1. They say the toll of my loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes each day; as if I were choosing and craving and choosing this; as if I stood on some balcony under a broody sky with my hand cupping a flame and party music spilling across my back.
2. 15 cigarettes, they repeat, and I want to tell them they are wrong. It’s got to be at least 40—all this insubstantial quiet filling and not filling me, curdling, twisting, every moment of it leaving behind a dark residue.
3. Smoking, they say, putting the onus on me to quit my loneliness, as if it were a matter of willpower and chemistry.
4. Smoking, they say, and I know I must reek of it. Loneliness infiltrates my clothes and hair, fills my car with its bitter musk. So invisible; so obvious.
5. 15 cigarettes, I read, and I breathe and breathe my shame. I have always been the kind of person who exercises and eats kale etc.—all the things they now say matter less than whether you have someone to confide in. I want to be skeptical, but to whom can I address my follow up questions?
6. Cigarettes, they say, as if loneliness were small enough to carry in a purse; as if it were meant to burn; as if what I feel could be easily crushed against the pavement, rubbed out with a shoe.
7. 15, they say, and I wonder how they arrived at this number. Not 20 or 12, but 15, which is the length of your average recess in minutes, which is almost old enough for a driver’s license. I think about quoting Mark Twain on statistics, but then I remember the ‘you’ who used to laugh with me no longer calls. She is out smoking her own 15.
8. Per day, they say. But time works differently when you are deep in loneliness—the hours drag into weeks; the moments condense into fugues. The months are like names of people you were close to once.
9. Per day, they say, meaning the damage is cumulative; per day, they say, as if I were not trying and trying to live each day differently.
10. Cigarettes, they say, as if my life should come with a graphic warning; or as if I’ve ignored hundreds of graphic warnings and plunged heedless into my own abyss. But what would they look like, these warnings? A lonely face is like any other, only a little hollower.
11. Cigarettes, they say, as if I were one accident away from a wildfire—becoming a charred ruin full of wind and ash for which I must repent; so I try to keep my loneliness small and prevent contagion. I fail to remember the bright growth that follows devastation.
12. It’s as if they know I still crave solitude; as if they know about all the parties I left early, all the invitations I declined, all the times I stepped back and stood beside a tree because I needed stillness. As if they know my secret name for small talk is ‘sandpaper’ and I’m addicted to the thrill of walking back to my own room, the thrill of being alone again.
13. But they don’t offer gum to help me quit. There are no meetings in church basements with other recovering users of loneliness, no circles of folding chairs.
14. 15 cigarettes, they say, and I wonder how many hours or friends or conversations I would need to absolve myself. I wonder if the math might be different for introverts—if maybe my number is only 14.
15. It’s as if they can see me hunched in the cold, shaking with need; it’s as they can’t see me at all—all my careful learning of names and habits, all the things I never said because I was listening and couldn’t fit a word in edgewise.