A familiar ache in my chest struggling to find relief in shallow breaths. Intermittent sighs—my little screams of desperation. Mind and body at war. Heart tells head that I am all alone. Head tells heart that this is not true.

I sit quietly at a restaurant table with two old friends. They ask one another about their children. In M’s responses I can feel his resentment at how hard he has to work to pay his family’s way. I can also hear the joy he gets at spending time with his sons. He avoids expressing the emotions directly, choosing instead to use humor or that’s-the-way-it-goes shrugs. I ache to hear him speak plainly: to hear him say that at times he wishes he could run away; to cry; to scream; and, finally, to hear him say he wouldn’t actually change a thing.

S. too speaks of the incessant financial burdens of having children. But rather than anger, in him I sense a loneliness that, for better and worse, is assuaged by his children. Outward expression of his real thoughts and emotions are blocked by a shrug similar to M’s.

The loneliness I already felt going into this dinner is amplified by their inability to own the deeper aspects of their experience. I realize that I’m code-switching: speaking their language; staying in the content of things. It also occurs to me that despite my best efforts to listen and respond, that I have not once been asked about myself. I cannot decide how I feel about this. A part of me yearns for the attention and another recoils at having to share using the code of old high school friendships, “Ah, you know—tired from work but okay”.

I do my best to stay engaged. Comments are directed at me that further “other” me for not having made a family. I judge myself a coward for not speaking up and claiming my space. Then it occurs to me that I’m not being cowardly, I’m being discerning. I am flooded by memories spanning thirty-five years—moments where I dared be sincere and was met by blank looks and the awkward changing of topics. It is wisdom not cowardice. Strangely, this realization brings me closer to them. I remain lonely but I think of how M shows his love by doing my taxes and doing me favors; how S, when he is alone with me, goes out of his emotional comfort zone by sharing some of his emotions.

I am filled with gratitude for M and S but also for the friends I made later. Friendships without taboo topics. No codes are necessary. You show up as you are. Were my object constancy better this realization might shatter the loneliness, instead it merely takes the edge off. Still, my inner-critic begins to doubt. “Well, it’s true—you don’t really know what it’s like to have kids. Maybe it’s your own fault you felt cast aside. Maybe it’s just your trauma.”

I get home. Comics. Bed. Sleep.

The next evening my phone chirps. It’s a text—a poem from E. In it he beautifully and soulfully shares the melancholy and profound meaning he derives from his role in his family. He invites me into his world; gives me the benefit of the doubt that I can understand. I am moved to cry at both his courage and the validation that the loneliness of the night before wasn’t all about me.

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