By Jenna Tico
Like most roads to hell, it is paved with vision boards. Watered with four-dollar wine, and the metaphorical blood of the men who have “wronged you.” There is at least one volume of sad poetry; probably bought on impulse while waiting in line at the bookstore, impossibly dense text in one hand (“I’ll finally have time to read Kafka!”) and a cheap spiral notebook in the other. Later, you will label this your “INTENTION JOURNAL,” and stare at it each night before going to bed; with every intention of cataloging your intentions, but instead, watching four hours of Lifetime original movies. Which like most roads to hell, are paved with vision boards.
Stage One: Shock
It’s a Nicholas Sparks world, and we’re all just buying tampons in it; and at some point, you probably meant to be here. You probably caught a movie (or twelve) that taught you that, to live the life of your dreams, you must have one of two things:
- an easily accessible window, should John Cusack arrive with a boombox, or
- a self-induced period of solitude in your twenties; preferably in a rent-controlled apartment; preferably one with exposed brick.
And at some point, the sea of boyfriends inevitably parts; in its place, their echoey chorus of “I’m just not ready” and the expanse of that which you always thought you thought you wanted: Alone. With no end in sight. A space that, while sanctioned by sitcom, remains exhaustingly absent from the cultural consensus on womanhood. Everyone tells you to spend time alone. No one seems to understand, nor believe, that you are. That the beast of your life leading up to this point, every dream you had for the people you’d loved, has sunk its teeth into your apartment. Noticeably absent of exposed brick. Likely missing several essential qualities, such as street parking, and glue.
You tell yourself that being alone is the nature of life. But you had a plan for yours, and it did not involve Tinder, nor minimum wage.
You tell yourself that you are choosing this; you use words like energy, and say that you’re keeping yours safe. You recall all of your romantic failures in alphabetical order, and believe that you finally understand Tom Waits. A rawness begins to creep from your skin, and you label it Shock. You commit to its tiny surprises; bursts of mania in the grocery store, and the things you only buy when you’re shopping for one. You move your bed to the opposite corner, and in those precious moments when you’ve first woken up, there’s the shock of forgetting whose house you are in; and in that you are aware, so potently aware, that no one stands between you and the weight of what you believe could have happened. You feel more aware than you want to.
That’s probably around the same time that you enter denial. The voice in your head, tired of listing your pain, downs a vat of espresso and says things like, “This is GREAT! I love (walking on the beach, having meaningful conversations, getting stuck in the elevator, cooking dinner, inventing problems) by myself! In fact, I’d choose this. I can’t believe I ever thought that I needed to go to restaurants with other people. There are so many people here on dates. That must really suck for them.”
It says, “If I wanted to, I could totally be out with friends. Sure, I’m home eating Cheerios with a fork. But I’m just really into spending time with myself.” You sign up for things like INTRO TO WEAVING, and spend $60 on a gym membership, which you exclusively use for the sauna.
“I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m on my way to the gym.”
You lose half a pound from sweating so much, and think that you’re probably glowing, just like pregnant women do. You wonder if maybe you’re pregnant, but realize you need to have sex to be that. So you take up Pilates. You spend all your money on face wash and cheese.
You feel more aware than you want to.
Stage Two: Pain and Guilt
Nowhere in the course of common etiquette are we taught how to accompany other people on their dates. There’s no class on third wheeling. When cozying up to watch a movie, how close is too close? When they begin kissing for longer than three seconds, do you look away? They never used to do that. All your friends are coupled up—was it always this way? There’s a secret they all have, a magical code; and the longer you spend outside of its circle, the more foreign its boundaries feel. Your friends invite you to watch the sunset, and the three of you stand in a row; you sense the ease in which they fold into one another. You’ve never felt your stomach so sharply before. “It’s perfect,” one whispers, the rest of their sentence escaping the reach of your ear. Your pedestrian ear. Your ringing, pedestrian ear.
Splaying your life on the screen of your mind, you believe that you’ll never be wanted. You think of your nights spent alone, so many opportunities to write your manifesto, and calculate the percentage that has instead been spent researching the family histories of minor celebrities.
