The woman in the silver Buick in the turn lane held a tight grip on the wheel. She looked straight ahead, seemed pensive. I’d been feeling that way too, lately, that fear thing. It had been messing with me. So I messed with the woman. I rolled forward a few feet, sending intense brainwaves like an auger to her temple—look over here, lady. Just look over here. By now, I was boring a hole through the side of her face, as Libby and Lou sat looking like the two old men in the balcony on the Muppet Show. She remained statue still; parchment-paper skin, tiny wrists, perfectly coiffed gray, chin-length bob, nary a sideways glance at the circus wagon next to her. She seemed stooped with burden, or maybe it was just complete preoccupation as she remained focused on the traffic light. What? Was she going to visit a sick friend? Was she worried about her husband, her daughter, her son? Herself? Is she unconscious? Surely my staring would force her to look sideways at the nutcase in the center lane with the livestock in the back.
She did. Her pained expression melted into pleased. She smiled so big at my dirty dogs in the backseat, I nodded obligingly and rolled down the window a bit more so Libby could stick her neck out. Such a minor thing to stick mine out to offer this stranger a little something to smile about.
Good Will Driving, that’s what I call it. The same scenario is played out day after day, intersection after intersection. I am like the Wiener mobile. Little kids point from their car seats, I can see them mouthing the word “doggies.” Their parents smile and roll down the windows to get a better look. The “I love my dog” bumper-sticker bunch loves my dogs. Even old duffers, probably on their way to the cafeteria or the doctor’s office, smile and poke the other old duffer with them, laughing at the sight of two huge mutts being chauffeured around. It lightens their load for a red light length of time. If somebody would pay me to do this, I swear I’d quit my job and just drive around the country with my dogs. Oh wait, I already did that. But it was only Libby back in 2011, Lou was just a pup back then, who has now blossomed into a canine comedian extraordinaire, Libby, his long suffering straight man.
I’d been suffering a bit. I guess from a dose of the blues. It runs in the family. My mom used to say she was having a case of “my summer billiousness.” I thought she meant she was depressed. Turns out it’s a more polite way to say you’re gassy. That wasn’t my particular malady, but what I was experiencing was toxic nonetheless. In spite of springtime popping out all over, I was feeling inward. I felt lonely, isolated and anxious —anxious about my consulting work, my writing work, my workout work, my age, my weight, death and taxes, you know, the usual.
That’s what solitude does sometimes. Your mind stands at the doorway to the grey chill of memory, a cinderblock room in a musty basement, empty, save for the narrow slits of light of days gone by, seductively drawing you in and not in a sexy way.
On this topic, I am a subject matter expert. I’ll concede that prisoners, may God have mercy on them, night watchmen and perhaps castaways on desert islands know a bit more about this than I do. But, I challenge you to name five people who’ve taken a 9,000 mile drive around the county alone. Well, okay. I had my dog.
I raved about it. I wrote chapters about the freedom and discovery which comes from solitude and I meant every single word. But sometimes it’s vicious. Sometimes being alone just makes you feel fucking lonely. People don’t like to talk about it because loneliness is like a disease.
But I know the cure. Always have. We merge. Full of purpose, we step out into the noise, the rhythm of humanity, the beat. We are a beat. Alone and together, we are the beat of one unfathomably huge bundle of human intentions, emotions and actions—both benevolent and sometimes not. We are the mere aggregate of lives that intersect for seconds, hours, decades, a lifetime.
Sometimes, just a plane ride. Los Angeles to Phoenix, Southwest Flight 381, March 29th, sunglasses and headphones on, writing in my journal, drink coupon at the ready. My body language was screaming “don’t talk to me” when the pretty Indian girl took the last available seat on the plane, next to me. I helped her find the seatbelt. She was polite, caught my drift that I wasn’t feeling chatty. No words were spoken until we reached cruising altitude when she commented “good idea” when I poured the tiny bag of peanuts into the equally tiny bag of pretzels. “Less chance of spillage,” I replied as the flight attendant handed me a vodka tonic.
“Sorry, if I broke your chain of thought,” she said.
“Doesn’t take much these days,” I laughed.
We talked for a bit over the peanut/pretzel combo. Sushmaa and her mother had just said goodbye at LAX. Her mom was going back home to India. Sushmaa was heading back to Arizona. It had been her mother’s first trip to America and the first time she’d seen her daughter in five years. Flush from a rare dose of mothering, Sushmaa was alone now, knowing it would be years before she would see her mother again. She could have been my own daughter— smart, ambitious and lovely. Conversation came easy. We shared a lot about our families, our dogs, dating, our day jobs and dream jobs. She works in IT and makes jewelry in her spare time. She’s really more an entrepreneur than IT consultant, she wants to launch an online jewelry business. We had enough in common to last through a Trans-Atlantic flight. By Phoenix, we were friends. I promised to send her a book, she offered a bracelet in return. When she got up, there was affection in her eyes.
“I was blessed to sit next to you,” she said.
For 367 air miles, I had helped her stave off the loneliness of missing her mom. I lost her in the terminal. I had really wanted to hug her, because she had given me more than I gave her: the chance to matter. Sushmaa with her gentle voice and dark eyes, had given me the opportunity to get off the plane a better human being than the wad of self-importance that boarded the flight in Los Angeles and had tried so hard not notice the passenger to the right.
There is something crystallizing about the moment you become fully aware that none of us, not a single one of us, is ever truly alone. We merge. It’s how we survive.