I’d been in England for two years but alone in London for only a little over a month.
The single room was on the third floor of an old house. It had dark blue walls, high white ceilings, a sink, a desk and a creaky bookcase with paint as chipped as my nails.
It was 1980. I was 23 and had deliberately but unintentionally constructed an elaborate edifice of loneliness. It was a ruin, a folly, but I sought refuge there nonetheless.
Two years earlier, I’d thrown my lot in with a young man and expected him to change my life. A year later, I’d received a fellowship to Cambridge University — and while my life changed, I didn’t think it was for the better, and so I spent as much time in his London flat as I could.
But it became increasingly tense. I moved out while staying nearby, hoping we could get close again.
Moving out is rarely a wise maneuver, especially for the one who wants to stay.
Separating didn’t give us more breathing room. It made me suffocatingly lonely.
I kept the door to my room on the third floor of the old house open because I hoped to hear the signature British double-ring of his incoming call. There was a pay telephone on the ground floor next to the shared kitchen; private phones were rare.
I wasn’t meant to call him but, instead, was meant to wait. I’d once been fiercely independent, and that’s what delighted him initially. He wanted me to be that girl again.
The best I could do was mimic autonomy. If I lapsed and phoned him, I’d pay for my emotional incontinence with more than money. I hoarded 20-pence pieces anyway. I’d shake those coins against each other when I was tempted to dial his number the way animal trainers use metal pieces in a tin can to put pets off bad behavior. Feeling needy? Bad Gina.
The worst part was that I no longer cared whether I heard from anybody else, cloistered in my make-believe fortress.
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London friends drifted away. American friends stopped sending letters because I so rarely replied. The way you’d wipe a chessboard clear of pieces, I’d unwittingly wiped my address book clear of friends. If I couldn’t have this relationship, what good were any others? It was terrible to be isolated, but it was easier than making an effort to change.
More than anything else, I wanted not to be alone — yet all my actions guaranteed I’d be lonely. Like wearing a vest of explosives when you’re coming in for a hug, insatiable need is a form of sabotage.
Every nerve ending, every molecule of my self-worth, was connected to the receiver that didn’t ring and the words I didn’t hear.
Except for the most superficial interactions — small talk with my co-workers, chatting with the man at the sandwich shop whose daughter was fascinated by all things American, an exchange of brief pleasantries with the landlady — I was on my own.
The few conversations I forced myself to have primarily served to inoculate me against any idea that there was something wrong with me. “See? There are people who know my name.” “See? I am not invisible.” I was free-lancing for the BBC, thank you very much. I could look after myself.
Or so it appeared.
If you looked at my resume, you’d have been impressed; if you read my diary, you’d have been appalled.
One night, desperate, I asked my notebook, “Are you afraid of being alone because of what will happen to you or because of what you might do to yourself?”
There was something wrong; nobody else had to tell me. Writing it down made me see it. I’d told myself, as if writing to another person.
I picked up the receiver on that downstairs phone and made a collect call to my father in New York. I asked to come home. After my mother died, he’d moved to a small two-room apartment, but he said yes nevertheless.
I broke up with the young man by letter, and he was nothing but relieved. I was, in turn, relieved to discover my friends back home were still my friends.
The next fall, I returned to Cambridge and finished my degree. I moved into a large friendly house and kept my door open so I could hear the cheerful noise of my housemates.
I paid even more attention to words, whether they were from the friends I made, sought out or cultivated, or written on a page.
I no longer waited for someone else to call to me.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.