“Did you ever walk through a room that’s packed with people, and feel so lonely you can hardly take the next step?”
Jodi Pilcoult, Second Glance
I’ve always wondered why, when you walk into a waiting room, they ask you to take a seat. Of course, we all know what they really mean. To sit down, to take your place among the dog eared magazine covers and Styrofoam cups and wait, for your turn of tragedy. But what if we have been getting it wrong all this time?
Sometimes I consider picking up the four legged piece of discomfort, slinging it over my back, and walking out the automatic doors onto the street. I wonder what they would say. I wonder if they would say anything at all.
We think we know what they mean. But sometimes I like to think we have had it wrong all this time. Sometimes I like to think this if their peace offering.
We are going to take everything from you, and in return you can take a seat
People go to great lengths to be alone. Some lock their doors and close the blinds. Others thread their toes and run under the cover of night, each pad creating a new path. Every single day people fold their delicates, label each item in permanent and travel to a land of sand and salt, coverings of cold, white sheets or streams and peeking rocks. The scenery is irrelevant, as long as they are the only guest.
People go to great lengths to be alone, when all they ever had to do is walk into the closest waiting room.
I remember a time when a waiting room was just that. A room. Three walls and one feature, a splash of Moccha among the Indian Sand. Coffee tables of mahogany, pine and glass. Vogue, Notebook, Readers Digest littering the surface in a fan of creased covers and half dressed crosswords. When receptionists were yet to be friends. Mum would line her lips and lashes, the clack of heels echoing from the bathroom.
I remember a time when we believed pressed pants and Estee Lauder could save my life.
Every now and then, I see Them. The Mum’s and Dad’s and Grandmothers and Family Friends. Holding hands, nervously smoothing creases which don’t exist. The pale, too eager smile under the hoodie. They see me curled up on the couch which could be my own, hear the banter between the front desk and my ugh boots. I see them smile, unsure. For now, this is just a room.
I want to scream at them. Run. Run and don’t look back. Don’t let this become home.
One time in music, the teacher asked us to write down what a particular piece sounded like. I scratched lonely into my book. He looked at me. ‘Lonely isn’t a sound’ he smiled, sure of himself, in a way only a man who can trust his body can be.
But he didn’t hear the symphony I heard one, two, three, four times a week. When I was little, and pressed my ear against the curve of a shell, I was certain I could hear the dance of the sea. It’s not unlike a waiting room. You are certain the sound is deafening, as real as the stiches on the carpet beneath your wilting feet. Until one day, you grow up and realise that all you could hear was the beating of your own heart.
An arpeggio of phones and pagers fill the space in shrieks of stops and starts. Appointments are changed, and cancelled. Results are hushed, as if by speaking them more quietly, it will hurt less. The girls in the high waisted skirts and name badges smile. They know the difference between the frequent flyers, and the ones who have had their scare. The ones who can talk for weeks about the horror of it all. Have a nice day, they smile. They never say that to me.
Instead I hear See you soon.
There is a melody of bubbling water coolers, the whoosh of automatic doors in an octave a little lower than the rest. The rise of the friends who run into one another. It’s my annual check up too! They gabble, laughing at the coincidence. The minor of the flicking, plastic pages. The major of the scraping seats.
Loneliness has always had a sound. But the loudest of its sounds is the smiles.
The receptionists who notice your new necklace. The strangers with the crinkled hands, creased eyes peeking from behind golden frames, smiling uncertainly at the blonde girl too young to be so comfortable. The man who delivers the weeks mail, knowing all but saying nothing. Mummy and Daddy, sitting side by side, deep in conversation about the garden, your brothers school report, the whereabouts of the spare kettle. Talking about anything except what you’re about to hear.
Always talking, always smiling.
And you can’t help but wonder why everyone is so fucking happy.
One day, the music teacher who told me loneliness wasn’t a sound stopped coming to school. There were whispers. His wife. She’s like, sick, they spoke, voices low. I wonder if he hears Loneliness now.
One day, I stopped being brave. One day I stopped smiling back. Tears streaming, I ran past the well meaning girls in the high waisted skirts. I ran past the water fountain, the shocked women with the crinkled hands. I ran through the whooshing doors. And I didn’t look back.
They found me, of course. At McDonald’s. Why did you run? They asked. This isn’t you.
I told them they were right. This isn’t me.
They didn’t understand.
People go to great lengths to be alone. They slam walls of splinters, change the locks, lay under the surface and try to see through the water in which they cannot breathe.They run and they hide, and hope to god that no one finds them. All they ever had to do was sit in a waiting room.
The thing about loneliness is you can’t choose it. It chooses you.
So again, I will sit on the vinyl coverings, split by broken sponges of stuffing. I will hold foam cups to my lips, chat to the pretty girls behind the desk about their upcoming holiday, smile to the ladies with hankies folded neatly in their purses, and banter with the mailman. I will feel the automatic doors slam behind me.
I will hear Them call my name. I will walk into Their room. I will take a seat, as They told me to. I will watch Them sit behind Their wall of oak. I will watch Them scan My notes. I will take a breath.
And I will wait for what comes next.
I took the above picture during my most recent visit to loneliness.