Two weeks ago, in Brooklyn, I bought a copy of The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker to give to a comedy writer I had gone out with a few times: the book had come up in conversation as an example of one of the few works of literature that genuinely make me laugh aloud. I was trying, I guess, to lean into this man a little, to push my world into his. “Look,” I was saying, “books can be funny too! We have so much in common!” In the end, I forgot to leave it with him on what would turn out to be the last time we saw each other. It was becoming gauche to go on a date, to be socialising in public. People sat outside bars in the sunshine but made semi-ironic comments about social distancing, leaving coats and bags on vacant stools to ward off others. Then everything shut and I accepted, finally, I wasn’t going to be able to ignore this one, and I scrambled to book a flight home to Ireland before borders closed.
I asked the writer for his address and, from my isolation, asked my father to post The Mezzanine there for me. This was on the first day of my return, when I was still acting as if maintaining proximity to New York and the people I met there would make some material change to my circumstances – that if I kept the channels open, I might soon teleport back, into some alternative timeline where things were still normal. No can do, my father said – post isn’t being sent to the US any more. So it sits in a desk for now, communication with the writer already ebbed away, so that when one day in the future he eventually receives it, it will be from a stranger, someone speaking to him from a dim unknown past.
The Mezzanine is set over a single lunch hour of its narrator, and usually I love it for the dorky wonder it finds in the unexamined minutiae of ordinary life. Pages are spent admiring the elegance of a milk carton design function, or the subtle dynamics at play in taking or leaving a bag for your items from the grocery store clerk. Now, though, the idea of taking a single hour and examining it with forensic precision has a very different feeling to me. On the one hand, trying to experience the days in tiny chunks is a way to stop yourself going mad. You can try to focus completely on cooking, say, or your cross-stitch project, or reading: not letting any future uncertainty creep in the edges to darken it.
On the other hand, life feels so savagely hollow to me right now that to look closely at an hour seems terrifying. I don’t want to be present. I don’t want to meditate. I don’t want this experience to teach me anything. What I want is to be at a gig. I want to be on a date in a busy bar in a major city with someone’s hand resting on my leg for the first time. I want to be in the same pub garden my friends in London and I have all our birthdays in, and complain of being sick of, but never abscond. Failing all that, I want to be knocked out for six months, or two years, or however long it turns out we aren’t able to be with each other.
The way you live, and who you live with, has been thrown into sharp relief. If you’re coupled up, you’re really coupled up. If you’re alone, you are really alone – and I am alone. Usually my loneliness is moreish and sustaining because I choose it, and because it normally comes at the end of one of my hyper-social periods. I like the feeling that I am scrappy and resilient and independent, that I can travel freely and with no companion and still enjoy myself.
It turns out I’m fine at being alone as long as I can be near people, feel people. I can live in a place where I have not a single friend for months on end and feel completely relaxed, completely at ease. For that reason I thought I was good at being alone. Now I realise that it only means I love other people so much that I don’t even need them to speak to me for them to make life worth living. Their mere presence is enough. The size of my love for people, the quality of the hunger I have for them is being revealed with sudden starkness, and it frightens me. I think of the John Berryman poem:
my mother told me as a boy (repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re
bored means you have no Inner Resources.”
conclude now I have no inner resources, because I am heavy
I never suspected I had much in the way of inner resources, but it didn’t matter because people are such an unending resource, limitless and infinitely interesting.
In New York I went out every single night and had no desire to stop, two more months of chaotic but harmless hedonism stretching out before me – until it disappeared, extinct like all the other possible futures that have vanished now. Everyone has lost something precious, which is time itself, and the unknown quantities make it an impossible loss to accept. Will I still be pretty when this ends? I ask myself in the mirror, searching out new creases and lines, thinking of the new decade I’ll enter while this goes on still.
Next week, I will begin renting an apartment in my hometown. I joke to my friends that moving back to Waterford as an adult is my worst nightmare but I actually mean it, I do. Not because I don’t like the place itself, but because my return signifies that I have nowhere else to go. I haven’t made a life steady enough anywhere else. The only foundation I have is that of my parents – my own, original family. I don’t want to get married, I don’t want to have kids, I say, blasé, in ordinary times – and it’s true that I don’t, because my life is full of other things usually, noisy things. But without them right now my world is very quiet. I went for a swim in the ocean yesterday and gasped as the freezing water lit up my whole body, shock filling every part of me with incensed heat, as though I was being touched.
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special