Before Hannah left, she asked if I was sure I’d be okay. She had already waited an hour past when the doors were closed for winter break, until everyone but the custodians were gone. She had folded a load of laundry, written an email, searched her massive psychology textbook for answers to the final exam questions to see if she had gotten them right. She had run out of ways to fill time, so when I said, “Yes, I’ll be fine,” she had nothing left to do except try to believe me.
I helped her carry a bag downstairs. She gave me a hug, tight and official, and said, “We’ll be back from my aunt’s on the twenty-eighth. Take the train down and we’ll go to shows.”
I said yes, not knowing if I meant it. When I returned to our room, I found she’d snuck a sealed envelope onto my pillow.
And now I’m alone in the building, staring at my name written in Hannah’s pretty cursive, trying to not let this tiny object undo me.
I have a thing about envelopes, I guess. I don’t want to open it. I don’t really even want to touch it, but I keep telling myself that it will only be something nice. A Christmas card. Maybe with a special message inside, maybe with nothing but a signature. Whatever it is, it will be harmless.
The dorms are closed for the monthlong semester break, but my adviser helped me arrange to stay here. The administration wasn’t happy about it. Don’t you have any family? they kept asking. What about friends you can stay with? This is where I live now, I told them. Where I will live until I graduate. Eventually, they surrendered. A note from the Residential Services Manager appeared under my door a couple days ago, saying the groundskeeper would be here throughout the holiday, giving me his contact information. Anything at all, she wrote. Contact him if you need anything at all.
Things I need: The California sunshine. A more convincing smile.
Without everyone’s voices, the TVs in their rooms, the faucets running and toilets flushing, the hums and dings of the microwaves, the footsteps and the doors slamming—without all of the sounds of living—this building is a new and strange place. I’ve been here for three months, but I hadn’t noticed the sound of the heater until now.
It clicks on: a gust of warmth.
I’m alone tonight. Tomorrow, Mabel will arrive and stay for three days, and then I’ll be alone again until the middle of January. “If I were spending a month alone,” Hannah said yesterday, “I would start a meditation practice. It’s clinically proven to lower blood pressure and boost brain activity. It even helps your immune system.” A few minutes later she pulled a book out of her backpack. “I saw this in the bookstore the other day. You can read it first if you want.”
She tossed it on my bed. An essay collection on solitude.
I know why she’s afraid for me. I first appeared in this doorway two weeks after Gramps died. I stepped in—a stunned and feral stranger—and now I’m someone she knows, and I need to stay that way. For her and for me.
Only an hour in, and already the first temptation: the warmth of my blankets and bed, my pillows and the fake-fur throw Hannah’s mom left here after a weekend visit. They’re all saying, Climb in. No one will know if you stay in bed all day. No one will know if you wear the same sweatpants for the entire month, if you eat every meal in front of television shows and use T-shirts as napkins. Go ahead and listen to that same song on repeat until its sound turns to nothing and you sleep the winter away.
I only have Mabel’s visit to get through, and then all this could be mine. I could scroll through Twitter until my vision blurs and then collapse on my bed like an Oscar Wilde character. I could score myself a bottle of whiskey (though I promised Gramps I wouldn’t) and let it make me glow, let all the room’s edges go soft, let the memories out of their cages.
Maybe I would hear him sing again, if all else went quiet.
But this is what Hannah’s trying to save me from.
The collection of essays is indigo. Paperback. I open to the epigraph, a quote by Wendell Berry: “In the circle of the human we are weary with striving, and are without rest.” My particular circle of the human has fled the biting cold for the houses of their parents, for crackling fireplaces or tropical destinations where they will pose in bikinis and Santa hats to wish their friends a Merry Christmas. I will do my best to trust Mr. Berry and see their absence as an opportunity.
The first essay is on nature, by a writer I’ve never heard of who spends pages describing a lake. For the first time in a long time, I relax into a description of setting. He describes ripples, the glint of light against water, tiny pebbles on the shore. He moves on to buoyancy and weightlessness; these are things I understand. I would brave the cold outside if I had a key to the indoor pool. If I could begin and end each day of this solitary month by swimming laps, I would feel so much better. But I can’t. So I read on. He’s suggesting that we think about nature as a way to be alone. He says lakes and forests reside in our minds. Close your eyes, he says, and go there.
I close my eyes. The heater clicks off. I wait to see what will fill me.
Slowly it comes: Sand. Beach grass and beach glass. Gulls and sanderlings. The sound and then—faster—the sight of waves crashing in, pulling back, disappearing into ocean and sky. I open my eyes. It’s too much.
The moon is a bright sliver out my window. My desk lamp, shining on a piece of scratch paper, is the only light on in all one hundred rooms of this building. I’m making a list, for after Mabel leaves.
read the NYT online each morning
ride the bus to the shopping district/library/café
read about solitude
listen to podcasts
find new music . . .
