On Defining Loneliness

The lone dying plant outside my apartment is the bat signal to potential partners saying, “I don’t know how the fuck to take care of another living thing, but I’m kinda sorta trying.”

It’s the same half-hearted invitation as the decorative chair in my living room, the one no one ever sits in because I purposely placed it in a corner to antagonize my guests but felt really domestic for buying; or, the 7 PM booty call in which I let you know in advance my ass won’t still be raring to go by the time you get around to replying with the phallic vegetable emoji of your choosing but, like, I’m thinking about you.

Decoding my language is not that difficult. When I say, “I’m lonely,” I mean I’ve finished the tenth season of Friends for the tenth time and miss the comfort of background noise as I sob into a Wendy’s 4 for 4 meal wondering why I’m getting fat. “Lonely” means I’ve gotten so good at replaying the moans of past lovers I’ve convinced myself making out with my upper arm while jacking off to the thought of career stability is better than actual sex.

My mom says I should get a puppy but what she’s really saying is, “Why do you go to therapy when there are normal ways to be happy?” Remind her even if I was ready to know what it felt like to be loved unconditionally by someone other than my mother, picking up a golden doodle’s not-so-golden shits is unlikely to make years worth of low self-esteem just dandy.

I’ve started feigning physical illness so often I’m overdue for one hell of a karmic influenza breakdown but it doesn’t really matter because I get more sympathy when my body can’t move than when my mind can’t stop racing. “Lonely” means I don’t want your company but I’ve started to hate my own; wish there was a way of cancelling plans with myself without having to call it suicidal ideation; remind myself I’m not necessarily alone in these thoughts but then again… isn’t that what I wanted?

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Telling the Nice Guy No

By the third time his hand slides under the elastic of your not-quite-granny, not-exactly-risqué floral underwear, you’re both frustrated. He, for what is the point of a woman straddling this way if not for sex; you, for how many goddamn times do you have to pull his hand away and reiterate, “I do not want to have sex.”

He seems genuinely confused by this statement. Everything leading up to this moment gave him every indication he’d be getting some. Did you not make out in the park? Hold hands on the way to his apartment? Let him feel your ass through the flimsy fabric of borrowed gym shorts? Your typical excuses – I haven’t shaved, we don’t have protection – aren’t an issue tonight. Do you just need more encouragement? More wine? You’re both adults well-versed in the logistics of bumping uglies. What’s the problem?

The problem is you’ve said no. Multiple times. Very clearly. Aware you’ve been drinking and half-clothed, you make your voice strong in the ways your body language can’t be. But his hands are stronger. He’s bargaining, telling you you’re so beautiful, such a good kisser; attempting to take down your walls as he takes off your bra. Dirty talk turns to whining, guilt-tripping, continual pawing – all met with firm refusal. By the time you reach the doorway with shoes in hand, you turn to see he’s taken off his own boxers in a last ditch effort. You aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry as you get dressed in the locked privacy of the bathroom.

A few weeks later you’re back in the same apartment for a holiday party. The two of you haven’t spoken, but a friend says he’s asked about you. All you shared of that night was flip. He wanted to do more, I didn’t. Showing up proves you’re over it, it was no big deal. You mingle for a bit, casually scanning the room to brace yourself for the awkward obligatory hug, relieved to be led directly to the keg and introduced to other kind faces. You’re proud of yourself for being able to fit into this crowd of strangers so easily. But you’re quickly reminded they aren’t really strangers – they’re his close friends, so happy to be welcomed into his home and reminisce on good times.

“How do you know X?” they ask, excited to hear someone else’s stories of high school ski trips and bar hopping shenanigans. You vaguely mention meeting him only recently, and in turn are given the funny anecdotes you can’t provide. “Oh, X is such a great guy!” starts each tale, and you try not to shrink too noticeably as his character is built up around you. You remind yourself to play it cool. What did you expect? For his guests to share unflattering details? To be able to look at your vacant smile and know to change the subject to anything other than praise for their Nice Guy, their goofy ol’ pal? You sip more beer, let uneasy giggles escape your lips. Search for any opportunity of lightness as the conversation weighs heavy in the base of your throat.

