Courting Loneliness

It’s I Think We’re Alone Now Week at Autostraddle — a micro issue dedicated to being on your own, whether on purpose or by chance, and all the ways we’re out here making it work.


Last summer I was entangled on the couch with someone of whom I was enamored, and we were playing with each other’s hands, as we do, endless waterfalls of long fingers, the dance of fingertips pressing and releasing. I don’t remember what we had been talking about as we passed a joint back and forth, but then she caught my eye, lifted a gorgeous eyebrow and said, “You know, sometimes it’s lonelier in a relationship.” It was a hot night in Brooklyn, all the windows were open, and there we were, legs wrapped around each other, sweating on the couch, and I thought to myself, “Is this what loneliness feels like?”

I’d always thought of romantic attraction as containing the same magic as complimentary colors — the contrast, the balance, the pop — and that the glow between them created a certain space that couldn’t be filled. I’d been in a tumultuous relationship with the yellow to my purple for over a year, and there, on the couch, I felt the promise of something different: the blue to my purple, a slight overlap. Maybe my couchmate brought up loneliness as a gentle way of showing me my own, but I think she was also warning me, that despite the sweaty evenings we’d just discovered we wanted to share, she too, wouldn’t promise any better.

I don’t relish talking about love as a house, but I’m going to do it anyway. One of my past girlfriends used to talk about her heart like a Victorian home. I always pictured the one she lived in with a porch swing, an old clawfoot tub she adored, and a giant fireplace. It was an apt metaphor: there were porch-only friends, people allowed into the foyer or living room, and I, who wandered the kitchen and bedroom freely, but would never make it into the attic. Carmen Maria Machado added to the lesbianess of this motif with her memoir, In The Dreamhouse, which my complimentary yellow left for me as one of the greatest impending-break-up gifts I’ve ever received. What begins as a house full of hope and desire, swiftly turns into a place of haunting and menace. My yellow and I were always talking about what we were building together, and it was in the empty rooms of our overly-ambitious, half-finished mansion — velvet, rococo loveseats in some places, the walls still a maze of bare studs in others — that I learned the exact loneliness to which my blue was referring. It was no secret that I had spent many foggy evenings out on the widow’s walk, waiting to see a light in the distance. There was something comforting about someone else recognizing how that looked on me. To this day, I like to think that my blue and I are good at keeping loneliness company together, inviting it in to get to know it, entertaining it for a while. Sometimes it feels like an extension of my own home. “You would never put a wet spoon in my sugar bowl,” my blue observed with fondness one morning, as I stirred my coffee and went for a pinch of sugar with my fingers.

But what had I been doing in that half-built mansion? How did I not see that it was only a mansion because we were building so many different things at once? That’s what I consider now that I’ve come home. These days, in the absence of a woman who can regularly undo me, floor me, enrage me, send me over the moon (though let’s be honest, many still send me right up to it), I walk around the lake at night, eyes on the stars, and want for nothing. I sing loudly at my kitchen sink, letting my heart careen around swoony, sentimental, nostalgic songs, with no fear of what hidden desire or despair I might discover in myself. I return home to my apartment in the evening and marvel at the warmth inside, the elaborate world that exists just for me, the way my slippers are perched under the coffee table, just where my feet instinctively fall. “What loneliness?” I ask myself. “Where?” But it’s not gone, per se, it’s just a different shade.

I was on the phone with Audrey, my first girlfriend, who had recently sent me a package that included a padded silk eye mask to wear to bed. “So you don’t have to wear that ridiculous bandana over your face like a kidnapping victim,” she wrote me on an intricate piece of stationary. Do I even need to tell you how much I like a properly incisive read — the amount of love I feel in its bite? Over the phone she was lamenting that her boyfriend had recently left to spend three months snowboarding in the mountains, like he did every year.

“One of these days, he’s gonna come back to find I stopped caring to miss him anymore,” she said. “Do you know that feeling?”

“You mean,” I said. “Becau­­­se you don’t actually need him, you just create the need for him because you love him, and when he’s gone too long, the need disappears?” I asked. “Like you decided to live in a mansion together, and you brought some of the best pieces from your personal collection into the living room, except when the other person doesn’t show up, you can’t help wanting to bring them back to your own place, where they honestly match the walls much better?”

