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Living Alone


by Dallas Woodburn


The thing about living alone is, you've got no one to scratch your back. If it's a whisper of an itch, a fleeting thing, it can usually be taken care of by leaning casually against a doorframe and swaying back and forth. Which can actually be quite nice, scratching your back against a doorframe, especially if while you're doing it you close your eyes and pretend you're a willow tree in the wind, swaying, swaying. Of course you don't look like a willow tree in the wind. You look like an insane person. But the thing about living alone is, there is no one around to see you.

            But let's say you have a more stubborn itch, like maybe you went to a party at your boss's house and it was held on a Sunday afternoon in early September, and everyone was outside in the backyard because it was such a beautiful day and only the slightest bit muggy, and maybe your mouth was tired of talking about grown-up things so you sat in the grass with the children and knotted the throats of dandelions together in long, looping chains, and maybe you were wearing a halter top or a backless sundress and you didn't even notice the bugs until you got home and felt the angry bumps all over your back, especially in the middle part of your back where your arms, even if you have abnormally long arms, can't reach. 

            If that happens, and you live alone, the best thing to do is to strip off all your clothes and turn the shower on lukewarm and let the water beat down upon your itchy back, and you can even close your eyes and pretend it's a person there, gently scratching your itchiness away. In fact, it's good you live alone because a person's general tolerance for back scratching wears thin after only a few minutes, but you can stand under the shower for a long time. You can stand under the shower until the water turns from lukewarm to kind of cold to so cold you can't stand it any longer. And if, when you step out of the shower, you drip a trail of water on the floor all the way from the bathroom down the hall to your bedroom, you won't have to worry about anyone slipping on it, or asking you to clean it up, or doing that annoying roommate martyr routine of cleaning it up without saying anything to you but adding a little checkmark to the running tally in their head of All The Ways In Which You Are a Horrible Human Being.

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I once dated a guy named Phil who was deaf in his right ear. At the time, I didn't have a car, and he didn't like me driving his car, so whenever we went anywhere he did all the driving. Sometimes, on the highway, he'd roll down the windows so the air flapped around us like birds' wings. I'd be halfway through a convoluted story when he'd glance at me, a placid nonexpression on his face, and I'd realize I'd been talking and talking and talking and talking and he hadn't heard a single word.

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When I moved away to college, I missed my mother a lot, but I didn't want her to know I was missing her because I felt like then she would win. I don't know what game we were playing, but it seemed important, and the rules were very clear to me. If my mother knew how much I missed her, knew about the cloying homesickness twisting my insides like the stomach flu, something between us would change. So, whenever I wanted more than anything to call her, I would eat instead. I would eat whatever I could find nearby with the lowest nutritional value. See, I would tell myself, this is the best. Mom would never let you eat Skittles and Cheese-Whiz for dinner. Eventually the homesickness would morph into normal, food-induced stomach pains, and then I would feel better.

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The thing about living alone is, you can walk around naked and eat dinner naked and dust the bookshelves naked. You can stand naked in front of the mirror with your hands on your hips and your hair in a towel turban and flirt with your foggy reflection. You can sing naked karaoke. Out of all the karaoke songs in the world, you can choose “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion and since you live alone no one will be there to groan at you and roll their eyes and pretend to vomit.

            “But being naked is better when you're naked with someone else,” says my friend Minnie, who was named after the mouse, and who has lived with Craig for three years and five months. Before Craig, she lived with Roger, and before Roger she lived with Steve, and before Steve she lived in an all-girls dormitory at Scrips.

            “You don't know the first thing about living alone,” I say.

            Minnie thinks I mean it as a compliment. “Thank you,” she says, smiling at me. Whenever Minnie smiles her eyes get squinty. I have known her for seven years and I have never seen a wide-eyed Minnie smile, not even when she is drunk or surprised or trying to look good for a photograph. In photographs, it always looks as if she is squinting directly into the sun.

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I glance out my kitchen window and there she is, Becky, walking down the sidewalk, around towards my front door.

Actually the person walking past doesn't look anything like Becky. Her hair is short and her face is pinched.

But in my mind, she is Becky, coming around my house to knock on my front door, wanting something from me, wanting to talk to me. I leave my oatmeal half-cooked and duck into my bedroom, and once I am in my bedroom I head straight for my closet. I slide the door shut behind me. I sit there for a while, listening to my own breathing, as I wait for the knock to come on my front door.

It never comes.

Becky must have changed her mind and turned around. Which is a relief, really. I meant it when I said I never wanted to talk to her again.

