Games Played While Alone
I was talking with friends the other day about being an only child. Only children are these strange hybrids of normal children because their lives are dramatically different than of those who grew up having to share a bathroom with a sibling, share toys with another small person, maybe even share a bed.
The way they interact with other children, and adults once they grow up, is also markedly different. They may not follow the social norms that people with siblings are accustomed to. They tend to be obnoxiously loud or suspiciously quiet. If they’re the former, they’ve probably explained their life history to you because they’ve misidentified you as someone who had a fuck to give and you’ve kindly bestowed it upon them. If they’re the latter, it’s not because they’re shy; they’re watching you. Observing you. Making a mental catalogue of your nuances. You’re intriguing to them. If this creeps you out, then good. It probably should.
There’s a joke about vegans that goes like this: How do you spot a vegan at a party? You don’t. They’ll tell you.
Only children are the same way. Regardless of whether they’re outspoken or reserved, they will find a way to make sure you know that they grew up devoid of siblings. For some it’s a bit of a warning. A casual, “hey, if I seem weird as hell, here’s the reason.” For others, it’s like a merit badge or something, like they proved themselves to be so utterly amazing that their parents threw their hands up in glee and said, “Fuck it! We’re done! You’re all we need!”
I know these things because I am an only child, and it frightens me to associate myself with any of my generalizations because they’re embarrassing in how blatantly inherent they are. Unfortunately, these awkward quirks are something I find I am unable to avoid. I embrace them most of the time. Then I go home, buddy up with a bottle of wine, and lament that I can’t fight fate.
One question that I get asked a lot after I’ve stood on a table and unnecessarily announced to the world that I’m an only child is, “Wasn’t it lonely?” The simple answer to this is no. It was not. I spent most of my young life being alone, but I never felt lonely. Lonely is a feeling that I associate with losing something or someone. It’s an impenetrable void that will suck you in and turn your world black. Loneliness is soul-crushingly excruciating and heartbreakingly beautiful in its own extraordinary way. Lonely and alone are not the same to me.
Alone…alone is my comfort zone. I often tell the story about the time when I was young, 6 or 7 years old, and I accidentally locked myself in a closet for a couple hours. I tell this story because it amuses me. You see, I was playing hide and seek and nobody came to find me. Nobody came to find me because I was playing by myself. That’s what you do when you’re an only child—you play multi-player games by yourself out of necessity and, oftentimes, out of comfort. You get to be the hider or the seeker. I was the hider that day, and it was wonderful once I got over the initial panic of realizing I’d probably die in the closet.
People usually have questions after I tell this story. The most frequent one is, “where were your parents?” My dad was working in his office in the basement and my mom was in the other room watching Matlock. It’s not that they were being negligent, they just hadn’t been informed that their child would be gallivanting throughout the house playing hide and seek by herself.
The next question is typically, “how long were you in there?” I often times say 6 hours, because that’s what it felt like, but the truth is it was 5 episodes of Matlock long, so I guess that’s about 2.5 hours.
The question I never get, however, is, “what did you do in there?” I imagine that people assume I was banging on the door the whole time, but I really only gave it about two solid minutes before I settled down in the corner. What I did after that will forever be a mystery. I got lost in my mind. I was completely at peace. I liked being in that closet, alone, lacking company. Being alone never scared me then, and it certainly doesn’t scare me now.
I’m lucky to have amazing friends who understand me and who know how deeply I crave my personal time–my adult closet time, if you will. I don’t measure it in Matlock episodes now, I just calculate it based on the end result. Have I come out of my hibernation a better person? Have I resolved whatever conflict may have inspired me to play grown-up hide and seek? I really can’t leave my theoretical closet until I’ve accomplished what I locked myself in there to do.
I worry about how much it hurts the people I love when I want to play this game by myself. Maybe it doesn’t at all. Maybe it upsets them terribly, because they’re not used to having someone not invite them to play along. But that’s the difference between only children and the rest of the world—I never learned how to share. Sure, I can share physical items, but my aloneness is something I will always be selfish about. That and my cheese.
Being alone is something that’s weighed heavily on me for quite some time. I went on a business trip back in May and looked forward to it with sheer glee, because HO-LY SHIT, how alone was I going to be? I got there, went to the first day of my conference, and I went back to my room. I sat down in the arm chair and read the newspaper they’d slyly slipped under my door. I tried to read it a couple times, but I kept stopping to look around the room. Something was off, but I couldn’t place it. Was my luggage gone? Nope, there it was on the other bed looking like it’d been packed by a blind man with a serious case of the shakes which is a method of packing borne of sheer laziness on my part.
I returned to my room the next night and tried to read the paper again, but I couldn’t make it through a single sentence. I lowered my paper, looked around the room, and I finally figured it out. Nothing was amiss about the room, it was amiss with me. I wasn’t alone there in San Francisco. I was painfully lonely.
That night and the next were spent in agonizing reflection of my life and who I was meant to be. I flew back home feeling like I’d escaped something. The next night, I went to a party with all my friends, and I hugged each one I could get my hands on. The feral look of confusion and fear in their eyes is something I’ll never forget, but I didn’t care at the time. I was just happy to be out of that closet I’d locked myself in and out in the wild with people who’d never had to go there in the first place.
I lost that game of hide and seek in May because I chose to hide, yet I found myself despite my best efforts. But that’s the beauty of playing games with yourself—you can be the hider or the seeker. Maybe I was the seeker after all.
Oh, and Matlock won the trial, guys.