Some people write because it’s the only thing they enjoy. Some people write because it’s the only thing that can help them. Some people write because it’s just something to do on a Sunday night, when there’s nothing on television and they’re alone in the house in their underwear, wishing that someone would touch them. Some people write even when they feel they shouldn’t.
I’m sure the best books in history were written at the most inopportune moment.
Sitting alone in a small, patchwork house, in my underwear, I’m fighting off the demons of self-doubt and self-loathing. The house is cold. My bedroom window is open and carries the scent of a thunderstorm on a chill breeze. Down by the foot of my bed is an aging, gassy jack russel, creatively named Jack Pavarotti. My grandmother bought him when he was a puppy for ten dollars. “His name is Jack!” She’d proclaim proudly. “Jack Pavarotti, ’cause he cost me a tenor!”
And then she’d guffaw like it was the best joke in the world, and when I was little, it was. I’d guffaw right along with her.
Loneliness is not a feeling I am fond of. I would like to say that I’m one of those people who needs to be alone, who enjoys a private life, but it wouldn’t be true. I dislike being alone just as much as I dislike being around people. I think sometimes that it is better to be alone.
Perhaps not alone. Perhaps solitary is the better term.
Solitary but not alone.
Out in the bush, in the red dust, breathing in the clear air and sweating beneath the sun, I felt good, for once. Safe and comfortable. There were no eyes on me, no invisible enemies prepared to attack. I was only a child but the strangeness starts young and I had already exhibited traits. I feared everything, but in the desert there was little to fear: just the wildlife and the smell of heated clay. I remember the way my grandmother would stride down gravelled paths with dead rabbits clasped in her hands, at home in the bush. Though she was soft as marshmallows she would do what needed to be done, and told me in short gentle words of myxomatosis, of the terrible and inhumane, shaping cruelty into words a child can understand without trembling. The rabbits would then be buried somewhere far from where they had been found, far from any rabbit holes, and kept from the dogs. Kindness to animals and a love of stories was tantamount, she’d tell me. I’d be distracted by the smell of apple crumble pie and wouldn’t respond, but she preferred it that way. As a child I seemed more a wild animal than a human being and kept better company. As children we are not so confusing. We fend off the loneliness and do not comprehend the private. As a child I maintained her solitary world, as yet unknowing the problems that could arise, that would arise, as time went on. Her otherness was not as clear to me as it was to her own children.
She was strong in the world when she was solitary. She was never alone then.
Years later I’d come to see her at family gatherings and in crowded places and she would stumble about like a rabbit herself. I had grown into a young woman then and did not visit her as often as I felt I should have. I stood back, behind the scenes, and observed, deep in the clutches of my own difference, noting a similar difference in her but dismissing it in the same moment. She would watch conversations with glassy eyes and a furrowed brow, as if we were all speaking a language she had never quite grasped. She was always happy to see us but eternally confused and I both pitied and resented her, remembering the strong woman who read to me the tales of Strewwelpeter and gestured with the corpses of diseased rabbits. Here in a room full of family she was the most alone. She knew it, too. Maybe that was the worst of it.
She died not long after that.
At her funeral I felt I’d suddenly taken her place. We- my father, my two aunts, my sister, and I- stood at her grave and gave short, respectful speeches. I had no speech to give and when called upon found myself unable to move, to breathe, to look up from the absurdly peaceful ground in which she was supposed to be buried. She had opted for cremation, but the service called for a burial, if only of an empty coffin. The strangeness of it all raced repetitively through my mind, drowning out all else. I could hear the grinding of the earth as it turned on its orbit. I could hear the soundless keening of the long dead. Most of all, I could hear the silence as my family waited for me to step forward, to speak, to offer the words they knew I kept folded beneath my tongue.
Eventually they moved on without me and I realised I had adopted her curse.
