Olivia Laing, author of the fascinating book The Lonely City, talks about the loneliest birthday she ever had to face—and how she began to rethink her own isolation. These are her words and I thought it too good not to pass on.
The loneliest period I ever spent was in New York, a few years back. A relationship had just ended, and though it hadn’t lasted long, it crushed me more conclusively than any breakup I’d previously weathered.
In retrospect, I think the reason I found it so weirdly devastating was because I was still in the full flush of hope, radiant with the joy that I was finally being admitted to the charmed circle of coupledom. I was among the last of my friends to remain single and had begun to despair of ever getting married or having a family (though, in different moods, I regarded these things with deep ambivalence). To be presented with the possibility of permanent attachment, and then to have it swept away was almost unbearable. In the grim months that followed, I stopped sleeping or eating very much. My hair fell out and lay noticeably on the floor, adding to my disquiet.
The worst day of that bleak period was my 35th birthday. Even now, years later, remembering it still makes me flinch. I was living in an apartment on the Lower East Side, in a building originally made to house garment workers. It was spring, and the city was awash with cherry blossoms. In the evenings, the sky would turn the color of a peach and I’d sit in my window with a drink, watching the people walking up Grand Street hand in hand. To this day, that’s how loneliness feels to me: like watching couples laughing from behind a pane of glass.
I’m always uneasy about my birthday, but that year I was in a frenzy of anxiety. A friend and I decided we’d have a joint gathering, and I duly sent out emails and scoured online reviews to find the ideal bar for celebratory drinks. But as the day drew nearer, I sensed her enthusiasm cooling. Nothing had been confirmed and I felt too embarrassed to ask her what was happening, or to try and concoct an alternative plan. Then, on the eve of my birthday, she emailed, suggesting that we have a quiet dinner together, just the two of us. I was delighted. I’d spend the day alone, and in the evening we’d decide where to meet.
I woke to the sound of the fountain in the courtyard. I took myself for brunch, wandered around the West Village in the April sun, bought a book and a silky leopard-print bomber jacket, a talismanic garment: Be fierce, be wild, be self-sufficient! A game plan for the years to come. I walked home through a playground, where the boys were playing pick-up basketball beneath the plane trees. The loveliness of the city raised my spirits. I’d hit the hinge-point of my three score years and ten. Things could get better; anything could happen next.
Cool Mona Note: Part 2 tomorrow. It’s worth it.