Gilbert ‘O Sullivan

I have recently discovered new and ever-more obscure corners of my navel to explore. There is always some aspect of your own private life worth reflecting on, and in recent days I have had to turn my attention to something I have had difficulty with for some time.

My loneliness.

There is little catharsis in discussing a matter like this on a public platform, but if I am to have any kind of hope for the words that follow, it’s that they are of use to someone else. I don’t purport to offer any kind of advice, merely a catalogue of what I have worked through and felt. I hope, as often I do, that someone else will benefit from my own short-comings.

To begin, it is important I put my loneliness in context. I am surrounded by beautiful people. Starting at the top of the hierarchy – my parents – and moving down towards my friends, there isn’t a person in my life that I cannot describe as a sublime expression of purity. True, they are all fucking mad, but that doesn’t change the fact that even the dog that visits me in the morning is a good person. When it comes to company, there are any number of intelligent, soulful and gracious people I may call upon. It is a charmed life on that account, and one that the nebulous deity I hold responsible for existence blessed me with.

Therefore, my loneliness, as cliché as it sounds, is acutely based in romance. That is something which I have to accept responsibility for.

Actually, what I need to accept responsibility for is my own sense of entitlement when it comes to not being lonely.

I went on a date a few nights ago. I have been on several, and have been lucky enough to have only one terrible date story in total. I will never repeat it on a public platform, but will gladly accept being plied with drinks in person if anyone ever wants to hear it.

So, the date. The night was as close to a perfect one (for me) as I could have asked for. I was speaking with a friend the morning after and commented on how often a first date tells you a lot about where your head is at. I have had dates in the past where the romantic flair wasn’t really there, but the spark of friendship grew thereafter. I don’t even view those dates as second prize, considering that some of my closest friends have come from them.

But this felt different for me. For the first time in a very long time, I felt genuinely attracted to her in a way that could be described as that combination of Beetles song and juvenile attempts at brief physical contact. You know exactly what I am talking about. As an adult, we spend so much of our time being guarded that to have a little voice – often it is so little – get giddy about a stranger comes like an open window in summer.

She was, for all definitions of the word, wonderful. The night became this softly-lit meet-cute in my eyes, where the charms of working around covid restrictions (deserts were chocolates bought at a garage because the restaurant kitchen had closed, eaten on a bench outside a closed Debonairs), weaved some kind of magic I had not felt since those early days when the idea of a woman being interested in me felt like a private magic show.

To digress slightly, you should understand that I no longer fall in love easily. There comes a time when you have done it enough to realize the genuine thing takes time and the acceptance that the other person does, in fact, fart in bed. A night with a girl, no matter how lovely she may be, will not end with my becoming instantly smitten.

However, I could not deny that for the first time in a very long time there was that key-hole-light’s worth of hope that something more just might happen. That kind of hope is admittedly unfounded, unjustified and says more about me than the reality of the situation but it was there all the same.

And I think that is what I have had to unpack these last few days. The idea of hope and its consequences when we meet someone.

One date does not an unshakable bond make. It is not a contract to a future or an undertaking for anything more than a night’s worth of happy memories. I know that, have always known that and will enter all future dates with the same mindset. Nobody owes you anything beyond the goodness of their company for a night. This is not a statement of cynicism, but one of polite fact.

Yet I carried a gestationally distant whiff of hope with me as I drove back home that evening. I exchanged a few messages with her, buoyed by my sense that some infinitesimal chance existed that I may have, just may have, found someone that will fill the spaces in my life and I hers.

And that is a relationship – the filling of space. My grandfather’s memorial for my grandmother described love as having a familiar shape in your life. It is not sex or posed pictures. Hell, real love isn’t even a particular memory of warmth or joy. It is the filling of space, the knowledge that someone will be there pottering next to you in the kitchen while you are wearing tracksuit pants. It is an extra cup of tea in the morning, the mug handle chipped but familiar.

A space doesn’t have to be full to be functional, but a room works better with furniture.

The fact is, for a very long time I have been doing things where there has been this space next to me. I have had remarkably private moments where the absence of a shape in that space has hurt on some level. Saturday nights are beautiful when spent barefoot on grass turning a piece of meat. Having someone change the music while you do so even more so.

And I think an element of desperation has crept in there for me. I have become complacent in the knowledge that the space next to me will remain unfilled. I carry it as graciously as I can, but I cannot help my own failings in certain instances.

And this was one of them.

I messaged her the following day and received no replies. It must be understood that this is not a failing on her part. She is a separate person with a separate life. Her internal monologue would be as intricate, nuanced and different as mine. It is not because of the radio silence that I am writing.

My response to it unnerved me. I scrutinized myself ad-nauseum regarding why, after having had such a wonderful – dare I say, beautiful – evening, she did not share in the same sense of pitiful hope that I did. Didn’t she also have fun? Wasn’t she also turning over the small moments of our first date in a way that would make my shape acceptable to her? What had I done wrong to deserve this lack of response?

And this is where I have to stop myself. What simply happened, was that my desire (or desperation, whichever you prefer) for the empty space in my life to be filled with a shape had gotten the better of reality. In the words of Allan Watts, all that we see is in our own minds, and in this case, I saw hope where all there was, was a wonderful woman willing to give me her time for the evening. Hope is not something we can conjure, it is something that exists best when looked back on.

I regret the white-hot sparks of conversation I had with myself. How personally I took the fact that she did not message me back the next day. I saw it as something deep and personal where it was simply someone else living their life separate to mine. I had inserted myself and a hopeful narrative into a meeting between strangers. I was one of them and so was she.

She did get back to me. She sent me a sincere message on the Sunday evening. It was warm, honest and caring but it didn’t change the sense of betrayal I had fostered within myself over nothing but a fiction. I didn’t see a woman who lived a separate life to me, I saw someone who went out of their way not to reply to my messages because I had done something wrong. The truth was, I had, but she wouldn’t have known.

I will accept allegations of obsessiveness. They wouldn’t be far from the truth, but the reality within myself is far more nuanced. Simply put, I have become tired of the empty space next to me. I am tired of being hopeful and being let down – be it by my own imagination or reality. I do know the difference between these two, or at least eventually figure it out. I am tired of not having felt for so long the giddy excitement of a hand held for the first time, or fingers entwined in a private moment. I am tired of making tea for myself and always having the final say over what’s on the telly. When I experienced the fleeting moment of hope, the neurons of thought reached out with both hands seeing an end to this tiredness.

I cannot safely say I am truly comfortable with my own solitude. I often engage in these ostensibly “brave” things to do by myself but the truth is they feel more like performative declarations to my internal monologue that I don’t need other people to make me happy.

Yet, and this is the hardest part, I don’t. Not really. My mother once gave me a piece of advice after a break up. She told me to go home, listen to Leonard Cohen and wake up alone. One day, she said, you will wake up alone in your own bed and that will be fine. That will be the day that you are ready to start seeing someone new.

I have done well. Despite what you have read above, I am more often than not much quicker to put my head into the right space than I give myself credit for. I think this was an exception due to the forgotten novelty of the little glimmer I felt. I may be longing for the shape of someone else in my life but when all is said and done, I do wake up alone quite comfortably. There is a layer that I need specific to me. My solitude needs to accept that pretend shapes are no substitute for real ones.

Now, she doesn’t ever have to answer for me to like her. I enjoyed the shape she had next to mine for one night, and that will be quite enough.

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