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Antidote for Loneliness
The lights went off and the heat lamps turned on in a smooth, easy rhythm of oranges and purples, much like the accompanying jazz music in the background. At that moment, everything in the delicately fastidious pasta restaurant seemed to have a purpose, gentle waves infusing everything with an underlying beat of social, dishes clanking and laughter striking out a tempo to the late 8:30 P.M. nightlife on Santana Row, the most fashionable place for fashionable people looking to just hang out and have fun. A nudge at my shoulder entreated me to direct my attention back towards my own table and companions, my own heaping dish of steaming tomato-basil spaghetti. I turned and smiled obligingly at my friend Jade, apologizing for absent-mindedness, and joined in listening to Arnav and Howard’s heated debate on the viability of using corn-made ethanol as vehicle fuel. It was early in the school year and in the middle of a major social event promotion held by the high school business club I was a part of. Everything had gone perfectly thus far, and everyone was having a good time. I was surrounded by friends on all sides and jazz music in my headâ€”laughter in the air.
I had never felt more alone.
I laughed half-heartedly at some silly antic Arnav or someone else made, feeling strangely hollowâ€”a feeling I sometimes get when I’m sleepy: my body is intact but my mind is floating a few inches above my head, making me feel like an outsider in the midst of people. Every man is an island, though I shook my head clear of the thought as soon as it came.
The day had just been a bad mix of everything, causing me to feel estranged during an event which would never have bothered me under different circumstances. Spending time with a group of people I knew but didn’t knew well, it had been all too easy to feel a world apart at the sight of beautiful young couples window-shopping together; friends laughing and daring each other to try on dresses or video games; mothers and their fathers watching with warm eyes how their children played in the decorative fountain.
Admittedly, I was tiredâ€”tired enough not to attempt to make conversation with the acquaintances around me. No one cared about or knew me well enough to notice my silence, or the way my eyes flickered inches away from eye contact and instead gazed at the space between the multi-colored blurs of color in the room. The music of life was so loud as to drown out the individual timbres, and it struck me suddenly that what I wished for now was someone who cared so much as to search out that solitary off-key that was me.
I felt my pocket, as though alerted to some silent bell that no one could hear. Finding my cell phone, I excused myself from the table to “answer the call,” returning later with apologies.
“Sorry guysâ€”it’s getting late and my dad wants me home,” I shrugged casually, as if it didn’t mean a thing. This set off a torrent of obligatory whines and complains, which I answered with a simple, “Hey, you know how parents get. Sorry to leave so early, but I’ll catch you all in school Monday, okay?” I left in a flurry of pack-grabbing and check-paying; no one seemed to notice that my phone had never rung.
The December night had always been one of my favorite times of the yearâ€”not so much for the holidays, but for the sheer power of that cold wintry wind, so tangible you can nearly see it with fierce yellow eyes and wide gaping smile. I like to walk straight into it, colliding, because it comforts me to know there are still things greater than man and power divine enough to rein us in when we need it. I did that now, spreading my arms wide like a fool, liberated in the middle of the Santana Row nightlife crowd, invisible to all. I walked into a small garden in the middle of the row (I thought it used to be an outdoor Italian restaurant, but I wasn’t sure), sitting myself down on the cold, pebbly bench, watching through the black iron gates that fenced in the complex the people who walked by.
Blowing hot air onto my hands, I grabbed my cell phone and called home, asking my parents to pick me up. They promised to be here, of courseâ€”they’d be here in half an hour. They didn’t ask me why I was asking them this, and I didn’t feel the need to tell them; my parents are there and they understand, one of the only two constants in my life.
I don’t know what possessed me to call the other one.
Dialing the number I knew as well as my own, I listened to the dial tone and waited for a sound. Maybe she wasn’t there. She probably wasn’t. No, of course she was. Who wasn’t home on a Friday night?
“Jean!” The smile came naturally to my face, warming stiff muscles.
“Hello to you too!”
Our conversation followed a similar thread for a few minutes, before we gave up and burst out laughing. It felt good, filling my lungs with powerful windâ€”soothing.
“No, really. What’s up? I thought you were at that DECA thing.”
“Yeah, I was…except I’m out now. Waiting for my parents to pick me up.”
“Oh. Where are you again?”
“In this little garden…thing. It’s adorable. Little bushes everywhere, and I’m completely fenced in by this huge iron gate. I’m sitting on a stone bench, one of those pebbly kinds.”
“I think this used to be a restaurant of sorts. Can’t tell now.”
“…right,” Jean’s voice was concerned, but she hid it well behind that sarcastic drawl. She pointedly ignored the fact that I hadn’t yet stated my reason for calling, and I mentally thanked her for the deliberate blindness.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” she sighed, but there was something strained about her voice, “My parents went out to party with their friends, so I’m alone at home.”
“Karen?” Her little sister.
“She’s gone, tooâ€”at some friend’s house.”
An undercurrent of loneliness weaved between us, and though neither of us could say a word, we saw and understood it all the same.
“It’s almost Christmasâ€”you can taste it here.”
“Santana Row? All you should taste is perfume and gasoline.”
“It’s cold enough so it doesn’t matter.”
“Fine. Freeze freak.”
I laughed, “…why don’t you come over tonight? After my parents pick me up, we can go over to your house and get you.”
There was indecision, but only for a minute.
I couldn’t help but grin, the pure joy surprising me such that I clung to that genuine emotion even as I waited for the solitude to be dispelled. Fading, not healing.
