don’t want to be.
From Instagram user @younesbendjima: “I like drinking coffee alone and reading alone. I like riding alone and walking home alone. It gives me time to think and set my mind free. But when I see a mother with her child, a woman with her lover, or a friend laughing with their friend, I realize that even though I like being alone, I don’t fancy being lonely.”
What does being lonely look like? Sending a message in the group chat and nobody responding. Different time zones that mean we can only FaceTime in exchange for sleep. Stunting my love to match your modest willingness to love me, or maybe my modest deservedness of being loved. An empty side of the bed. When something big happens and there’s not a single person that I can burden with the ask of providing the space and love that my catharsis demands.
Lonely is wanting to tell you how I really feel. That I’m anticipating a steep and sudden fall because I know that happiness cannot last this long, that I’m manufacturing it with exercise-induced serotonin and saying “yes” and looking at the sun - the beautiful sun that makes my breath catch as it sparkles over Kagoshima Bay. That I stare at it a little too long, let it blind me so that I do not have to look at facts, so that all I see are spots swimming in my vision like jewels on fire. That I’m running again because I love the twinges in my knees, that it feels like small and deserved punishment, that I have never loved the word “mercy” more. That health is a double-edged sword, that it only feels good to improve when it hurts a little too. That everything I do is marked by your presence, that I’m sorry, that I believed in a great forever.
This is the kind of alone that I still haven’t gotten good at - the kind that I write on the internet instead of whispering into the crook of your neck.
I met someone for the first time a couple of weeks ago and they opened our conversation by telling me that being an English teacher in a foreign country is a transitory life, which is the most polite way I’ve ever been told that we aren’t going to be friends for very long. It’s true, though. People are always coming and going. Not just when you’re in a temporary living situation, but at all moments in all places.
There’s a website called seeyourfolks.com that uses World Health Organization life expectancy data to calculate how many more times you’ll see your parents before they die. If I see my parents once a year from this point onwards, I’ve got about 28 more meetings with them until the end.
I find myself running a similar exercise with the new people I meet here in Japan. So you’re leaving next year? July, is it? August? So, 7 months from now? Carry the one, multiply by x, that leaves…approximately 6 hours of interface for us to forge a connection strong enough to carry into the next versions of our lives when an ocean separates us and we’re not the only English-speaking people in a 100-mile radius? Cool.
Since everything ends, the natural extension is to feel like perhaps everything lacks purpose. Extrapolate a bit, reflect on life’s many conclusions before the ultimate conclusion, and you may land on the questions that have been circling my mind as of late: Is it worth it if I lose you in the end? If we all die alone, why invest the energy and effort in knowing anyone else? (Can you tell I’ve been reading philosophy?)
But then I start to give serious thought to nihilism and truly, all nihilists are boring and annoying people. In response, I fling myself in the other direction. Limited time is what makes life precious. If we have less time, we have more impetus to squeeze everything we can out of this moment, to relish in it and absorb the feeling, to know that even when it leaves, it will come back later - maybe in a different form, but just as sweet and juicy as ever.
I keep trying because I am less than my relationships, because I’m almost never alone by choice. I cannot hold myself the way a lover can, I cannot laugh as deeply alone as I do with friends. People aren’t perfect, and the tension of ensuring their desires are met can rub up against the complete fulfillment of my own. Occasionally, alone time is necessary.
But more often I don’t mind so much, losing an hour of sleep or forgoing another browse around the store, because in exchange, I get to see you in the world, you as the world, you: the world.
You’ll give me your prosciutto sandwich in 8th grade, starting a decades-long friendship that underscores all my creative and identity-driven work (and also catalyzes nearly every cringe interest I’ve had, not that I’d take any of it back). Everything I write is in some way for you, which is why you’ll forgive me for not elaborating further.
You’ll tell me, offhandedly, “you know you’re actually a really good writer” and I’ll remember and think of you briefly every time I work on this blog because you actually are a really good writer.
