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Alone for the Holidays

Thanksgiving, at a movie theater. The woman behind me bursts out in tears.

The young woman behind me at the movie theater, also alone on Thanksgiving, began to sob in the middle of a comedy. My shoulder isn't rustproof, so I didn't risk offering it to cry on, but I felt bad for her. Holidays alone aren't easy without practice. I kept my eyes to the screen, uncomfortable, feeling a weak and guilty urge to help her--wishing I had a hankerchief to hand back or the right thing to say. Before long, she stopped crying, and the movie ended without a shared word.

This year, I'll do Thanskgiving, Christmas, and maybe the New Year by myself. December 24 and 25, I'll volunteer at a homeless shelter on 63rd St. New Year, I'll stay home and listen for the guns to go off in Red Hook.

I choose to stay alone on those days, and I refuse invitations. It confuses my friends, but I don't want to share in their families. I have my own, even if it's a mess that I rarely visit. Staying by myself, I avoid Thanksgiving fights, Easter rage, and Christmas guilt. The friends who invite me call me to make sure I'm okay. "How's it going?" I ask. "I'm going crazy at home," they say. "I can't stand my Mom."

This Thanksgiving, I walked solo through Brooklyn and smelled the cooking. I grinned, a sentimental goof, to see station wagons pull up to the curbs of each block, their doors opening to pour out unencumbered children, trailed by their tired parents. The parents carried paper-handled shopping bags filled with oyster casserole, gravy in tupperware, and cans of cranberry sauce. The children scrambled to a door, pressed a doorbell, and screamed "Grandma" when the intercom crackled.

I see the clearest argument for marriage when I visit my brother. He works in HR for a chemical company. He and his wife are raising two healthy school-age kids and a four-month-old baby. Their animal needs are met without leaving the house: love, the constant contact of children who want to hang off of your legs and leap on your back, the shelter of a carpeted home, the chance to play and goof off and watch TV with each other. Rules are clear: don't hit, don't cheat, attend church, and save for college. The independence that they spent buys comfort and peace, at a wholesale prices. It is a nice thing.

Unlike my brother, no one needs me, like his children need their parents and he needs his wife. At this juncture, single, employed, and living alone, I'm free of those dependencies. Sure, this classic trade of comfort for independence makes some people turn to heroin or novel-writing, but for me, it satisfies. To quote my friend Max, who shaved his head bald, to the despair of the women who liked it long, "freedom ain't pretty." It's not a beautiful thing to stare out into the cold green harbor from the Brooklyn Bridge, when other people are tearing wrapping paper away from their new Norelco electrics. My loneliness is not sacred, like a marriage. It lowers my life expectancy on actuarial tables; it violates the social contract; it is not sanctified by the world's faiths; it makes others uncomfortable. But I'm my own family, and I may be lonely, fat, and sometimes, like my friend, shaven-headed, but when I check myself in the mirror every morning, I'm damned if I ain't free.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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