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art by Melissa Mead

Solitude

“Three thousand habitable planets in the known universe, and I'm stuck on the only one without solitude,” Ricky the kidder said.
Of course the group laughed.
“Oh, Ricky, you’re so funny,” said Jenna. “You’re the best kidder, and the best partner I’ve ever had in any group.”
“But everybody’s always the best, here at the All-Party World,” said Phil.
“Here at the All-Party World,” sang Ricky, to the tune of the old Steely Dan song, “Here at the Western World.” They all laughed, as usual. Always funny here, always easy.
Except Ricky didn’t find it funny anymore. Something was missing. Maybe he just needed a new rotation, a new partner, or new faces to spend every waking and sleeping minute with like he did with this group. Maybe.
They put on their party hats and walked off to their group workstation, where even work was structured like a party. Ricky stopped at a window to the outside and the group went on. He looked at the tall red spires and thought of a mesa back on Earth in Colorado. Now, in his mind, he was running down the road there, heat rising from the blacktop, legs flowing smooth like the sweat running off him. Hard work, solitary, with no one to laugh with. Still, he missed the pure undistilled solitary joy owned by the one person there at that one moment. He put his hand on the glass. Outside, he’d have a few minutes of his own joy, his own run, before he’d wheeze to death in the thin air. There was a song playing in his head--an old one from Greg Brown. Something about “take one quick turn and be gone like James Dean.” He looked at the door to the airlock and couldn’t believe it looked like an option.
Lucy fell back with him. “I know what you mean.”
He was smiling, ready for the punch line, until he realized there was no punch line.
“I think about it, too,” she said. “Solitude. It’s nobody’s fault but mine. I was always the shy girl back home, so I said, ‘Send me where everybody’s packed together so damned tight everybody has to be everybody else’s friend.’ The All-Party World.”
She took his hand. “Look. I remember a time, back home, sitting in a coffee shop. Crowded, as crowded as here, but I didn’t know anyone. Didn’t have to smile at anyone, just sat and listened to their lives. Solitude in the middle of everyone. I sat there for hours. I can’t take ten minutes here anymore. It’s all pretend. Sitting in the coffee shop was pretend, too. But because we pretended, we were alone.”
“Yeah,” Ricky said. “But if your choices are be crazy or be trapped, where do you go?”
Lucy dropped his hand and turned back to the group with a big fake smile. “We go to our work station with the best damn friends in the whole universe.”
Ricky sat alone at the table, the first one downstairs the next morning. He dreamed of gasping for breath surrounded by tall red rocks, a solitary run on the surface. Maybe today was the day to go out that door. Lucy sat down next to him, excited.
“We’ve got to talk fast,” she said. “I’ve found a way out. I asked someone where you could be alone here, and they said, 'jail,' laughing. That’s it. They isolate you there for punishment and hold you for the next shuttle, which might be years. Years alone, just you and a book. Remember books?”
“So what,” he said. “They’ll just pump you full of happy drugs and bring you back.”
“Not if it’s big. I picked up a welding gun. If I kill a bunch of people, they’ll have to keep me locked up.”
“Might work,” he said.
They both sat there together, thinking individual thoughts with a common goal.
“Only room for one,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll kill you first.”
“Thanks.”
After a pause Lucy said, “Let’s try something first. Let’s pretend, like the coffee shop. When the others get here, we each talk to somebody else. But we don’t talk to each other. Like we don’t even know each other, no smiles, nothing. You listen in to my conversation, I’ll listen to yours. But we’ll be alone, at least from each other.”
So they sat alone together, in the middle of the group. Instead of pretending to know people they didn’t, they pretended not to know the person they did. Maybe tomorrow he’ll go out that door alone for the last time. Maybe tomorrow Lucy will kill them all. But for today he sat across from her in a manufactured world and shared a tiny sliver of manufactured solitude.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

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