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That Lonely Spell

Frances Park

Courtesy Frances Park

The author recalls a period of loneliness long ago—a feeling that has come back, again, after decades.

For one long semester in 1974, my heart was a tomb. I didn’t know a soul on the campus of George Mason University—then, strictly a commuter college—and despite five thousand students milling around me, I felt like the only person on earth. However brilliant that Virginia autumn, everything, like winter before its time, was gray.

Off campus, the scene improved with dinner-and-disco nights with guy friends, no one heart-capturing, and life with my family at home. According to me, and surely the US Census Bureau, we were the only Korean family in West Springfield. My dad in the garage-converted den, my mom slicing red radishes in the kitchen, my younger brother and sister running up and down the stairs. In my sweet memory box, they’re still there, in the yellow colonial with green shutters. Their shadows, their echoes. My family. Had I known my dad would pass away in five years—in one blink, gone forever—any focus on me would’ve flown out the window but I didn’t know and so whenever class called, I got in my sky-blue Pinto and inched closer to campus while Ramblin’ Man came over the radio and mental rigor mortis set in: I’m alone. My walk in the wide-open space from the parking lot to the building grounds took a century. Driving, walking, nobody cares. I’m in a sea of strangers.

Flashback to the year before: I was happy. Well, I could always count on Carol for that; living proof that you can meet someone and suddenly your world, like leaves, turns colorful because somebody knows you. Knows you. We latched onto each other standing in line at freshman orientation, signing up for some of the same courses that day. In a heartbeat, we were one, inhabiting our own private isle, if you will, sitting in side-by-side desks and on outdoor benches, hanging out between classes in a cafeteria curiously called The Ordinary where, after a dull lecture, a coffee with a cigarette or two accompanied by our own brand of humor, laughing so hard our faces hurt, was the highlight of the day. For example, at lunch time The Ordinary offered, among other things, delicious by-the-inch hoagies. Whenever I ordered a five-incher, the sweet Howdy Doody counter guy would slice it, wrap it up, label the price with a magic marker and say without perv intent, I gave you a free inch. I’d run back to our table, laughing my butt off. Whenever I was with Carol, life was a comedy skit.

The next September, she transferred to a small private college. Carol didn’t abandon me, it was always part of the plan but once she was gone, the party was over, the campus as I knew it went up in smoke. The Ordinary—literally—ceased to exist. What kept me going was knowing that I was transferring, too, in January to Virginia Tech where I promised myself I’d try harder to make friends and be happy. With no idea I’d lose my father before the decade was up, I did and was.

The lonely spell was history.

Or was it?

Strange but true that in the breadth of more years than I care to calculate, at any stage in life—while carrying on after the death of my dad who remains forever in the den wearing his burgundy sweater because it’s always cold in there; watching over my still very-Korean mom, 49 when widowed, 89 last month; witnessing my nephew grow up, once in my arms, now from afar; running a sweet little shop since 1984 with all the customers and conversations that come with it; writing stories in silent rooms as I age and wonder when I’ll put down the pen; experiencing my fair share of love and loss with men and friends and precious dogs along the way; and of course keeping in touch with Carol—hearing Ramblin’ Man on Sirius always brought back the ghostly chill of one long semester.

This spring the lonely spell returned, most notably at the grocery store on weekends when everyone’s there and you’re forced to park in practically another time zone. The lot and the sky, so massive you’re reduced to a speck, a ghost, nobody. Don’t recognize a soul in the parking-lot universe, only the eternity of this walk which feels eerily familiar. Once in Wegmans, among a sea of strangers, it hits me: I’m stone-cold alone.

I’m also going through divorce. Though relieved, I can’t help but question myself, doubt myself, my will and power to move on, make a good life, a better life. The emotional shift from we to me is a solitary affair. That said, I often wish that Carol—who lives on the opposite coast and last week wrote in my birthday card, Am so glad we met that day standing in line at GMU!—would move back here. Then this feeling would vanish in a snap. Just like that. Over coffee without cigarettes, we’d laugh again so hard our faces hurt. But since that’s a pipe dream, I remind myself that we all have our stories, and we all have our lonely spells. If we’re lucky, they’ll be gone by next season.

Keep reading: Mixed emotions of the holidays


Frances Park is the author of ten books, including the novel When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon. She's currently at work on a collection of essays about lost love.


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