It’s no surprise but a blow to your shaky ego when the night ends in tears. Your friend and his roommate look at you helplessly, unsure what to say in response to your fragmented confessional. Inhibitions lowered, you let yourself try on the emotions you were too embarrassed to see fit. Nothing happened, and yet… Why did you get into bed in the first place if all you wanted was a PG-13 romp? Why couldn’t he have listened when you said so? Why didn’t you leave earlier? Why did you go back?

Why do you have the feeling he’s not replaying all his choices over and over again trying to figure out where he went wrong?

There have been other men. Other “Nice Guys” whose sense of entitlement and coaxing and sliding hands led to other nights you hadn’t planned. It’s taken a lot of effort to let those episodes define you in a way that doesn’t diminish your agency. To look back at all the hazy gray area and know you’re going to see clearer moving forward because your consent matters and will make a difference in how these men treat you… right? And yet here you are, bravely setting boundaries only to have them crossed, angry and disheartened your instinct is to put your behavior under scrutiny because if you don’t do it first someone else will. They’ll pick your story apart and give his a makeover and when asked if there’s anything you should’ve done differently it will take all the courage you could ever gather to believe there’s any dignity in the word “No.”

The Ways in Which We Fall Apart

I’ve become such a frequent car-crier the only thing I have to wipe my snot as I call my mother is a Walgreens receipt for Funyuns and shaving cream. Ruled out alternatives include my boarding pass to New York and a still warm-from-the-printer prescription for UTI antibiotics, neither of which seemed optimal given at some point I’d be handing them to an unsuspecting stranger. In this moment I realize my depression has reached a new low. Instead of stock-piling fast food napkins and stuffing them in the glove compartment like any other self-hating 25 year old, I will have to make the pointed effort of buying tissues specifically for vehicle based breakdowns.

My mother answers on the second ring and is not surprised when a cheerful “Hey, you!” is met with jagged breaths. Like many of my loved ones these days, she is equipped with well-intended (though rarely well-received) optimism, and has stopped fighting the reality that my current version of self-care starts and ends with the simple act of reaching out. She reminds me I am wonderful, and it’s a stunning silence when I don’t protest. Though the tears aren’t new, the aftermath is foreign – the willingness to ask for help, the accepting of praise. Our pep talk wraps in a mere 16 minutes and leaves me steady enough to put the keys in the ignition and some credibility behind the mantra “I can do this.”

“Doing this” – picking up the pieces, gingerly putting them back where they “belong,” trying not to worry about the next inevitable cracking – has become increasingly tiresome. It is difficult to explain the sensation of not being suicidal but terrified to keep living. To know joy and want joy but always feel a twinge of guilt when it overstays its welcome in a body I’ve taught to foster pain.

I don’t know when everything started to feel so… heavy. How my mind can go from fine, fine, fine, fine, SOBBING HYSTERICALLY OUTSIDE URGENT CARE, fine. But if I’m being honest, that second fine is the lie I tell myself when yet another guy fails to make me feel whole; the third and fourth an attempt to remain sane as I hide in the bathroom stall avoiding emails I can’t answer. The oh my gosh, so out of the blue! sobbing is but a compounded clusterfuck of emotions I’ve told myself I have no right to feel: anxious, dissatisfied, lonely. Looking for a sure-fire way to stop loving yourself? Get upset about something and then tell yourself what you’re feeling is stupid. That you’re somehow better and worse than this, what good will crying do, stop choosing to be miserable. There is nothing quite like the exhaustion of second-guessing your own insecurities.

When I bring these thoughts into therapy or out to dinner with a friend, I’m told earnestly I am not alone. I’m young, this is common! Everyone has gone/is going/will go through this. If I were more of a sadist I might find that comforting, but alas, hearing everyone else feels paralyzed for reasons x, y, and z doesn’t help make it all better. You’ve heard that “How many [stereotype you’re arbitrarily pissed at] does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” joke, right? I’d like to present the “How many commiserating depressed folks does it take to come up with a solution to feeling ‘OK’ for more than a few minutes per day?” equivalent. Spoiler alert: our mindset is the punchline.

