"This is what it's like to be me," I say with a grand sweep of my left hand. Behold: a spartan apartment as befits a single man. The bed is made and the dishes are clean. I may be many things but I am not a barbarian.
The cats feign interest in the tower of nom. "I know you want me to shut up," I inform them, "but I have to say this first. You guys can keep a secret, right?" Monty, the bigger one, stretches up to claw at my thigh.
"No one ever told me life would be this lonely. My mom and dad, they told me it would be hard. Jesus, they lived it. Factory work in Los Angeles. Then he upended us to Missouri so he could become a cop and she worked in a hospital kitchen. Hard life, yeah. Now they're dead." I think about how big my father's biceps looked as he got dressed to work at the adhesive factory. About how my mother's black hair sprouted filaments of white but never surrendered to the snow.
"A hard life I can handle. Now that it's winter I go to work before the sun rises and leave the office after it sets. Well, the sun doesn't rise or set, it's all an illusion, but you know what I mean. Dark going in, dark coming out. At least I have a job. 'Be grateful you have a job,' my mom used to say, and she was right. So very Asian of her.
"She told me about being alone. After dad left she dated one man a few times but she was done. She was ready to be alone. She lived another 30-some years without sharing space with another and she became ... I don't know. Ennobled, maybe. She had a dignity that came from being alone." I hear a faint echo of the last word and say it again: "Alone."
I walk into the bedroom and lie down. It's been a long day. They're all long days lately. The cats jump up and eye me with what looks like resignation.
"Almost done, I swear. And then we can eat and I'll tell you the story of the Cat Queen." I dispense dual pettings until the purrs are in stereo.
"My mom showed me alone but she never showed me lonely. Or told me about it, at least. She was a mystery. Hard to read her face, but my, she loved cats. She would have gotten the biggest kick out of you two. Especially you, Pierre. You're such a little Pistol Pete." Pierre squeaks affirmation.
"Being alone isn't bad. It's a choice, after all. It's not like I want for company. I'm just an introvert, masquerading as a raconteur. Most of the people who want my company, they're all about the storyteller, not the real story. No need to waste their time or mine on the superficial. I'd rather sleep alone, thanks.
"But when the clock's pushing 1 a.m. the silence starts to scream and it's lonely, Jesus fuck it's lonely." The pillow next to me is cold and I won't let myself think about the warmth of her back against my chest as she sleeps, or the tickle of her hair in my face.
"It's not right, being this lonely. It's like there's something's not square in my soul. Maybe that's the real reason I'm alone. People sense that twist in me and know enough to stay the hell away. Probably doesn't help that I'm a notorious no-show. I'm just ... weary. It sounds like pussy work, making paragraphs, but it's noisy on the factory floor. All those scanners and TVs, blatting out bursts of static and occasional news. All those people. And always always always that precise digit string in my head — 3:58:26 — compelling me to work harder, faster because ... just because, I guess. It's what I'm built to do.
"So tired. And when I come home to hear the echo of my own voice I feel the lonely start to smack me around, and that makes the tired settle in, just one more wave of weary."
Pierre climbs onto my chest. Golden eyes stare. I stare back.
"I guess I'm never lonely with you guys. You're here to remind me why I need to be alone right now. You're here to remind me to chill and not wander too far into the darkness."