After the burial people offered their condolences and gave me strange looks when I attempted to arrange my face into one appropriate for the situation. I did not understand why “I’m sorry” had become the new greeting for the day, or why these people I’d met all of once in my life chose to offer it at this moment. The few words that I stammered in response left them confused and wary and soon they would turn to my more sensible sibling. They were comforted when she thanked them and relieved them of their fickle grieving-burden. I avoided eye contact. She would only scold me for my rudeness.
I don’t mourn. I feel grief in multiplied immensity but I do not mourn.
I do not understand those in mourning and avoid them when I can.
Skip forward one month and I have my first real breakdown. I don’t know who I am and I feel nothing- not numb, not empty, just nothing. I convince myself that I am purely exoskeleton and feathers, that my insides are made of birds, and my birds compel me to stride out into a busy street. I don’t know why. At the time, I don’t care. I am caught before a bus by tough, fleshy hands and pulled roughly aside and I find myself relieved to feel rage towards my saviour. It is an overdue wake-up call. He does not realise what he has interrupted and instead is bent on continuing an argument I no longer care about, and shouts at me while I curl up and shiver outside an icecream store. A month later, he leaves me. We believe it is for the best. I find a new love in the blades of knives.
I return home and my grandmother’s ashes follow me there the next day.
This time I find my aloneness reassuring, comforting, a kind of soft and gentle place in which to recuperate. I do not consider myself solitary. Rather, I am always around people; at home my parents speak to me of a better life and teach me to cook. I feel pain and sorrow but I believe it healthy and take it like some kind of daily vitamin, a boost to the senses. I can cross a road without doubting my arrival to the other side and it feels to me a slight victory. When the house is empty I stand in the kitchen and watch my grandmother’s green urn-box, contemplating her awareness post-mortem. I do not leave my bedroom for days, and spend my time peeking between the blinds. The world continues to turn regardless of whether I am in it, and often unaware of my presence altogether. I watch families move in, move out, have parties, have children. It feels as if I have visited a zoo and they are an exhibit, strange creatures behaving in strange ways in strange fenced-off boxes.
I spend too much time like this. I paint. I think. I pace. I do not write.
My grandmother’s belonging populate the house. Her lamp finds it’s way to my bedside table and illuminates my workspace. I begin to write again.
Standing again in the desert heat but this time alone (alone, not solitary) half a year later I would think of her, and of that moment, and wonder what it is about us that sets us so far apart from the rest. There are words, of course, acronyms and medical terms to explain us away. This time I know I am mad but do not yet know the name for it: while hers was dementia and stroke, mine is more complex, more fragile. This time my neck is heavy with a camera and I shake with laughter, sneaking kisses from my partner while my sisters play on rocks. We share a secret, he and I, a secret loneliness, though his is different from mine. Together we are solitary, a pair, alone in the crowd. We stand apart. I feel crazed beneath a deep blue sky and he holds my hand and does not understand, but is patient. For the first time in my life ‘alone’ is not such a bad thing and when I mount him later that night in forty degree summer heat I feel neither alone nor solitary. Somehow, after the act, the stickiness and heat does not seem as pure as it had, the connection more tarnished, but we savour it anyway. Our kisses transform the old metals of sex into burnished gold. Everything is sacred during those first few months of love, and beguiled I open up to him. I tell him everything. Afterwards we ache and bemoan our sunburns and ask each other if how we felt in passion is how others feel in the crowd.
We doubt it. He suggests that everyone is alone. I believe him.
I ask him if I am crazy. He shrugs, and kisses me, and tells me he doesn’t think so.
I tell him I need help, and he agrees.
Later again, not long ago now, and I know my words, I know the description for my loneliness. My otherness takes on an acronym and a rough cloak of stigma. I am a girl, sitting on a bed, alone and tired and not altogether there. I keep the company of a jack russel named Jack Pavarotti who has a terrible issue with flatulence and sad old eyes that always seem guilty. I am well loved and well cared for and very rarely solitary these days but I am maddened, an other, apart from the rest.
I write at inopportune moments and of inappropriate things, and it brings me catharsis.
I wish my grandmother had been granted the same kindness.