Every Time You’re Alone: An Incomplete List
by Michael J. Seidlinger
A lane opened, an offering to take a step forward, press down on the gas pedal, up the MPH another fifteen, maybe twenty. But I had been following Red Saturn for the last thirty miles and wasn’t yet ready to let go. Red Saturn navigated via the middle lane down the interstate, passing the same exits I passed. I should have pulled over; it was getting dark, yet still early enough to figure out where I’ll end up tonight. Red Saturn had its own itinerary. Yes, I knew even then that our camaraderie was silent, entirely imagined. Yet another twenty miles given to our little dance, Red Saturn passing me just as much as I passed it. To the left, and back into the middle; to the right, where we both found that glorious patch of clean road, where we could push through those speed traps, passing semi-trucks that made it clear the road was theirs, not ours. Red Saturn pushed south when I went east. I still remember how it felt to finally lose sight of the car. Between the patch of road shared, we were distantly attuned in the same way you accept the friend request of a stranger, chatting a couple minutes at a time via Facebook chat—you liking my statuses, me doing the same—before disappearing into the newsfeed, the never-ending scroll of this thing we call connection. This feeling, I know, is because of this understanding I recognize that it never gets easier. It never disappears. You could be among friends and family, you could spend a month in the company and drama of others, and still, it waits, a breath caught in your throat, the cough—the rousing and suddenness of remembrance. The feeling, and then the exhale, finally, the recognition that it is temporary but you, you alone, are the sole constant. It was like we never actually met.
5) Outside Budget Car Rental, after picking up the Ford Focus, red, go figure, going to stick out, every cop probably noticing the car, fear of being stopped for speeding—never been good at regulating my speed while driving; the moment Jessica, who had graciously driven me from Brooklyn, NY to Trenton, NJ, where the rental awaited, I felt it—the sinking feeling of seeing her drive away, more like her following me as I pulled out of the parking lot, drove back the way we arrived. Instead of heading south the way I would, she took a different exit, heading back up north, back to the city, back to life itself. I saw her SUV disappear into the traffic. I took one of NJ’s famously confusing jughandle exits, vaguely aware I had been too nervous to correctly adjust both rearview and side mirrors, forcing me to drive partially blind, fighting the anxiety of an entire month of this, of driving alone. I should have been familiar with the feeling of being in a car alone, but I wasn’t. I can still hear the rapidness of my heartbeat as I merged into the middle lane and accepted that there was no going back.
12) Oh hey, look, just take that rest stop, don’t hesitate, Jesus Christ: You can’t be sure they’ll be another a couple miles down the line. All this coffee, the caffeine low long since become the norm, I parked the car at the other end of the lot, farthest away possible from the building. I was willing to walk the entire length of the lot; I just didn’t want to feel smothered by all the other cars parked, side by side, the anxiety of having to eventually pull out of the parking space. It played back in my mind, the situation where I’d mess up, turn too wide, forced to make more than one three-point turn. Or worse, I would collide with a car I didn’t see passing by. So I parked the car at the very end, empty spaces on all sides. Leaving the restroom, finally relieved and yet, nothing had changed, I debated getting food. I needed food. But that meant waiting in a longer line than the rest. I opted instead for more coffee. The Starbucks line was only three deep. A couple with a young child, couldn’t be any older than seven, I eavesdropped the enthusiasm of their trip. They were headed to Florida. Probably the parks, running the usual tourist gauntlet. There was something so calming, so predictable, so… nostalgic about their itinerary. Maybe it was just that they had one, whereas I had no idea where I was going after tomorrow. I thought about just leaving the line and getting back on the road, blast some music, respond to notifications, something, anything, just don’t look at me like I’m not supposed to be here.
3) At a bar in Baltimore, before nightfall, first stop on this trip, the trip barely even a thing yet, the messages, the response online minimal, not that I cared if it did—I just needed to see some sort of response, proof that what I was doing was possible. I sipped a whiskey sour, something about the drink tasted odd, or maybe it was just that I was already coming down with the bronchitis didn’t know about yet. Michael and Michael chilling, chatting about writing, their works-in-progress, the conversation easy and natural, which is why I stopped in Baltimore: It was safe, familiar, I had lived here for a time, a placed where I had survived a deep depression. And yet, something about it, made itself known when the conversation turned to sports, my attention wavering as their voices rose with excitement and enthusiasm. I couldn’t follow—and no harm done, no foul, it was just, oh right, that’s it: it was the feeling of being ill-fitting. They might as well have been speaking a different language. But isn’t that always the way?
