I needed to remind myself that being lonely is not the same as being alone. Yes, I was experiencing both, but someone, somewhere must’ve been thinking about me, right? (Image Credit: Unsplash/Jack Eiselt)
The manila envelope slid across the desk. I grabbed it a bit more aggressively than I’d planned. Its contents detailed the terms of my elimination from a position I’d held for just a year. Fourteen months prior, I sat across a similar desk in a similar office hearing the same words: you are being laid off.
It's the corporate world’s way of saying “It's not you, it's me,” and for the second time in my short career (Rowan University, class of 2013, baby), I was being professionally broken up with.
As I retreated to the parking lot — my half-eaten breakfast in one hand, still-warm coffee in the other — I realized what kind of ex I wanted to be: the one that freedom looked well on, the one who friends wondered why the hell she hadn’t been single all along.
She can do it better on her own, anyway.
I didn’t want to be suckered into another office gig where the thought of content and influencers dominated my days. Content and influencers already kept me up late at night. No, my light source would not be the din of a computer screen, it would be actual sunlight. I would be radiant and my hair would be shiny and I would be well-rested. I was going to “find” myself because I wasn’t even sure of who I was anymore.
So I booked a one-way flight to Los Angeles.
It seems like a highly romanticized and not very thought out thing to do, but I was never one for subtlety. In a few days time, I would leave the comfort and familiarity — and the anxieties that come with that comfort — behind in Philadelphia to explore a city in which I had never been. And then another. And then another after that, eventually ending up in San Francisco by way of the Pacific Coast Highway and a (very expensive) rental car.
When I suddenly had the urge to buy a vape (I didn’t go through with it) or went trapezing from lunch meetups to afternoon coffee with colleagues and editors, there was a self-assuredness I hadn’t experienced in months, a feeling that says "You are good and maybe could be vegan."
Not only would I be forced to pump my own gas (shout-out New Jersey upbringing), but would have to be one-on-one with my thoughts, able to silence them or force them towards brighter pastures and not dark alleyways. Outside the influence of well-meaning friends and family, I would have to make my own decisions on just about everything.
On stretches of highway where no other cars can be seen or in crowded diners where I sit alone at the bar, will I find myself?
In Los Angeles, it’s easy to be someone you aren’t. The town’s most alluring business thrives on such a model. So when I suddenly had the urge to buy a vape (I didn’t) or went trapezing from lunch meetups to afternoon coffee with colleagues and editors, there was a self-assuredness I hadn’t experienced in months, a feeling that says "You are good and maybe could be vegan."
It was a practice in visibility. I could be as seen — or unseen — as I wanted to be. In Los Angeles, you can be a servant to your inner socialite or stroll along Sunset Boulevard in anonymity. You can wear a leather jacket and drink iced coffee while shopping in a thrift store and no one will want to take your picture, but it’s thrilling to think that sometimes people do this exact thing and are photographed. It doesn’t make anyone less or better, though the attraction of potentially being in disguise — from yourself or outsiders — is enough to make one feel transformed.
The same sense of spiritually amorphous being carried into my drive up the coast. Nestled between the crags where the land meets the sea and sprawling hills beyond, I drove trying to determine if the song on the radio was Christian Contemporary or Imagine Dragons.
If I wasn’t sure of who I was, then how could I be sure of the music?
San Luis Obispo offered me my first opportunity to indulge, courtesy of a giant piece of German Chocolate cake at the Madonna Inn, the Swiss cottage on LSD meets roadside attraction marked by kitsch — each room features a different decor theme, from the Old Mill room to the Safari and the hotel’s plush pink dining room. Sensory overload is a badge of honor, driving every cake-dazed visitor further into mania with each sugar-filled bite.
If the Madonna Inn was a person, she’d be the one encouraging you to “do it for the story,” the one who never turns down a dare. I embraced this sensibility, had my cake and ate it too. The notion of enjoying food and not being ashamed of it or writing it off as a joke (and the solidarity of eating it alone) was a testament to the new person I thought I was becoming. The search for the perfect cookie (Hot Cookie in San Francisco) or the best ramen (Ramen Hood in Los Angeles) should bring as much joy as the hike to the tallest peaks in Big Sur.
So I kept eating: fresh seafood in Cambria, a small coastal town midway through the journey, pho in Monterey, burritos in San Francisco, bangers and mash in Oakland. I accepted Madonna’s dare and tasted California in all its glory.
In between meals and motels, the rain poured. Plans to attend a quartz bowl energy class in Big Sur were shelved. Flooding closed roads and necessitated out of the way detours. This was not how the spiritual awakening was supposed to go.
Suddenly, 17-Mile Drive became somber, a reminder of my own solitude, soundtracked by the pit-pattering of rain on the windshield and a local classical radio station. The waves crashed at the rocks just beyond where I stood. I wanted to feel sufficient in my being, that just being alive watching the Pacific Ocean peak and crest was enough, that I had achieved a miraculous feat just by making it this far in life.
I needed to remind myself that being lonely is not the same as being alone. Yes, I was experiencing both, but someone, somewhere must’ve been thinking about me, right?
It was a lot like being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The miles on the odometer were proof of the distance I’d gone, my camera roll was indicative of the places I’d been, yet there were days, many, in fact, where not a single soul knew where I was.
On the flight back to Philadelphia, a friend messaged a simple question: “How do you want to move on?”
In a time where everything was in flux, in transit, I thought leaving would be how I overcame the things I thought were, in fact, turning their backs on me. I wanted to be the one to rip the band-aid off first. As it turns out, that has never been the case and likely never will be. Moving on perhaps isn’t embracing the flight at all, but rather the fight.