This is an excerpt from my forthcoming anti-memoir memoir entitled All of Me. JP
14 August 2021 | James Porteous | Clipper Media
The word sounds so… lonely. So barren, so helpless and hapless.
We do not like to talk about solitude. Or think about it. Especially while we are living in the state of solitude.
I have never been afraid of solitude. Alone but never lonely as they say.
Are there limits? I don’t know. Not at the moment. Or this moment.
Looking back, I have to admit that I have spent a remarkable amount of time alone. People sometimes assume you make a choice to be alone. Perhaps they think this because people who do not mind being alone do not complain about it.
As a child I admittedly spent an inordinate amount of time alone, watching TV relentlessly or listening to music. I did not think about being alone when I was doing these things because I was not alone. I spent time with the characters in the movies or TV shows or in the songs.
I have always lived inside my head. I see everything, hear everything, feel everything, but mostly I react with my brain. Unless my body hurts in some way it does not really exist. I rarely feel tired or rundown or sick and so I can usually ignore this ‘thing’ that houses my brain. My soul. My reason for being.
Recently (2020) I think I contracted Covid and then the remnants of what might have been Long Covid. That part took over my conscious being and forced my body and brain to try and react as one. I could barely watch a TV show or movie without having to backtrack to fill in the details of what I might have missed while my brain was on its short siesta.
I recovered (I assume) in about six months but it was a bad experience. I wonder if what I went through might be considered ‘normal life’ for most people, with their brains and bodies connected, often, or perhaps always, as one.
The synapses are still a bit laggy. The words still do not always flow quite so freely, even as I am writing this. I am working hard to bring it back to ‘normal.’ My normal, when I enjoyed what I used to jokingly call my ‘stream of unconsciousness.’
But what of the long moments of solitude, I wonder? Are they more pronounced now or will this phase of watching myself watching solitude eventually pass?
I have lived in five countries in the last 15 years or so. In most of these places I lived as a stranger, often in solitude.
I worked in Washington, DC for almost ten years and although I did not know a single person when I arrived, I did make friends. Many, in fact. It was all part of the sense of ‘community,’ working together to bring a TV network to the air, fresh and clean, and then keeping it on the air. It was so frantic, so fragile, but it worked.
In time I began dating a woman from work. We will call her Alexandra. She was hyper, but otherwise seemed nice. She was from the UK and had been in Washington for a few years.
I soon discovered that being with her entailed following many rules. We could not be seen talking together at work, for example. We would meet in the park during our lunch breaks.
And while attending the communal-work-parties she always pretended she did not know me. I thought this was because she was drinking like a fucking fish but I finally realized that no one was supposed to know we were seeing each other. It was often quite humorous because many of the other women, who were likewise not unattractive, thought I was ‘unattached’ and often showed me much attention. Much to her consternation.
And there were also a slew of oddball mysteries, including a hush-hush former relationship, perhaps with someone else at work, the details of which were apparently locked in a high security vault.
And the equally mysterious and seemingly endless hints about past ‘short-lived’ ‘entanglements’ and the ongoing drunken flirtations with other men -and women- and the recurring feeling -again from both men and women- that they assumed I had become a member of their sordid, obsessively drunken private-members club.
But all good things must come to an end. One night she took me out for a drink and nervously announced that she was moving to Doha to work for the mothership. Not a word of warning or discussion. It was a done deal.
And she was the sort of person who, having decided this on her own, declared that I would now spend a good deal of time and energy helping her deal with the hundreds of issues that would have to be dealt with before she would be able to start this new life. This new life without me.
The details were in fact horrendous. Boxes had to be packed and then delivered to a shipping company some distance from Washington for delivery to Doha by ship, arriving two months hence.
There were shots and vaccines required for her and the cat and regular visits to the local Qatar Embassy to submit an endless series of forms and applications, photocopies and photos.
And one of the best moments of all occured when we drove what I had assumed was her scooter to a parking lot, which we deposited on a particular floor before hiding the keys in an agreed-upon location, and then departing as quickly as possible.
No details were offered, no explanations. I could do little than think: What the fuck. Which was not even an expression in those days. Perhaps I coined it that very day.
One day I accidently saw the true owner riding his bright yellow scooter through the streets of Washington. He was one of the surly, overweight malcontents I saw almost every day at work. This, I finally realized, was her former boyfriend. Which might explain why he was always glaring at me. ‘We both won,’ I wanted to say to him. Free and clear.
Two days later our ‘post-relationship ordeal’ came to an end. I had to rent a car so I could drive her to Dulles airport. I was in charge of holding the cat when they extracted it from the huge carrier to inspect it for contraband or disease.
I helped check her in for the long flight and then we sat in the lounge as she nervously and excitedly watched the clock, so happy to be on the verge of starting her new life.
As we were parting she stopped abruptly and held me lovingly in her arms while thanking me sincerely for everything I had done to help her.
