I am not lonely. I am pretty confident that I am one of the least lonely people in America, perhaps even on the planet. To see me anywhere is to see someone whose life is uncontestably full and alight with people. Whether friends or lovers or loved ones, they are never absent.
It is a mystery why this occurs. I don’t seek these people out. They have a way of seeking me. I am at a bar with a book. A man comes from a dark corner, smiling warmly, holding two beers. “I have the suspicion that this is your favorite,” he says handing the glass to me. It’s Rolling Rock, which isn’t my favorite, but I don’t let it phase me. We make bland observations about the two different sports on the overhead TVs, and then describe films neither of us has heard of. I am now in his Slack group. I mostly lurk. Elsewhere, a woman comes to my apartment, she says she’s my sister and that it is my birthday. She hands me a small wrapped box, gives me a hug, and thanks me for always being there when she needed me. We smile and part ways. I open the box and find a flash drive with a picture of me as a child on it. There are some things on it that were not intended for me but which she forgot to erase; but I don’t tell her.
From simple observation one could deduce that mine is a life of good fortune. I would not discount that outright, sure. Gratification is an infectious thing. It is gratifying to know that I gratify others by my mere presence. But the non-lonely life is not without its drawbacks. For one thing, it is not always possible to keep up with the whos and whys of my interlocking social circles. Not a few times have I misplaced names and had to rely on physical traits as identifiers. One friend I only know as “Beardy” … Simpson, I think. A woman at the office has a quirk of wearing the same brown cardigan every day regardless of the climate and I thank God for that. Much of my free time at home is spent scrolling the internet for funeral homes of a capacity sufficient to accommodate all of my mourners.
My life is something of a chaos; a joyful chaos, but a chaos all the same. And in it I am prone to forgetting that some people don’t have lives as full as mine, so they are not able to empathize with the hazards that I endure. People whose lives are comparably more tranquil, with far less fury, far less demand, far less movement, and far less noise. In fact some don’t have any at all.
I’ve come to understand these to be the lonely. I’m told that in this country by itself, they are in great numbers, with some people even bandying about the word “epidemic” to go with them. Not that anyone can give me exact figures. I’m told that it is nearly impossible to count the lonely proper. I hear this with a sense of dread on my friends’ lips. The lonely are a breed unto itself, they say, that cause the non-lonely to always have to look behind them lest they be lurked upon.
“They’re vampires, dude,” “Beardy” … um … Swanson told me over drinks. “But with, like, no teeth.”
“How are they vampires exactly?” I asked.
“I’m pretty positive they only come out at night. Like, the sun isn’t an issue for them, but they just sleep. And sleep. And sleep. And when they wake up around 4:30 or so, they have nothing to do, so they just stand around in corners and such.”
“And what do they feed on if they have no teeth?”
His eyes darted from side to side. He took a swig of his beer and lurched down closer to me to whisper. “Shame.”
So “Beardy” is kind of a fucking idiot. But there was something to his sentiments, as friends with more tact said much the same thing with little more than their eyes. Though another friend did claim that she actually saw what could only be a lonely person, leading by the hand an elderly neighbor, who she claims died just a few days before, down the hallway to a door that properly does not exist, or in any case leads nowhere. “She was lithe,” my friend told me, “with a serene look on her face like I’d never seen on any adult ever. She was like PJ Harvey, but with some kind of … complex.”
The skeptic in me started to think that these were just sadder projections of their own selves. But of course life has its little surprises, which have a way of setting you right.
One night over the summer, I found myself unusually obligation-free. Somehow I had no dates, no events, no half-hearted hang out commitments, or any work that could not reasonably be put off until later. It was weird, and a little nerve-wracking, but I rolled with it. It was nice enough that I went outside for a walk to a nearby park.
