343 – The Loner

Thrust into a situation where social engagements bleed together and Facebook friend requests mushroom like fairy rings, all things considered, I think I’m doing admirably.

On the outside.

On the outside I’m mingling; I’m nodding and smiling; I’m talking the talk and walking the walk; I’m affecting every nuisance somebody might if they were without troubles, if these mannerisms came easily. I helped someone through a break-up and got tanked with a dude. I’ve attended and thrown dinner parties, been out to eat with friends and visited friends of friend at work. Over the last six weeks I’ve passed rites of passage I should have performed many times over, many years ago. If my dad wasn’t three-and-a-half thousand miles away and was concerned with such things he might lay a broad hand on my shoulder and proclaim me a man, my son.

For any real man these activities were never a concern. Only as a boy did men worry how to be social, how to be an adult, how to talk to women. Indeed, there are so many women at every turn in my new life I sometimes worry about oestrogen fatigue; it’s only that so many of them are bright and as unconcerned with tampons and boys who might like them as I am about sports that over the years I’ve come to realise that hey, maybe Revlon commercials don’t know everything there is to know about the fairer sex.

Among other social activities recently partaken in travelling five hours to ‘hang’ with one of my wife’s friends has been an eye opener. I’ve never spent time in single person’s living space as his or her equal, where I haven’t been an unruly child living by a new parent’s bedtimes, where I’m not mooching nor in hiding, but a welcome stranger in a strange land. I’ve no right to be here yet I’m allowed and encouraged to be. Hell, maybe our host would feel lonely if my wife and I weren’t occupying her downtime. It’s a possibility.

Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers. We drove through Yonkers to get here and it’s as alien as anything either Michael Crawford or Wall-E ever encountered: a world where rainbow-haired waitresses welcome you like old friends and sub zero temperatures are endured with a smile, a trip to a shut witch museum (which museum?) is worthwhile if you have the right company and four people bitter about their education (or lack thereof) can still accept the fifth who believes that the system, though flawed, still works.

Five people talking about their crazed schooldays. Five people trying to relate.

Only four succeeding.

My dreadful confession is the more I try to shuck my old persona, the closer it clings to me. I’m trying to find solace knowing that this is how life must be for so many people–quite possibly for far more than I’d previously imagined. In drunken conversation with Matt–fellow social-phobe, fellow husband–I tried to explain that though matters might not improve faking normalcy becomes easier. In vino veritas, as the old saying goes; the more I mix with people the more I realise beneath my illness is a man who’s simply better at being alone.

I use the word in a loose sense. While often discomforting, being alone is never less than comfortable. Life is generally best when at its most comfortable, when in the arms of a loved one, when shooting the breeze apropos of nothing. Then, like an armchair grown too soft it can be difficult to rise from: the endless vulture-like circling of the Internet, where every page is so damned comfortable why would anyone expend any energy to rouse themselves from it? It’s Wall-E again: piggy spacemen grown fat on convenience. With the entire world at one’s fingertips comfort is a cushioned slide to the grave.

So I’m defying my impulses in an attempt to expand my horizons. I’ll agree to go places and do things I know aren’t to my tastes. I’ll push myself a little further, I’ll go the extra mile, and cross fingers and toes that at some point I’ll reap hidden rewards.

Because if exploration is its own reward then every medal I’ve been awarded is a yoghurt top. It’s not that I’m unappreciative of the things people have done for me, but once done, I never think “We should really do this again.”

I appreciate the company. I like some–but not all–of the people. I never thought I’d like the social part of social engagements best of all; it’s the second word that contentious, the engagements that I dread.

Back in Jersey there are only so many things a group of friends can do. I don’t want to eat out, hit a bar, go bowling or play minigolf, visit the cinema or–horror of horrors–hang out at the mall. My comfort zone extends to visiting book stores and game shops not to buy but to examine their wares and compare shop prices with Amazon. I don’t know why I feel so compelled to do this: it’s a hollow experience, utterly pointless, that drags everyone I’m with down. Still, I do it, because it’s the only thing I’m comfortable doing.

Here, our horizons are a little broader. In a Salem cook’s shop selling witch-wines and British sweets I bought three fifty cent candies that were exactly as advertised: “The best caramels you’ll ever have tasted.” It’s something I mightn’t have done back south, where tourism shies away and such extravagant claims would be viewed with suspicion.

Yet aside from such token efforts I’m drawn to do the same things I always do. I pick over the crisp and beverage aisles in the supermarket, searching for treasures from a list drawn up from high-rated reviews online. I pore over bookshelves without any intention of buying their contents, just for something to do.

I have to conclude that maybe my avoidant behaviour wasn’t a cloud I suffered under but one obscuring my truest nature: maybe I’m just better off on my own.

It’s a hard conclusion to type. There’s nothing wrong with my and my wife’s partnership–indeed, that’s part of the problem. I’d happily spend all my time in her company, just the two of us, doing nothing in particular. I’d hate for us to fall into comfortable routine, each browsing his or her own websites while occasionally sharing this or that meme. It’s much better to talk, or listen to the other’s breath ebbing and flowing, their heart keeping tempo beneath it.

Is this as good as it gets? Is it worth rising to do bigger, ostensibly better things when they consistently prove disappointing?

But no: it’s not the activities that are a disappointment so much as the man engaging in them, who’s been engaged and married and found every engagement since wanting.

I could pretend otherwise. I’m all right with that. It’s a bit of a stretch to act against my nature, but the alternative is so close to the life I once led as to turn my blood cold at the thought of it. Inactive, lolling, stuck forever in the same place, the same isolated routine–being a loner isn’t something anyone should aim for. Existing within the confines of my own mind I might have stretched those boundaries, but no matter how hard I pushed them back, my head remained a prison. Now I’m finally free of it (and yet free to visit, should the mood take me) it would be a crying shame to return and stay, locked once more in a world of one I abandoned but could never quite leave.

So what if I’m a loner? Maybe everybody’s a loner pretending otherwise, and every friendship is endured because the cost to not endure it is too pricey to pay. Maybe they leave their judgement on the lintel as they enter friends’ homes, give opportunities for second impressions, forgive mistakes, allow leeway. Maybe every social experience that ever was was a child’s first cake, stodgy and foul tasting but baked with love and eaten greedily. Maybe that’s what I’ve missed all along–flaws are to be swallowed and yummed over–and maybe that’s where I’ve always gone wrong.

Knowing this, maybe its another role added to my newly learned repertoire: the ability to overlook, then embrace discomfort.

Or maybe I’m fooling myself, and I’m that most piteous of creatures: a robot searching for a heart.

This is the longest I’ve ever spent in the United States of America. As far as I’ve come–and I’ve come so far–I still have a long way to go.

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