It was an odd moment, seemingly so earnest and sincere and exposed and… normal. Had I been wrong about her all along? Was she really a kind, loving and misunderstood human being?
Well, no. We kept in touch. Indeed, upon her arrival in Doha she informed me that it was now ‘safe’ to stop living in the shadows of love. I had been granted permission to reveal to the world that we were ‘dating,’ even though we were no longer ‘dating.’
And besides, it was pretty obvious from the photos other people were posting on Facebook that she was ‘dating’ a great number of other people as well.
So if nothing else, I was becoming increasingly comfortable using my new ‘what the fuck’ expression. It had, and still has, legs.
A year later I was offered a job in Doha. It would be in the same office as Alexandra but it was a good deal, indeed too good to pass up.
So now I started my own long process of endless paperwork, shipping and everything else. Only this time I was doing all of these things on my own.
Alexandra at first said she was thrilled that I would be moving to Doha but her enthusiasm soon began to fade and two weeks later she announced she was tired of ‘waiting.’ It seemed like a stupid thing to say since, as I have indicated, she most clearly was not waiting for anything other than an offer to refill her glass at the hotel bar.
A few weeks later she rose to the occasion and dutifully met me at the airport, explaining that it was the right thing to do because ‘people might wonder’ if she didn’t do so. Whatever the hell that meant.
She dropped me off outside my hotel and vanished into the night. I checked into my room and spent the first half hour scanning through the dozens of TV stations and tried to forget about her.
The next day she took me to the local mall to buy a SIM card for my phone and then we walked to a local restaurant for a drink.
“It’s not fair,” she said. “You get to drink a beer.”
I had no idea what she meant but a few minutes later she shrieked, loud enough for most of the city to hear: “I don’t feel anything!”
Oh dear. I wondered if perhaps I was meant to pinch her? Oh. She meant she did not feel anything for me. I assumed this was a prelude to officially ‘breaking up’ and it would be so much easier for her had she been able to consume a beverage or two.
I nursed my beer, dreading a long drawn-out discussion about everything I had done wrong and the salient reasons for ‘not feeling anything’ but I need not have worried. She soon stood up, placed some local currency on the table, said goodbye and walked away.
The clearest, most lasting memory of the ‘encounter’ was the sight of the clear, green water, the 40C warmth and the Pakistani workers moving slowly, relentlessly, systematically along the waterfront, removing the dust and dirt from the endless handrails. It was a true slice of heaven. I was going to enjoy living here. Alone. Well, almost alone.
The next night she took me to a local restaurant for a large farewell party for one of her coworkers. It was amazing. Everyone was excited to have another Canadian on board and happy that I would not need to be trained for the job.
At some point Alexandra kindly and sweetly took me aside and, drink in hand, reaffirmed that we would no longer be ‘dating.’
We hugged. All was well. I gave the idea my whole-hearted blessing. She stood up and went back to the crowd.
I finished my drink and returned to see her moving about the room, hugging each of the women, all of whom were clearly heart-broken. She continued her sad procession until she reached me, whereupon she took one more look at her true friends, wiped a tear from her eyes and walked out without talking to me.
I eventually discovered that she had told these people that, after endless months and months, patiently waiting for me to finally join her so that we might begin life anew, I had ended our relationship without a word of remorse or discussion.
It was a stunning example of the power of English amateur acting classes. I am not being sarcastic. Her sister and her brother-in-law and her father had all been professional actors.
The deed was done. The nail in the coffin. The victory march.
The next day I realized I was almost completely alone in a Muslim country, without any real hope of meeting anyone aside from the women at work who would no longer talk to me and the lovely Asian prostitutes who were somehow allowed to ply their trade in the local bars.
It turned out to be a very interesting experience. There were times when I wondered what the hell I was doing there but to be honest the religion was endlessly fascinating, with the call to prayers five times a day, along with the astounding heat and the sandstorms and the army of workers from Sri Lanka and Nepal and the Philippines. Almost all of them, both the locals and the workers spoke English and I hardly ever felt really… alone. Alone but never lonely.
It was different in Italy. I don’t know what I was expecting. Well, I do. All of my Italian friends on TV and in the movies spoke at least some English.
The reality was different. I think most people could actually speak English, but much like the French ‘banning’ the use of English words, Italians seemed to feel it was unpatriotic to use this other, greatly inferior language.
A case in point. My new partner and I started each day with a visit to the local coffee bar, where we would stand for the 15 seconds it would take to knock back the espresso before heading out to begin our day in earnest.
On one occasion she began a conversation with the ‘barista’ in English and he responded in kind. She remarked how good his English was and he sort of flinched and said, well of course! He was not like these uneducated Italians. He had worked in London for a few years and of course did not speak anything other than English that entire time.
