I’m going to begin by saying something honest. That doesn’t mean I’m going to lie the rest of the time, because I’ll tell the truth, but I think even basic honesty has become something that can shock us.
We all know people who boast of being “brutally honest.” I’m someone who believes that brutality is never a good thing. The brutality buffs aren’t focused on clarity and candor so much as they are hitting someone else before they can get hit, which is what they are scared of, even though blows are often not forthcoming. I’m talking about the honesty when you admit that things in your life are not as you want them to be, and those things are what many would need to pretend are hunky dory, going to whatever necessary measures to maintain the illusion.
So I’ll start by saying that I do not know if anyone has been more alone than I am right now in my life. I talk to nobody, nobody phones, texts, I am not invited anywhere on Thanksgiving, people don’t email me. There’s an irony in this, as part of my job is to go on the radio often and sound energetic and ebullient, funny, full of good fellowship.
I’ll divulge further. I have not had a romantic relationship in five years and counting, when I was engaged to and subsequently ghosted by a classical violinist, though I stare into my phone at the vortex of sameness that is the reality of dating sites where seemingly everyone believes their personality was formed on account of how close the earth to the sun when they were born. Many of whom such people hate cops and want them to die. Nearly all of whom communicate exclusively in emojis and acronyms, as if a lucid, coherent sentence would do to them what a tossed bucket of water did to the witch in The Wizard of Oz. Actual words are reserved for the formulation of clichés about how you should not take life “too serious”—nor adverbs—and this is a drama free zone and you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff and everything happens for a reason, and so forth.
I run many miles a week, climb tens of thousands of stairs a week inside of an obelisk commemorating this country’s greatest pyrrhic battle—which seems ironic—over in Charleston at Bunker Hill, and after having walked more than 3000 miles a year for quite a few years, following the shotgun-style end to my marriage, doing nothing but thinking, composing in my head, coming to better know myself, the world, people, the shifty locus of truth, I had evolved more than I would have previously thought possible, and ended up, too, in better shape mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, than ever before.
And yet, there I was, on my own, in a sexless life, which is not easy for someone with what I will call an artful, ravening libido, becoming better at what I do all the time, and publishing constantly. Simultaneously, I became more despised in an industry completely ruled by cliques and a spirit-breaking brand of discrimination stemming from the decree that the self-made person who is not one of the sanctioned system people must not get ahead. They must be buried. Or, at the very least, shunned. Publish that fiction in Harper’s? Do that op-ed for The New York Times? Talk on NPR? If you are not one of them, they are going to make you pay and stop your progress. Or try to, anyway.
Then there was the drinking, which we are always told to handle in moderation. A lot of drinking problems in this country. A lot of hidden drinking problems. So, after years of consuming massive amounts of alcohol—at least twenty units a day—and ending up in the hospital several times with heart issues, I gave up drinking entirely in the space of a single night, having resolved that I would do so before the clock on a Saturday evening became the 12:00 of the earliest point of a new week.
I am sufficiently alone and broken down that after I have worked through another whole weekend, talking to no one, and done my workouts, so I can handle this aloneness, pain, and stress and keep going—in hopes that I will be alive for a better time of my life later—I will lie in bed, bite into a towel, scream, and cry. I’ll often split my larynx, blood will fill my throat, I’ll write some more, spit the blood into a Boston Ballet coffee mug, which I got when I went to the ballet, which I do often, of course, alone.
That’s how alone I am.
The people who have been in my life are aware of this—friends, family. I write about it on a journal in plain view of the public on my website. I’m a letter writer, too. A communicator. The people I have known enjoy comparative lives of ease. I think they feel guilty that someone who does what he does—me, in this case—at a level they do not do what they do—if they even do anything—who also outworks them by an immeasurable amount, who does good for the world at large—or certainly tries to, and gives the entirety of their heart and soul for that purpose—keeps going through the years, when they’d not last a week in that person’s situation. A weekend. I know that’s part of it. Some of them care, and they can’t face seeing me like I am. Which is a form of victim-blaming, but that’s how people tend to be. If you’re not in their kind of boat, if your dinghy is a solitary craft—your particular pinnace of suffering, that is—they’re going to paddle away. The problems they share—slighter problems, often—will account for their regattas, a clustering of sails representing people whose experiences have more in common.
We speak of a contact high, but there is also something called contact pain; people will run from the possibility of it. They should find a way for that not to be the case, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in having kid #3, or building someone a new deck for your contracting gig, or—and this is the absolute worst—telling yourself that because that other person is strong, and stronger than you could ever be—why, look at how they keep going and how much they create!—they’ll be okay, you don’t have to do anything. They’ll keep growing and eventually it will be peachy.
When I used to go to the hospital with my heart rate over 200, my pulse all but ripping apart the skin around my wrist, after my marriage, when the years of complete aloneness began, the epoch of blood-spattered ballet mugs, I’d take a book with me. It was my regular emergency room book, written by a guy named William Sloane, called To Walk the Night, published in 1937.