Audrey laughed. “Yes. Like that. Except I don’t have my own place anymore.”

“Well, you could always move,” I said. “You’ve always wanted to live in a big city.”

I knew what she was saying. It was like saving a seat on the bus for someone who routinely happened to never show up. It was like setting the table for someone who decided to eat an hour before coming over for dinner. “You can’t take it personally!’ so many of my friends had told me before, but I’ve never quite understood what’s left in a personal relationship if things aren’t meant to be taken personally. We didn’t have to save seats and set extra settings. It was, in fact, the act of doing so that created both a sense of belonging, and a specific kind of loneliness, a sense that something was missing.

I know — as a person who bothers to be disappointed with loneliness, who lingers in the absence of missing — that I have only myself to blame. “I could be even more annoying, so you’d want me to go away,” my complimentary yellow had offered before. She’d even given me a t-shirt that proclaimed in large bold print that I missed her, to wear when she was gone. It was pointedly hilarious because it was so true. Because neither of us knew how, exactly, to recreate, on purpose, those endless nights where we’d drive through downtown Los Angeles at 2 in the morning, lost in meaningful conversation, laughing at each other’s every word, wrapped in the delight of the particular way the world unfolded for the two of us.

What I can’t forget in our final romantic weekend together, was the dry, windy plateau that opened up inside of me after she’d fallen asleep in the middle of my read-aloud to her. As I listened to her deep breaths, the sharpness of the moon and stars shone through the skylight over our bed, so crisp, so bright, I could see my own shadow pressed onto the covers beside me. More clearly and acutely than ever, I felt the desolation of loving her. Of the negative space I created around me, trying to leave room for overwhelming joy. And at that moment, I knew I had gone about this wrong, because that night, it didn’t have to be devastating that the person best-suited to enjoy my own voice incanting Ocean Vuong’s words on his frustratingly distant white lover, laughing knowingly at our shared loneliness, all while bathed in silver moonlight, was me.

Back at home, I stare out of my bedroom window at the perfect palm fronds waving against the electric sky. Who gave us the idea that loneliness was unexpected, a sign of incompletion, something to be solved, a ghost to escape at 2 am in the heart of something transformative? It’s always here. It never leaves. It doesn’t have to haunt me so badly. It can, indeed, feel like elegant hands sweeping over mine, fingers braided together in a jacket pocket. It can, too, sound like me rereading my love letter to myself on my 34th birthday, in tears, as I fumble my way through making my favorite curry. My point, I suppose, is that there was never any less love because loneliness was there, never any less beauty. And if I had the chance to build that mansion again, I’d still aim for something stunning and grand, I’d just not make the mistake of thinking that I could fall in love with someone, without each of us falling in love with our lonelinesses too.

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Kamala Puligandla lives in LA and is the writer of various autobiographical fictions. She is the distinguished recipient of her parents' leftovers and hair compliments from strangers on the street. Her first novel is forthcoming from Not A Cult. Find her work at kamalapuligandla.com.

Kamala has written 50 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. kamala, wow, I really related to this. going into your apartment and just loving, appreciating, contemplating on those small details, realizing that there are shadows in you that you really do love so much-the sound of your voice reading, connecting with/immersing yourself in art. all of it so much is related to falling in love with your loneliness and it builds up to becoming a true individual in a relationship, as you painted out in your essay.
    I look around at my apartment so often, or catch my reflection in the mirror and think “wow. this is who I am, this is what I look like, this is what my place looks like, this what I create in my spare time. I almost can’t believe it. I love this so much.” and you’re right, this comes with having a relationship with your loneliness, like it is almost exactly the thing that makes you who you uniquely are.
    you just totally named something that I have thought and wondered about for a long time now. thank you haha

  2. Wow, thank you, this was beautiful. I just finished reading In The Dream House, and it hit me in so many places I didn’t expect it to, but the houses-as-hearts metaphor I’ve been turning over in my mind since, and I so loved reading your expansion on it.

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