The Opposite of Lonely
by ARIANNA STERN
When I came back from my San Francisco spring break trip, I tried to imagine what it was that made me feel so elated the whole time I was there. The exact feeling that I had — one of exuberance, powerfulness, and confidence, almost a feeling of invincibility — I hadn’t felt since I was 18.
Zoey, my host on the trip, was my brother’s onetime girlfriend of eight years. From early on, I intuited that we were the same in some way. Both of us grew up in the same wealthy suburb, grateful for our education but alienated by the homogeneity, segregation, and isolation of our hometown. In high school, she and I ate noodles together, and I learned to say “sex worker,” and Zoey would say sage things like “It’s just like, part of growing up in the suburbs, being bored and assuming that everyone else is having more fun than you’re having.” We put a great deal of thought into D.I.Y. haircuts and the trajectory of Claire Danes’ acting career.
Explaining a friendship like ours to someone outside of it poses a challenge, because pop culture mostly tells stories about women and men. In Toni Morrison’s Sula Nel laments the end of her life’s most important friendship when she says “We was girls together,” and despite my dissimilarity to Morrison’s characters, I knew just what Nel meant. I mourned for her.
There’s something about a friendship in which the other person knows the intimate details of your life and the content of your dreams and still believes that you belong in the life that you imagine for yourself, in spite of everything. The two of us did a lot of imagining. Zoey saw the interior of my childhood home before my parents made much money. She knew that it was dirty, dark, and old. Other kids rarely came to visit, and so I spent a lot of time alone, hoping to leave but not being able. Instead of physically leaving, the two of us dreamed a lot: about the day when I would be a published writer and she would be a chemist living in sunny California. Those are the best kind of friendships, where each friend dreams on behalf of the other.
My brother and Zoey broke up when I had just turned 20 and it was wordlessly understood that I couldn’t talk to her for a while, out of loyalty, or out of sensitivity, or out of cowardice. She once promised my brother that she would call me, but she never did. “I was pretty sure your whole family hated me,” she told him. In October I sent Zoey a terrifying email asking her if she wanted to talk again, and we did. And then it just kept happening, each time less frightening than the last.
At first I attributed my joyfulness on the trip to the series of happy accidents that occurred while I was there. To be fair, there were many. Zoey and I ate free falafel pieces and creamy gelato, and drank coffee that got a little thick at the bottom, like caffeinated caramel (please create this, universe). I unexpectedly saw the Gerhard Richter painting from the cover of Daydream Nation at the MoMA and choked up at the first Kahlo piece I’ve ever seen in person. The night of their show, I met most of Neon Indian on a bench outside of a museum. I said hello and wished them good luck, and thought to myself, What are the odds that I would meet this specific group of tourists, as a tourist myself, in a city with over one million people? But San Francisco just seemed to work that way, producing a series of fortunate coincidences that cumulatively seemed a little magical. Strangers introduced themselves, the races were integrated, and even the panhandlers seemed more convincing when they said you were pretty.
It took me a while to realize that I was happy because I was living on borrowed optimism — Zoey’s — because she was still doing what she always did. She imagined that things would be good for me, she planned for it, and they were. Our adolescent sadness seemed like an ugly, abandoned thing, like an empty junk food wrapper left roadside. I thought of it only when I remembered why the two of us live this way, what my life was like when being an independently mobile 21-year-old writer — or what her life was like when being a PhD candidate in Berkeley — seemed like a distant, romantic fantasy. We dreamed a lot, for each other.
Arianna Stern is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She tumbls here.
"No Aloha" - The Breeders (mp3)
"Impossible Love" - Gigi (mp3)
"Local Joke" - Neon Indian (mp3)
"Wellington's Wednesdays" - The Weakerthans (mp3)