Alone Among Millions

It’s 3 in the afternoon, but you wouldn’t know it from in here, and a dream about the past just woke me up. I’m late. A small strip of light runs from under the door across the room from the hall, but there is no daylight since the single window is boarded up. I live in a run-down building, with shrieking radiators and creaking, broken stairs leading the way to the railroad apartment on the 5th floor that I share with 3 other people and a dog I hate. I’m here because the rent is cheap and I have no money. Ironically, I have no money because I’m here. I quit my job, sold everything, packed a couple of suitcases and took a flight across the country, alone. I just needed to, is the best explanation. And now here I am, sleeping on a foam mattress on the ground in a dark room in a filthy apartment in an unforgiving city.

I got to bed around dawn, I think, and forgot to set an alarm. It takes a few moments to realize just how late it is, and how late I am. When it sets in, my lethargy turns to panic, which quickly turns to apathy. I’m not just late; I’m too late. I try to figure out a way to salvage the situation, but I was supposed to be at the interview an hour ago, and it would take me an hour from now just to get there. I flick on the reading lamp on the floor next to me and try to find my phone, which is buried in the pile of sheets and clothes. I call Michael, the man my contact set me up with for the job, and apologize, explaining why I never showed up with a hopefully believable lie. He seems understanding, but I know I’ll never hear from him or anyone at his company again. Even though, the call alone was enough to wipe my conscious clean. It doesn’t seem to take much to do that these days.

This is just the latest in a series of interviews I’ve had that have gone poorly, to say the least. That includes the ones I show up to, which I’d say is about every third. Honestly, I’m not an irresponsible person. I used to be the one people counted on; the one who had it all together. The truth is I just don’t want a job here. I need money, so I apply, but I don’t want one. The thought of spending 9 hours, minus one hour for a lonely lunch break getting greasy shit at some mediocre street cart and wandering around Barnes and Noble alone, sitting in a gray cubicle in a gray building with a gray suit on every weekday makes me nauseated. I’m sure I could manage playing solitaire all day with some spreadsheets open in the background without being compelled to bring a gun to my mouth (I’m not that dramatic), but I don’t want to. Cramming into the train during rush-hour traffic, spilling coffee on myself every morning and pretending to read a book every evening to avoid eye contact with the rest of this city’s inhabitants doesn’t appeal to me either.

Whatever my subconscious motives were for accidentally sleeping in, this means I have the day free. Well, the rest of the day anyway. It’s winter again, almost exactly one year since I moved out here. The sun will be going down in about 2 hours, maybe less.

I climb up out of my bed, wrap a towel around my waist and head down the long, narrow hall to the bathroom. While it seems bright by comparison, the rest of the apartment is fairly dark too, with the sun low in the winter sky and light only coming from the one side of the unit that isn’t butted up against the condo building next door, which is the reason for my boarded-up window. The bathroom is, as it always is, filthy. There is almost never toilet paper since no one wants to be the one to buy it, which I can’t plead innocence for myself. We each know that the others have secret hiding spots throughout the bathroom for stashing their own private wad of paper. Most of us are nearly 30 years old, but the atmosphere, of the apartment and the city, seems to turn us into unruly children. This particular afternoon, I find out that my hiding spot is empty; I had forgotten to replenish it yesterday. So, I swallow just a little more of my quickly depleting pride and use the toilet before getting into the shower. This shower is quite possibly the worst in existence. It is more like a torture chamber than a bathing area. The temperature fluctuates at random from iced cold to scalding. A few showers after I first moved in, I figured out how to save myself from being burned. I noticed that there was a distinct screeching sound in the pipes that preceded the flow of scorching water by a couple of seconds. Using that warning system, I’m usually able to jump from the stream of water and grab a shampoo bottle to whack the nozzle to the side, thus avoiding injury and having room to wait out the lava flow. There seems to be no way around the freezing spurts though, which means my heart feels like it stops on average 3-4 times in every shower. I finish washing, get out, shave and dry off, wrapping the towel back around my waist to head back to my room.