I was frankly relieved that I had found at least one person with whom I could communicate. A few days later I returned on my own and I said ‘hello’ and he said ‘ciao’ and I asked how he was doing and he replied by saying ‘caffè’ and I said ‘si’ and I realized at that moment that we would never, ever, be talking together in English. And we never did. Ever.
And I have tried many times to learn another language but it was completely in vain.
While in DC I lived across the water in Virginia where almost all of the clerks and shop-workers were Latino. I thought it might be interesting to learn the language. I bought a Learn to Speak Spanish CD and set out to do this thing. It was straightforward, saying the word or expression in English and then Spanish. Only I found that, while I was keenly concentrating on the words recited in English, my mind wandered horribly when repeated in Spanish.
Two days later I gave up. For all of eternity. There was little doubt that the lessons could improve my English but I was never going to learn more than a word or two in Spanish. And even then, those two words would only be replaced by the two new words I learned.
So the solitude continued. I have traveled to an extraordinary number of other such places on my own. From Las Vegas, Arizona, New Mexico, New Orleans, Florida, Doha, Virginia Beach, Jamaica, Cuba, London, Sudbury, Vancouver, New York, Montreal, Fredericton, PEI, Boston, and points in between.
Solo travel I think they call it. It never really bothered me. But I was always aware that once I arrived anywhere, it was highly unlikely that I would converse with anyone other than wait staff or scam artists.
Not even the Mormons will speak to me. You can spot them a mile away and sometimes I would sit in anticipation, gleefully awaiting their pitch. But they would walk on by. I often contemplated buying a white shirt and a black pair of pants and a used copy of the Book of Moron and accosting people on the street or in train stations or washrooms but I was fairly confident no one would speak to me. That would have been quite humiliating.
And so I continue my life trek, largely in Solitude. I am in Germany now (2021) and, once again, almost always alone.
No one speaks English here, either. I suspect they still hold some resentment against the American’s who came and almost completely destroyed their city (Aachen) during The Incident.
Canadian or American, they don’t care. Most people outside of North America, when told that someone is from either Canada or America will reply: Oh, he’s from America.
Apparently it is the same as us calling people European. They do come from Europe, after all. And we do come from North America. Whether we ever call it that or not.
So alone but never lonely.
Can this really continue? Will I finally wake up on some overcast day and think, fuck it, I really can’t keep pretending that these people on TV and in movies and singing songs are my actual friends who have been dispatched to keep me company.
Must I continue barking up misguided ‘relationship’ trees that end, inevitably, in solitude. Must I continue living this oddball life, smirking to myself, pretending it is all fodder for the books and tales that no one will ever read or hear.
Solitude. Alone but never lonely.
Never lonely until I finish this line or the next one and then turn on the TV and welcome new or old fictional friends into my new German home, shying away, at least for now, from foreign or subtitled movies or newspapers or helpless conversations that inevitably end with my standard contribution to unsolicited conversations: ‘Sorry. English.’
There was that one time. I was in Doha. It was a nice, warm sunny day. I was in the middle of three days off and I was standing on my 10th floor balcony, looking out over the vastness of water and sky and sand, nursing a beer and enjoying the warmth of the ever-present sun.
I was happy and content but then I remembered a story Alexandra had told me about how after just arriving, another coworker from Washington had come to work in Doha. It seemed that he was under the impression that they had a real, actual relationship and she was going to help him set up his new life in this new country.
But she didn’t. She alone had the information about his arrival and the name and address of the hotel he would be living in for the first few months and where and when he was to report to work.
But she didn’t go to the airport to pick him up. Nor did she respond to any of his frantic emails or phone calls. She simply did not speak to him.
I am sure he realized at once that he was completely alone and I am likewise equally sure he tried his best to cope, but he could not do it. One day, not long after his arrival, the hotel staff found his body in his room. He had killed himself.
It was left to the company and other would-be coworkers to take care of all the arrangements and paperwork and everything else required to ship his body back to America.
She simply continued to pretend she did not know him, let alone that he was expecting her to offer friendship or guidance or anything else once he arrived.
In time I realized that everything centred on the fact that she had actually come to Doha to rekindle a failed relationship she had had with another woman in the UK. It was almost comical but of course men and women who are not married cannot cohabitate in this Muslim country, but two women, no matter their true relationship, can live together in peace.
So perhaps everything centred on her fear of being found out.
And I will admit, standing there that day, thinking about humans and non-human reactions and the lies and subterfuge, there was a moment -one single, fleeting moment- when I looked over the balcony and thought how simple and easy it would be to just stop all the ‘what the fucks.’
The moment passed as quickly as it arrived. I took another sip of beer and have never even remotely thought such a thought again.
I guess I could offer a fiction that the moment of doubt gave me strength and a resolve to carry on, but it didn’t.
It gave me little more than a moment of pause and then I carried on with my life. I simply carried on living my life.
In solitude. But still…