Published in Overland Issue 234 Autumn 2019 Loneliness State your intentions Fiona Wright When Tinder was invented, I was working at a small design company, run by a friend. I was working on websites, and usability, and talking big to clients about hero images and easy interfaces, and so I pretended I was downloading the app for research purposes. Tinder was different then, when it was still new, still determining exactly what it was and what it might yet be. It was sweeter, maybe, less prone to abrupt endings and ghostings; I think of it as being like those very early films that still look and sound like stage shows, before directors and camera operators figured out what their new medium could do – in those early days, it still resembled actual, amiable, human dating, before it fully came into its own. (Sometimes I think this is why I still stick around.) The story I tell now is that I work from home and don’t like parties, so what else am I supposed to do? The story I tell now is that I am cleverer and wittier in writing than in person, which is no small consideration either. I still feel like I have to make excuses. Talking to other women, we all seem to cycle through this: switch it on, swipe, start a bunch of awkward conversations, go on a bunch of terrible dates, get frustrated and tired, delete the bloody thing, before downloading it again a few weeks, maybe a few months, later. In a moment of weakness, we say, but it’s not that, or not exactly. Moments of hope, sometimes, or despair; moments of loneliness, or longing, or determination, or playfulness, or even just plain boredom. But weakness is how we understand it, how we see it, because we want to be fine on our own. We are fine on our own. We want, but we don’t want to be seen as wanting. I never know what to do when I see the profile of someone I know. I always feel embarrassed. I always feel exposed. I think I must look desperate. I don’t want this to be a railing against singledom. I don’t want it to be an affirmation, either. I don’t hate being alone, and most of the time I don’t even think about it. It’s just something that is. Something that almost always has been. I don’t really know anything different. There is a particular line that I hate, that I see often: So, what are you looking for here? Or What brings you to Tinderland? Or How have you found it so far? I hate it, because what it’s really saying is state your intentions and I am still not sure exactly what mine are. I have spent almost all of my adult life on my own. I didn’t have a relationship until I was thirty, and have only had one other since then, when I was thirty-two. I always feel like I came late to the game, because I was so terribly sick, so terribly scared, during my twenties. I love being alone, and I love the independence and unanswerability of my life. I love my work. I easily feel suffocated; I need a lot of space, and even more silence, in order to feel like I can think and breathe. I like being alone, but I still get lonely, as much as I hate to admit it. Sometimes it feels like another person could be a buffer between me and the world. Sometimes I think the way my illness used to be, but that’s not it, not exactly. We are sitting in a bar, at a high table, beneath an ironically kitsch painting of a bare-chested woman. Two Aperol spritzes, in glasses shaped like fish tanks. Her: Do you want to get some food? Me: I can’t eat anything on this menu. But don’t let me stop you. Her: Is it gluten? Me: No, I’ve got a stomach condition. It’s complicated. There are a lot of foods that make me sick, so I have to be careful. Her: I know what you mean – I can’t eat egg yolks. Me: Right. Her: It’s really hard. They are in a lot of things you wouldn’t imagine. Her: Like mayonnaise. Her: And lemon curd. Her: It’s really hard. I hate it. You have a cheeky smile. I like your red hair. You have a cute smile. I like your red hair. You look very happy. How is your weekend? I like your red hair. You look like fun. You look like Jessica Chastain (I don’t). How was your weekend? Cute curls! Nice dress! How is your weekend? You look sweet (I’m not). You look cute (I’m not). I like your red hair. At least two-thirds of the women I connect with aren’t actually queer, but trying to arrange a threesome for their boyfriend’s birthday. You seem open-minded, they all say. There is a story I tell still, from my university years. It’s about Celeste, a fierce and brash blonde woman in my course, whose self-assurance I found magnetic in those years were I had so little of my own. We had an early two-hour lecture on Thursday mornings, where a pompous middle-aged man would regale us with stories from his years in media relations and implore us to undertake internships if we could tear ourselves away from playing netball and doing our nails. Each week, immediately afterwards, a group of us would sit on the football oval with takeaway coffees and gripe about the lecture. Celeste’s quips were magnificent, always clever and spikey and droll. As our irritation slowly dissipated in the sun, our talk would inevitably turn gentler and more gossipy, to our new adult lives and the things that preoccupied them. Celeste would sprawl out on the grass, her long, pale legs so close to mine, and I could never look away. Then, one week towards the end of the semester, she started a conversation about types. ‘What’s your type, Fiona?’ she asked, cool as could be. I panicked, prevaricated, said I wasn’t sure – this was true, is still true – and asked her the same question in return. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I like small women, with pretty faces.’ ‘Cool,’ I said, and then asked someone else. It wasn’t until two full weeks later, when I was relaying this conversation to another friend, that I understood exactly what she meant. Even then, it was only because this other friend understood immediately what she had meant. ‘You idiot,’ he said. ‘You are a small woman with a pretty face.’ This is a story I tell still whenever a date asks me why I am on Tinder. One of my friends has a story: she had been seeing a man she met on Tinder, casually, for around six months, and then mentioned, after a sexual health scare, that she wasn’t simultaneously seeing anybody else. He stopped answering her texts; she never heard from him again. One of my friends has a story: her date told her he had a blog and gave her the link, and when she looked it up after getting home it was misogynistic and spiteful, listing the full details of all of the ‘bad sex’ he had had on Tinder dates (she ruined my bedsheets; she said I triggered her and made me stop). One of my friends has a story: it was only three months in that she revealed she was married. One of my friends has a story: he tracked down her workplace and kept calling her there. I have been a bad date, too. I talk too much when I am nervous; I don’t ask enough questions; I am too quick to get political; I can be abrasive when I don’t mean to be. I have said This was nice, and then not responded to texts because I don’t know how to directly let someone down. I know that isn’t kind. I know that isn’t as free of consequence as the technology makes it seem. One of my friends has a standard rejection text saved on her phone. Sometimes I think the problem is that it’s too easy. Sometimes I think the problem is that it’s all too hard. Sometimes I don’t know why I do it. Sometimes it feels like everybody met their partner at uni. Back then I was too busy just trying to stay alive. My mother and I like to share books, each of us handing over a pile whenever we catch up. Our tastes are similar, most of the time, but occasionally they diverge – I like my books a little stranger and wilder, and am often more patient when they are slow to start or a bit unsteady. Over a summer, about three years ago, I passed on some books I had recently read and loved: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Christina Stead’s The Puzzleheaded Girl, Beverley Farmer’s The Seal Woman, Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City. ‘Come on Fiona,’ my mother eventually said. ‘No more books about odd women for a while.’ What is odd about these women is that their lives are unconventional – which is to say, they are single. Messud’s woman lives alone in her apartment and falls into a strange and definitely sexual obsession with her neighbours, an artist and her husband. Gornick’s woman – herself – lives alone and walks the streets and writes, much like I do. Farmer’s woman is a young widow, learning to live on her own. Only Stead’s girl is partnered, sometimes, but her relationships are fleeting, and she always ends up suddenly fleeing. There is still something odd about a woman alone. Something distasteful. Something dangerous. Something sad. I am sitting in an armchair, under a long-necked lamp, wrapped in a thick woollen blanket. One very tall glass: vodka and diet lemonade. A string of messages: Him: Where can I read your work? Me: I would rather you didn’t. My stuff is pretty personal. Him: I’ll just have to google you, then. Me: That was a hard no. Don’t do that. Him: Okay, but you owe me a date now. Me, or at least what I wish I had said: Dude, that isn’t how consent works. I remember telling my mother, as an adolescent – I can’t have been more than fourteen at the time – that I thought I’d end up on my own. I hate the phrase end up, because it sounds like an expiration. It sounds like a conclusion, a narrative that is finalised, that is closed off from alternative meanings, alternative endings, alternative ways to live. But we don’t have any other phrases, any other way to parse this that doesn’t sound … what exactly? Lonely, or finished, or dead. I don’t know what it means that I have thought this since I was so terribly young. I want to say: this means I have always thought my life would be different. I want to say: I have always been defiant. I want to say: I have always rejected your conventions, your constructs, your heteronormative bullshit. But none of that is quite true. I don’t want marriage and two children and a house with a garage and a garden. I am genuinely fine on my own. But sometimes it’s hard to be alone. There are tax breaks for couples. They can pay their rent out of two incomes. Split their bills. Share a car. Combine superannuation. There are economies of scale, even at such a small scale: groceries, petrol, books. I can’t afford to live alone. I don’t want to live in share houses forever – but one single income