Three Chairs

February 26, 2011

Awesome Stepkid R. is taking Film Studies this semester. A few weeks ago, his class watched the James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause. He liked it. I think everyone likes that movie, but of course I can’t really speak for everyone.

My husband and I laugh sometimes because even though R. isn’t biologically my son, we share the same social wiring– the kid is a misanthrope, like me.  He doesn’t mind being alone and finds the company of people, in general, taxing.

So of course, he watched Rebel with a sense of kinship and perhaps a little pride, because the lonely James Dean is pretty dang cool, isn’t he? He needs no one. He’s just fine by himself–he doesn’t need any stragglers complicating things, slowing him down.  Nobody understands his heart, and somehow that’s beautiful too; how can the shallow masses understand such an intricate soul?

James Dean climbs onto his motorcycle, with his leather jacket and dreamy eyes, rides off into the sunset, and somehow we know he’ll be just fine going it alone down that road.

The Solitary Man.

Tres chic, no? Romantic, even.

There’s lots of strong, soulful, Lone-Wolf types in popular fiction and film. Dirty Harry. Sam Spade. Rambo. Bogart and Brando. James Bond and Jason Bourne.  Standing alone, needing no one,  is mysterious and powerful and even noble.  If you are a man.

I can’t really think of any Lone-Wolf female characters that carry that same allure. Maybe Nikita, but if you’ve seen the original movie, La Femme Nikita, you know that she’s one twisted chick.

The women who stand alone—the ones  I immediately think of— like Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson and Edna Pontillier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening…they’re portrayed as mentally unstable, fragile to the point of breakability.  Damaged creatures, wandering in white nightgowns, scribbling poems on scraps of paper.   We pity them. Or we scorn them (Edna) because what kind of selfish twit abandons her children and swims into the ocean? What kind of woman is so indulgent that she takes what she has for granted, longing for something more?

The Solitary Man is smart and flinty and wise. The Solitary Woman is a nutjob.

Women aren’t supposed to be alone.  And they’re certainly not supposed to like it.

But plenty of women are alone, and functional. Some women like it. Or do they?

Is a solitary life comforting, or is it something people tell themselves they prefer because it’s the only thing they know?  Because others have been trusted in the past and failed them, and being alone is a safe and reliable outcome?

I don’t know any answers; I’m blabbin’.

I just know that I prefer to be alone because that’s how I’ve spent most of my life. Alone feels like home.

My mother spent most of her life alone (well, not alone because there were children underfoot but you know what I mean) and she always took it like a trooper.  One of those, “don’t worry about me, I’ve got it, I’m good,” types of things.  She didn’t treat it as abnormal, but now that I think about it, she had to have been lonely.  She was an extrovert as a young woman—a girl who loved parties and flirtation and the attention of a crowd.

When did that change? When did she decide that she didn’t need people?


When I was 27, I moved to a new apartment—one closer to the school where I taught.  I invited a fellow teacher/work friend over to my new place for dinner. We didn’t know each other very well, but she was vivacious and daring, and I was drawn to her. She shimmered, and like a magpie, I hovered in fascination.

This particular night, she sat at the counter as I chopped vegetables for stir-fry. She chatted, Chardonnay in hand, and looked around my apartment with unabashed interest.

Suddenly, she stopped mid-sentence and said, “Dude.  How come you only have three chairs at your dining room table?”

I said, “Oh, they were expensive–90 bucks a piece–so I only bought three. I only need three anyways, for when my parents come to dinner.”

She burst out laughing, incredulous. “Ummm, ya never thought that maybe you’d need an extra? That you might have someone else over to your house other than your parents? You know, like a guy or a friend or something?”

I looked a little sheepish then—the idea really hadn’t occurred to me.

She continued to shake her head and chortle. “Okay, that says so much about you, right there.  Only a hard-core pessimist buys three fucking chairs.”

She’d only known me a few months, but she’d nailed me, dead-on, over dining room furniture. The Tao of Décor.

At the time I laughed, as amused as she was. Three chairs were, indeed, an oddity.

It was only over weeks, as I came home to three chairs every evening, that I began to see the significance of that empty space at the table. I was a woman prepared to remain alone. It’s the life I assumed would happen to me.

Of course, I now know that you don’t have to be the only one at the table to be alone.  You can be strikingly, deeply alone surrounded by a throng of people. In fact, I feel most alone at those times.  It’s why I drink a (rather large) glass of wine as I’m dressing and primping before a party, to blunt the black churning in my gut.

It’s why I can’t imagine going to a party right now, without that fortification, without the magic elixir that turns me into someone else.

I imagine I’d stand near the door, Pellegrino  in hand, and travel in my mind. I’ll be at the 7th grade dance, hugging the wall, watching Danny Blevins ask Michelle to dance.  I’ll stare at the gym floor, bird legs shaking, fearing I’ll be chosen last for kickball. I’ll spend my lunch hour in math lab, with Dr. Z, who kindly opened his door, knowing those 40 minutes were torture.

Yes, I imagine I’d travel.

But really, this is the way it has always been. It’s home. I’ve got it. I’m good.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

elizabeth March 3, 2011 at 8:34 am

This is why I think you’ll like Weeds so much–the first season dives head-on into the idea of being along while being surrounded by other people, and as the series develops (some would say devolve) it’s clear that Nancy is aware that at any given moment she could wind up alone again.

Fellow second-child introvert here! While I can be gregarious and talkative, often I’m content to be in my own world. I’m most like this on the train, and subsequently hate it when I run into people I know from work because I think I have to talk to them when all I want to do is sit with a beer, turn on my iTunes and either do work or read or sleep. I make a point to pick the solitary chair when it’s free (and will search for one if necessary) so I can cocoon myself without thinking someone is peeking over my shoulder.

Lovely piece!


subWOW March 14, 2011 at 4:15 pm

I love this one too. I have nothing witty or intelligent to say other than telling the truth.


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