There’s this old John Mulaney bit I think about a lot. “Sometimes I’ll be talking to someone,” Mulaney begins. “And I’ll be like, ‘Yeah I’ve been really lonely lately.’ And they’ll be like, ‘Well we should hang out.’ And I’m like, ‘No, that’s not what I meant at all.’”
If the cure to loneliness was as simple as being around other people, few of us would be lonely. But sometimes being around people is when we feel the loneliest. What we want is a connection most can’t provide. What we want is someone with whom we can share our burdens and our joys, whose joys and burdens we can share. What we want is something that requires trust and time and the ease of resources.
Tommi Parrish’s stunning new graphic novel Men I Trust is about two lonely women. It appears to be the story of their connection, but as it unravels it becomes darker, deeper, and, ultimately, in its own way, more hopeful.
The book follows Eliza, a working class single mom in her early thirties. Her kid’s dad is around, but more in the sense that he provides further headaches rather than any real support. When Eliza isn’t taking care of her kid, she’s working at a deli. When she’s not working at the deli, she’s going to AA meetings. When she’s not going to AA meetings, she’s reading her poetry in pursuit of a different life.
At one of these readings she meets Sasha, a fan. Sasha is an upper middle class 20-something who just moved back in with her parents after a mental health crisis. She’s mostly unemployed except for an occasional sex work client who acts sort of as her sugar daddy — when he’s not starring in a renovation show that seemingly targets low-income housing. Sasha is socially awkward and unable to hide her admiration for Eliza or pick up on Eliza’s feelings — or lack of feelings — toward her.
This is a story of people eager to connect with people disinterested or without the time to share that eagerness. Children, parents, crushes, lovers, clients, admirers, friends. They move through their sad lives never having enough love, never having enough time, never having enough money.
Parrish wisely contextualizes their characters with the world around them. As one side character jokes, “Just trying to survive under capitalism haha.” Those in need of money face greater challenges than those with it, but everyone is shown to struggle with a world structured away from the things that matter most.
Without providing specific spoilers, I do think Parrish’s greatest stroke of genius is never shying away from how loneliness can corrupt. Sasha begins the story with a total lack of boundaries, but a reader empathetic to her isolation, her struggles, wants to give her a pass. Eliza wants to also. Eliza keeps chastising the walls she puts up with Sasha, claiming that she’s incapable of making friends. But sometimes our walls are justified. And as Eliza’s walls start to lessen, the reality of a person like Sasha shows itself.
This doesn’t mean Sasha is a bad person. It certainly doesn’t mean people who are socially awkward or struggling with mental illness don’t deserve kindness. But Sasha’s behavior isn’t driven by her social skills or her mental illness — it’s driven by her entitlement.
These are sticky conversations we should have more in the queer community. For people in Eliza’s position and people in Sasha’s. When Sasha learns to have boundaries, her connections will be more reciprocal and stronger. When Eliza learns that connections require effort, she won’t default to a false connection just because someone is pushy.
The isolation of the story is enhanced by the beautiful hand-painted art. Parrish’s human beings have small heads and large bodies, faces that reveal little and then so much. The distance their style creates reveals itself to be an invitation. When characters feel distant, sharing their distance is the best way to get close.
The unique art is fitting for its unique story. Parrish has created a book that feels singular in narrative and form — heartbreaking, challenging, human. Not every relationship is meant to last. But each one can teach us how to be better for the next person we encounter — better for them, better for ourselves. We’re all just trying to survive under capitalism. Ha. Ha.