It was only when she was surrounded by others that she felt terribly alone. The floor was speckled with what must have been a mix of spilled alcohol combined with hot wing sauce taking a ride from table to bathroom on exhausted shoes. The standing tables with flowers were lovely, but out of place. The sitting tables, pushed together, were shaking and rumbling against the slam of finished glasses, orders being wrong or just plain forgotten, and garrulous laughter that, much of the time, might have been forced from a cohort of unwilling alveoli. And sitting at a table in the middle of it all, the tired girl was distracted by her inability to find the right place to put her feet. She was surrounded by people that she cared so deeply about, but somehow could not reach them through the blockade of noise. Her lovely new backpack, clean and black as a velveteen raven, waited patiently by the base of the chair, and she held her breath each time the rattled waitress scurried over with an ever-tilting, tiny striped tray with overfilled, dripping beers and martini glasses. She imagined the tray falling over, likely a regular occurrence for the pony-tailed waitress bee, and a catastrophic outcome for the girl’s collection of things that she carried with her.

Only when we leave the lovely place of our passions do we find things that we do not want to find. The girl lived primarily in a beautiful world inside of her head. In this place, she found happiness. She could someday master her domain, lead an army, inspire a heart, and it didn’t matter if that domain, army, or heart lived entirely within herself. From a confusing, unidentifiable source she derived focus and drive toward solving tiny challenges, and solving these tiny challenges gave her meaning and emotional triumph. It was not something that needed attention or validation from any external source. She didn’t care what she might be called, the amounts it would lead her to, or the next calendar event she was supposed to look forward to. If we might be given a running start to imagine the ideal version of ourselves at some future time, it’s only a distraction from the reality that we are existing and full in the present. For the girl, this fullness was intoxicating. She was in a constant competition with herself, like a game of hide and seek where you are searching for the next version of your dreams across time. This intensity at various times in her life had been overwhelming, leading her to run across mountains, bike thousands of miles, and continue a search for solace in some yet-undiscovered alcove in her mind. But with much life experience comes knowing that the self is less an actual thing and more of a decision. The fun at the wedding party is not the shoes you put on but the feet that you put into them. The turkeys can only get you down if you offer yourself as doormat to their turkey feet. Her overwhelming intensity had matured and grown into an undying source of inspiration and happiness.

But this internal fire, like any source of warmth, was subject to the temperature around it. The external stimuli was too much for any of her tricks, and although she hadn’t a clue what everyone was erupting about, the force of it brought her to respond with an equivalent forceful laugh, a response that was an effort to fight a current by swimming in the same direction. All of her efforts to sneak off into dreaming about building elegant systems and tools were overpowered by such noise. She imagined that she might pull from her pocket a small packet of dust, and throw it into the air to cause a melodic pause, and tiptoe away to her bike parked outside. Was he still safely secured to the sign post? Do bikes get lonely? She imagined a world where bikes too would meet up to socialize after work, and decided that they would definitely go to pick up roller skates at a roller rink. In the world of transportation, love and companionship are shared by the common trait of having wheels.

Her fantasy was interrupted at a question directed toward her. Why did she have to make a claim about things that she would want to do tomorrow if she loved the things that she did today? The arbitrage of external inputs made her feel washed away and empty. It was situations like these, being completely surrounded by people, when she felt completely isolated. It was times like these when loneliness grew in her heart because she suddenly felt out of place. It was moments as blurred and hazy as this evening hour when she realized that one of the things is not like the others, and she was not an others. And so she endured until she was certain that there could possibly be no more plates of tiny meat on sticks arriving at the table, and then she made her escape. It was with directed energy that she flowed through the back of the restaurant, as if guided by an invisible current from a deus ex machina. She felt relief and empowerment unlocking her bike, and feeling the force of the tires restored her to the lovely state of being in her own thoughts. She had felt this a thousand times before, and yet she still kept trying. It had come to her when she was a little girl, when she walked home in the setting sun after running practice in high school, and when she looked across the desolation of campus after the last day of classes during University. It’s common and normal to be different, but she had yet to meet another soul that she imagined felt as she did.

But something today was different. The growing loneliness, a gently spreading gray, was leaked into by a soft purple when she imagined him in her minds eye. It had been days since they walked together, and she wanted nothing more than to talk to him. The spending of a parcel of extra time without him felt like an opportunity cost, like choosing to not have ice cream when you really had wanted to try the coconut. He had a kindness, naivete, and quiet intellect that made him incredibly handsome and endearing, and she was sure that he didn’t even know it. She had hugged him twice, even mustered up the courage to look him in the eye, and it made her feel comforted, safe, and understood. She wasn’t even sure that her immediate family, let alone the rest of the world, understood what it was like inside her head, but she was convinced that he might. It was as if she had traveled thousands of miles, for decades, and found, for the first time, someone that brought color into the grays of being surrounded by social loneliness. People she had loved, in painful obvious and unrequited secret, had never loved her back, and yet her heart always seemed to return to an idealistic, childish hope to find such understanding.  And as she pedaled home, across the traffic, lights, and scurry of downtown, her mind erupted in beautiful, colorful memory. If a moment in time can be like the beginning of a universe, the expansion had just begun. Little did she know that she was now on a path to separate herself, one tiny eon at a time, from the last moment she would ever feel alone.