Global stories, local voices

|| Loneliness is other people

Ep. 5/5 - "Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere."

Katharine Smyth

By Katharine Smyth

Lire en français (FR)

He had been worried, he joked, thinking of my proclivity to solitude, that they were going to lose me to this pandemic—that I would become so enamored with my own disappearing act that no one would ever see me again.

I have been alone for over a month as I write this. One by one, all my future plans have been canceled, and it has come to seem of little consequence whether I will be quarantined through May or November or the following May. As with my car accident, when the preoccupations of my “real life” were voided in an instant, I find myself in a kind of continuous present, with the distinction that this time around almost all the world’s people are in the same boat. There are mornings when I wake to the sunlight that filters through the wooden slats and feel almost happy; it’s only when I check the headlines that have piled up like bodies overnight that the catastrophe comes flooding back.

Every day I talk to friends across the country and the globe, collecting their own tales of quarantine—the virus has invaded human life the way it does the human body, it seems, latching on and wreaking havoc. There is Samantha, a cancer survivor who will soon be having a baby with a surrogate; the surrogate lives in Ohio, and Samantha was just told that she and her husband won’t be allowed in the delivery room. There is Eliza, a working mother in the midst of an acrimonious divorce whose husband just moved back home to watch the kids full-time. There is Sean, who recently had a baby from a one-night stand and then went to quarantine in the mother’s family compound on the outskirts of Buenos Aires; for months, he swore that he and she were only friends, but now they’re drinking wine in cornfields and falling steadily in love. There is Sean’s friend Dom, who invited a girl he barely knew to join him for a weekend in Seville and now finds himself domesticated and attached, and Bethany, another single mother who fears she is becoming abusive to her children—“No, really,” she says when I protest, “they run away from me when I so much as look at them.”

There is my uncle Robert, a English bachelor whose lifeline was the pub and who just doubled his dosage of antidepressants, and Laura, a dermatologist who is learning for the first time how to intubate a patient, and Eva, who has decided to wait it out alone in Costa Rica and just adopted a new puppy. It will be interesting to see, Sean and I agreed when we last spoke, he in his Argentine cornfields, me beside my river, all the ways in which this contagion will bring us together and rip us apart. “Just think,” said my single friend David as we looked for silver linings, “of all the new divorcés who will soon be flooding the market.”

I haven’t heard from Paul or Steven in weeks, nor from Elliot or Daniel or William—perhaps, like me, they realized after our initial flurry of communication that it is actually lonelier to grasp at some simulacrum of intimacy than it is to try and make peace with one’s solitude. In the years since my divorce—a rupture that clarified just how fully I had lost myself in marriage—I have struggled between the desire to rebuild my sense of self and the desire to re-dissolve into another human being; never has that tension felt more acute than during this period of isolation, though, when on some days the pain of singledom is like an open wound, and on others I revel in my own autonomy, hugging it to me like a flesh-and-blood companion. I have continued to lean on my mother and my friends, spending many more hours on the phone than I used to; at the same time, I have become almost covetous of my seclusion, often canceling Zoom dates at the last minute simply so my cats and I can sit outside and watch the water. (Oscar’s ultrasound came back clear, though the mystery of his dwindling continues.) Yesterday my mother sent a picture of a zucchini loaf that she had baked—“Oh, I wish I could be there to cook for you!” she said, and I panicked at the very thought of it. And yet I do still talk to Ian in Hong Kong. Sometimes we FaceTime in the mornings or the evenings, and I find myself soothed by his strong face and his radio voice. Perhaps he will be able to fly home some day and I will once again begin that process of dissolving into someone else, or perhaps we only like each other because we’ve never met.

A little while ago I talked to Jon, the only man aside from my ex-husband whom I have ever loved. He and his girlfriend are holed up in Chicago with his mother, and every weekend they drive to the mother’s house on Lake Michigan and walk along the sand. He had been worried, he joked, thinking of my proclivity to solitude, that they were going to lose me to this pandemic—that I would become so enamored with my own disappearing act that no one would ever see me again. As he spoke, I was watching a white-haired man in a white dinghy; every afternoon in summer, he rows out to his sailboat in the middle of the basin, but now that it was winter and all the moorings empty, he was simply rowing south. I wondered where he was going. He was moving with the current—even if he had set down his oars, he would have been making good progress—and once he passed the old stone bridge, the river would widen and there would be nowhere left to land. Don’t worry, I said to Jon, I’m not going anywhere.


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About the author

Katharine Smyth
Katharine Smyth
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Katharine Smyth is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her essays and articles have appeared The Paris Review, Elle, The New York Times, Literary Hub, The Point, DuJour, Poets & Writers and Dominoamong other publications. Her first book, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, was published by Crown in 2019 and named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

Credit Photo: Frances F. Denny.