I fill the electric kettle in the bathroom sink and then make myself Top Ramen. While eating, I download an audiobook on meditation for beginners. I press play. My mind wanders.
Later, I try to sleep, but the thoughts keep coming. Everything’s swirling together: Hannah, talking about meditation and Broadway shows. The groundskeeper, and if I will need something from him. Mabel, somehow arriving here, where I live now, somehow making herself a part of my life again. I don’t even know how I will form the word hello. I don’t know what I will do with my face: if I will be able to smile, or even if I should. And through all of this is the heater, clicking on and off, louder and louder the more tired I become.
I turn on my bedside lamp and pick up the book of essays.
I could try the exercise again and stay on solid ground this time. I remember redwood trees so monumental it took five of us, fully grown with arms outstretched, to encircle just one of them. Beneath the trees were ferns and flowers and damp, black dirt. But I don’t trust my mind to stay in that redwood grove, and right now, outside and covered in snow, are trees I’ve never wrapped my arms around. In this place, my history only goes three months back. I’ll start here.
I climb out of bed and pull a pair of sweats over my leggings, a bulky sweater over my turtleneck. I drag my desk chair to my door, and then down the hall to the elevator, where I push the button for the top floor. Once the elevator doors open, I carry the chair to the huge, arched window of the tower, where it’s always quiet, even when the dorm is full. There I sit with my palms on my knees, my feet flat on the carpet.
Outside is the moon, the contours of trees, the buildings of the campus, the lights that dot the path. All of this is my home now, and it will still be my home after Mabel leaves. I’m taking in the stillness of that, the sharp truth of it. My eyes are burning, my throat is tight. If only I had something to take the edge off the loneliness. If only lonely were a more accurate word. It should sound much less pretty. Better to face this now, though, so that it doesn’t take me by surprise later, so that I don’t find myself paralyzed and unable to feel my way back to myself.
I breathe in. I breathe out. I keep my eyes open to these new trees.
I know where I am, and what it means to be here. I know Mabel is coming tomorrow, whether I want her to or not. I know that I am always alone, even when surrounded by people, so I let the emptiness in.
The sky is the darkest blue, each star clear and bright. My palms are warm on my legs. There are many ways of being alone. That’s something I know to be true. I breathe in (stars and sky). I breathe out (snow and trees).
There are many ways of being alone, and the last time wasn’t like this.
Morning feels different.
I slept until almost ten, when I heard the groundskeeper’s truck on the drive below my room, clearing the snow. I’m showered and dressed now; my window lets in daylight. I choose a playlist and plug Hannah’s speakers into my computer. Soon an acoustic guitar strum fills the room, followed by a woman’s voice. Electric kettle in hand, I prop open my door on the way to the bathroom sink. The song follows me around the corner. I leave the bathroom door open, too. As long as I’m their only inhabitant, I should make these spaces feel more like mine.
Water fills the kettle. I look at my reflection while I wait. I try to smile in the way I should when Mabel arrives. A smile that conveys as much welcome as regret. A smile with meaning behind it, one that says all I need to say to her so I don’t have to form the right words. I shut off the faucet.
Back in my room, I plug in the kettle and pick up my yellow bowl from where it rests, tipped over to dry, from last night. I pour in granola and the rest of the milk from the tiny fridge wedged between Hannah’s desk and mine. I’ll be drinking my breakfast tea black this morning.
In seven and a half hours, Mabel will arrive. I cross to the doorway to see the room as she’ll see it. Thankfully, Hannah’s brought some color into it, but it only takes a moment to notice the contrast between her side and mine. Other than my plant and the bowls, even my desk is bare. I sold back all of last semester’s textbooks two days ago, and I don’t really want her to see the book on solitude. I slip it into my closet—there’s plenty of room—and when I turn back, I’m faced with the worst part of all: my bulletin board without a single thing on it. I may not be able to do much about my smile, but I can do something about this.
I’ve been in enough other dorm rooms to know what to do. I’ve spent plenty of time looking at Hannah’s wall. I need quotes from songs and books and celebrities. I need photographs and souvenirs, concert ticket stubs, evidences of inside jokes. Most of these are things I don’t have, but I can do my best with pens and paper and the printer Hannah and I share. There’s a song Hannah and I have been listening to in the mornings. I write the chorus from memory in purple pen, and then cut the paper in a square around the words.
I spend a long time online choosing a picture of the moon.
Keaton, who lives two doors down, has been teaching us all about crystals. She has a collection on her windowsill, always sparkling with light. I find the blog of a woman named Josephine who explains the healing properties of gemstones and how to use them. I find images of pyrite (for protection), hematite (for grounding), jade (for serenity). Our color printer clicks and whirrs.