I feel like it wasn’t so long ago when people who went to parks at night had some salacious reason for doing so. But it was oddly pleasant behind the walls. No one really appreciates a park until it is sparsely occupied. There are no Frisbees to dodge, no impromptu concerts on the grass, fewer dogs yapping at you and each other, and no paddle yoga in the pond. It was just a few joggers trying to maneuver around some slow-walking older couples. I sat at a bench overlooking the pond, looking up to admire it when my phone wasn’t amusing me enough. There was a single light off to my right that, as in the movies, beamed straight down onto a small circle of the path. So I didn’t notice anything until She came out from the darkness and into the circle with a liquid saunter.
She was dressed in a long black coat, which was open but I could see into it. It was only black, just as I could hear Her shoes but not see them. Her hair was grey and sinewy, but also kind of frizzy, as if She’d either been electrocuted or just had a haphazard dye job. She crossed the light and sat over at the other half of the bench. She crossed Her legs and stared out at the pond. She said nothing. She did not have a phone or even a book. I stared down intently at my phone opening any app that would hold my attention. I looked around quickly and noticed that the park, or at least that immediate area, was entirely vacated save for the two of us. Still silence. Not even a cricket was chirping.
My body stiffened; I’d never felt so unnatural in all my life. Years of maturity just seemed to melt into air. I decided to glance over very quickly — Like She wouldn’t notice, I stupidly thought — only to find that She was staring at me. For how long I have no idea, but the look was at once piercing and disarming.
My muscles loosened and I turned to face Her. She was smiling slightly. Her eyes appeared as a deep black, which I attribute to the poor lighting. Nothing happened for a few more seconds. It was as if She was throwing down for a staring contest. And then, from what impulse I will never know, I spoke. What I spoke I will not tell you. They were never meant for anyone’s ears. They were my deepest, most concealed secrets, which until then I clung onto more tightly than my seasonal affective disorder therapy light. One secret after the other left my mouth like bombs from a B-52. And She took them all without budging.
Once I’d finished She stood up, still smiling, and faced me. She raised her palm and placed it gently on my forehead. The stiffness returned to me. More than that was a sudden lurch in my stomach, like the punch of an invisible fist. I knelt down on the path, writhing and retching. Soon a dark sludge poured out of my mouth like an overflowing clogged drain. Then everything went black.
When I came to it was morning, and I was on the couch in my apartment. I was chilled from sweat but otherwise unaffected. Making coffee I tried to piece together what had happened, how a pleasant night by myself could spiral out of control as it did. My phone rang. It was my mom. She was distressed by something I’d texted her at four in the morning. When I looked at the text I understood her puzzlement. It was a photo, a poorly angled one at that, of a slight porcelain hand scooping up a dark slime into a plastic Rite Aid bag. Everything came back to me. I told Mom that it was just a failed prank that was meant for someone else. I laughed the same faint and frivolous laugh I always deploy to get from under her scrutiny. It barely worked; I told her I’d call her tomorrow.
I considered sending the photo to one of my friends, but soon thought the better of it and deleted it. After spilling my guts, so to speak, I had found a new secret that seemed bespoke to go to the grave with me. (So maybe don’t tell anyone else.)
I’m not sure that loneliness is an epidemic, or if people who fear it are just treating it as such, as if it is steadily encroaching upon them. Maybe it is, but so what?
I can’t quite explain it, but I felt relief in my encounter. There’s something necessary in the lonely. And maybe everyone is right about them in one way or another. They are relied upon like no one else on this planet. They might be the last great race — the last pure breed. They want for nothing, they oppress no one, and they relieve the burden of oppressors by oppressing themselves. The habitat of the lonely can’t be described, it can’t be seen. The lonely can’t be found on maps. You can’t retrieve their coordinates. You can’t call on them. They are just there, at a moment that seems right for you.
Staring out the window in the direction of the park, I knew that I would never be lonely. It wasn’t my calling. I use that word intently. Because sometimes one person’s toothless vampire is just as easily another person’s collarless priest.