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Respectable to be Alone,
by Sheila Heti

Instead of there being three mice in the kitchen, as we had thought, there were only two. The third must have been a figment of our imagination.

We argued about the third mouse a lot that spring, when we were arguing about everything in plain sight, that season when we didn’t know that all the arguments really were about, Are you serious? You? With me, here? For the rest of my life? Is this really the way it’s going to be?

I had a sense that if I didn’t struggle to break free, it really would be the rest of my life. And yet though I came close to calling it off – or so it seemed at the time – I only had the courage to air those thoughts to one or two people, over the phone, and never to him, even though a sentence that was risky would sometimes let loose in a fight, something like, If you don’t like it, then leave! Or We’re just not right for each other, said sadly.

But the truth was, he did like it, we were right for each other, I didn’t want him to leave, and he didn’t want to go either. Even though in retrospect I understand what precipitated things, at the time it was frightening to the death, and if I hadn’t trusted my deepest instincts – which must have been to stay, for that is what I did – and instead listened to my body, so often paralyzed with fear or sadness – where would I be now? It might be a good place, even an exciting place, but it would not be with him.

It was while speaking with an unhappy cousin of mine, who had always been unhappy in love, that I detected something to beware of: a woman who looks to men for adventure will only draw the adventurous types, and life with an adventurer is not a sustainable thing. A woman, in her heart, has to be looking for no adventure at all, to catch a man who will treat her, if not always in the most romantic of ways, well enough. Well enough is all one should be looking for in life. Love really does grow. A man becomes your family, and just as your family was chosen for you, so it often seems that the man who sticks around was birthed into your life from the very matter of the universe, no different than a howling baby.

Yet whenever I described our relationship that spring, I did so painfully, though the scrim of so much pain. I tried to depict it accurately, without dwelling on the hardest bits. Older people I respected would always say, That sounds wonderful! I left these conversations bewildered. What had I have said that could have possibly sounded wonderful? What I must have been describing was a true marriage; I just couldn’t believe it, because my self-image was not “lucky.”

I partly want to refute everything that I just said about me. It’s not true that I don’t (or didn’t) feel permission to live my real life in those days. I had my reasons for doing the things I did. I was strict with myself, in the same manner as my mother. Sure, I never felt permission to do anything, but at least I made the best out of feeling this way. Sure, I am aware of other people’s happiness. But there is also misery, and I chose that path. That is what I did, around the age of 33. I made that decision for myself. Was it the wrong one? Of course! But I never felt I had the permission to do what I truly wanted to do. Oh, it makes me cry to think of it, how stupid I was! But I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I should have just run away without any explanation at all. Too late. A friend said to me, Don’t sacrifice. Don’t be a martyr. She knew I was that kind of person. I should have listened to her, but I was too angry, too scared, and too determined to go through with the life I had chosen. I continued to walk the path I was on, simply because I was on it.

~

Well then, what did it mean to be a grown-up?
To take responsibility for oneself in the world. To understand situations as best one could, without simplifying things. To do everything without simplifying. To not expect anything to happen to you – the way people who read romance novels believe life goes.

How clogged your head is now!
You have managed to stop spending money – yet there is still an eternity in front of you!

~

The psychiatrists say, Be patient. But how can I be patient when I have been waiting for so long!? The days feel longer and longer. I can’t be patient with life any longer! I can’t live in this life that I have been set up to lead! Why do I make myself sit in one place, growing deeper into it like roots into the soil, instead of actually fleeing?
I am bitter most of the time, my heart has gone cold. I am a coward. I could move to an exciting city and have exciting friends, but I’m afraid I will break the hearts of everyone I know, and that I will break his heart. I try to tell myself, Those assholes don’t care if you move to another town! But they do. I see their imploring eyes. They call me up. And back when we could, they would want to meet me for dinner.
What’s wrong with your life? Shut up, Sherry once said when I was talking this way.
It has been eight years since I have been happy, ever since I agreed to bind my life to him.