I’m trying so, so hard to take care of myself. I’m starting to recognize hunger instead of calling myself fat. I sleep with men because I want to and not because I think the answer to all my problems resides in a penis. I go to therapy once a week, go for runs as often as possible, and tell myself everyday I can do this. More often than not, it feels like a lie. It hurts, and it’s visceral, and it scares me. I want to promise it’s better than the alternative. I’m going to keep lying until it is.

“Let’s Not Get Lunch Sometime” or, Things We Never Say

Today is Tuesday, the day I am meant to go out to lunch with my very nice coworker, Terry. Which means I’ve packed frozen vegetable curry and will be limiting my usually frequent restroom breaks so as to decrease the likelihood of actually running into Terry.

I recognize this to be immature behavior. Our first platonic lunch date — the result of an embarrassing breakroom breakdown followed by a friendly email offering a sympathetic ear should I ever need one — was perfectly pleasant. We talked about our dogs, our families, our shared discontentment with our jobs. He took a genuine interest in my timid aspirations to travel; asked where I saw myself in ten years too earnestly to mock. Eventually I came round to sheepishly explaining why he’d found me sobbing while loading the dishwasher, a floundering attempt at describing my depression and anxiety and months of self-doubt which he met, once more, with empathy. We walked back with promises of a second date — Let me know how your training goes! Have fun with your wife this weekend! Tuesday or Wednesday work for you? — and parted ways knowing we both had a kind face to see around the office.

But the second date never came. Our email thread became a cycle of up in the air plans squandered by unexpected meetings, a correspondence content to taper out until our next accidental meeting in the hallway. I’d get up to refill my water bottle and bump into him on his way back to his cube, the time-biding “Let me check my schedule!” blurted almost in sync with the obligatory “Next week?” A few months ago I cancelled because I didn’t have it in me to catch him up on what had been going on in my life, and I feigned a long call with a client instead. Weeks later he cancelled, reason not given, and I saw him out to lunch with another coworker. With each excuse, we are apologetic. We make more loose plans. We are not surprised when they unravel.

Lately I’ve been trying really hard to be honest — with myself, with people I’m close to, with strangers I’ve just met. Though simple in its intent, it can be really fucking difficult. It forces me to constantly check in with my emotions and acknowledge those which don’t serve me while embracing those which do. I am slowly accepting I don’t have to force myself to do things I don’t want to do, and I don’t need to apologize for not wanting to do them. This has led to a lot of convoluted pep talks, a lot of interactions ending in questions like, “Wait… Am I a mean person?” but ultimately, past the initial discomfort, a lot more clarity. I’m starting to understand the balance between who I am and who I want to be, and how the relationships I choose to invest in can alter those perceptions.

I am not a spontaneous person. Never have been, don’t necessarily want to be. I derive no pleasure from the last minute, the que sera, sera. Telling me to “go with the flow” is basically like telling me to drown. On the mornings I wake up knowing I will once again cancel “maybe” plans with Terry (should he not first cancel on me), I am filled with debilitating guilt. I spend the hours leading up to noon not excited for a chance to stuff my face but rather fighting stomach knots knowing I will yet again continue this polite charade, too afraid to be upfront and find a way to reasonably explain why I don’t want to go out to lunch with a nice man who has only ever offered sincere friendship. On these days I lay low, leaving my desk only for necessities, and microwave my backup meal long after the midday rush, feeling like an asshole forevermore.

But after doing the new “Well, why do you think you’re feeling so awful about this, hmm?” check-in I’ve mandated in the name of honesty, I realize the guilt isn’t from not wanting to spend unnecessary money and leave my email unattended for over an hour. I feel guilty because instead of communicating my difficulty with non-concrete plans; my fickle urges to be social; my inexplicable I can’t stand sitting with someone who will be nice to me today mindset, I am lying to someone who can (and probably will graciously) accept the truth, no hard feelings. My guilt comes not from not wanting to do “the thing,” but from how I am handling not wanting to do “the thing.” I may not be spontaneous, but I am also not mean. I am not a liar. I am not the kind of person who likes making plans out of obligation, and I do not want to be the kind of person who strings someone else along because of it. Not knowing how to quite word these feelings isn’t a reason not to try.

Though I regret waiting so many tentative Tuesdays to get here, something tells me Terry will understand.