My parents could not come soon enough, and when they did I directed them to Jean’s house in between snatches of small talk. When we got there, Jean was waiting at the top of the stairs, long legs swinging to and fro in the middle of an almost-dark house, matching grin illuminating. My parents let us be as we stood and sat and talked, a different sort of catharsis. In the end, we agreed upon doing something wildâ€”never mind the 12:24 A.M. timeâ€”something amazing and spectacular that we would never forget.
We found our answer in Christmas.
Every school year, on the last day before Winter Break, Jean and I would always bring slips of paper typed with holiday greetings to class, making sure to arrive early so we could tape a strip of holiday cheer to each and every desk (and, if we had the budget, a piece of chocolate candy). Year after year no one seemed to mind it, and the little strips of paper were taken more and more for granted as “just another facet to Linda-n-Jean’s incredible weirdness.”
Linda-n-Jean. Most of the times, they called us just that. Best friends since sixth grade, we had been minor celebrities amongst our peers since middle school. Jean had always been a superstar in mathematics and cross-country running, while I became known for my oratory and history-memorizing abilities. We weren’t pretty, perky, or popular. We weren’t the ones who would get the best guys or win the lottery. We weren’t the ones that the cool people wanted to hang out with or the best choice for hanging out on a Saturday night.
We were the kind ones. We were the ones who picked out the loners, picked out the hurt ones, and made them feel like they were worth something. We were the ones who laughed and smiled when others thought there was nothing worth smiling for. We were the goofy ones, the idiotic ones, the all-knowing ones, the people others always turned to if they need help. We made people feel good in the same way that their sufferings made us feel bad, but beyond that, they didn’t always want to be our good friends. But somehow, we didn’t feel bad about it.
It was an unspoken rule that the two of us functioned best together, and like our favorite Linus’s security blanket we turned to each other as a constant, as something we could always rely on. We had never fought before, and we understood each other so well that we could detect the smallest of emotions or feelings from each other. From the tone of my voice Jean could tell when I was hiding something; from the way she laughed I could hear when Jean wanted comfort or unconditional support.
This particular night, we sensed exhilaration and a hidden sort of sadness in each other. On the outside, however, we just smiled at the same time and shouted, “CHRISTMAS CHEER!”
We were Santa’s elves for the next half hour, diligently typing out greetings (“Happy Holidays from your Friendly Neighborhood Elves~! ïŠ), cutting them out, and finding enough tape to last us for a while. Next, we scavenged the house for treatsâ€”coconut goodies wrapped in gold foil, traditional red New Year’s candies, and even the Peanut Butter cups we loved to hate. It was my idea to dress the part, causing Jean to ravage her closets for fleecy pastel caps and scarves. I braided our hair in identical pigtails as she found the mittens to cover our un-elvenly fingers. Finally, we picked out a straw basket and covered its bottom with supplies: it was time to start.
Who knew what time it was when we became idiots together, madly running, posting, and sticking the notes onto our neighbors’ doorsteps, breaking the silence every so often with giggling and speaking and an endless torrent-stream of joyâ€”“Oh, wait, stick a candy on there, they have kids!” or “There’s a car! Hide!” â€”scribbling with fading ink personalized well-wishes to the families we knew a little better, imitating shadows when we had to creep through a few gates to get to the door, wiping the doors with handkerchiefs whenever one was too dusty to allow the tape to stick. Sometimes we were caught by the night-shift workers returning near the crack of dawn, and to them we shouted “HAPPY HOLIDAYS!” in oral accompaniment to the wondering looks on their faces; more often than not, they’d smile back. More special still was the beautiful speechlessness of the streets we traveled down, the street lamps flickering on with our approachâ€”a fitting greeting to the two-person procession of invincible beings. Some of the houses had already hung up their Christmas lights, and we’d take a moment or two to dance in the myriad of glows coalescing on our faces in the hues of that December Holiday blush.
We had the world to ourselves, and all the time to spend it with. We were magical and mystical, and everything had flipped on an axis, the ordinary turned extraordinary, and yet our happiness was shadowed by the fact that it couldn’t last.
Dawn came and the bottom of our basket was empty. We had gone through 120 houses in that one night; exhausted, the two little elves stole themselves home but still refused to sleep, preferring to stay up the last hour until 7:00 A.M. watching through windows the expressions of our neighbors when they got their surprises. Curled up on the couches, I wondered silently if this was tragedy or bliss…everything was so like a page out of some random, perfect short story in which the characters never stop hurting, and yet…
For the longest time we just lay there, half-crying and half-smiling but never really speaking at all. It was over, but we didn’t want it to be over, and though we knew more beautiful times were still yet to come we just didn’t want to let go of this one. Not yet. Not now. Maybe later, after a night’s rest, and in the morning, everything would be gone. Just like that.
“…you know,” I forced myself to say, tiredly with a smile, “I felt…so bad, back there. In Santana Row.”
Jean took a deep breath.
“…mm-hm. I myself wasn’t…”
She trailed off, unsure if the moment was fragile enough to break. I closed my eyes and tried to picture us many years from now, after college and after youth and after the best of life perhaps had passed us by. I’d heard of friends who’d been close in high school but just drifted apart after that, their interests changed and point of views wrenched and warped away from each other’s, until they longer knew each other at all.
Would Jean and I end up like that?
The future was long and far ahead of us, but whatever it will bring…carpe diem. I won’t think about it, and let it bring me down.
Thinking too far ahead can lead you to miss the beauty of the present.
Because no matter where our lives lead, we will always have this moment.