Notes on solitude

I fell asleep on my flight from Delhi. I’d been listening to some iTunes-generated playlist literally called “Americana,” and when I woke up — crowded between strangers, the crooning of a Sufjan Stevens song distant and hollow in my ears, and oblivious to where I was — I was consumed by an unbearable loneliness. It crushed me. I felt as if someone had locked me up inside my own body, and I tore off my headphones because the music was unlocking something I couldn’t handle, something too reminiscent of home. I was grateful for the airplane’s sterile white noise, for the puncturing cries of someone’s baby.

The loneliness lingered for a long while, though I couldn’t understand at first where this feeling was coming from, or even why I felt it. It wasn’t the usual humdrum desire to not be alone. This was the kind of startlingly physical loneliness that shows up unannounced from some deep, dark corner of your mind, all thunderbolts and thick black ink. The kind of suffocating loneliness from which you want to run screaming for your life, but you can’t, the absolute hell of it being that you’re stuck where you are, so you remain seated. Plastic wrap loneliness. The strange thing was that I hadn’t felt lonely until that moment. I had fun in Delhi. I kicked ass at an interview and then partied with friends all weekend, elated at the prospect of moving to a new city. I boarded the flight and read a book about cricket and fell asleep, waking up so miserable that I honestly wondered if I’d ever feel anything else.

I’d felt this way once before, on another long journey not too long before this flight. It was the night train and I had woken up from a dream into absolute, impenetrable darkness. Again the crush of suffocating loneliness, the cold company of indifferent strangers. I remember desperately wanting air, and light, but these seemed like impossible desires. So I literally cradled myself on my berth until I fell back asleep.

It seems funny and significant that both of these episodes happened mid-travel. I’m always traveling and it usually comes as a relief, in a comforting and very physical sense of going forward. After three years in a country that never stopped being both familiar and strange, I started to see myself as a solitary person, not a lonely one. I had the logic all worked out: lonely people crave more interaction than they get, but the solitary tend to flit in and out of other people’s lives, sometimes plunging into the depths of real human attachment, but then leaving without so much as a look back. Solitary people, I thought, see human connection as an abstraction rather than a series of discrete personal relationships. They can fulfill their need for interaction with just a good conversation, regardless of who the other person is and whether they’ll ever be seen again. Solitude’s inner narrative is more of a soliloquy than an ensemble play.

I figured this was true for me because I’ve drifted in and out of so many lives for the past three years, and for the most part it has felt alright. But I’ve begun to realize that maybe I’m fooling myself. Am I actually happy with forming new relationships that quickly fade into radio silence? I think about José Arcadio Buendía in 100 Years of Solitude, who kept to himself doing wondrous things until the day he died. He wasn’t a misanthrope; he simply didn’t seek other people. But José Arcadio was also selfish, and a ghost. Sometimes I’m afraid that I let my relationships decay, hurting people I care about — or worse, that they don’t actually care when it happens. That’s not called solitude. It’s called loneliness.

Besides, I do look back: I recall fond memories of old friends all the time, and anchor myself, however subconsciously, to thoughts of home. That terrible, plastic wrap feeling? Maybe it’s a sign that for all my wandering, I haven’t ever felt whole.

When my flight landed in Hyderabad, I took in the airport’s clean, perfumed air with unexpected joy. Soft jazz played from a speaker, and men and women in suits busily moved about. Airports are so good with letting you pretend at being important. I thought I liked them so much because of the travel, but I realized it was more about the illusion of sanitized destinations, and the promise of escape.

I walked out and saw, to some relief, the sun peeking out from behind the clouds.

From an old notebook