Basic Bitch Road Trip

I’m going to embark on a terribly cliché “unsatisfied privileged woman in her twenties looking to find any semblance of excitement” road trip.

I imagine myself haphazardly throwing seasonally inappropriate clothing into too few suitcases at an ungodly hour (9:30, maybe 10). My eyes are wild with passion, or probably the sugar rush of too many pop tarts, as I frantically search for the archaic maps from my father I’d been saving to make a hella cute Etsy-esque collage. I sneak out of my empty apartment — pretending to leave behind a loved one who will be heartbroken by my lack of note even though my neighbors know me solely as the girl with too far a robe radius — and throw my scarce belongings into the backseat of the Honda my parents still pay the insurance for.

Freedom! I rejoice, hitting the same stretch of highway I amble through every single morning on my commute. But oho, this time I’m not going to work, not even calling in sick! Never Eat Soggy Waffles inspires me to veer east onto an unfamiliar exit, and I applaud myself for being so flippin’ adventurous. With a full tank of gas and a loose grip on reality I am immediately transported out of the concrete jungle and into the vast landscape of what can only be Utah or Iowa or someplace equally dull, heart racing at the sight of yet another McDonald’s-Valero-Starbucks pit stop clusterfuck. “Truly majestic,” I caption my 17th selfie, pouty face blocking any possibility of a historical landmark making it into the frame. I had promised myself I would take this time to connect with Mother Earth and stay off social media, but deep down I know my followers deserve to be part of these life-changing moments.

With only brief stops for Slurpees and bladder relief from their syrupy consequences, I charge forward. My hair cascades behind me, windows up with AC on full blast, while I repeatedly fuck up the lyrics to the same three Lumineers songs. I consider dramatically hurling a mixed CD from my ex out the window, but know I’m too much of a sentimental sucker to actually do so, scream-singing louder as an alternate catharsis. In this obscure tumbleweed plagued environment there are no signs mandating the speed limit, but even if there were, I would not heed! Cause, like, fuck the police, you know?

I continue practicing horrible hygiene and bathe only in the glory of self-righteousness, feeling real haughty and independent until an ominous indicator light pops up on the dashboard indicating nothing useful other than my inherent uselessness. A lack of street smarts, open road smarts, you could die out here, what’s wrong with you, woman smarts is catching up with me, but I refuse to call for help. The flashing charger from the flea market with rave-like pulsing ditched the party miles ago, and phone juice is too precious for admitting defeat. I manage to pull into the parking lot of a 3.5 star motel (a necessary Yelp search stealing the last drops of life from my bedazzled iPhone, but hey, hot tub), thankful for a queen sized bed on which to be melodramatic. I promptly fall asleep (over the covers because, germs), only to awake hours later with alarming clarity: no more soul-searching; it is time for me to ditch the faulty Civic and fly business class back home.

* * *

On this road trip, there are no out-of-body experiences while watching the sun creep its way down the Grand Canyon from the back of a stranger’s pickup. No precarious tents pitched amidst violent storms, the warmth of a sleeping bag paling in comparison to the pride of making it in isolation. I do not find renewed beauty in being alone. I do not enjoy my own company. On this road trip, the destination inevitably crushes the journey; when the young woman with the stable job and nice apartment and gut wrenching hopelessness returns from seeing the world and can still only think of herself.

Like mama, like

I’m balanced on a bar stool with my mother at Cha Cha Cha’s, our tried-and-true for calamari and sangria-induced confessions between thrift-shopping on Haight, when she turns to me with that expression. I imagine it’s the same she donned upon my first destined-to-be-sensitive cries in the hospital, a look full of genuine wonder that this pudge of pink and mess of curls was hers, all hers. Even now, 25 years later in the dim light of a gussied up tapas restaurant, I can tell she is looking at my cheeks pulsing with wine and bubbling conversation, hair still flying from the wind outside, and thinking to herself, “I can’t believe this woman is my daughter.” She begins her praise and I wave it off, dismissing the compliments with a simultaneous reach for the pitcher and her glass.

