A Modicum of Human Connection
The only moments I’ve truly felt full have been those of deep, meaningful human interaction
The farmers market seems empty today. There are three other people in different aisles than me—each slowly drifting over the produce like leaves falling from trees. One is nicking grapes to see which one she wants to buy, one is weighing potatoes, and the other is meandering through the aisles, closing her eyes and inhaling as she passes different vegetables as if composing flavors in her head. Two more people walk through the sliding door. Neither are my age.
I live in the suburbs right outside New York City. I joke that it’s where New Yorkers go to die. When the pandemic forced a mass exodus, people moved into the towns around me. The house prices are astronomical and complaints about property taxes fly at every family gathering, but there is some free air to breathe. There are fences that don’t give you that much space, but just enough so you don’t have to talk to your neighbors too much. It’s an area where families come to settle down. Hardly a good place to make friends.
I have to admit though, every time my peripherals catch someone walking into the farmers market, I look over to see if the person that came in is my age. Maybe we’ll walk by each other and roll our eyes at the man shoving the mangos into his runny nose to see which one smells the freshest. Maybe we’ll look at each other, I’ll smile, and we’ll share a moment. No words, but we’ll both understand: boomers can be the worst. We’ll have some kind of connection. Lately, that’s all I’ve been wanting.
Maybe the next time I walk into the farmers market, she’ll be there. By the mangos. Fate. I’ll walk over, take a mango in my hands, and shove it up by my nose to take a whiff. She’ll look up, at first confused and a little disgusted that another person is sniffing mangos. Then she’ll recognize me. We’ll both smile, laugh a little bit, and the introductions will ensue as we roll our eyes at all the other people looking annoyed that we’re having a full conversation as they reach over us to grab a mango and put it in their bags. That’ll be the start. I’m terrified that this is my confession because I’ve never actually acted on this. I don’t want it to be misunderstood. So it’s all just in my head.
I’m at the part of my life where I’ve started to feel actual pain from loneliness. I’m thirty. Maybe it’s just pain from getting older, but it’s never happened before. Partly because I’ve shoved it out of the way and partly because I just operate very well on my own, but there are moments when it’s gnawing.
And I’m not just talking about a romantic relationship either. I’m talking about having friends. And more often than not, the romantic side of things screws things up for my friendships because someone has romantic feelings while the other doesn’t. It’s happened to me twice in the past year. My best friend expressed romantic feelings. I tried to will myself to it. I tried. I wish. It would make it so much easier. But I couldn’t cross this barrier in my own mind. And mostly I thought that she deserved to be with someone who had those feelings for her. Now I’m not sure if I made a huge mistake or not. But mostly I feel alone. And sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you what you wanted.
It happened too with another person who was tied to my whole group of meaningful friendships where I live. And because of my own embarrassment of not being able to reciprocate, the friendship stunted. So I blame myself and, again, walk through the aisles of the farmers market, looking for tomatoes to cook a meal on my own, for myself, to be eaten in the silence of my kitchen. It hurts to swallow sometimes.
After the farmers market, I usually head over to Trader Joe’s. Snacks. It’s on the way home and is usually brimming with people around my age. It feels like the only place where millennials all congregate in my area.
It always takes a few minutes to find parking. Massive black SUVs take up two parking spots and because I live in New Jersey, half of the people driving by let them know about their terrible parking job by hammering their horn. I find parking and sit in my car for a few minutes. Inhaling, exhaling, side-eyeing the SUV drivers, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do . . . Father, forgive me.” It’s in him I live, and move, and have my being after all. But I don’t really feel him around so much.
As I walk into TJ’s I pull my mask above my nose. I am in a desperate state of wanting people to see me, so I make myself invisible. Also, covid. I love wearing a mask in places like that, too. It gives me the excuse to not feel seen. It gives me the excuse to be able to walk around and not have to get in small talk with some people who might recognize me. Sometimes I wear a hat, or a hood, and walk through TJ’s slower than everyone else. It makes me feel alive—like I can hear the whole world and feel as if it’s all moving in slow motion—which is weird in New Jersey because we’re known for being fast walkers. It makes me sonder. I just learned about the glorious word “sonder.” I just discovered it’s where you have the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. It’s a beautiful word but makes you feel like shit sometimes. Makes you hurt even more when you know you’ve hurt another person.
TJ’s is my crowd. Millennials all meandering through the aisles asking cashiers if they’re selling canned pumpkin yet. Yes. Thank God. I walk by the produce fast—smiling under my mask because they don’t know there’s a cheaper, better place to buy their produce right down the road . . . my farmers market. But I sometimes throw a few overpriced avocados in my basket so I don’t look like a pathetic thirty-year-old only buying peanut butter pretzels, orange juice, and Scandinavian swimmers. I want to feel unjudged when I go through the checkout line. Sometimes there’s a person there that makes eye contact—a modicum of human connection—and we exchange eye smiles. On the rarer occurrences, we walk opposite directions down the aisles and keep running into each other. “Fancy seeing you again,” I say, only in my head.
As I walk down the chips and snacks aisle, I remember the time where I played basketball in that aisle with two kids. It was late. Around 9:00 p.m. And there were two kids with a small basketball walking up and down the aisles, working on their fade-aways and saying, “Kobe” each time they did. They were brothers, probably no more than ten years old, with not only the perfect fade away, but the perfect fade cut. Their dad walked behind them, brushing his hair as he pushed the cart, and their mom was meandering through the aisles looking for what they needed.
There weren’t a lot of people there, but as I walked down one of the aisles I saw one of the kids take a fadeaway. I walked by him and said, “You’re looking like Klay with that jumper.” Both of them smiled shyly. We kept walking and before I was about to turn the next aisle, they yelled, “We like Steph more.”