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The thing about living alone is, you can go days without talking to anyone. Like maybe when you leave work on Friday you say, “Goodbye” to the person the next cubicle over from you, but then your best friend is away for the weekend with her boyfriend at a Bed & Breakfast in Carmel, and the staff at Cypress Gardens don't like for your mom to talk to you on the phone because of what happened the last time, so maybe you spend the whole weekend watching Saved By The Bell reruns in your bathrobe covered with kittens, and you go into work on Monday and Shelly the next cubicle over from yours asks, “How was your weekend?” and when you say, “Oh, fine,” your voice is rough and croaky because it hasn't been used in a while.

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It took a long time for me to break up with Phil. It took a lot of practice. We'd be driving down the highway, the windows cracked a few inches, the breeze like the muffled applause of a crowded room, and I would say to Phil, “You know, maybe we should break up.”

            I'd say, “This isn't working for me anymore.”

            I'd say, “We're just too different.”

            One time, Phil glanced over and saw my lips moving. “What?” he asked.

            I shook my head, retreating, not ready. “Nothing,” I said. “Just talking to myself.”

            Phil smiled, reached over and squeezed my knee. Three months later, after our relationship imploded in an Applebee's parking lot, he said, “You know, I've seen this coming for a long time.” And I thought about all our car rides and I wondered if maybe I was the one who was missing something.

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When my mother began to lose her mind, I took a week off work to help her get moved into Cypress Gardens. I was anxious on the plane ride there, full of nervous energy. I kept getting up to stretch my legs, pace the aisle, use the tiny plane bathroom. But when I met my mother at her house, at the old brick house with the wide yard I'd grown up in, everything was as it always was. She seemed fine, perfectly lucid, her hair neatly parted and brushed as always, her lipstick perfectly applied. She thought Cypress Gardens was a nice hotel we were going to for a vacation. She looked around her new one-bedroom apartment, with the heavy curtains and the thick carpet, and said, “My goodness, Lena. Are you sure you can afford this?”

            When I left, I hugged her fiercely and said I'd be back soon. The air was cold and burned my cheeks, and tears blurred my vision.

They found the brain tumor after my mother became convinced I am not her real daughter but rather an alien lifeform impersonating myself.

            “Give me back my Lena!” she screamed into the phone the last time I called.

            “Mom, it's me.”

            “You're a liar! Don't try to trick me! Where is she? What did you do with her?” Then she was screaming my name, over and over. The nurses had to sedate her.

            I was supposed to fly out three weeks ago to see her. I got all the way to the freeway exit for L.A.X. but then I couldn't go any further. I kept driving, four exits, ten exits, thinking of the way my mother used to stir sugar packets into her iced tea, delicately, the spoon never once clinking against the glass. At the fourteenth exit, I got off, turned around, and drove back home.

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The thing about living alone is, you don't have to worry about coming home to your roommate having sex on the living room couch. You can be the one having sex on the living room couch. Or at least making out intensely on the living room couch and then moving to your bedroom for the sex part.

            I have not met my lover yet, but he is out there, somewhere, so I prepare my apartment for his arrival. I buy a brand-new couch with bright red cushions and a soft brown blanket and casually mismatched pillows that I actually spent twenty minutes deliberating about in the Home Décor aisle of Target. I frame black-and-white, slightly out of focus photographs and hang them on the walls. I buy a potted begonia for my windowsill.

            The first man who witnesses my transformed living room is my neighbor, Bill, and his cat named Oliver. Bill seems like a nice enough person, but he laughs too loudly at his own jokes and his eyes are set very far apart, and whenever I talk he looks at the wall behind me instead of at my face, which is disconcerting and causes me to lose my train of thought.

            “This is a nice couch,” Bill says, running his hand along the plush fabric.

            “Thank you.”

            “Feels like a towel.”

            “Pardon?”

            “It feels like a brand-new towel.”

            “Oh. Um, thank you,” I say, trying to meet Bill's eyes.

“Where'd you get it?” He addresses the wall behind me.

“The furniture outlet on Harrison.” His gaze so intent that I turn, half-anticipating a bloom of mold or a giant, hairy-legged spider. But there is nothing. Just a wall painted white.

Meanwhile, Bill is asking me another question. I can tell it's a question by the way his voice raises at the end, but I have not grasped a word.

            Bill stares at the spot on the wall behind me expectantly.

            “What?” I say.

            He leans in and kisses me hard on the mouth. I kiss him back for a few seconds, because it feels good to be kissed, but then I remember this is Bill doing the kissing and I push him away. He fixes the wall behind me with a confused and slightly hurt expression.

            “I have a boyfriend,” I say, wiping my mouth with my sleeve. In the corner, Oliver is swatting my begonia with his paws. “Stop it, Oliver.”

