I am twenty-three years old. I live in a tiny room on the top floor of an old, decaying house on the outskirts of downtown. I’ve spent the majority of the summer nights reading Steinbeck while lying on my tiny twin-sized mattress on the floor with my floor up against the wall. There are dirty footprints on the white walls to prove it.
I’m in my last of five years of studying biology. Molecular evolution, genetic inheritance, epidemiology. I work in the sterile bowels of the biomedical research building, transferring invisible amounts of genetic material into fingernail-sized tubes and producing sheets of shiny film paper dotted with glowing white bars. To the graduate and PhD students, these tiny bars mean everything. This fluorescent almost-Morse-code, to them, holds the keys to biological secrets, to published papers, to graduation. To me, there are simply the predictable product of many hours of measuring, pippeting, mixing, and heating, all done between classes while listening to bluegrass because I’m tired of spending time in the student union building and this feels somewhat more worthwhile. On my grave, they’ll write: “OK student. Made dNTP mixes in batches big enough to supply the entire biology department (a niche skill). Often ate a hummus and pickle sandwich in the genetics lab against protocol when she thought no one was around.”
I pay for the tiny room and the hummus sandwiches and the occasional new book by waiting tables, a job I’ve done since I was sixteen, and which requires almost no brain-power anymore. The concept of tipping is still strange to me, but I’m happy to take home jars full of loonies and the efficiency of restaurant layouts appeals to me. I like to make silly faces at kids eating with their parents. Opening a new bag of coffee beans and sneakily inhaling deeply, that mind-boggingly good scent. Turning off the lights at the end of the day and sitting on the patio with the other waitresses and the cooks, laughing about angry customers and eating leftover soup out of coffee mugs.
Two or three times a month I drive forty-five minutes out of town to a farmhouse I love deeply, and eat dinner with the man I love and his family, then play board games or chess until midnight with the cats buried in our laps, purring indignantly. Sometimes we all walk down the long unlit country road to the beach with a bowl of raspberries or a brick of homemade fudge and throw stones in the ocean while we watch the sun go down. His mother will rest her hand on my knee and I will want to cry with how lovely and generous that small gesture is. Many nights, I will gaze at him and wonder how I ever got so lucky as to fall in love with someone like him. We talk about building a house, raising our children. We sit on the porch swing too late because we aren’t quite ready to say goodbye, back to our busy schedules and daily phone calls. Time together is rare, precious, long awaited, and I wake up nearly every morning and for a brief moment, wonder why my bed feels so damn empty. Ahhh, because it is just me.
But the solitude is good for me. I think more clearly alone, able to focus on my own projects without bending to the desires of others around me. When I’m surrounded by my friends, I sometimes feel as if I’m constantly compromising, bending, sacrificing. There are days when I want to sit in the attic all day and read a stack of books and drink tea without speaking to a single soul. There are other days, just as frequent, where I can’t stand to be alone and knock on every bedroom door in the house just to talk to someone about their day, just to sit a few feet away from someone while we both read and enjoy the sound of someone else breathing beside me.