I sat alone in the corner of the Morris Center reading a book and eating Marshmallow Maties breakfast cereal (the generic knock-off of Lucky Charms served by BYU Dining Services). I thought it was pretty self-evident that I did not want to be bothered, as I had positioned myself far enough from the closet group of similarly aged BYU freshman so as not to overhear what I considered to be their inane conversation. However, this did not stop one smiling faced freshman boy from approaching my table. “Do you mind if I sit with you?” He asked.
I looked up from my book. I looked at the friendly faced boy with a mix of shock and disgust. Without saying a word, I began scanning the entire Morris Center with my eyes in an exaggerated fashion, mentally screaming, “Look at all of the empty tables, you stupid dope. Can’t you see that I don’t want to be bothered?”
Only, I didn’t say anything. I thought he would be clever enough to get the point. I wasn’t bursting forth with warmth and didn’t issue an open invitation, so I assumed that he would simply move on to the next table. But he didn’t. Instead of picking up every visual cue that I tried to give him, indicating that I was not the kind of person with whom you just sat down with at 7:00 in the morning in the culinary hell hole called the Morris Center, he sat down across from me.
“My name is Johnny,” he introduced himself.
I paused, then closed my book and dropped my spoon. “My name is I’m Leaving,” I announced. With one quick motion, I picked up my food tray and headed off.
That event, two months into my near seven-year stint in Provo introduced me to the concept of being alone in Utah. To be alone in Utah, is to be frequently misunderstood. This poor kid who confronted my solitary state that morning in Utah, probably just assumed that I needed a friend. Who would willingly want to be alone, I thought he must have assumed. I’ll admit, that when this happened, my only reaction was to be completely annoyed at the assumption that I wouldn’t just enjoy eating my breakfast in silence while reading a book. After some time passed, my initial hostility gave way to a slight sense of regret. Whereas I had assumed that this boy had pitied me and determined that I needed a friend, the reality might have been that he needed a friend and wasn’t comfortable being alone. He just didn’t understand that he had come to the wrong person. Of all of the things that I may be blessed with in this life, the ability to make friendly small talk with a complete stranger is not one of those blessings.
That isn’t to say that during my time in Utah, I was always comfortable with my far-to-common solitary state. Sometimes, I did wish for the company of someone else and it was circumstance that dictated my aloneness. I remember one excruciating evening of going to hear a friend’s band play, and, realizing that I had no one to talk to, standing down and looking at my shoes the entire night. On another occasion, I remember doing some grocery shopping at the Orem SuperTarget late one Friday evening to be confronted with a gaggle of group daters on a scavenger hunt. It wasn’t that I envied them, but it was rather that I knew that I didn’t understand them and that they didn’t understand me, and I felt like there was an unapproachable gulf between myself and the concept of fitting in at college. The worst, though, was the time I forced myself to go to the BYU Devotional the day after one particularly depressing Valentine’s Day. Sitting alone in the upper seats of the Marriott Center, I watched as the first boy that I ever loved walked in with his pretty, new fiance and sat directly in front of me, completely oblivious to my existence on the row behind. Then, Elder Holland decided to offer a fifty minute soliloquy on love. About a minute and a half into it, I wanted to run out screaming. Instead of making a scene in front of 18,000 other students, I sat and sulked alone until the end when I was finally able to retreat back to my house and spend the afternoon listening to the new album by The Cure.
For better or worse, I feel like my seven years in Provo was one long lesson in how to be happy and be alone. In time, I tried to replace the open hostility and coldness that I displayed to the generally affable BYU students that I encountered with something a bit more friendly. I realized that part of my willingness to be alone was also an unwillingness to reach out to other people. In fact, my crowning achievement was being confronted with the same weird kid who confronted me that day in the Morris Center, two and a half years later in the Wilkinson Center at lunchtime. Once again, I was sitting alone, reading the paper and eating a salad, when this kid approached me in the same way as he had my freshman year. This time, I smiled (more out of relief that my harsh reaction before hadn’t scarred this kid for life), and let him sit down without making a too hasty retreat. I tried to finish my salad at a fairly moderate pace, and when I was done, I politely found a way to excuse myself. After all, just because sometimes I made the choice to be alone, or that I could be comfortable when being alone was a necessary circumstance, didn’t mean that I needed to be hostile to others.
I wasn’t friendless in Provo. I was fortunate in that I made a few very good friends with whom I still keep in touch to this day. These people all changed my life for the better. However, I was always a person that favored a few close friends to masses of acquaintances with whom I might, say, go on a group date scavenger hunt to Target on a Friday night. Nonetheless, there were many intervals of time when I had a large circle of friends and acquaintances and had a variety of social options to choose from. There were other intervals of time when I spent significant time with just one other person. But there were certainly many intervals of time when I was, for the most part, alone. I came to BYU that way, only knowing my sister when I arrived in Provo in the fall of 1996, and I certainly left that way in May of 2003. I stayed in Provo much longer than I ever thought I would (I still am not quite sure why I did), because I think I had to become completely comfortable being alone in a place where seemingly no one else is.
When I left, I thought that it was something that I had mastered. But even so, when I go back to Utah, I pass familiar places where I acutely recall the sensation of having my heart ripped out via my teeth, and recall the feeling of trying to gain that sense of comfort in just being alone. Since the main reason that I go to Utah these days is to visit David’s family, I am not generally alone in the literal sense of the word. But I still seek out solitude there, when I can and within polite parameters. On Saturday, David’s family went to the BYU/Utah football game that I had no interest in attending. Instead, I was able to individually visit with three wonderful friends that I made in three different eras of my life. I love visiting with friends with whom there is no concept of “small talk” because you can just talk naturally, without having to think about what you say next. In between visits, though, I loved just driving around by myself. My last friend visit took me down to Springville, so on the way back to northern Utah, I took a detour and drove around BYU campus and taking myself to a solitary dinner at a restaurant I frequented alone during my BYU days. Sitting down for a meal, I observed that every other group of diners was six people or more. I smiled to myself, happy to be alone, in Provo again.