When I was interning in New York City this past summer, I was allowed several opportunities to try on different roles. I was a writer and editor. A friend, a roommate, and a lover. I was willing to try all these labels on for size, but the one label I couldn’t seem to bring myself to wear was ‘single.’
After the FAFSA application had me select ‘SINGLE’ in giant caps, I removed my relationship status listing on Facebook. It’s bad enough my in case of emergency person is my mother three thousand miles away and medical forms have me choose between only ‘single,’ ‘married,’ or ‘divorced.’ Where’s the box for ‘not really dating seriously but casually seeing and sleeping with guys here and there with no long-term prospects?’ At least Facebook has ‘it’s complicated.’
And it’s not just in terms of romantic singlehood either. I suffer from a slight case of autophobia. I panic if I don’t have plans with friends on the weekends. Sure, I can go shopping by myself, but if you ask me to sit at a restaurant without the company of another human being, I will glue myself to my iPhone for the entirety of lunch in an attempt to not look totally alone. Give me an afternoon without available friends and I will sit at Starbucks and read every page of the Times. Twice.
This summer, I went to a jazz club with one of my intern friends. Her sister was in town for the weekend and brought along her boyfriend. Naturally, I was asked to fulfill my gay-best-friend duty and played double-date with them. Not that I minded; it was guaranteed company on my free Saturday night which otherwise would have been spent perpetually refreshing Tumblr.
And I’m glad I went out. A man played his saxophone on the corner of Christopher and 7th, filling the cool August air with jazz before we even got to the club. And dinner was delicious, the music fantastic, and the company lovely with the requisite intern toasts of, “This’ll be real one day.” I was swaying contentedly to the tune of the saxophone in between bites of cheesecake when my friend’s sister spoke.
“Oh that’s so sad!” she said. She pointed to a man below. He was by himself, working on his steak and wine at a table right in front of the band. “He must be so lonely!”
The two sisters ached for the man, to be alone on a gorgeous Saturday evening, to be single on date night, to be at a table for one. And I empathized with them. If I were in his place, I’d have pitied myself and poked at my dessert and sit static.
The man, instead, air piano-ed.
He was having a good time, tickling invisible ivories and jamming along to the exuberant jazz before him. And I couldn’t help but smile. He was sharing the evening with the band, with the music, and with himself. So I matched his air piano with an air sax. After all, they say the only person who will stick with you through the course of life is yourself; might as well get used to it. Sure, he was alone, but he was far from lonely.
Being single is one thing. Single is preoccupied with school or work. Single is not ready to move on. Single is an empty OkCupid Quiver. Single is situational, a state of mind. Alone is something we all have to go through. It’s physically impossible to constantly be in the company of another person. Even married couples need some time apart, some ‘alone time.’ And nobody ever calls it their ‘lonely time.’
Because alone is different from lonely. Lonely is dressing in black with your vodka on the rocks and sing-crying along to “Someone Like You.” Lonely is not treating yourself well. Lonely is ignoring your needs and wants and goals. Loneliness is living without love. Alone, on the other hand, is time with yourself. Alone is natural. Alone is, you know, life.
On my 21st birthday a few weeks ago, I was in Manhattan for my weekly two-day internship at a magazine. While the night could have been a fabulous extravaganza in the East Village, it ended up being a particularly heartbreaking week (for reasons that could fill another column/book).
My mother called and asked if I was seeing any of my city friends for company. I told her I was too tired from work to have any kind of get-together. I told myself I needed to see if I could be both single and alone. So on my birthday, I went to a restaurant and asked for a table for one.
I ate my salad and sipped my Chardonnay (they didn’t even card me). I silenced my phone and kept it in my bag. No phone, no Times, and no company, save for myself. I knew I’d be the only one consistently present at my own birthday party. So I bit the bullet. Sometimes I’ll have a date, sometimes I’ll have a party, but always I’ll have myself.
And when I thought about it, I was perfectly content with my life. I had just scored a second magazine internship. I had pieces scheduled to run on web magazines. I had a full head of hair. I was doing pretty well for myself at 21. I was proud of me. I took another sip of my wine and dared, accepted, and enjoyed my alone time.
But when I went back upstate to school that weekend, I found myself at my favorite sushi place at the head of a table with at least 14 warm and kind faces smiling back at me. As I blew out my birthday candles, my friends and I toasted to what was real.
Yes, I am single. Yes, sometimes I’m alone. But never, ever am I lonely.