An Average Sadness

It is with small shame that I move to turn on the radio today. Radio is the friend I usually neglect; the friend I only think to call upon when life has turned sad and desperate. I always return to it flushed with guilt — but it is always waiting for me, it is always ready to take me back.

When I first lived alone, I listened, like so many, each day: when I awoke in the mornings, and again in the evenings, when I returned from work. While I waited out the siege of my first New York summer, radio’s sounds were the only ones I could tolerate.

And so, when my first relationship went bad, I found myself in an apartment steeped in brown, and again I turned to radio. The taste of yucca, which I fried for the first time in that tiny kitchen, the smell of smoke-saturated curtains and Murphy’s Oil Soap, the interviews, the news reports, the long recitation of member stations in the Berkshires — these are bound to each other and to me, they are the taste, the smell, the sodden air of that isolation.

Radio was made for the lonely, after all, the displaced and the out of touch. Unlike television — which stares stubbornly in a single direction, which demands the attendance of the whole, battered body — radio is everywhere. Single people need radio, for only it can fill the enormous spaces that even their smallest apartments harbor. It does not spite us for out distraction, but tactfully begins from the moment we switch it on.

Its sound is our guardian angel; ubiquitous but unassuming. We move about our business while radio patiently follows. Its persistent soothes even our most sodden and sharp-edged isolations, softens the spaces between our souls and the ever-distant walls.

In these ways, radio is forgiving, and the lonely are in need of forgiveness.

Last spring it seemed my whole life abandoned me — a needed job fell through, my relationship failed. I took the first, smallest, dingiest apartment that offered itself. I didn’t have the patience, or the courage, to look further. I switched perfumes. I listened to the radio. And words started to drop in on me without warning.

As I shivered in the rush of possibility, my comforts and routines wrestled away from me, I became aware of the air nearest to me. This air knew skin, it was warm with my own voice. Sheltered, I grew still. I lifted plain and shining words from the cold that braced my insides. They swam to me, they offered themselves to my net.

For months I lived like this, avoiding new friendships, neglecting the few that had survived my prior couple hood. I postponed getting a new job, preferring to subsist on coffee, on toast, on the sun that would brave my filthy windows. These days were indulgent and untenable — I would have to find work, I would have to revive old friendships, I would have to form new ones. The harvest would fall off.

Though I cried myself to sleep each night, this time was as sweet and as thick as any I ever lived. Each moment I distilled and drank off at my leisure: each day I reaffirmed my greed for my own uninterrupted time and only radio was invited. I grew strong, alone like that. But slowly, practicality ended my respite. I moved in with a friend, I took a job. I fell in love.

Falling in love is like painting yourself into a corner. Thrilled by the color you’ve laid down around you, you forget about freedom shrinking at your back. Neglected, my river slowed, my catches grew meager. I stopped listening to radio. I once again to think of time alone as something to spend or will away, rather than something I could stretch myself across.

And now, now that I have forgotten, things prepare themselves to fall away again — another love will leave; I will take an apartment by myself. I feel the air turn crisp, the walls edge further from my body.

Shivering, nervous, I turn on the radio, for the first time in months. Paul Auster is reading a story about a girl who lost her father, who dragged a Christmas tree down the streets of a midnight Manhattan. He is asking us for our stories.

There are conditions: that they be both brief and true.

But I have no deaths, no travels worth repeating. I have no strokes of wild fortune or incredible tragedy. I have only an average sadness. Worse, I have been unable to write for weeks now, my mind riddled instead by imminent departures, imminent change.

Then it strikes me: this moment is the friendly hand of solitude. The radio is inviting me back, back to the rooms it will fill with its voice of warmest flannel, back to the warm light of time spent alone.

I have recognized the invitation only as I have written these lines. That is my story, complete with the climax that is now.

Sometimes it is good fortune to be abandoned. While we are looking after our losses, our selves may slip back inside.