9) Received a text message from someone named Tim, which was encouraging, outright maybe what I needed to hear as I left Baltimore, but I saw it later, much later, long after Tim signed out, maybe unfriended? I’m sorry I didn’t reply, and this would be the first of many apologies based around missed connections. I was walking Pittsburgh with friends. Things were starting to look up. I found my second wind. I was not yet suffering from perpetual hangover. I could still taste the food I ate, feel the buzz of a good shot of whiskey. Tim messaged twice, once positive, the other passive aggressive, a simple “well, if you don’t feel like it I understand. You’re probably too busy to care about my messages.” I replied, “Thanks so much! Where do you hail from? I’m headed South, along the east coast. Probably stopping in Atlanta.” No reply. When I went back, one late night, in New Orleans, walking back from a bar, I noticed: My message remained unanswered yet had been marked read. Was it something I did, something I said? I don’t know you Tim, but maybe my message came off wrong?
22) The walking, always the walking, worse when with the wonderful people that opened their lives to me for the day, day and a half, before I returned to the road, the possibility great this would be all we had, the one time, never again to really communicate, maybe via a comment on Facebook, a DM on Twitter. Maybe they’ll post something on Instagram that’s funny, a flicker of an interaction, gone before we can even get a sense of where we were coming from; the stroll through a city for the first time, the awe followed by the ache of misunderstanding, the worry that if they weren’t there to show me around, I would certainly be that person we passed a few blocks away, lost, asking for directions, with no luck, ignored pleas by the various pedestrians tending to their own lives. On these walks, it starts out the same way: It’s fun, engaging, we talk and joke around. I do my best to be present, but soon the pressure to keep in the moment, coupled with the exhaustion and constant glow of my phone, notifications, notifications, more notifications, compromises my attention. I become secondary in the moment, in two places at once. I can tell that my hosts have already pulled back a certain amount of their attention. At its worst, they turn to their own phones. No—even worse than that—they carry conversations where I’m completely excluded from the details. No matter what, it all feels the same.
18) In the waiting room of an urgent care center in Atlanta, GA, perhaps too fixated on the fact the numbing and dull pain in my forehead, I people-watched to prevent from becoming too paranoid from self-diagnosis of my symptoms. Always ends with something far worse than it is—a common cold becomes, I don’t know, cancer. Everyone there swimming in the bittersweet delirium of fresh sickness, and the doctors, the entire staff they do their best. How many people pass through those sliding doors daily? How many will recover quickly versus how many will need more help, tests, another doctor, an MRI? The doctor did his best—amicable and almost too kind, but I could tell, I was yet another in the long, never-ending line of patients. How long does it take for a doctor to go numb, grasping finally their job isn’t to save but rather silence a patient’s suffering, giving them what you can so that maybe it won’t be so bad? I walked out into the rain with a prescription and the understanding that I’ll be back again, in a different city, a separate time, always, until this body finally gives in, doesn’t bounce back, and that’s aging, after all, a testament not to “getting old” but rather “getting on” with where we’re all going, the one destination we can be sure of.
7) The GPS betrays like anyone and anything else, and when it finally happened, it was appropriately at the worst possible time. Somewhere near Jacksonville, lost along a series of beautiful back roads, I was sure I took the right exit—but maybe not, I don’t know, I was following the GPS. The change in scenery delayed the inevitable stress and desperation—the irrational thoughts like “I’m never getting out of this” and “idiot you’ll probably end up in Alabama instead of Florida” and then “why Florida—you swore you wouldn’t go back”—but soon, the signal nowhere near being recovered, the direction nowhere near comprehendible, I pulled the car over. Not a single car in sight, the road merely an echo between grander destinations, I stared off into a field, watching a deer scamper off. I felt so small, the landscape flanking me from all sides. It was good to feel this way; honestly, I was surprised this hadn’t dawned on me yet. Odd that I hadn’t felt small, like I’m part of a bigger whole—what does this mean about the effects of social media? Pretty sure I already knew before getting into this car. Too busy driving, checking social media, responding to messages and making phone calls. Too busy living in my head. It’s a coping mechanism: Living in your head makes it easier to hide from the fact that there is no one in that car with you. There’s no one around if you crash. There’s no one to really talk to you, even if there is—a phone or text message away—because look, people, like technology, will fail you. The GPS down, Verizon fucking you over, phone signal dead, where is anybody when you need them?
8) Nightfall, more like late night. It was a hotel room, and it was the first in a few times where I broke one of my own rules. In the downpour earlier, there was no choice. I would end up in that cold hotel room, unable to sleep. When I’m unable to sleep, I write. When I can’t write, I don’t know what I do. I end up downloading Tinder, having downloaded and used it before, but more so in the same way as one does when people-watching, swiping with no intention of ever saying anything. The more you swipe, the more likely you’ll find a match; let’s say you do. If you don’t strike up a conversation, you end up right where you started: a cold hotel room, unable to sleep, staring out the window as another thunderstorm loomed just over the horizon.
