I spent New Year’s Eve alone. I wanted to start my travelling year as I intended to spend it: sat with myself, with nowhere to hide. Visible to myself. Unafraid. Unflinching. Ready to see just who I really am. You know - when nobody is looking.
His eyes were on me and I knew better than to look up. In my peripheral I noted his protruding belly and yellow t-shirt and the cigarette in his hand. A cab finally pulled up across the road, and I bee-lined for it, relieved. Posso…? I said, without seeing the person still on the back seat. I have to make another stop, the driver replied, motioning to the shadow of his passenger, and I stepped back, knowing now I’d have to walk.
I picked the most brightly lit road and tried to keep my head up, confident-looking, not in a rush but definitely with somewhere to be. I’d left the guy with a yellow t-shirt still at the taxi rank, but he suddenly – somehow – came into my line of sight up ahead. I don’t know if it was coincidence or if he’d followed me, but when I got back to the empty apartment after dodging his questions about where I was going, did I need him to walk me? I cried. Nobody would know if something happened to me, I thought. I’m all alone.
His friend made his punch line in English, causing me to look up from my book. I smiled, and that’s how I started chatting to them. The dad, the one closest to me, spoke impeccable English and I smiled a lot at his much quieter wife and did my best “I used to run a children’s language school” routine with the kids. I was polite, interested but also aware of not intruding on their meal too much. The dad pulled up my website in front of me. “No, don’t read it now!” I said, mortified, and that was that.
By the time I got home, he’d emailed. “Nice to meet you, here’s my number. Be nice to chat on there…” It had taken me ten minutes to get home. He must’ve got my email from Google, and messaged me as he still sat next to his wife. I’m not that lonely, I thought.
“Renato,” he said, his voice hoarse from ninety-something years of living. “Laura,” I replied. He talks to me every day. Comes and sits beside me at the café, wheeled down from the house by his carer, Romano, but most of the time I don’t understand him. My Italian and his age mean there’s a lot of smiling and nodding. Last week, Monday, I think, he was having a good day, and as he was pushed down the street he saw me, and speaking English for the very first time said, “Good morning, my love.” I almost cried then, too. He’s been practicing, Romano said. He wanted you to understand.
We’re not ever really alone, I thought.
The weekend had been the blow out I’d needed. 36 hours in Germany visiting friends, with booze, conversation, and slut-dropping a four-foot-five Turkish man for four hours. I’d packed light, whizzed into the country and right back out again, via a private ride in a single motor plane because my buddies are pilots and some weekends really don’t pan out as you’d expected. The adrenaline, the pace of the trip, the ensuing hangover – by Monday afternoon I got home, passed out, and thought, it’s so nice to be alone. It’s nice to be with people, and it’s also nice to be alone.
Last week I’d had to force myself to leave the house. To put on lipstick at 5pm on a Friday and go get a drink, by myself, because otherwise I’d mope and feel sad and generally when I feel like that all I need is some fresh air and a bit of sugar. I can’t even remember what I said to them – I think I made a joke about them arguing, once I heard they were American. I invited myself to their table, and they invited me to a birthday party. I made six new friends, that night. See, I didn’t have to be lonely, I thought.
It’s all fleeting. Temporary. I think I knew that, but I needed to isolate myself, this year, to truly understand. To feel shitty and know it won’t last, to feel on top of the world and know it won’t last, to recognize when I need people and when I need myself and that the “lows” mean as much as the “highs”. To feel busy, and overwhelmed by that, to feel totally unseen, and overwhelmed by that too. Sometimes you have to go deep into the dark, I think, so that you can shed a little light.
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