This week, I read A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. It’s a novel about a gay adolescent who recalls his first sexual experience, his close relationship with his mother, and his longing for his father’s affection. Rings a little too close to home, methinks. What the narrator and I don’t have in common though is his having imaginary friends: Cottage Cheese (a girl older than he), Tom Thumb Thumb, and Georgie-Porgie, “a dimwit [they] fussed over for his own good.” The plot is touching, written in long stretches of melancholic, beautiful prose. The narrator leads a privileged yet pitiable life; he spends a lot of his time alone, walking through the woods, down his town’s streets, into empty churches, and he imagines himself falling in love, running away with an English gentleman, and he sees himself performing his life as if for an audience. Sometimes I feel I, too, live on a stage performing my routinely chores, errands, conversations, gestures, and all those roles in which I exist: English professor, writer, friend, neighbor, the queer that walks his tiny dog around the block before the sun goes down; all life, even if lived alone, without company, without an audience, is performance. (Nod to Professor Cima’s Performance Theory class at Georgetown, for which I wrote some of my best papers.)
I have been single for several years, seeing a few guys here and there, off and on, even sometimes wondering if my own English gentleman, or the like, will come and swift me away to a hilltop manor, where we’d live with our dogs and go riding over the the lush green landscape of our estate. Edmund White’s novel has got me thinking about my own longings, my own aloneness, my own wanderings throughout DC’s streets and parks, performing a role for others to see. And I’m not alone in “acting out” my life. Yesterday, I saw a homeless man using a laptop, or at least he looked like he was using a laptop, sitting on a crate under a tree with a black laptop perched on the knees of his dirty jeans, tapping away. I looked twice and I thought, “so much of what we do is pretense;” in the homeless man’s case, he’s copying the acts he sees in public space, in a city full of people who pull out laptops in parks or at bus stop benches to do work. And no, we probably don’t do public acts “knowing” we’re being watched, but we’re performing “busy-ness” just the same, unconsciously showing the world that “I’m important. I’ve got valuable work that needs to be done right now, on this park bench, or at this bus stop. It can’t wait. Smart people, people that run the country, depend on me and my laptop, so leave me alone but when you look at me, know that I’m special.” I wonder if the homeless man had the same inner-monologue.
Being single, which has its positives and negatives, also requires some performances. One has to look as if he/she doesn’t mind living alone, as if this entire solitary existence is chosen, not merely the result of circumstances of relationships gone south or — dare I say it — mistakes and messes made. I walk out of my building everyday fully dressed in chinos or slacks, a pressed shirt — sometimes a tie! — and fixed hair. I have a reason for getting up, most days to teach, but even on my days off, it seems vital that I appear productive, too. There’s gardening to be done (the landlord let me plant some wild flowers in the front yard; though my favorite flowers are of a deep purple, set into pots sitting at my back door). Sometimes I’m outside, with my gardening gloves, pruning sheers in hand, performing my gardening duties, my Saturday or Sunday morning ritual, knowing that the neighbors may be watching.
The truth is, I’m at my most relaxed when I’ve gone back into the greenroom that is my apartment and have shed my costume — aren’t we all? In fact, I’ve gotten so familiar with living and sleeping alone that when I am seeing someone or when I do have guests, I look forward to their leaving so I can be alone again, so that I can miss them and wonder how they’re doing. Perhaps this is because I like my imagination’s narrative of my friends’ lives more than their actual lives, which are just performances anyway. Sometimes I want to say, “In my head, you’re actually married to your boyfriend and you have a baby on the way. Can you play that? When you come over, would you talk about how the baby’s been kicking and describe the odd cravings you’ve been having?” Or “In my head, you’re actually really miserable at work. When you call me, tell me horrible things about your boss, cry a little, too, and I’ll talk you through it, using a reassuring voice.” Or “Your character broke up again with her partner and you can’t decide if you want to get back together, because you said this time, the fifth time, would be the last time, but you know that you want to get back together, and you need me to tell you all the reasons why you shouldn’t even though we both know you’ll go back.” If only all life really was a stage, eh? And if only we could be both the actors and directors.
Living this way, longing to be alone yet missing company and imagining the lives of the characters that people my life, can be lonesome. I have a sweet dog, my Pomeranian Molly, for company, but certainly there are limits to my friendship with her; although she is very dear, and although I often find myself missing her, I admit cuddling with a dog is only so sweet. Also, she’s not really a dog; she’s more like a daughter, in some weird, lonely-bachelor’s-imagination-kind-of-way. When I’m at work I feel guilty that she’s at home alone, knowing that if she was a child, I’d be charged with endangerment or neglect. When I’m at home I feel bad when she prefers to stay in the backyard, sleeping in the cool grass rather than staying inside with me, almost as if she’s already become an independent pre-teen, too cool for dad, who is so lame in his loneliness.
This longing for company has been compounded by my recent move into a rough neighborhood. All of my friends have moved, too, some to Maryland, some to Virginia; and none of them have since traveled into DC to visit. I can’t say I blame them; without a car, it takes a metro and a bus ride to reach me. Yesterday, a neighbor sent her boyfriend over to borrow a measuring tape. Just as he was leaving, the property manager walked into the building and asked, “Who are you?” I introduced them, saying, “This is Mike, Theresa’s boyfriend.” After Mike left, the manager gave me a long talk about the dangers of socializing with people in the neighborhood. He asked me never to let anyone from around my area inside, “because they might be casing the joint.” I guess I’m supposed to stay inside alone when I’m at home, closing the curtains to my street and opening the curtains of my imagination. Who can live like this?
Not to socialize in one’s surroundings goes against human nature. I can’t not talk to my neighbors, people I see everyday. And for someone like me, who is single and lives so far from friends and family, adding one more reason to be isolated is added pain. Sometimes I think seriously about relationships, but I hit the roadblock of simply not wanting to date. Certainly having a partner who lives with me or who visits often would take away some of this sense of isolation, but finding a good man — and keeping him! — takes so much work.
For now, I’ll bond ever more with Molly and my books, and I’ll put on a brave front, keep a smile as well as a stoic spirit. I’m not satisfied with this arrangement but I’m also not dissatisfied with it. I do worry though that I’ll become the gay version of the cat lady, someone who lives alone, takes in strays, and talks to them like they’re people with distinct personalities. Oh dear. To make matters a tiny bit worse, the narrator in A Boy’s Own Story laments that “the imagination is not the consolation people pretend.” If that’s true, where do I go next?