Global stories, local voices

|| Loneliness is other people

Ep. 3/5 - "I had already been pretty good at being alone"

Katharine Smyth

By Katharine Smyth

Lire en français (FR)

“This may be out of order,” he wrote instead, “but I definitely prefer your body now.” I looked again at what I’d sent him and started laughing—it was a date-stamped screenshot that made it very clear those were my breasts of four years earlier.

On Day 13 my phone buzzed with a WhatsApp message from Elliot, another man I had first met four years before. At that time we had gone on two dates, marveling at the series of coincidences by which we were connected—we were both citizens of England, Australia, and America, for instance, and while he was an expert in Sudanese conflict resolution, my grandmother had been the first white baby born in Khartoum Hospital. We almost certainly would have gone on a third date had I not broken my neck in a car accident and been confined to a hospital bed; when I texted five months later to say that I was finally neck-brace free, he announced that he had moved to Jordan.

It was with some excitement, then, that we had reconnected a few months back. Though we both had reservations about the other—I thought him too ornery, and he thought me too promiscuous—I was nonetheless disappointed when he left for Africa for a month-long work trip. But then the virus began its exponential climb, the whole globe went on lockdown, and now he was texting to say that he was self-quarantining at a temporary rental apartment in Melbourne, having managed to escape just as he and his fellow diplomats were being pulled out of the region. He was trying to look on the bright side, he said, mainly having to do with net gains for environment and people learning how to be alone again, though he also lamented—in classic ornery fashion—that they would now load up on social media. I said I doubted the environmental lessons would last, unfortunately, adding that I had already been pretty good at being alone. “Your dating run notwithstanding,” he said, a dig that I let slide.

There was something about our last sexual encounter that he had found epiphanic, he continued, having to do with the way in which his head had already been on a plane to Africa and yet had returned to the bedroom once we started fantasizing about my coming with him to Nairobi. “It was the starkest illustration of the psychological component of sex,” he said, “that I have ever had.” This discovery didn’t strike me as remarkable at all, frankly, but I went with it, suggesting that we shared the same breed of fantasy, one rooted in the prospect of intimacy and future connection. Then he sent me eight dick pics in a row; it was only three in the afternoon in Rhode Island, but I nevertheless climbed the stairs to my bedroom and shut the blinds to the construction workers who were somehow still employed in building a new sewer line outside the house. I hadn’t shaved my legs in nearly a month and my underwear was left over from high school and full of holes, so when he asked for a visual I went quickly fumbling through the archive, pressing send and waiting for his affirmation. “This may be out of order,” he wrote instead, “but I definitely prefer your body now.” I looked again at what I’d sent him and started laughing—it was a date-stamped screenshot that made it very clear those were my breasts of four years earlier.

I told this story later that day at my first ever Zoom happy hour, now laughing at Elliot’s bafflement when I’d expressed my dismay that he thought Body 1 and Body 2 so dramatically different. Even so, I said to the faces on my computer screen, it was a pity that he and I had been so star-crossed, thwarted first by a broken neck and next by a global pandemic; for all the irritation he aroused in me, I couldn’t help daydreaming of what might have been, of how we might have learned to forgive each other our shortcomings had the world not been turned upside down. And I think that he agreed with me: “It’s a bit of shame not to have been able to come back,” he said before we finished texting. “I wouldn’t have minded trying to get you off the market.”

I was sitting on the deck as I spoke, holding Oscar in my lap and taking unanticipated pleasure in the sight of my high school friends, who in reality were spread from coast to coast. Helen had returned from the hospital, thank goodness, and was lying on her couch in Brooklyn as her husband fed the kids; she still had a fever, and a sharp pain in her lungs, but that terrifying shortness of breath had disappeared some days before. Jessa was quarantined in Echo Park, where she was now living with her newish boyfriend—the private chef to a television producer, he had filled her driveway with rented industrial freezers and refrigerators. His boss had approximately zero qualms, she told us bitterly, about sending him off to seven different grocery stores a day in search of kumquats and oat milk while all the rest of California sheltered in place.

Rachel and her husband had spent their isolation microdosing mushrooms and emptying their Pacific Palisades home of any and all objects that brought them displeasure, including chairs, tables, photographs of ex-lovers, gifts from in-laws, and every single diary that Rachel had ever kept. This last filled me with alarm—I could still picture how she had looked at fifteen, filling notebook after notebook with her lovely, loopy script—and yet she was adamant; she said that she and Simon, sobbing, had already built an enormous pyre overlooking the ocean. When the four of us hung up, they planned on performing an elaborate burning ceremony that would rid them of the past and pave the way for new beginnings. Helen asked if she would show us the pile, carrying her computer outside as Jessa had done to reveal the refrigerators, but Rachel demurred. No, she said, she would not give those hateful things that power.

Before leaving the deck that night, I sent a flare to Daniel, another relic from the past and one I might have fallen for had he not brightened when I inadvertently introduced him to the term “ethical non-monogamist” on our first date—he was so delighted, he said, to have finally found the words he needed to define himself. According to Instagram, Daniel was hunkering down somewhere in the American Southwest with what appeared to be a lifetime supply of garbanzo beans; he had befriended a shy bobcat, and there were lots of wildflowers and cute little birds among the cacti. He was doing great, he said when I asked, he was in a really good place, and yet he also admitted that some companionship would have been nice. “We should probably sext or something,” he said. “For our health.”

“Sure,” I said. “But right now I need to finish making dinner and watch Homeland.” As a token of goodwill, I sent him the same picture that I had to Elliot, making sure to crop it properly this time.


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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.