You calculate the number of social media platforms on which to experience the pain of rejection, and divide that number by one. Immoveable, unyielding, one. Exponential on birthdays, holidays, and the soft hours of the morning—the time you’ve forgotten you’re sleeping alone.
Left with nothing but time to consider your faults, you come to the reasonable conclusion that every breakup has been completely your fault. You read horoscopes only to scan their contents for opportunities to feel worse. You write a novel-esque email to your ex, displaying the contents of your deepest childhood shame, certain that it is the root of your howling discomfort. In a fit of caffeine, you hit send. In the conspiracy show that is life, you’re the star, and you’re dying alone. You’re all slowly dying alone.
You finish this thought with a flourish of pen, and close your INTENTION NOTEBOOK—its contents now full of your hurt. Your hurt. The thing that, at least, you can grip. Your phone buzzes, and you lunge expectantly. A voice says, “I actually have plans with my [girlfriend, husband, college roommate, random online date] tonight, but you’re welcome to join! We’re thinking Chinese food.”
Your wallet is still in the car. There’s no price you’d not pay to lift over the skin of this pain.
Stage Three: Anger and Bargaining
“No, YOU listen, evil midget that lives in my mind: I’m fine. I’m totally, fucking, fine. You think you’re lonely? Great. I’ll show you lonely. I’ll take your lonely and kick its sorry little ass, and then slather it with the burned pages of all the books that I swore I never had time to read, only now I have the time, and I realize I don’t fucking want to read another fucking story about how great that new agey chick’s life became when she set off to travel the world alone. Because you know what she had? Money. And you know what else she had? A harem of European men telling her how brave and special she was for traveling alone, which we all know is bullshit, because I’ve traveled alone before and all I got was a fucking stomach parasite. Which in case you were wondering, is not a metaphor. But speaking of metaphors, FUCK everyone.”
Stage Four: Depression, Reflection, and Loneliness
It occurs to you, while trying to button the back of your skirt, that you could walk into the world with a rip at your butt and not know until a stranger points it out. Which they do. Twice. For some reason, it’s this thought that pins you to the parking lot, unable to pick up your keys. You manage to walk to the grocery store, but nothing looks good. You believe this is the right time to casually explore herbal wellness, and leave the aisle forty minutes later, convinced that you need Echinacea and an entirely new life. You don’t know if you drink the right water. The cashier asks you a question, and the words on your lips are like cotton. It feels like you need to say something, but you’re not sure which answer is yours.
On your way out, you pass a porch of happy-hour margarita drinkers, and realize you are staring much in the same way that a teenage boy stares at a bag of Doritos. Starving. You’ve had a rash on your arm for days, and after several hours of Googling, are no longer convinced you have cholera; however, you also have memorized most major cities in Canada, and that felt like a good use of time.
You dig into the pool at the pit of your stomach, hoping for water. You stare at your phone, and sometimes it rings; and sometimes you say yes to a party, and often show up in a dress. Other times, you politely decline. “Thank you, but I’ve forgotten how to interact with other humans. Plus, I have these new pore strips which I’m dying to use on my nose.”
You watch all six seasons of Gossip Girl, and only feel mildly sorry. You learn that no one is safe, and consider the number of single women who have choked on a walnut and died alone. You realize your mother would call you before you had a chance to properly decompose, and position your phone in the only space where you know it gets service. Your grandmother’s number appears, and your voice cracks as you answer, loaded with suddenly needing to make something heard.
“My voice cracks when I try to sing,” she says. “My vocal chords just don’t get the exercise they used to.”
She’s alone for the first time in 65 years, and you wish you had talked to your Grandpa more. Wish you had asked him, Grandpa, do you play that music so loud so that you don’t have to hear your own mind? You picture him, arms crossed at his chest, and wish you had shown him your heart. That you’d come home with someone worth 65 years. You wish that that someone was you.
I talk to myself, you tell your Grandma. All the time.
“So do I,” she says. “But mainly to yell at the TV.”
You sit late at night in a tub full of salt, and quickly learn which full-length Disney movies are available on the Internet. You cry at their Oscar-winning soundtracks. You were counting on that. Counting on fingers, on the backs of hands that you never looked at so closely before, hands that look like your mother’s—the number of days that you’ve spent with the feeling that nothing will change. You remember the time that you sat on the playground, middle school rising like steam on a lake, and tucked your head into your knees to avoid looking up. You knew even then what was ending. You knew what was starting as well.