Bill picks up Oliver like a rag doll and swings him over one shoulder. “You should have said something.”

“His name is Nathaniel. We met at the library.” Which is true. I went to the library during my lunch break from work and checked out a collection of short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I intended to read one story every night before bed, and in this way I would Improve Myself.

I checked out the book seven weeks ago, but it's still lying there on my nightstand. I only finished half of one story. I keep going back to the library to renew it. You're only supposed to renew books twice, but Nathaniel lets me renew and renew. He always smiles at me as he scans the barcode, a small smile, secretive. As if we're in on something together.

His name probably isn't even Nathaniel. It's just the name I gave him. To me, he looks like a Nathaniel. He looks like someone who knows things.

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My mother met my father on an airplane to Chicago. She was flying there to visit her older sister in college. My father was flying there on business. My mother said he coaxed her into conversation with a corny joke about an elephant in a fridge. “He waited to laugh until I did,” she said. “I liked that. Your father had a very nice laugh.”

            They wrote letters, and two months later when she graduated high school, my mother moved to Toledo, where my father lived, to go to college. She dropped out after only one semester and married him. He died when I was fourteen. She never remarried.

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When Becky told me she was moving out, her face had a blankness to it, a coldness. I felt as if she'd punched me. We'd been living together for four years, since right after college — first a dumpy, tiny flat in Venice Beach, then a bigger apartment in Brentwood. We'd bought furniture together. We'd picked out dishware. We decorated for holidays. I knew one or the other of us would move out eventually, but I didn't expect it to be like it was — Becky's sudden, casual announcement, like she was telling me she forgot to get peanut butter at the grocery store. I'd assumed that when one of us decided to move out, there would be crying over bottles of wine, tight hugs, fierce promises to come visit, to stay in touch always, always. 

            It was terrifying, that something I'd felt so sure and safe about could end so abruptly. A light switch flicking off. What about all the hours we'd spent talking at the kitchen table, our beat-up kitchen table we'd salvaged from that yard sale in Little Tokyo? What about all those late nights we'd turned on the stereo and danced around the living room until we collapsed? What about our joined routines, our rituals, our inside jokes, our encyclopedic data bases of minute facts about each other — Becky's fear of tornados, my love of all things polka-dotted; Becky's school picture with the gum in her hair circa 1984, my dime-sized knee scar from a childhood skating accident. Didn't all that count for something? Because it should. I felt sure it should.

But, from the way Becky was acting, it seemed I was nothing more than a roommate, flung into her life by circumstance, and just as indifferently tossed away. When I came home from work, her bedroom door was often shut; boxes began to spawn in the living room and the kitchen, slowly filling with her things. She tried to claim some of the things we'd bought together, an argument that ended with me weeping, clutching a blender to my chest, screaming that I wouldn't let her have it.

“Jesus, Elena,” Becky said, her mouth cinched tightly in disgust. “Fine, take the fucking blender.”

As soon as she said that, I couldn't bear to hold it any longer. I threw the blender across the room and told Becky I never wanted to see her again.

I began to question all my relationships. I picked fights with Minnie. I grew suspicious of Phil. Maybe he was hiding something, too. Maybe he secretly despised me. Maybe, I thought, I should break up with him before he could break me.

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The thing about living alone is, there is always too much food. The people who designed food packaging did not consider those of us who live alone. You can never drink a whole carton of milk before it spoils. You can never eat a whole loaf of bread before it molds.

            At the grocery store, I splurge on fancy whipped cream cheese, even though I only eat bagels occasionally. Becky was the one who loved bagels. Bagels and lox. Sometimes on Sundays she'd come home with a paper bag from Noah's Bagels, filled to the brim. And we'd eat them. The ones we didn't eat, we'd tear up into little pieces and feed to birds at the park. Food never spoiled when I lived with Becky.

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One time, as we drove down the highway with the windows cracked and flies occasionally smattering the windshield like clouds of regret, I told Phil I loved him. He turned towards me, grinning widely. He said, “Did you see that Billboard we just passed? Someone graffitied a mustache on Sarah Palin.”

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After I graduated college — Art History major — I had trouble finding a steady job. I worked for a few months as an English tutor, a film gopher, a smoothie barista. My mother wanted me to move back home to Toledo. She didn't think California was a place where good people lived. “You'll never find a husband there,” she said. “Those hippies don't like to settle down.”

            I told her the hippies lived in Berkeley, not L.A. She sniffed dismissively. I sent her pictures of me and Becky — standing proudly in our newly furnished apartment, smiling in the foamy waves at the beach. Still, every time I called home, my mother's first question was if I'd met someone yet.