I regret selling my textbooks back so soon. I had sticky notes and faint pencil scrawls on so many of the pages. In history we learned about the Arts and Crafts movement, and there were all these ideas I liked. I search for William Morris, read essay after essay, trying to find my favorite of his quotes. I copy a few of them down, using a different color pen for each. I print them out, too, in various fonts, in case they’ll look better typed. I search for a redwood tree that resembles my memories and end up watching a mini-documentary on redwood ecosystems, in which I learn that during the summertime California redwoods gather most of their water from the fog, and that they provide homes to clouded salamanders, who have no lungs and breathe through their skin. I press print on a picture of a clouded salamander on bright green moss, and once the printer stops, I think I have enough.
I borrow a handful of Hannah’s pushpins and arrange everything I’ve printed and written, and then step back and look. Everything is too crisp, too new. Each paper is the same white. It doesn’t matter that the quotes are interesting and pictures are pretty. It looks desperate.
And now it’s almost three already and I’ve wasted these hours and it’s becoming difficult to breathe because six thirty is no longer far in the future. Mabel knows me better than anyone else in the world, even though we haven’t spoken at all in these four months. Most of her texts to me went unanswered until eventually she stopped sending them. I don’t know how her Los Angeles life is. She doesn’t know Hannah’s name or what classes I’ve taken or if I’ve been sleeping. But she will only have to take one look at my face to know how I’m doing. I take everything off my bulletin board and carry the papers down the hall to the bathroom in the other wing, where I scatter them into the trash.
There will be no way to fool her.
The elevator doors open but I don’t step inside.
I don’t know why I’ve never worried about the elevators before. Now, in the daylight, so close to Mabel’s arrival, I realize that if they were to break, if I were to get stuck inside alone, and if my phone weren’t able to get service, and no one was on the other end of the call button, I would be trapped for a long time before the groundskeeper might think to check on me. Days, at least. Mabel would arrive and no one would let her in. She would pound at the door and not even I would hear her. Eventually, she would get back in her cab and wait at the airport until she found a flight to take her home.
She would think it was almost predictable. That I would disappoint her. That I would refuse to be seen.
So I watch as the doors close again and then I head to the stairs.
The cab I called waits outside, engine idling, and I make a crushed ice trail from the dorm lobby, thankful for Hannah’s spare pair of boots, which are only a tiny bit small and which she forced on me when the first snow fell. (“You have no idea,” she told me.)
The cab driver steps out to open my door. I nod my thanks.
“Where to?” he asks, once we’re both inside with the heat going strong, breathing the stale cologne-and-coffee air.
“Stop and Shop,” I say. My first words in twenty-four hours.
The fluorescent grocery-store lights, all the shoppers and their carts, the crying babies, the Christmas music—it would be too much if I didn’t know exactly what to buy. But the shopping part is easy. Microwave popcorn with extra butter flavor. Thin stick pretzels. Milk chocolate truffles. Instant hot chocolate. Grapefruit-flavored sparkling water.
When I climb back into the cab, I have three heavy bags full of food, enough to last us a week even though she’ll only be here three days.
The communal kitchen is on the second floor. I live on the third and I’ve never used it. I think of it as the place girls in clubs bake brownies for movie nights, or a gathering spot for groups of friends who feel like cooking an occasional dinner as a break from the dining hall. I open the refrigerator to discover it empty. It must have been cleaned out for the break. Instructions tell us to label all of our items with our initials, room number, and date. Even though I’m the only one here, I reach for the Sharpie and masking tape. Soon, food labeled as mine fills two of the three shelves.
Upstairs in my room, I assemble the snacks on Hannah’s desk. It looks abundant, just as I’d hoped. And then my phone buzzes with a text.
It isn’t even six o’clock yet—I should still have a half hour at least—and I can’t help but torture myself by scrolling up to see all of the texts Mabel sent before this one. Asking if I’m okay. Saying she’s thinking of me. Wondering where the fuck am I, whether I’m angry, if we can talk, if she can visit, if I miss her. Remember Nebraska? one of them says, a reference to a plan we never intended to keep. They go on and on, a series of unanswered messages that seize me with guilt, until I’m snapped out of it by the phone ringing in my hand.
I startle, answer it.
“Hey,” she says. It’s the first time I’ve heard her voice since everything happened. “I’m downstairs and it’s fucking freezing. Let me in?”
And then I am at the lobby door. We are separated by only a sheet of glass and my shaking hand as I reach to turn the lock. I touch the metal and pause to look at her. She’s blowing into her hands to warm them. She’s faced away from me. And then she turns and our eyes meet and I don’t know how I ever thought I’d be able to smile. I can barely turn the latch.
“I don’t know how anyone can live anywhere this cold,” she says as I pull open the door and she steps inside. It’s freezing down here, too.
I say, “My room is warmer.”
I reach for one of her bags carefully, so our fingers don’t touch. I’m grateful for the weight of it as we ride the elevator up.
The walk down the hallway is silent and then we get to my door, and once inside she sets down her suitcase, shrugs off her coat.
Here is Mabel, in my room, three thousand miles away from what used to be home.
She sees the snacks I bought. Each one of them, something she loves.
“So,” she says. “I guess it’s okay that I came.”