39) How often are you able to really enjoy your surroundings—slow down, listen, and take it all in? I had made it to Vegas and spent the night getting lost in the Strip’s underground malls with Noah, joking often about the history of Vegas, and more so the simulacrum it had become (maybe always was). Out on the balcony of Noah’s apartment, unable to sleep, sitting in a folding chair, I listened not to my thoughts but to all that was around me. In the distance, I heard a police siren, somewhere closer the skittering of a lizard. Despite such disturbances, I was stricken by how quiet it all had become. Someone had turned off the soundtrack to the ever-present anxieties laying any given day. I should have enjoyed this calming moment but instead, the comparisons, the self-judging of the minor inadequacies bubbled back up. This moment should have been mine, a moment of near meditation, instead it slipped through my fingers, ruined.
14) The positive messages and comments work the same as the negative ones: They start out with their intended purposes but soon, almost as soon as the message settles in, it becomes yet another exhale, another feeling lost in translation. Surely it is felt—and appreciated—but so quickly the euphoria that comes from words of encouragement, the sting of a sentence written to explicably hurt you, wears off and you’re, once again, looking and responding to others, always others, but maybe not for long. Volume voids out the authenticity of a true connection, and yet, there I was, here I am (there you are?): another notification to replace the one that happened not thirteen seconds ago.
16) Houston, La Quinta, hotel room, punishing sunlight and heat outside, my body either feverish or simply overheated from driving over 40 miles in a car without air conditioning, a car equally on the verge of overheating, and so blink and there was a hotel room. Blink again and there was a solitary and silent cry. I didn’t know how to sit still, to do anything but check my phone, every time I looked at it registered pain, made me nervous, so I reached for the remote, almost forgetting how to watch television. South Park, an episode I had seen before, Stan “growing up”—complete with that overwrought ending scene with Stevie Nicks’ voice drowning out any emotion. I remembered this episode, though unsure why it registered such horrible thoughts. I guess it was back when everything around me was ending—friendships, school, hobbies, bands, relationships—and the thought of there being a future was like the open road that still waited for me, another 2000 miles or more to still drive: defined only by all that I had no idea how to define. It wasn’t a nervous breakdown because I had lost the nerve of facing the reason why it all became so very much, too much, to handle.
44) New Mexico is gorgeous at sundown. A small little scenic park, vacated at first, until I found a park bench and sat, halving my time between enjoying (or at least trying to enjoy) the sunset and checking notifications/responding to messages. Part of me needed to respond to prevent the information from settling in—the sunset that should be shared is instead my own, and it didn’t feel right to think of it as purely for me. Enter someone with their dog, a mix, unsure of which combination of breeds, running up to greet me. It could all be this simple. The owner approached; interacting with other people, I have learned, was never simple. The little chit-chat, mine mostly, spoiled the mood. The sun had set before I could chance a real take, actual enjoyment; petting the dog, I placated the owner, who asked about me, which I gave the minor and maybe fabricated truth. I didn’t talk about why I was there, where I was going, or even who I was in favor of chatting about some movie coming out soon, how there’ll be another work day tomorrow, and I have always wanted to get another dog, having been without any pets for years, actually since I lived with my ex in Florida. But that’s all erased with the depth of a much needed deep sleep, lost to the incoming pressures of yet another long day of driving.
11) Scrolling through social media, seeing the content already posted, recognizing that the trip is almost over, almost done, feeling empty as a result—how is this possible, and for some reason the engagement only makes it feel worse—and yet the taxing of the mind for the next tweet, the next post, further documentation of every possible moment worth the share. I can still see myself in a dozen situations, experiencing it not for the actual experience but for how I would translate it into a post or tweet. Sometimes a person wants nothing else than the safety blanket of their phone; other times, using the phone is a cry for help. Either way, it feels similarly, but the same could be said for being in the throes of a conversation where you cannot keep up, cannot fully connect, swimming upstream, the current too incompatible and imbalanced to fall in line.
25) Waiting for a podcast to start, watching Matt scroll through his purchased movies on Apple TV, which I should have enjoyed, but the fact that this had to become a podcast, how I would have to be a version of myself less than authentic, for virtue of the podcast’s theme and purpose, the end result I still haven’t listened to. You might never be alone in enjoying success, people appearing from all corners to congratulate, but when you bomb, when you fail, when you visibly missed the mark, you truly feel the distance between you and someone else. Would-be heightened senses, you refuse to acknowledge how vulnerable it feels. Even if you could hide, you still need to do all the hiding, and in those shadows, the only person you can trust to be there is yourself. How brutal is that?
