For one long semester in 1974, my heart was a tomb. I didn’t know a soul on the campus of George Mason University — then, strictly a commuter college in Fairfax, Va. Despite 5,000 students milling around me, I felt like the only person on Earth. However brilliant that Virginia autumn, everything, like winter before its time, was gray.
Off campus, the scene improved with dinner-and-disco nights with my guy friends (no one heart-capturing) and life with my family at home.
I remind myself that we all have our stories, and we all have our lonely spells.
According to me, and surely the U.S. Census Bureau, we were the only Korean family in West Springfield, Va.; Dad in the garage-converted den, my mom slicing red radishes in the kitchen, my younger brother and sister running up and down the stairs. In my sweet memory box, they’re still there, in the yellow Colonial with green shutters. Their shadows, their echoes. My family.
Had I known my dad would pass away in five years — in one blink, gone forever — any focus on me would’ve flown out the window. But I didn’t know, and so whenever it was time for class, I got in my sky-blue Pinto and inched closer to campus while “Ramblin’ Man” came over the radio and mental rigor mortis set in.
My walk in the wide-open space from the parking lot to the building grounds took a century. Driving, walking, nobody cares. I’m in a sea of strangers. I’m alone.
The Joy of a College Friendship
Flashback to the year before: I was happy. Well, I could always count on Carol for that; living proof that you can meet someone and suddenly your world turns colorful, like leaves, because somebody knows you. Knows you. We latched onto each other standing in line at freshman orientation, signing up for some of the same courses that day.
In a heartbeat, we were one, inhabiting our own private isle, if you will, sitting in side-by-side desks and on outdoor benches, hanging out between classes in a cafeteria curiously called The Ordinary. After a dull lecture, a coffee with a cigarette or two, accompanied by our own brand of humor and laughing so hard our faces hurt, was the highlight of the day.
For example, at lunch time The Ordinary offered, among other things, delicious Hoagies-by-the-Inch, at a dime an inch (!). Whenever I ordered a five-incher, the sweet Howdy Doody-looking counter guy would slice it, wrap it up, label the price with a Magic Marker and say (without perverted intent), I gave you a free inch. I’d run back to our table, laughing. Whenever I was with Carol, life was a comedy skit.
The following September, she transferred to a small private college. Carol didn’t abandon me, it was always part of the plan. Once she was gone, the party was over, the campus as I knew it went up in smoke. The Ordinary — literally — ceased to exist. What kept me going was knowing that I was transferring, too, in January, to Virginia Tech, where I promised myself I’d try harder to make friends and be happy. With no idea I’d lose my father before the decade was up, I did and I was.
The lonely spell was history. Or was it?
After Divorce, The Spell of Loneliness Returns
Strange but true that at any stage in life — carrying on after the death of my dad; watching over my still very-Korean mom, 49 when widowed, 89 now; witnessing my nephew grow up, once in my arms, now from afar; running a sweet little shop since 1984 with all the customers and conversations, even adventures, that come with it; writing stories in silent rooms as I age and wonder when I’ll put down the pen; experiencing my fair share of love and loss and of course, keeping in touch with Carol — hearing “Ramblin’ Man” over the airwaves always brought back the ghostly chill of one long-ago semester.
Last spring, the lonely spell returned, most notably in Wegmans (supermarket) on weekends when everyone is there and you’re forced to park in practically another time zone. The lot and the sky, so massive you’re reduced to a speck, a ghost, nobody. Don’t recognize a soul in the parking lot universe, only the eternity of this walk which feels eerily familiar. Once in Wegmans, among a sea of strangers, it hits me: I’m stone-cold alone.
I’m going through a divorce. Though relieved, I can’t help but question myself, doubt myself, my will and power to move on, make a good life, a better life. The emotional shift from we to me is a solitary affair.
I often wish that Carol — who lives on the opposite coast and recently wrote in my birthday card, Am so glad we met that day standing in line at GMU! — would move back here. Then, this feeling would vanish in a snap. Just like that. Over coffee without cigarettes, we’d laugh again so hard our faces would hurt.
But since that’s more reverie than reality, I remind myself that we all have our stories, and we all have our lonely spells. If we’re lucky, they’ll be gone by next season.
This story was originally published in Spirituality & Health magazine.
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