It’s always been a source of contention, really. That she could be so lovely on her own and accept a goodness in me I’ve never been able to find. As I groan on about my bleak dating prospects, joking I’ll never meet the man of my dreams doing what I love (i.e. double fisting totchos and a beer at home in the buff), as that would be creepy and necessitate a restraining order—I become increasingly frustrated with her adoration, that bemused smile. Because she knows, as she proceeds to tell me, that everything happens for a reason. Each choice we make falls into the next, the daisy-chain of our presumed fuck ups or successes ultimately leading us down the path we were supposed to be on. She means this to be reassuring, but I begin playing with the paella, unsnagging my tights from the seat. Fidgeting to the rhythm of my nods.

For it is in these moments that I feel my worst. Feel like I’ve failed her. I do not see the world this way, with a freeness, this je ne sais quoi-laissez faire she wears so goddamn well. And perhaps it is difficult for me to relate to these words, the well-earned mantra of a woman who has fiercely loved herself through two marriages, four children, and a constant slew of shit from all, because I am young. And purposefully not naïve. And more prone to over-analyze and subsequently pick apart each petal that makes up the stupid daisy-chain rather than appreciate the beauty of all the flowers. My mother is a woman who unabashedly plucks the roses from the bushes of her neighbors because she just loves them so. I am the woman who calls her a klepto and hates that part of my character wishes hers were less vibrant. I am still, after all, my father’s daughter.

Our relationship has always been delicate and relentless, a tight-rope extravaganza that made puberty a real treat for all involved. As I get older it seems easier to think of her more as my best friend, thus abandoning any expectations of the standard parent-as-role-model fare. Which, of course, has its own complications. It’s obvious in the way I write: “mama” in personal texts (the “hot” always implied); “mother” anywhere else to create a false sense of formality, distance. It’s in the way I tease her about her boyfriend, always with a girlfriend-like candor but all too aware our taste in men aligns all too well. We bash on her family as if they weren’t my own, eager to ignore my poor track record as a granddaughter and niece and place the blame on others, though I suspect it hurts her inside. That’s how it’s always been—me, taking far too often for being raised by such a giver; her, beaming at my shortcomings, giving anyway.

When the tab arrives, her arms are already outstretched, everything open. We stare at each other in silence, and I try my hardest to keep our gaze. To stop parsing the big picture “I love you.” Let her nuance take hold.

When You’re a White Woman

This morning I woke up to an empty apartment and thought to myself, “Now what?” A mere 24 hours prior I had been among the hundreds packed to anxiety-level-capacity on Bart, umbrellas and posters tucked close to make room for the thousands more ready to brave the rain and gruesome reality of this nation’s backward ass politics during the Oakland Women’s March. For a few hours, I put aside any annoyance toward trivial matters — the drooling baby resting on my left boob rather than his mother’s; the flailing marcher who kept whacking me with her giant paper maché vulva — and reveled in the beauty that is being surrounded by countless kickass honeys. Yesterday I had a purpose, a plan. I was moving forward, pun damn well intended.

But today was different. Today I rolled around in my pajamas wondering what the hell to do with the residual gravity — the pride in my city, the disgust in my country. The confusion of vehemently feeling both. I thought of all the bodies pressed together just one day ago and wondered if they too were spreadeagle under their sheets, uncertain what civil protest should look like if you’re home alone without anything to Instagram. I admit that without a spelled out way to channel my grief, I let it rest. Made some eggs. Painted my nails. “The usual.” Giving my mind a break wasn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. But in the past few months, I’ve found this complacency at the result of aimlessness to be pretty damn routine in white feminism. The whole, “I’m not sure what to do, so… *does nothing*” thing. That, “As long as I’m not the one being directly racist/sexist/transphobic/xenophobic/etcetc, I’m doing OK,” mentality.

To these kinds of feminists: I see you. You’re more common than you’d think. Though you have good intentions, you get easily sidetracked when traversing controversial waters alone. You get sucked into arguments on comment threads and take strangers’ insults personally because you aren’t used to having your character attacked. You quickly become frustrated — why aren’t they taking you seriously? All you want is to spread love. Understanding. Equality. You’re promoting all the right warm fuzzies and choosing your words so carefully and taking time out of what could have been a pleasant evening to fight what feels like someone else’s fight, but now they’re calling you names? Telling you to “get over it,” to “check your privilege.” Run down you pull out your bra from within your heavy social justice warrior armor, pour yourself some wine, and turn on the Gilmore Girls revival seeking the familiarity of actors who walk and talk and look like you.

