Being Alone, Sometimes

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Over the course of three decades working at a community college I had some interesting and, well, scary moments. There was the time a student threw a desk at me (I caught it, but he didn’t know it really shook me up); or the one who ran around the room screaming in Russian (I screamed back at him in Russian, and he froze, then ran out of the room, out of the building, and was never seen on campus again), or the one who wasn’t even a student of mine but I happened to venture into the dean’s office just as the provost was confronting him, but the student was so high he thought I was his professor and slammed the door shut and yelled at the two of us until security showed up. Yes, moments to remember, indeed.  

But there was one night that left me stone-cold scared.  

I got up to pee about ten pm. I’d been in my cinder block, windowless office for several hours, and everyone had gone home, the last class most likely filing out no later than nine. I stayed though; I wanted to clear my head after the incident in my college comp course at four thirty.  

A student in the back mouthed off at me then stood to leave. He cursed at me on the way out, muttering, “I’m coming back, asshole. You’re so fucked,” and he kicked open the door to the outside. Gone.

I normally didn’t worry about punks like this. They had my attention; it was the quiet creeps in the corner buried under a black raincoat who gave me pause. But this time he got under my skin, this student, the way he didn’t yell, just mouthed it to himself more than me. The way he didn’t make eye contact as if he wasn’t threatening me but instead already making plans, running through some list in his head of what he needed. When class ended everyone left, acting extra nice as they did, seemingly trying to compensate for their psychotic colleague who scared us all. “Have a good weekend, Professor,” most of them said, even the ones who never talked before. “See you Tuesday,” they all said. It was very nice. Calm. Borderline creepy.  

So I went back to my office and fiddled around and calmed down by listening to music and making a note which mentioned the guy’s name and said, “Threatened to kill me in my 4:30 course—22 witnesses.”  I figured the police would need a lead. When I emerged from my cinder block cell at about ten, I found the hallways to be vacant and even the classrooms and other offices to be empty. I saw the guard walking away from the building on his rounds, and I stretched, thought about heading right to my car and going home, but decided to head to the bathroom first. I had to pee.

I stood facing the wall, the overwhelming smell of cleansers filled the air reminding me that the cleaning crew had done their thing and left for the night. After drinking several bottles of water I figured this might take a bit, and I stood facing the tiles when the door slowly opened. I tried to turn my head but the position of the urinal kept me from seeing the door, which was anyway behind another wall, and I couldn’t see who came in. I was quiet a moment, trying to empty myself a bit faster, and then called out, “Tom, you back?” Nothing. Not even the sound of shoes, no reply, no clap of books or a backpack being tossed on the shelf near the door. Just the door closing on its own and a soft cough. I wasn’t alone.

***

Curiously, I spend a lot of time alone—walking, driving—and I like it. I can clear my head and do a lot of “writing” while by myself. I am rarely intimidated or scared when in the car or on a trail, not the least of all because I tend to pay attention wherever I am. Plus, most people, and animals for that matter, leave me alone. The irony of today’s way of life with technology and social media is well known: we are more connected than ever but increasingly isolated. I get that. When I spent time alone prior to cell phones and computers, I was simply out of reach. My imagination could run wild with who might have tried to call me but, alas, I wasn’t home, and they didn’t leave a message (or message machines were not yet available). But today we can be faced with multiple ways for people to get in touch with us, and when they don’t, when we lose friends, when we don’t hear from family anymore, it is obvious, it is blatant, and it is sad. Then, we spend even more time alone, as depression is such a spiraling disease.

But my solo walks and humanless wanderings are by choice. I can almost always dial up a down mood to something almost manic at the end of a long walk. Part of it is chemistry, part is meditation, and part of it is feeling more comfortable away from people than around them. Since I was nineteen-years-old I’ve been to some degree in front of groups of people, from coffeehouses, to exercise classes, to readings, to college teaching. But very rarely in those instances is one-on-one required. As such, I never had much practice at it. I’m crappy at small talk, and with the exception of a few people, I choose nature (or a full room, of course—one or the other).  

I read somewhere one of the signs of depression is the desire to be alone; and I believe this is true, for me at least. When I’m around too many people for too long (which isn’t long at all) I get depressed—but when I retreat to the river or hike somewhere, I can turn my mood around, feel possible, feel somewhat myself again. Technically, I’m not “clinically” depressed, and I’m generally always in a pretty decent mood. But when I’m around too many people, I want to flee. 

I never tire of walking, sitting along some waterway, sitting with an understanding friend talking, having a glass of wine, driving, stepping out of a busy building and finding a bench or a picnic table. A corner in a coffee shop. A trail through pines, or oaks. A train through forests of birch trees. A path through the Pyrenees. One or two people who understand and a moment or two in nature, and suddenly despair can quite easily slide to hope.

And hope is always worth getting to know, even searching for.

I finished peeing, zipped up, and turned around slowly, and the punk was standing against the far wall. My heart raced to an immeasurable pace and I tried to move to the sink to wash my hands without any visible shaking. I was going to bypass the washing but wanted to appear in control.

I soaped up wondering if a handful of this would sting his eyes enough for me to make a getaway. “What?!” I said, as if I knew he was there the whole time and I was tired and wanted to go home. I did want to go home but I was certainly no longer tired; at the moment I felt I could stay awake for a very long time.

“I just wanted to apologize. Please don’t drop me from your class. My mom will kill me.”

The blood ran out of my head and torso and gathered at my ankles. If I had to run at that moment I would not have been able to. I took a paper towel and dried my hands. “Are you apologizing because your mom will kill you or because you shouldn’t have mouthed off at me for giving you a failing grade on a paper that didn’t meet a single requirement?”

“Both, I guess.”

“You ever mouth off at your friends like that?”

He laughed a bit. “Yeah, I suppose, but listen, I really…”

“How come you can find all the words you need when mouthing off but none when writing?”

He stared at me. I was waiting for the Universal Collegiate “I don’t know,” but he was quiet and stared at me.

I walked out the door and he followed. “I’m going home,” I said. “See you Tuesday.”

“Okay,” he said, and walked out as I went to my office to get my stuff and perhaps throw up in my garbage can.

When I walked out to the car he was sitting on the bench. “Do you need a ride?” I asked, and he shook his head.

“No. I just don’t want to head home yet.” I didn’t ask why. I kind of figured why.

“See you Tuesday,” I said again, and he said the same.

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