15) Still sitting in the driver’s seat, same posture and same relative stress as before but now in a different time zone, the opposite coast, the same company, but instead of picking up, I was now dropping off. The car. A quick check of the condition of the vehicle, followed by my own documenting of the mileage, the way the car looked as I removed all of my belongings—tossing out a month’s worth of beef jerky and empty energy drinks, finding it all so convenient that in seeing again that one granola bar wrapper in the back seat, it reminded me of that one gas station in West Virginia where I was passed over in line by two separate customers, the cashier ignoring me for reasons I can assume but will never fully know. The flashes of each occurrence are quick to leave, just as I am quick to walk away from the car, calling an Uber that will send me into the depths of downtown Portland, and yet I don’t look back at the car. I don’t look back because I was unable to process my feelings. So strange to develop a connection to an object, to apply meaning and memory to things, especially when you know they are not long for your life, not yours to have and take with you. But then why does it feel like by leaving it behind, I was leaving behind part of myself?
20) Beware the Twitter DM inbox, your Facebook chat—not necessarily for its contents, but sure, why not? More so, the warning is saved for all that you might never see, all the ones I’ll never open, left unread, the notice that the interactions have slowed down, naturally because it’s almost over, understanding that when they speed back up, I’ll push away, always pushing away, and why is that? Why can’t I grasp the idea that these are people going out of their way to chat, they could easily not. And in some remote corner of the mind is a worry that one day that’ll happen. It’s so sad to place so much value on that validation.
57) Portland, morning, the last morning, day 30 of 30, Uber driver alarmingly friendly. We get to talking about social media—he had helped his brother launch his own clothing brand, and it was growing in popularity. The driver discussed how grassroots promotions really helped and how his brother had capitalized on Instagram. I reciprocated, discussing this trip, much to his curiosity and constant inquiries. At first I enjoyed our discussion, but soon, I felt sorry for him, aware that at two separate junctures, he turned away from the turn the app had suggested, causing us to travel through a much more circuitous route. No big deal, he meant well, yet how dare I feel sorry for him? It was not my right, nor my business to assume, much less apply such a dreaded feeling as pity to someone I didn’t know. I probably needed this drive more than he did. I needed to unload my excitement and frustration about the technology. Maybe he simply didn’t know the city well, bad with directions; maybe his own GPS was malfunctioning, as they often do. When he dropped me off, he repeated his name twice, shook my hand, and wished me well. I did the same, well, the last part. I wished him well.
29) Writing while on the road, be it the dispatches for Fanzine, lengthy email responses to those supporting the trip, or taking copious amounts of notes for the book to come later: I was forced to take a step back and reflect, see the demons defined even before I can make sense of what and where (and why) they might have risen, chosen to exist. When it’s a constant drive to move forward, the fixation on meeting those goals, the inert moments spent staring at a screen remind of all the hours, all the days, the months in figurative seclusion, all the sentences written that’ll never be read, and all the books published that’ll never reach any more than a handful. And yet it’s still in the act of solitude that I look to make a connection, to be something other than alone. There’s something so broken about it, but look, I’m still here. I’m writing in the darkness of a room, shortly after dusk.
19) Not the redeye or the airport itself, but really the drive to the airport. Kevin in the driver seat, Katie and I to be both dropped off—her headed to Sewanee, me headed back to NYC—we chatted like it wouldn’t be long, both of us back in Portland tomorrow, if not then maybe the day after. Yet none of us knew when we’d all be back in the same city again. I say this more for myself, being driven to PDX as the day ended, the long night ahead, I would arrive on the east coast just as another began, with the same worries I carried with me all month. In equal doses, so much had changed and yet maybe not much at all. I still had another essay to write, another dozen deadlines, a job search, a life to once again rebuild after having seen it fall apart in the month(s) leading up to the trip. I returned to New York City in pieces, no different than when I had moved there, a little over a year ago.
1) I can’t go on, and like the famous Beckett quote, I will go on. I mean, I already have. More a beginning than an ending, I could add in the writing of this essay another notch, another number to the counting. But instead I’ll crawl out of this quiet moment, and let it settle. If you don’t look out the window, you forget what is worth seeing. A person could get used to anything. I find it so ironic that the only way I can write about loneliness is when I’m right in the middle of it.
About the Author:
Michael J. Seidlinger is an Asian American author of a number of novels including My Pet Serial Killer, The Fun We’ve Had and The Strangest. He serves as the social media editor at Electric Literature and publisher-in-chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, an indie press specializing in innovative fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.