You know even now, in that space in your knees, what loneliness likes to be told.
Stage Five: The Upward Turn
You feel back for the buttons on your skirt. You befriend them. You fumble for your keys in the parking lot. You befriend them. You grab two gallons of generic water. You befriend them. The grocery clerks ask would you like a receipt? You befriend him.
You pass by strangers, drunk in the sun. You befriend them. You look at the bumps on your arm. You befriend them. You realize that everyone leaves. You befriend them. You sit with your head at your knees. You befriend them. You stare at the tops of your hands. You befriend them. You look at your life up to now. You long for the one coming soon. You cry for the years you have left. You befriend them.
Stage Six: Reconstruction and Working Through
You’re alone. You come home at night and sit on the bed, and there you are, alone. It’s simple, so beautifully simple, so opposite of every relationship you’ve ever waited for yes to bleed out of. You pinch to find blood in your cheeks. You look at yourself in the mirror, and it’s enough to make you want to kiss every bone of your spine. It’s enough to understand Tom Waits. It’s enough.
You realize that you don’t actually like Gossip Girl. You never did. You decide that the Internet is a place for free yoga videos and home remedies for hair loss, and vow to use it for good; and three days later, decide that includes inspirational dance movies. You laugh to an empty room. You draw pictures of places with tall grasses and wind, and bookmark several award-winning documentaries, as well as one speech on cyber-bullying. You vow to become an ally. Your life is the thing that’s for good, and you plant flowers at each place it cracks.
You realize that, at some point during this time alone, you’ve stopped chasing people who don’t want to be found. You smile, and crown this with sleep. You realize the one you’d been after all along, and you tuck her into bed. You feed her raspberries. She sleeps on her back now, eyes pointed upward. She likes waking early. She feels.
Stage Seven: Acceptance and Hope
When you were little, your mom used to tell you stories of fairies in faraway lands. “Once upon a time,” she’d say, “Thumbelina would wait by the window, singing her song, ‘til the prince flew up on his magical bumblebee—“
“…Yes, his, um, magical bumblebee. So the prince would arrive on his magical bumbl—”
“But where did he get that, though? Do you have—do you know where he—like, was the BEE magical or did he put magic ON the—“
“It was already magical. The bee was already magical. The prince arrived with his magical bee, and Thumbelina climbed out the window and they fell in love, and rode away into the night… and they lived happily ever after.”
It has taken you most of your life up ‘til now to realize you might be the bee. To remember how it felt to be pressed against your mother’s shoulder as she spoke, heart like a drum, soft body telling you that—as long as she is—you are never alone.
It has taken you most of your life to make peace with the garden inside you; to tend it, like you would anything that you love, with water. With silence. With air. And one night, as you are falling asleep, you feel that breathe into your veins: like a tale from a faraway land. Foreign. Yet utterly yours.
Once upon a time, a girl sat on the tops of her hands, staring out the window of her car. She has nowhere to be, not quite yet, and she probably won’t drive past his house. She’s no longer digging for Yes. She believes in the love that comes rushing from mountain tops, and turns up the radio. Loud. She pulls from the curb, and starts thinking that maybe she got here right on time. Nothing more. Nothing needed. Not yet.
She humming with notes.
She is earning her keep.
And she lives happily ever after.
Jenna Tico is a ninth-generation Santa Barbara native, dancer, grant-writer, theatre geek, world traveler, cat enthusiast, counselor, storyteller, and full-time human being. She is the artistic director and co-founder of TOTEM, an intergenerational arts collaborative dedicated to providing free arts and nature-based educational opportunities for teens and mentors. She is a regular collaborator with Lucidity Festival, Fishbon Arts Collaborative, Santa Barbara High School Theatre, and World Dance for Humanity; and in 2014 authored Art Fisher’s Santa Barbara Summer Solstice,which you should totally have on your coffee table. She teaches Contact Improvisational dance as a means for relating to ourselves and others with integrity and trust, and believes most things can be solved by a flash mob. She can be found online at www.totemsb.com.