I walked by them in the next aisle and asked the most telling question in basketball conversation, “Lebron or MJ?” Both of them said “Lebron.” No hesitation. Chatting with me—each one trying to be louder than the other—about stats that everyone talked about when talking about Lebron. Their dad laughed behind them and said, “They’re both young and stupid. They’ll learn one day that MJ is the GOAT.”
Down the next aisle, I had an idea. I saw them coming and put my basket down on one end and made sure they both saw me. I walked halfway down the aisle, defensive pose, and said, “Let’s see if you can score on me.” I, obviously, let them pass me up and throw the basketball in my basket, crushing my rigatoni a bit. We exchanged high fives and talked about how nice their moves were. A few other people in the store also said how nice their jumpers looked and gave them pounds and high fives.
I checked out, waved at the family as I was walking out, and had never felt so full. Most days, all I want is some human connection—I guess you call that friendship. But things always get in the way. Things seem to drift apart.
I’ve had some phenomenal friends over the past few years. But the same thing happens. We drift apart. Someone moves. College ends. They get married and start their life down a different path. And the conversations seem to die away. What was the honeymoon phase of friendship comes to an end with any amount of change.
When I moved away from Dallas back to New Jersey, I lost some of the greatest friends that I had. We emailed and texted and called for the first few months, but things fell apart. The friendship doesn’t hold. Some lasted longer than others—even in the midst of not being physically present around each other. I helped start this magazine, Fathom, with my best friend. Someone who I still consider my best friend. But things drift apart. And all I want is for things to be how they were years ago. But that’s impossible.
Even when I worked as the managing editor at Fathom it was my worst nightmare to answer the hydra of email, but I loved it. I got to work with some of the greatest people and writers that I’ve ever come across. The work was exhausting, but the human connection made it worth it. The ability to work with someone on a brilliant piece and make it even more brilliant. I still remember working with Courtney Ellis on this piece and thinking Fathom had struck gold with this writer. We did. I remember first reading Annie Parsons’s piece and literally having to step away from my computer because the writing gutted me. I remember first asking Tyler Huckabee to write this piece out of the few he suggested. It summarized everything I was feeling at the time. It made me feel less alone. I still remember a new-ish writer—who was very active on Twitter—submitting a few poems to Fathom. I nearly broke down and cried when I read them. We had never gotten poetry that good before. And later, Rachel Welcher became our poetry editor.
Friendships can come out of nowhere, the greatest times I ever had at Fathom was working with all these brilliant writers. But my favorite, by far, was collectively editing pieces with Kelsey in our Fathom Google Drive. When there were particularly good pieces, or pieces that needed a bit of dusting and chiseling before they became brilliant, Kelsey and I would jump into a document together and have full-on editing sessions—filled with debates, side-discussions on basketball, and jokes that cracked me up. Those became what I looked forward to most as the pieces piled in for the month.
But I had to move on. Life got too busy for me to maintain what I was doing at Fathom and I had to back away for a bit. Things drift apart.
I blame Henry David Thoreau. Mostly. Actually, I mainly blame myself, but Thoreau screwed me up as well. When I read his book Walden in college, all I wanted to do was live independently—with some good books—and soak up every bit of marrow that life had to offer. The older I get the more I realize the only bits of marrow worth soaking up in life, are the moments of love, of friendship, and companionship. Even for an introverted enneagram five.
Thoreau bears false witness. And still, to this day, my favorite New Yorker piece is Pond Scum. A piece that exposes Thoreau for what he was: a liar, a person who turned his back on the world. He told others to live a certain way, to be completely self-reliant. But few people know that Walden Pond was on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property, and he regularly went for walks with Emerson. Few people know that his mother came and brought him cookies regularly. He touts the idea that you should live on your own in complete isolation to feel full, but the only moments I’ve truly felt full have been those of deep, meaningful human interaction. And lately, those seem to be evading me.
This isn’t a plea for friends or a cry for help. It’s just an acknowledgment of pain. It’s an essay that has no direction other than decompressing what I am going through. For a Fathom piece, this would rank low. We always wanted, and I’m sure Kelsey still wants, focused pieces that can pierce. This essay is meandering, and I don’t even know how I’m going to end this. I am alone. And it is my fault. Yet I cannot seem to get out of my own way.
As I check out at Trader Joe’s, I heave my basket on the little wooden slab and run over to the other side to help the cashier bag the groceries. She starts scanning items and gets to the Medjool Dates. “Ugh, these are so good,” she says. “They’re some of my favorites, “ I say—remembering I heard once that Trader Joe’s employees are trained to flirt just a little bit with some of the people that are in their checkout line. I doubt that’s true, but my red flags go up.
She gets to the fig bars, “I get these multiple times a week. They’re so much better than Fig Newtons.” “Yeah, they’re great.” I am too conscious that she is only scanning snack items. She definitely thinks I am just some pathetic thirty-year-old who only eats snacks and doesn’t make any real meals. Maybe I’ll make a joke about that. No. Just shut up.
We don’t talk for the rest of the scanning. She tells me the price and I give her my card. When she gives me the card I fumble to put it back in my wallet. I grab my bag. She reaches out and hands me the receipt. “Hey,” she says. I turn. “Have a great night.” “You too,” I say.
I heave the bag in my trunk, climb up into the seat of my jeep, and ride away—Bon Iver playing on my phone—to cook a meal by myself that I will eat by myself. I wonder who else feels this pain. I know I am not alone while I am completely alone. Maybe I’ll text a friend and ask what he’s up to. No. They’re all busy. I haven’t talked to them in months. Things drift apart.
I take back what I said about Thoreau, though. Just one thing he said was true. Just one. It’s been on my mind lately: most people lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.
Cover image by Ginny Rose Stewart.