does not a mortgage make. We are sitting on the balcony of a backstreet pub, late evening, early summer. A glass of white. A vodka, lime and soda, served long. Him: So, what is it you do again? Me: I’m a writer. (At this time, I only write poetry, but I already know better than to be specific.) Him: A writer? How is that a job? Me: Sorry? Him: I mean, anyone can write. It’s not like it’s a skill, or you need training. Unless you are illiterate or something. Me, still trying to be nice: So, what do you do? Him: I’m in event management. Me, or at least what I wish I had said: Oh come on, how is that a job? Anyone can host a fucking party. I keep thinking of a friend of mine, my age or even a smidge younger, who was recently diagnosed with a serious, although acute, disease. When she told me about it, I leapt straight into practical mode. ‘You know my work is flexible,’ I said, ‘if you need anyone to drive you to appointments, to the hospital.’ ‘It’s fine,’ she replied. ‘Mike will do it.’ Of course, I thought and then: how much easier even this must be when you aren’t doing it alone. Almost all of my treatment – the outpatient clinic, the day program, the psychologists and psychiatrists and dietitians, the bone scans and blood tests, the ECGs and ultrasounds – all of this I did alone. All of the meal planning and grocery shopping and cooking, before I even sat down to try and eat. And then there is this: my friend can afford to take the time she needs off work, because her partner is still pulling in a salary, and a very decent one at that. There was a time, before my first relationship, when I genuinely believed there was something wrong with me. Something to do with my illness, certainly, which I imagined would be too much for any other person to bear alongside me, but also something more fundamental and ineffable, something faulty in the way that I was made. You can’t have that, I would think, so there is no point in wanting. I sometimes think I have trained myself out of desire. Here are some things I can do: leave a party whenever I damn well want; eat any and all of the objectively strange meals that make up my repertoire without concern for anybody else, or avoid them entirely if I so choose; read all day; write whenever I like; stick to my routines and the stability they lend me. Travel where I want, and when; meet the demands of only one family, one friendship circle. Keep my emotional labour all to my own self. This still looks like a sick woman’s list. Another memory: the first time I got paid for publishing a book review in a newspaper I used the money to buy myself a beautiful big desk. Until that time, I’d been using my childhood desk, a narrow pine affair with indents from where I had pressed too heavily with my ballpoint pens still etched across its surface. I installed this new desk in my room, under the window and facing the street, and beside the single bed I still had then. My housemate, when I showed her, looked from the big desk to the small bed and then back to me. ‘Well, you’ve made your choice,’ she said. I don’t think it’s a choice. At least not between the work I do and a person with whom to share my life. But even if it were, I don’t think I’d do anything differently. We are sitting in a low-ceilinged bar, towards the corner, a tea light in a cup on the small table. A glass of red. A cocktail that is strong and sharp and citrusy. My phone beeps, to remind me that it’s time to take my medication. Him: What is that? Me: Just my medication. Him: Are you sick? Me: Well, yes. But I manage it. Him: They aren’t antidepressants, are they? Seems like everyone is on them these days. Him: They are such bullshit. Him: They teach people to be helpless. Me, or what I wish I had said: Actually, they saved my life. We all go though cycles, all of the women I know who use it. It’s fun, for a while, until it isn’t. Or things look hopeful, for a while, until they don’t. ‘I just don’t understand the gym selfies,’ one friend says. ‘What is with all the skydiving and sedated tigers?’ asks another. We all roll our eyes and groan; we reinstall, delete, reinstall, delete, reinstall, delete. ‘There has to be a better way,’ another says. ‘But how else does anybody meet anyone these days?’ I treat the question as rhetorical, because I certainly don’t know. Read the rest of Overland 234 If you enjoyed this essay, buy the issue Or subscribe and receive four brilliant issues for a year Fiona Wright Fiona Wright’s new essay collection is The World Was Whole (Giramondo, 2018). Her first book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance won the 2016 Kibble Award and the Queensland Literary Award for nonfiction, and her poetry collections are Knuckled and Domestic Interior. More by Fiona Wright Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays 1 First published in Overland Issue 228 19 August 202018 September 2020 Reflection Loneliness without privacy: on isolation under lockdown Scott Robinson All our lockdowns are different versions of the same restrictions, from flats ringed with police to suburban houses and beyond. We’re trapped with each other without the possibility of solitude. As the online world takes over many of our social rituals, we are also lonely without privacy.