The Lonely Calculus


On Thanksgiving Day, I fantasized about calling the suicide prevention hotline. I didn’t really want to kill myself; I just wanted someone to talk to. I thought about that: someone you can just call. I imagined their voice on the other side of the line, a friendly woman’s. Someone robust, grounded, like the mother of a clan of rowdy kids, overweight and earthy. “Hello?” I would say kind of cautiously.

“What’s your name?” the voice would ask, opening up with indestructible, caring warmth.

“Um, Rich.”

“What’s wrong, Rich?”

“I’ve had a pretty bad year.”

At the idea of that conversation, for some reason, I almost broke down. Someone whose job it was to be caring towards other people, someone who was there to be someone for the kind of person who didn’t have a someone. Someone who was willing to man a phone line on Thanksgiving because they knew they might be needed. My contact lenses shifted around from the rubbing and hurt. The suicide prevention hotline probably wasn’t really like that.

“You’re going to hold on, aren’t you?” the unrealistically imagined mom would say.

“Well, I have to now,” I would chuckle through the husky tone of crying, sitting on the pavement – I would be out on the pavement when I called, I don’t know why. “Otherwise you would think you didn’t do your job.”

She would smile through the sound of her soft concern. “Oh, sweetie.”

Bullshit. Even my fantasies of being pathetic included bullshit.

I put on the mismatched uniform of the ragtag depressee. The jogging pants, worn then laid on top of the pile and then worn again every morning. The nearest shoes, in this case hard-soled boots. The old comfortable hooded sweater, hood up to hide a tangle of unwashed hair. The nice winter coat, the slick wool one because it was the warmest, uncomfortably topping off its ragged, dirty counterparts. The uniform, different in details but familiar to everyone in this army: lined up, we’d look the worn-down soldiers of hastily matched divisions in the yawning years of a poverty-stricken republic’s winter war. One without a lot of showers. The idea that there would be a lot of us was heartening. Not uncommon: almost the same as normal.

Out front, I held the little chipped glass with vodka, and one of the stale cigarettes. I watched the dull glitter of the street lamps on the shifting, sharp-looking glitter of the snow. Thanksgiving was cold around these parts, and it was my legs that started to tingle and complain as I sipped and smoked, and felt the music in my earbuds, which were always about to tumble out. I always meant to ask, if that happened to everyone: if my ears were the wrong size, or if all the earbuds were.

Another car, a stooped crossover with baggage on the top, stopped at the corner for what felt like too long before continuing on its way. With each car, like always at night, I wondered if I recognized it – if someone I knew was inside. I felt somehow like I might be embarrassed. Whenever I was outside alone, I had the sense that passing cars were hostile in their glances. That they gazed out at me, suspicious. Their normal lives in contrast with mine made them the eyes behind the  blinds even when I was the one at home.

You always look out of place, an outsider, with no one with you to vouch that you belong. That you’re okay. It’s hard for most people to trust someone who’s alone: that’s one of the things you come to notice, when you’re alone a lot. I tried to look impassive, like I didn’t notice. It makes them less uncomfortable, if you didn’t notice, and you want that for some reason. For them not to feel bad for noticing you.

Two cars together now, a boring gray sedan ahead of a long black SUV. They pulled off in different directions. There were a surprising number of cars out for Thanksgiving night – I wondered where they were all going. It looked like the car had a boy in the backseat, curled sleeping in the radio’s glow while his father guided them through the dark. Strong, responsible wheels crunched through the snow with practiced smoothness that would become a forgotten sound weaved into the feeling of that boy’s memory: comfort, swiftness, fullness. Or maybe only in the father’s.

The smoke from the cigarette, closer now that it was growing shorter, got in my nose, made me want to cough. I realized I had imagined that one of the cars would stop – that someone would pull up to me, and say hello. I don’t know why I thought that; it was one of those things your brain does. And then, I realized, I felt disappointed that no, it wasn’t going to happen. An illogical disappointment: no one was ever going to stop, but for a nonsensical second I thought they would, and now that was lost.

It was like I was going to be grateful just that someone would. So grateful I wouldn’t do anything to ruin it. It made me think of calculation, in a way. How when you don’t have anyone, you really don’t want to lose whoever is there. How much, if you have no one else, you become willing to swallow down. And then it occurred to me – is that what everyone else is like, all the time?

I thought about the people I know, who sit quietly no matter what gets said, or who smile wide, trying to convince someone how happy and complete being with someone else makes them, even though the sense that something’s missing is as present as they are. Was that why so few people did speak up, because they’re always afraid of losing other people? Was that why so many people didn’t stand up for themselves, weren’t even themselves most of the time? Because no matter how many people they had around, they were afraid of being alone? Because they were afraid, all the time, of being like me?

The cigarette felt like it got staler and staler the closer to the filter I breathed it in. I lowered it. I watched headlamps roll down the street from a long way down, down to the far stop, and down to the next one, and down to the next. I watched them until they came to mine, and then paused, and then kept going. Different headlamps, big like globes and narrow like eyes, in twos, in fours with fog lights, beams of bright yellow tinting or humming, somehow duller, smaller all-white tone. I watched, cold. I thought, irrationally, was anybody coming?


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