You’re turning more frequently these days. Away from the news, the internet. Away from antagonistic conversations with family members and coworkers. How are you meant to bring change if you’re exhausted from being constantly berated with terrible things? Turn instead to friends with similar mindsets, other white women feeling apprehensive about their baby steps into activism, the ones who laugh nervously when someone asks if they’re “woke.” You build each other up beautifully, reassure one another you’re good people even if you don’t participate in every Facebook rally you’re invited to or join in when you hear protestors chanting “Black Lives Matter.” You’re wearing the clever vag shirts you made and, after all, you do click “Going” on those events even if you don’t actually attend — that’s a start, right? The echoes of innocent placating within your bubble lull you into a peaceful sleep, rest assured you’ve done your part for humanity because Gal Pal #1 thinks you’re really keen.

And I bet you are really keen. A kind, looking-to-do-better individual. I know you don’t skip around pickpocketing from the elderly or calling people fags or drawing swastikas in permanent marker on the foreheads of kindergartners. I know you are genuinely concerned for the fate of our country and are doing your best to fumble your way through this newfangled publicly-giving-a-shit thing. We’ve all got unprecedented compassion flowing out of our hoo-has and aren’t quite sure how we like the taste of words like “ally” or “intersectionality” rolling around in our mouths without washing them down with a fifths worth of qualifiers. You aren’t sure where you stand in all the chaos, how to use your voice without drowning out another’s, and that makes you uneasy. I get it.

But something needs to be made very clear. This fight is not centered around you. You don’t get to give yourself a smack on the ass for being a decent human. When you bring up statistics on females in the workplace, and another feminist brings up even more staggering numbers about black or Hispanic women, she is not saying you do not have the right to equal pay. If a support group is advertised as explicitly for women of color, that group is not saying your mental health is not important. These disparities exist because despite our shared understanding about the need for reproductive rights, despite our same fears about sexual assault, and despite our united struggle to combat societal definitions on what it means to be “feminine” — white women have continually benefitted from the perseverance of white supremacy. We don’t get to ignore this just because it makes us uncomfortable.

There are a lot of white women calling for unity and claiming discussions of race are only further dividing us. This is essentially the equivalent of a white woman standing on top of a ladder with a hammer (both of which she inherited from her daddy), inches away from tappin’ that glass, screaming into a megaphone at those down below to “catch the fuck up.” It is the same reason anyone with common sense will go up in arms if you claim “All Lives Matter.” If you want to truly empower other women, to work toward protecting our livelihoods from dipshits like Trump, you need to recognize we are not all coming from the same place in our struggle. A propensity for empathy when shit is clearly hitting the fan can’t erase decades of the apathy when “your people” weren’t being threatened.

You can’t control the actions of your ancestors, but you can control the healing process. Does this mean you deserve to be disrespected or stripped of your humanity as some sort of collateral damage? No. Does it mean you shouldn’t be participating at all in an effort to leave space for the marginalized? Not exactly. It means you need to show up, and you need to listen. You need to get into the habit of consistently checking in with yourself and asking if what you’re doing is coming from a place of openness and community, or if it’s just another quick-fix solution to your pent up guilt. It means your activism doesn’t get to disappear once you alone have reached a comfortable resting place.

If conversations about sexism are making you feel alienated because you think your pain is being belittled by the pain of another woman, I encourage you to take a step back and try to think of one valid reason why suffering should ever be made into a competition. I want you to get comfortable with the idea that building each other up is going to take a lot of breaking down your own character. There are going to be days when you don’t know what to do, when fightin’ the good fight seems too daunting, and on those days I need you to remember why you started in the first place. Remember you marched alongside thousands of diverse, proactive, badass bitches, and at the end you asked yourself, “Now what?” not because you needed another “good deed,” but because you wanted to keep our world moving forward.

Remember, ladies: there are no gold stars for not being (or not having) a dick. There’s just a lot more progress.