People don’t really know the book. It’s sort of sci-fi, sort of horror, and is about two friends, Jerry and Bark. They grew up as brothers, because Bark’s mom was a socialite, not especially cut out for motherhood, and Jerry’s dad adopted him. Bark tells the story (it’s marvelous first-person writing), which begins with the pair—they’re in their mid to late twenties—returning to their alma mater for the big homecoming football game. Following the game and quite a few nips of whiskey, they decide to visit Jerry’s old science mentor in the observatory, turning up just in time to see the guy sitting in his chair and burning to death from a laser-like form of fire that seems to have no source. The professor was a frowzy fellow who lived for his work, so it comes as a great shock to learn that not only did he recently take a wife, she’s described as the most beautiful woman in the world.
In short, surprising order, Jerry comes to know her a bit and is going to marry her, while Bark puts together what pieces he can of her back story, which are not strictly human. She’s so evolved as to be removed from the rabble and from geniuses and everyone in between. Someone remarks to Bark that she must be lonely, and he confesses, pretty deep into the book—so we know these people well by now—that he just assumed she was the kind of person who wouldn’t need friends. That she’d be okay on her own. Because of her gifts, strength, will. It’s as if because of the outsized quality of those traits, he denied her the benefit of deserving, of needing, what every single human who has ever walked this planet—or the night—deserves: not complete aloneness.
Which does not mean the succor of your own singular company, if you are, indeed, singular; it means other people, kindness for real reasons, touch, not kindness for clicks/likes. Jerry and his new wife—Selena—are ultimately going to travel to New Mexico and live in an artist’s abode cottage on a mesa, bequeathed to the family. He works on a mathematical problem that his mentor had been trying to solve at the time of his unsolved murder, and we understand that the forthcoming solution will explain much about how we come to be. How we move through the ages, the planes, without even knowing it. His marriage weakens as he begins to realize just who his wife is, so he summons Bark for a visit, and Bark, with Selena also in the room, is going to watch when his friend, ostensibly without wishing to, as if guided by something else, reaches into a desk drawer, pulls out a gun, and shoots himself in the head, right in the middle of writing a note which contained some form of the vital answer.
Bark rides the rails east, to meet with Jerry’s father, Doctor Lister, at his Long Island home. They sit on the porch, drinking sherry, the sound of the waves lapping just beyond the backyard, as Bark tells his story, and they look for different kinds of answers. Dr. Lister wants, naturally, to be able to understand why his son, so full of life, talent, killed himself. And he says a line to Bark that goes straight through me every single time I read it, every single time I think about it—which is every day—and that line is, “The one unforgivable fault is weakness.” I suppose it says something that this was my hospital book.
By weakness, what is not meant is, say, crying. Sharing what you are going through. Admitting you need help. Needing help. Breaking down. What is meant by weakness is not doing the right thing because you have snipped corners. Because you have lied to yourself. Lied to others. It’s standing down when a friend is in need, because you’ve told yourself it will probably be fine, and it’s easier to think that than think the converse. No matter how obvious the converse, or at least the possibility of the converse, might be. The weakness is in not expressing our emotions because that would be to risk getting hurt; the weakness is in forced machismo, the weakness is in bragging about how Woke one is but being nothing short of a cur in the unseen moments of life that really determine, and delineate, the kind of person we are. The weakness is in saying you believe in love and live and let live, but routinely assembling internet mobs to destroy lives, careers, or someone’s peace of mind, their periphery of personal space. And, of course, weakness is fearing, even hating, even wishing dead, the person who knows these things and says them, because if you know them, and you have courage, you have decency, you value connection, you don’t seek to stopper the conscience within, you say these things. Because how could you not?
Are you doomed?
Are you left to scream into towels?
And if you continue to evolve—because what else are you going to do?—are you doomed all the more, if that is even possible? Will you be a Selena, entirely alone, in the real ways of togetherness?
I have a friend I’m going to call Horton. He’s one of those people who always gets referred to by his last name, as if using his first name would be jarringly atonal. Horton and I first became friends when I was a sophomore in college, and he was a young professor. He was twenty-six. He had a kid, with another on the way. We had much in common. We both spent a lot of time on Cape Cod, we each had played hockey, we both valued literature a great deal. My college professors would throw Ds and Fs at me routinely as an undergrad, and Horton would say, “Look, you write for the world, you are not someone who writes for these pedants, what you’ll do is reach people, connect with them, don’t get bogged down in this shit.”
I didn’t. I knew what I was trying to do. I knew, at least to a degree, what I had in me to do. I knew I wasn’t close to that point yet. I had so much I needed to develop, harness, untap. Still, the words were helpful, the support.
Horton is a guy who likes Thoreau, Melville, a Catholic guy, who emphasizes right and wrong in how he talks. He’s an advice-giver. I think a lot of students still come to him for advice. We’ve been friends—or that’s the term either of us would use, maybe because it’s just easier—now for more than two decades. I’ll call him my friend, because I care about him, and I think, in some way—maybe an arcane way—he cares about me.
