by Lena Dunham
“I’m going to die alone.” It’s a refrain often uttered by women, with a kind of tragicomic self-awareness, after a bad date or the breakup of a brief romance or the adoption of a calico cat. I can hardly count the rom-coms that hinge on this premise (a woman has resigned herself to a life of takeout, cheap Chardonnay, and quirky pajamas). But even said jokingly, the words are possessed of a horrible tyranny, as though aloneness is an island on which, as punishment for failing to successfully adapt yourself to romantic love, you are marooned. Alone is a place that nobody would want to go on vacation, much less live permanently.
It was December when we broke up, that kind of confusing weather where glaring sunlight makes the cold air feel even colder. We sat in our shared kitchen of nearly four years and quietly faced each other, acknowledging what nobody wanted to say. That obsessive connection had turned to blind devotion, and the blinders were coming off to reveal that we had evolved separately (the least shocking reason of all and perhaps the most common). That anger wasn’t sexy or sustainable. That our hearts were still broken from trying so hard to fix it but no longer uncertain about whether or not we could. The finality nearly killed me, and I remember muttering, “But what if we still went on dates?” He laughed sadly. “Whatever you want.”
But we knew there would be no dates, only the kind of loving but overly careful check-ins that define a separation after longtime togetherness, after hundreds upon hundreds of nights curled against each other in bed, after thousands of takeout boxes and millions of text messages and then the side-by-side texting, too, on the couch, under the dim blue light of the TV. Our home, a sprawling loft bought when we brimmed with shared plans for each room, was no longer a space of comfort. And it was hard, in this moment, to summon what it had been, what we had felt, the routines that defined and outlined our life as a couple.
The sound of the washing machine starting up without your having pressed the button, the days you get up first and the days that he does. The hours you lose to shared silence on a Sunday and the back and forth, back and forth to the bodega, taking turns or walking together in jackets either too light or heavy for the season (nobody in this house is in the habit of checking the weather). It is impossible, in the moment of separation, to access just how valuable each and every one of these mundane acts will seem in a week or a month or four months. You won’t lie in your new bed, your solitary bed, thinking of your first date on a rainy night in April or that first “I love you” after drinks at the Carlyle (each of us ordered scotch to impress the other; neither lightweight consumed it). Not the castle on the beach in Portugal or the ocean in the Maldives full of fish the color of lipstick. You won’t be stuck on the Technicolor memories but rather the odd, quiet details that proved, again and again, that you were definitely not alone. We made the mutual decision that he would keep our home (he’s always loved it fiercely, while I got anxiety in the elevator), and I would regroup at my parents’ place, ten minutes away by cab.
I used to love solitude. I considered it luxurious, a state in which fantasy and reality mixed and my world took on the mystical potency of a solstice gathering of nude witches. For this reason I hated summer camp, where the opportunities to be alone were scant. By age fourteen I was already pretty charmed by myself, and living for a month in a bunk of pubescent, writhing female life felt restrictive at best and repulsive at worst. One day a field trip was planned to a nearby water park, where we would all wear our green-and-white uniforms over our bathing suits and be closely watched as we splashed in the shallow end of a heavily urinated-in public water feature. No, thank you.
And so I did what any logical adolescent would do: I invented, with perfect symptomatic accuracy, a case of strep throat. Headache. Pain when swallowing. Vague chills. My case was airtight. They couldn’t question me until they got the swab back, which could take up to two days. And so I was quarantined on a cot in a corner in the nurse’s cabin, a place you went only if something had gone horribly awry. For a few hours she sat at her desk and I feigned feverish weakness until she announced that she was headed to lunch and would be back in an hour, the screen door slamming behind her as she waddled down the hill. And in that moment I realized that, for the first time in weeks, I was alone. The light was bright and dusty. I could feel the wind through the open window, and I released the expression of agony I’d been using as my disguise. I lay perfectly still, almost too delighted.
In high school my bedroom was a temple to personal space, the walls pasted completely with pictures (of Sylvia Plath and Jimmy Fallon, two very different but equally essential formative influences). On the walls I had scrawled images in lipstick of gaunt girls with big mouths and trees with extensive roots, and it never once occurred to me that this might be off-putting, maybe even send up a flare about my mental health. On a prehistoric laptop I typed doleful poems about the solitude I was actually relishing, and when I wasn’t inside I was walking in and out of various dollar stores—alone—to pick up crafting supplies (if you’ve never glued a bunch of plastic grapes to a $6 mirror, try it)! My independence was still novel, and every day felt like an opportunity to indulge in my own company, to soak in it like a bubble bath.
Then, at college, came my first serious relationship. He was a beautiful, anxious film student with a blond beard and a red bike. I was in awe of him and quickly installed myself like a light fixture in his bedroom. He was monkish in his sleep patterns, and I stayed up much of the night staring at him: He was here. He was mine. When he moved into an efficiency apartment off campus, he told me he’d like a few nights a week to himself, to “just focus inward.” Rather than embrace the solo time, I would sit in my own bedroom, filled with desperate, sickened longing. One night I so convinced myself of the wrongness of our separation that I biked as fast as I could (please picture Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz, pedaling aggressively to avoid the coming tornado) and landed on his doorstep weeping. He offered me tea and counsel, then sent me home—admirable boundaries—but having had a taste of domesticity, I was almost chemically changed, rewired. The independence I had so prized was replaced with a mourning that could be sated only by consistent male company, even if (as it would happen later on with other boys) that company was rude in bars, talked loudly through art-house movies, and made sure to point out my less than ideal breast-to-butt ratio. Anything would do.