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Independence holiday 

Aloneness, loneliness and the weight of choosing a Christmas away from home.

click to enlarge Days alone and nights in the crowd: New York City 2014. - TARA THORNE
  • Days alone and nights in the crowd: New York City 2014.
  • Tara Thorne

In September of last year, I entered some search terms into an app called Skyscanner. Travelling from: Halifax. Travelling to: New York. Departure date: December 23, 2014. Return date: December 30, 2014.

The price it spat back at me: $332.96

For years, I’d been working up the courage to leave at Christmas. My parents split up in January of 1998; that holiday season was horrible and poisoned me for the rest of my life—I turned 36 this year, so that’s fully half of it. The shape of my family changed dramatically in those years, as families do. My sisters partnered up, moved and, as normal and regular contributors to society, got free passes not to come home. But I—forever the single one, who had no in-laws or children—travelled back annually, faithfully, as expected. I did the dinners, the Christmas-light drives, the terrible television marathons. Sometimes one of my sisters would be there, sometimes both, but a lot of it I did by myself.

The older I got the shorter I made my time at home, not because it was particularly terrible but because it was an obligation, which I resented. I also grew to resent the idea that my aloneness was seen as loneliness by others; “I just don’t want you sitting by yourself in that apartment,” my father would say. But I wanted to be there in my empty house, with my cats, full control of the television and all the time in the world. No one ever asked me what I wanted.

When that plane ticket appeared, cheap and on a pay week, I knew it was time.

It took me 10 hours to get to New York—you want a deal? There are conditions—but at least I had comfort waiting. I met Allison in the Halifax airport back in 2011, when she came to speak at Strategic Partners. She works in film, teaches yoga, has hair like Tami Taylor and an apartment on the first Brooklyn stop of the 1-2-3 line. Clark Street is the tiniest piece-of-shit subway station you ever did see—no stairs, just a freight elevator—but it was one block from her place, which was two blocks from a whole bunch of stuff. “Lena Dunham lives in the neighbourhood,” she advised.

On Christmas Eve I kept asking store clerks how late they were open and they invariably said “24 hours” because New York is not a small Canadian town run by uptight old white Christians. I told servers and workers about how the penny had been eliminated in my country, that all the American ones were weighing my wallet down, and literally no one gave a shit.

My wish to be by myself was coming true, and I floated around as the whims of the day allowed, though home tugged at me—I had an awkward phone call with my father, understandably hurt, on Christmas Eve. “Please don’t take it personally,” I said, knowing full well there was no other way to take it. I got more texts than I’ve ever gotten at the holidays. I felt very far from my own life. But wasn’t that the point? I built a goal into each day: I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. I saw two Broadway shows. I went to four movies, including a 35mm version of Inherent Vice and a screening of Selma—mere weeks after anti-police protests had died down—in a predominantly black neighbourhood where the audience wept and applauded individual screen credits. I visited the Strand. I went to the Brooklyn Flea. I hung out in a coffee shop called Sit & Wonder. I went to a rock show at Saint Vitus. By the time I was sitting on the floor of The Knitting Factory waiting for Hannibal Buress, the weight of my aloneness was palpable. No matter how many things I did, I did them by myself. “Hey you, it’s me, You! Still!”

It was trial by candlelight, this trip: I over-estimated my need for solitude, but not its purpose. I posted a photo album, the easiest way to make it appear as if everything is great, and watched the Likes climb and the supportive messages pop up. I didn’t crave outside validation, but it helped.

Things I will do differently this year, in Chicago: Make it a shorter time—six days, not eight. Discard “currency of Canada” as a topic of interest. Bring a Netflix-enabled device. Talk to strangers. Stand firm in my choices. Apologize to no one.

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