I caught the last tram home. It rattled past the racecourse, ten minutes ahead of schedule, an icy draught needling in through the cracks at the top of the scuffed and smudged windows where the clasp wouldn’t catch. The cheap beer and pub food sat heavy in my belly—one pot too many, five mouthfuls too much—and my gloved hands lumbered against the pages of that old novel about men and their over-confidence in ideas, men and their hasty, unrequited loves, men and their wars with each other and the (female) casualties they sustained as they blustered their way towards meaning. Is it power? Is it sex? Is it an idea made bloody-manifest across an unwilling world? Did any of those men really understand love at all, as they grappled over the possession of people they had no right to claim? It was, in my fumbling hands under the fluorescent light of the speeding tram, a strange coda to dinner and drinks.
We were talking about our adventures in Europe, when we were adults in name only, flown halfway around the world to pretend we were useful—to pretend we weren’t just after our own adventures. Sophie reminisced about how she used to go hiking through the Tatras on her own for days, a loaf of bread and block of cheese in her pack, sleeping out wherever she ended up at the time. ‘I could never do that now!’ she said, shaking her head at the brash naivety of it. But I had always envied her. It was a kind of bravery that I, at the time at least, could not fathom—a willingness to reach out and grasp the world in way that I would only learn the benefits of much later, in the wide rivers of the tropics of my own country, when perhaps the serious adult woman was too close to really give the naive girl much slack. ‘We were so lucky,’ said Emma. ‘So many things could have gone wrong.’ She meant, I suppose, rape or murder or accident or misadventure. But those things are just as likely to happen at home in the comfort of one’s living room that it seems absurd to fear the unexpected or wonder how we made it through—we’d just as well wonder how we were ever born at all.
The next day I was told that an old friend had committed suicide. His death was a surprise in the way that any such news is not what you expect to greet you at the door when you wake up of a morning, but it was also the end of a very specific road that, for this friend at least, had begun years earlier. Perhaps it began even before we were knocking back Smirnoff double-blacks at parties; packing into cars and driving almost an hour to clubs that didn’t really get going until midnight; passing out under pool tables and playing beats at each other over eggs and bacon the next morning.
It happened months ago and I had not heard—the funeral had been and gone—and I was struck by a terrifying kind of vertigo: that I am so far removed from my previous life that I no longer matter to it, in spite of hours spent daily on social media, submitting myself willingly to updates about Friday night drinks, look-how-in-love-we-are-selfies, fuzzy animals doing cute things, concerts of bands I never liked. I could have told you what an old backpacker-dorm acquaintance in England had for breakfast that morning but not that a person with whom I had shared uncountable drinks, smokes, cars, music, ideas, weekends, good times, had found life so unbearable that he struck it violently from himself. Another friend gave birth only weeks ago and I had not even known she was expecting. A similar pang struck me then—it is as we all know it is, but do not allow ourselves to feel until these moments: that this medium is the mere illusion of connection, a balm that momentarily numbs the feeling of loss that would otherwise induce us to reach out and make contact, that would prevent life and death from passing us by as if it never mattered at all. And perhaps it doesn’t, in a way—the universe is, after all, indifferent—but we are not. We feel death because we infuse our own lives with meaning, and meaning, for better or worse, is up to us.
There is a loneliness that comes with real adulthood—a realisation that we can’t always understand one another, in spite of the passions that burn blistering hot on the heels of adolescence, that propel us down roads we are not quite sure of and still plunge along anyway, half-blind, captivated by the whir of colour and noise and self-induced blur. That first taste of euphoria—those indefinable transcendent moments that begin on the cusp of adulthood and chase us into our twenties—is a drug of its own. An elusive, essentially transient glimpse at what could anchor our world—the promise of fantastic possibility with no instruction on how to make that real, no map for the grunt work to follow. Without that, there is nothing underneath but indifference and we chase it at our peril, scrabbling, digging, and finding nothing but dirt, dirt all the way down. The world in pieces, ground so fine it is unfathomable that these were ever things once meaningful to anyone, and despair at the knowledge that out of them a new, and altogether different world might grow.