By SHALENE GUPTA
Apr. 20, 2011
I have heard that when death comes for us, he is accompanied by a welcoming party. They are all there, the gossiping grandparents who smelled like tangerines, the sweet neighbors who made god-awful lasagna, the pet snail named Squinky who got flushed down the toilet. Privately, I suspect, that these are stories concocted to soothe our fears. We are so alone in life that we can not bear to think that we will be alone in death too.
When death comes, death wraps a thin hand around our ankle and tugs until we slip away. And all of us— from the forgotten madmen who die in the gutters, to the best beloved who explode out of world leaving behind trails of fire and smoke —all us find ourselves walking down a valley to whatever comes afterwards, and we walk alone.
Perhaps this is why I am forever asking myself how far the bonds of love and friendship will stretch. In the face of debilitating illnesses, sudden poverty, accidental amputation, who will take care of you? Who, other than one or two relatives, will write checks to float you through a month or two?
Even in the event of minor tragedies, the hour when you wanted someone to hold your hand and say nothing but “I understand”, it is difficult to find someone. People are asleep, abed, abroad.
It makes sense, but the desperation grows. There is friendship, and there is family, and then there is silence swollen with the murky fog of almost but not-quite forgotten sins, the jagged shards of broken promises that have not quite dulled with time, and the slimy residue of wounded feelings. There are so very many things that are never talked about. Instead you shut your eyes, you tell yourselves this is friendship and this is love, and you never say, where were you when I needed you, and you never wonder why you are attacked by sudden, terrible bouts of loneliness.
“No one is always there for you,” I told a friend once, and I said it so sadly, he got down on his knees and said, “I will. I will always be there for you,” and it was sweet, and when I dialed his number once, he picked up and he was there, and then I dialed again and again and again and he lost patience with me. You see how it is.
And it is even harder to look up from this loneliness, to see how everyone else is surrounded by packs of people, and then you wonder, what you did, why it is you have gone wrong. Sometimes, the loneliness is so terrifying all you can do is rush from one party to another, anxious to meet more and more people, so that when the sky falls down, at least someone will know it fell down on you. Paradoxically, when you rush from party to party, you become lonelier than ever. You can not meet people at parties. Too much noise for conversation.
Or you cling. You leap frog from relationship to relationship, preferably romantic, and maybe it is bad so you get out, but, worse, maybe it’s good, good but a little off, a few streaks of something sour, a couple discordant notes, but it’s good enough, so you stay, and you stay, and you tell yourself you are very lucky and you are not lonely. Of course you are not lonely. Lucky. The words are book-ended by the same letters, but the substance of their centers is completely different, do not confuse the two. Lucky, not lonely.
And it is strange, but if you look up and look at the people who walk in packs, you will see how their shoulders and hips pull away from each other, how wide the spaces between each of them are. Note, if you sit next to a stranger on a bus and smile in just the right manner, they will tell you their life story. If you go out to dinner with a friend, and say, how are you—and then look them in the eye when they smile, and say, no really, how are you?, and then listen as if they speak divinity, your friend’s face will crumple, your friend will love you forever. Everyone else is lonely too.
I thought once, because I could not find someone who would be always be there for me, I would be there for everyone. I would single handedly make sure no one ever feels as lonely as I have felt. For a while I stood by the side of the road and wore a sign on my chest that read: “Will Always Be There.” I held hands of friends, friends of friends, strangers, offered a shoulder, and when my phone rang at midnight I picked up and I picked up and I picked up and I found out that the first time they love you, the second time they are grateful, the third time they are blasé, and the fourth time, well, there should never be a fourth time, but the fourth time they yell at you for taking so long to answer the damn phone.
There is so much loneliness. You throw yourself at it, and you are swallowed up by other people’s misery, you can find yourself comforting a friend at the door, while IMing with someone else in a crisis, and then your phone will go off the third time and suddenly it is evening and you have not yet had your lunch, and everyone is still lonely.
I don’t recommend going into the business of saving people. Helping them, certainly, but not saving. You can’t save another person. You can only save yourself.
When I moved to a city where I knew no one, I imagined there would be days when I said nothing but “Hello,” and “Goodbye” and maybe, “How do you do?”. Or perhaps there would be weekends and holidays, stretches of two or three days at a time, where I did not see anyone I cared about, did not run into anyone who cared about me, and I did not know how I would survive. If I could not tolerate loneliness surrounded by friends, what would I do by myself? What would I do to myself?
And indeed, whenever a visitor came or a friend calls, they ask—How are you? Are you very lonely?
And I am silent. There have been days of silence, weekends of silence, and in this silence I have heard myself begin to speak. I do not know myself, I may have once known her, but for a long time I shut her up in a cupboard in some dank corner because I was lonely and I did not want her to remind me of how lonely I was, I wanted other people to help me forget about her, and it is only now, in the silence, she rapped on the door and said politely, it is time you let me out.
This person is easily amused. For instance, she likes to walk around the city naming the birds. Of course she does not know the names of any birds, she is not very knowledgeable and would not care for birds except they have wings, so she makes up the names, oh look, a cheepcheep, a chirpchirp! Sometimes she uses different languages instead—burung! Burung! And for hours there is nothing except the wild joy of the swooping vowels soaring through her head as she watches the cheepcheep and the chirpchirps fly, burung burung burung!
Other days there is just staring into space, looking at the rain crawling down the window, and then she will dip her fingers into childhood and yank out a half forgotten bundle of white wool, tangled up, knotted, and she will turn it over in her hands, card it with her fingers, until the knots unsnarl and bits of yarn begin to form. So this is what that meant. Oh, so this is why such and such happened. Ah, I do not care anymore about that. It is over. It is time to let go.
She comes along whenever there are dinners now. Even as everyone chatters, she is sitting cross legged, jaw half open in wonder. She is very fond of company, it must have been all those years in the cupboard, but she is forever turning cartwheels in my head whenever someone speaks—oh look! How clever. Or, My God! What an asshole. Why are we here again?
Let’s go, she’ll say, and we’ll go. We’ll sail out into the night, sit on an abandoned park bench, and look up at the stars are spread across the sky.
In her presence, I forget to tally up the multitudinous sins committed in the name of friendship—who forgets to call, who doesn’t call at all, who is an absolute pain to call. Instead we watch the sky and listen to the creaking sounds of the city as it settles down to sleep.
She doesn’t believe that friendships are lifelines because you must always measure the strength of a lifeline to see if it will bear your weight, and that is dangerous. Anything measured may fall short. Rather, in times of need, fall, and trust in the goodness of human nature, strangers, friends, enemies, indifferent acquaintances. Better yet, know that you are made of rubber and you will bounce back up.
This girl, being alone with her, it is not so bad.