The other night, I was sitting on my mom’s couch, flipping between Space Jam and Pirates of the Caribbean and trying to quash a surprisingly insistent desire to be in the company of someone else. It wouldn’t have mattered really who it was, although the closer it was appropriate for me to press my body to theirs the better, but I was overwhelmed with this need for there to be another other with me. I cajoled and wooed a few people but to no avail and so I sat there and tried to figure out what the hell was going on. After so long on my own, why did I feel as though solitude was suddenly a liquid weight that was making me sluggish and, in a way, scared? After a while it dawned on me: I was feeling alone because for the first time in five months I was alone; really, truly alone.
On my trip I had been a single person huddled in the window seat of buses, an individual trying to devour new cities and their personalities through something akin to osmosis, one girl among many in dormitories that peppered the entire northern seaboard of the South American continent, but in truth I was absolutely never alone. And in that moment, with my mom gone to her boyfriend’s and my friends and the man from whom I want what I can not have unavailable, I was alone. Suddenly I was missing the presence of a front desk staff or that of familiar strangers lounging on couches or in hammocks in my periphery. I hadn’t realized that I had been in a constant state of being in the presence of others, but the sudden absence of it completely upset my equilibrium and made me want to hug myself tightly enough to leave marks on my own skin. I had come home to an old nemesis, a cousin to the kind I had felt while traveling: loneliness.
Solitude has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Anyone to whom reading is a beloved pastime is familiar and friendly with it. But the comfortable solitude that necessarily accompanies reading aside, I have often sought solitude as a way to allow myself to feel things without the filter of other people’s perceptions, to bask in the universality of finding oneself alone in one’s own body, less than a mere speck in the grand scheme of the universe. I could not be without it, but solitude’s more insidious and subtle twin, loneliness, has always been more problematic for me.
While traveling alone, you often feel unprotected and vulnerable as a result of your singleness, more so I think if you happen to be a woman. Solitude and loneliness are the price you pay for the unforgettable experiences and seemingly insuperable vexations, the travel delays and accidental epiphanies. But somehow, for me at least, the loneliness I encountered on the road was manageable, vanquished by taking a walk in my new surroundings or curling up in a hammock and losing myself in a book. I think the fact that I was virtually constantly on the move, changing locations almost as often as underwear, was a salve for whatever pesky loneliness wormed its way into my heart. There wasn’t a lack of arms into which I could have fallen either (that age-old cure), whether they belonged to men who were looking for a temporary fix, competitive in their need, or to those whose goals were more long-term, which manifested in a possessive, often jealous desire. And I did fall once or twice, but I always kicked the sheets off the next day with a revivifying understanding that what I was looking for was not a cure for loneliness, but something much deeper. I neither wanted nor needed to find someone to “permanently” assuage my loneliness as it could only serve to complicate.
But every so often I would feel pangs of misplaced yearning, a sense of loss for something that I had never had any claim to. For instance there was a boy in Peru, to whom I refer as my Prince Charming, who took me in hand and kept me there when I had to get stitches in my leg. Before the “incident” we had learned bits and pieces about each other, including the fact that we were going in opposite directions. That’s something you become accustomed to when meeting people along the way, in hostels and on tours: there is a sweet temporariness to any relationship, an innate understanding of both the beginning and the end (though some things surprise you). You know before you’ve spoken a word that your roads will lead you different places, and this meeting is only one tiny topographical point on the map. But somehow, this boy I hardly knew held me together and instead of crying I spent the night laughing. Later on, wearing his shirt and breathing in the smell of him, I felt a sweet nostalgia for an imagined future. But it was only a passing thing, as opposed to a more clinging kind of regret.
While traveling it is easy for me to remember and find comfort in the fact that I am, at this point in my life, too wild and erratic and impulsive for someone to hold me still long enough to pin their hopes on me. It is at home, however, where that confidence falters a bit, the devil-may-care attitude fails to carry me through, and I begin to regret in a small but powerful way that I am not a person to whom longer-term relationships come easily, simply because of that pesky fact that you kind of need to be physically near a person for it to work.
Now I’ve been home for two weeks and in that time I have watched, to my chagrin, the shape of my itinerant loneliness change into something more sedentary, and therefore heavier. There is something about being back in familiar surroundings, where most things seem to have changed very little that tends to make my singlehood rankle, where suddenly something in my subconscious rears its ugly head and seems to say “Single? Still?” It is obvious to me now that my priorities are travel and experience and wonder as opposed to romance and the kind of comfort one feels waking up in the half-light of morning to the sound of someone else’s breathing and the warmth of someone else’s skin. Unfortunately, the fact that I have mentally decided this has little to no effect on my heart and body’s desire for the latter. This is evidence to me that there is truth in that hackneyed and often annoying refrain: “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” In the end (and also in the beginning), it all comes down to choices and at least I can take comfort in the fact that I have made mine.
This loneliness, this feeling of need, is a price I am willing to pay for the marvels I have seen and for the limitless experiences that await only my courage.