You’ll be a face I have to think hard to remember the name of, but I’ll remember how you spent $8 on hotel room gummy bears, amongst other outrageous expenses, and taught me how much bigger the world is when you have the money to pay for it.
You’ll run out of the 24-hour Safeway with two handles. I’ll be in the getaway car laughing to fit in, but shallowly, thinking about how regrettable it would be to get punished for the sake of vodka. You’ll pass away a few years later, and it will be wrong to claim I knew you at all - except for that one moment when we were bouncing on a trampoline together, drunk on 40 proof and blossoming youth.
You’ll call me pretty after seeing me swim in my bra and underwear and I’ll have the sudden realization that the body is the easiest weapon to wield.
You’ll eat lunch with me under a large, sparsely vegetated tree every day for three years, back when I thought I could be an artist and before most of you actually did become artists. We’ll have a potluck where every dish must contain potatoes, a glorious premise in theory but a bit one-note in practice. We’ll visit a random city in Oregon by zooming in on Google Maps, only to learn that the town’s main attraction is a Dairy Queen, and still have an amazing time. We’ll drive 11 hours to live in a yurt, we’ll go to gay prom in Idaho, we’ll realize our RV has no running water and bathe naked, in full view of each other, in a public YMCA shower room. We’ll remain invested in the throes of each others’ daily lives, our loves (real and celebrity), and the sections of the universe that we all share. Our pets will die, our addresses will change, we’ll work full-time and pay rent and our history will keep us entangled across the States and beyond.
You’ll show up wearing white as strangers but slowly become my sisters, complete with all the love and drama that comes with a sense of family. Despite my protests otherwise, a not insignificant part of me will swell at the thought of our full names being memorized in the southernmost city of the golden state by girls whose features and dreams look like ours. I will know that I am an irrevocable part of something, that I belong to a written and oral history being passed on by powerful women.
You’ll leave your cars parked in a city-owned lot while we grab late-night Sushiro and we’ll come back to the parking lot exits chained with a padlock, which is a huge drag because we have work the next morning. I’ll start to calculate how early we need to wake up to sort through the mess, but you, using the amalgamate force of cool-headedness and critical thinking and optimism, will simply click the final number of the combination forwards four times until inconceivably, the padlock springs open and we avoid a small disaster. I will call it a Christmas miracle and you will call it a simple good-faith effort and we will all laugh in disbelief at our enormous good fortune, to be here as new friends, sharing in the hilarity of relief and the realization that our everyday lives in countryside Japan are worth being grateful to return to.
You’ll get MUNI and BART confused, leaving me stranded at 16th & Mission - the station that always smells like piss - and I’ll wander and buy you a carton of strawberries that I end up forgetting to give you anyways. You’ll make fun of me for making fun of you and we’ll walk around the city for 6 hours until I get blisters on my heels because you think it’s presumptuous to invite me to yours on our very first meeting. I’ll spend more than 1,000 days being yours, up and down the California coast, across continents, and despite knowing better. We will have every experience under the sun: deaths and little deaths (la petite mort), dueling guilt and soaring happiness, tears at the airport, stolen glances across laughing friends, new jobs, new apartments, moving again, then again, then again, running from gunshots or on white-sand beaches or against time, celebratory meals outside, silent separate suppers staring at screens, the pride of your hand in mine, your arm around my shoulder, teasing, discussing, closing the distance, shouting in agreement or in pleasure or in the overwhelm of the mess we made, being asked to dance, to come with, to eat, to sleep, to please communicate, please try harder, the shopping, the scheduling, the washing up, the sanguine press of your body against mine at the end of the day. I will love you so much that I can’t imagine anything different, and I will love you so much that I can’t imagine the same any longer.
I like being alone because I like myself, but I hate being alone because I love you so much more. You give me that deep-down feeling that makes me want to clutch my midsection and make sure all the emotions don’t spill out, makes me want to grab at more - more life, more time, more will. You make togetherness so special that I only rarely want a break from it.
The world is visceral and immediate and I am slow on the uptake. But still, you beckon me to join. You are the reason I am so bad at being alone. Thanks for being my friend.