            “I worry about you, Lena,” she'd say. “I don't want you to end up alone.”

            “I won't.”

            “You don't understand, baby girl. It's the worst kind of emptiness, living alone.”

            “I won't end up alone,” I'd tell her. “I promise.”

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When I wake up, my eyes feel scratchy and a bug bite on my elbow itches like hell. I know it is going to be a mustard yellow, sweaty armpits kind of day.

            It is a Saturday and I have no one.           

Nathaniel isn't at the Circulation Desk, and since it is a mustard yellow day I don't want to push things by wandering around looking for him. Instead, I head over to the children's section with the giant wooden whale you can read inside, and pick out books for my future children. Which is pretty pointless, I know, because I might very well never have children, or if I do have children by the time I have them there will be a whole slew of new books to read to them, and I immediately forget all the titles of the books I do look at because I don't write them down. I do remember one has a porcupine on the cover.

            I browse through Modern Fiction and New Releases. I pick books up and put them back down. Their plastic covers are greasy under my fingers. Or maybe it's my fingers that are greasy. I wipe them on my jeans, glance over at the Circulation Desk. Still no sign of Nathaniel. An old lady with purple hair and tiny reading glasses perched delicately on her nose is helping a mother and her little girl check out a stack of picture books. I've never seen this old lady before. Anger, irrational anger, pulses through me. I picture popcorn filling up a bag in the microwave. That is what my insides feel like. I hurry to the exit, yank open the heavy oak door, and there is Nathaniel, standing right in front of me, close enough to kiss. At the sight of him my insides light up. He should be able to see my body glowing through my sweater and winter coat.

Sometimes, I am a fish who opens her mouth and no words come out. I open my mouth. No words. I close my mouth.

“Hi,” Nathaniel says. He is already moving past me, into the warmth of the library, to his home at the Circulation Desk. I want to tell him that I am in love with the way he holds his coffee cup. With the little mole on his chin. With his unevenly cuffed shirtsleeves. Instead, I say a lit-up “Hi!” but he is already past me.

My heart is filled with seeing him.

I never want to see him again.

Outside, the air is cold and burns my cheeks, and the wind blurs the world as I make my way towards my car.

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Minnie and I meet for lunch at The Urth Caffé so she can tell me about her trip to Carmel. She shows me pictures on her digital camera, the two of us leaning in close to the tiny screen. Minnie's face smells powdery in a pleasant way. I want a powdery face. My face feels greasy and porous in an unpleasant way. All the pictures of the ocean make me want to drink water, and all the water I drink makes me have to pee.

            “I'll be right back,” I say, scooting back my chair and standing up.

            I am only gone a few minutes, but when I return, Becky is in my seat, scooted up close to Minnie, peering down at the tiny digital camera screen. I have a strange sense of déjà vu, or maybe it's more of an out-of-body-experience — as if I have stumbled upon a different version of myself, in a different version of my life.

            I step backwards, bumping into a waiter. His carefully balanced tray wobbles but he steadies it. “Sorry,” I say, fleeing out the back exit. I wish I were wearing a billowy silk scarf. That I had something billowing out behind me to announce the absence of my presence.

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On the day of the big move, I refused to help Becky carry her boxes down to her friend Steve's van. I stayed in my room, the door locked, blasting the Ramones on my stereo. We did not say goodbye. If she knocked on my bedroom door, I did not hear it. When I finally emerged that night, the apartment felt like a tomb.

            I called Phil and told him how empty the apartment was. “It's so lonely in here,” I said. “It feels so big. Like I'm living inside a whale's mouth.”

I wanted Phil to ask what kind of whale, but he didn't. He just said he'd be right over. I waited for him in the living room, sitting on the edge of the coffee table because Becky had taken the couch. When he knocked on the door, I knew it was him — but part of me still leapt inside, thinking of Becky, of all the times she had locked herself out. She was always forgetting her key. Our front door opened out onto an open-air hallway, and I'd drive home early from work to let her in so she wouldn't have to wait outside for an hour. She taught first grade so she was off around four every day. “My rescuer!” she'd exclaim when I'd appear at the top of the stairs. “Thank you, thank you, I'll buy you some booze!”

Phil and I slept together in my bed, which we'd done countless nights before, but it felt different now without Becky across the hall.

“Move in with me,” Phil whispered. I pretended I was already asleep, because I wasn't sure what to say. I wasn't sure what I wanted.

The next morning, Phil walked around naked, his penis swinging everywhere. It was strange to see his penis swinging around in my kitchen. He looked so carefree, like this was normal, and maybe it was, maybe it would be the new normal. Me and Phil, buying furniture and dancing past midnight and putting up holiday decorations. Me and Phil, walking around naked and fucking anywhere we wanted because we didn't have to worry about a roommate walking in on us.