A long time ago, it was respectable to be alone. No one said that you had to love, or learn to love better. No one said you had to shine, or try and shine brighter. No books about these things were written at all. But in this world, you can’t be a loser because people don’t think, at least a loser goes to heaven, in the end.

When I was born, they built a ladder to heaven. Then they said about me, She will never find it. My parents told this story a hundred times, laughing, when their friends were over at dinner, which is why I will never be happy.

It is not enough to have sacrificed one’s entire life to the mores of society; one has to go even further and say, Thanks! Thanks! Thanks! Thanks!

~

What if I was to put on the outfit I originally described – shoes no one cares about, a jacket no one cares about, a blouse and pants and socks – and leave everything behind, and just start over in a new civilization, where maybe my role will be census-taker.

And maybe I can become as forgetful as a man, not keep up with anyone, and let myself become as lonely as a man, fine. My boyfriend considers himself a fame-catcher. In this way, he thinks he is worth something; that he has actually done some good in this world.

I know I’ll just stay in the house with him and fight some more, forget about a new universe, dying my hair red, and not telling my friends where I’m going.

The next day I went to the doctor’s office, and when I got there, I was surprised to find a line-up. So I was not the only one. But I was not prepared to stand in a line.

A small voice came from inside me and said, Just stand still and wait! So I left the line and returned to this life that always craves for me to return – but when I do, it doesn’t smile, it doesn’t welcome me in, hugging me, telling me how I was missed, or anything joyous like that. I just re-enter my room through the same old wood door. And there he still is, for more days than I thought it was possible to be in a room with a man.

Back when it was still possible, we had gone on a vacation together. I was in a tent, on the second tier of the cruise ship, and he was in the cabin, I had wanted to get away. And outside, I heard two people talking. They were clearly a couple. The woman was pregnant, and they were discussing what they were going to do with the baby. They were trying to decide whether to give it away, kill it, or raise it themselves.

Keep your fucking baby, you morons! I wanted to shout from my cabin, Shut up and let me sleep! The next morning there was going to be a protest against the captain and I wanted to have the strength to carry the sign I had made earlier that day.

Then, suddenly, the woman threw up and began going into convulsions, and people came out from their cabins, and just then, the baby was born. An old woman standing nearby (I had my head poking out at this point) began crying. She turned to the new mother and said, I always cry when a child is born. God never gave me any children of my own.

Then the new mother gave her child to the old woman – just like that. Take her and raise her as your own, the mother said, and her husband nodded, like they had discussed it all already. And who knows, maybe they had.

The next morning, the old woman could be seen on the prow of the ship, nursing the baby from a bottle, as beautiful as any painting of a new mother, revitalized and reborn. I found my sign and joined the others outside the captain’s cabin.

Finally he came out, saying, None of you will be able to steer this ship a better direction than I have been steering it. But we didn’t let him finish, and Jones took over at the helm. I grew uneasy, however, realising that there was some truth in what he’d said. Why had we trusted Jones? Because he was a passenger like one of us? Yet the captain had been a passenger once, too.

And I had been a passenger on the ship of my own life, so to speak, but I had also been its captain.

These days, I feel like neither passenger nor captain, but something else – like I’m swimming beside the ship.

Sheila Heti is the author of eight books of fiction and non-fiction, including How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood. Her books have been translated into 20 languages. She hosts an intermittent podcast called Podcast with Raisins, and has interviewed many writers and artists for The Believer magazine. She has written for The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, The Paris Review, and many other places. Her work is collected here.

If you enjoyed this piece, Sheila recommends you now take a look at these posters by some of the world's greatest artists, a project to raise money for smaller art galleries in the time of Covid. She’d also like to recommend the novel Black Boy by Richard Wright (“one of the most affecting and interesting memoirs I have ever read, published in 1945”) and the Hulu series Pen15, “as absurd as it is touching.”

Literally is WePresent’s slowly expanding library of written commissions by some of the best writers in the world. The hand-drawn typography on this page was created by Iancu Barbarasa.

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