Horton’s kids are out of the house now, they are adults with jobs in the real world, but despite knowing everything in my life, having received letters from me over many years, and despite my habit of filling up his voicemail of what is going down, on my lonely walks; despite knowing how totally alone I am, poor, with no one to talk to, living in a filthy apartment strewn with what had been in a house, the books, films, records that I cannot throw away, which do not fit here; there is no way—there is just no earthly way—that Horton would ever pick up a phone and check in on me. Talk to me.
Now, I can beg him to do this, but he won’t. That’s the kind of man he is. But, he will, on the occasions when we do talk, because I’ve happened to catch him at his office, lecture me on how I am lacking as a person, never mind that, at this juncture, frankly, there’s not a lot I do wrong, living a life of ceaseless contemplation. That’s not the point. I’ll work and bust my ass, and he’ll shame me because I would not be content being a janitor, going home to write at night, my sustenance being, I don’t know, pages of blank verse, the inner life, and a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk. I want what I deserve, what my work deserves—and, frankly, I want the world to get what it deserves and needs with my work—in terms of audience, reach, financial compensation. And Horton will shame me for chasing fame and fortune, as he terms it, despite the fact that he likes money, he has two homes, etc. And he doesn’t see anything wrong with this, or, if he does, he can’t deal with it, address it, fix it, act otherwise.
When my wife left me, there was no word of warning. There was never a conversation where she said, “I am not terribly keen on this, we should talk about it.” We had just acquired a house. Days before she left, she was filming herself doing various, let us say, erotic acts, you know, the kind of playful stuff that husbands and wives do, or do for each other. As it turns out—and as it would take years to learn—she was having an affair. She took everything from me. At the time, I considered that the blow of my life, the thing that, more than anything, I’d have to overcome, but it turned out to be nothing compared to the evils of a bigoted industry ruled by galling classism, but it was awful, I never got over it, and I am still feeling those blows a decade later.
For a month, until she forced me off the deed of the house—she had multiple lawyers—I lived in that house alone, a dream house in what is my dream town, a place called Rockport, thirty miles north of Boston, a sleepy port-cum-hamlet nestled against a nape of harbor, that quiet, settled space where land and water conjoin, before ocean roars into the full-throated shout of the open seas.
I am haunted by the memories of those days. I’d awake in the house I knew I’d be leaving, having had no contact with my wife. I tried to make the best of it. I tried to work hard, tried to begin the process of returning, finding a way to come back here again, to make that process take as little time as possible, even as I reeled, all but raped by confusion, my eardrums exploding with that most disconsolate, painful note in the history of humans: the single syllable of Why. Which was a lot to do, creating in that situation. It was also all I could do, because I could not function, and brushing my teeth felt like a minor miracle. Moses had his parting of the Red Sea, I had my daubing of brush to incisors.
After I wrote, cried, threw up, I’d walk. There are paths weaving in and out of the headlands, sloped trails that bifurcate pastures with goats and horses alongside, the chirr of crickets counterpointing the foamy, leeward break of surf, my favorite duet in all of nature, meadow and cove. The sounds and the scenes would sear me because I loved them that much, and yet, here I was, here was the situation. And I would call Horton. Or, rather, I would call Horton’s voicemail at his office.
He’s never in his office, it’s just a given, and for whatever reason, it seemed like I left these messages, at the time, on weekends. Maybe I had even greater need to leave them on weekends, to talk aloud, to talk to someone—not that this was really talking—and parse my pain, fight for comprehension, answers, the seeking of that palliation that comes with someone else knowing what we are going through. I was upset. Somewhere in there was anger, but it was in the back portion of the pack behind mind-fuck horror, agony, forms of pain so intense that you could scarcely believe they were not triggering bouts of thrombosis.
I am sure it told in my voice. Wasn’t a nice time. Wasn’t a nice time in a really beautiful place. I’m not sure if that makes it harder. Then Horton and I finally talked on one of those walks. He hadn’t phoned or anything like that after my wife left. He just happened to be in the office one day and picked up. We talked, and he admonished me for sounding so upset. Ranting, as it were.
People rarely use the word “ranting” correctly. They use it to signify when someone has said something with passion, but the true meaning of a rant is to say something without control. You can’t help what comes out of your mouth. From which you are all but frothing. That’s a rant. My life had been completely disassembled by a person who told me to trust her implicitly, and I understood why Dante considered betrayal the worst thing one person might do to another. Not something you want to understand as I felt I had come to understand it. But I got it.
I needed this guy, because I didn’t have anyone, in essence. Or not enough people. We all have our different levels in our different areas, and we all have our different needs relative to those levels. You may, for instance, be quite “chill,” and require someone also quite chill. I require intelligence. Legit probity. I cannot exist without either, and I cannot exist in any form of a relationship where they are not present.