The blender was still in the corner where I'd thrown it, looking hurt and ugly, the cord flung out like a desperate drowning arm.

            I realized, within the next few days, that my feelings for Becky were deeper than I'd ever felt for Phil, and that I missed Becky more than I'd ever missed Phil. Suddenly I felt sick that Phil and I had lasted this long, that I had let things get to this point. We were settled. Comfortable. It was perfectly normal for him to ask me to move in with him.

Two days later, when Phil picked me up for our Friday dinner date, I couldn't summon the enthusiasm to suggest a place. We ended up driving around aimlessly for a good twenty minutes before he finally swerved into the parking lot of Applebee's. “I could do with some riblets,” he said, exaggerating his Southern drawl, showing off for me. I remember his earnest smile as he cut the engine and unbuckled his seatbelt, how carefree he looked in that moment. Riblets, beer, Friday night. Then he glanced over at me and his features drew in, his gaze sharpened. “What is it, Lena? Don't cry, baby. What's wrong?”

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When Phil and I had been dating for three weeks — long enough that we felt relatively solid, that I still liked him, that he still called me — I felt comfortable telling my mother. I could hear her beaming over the phone. I shared the basics: grad student, Cal Tech, mechanical engineering, twenty-eight, never married, no kids.

            “He sounds wonderful,” she said, over and over. “Wonderful.”

            I couldn't remember the last time she'd sounded so proud. So relieved.

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I've been home for only a couple minutes when my phone rings. “What is up with you?” Minnie asks, her tone accusing. She must be on her cell phone, leaving The Urth Caffé. Wind cuts into her mouthpiece, drowning out her voice.

“What?” I say. “I can't hear you.”

“Why'd you take off and leave me like that? You just disappeared.”

            “I told you, I had to use the bathroom.”

            “Yeah, but then you never came back.”

            I tell her that I did come back. “I saw you,” I say. Now my tone is accusing. “I saw you with her.”

            “With Louise? Why, do you know her or something?”

            “Who's Louise?”

            “Craig's sister. She was eating a few tables over from us.”

            “Oh.” I sit down on my red couch and hug a throw pillow to my chest. “No, I don't know her. I thought she was someone else.”

            “Who?”

            “It doesn't matter. I'm sorry.”

            “Elena,” Minnie says. Abruptly, the wind stops, and her voice sounds clear and close. “Becky lives in Toronto now, remember?”

            “Yeah.”

            “And it wasn't about you. It didn't have anything to do with you. Sometimes people just need to move on. Life changes.”

            “Yeah.”

            “Are you okay? I worry about you.”

“I'm fine,” I say. “Don't worry. I'm fine.”

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“You're crazy!” Phil said that night in the Applebee's parking lot.

            “I've seen the way you look at her.”

            “When am I even around her to look at her? It's not like she's ever at your place when I'm there.”

“See! Suspicious. It's like the two of you are hiding something.”

“Lena, really, you're being insane. I can't even remember the last time I saw Becky. She's hardly been around at all the last few months.”

            I looked down at my lap, at my hands holding each other. “I don't love you,” I said. “I'm sorry, but I don't.”

            So instead of moving in with Phil, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the other side of town, and I bought a bright red couch and casually mismatched pillows and a potted begonia for my windowsill. Sometimes at night, while watching TV, I look down at my hands, on my lap, holding each other.

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The thing about living alone is, you have no one to double-check the locks. You climb into bed and turn off the light, and just then you hear a noise — a creak of the floorboards as the house resettles itself; the scratching of a tree branch against the windowpane. And you feel cold, and very alone, and you think of all those stories on the news about people living alone, young women especially, who get robbed or raped or murdered, and no one finds them for days and days, and you know it's old-fashioned to want a man to protect you, but really you just want someone, anyone, anyone else to climb out of bed and go check the deadbolt on the front door, to make sure it's bolted securely shut. But the thing about living alone is, there is no one else. There is only you. So you climb out of bed, hugging yourself against the chill, turning on lights in the bedroom, the hallway, the living room, the entryway, as you venture up to the front door, your own eyes shadowy hollows in the black pane of glass, and you see — there — relief — it's locked. You touch the deadbolt, you feel its weight beneath your fingers, just to be sure. It's locked, it's locked. You retreat back to your bedroom, turning off lights as you go, feeling better but still alone. And then you climb beneath the covers, pull them up to your chin, turn to one side, then the other, waiting for your body heat to warm them up, waiting, waiting. 

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