I had pulled my interview tie from the mountain of clothes, both dirty and clean, in my closet the day before, with the best of intentions to be well-prepared for this morning. I decide to wear it anyway, for no other reason than the feeling that it might give me an air of purpose, or at the very least mystery. Of course, no one would notice, and I have nowhere to go anyway. I pull on a sweater, get on my coat and boots, and leave. Every time I leave that place now I dread coming back before I even shut the door. Even though I had the place to myself this afternoon with everyone else at work or school or girlfriends’ houses, the feeling was just as strong as ever.

I am starving. I’d been subsisting on ramen and spaghetti since my funds started running low, but had recently run out of even cheap noodles. One of my roommates is a barista at a coffee shop a few blocks from our building, and she’s allowed to give away day-old bagels and all the drip coffee she wanted, which she is gracious enough to do for me even though I wouldn’t say we get along. I wouldn’t say I get along with anyone. I walk in and get a seat at the bar. Luckily, it’s a busy afternoon here and she doesn’t have the time to engage me in conversation. Interacting with her or other patrons was the risk I took for food, and honestly I’d been letting myself lose weight that I couldn’t afford to shed because some days it just wasn’t a risk worth taking. I eat two stale bagels and down four cups of black coffee, thank her, and leave. The sun is disappearing below the city skyline and the wind was cold and bitter. I have the whole night to kill before I can start it all over again tomorrow.

I should probably explain that my current lifestyle cannot be attributed to drugs or alcohol, as it might seem with these late nights and squalid surroundings. While I spent ample time getting drunk and high when I first got here, making superficial friends and going from one bar to the next until dawn, waking up in strange beds in late mornings and early afternoons, I decided after a few months of that that it wasn’t healthy, not that I’m an expert on or advocate for things that are healthy. I quit. I quit drinking. I quit drugs. I even quit my friends. I’m still torn on whether this last one was for better or worse, but it’s what I did and that’s hard to go back on. A couple of them would still be there for me, if I let them, but these days I just keep to myself. I spend my nights alone, walking. That’s all I do. I walk. I walk for miles, listening and watching, thinking, stopping occasionally on a bench or a bridge to watch the city lights reflecting in the river. Just before dawn I witness as the city begins to stir. Bakeries start operating, produce deliveries are made, apartment windows light up slowly, one by one. I like this transitional period, when the yellow lights come on in the blue tint before sunrise, and singular voices can be heard from blocks away, hinting at a privacy that this city rarely allows. It’s a short window of time between total peacefulness and chaos, when millions of businessmen, homeless people, students, mothers and children, store clerks, and even losers like me join in the streets to go about their days. Horns honking, couples fighting, dogs barking, engines revving, cell phones being shouted into. Everyone with somewhere to go, as quickly and with as few interactions as possible. For these hours, I prefer to have retreated back into my dark little room, dreaming of being somewhere, or someone, else.

Tonight, I walk.

I fooled myself into believing that coming here would give me a clean start. What it really gave me was a place to wallow in and regret the past, to justify my self-pity, to allow myself to be continually damaged by a pain that I was foolish enough to claim I was leaving behind. There’s nothing more lonely than being surrounded by people, and no place more conducive to my plaintive self-absorption. I realize this rather suddenly, and it hits me hard. I’m simultaneously sickened by myself and filled with elation that I finally know how to really move on.

There is nothing worth going back to the apartment for. Any given Goodwill stocks a wardrobe heads above mine now, consisting of worn-out sweaters and tattered jeans. And in what had become my notoriously noncommittal fashion, I left all of my “valuables” -- a collection which has been whittled down to my birth certificate, my Social Security card, a picture of my pregnant mom from 31 years ago, and a ring my grandfather gave me on the day my grandmother died -- in a safe deposit box 2,742 miles from here before I came out. My rent was paid through the month, and I had long ago relinquished hopes of recovering my cleaning deposit, with the wine stains on the walls and the dog shit in the floorboards. I have nothing else. I keep notebooks, writing nightly in darkened parks or on random stoops, but “keep” is really the wrong word. I fill notebooks, but when I reach the bottom of the last page my habit has been to reread everything from beginning to end, and nearly immediately throw it out. I need nothing here.

Today, I go.