I climbed into my bed, engulfing myself in the white down comforter that I bought a year ago, feeling like I finally had the taste of an adult, buying for warmth and practicality over cheap and colorful. My iMac in one hand, my bowl of popcorn in the other, walking on my knees until I could sit them both down, I battled a minor case of Y.O.L.O while listening to the rain outside.
It was a rainy, cold Friday night in December in New York City and I was alone.
I felt the tiny draft from the tiny hole in between the window and the world, flow into my bed and freeze my bare legs, and something tiny inside of me felt a tiny pang of sadness. This is not the first time I’ve stayed home on a weekend-night instead of braving the bars and the boys, the booze and the belligerence. This is not the first time I’ve declined invites instead of accepting them. This isn’t the first time I’ve wondered if I’m actually older than what I really am, desiring relaxation over a 4 a.m. nights out more times than not. But looking around this room I’ve made a home, with it’s photos and it’s dog toys decorating every inch, I decided that maybe this difficult year has taught me something hard, but something important:
How to be alone.
I could have texted any of my many wonderful friends and I’m sure they would have wanted to grab a drink or a movie. I could have spent 10 minutes on Tinder and met someone I probably wouldn’t have liked, around the corner and made small talk enough for me not to feel totally lame. I could have gone to the gym five blocks down and ran for an hour, watching people outside run from the rain while I ran away from the pain. But no, instead, I picked Netflix and this bed, this apartment, quiet except for the sirens buzzing by on Amsterdam.
I grew up an only child, the product of a great love between a fiery Southerner and a Northerner who loved her at first sight. I was fine playing make-believe in my room or on my tree swing, floating between the bright green fields outside my backdoor and the fantasy lands I created in my ever-growing imagination. It is there in that old house that sits at the bottom of a hill I used to roll down that I first became a writer – sitting on the porch Indian-style making up stories about the life I didn’t live and the life I wanted to live many, many miles away in a city I had only been to once. I’ve always had many friends and a few best friends, but I’ve also never minded being alone.
It wasn’t until I started middle school and felt the need to fit in – a feeling that frankly, only starts to fade in your mid-20s when you realize those who are meant to be in your life will stay in it – that I developed a fear of being alone. And it’s that fear that’s fed me ever since. I met teachers in high school who I thought were so lovely, so amazing, and yet, they had never married. In college, I met professors who experienced the same. When I first moved to New York, those who had already paid their dating dues warned me of the difficulty of finding a decent man in the concrete jungle, but I dismissed their silly precautions. A few months later, I met Mr. Possibility and believed I was one of the lucky ones who never had to deal with that messy NYC scene. A year-and-half later when we broke up, I was so frustrated by his actions and his lack of luster that I was more confident than ever that someone better, someone more loving was out there for me.
Two years and two months later, I’m still wondering where that someone might be.
And while I find myself complaining about the fact that my luck hasn’t changed in that department (and this year, in many departments) – if there’s anything that I can say with confidence, it’s that being single and better yet, deciding to be single, has taught me how to be with myself. If I wanted just any boyfriend, I would have one – but the truth is, I’d rather be alone than to be with just anyone. I’d rather choose myself than choose a dead-end relationship or a dead-beat guy or a dead look in someone’s eyes who doesn’t really love me in the way I want. Or the way I deserve.
Because even when it does all work out – as they all promise us it will one ordinarily, magical day – we will still be alone. Not in the dramatic, depressing sense of that statement, but in the way that finding the love your life doesn’t change that you still have your own life.
In the best of relationships, the healthiest of couples, you develop things outside of your one-bedroom-apartments that don’t have to do with one another. You might always come home to them, but sometimes you don’t want to because you miss that time you used to have alone. You don’t always want to be wrapped up with them in your down comforter that you used to dream of before you met them. And when you find yourself on a different page than your friends or when they move away because they have to or just because they want to, you learn to let go a little. You still depend on them, but only while depending on your ability to be without them, too. And when you have a baby, when you’re going on a few hours of sleep for months beyond end, you feel kind of alone. Trapped in this nursery, with this beautiful creature that you love, that changes everything you used to know about yourself. And when those kids grow up faster than you want them to, when they leave your home and they go off to make a new one, you feel that emptiness all over again. And when that love you wanted to find so much, has been around for 30 years, you might find yourself still happy, but lonely for your youth, for that spirit that made you feel so very much alive.
But maybe that’s why we must spend time alone when we’re young.
When we’re still impressionable and flighty, when the thought of leaving everything behind and moving abroad doesn’t seem so far-fetched. When our responsibilities are only to ourselves and to our thirst for adventure, our quest to experience it all while we’re still fresh enough to believe in splendor. When we can still get up, day after day and month after month, finding some sliver of hope to make us keep going, keep trusting, keep dreaming of what our lives will really be.
Learning how to be alone isn’t an easy fear to get over, but it’s just as important as learning how to love. Because you can’t learn how to really, really be in love until you learn how to be without any love but your own. That’s the love, that’s the place you’ll always come back to, no matter whatever else you might find.