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Week #15: Creative Writing Challenge – Alone in a Crowd

April 18, 2021

Write a story that feels lonely, despite being set in a packed city.

I sat at the cafe watching an endless stream of people walk past my sidewalk table. If I looked up over the buildings I could see the gargoyles lined up along the rooftop of the Duomo. Just last week I had been on that rooftop looking out over Milan and the beginning of the Alps in the distance. The gothic spires and buttresses had been impressive, but what really struck me was the fact that Milan was a three dimensional jungle. It seemed like the whole city was 10 stories tall. I imagined all the people in the city filtering into those apartment buildings at the end of the work day and then streaming out in the morning, like the city was breathing in and out of those rectangular utilitarian buildings. For a city with such rich cultural and artistic history, it didn’t feel alive to me.

I watched people hurry by my table in their suits and high heels, wondering where they were headed and if it was really important enough to be hurrying like they were. I was fascinated watching them all, making up stories about them in my head. One woman wearing a tight black skirt and 3 inch red boots was off to see her lover during a lunch break. A middle-aged man running down the street was headed home to his wife who had just called to say she was going into labor. Regardless of who they were, their stories were all more interesting than mine, and I was actively trying to avoid thinking about mine.

In fact I was running away from mine, although not as successfully as I had hoped. Thoughts of Dev broke through my fabricated stories and made me tear up. Thoughts of grad school had me short of breath and on the edge of panic as I tried to drink tea without my hand trembling. Thoughts of moving 2,000 miles away from my friends and family had me too scared to move from my seat at the cafe. I had come to Milan to escape my life temporarily, but it was bleeding into my every waking moment.

On the fourth day sitting in the cafe (yes I had spent the last three afternoons sitting here drinking tea and then wine and then eating paninis), an older woman approached my table. Her graying hair hung loosely down her back in wild waves. She wore comfortable looking pants and what I called a “backpacker’s” shirt. You know, one of those shirts that has some pockets on the chest and looks presentable, but will easily dry overnight if it needs to be washed in a sink at the end of a long travel day. She glanced at my notebook where I had been writing and drawing and said with an Italian accent, “I’m Marion. Mind if I join you?”

As a twenty-something woman traveling by herself in a foreign country, with a rudimentary grasp of the local language, I was very cautious. But I was also very curious. No one had bothered to strike up a conversation with me in the last four days and I thought the servers were starting to give me pitying looks, so I gestured to the open chair across from me and introduced myself.

“I don’t mean to pry, but you’ve been here for the past couple of days. What are you working on that requires the same perspective of the world each day?” Marion asked. I chuckled and slid my notebook across the table to her. I wasn’t in the habit of sharing my thoughts and drawings with others, but I figured I would never see Marion again so it didn’t really matter.

“These are wonderful, but they all look lost and lonely and defeated. Why are those the figures you choose to draw?” Her observation and question took me by surprise as I realized she was right.

“I guess I recognize something from myself in them. Knowing they exist and putting them on paper makes me feel less lonely and defeated I guess.” I answered more honestly than I ever had, to anyone. There was something freeing in talking to a complete stranger.

“I understand that feeling. We all go through things sometimes, and finding things in the world that we can relate to, even at our lowest, can help us deal with those situations.” Marion said seriously. I laughed and asked, “Are you a therapist or something?”

She smiled at me and said, “I was young once. I was lonely once. It’s not easy to make our way through the world.” She paused. “Can I give you some advice?” She asked. When I nodded, she continued, “Find beauty in the world, in this city, and breathe it in. Keep breathing. Keep finding beautiful things. Eventually you’ll realize that one of those beautiful things is you and you won’t feel so lonely. Just keep breathing.” With that, Marion got up and said her goodbyes. I never saw her again.

I sat at that cafe for another 15 minutes contemplating what Marion had said. Then I spent another hour sitting at that cafe just breathing.

Over the next week I searched for beauty. I found it in the marble floor of the Duomo, the open air market and it’s 20 vats of different kinds of olives, the people streaming around me as I walked through the Galleria, Michaelangelo’s unfinished Pieta, the taste of panzerotti, and the sound of dueling orchestra’s in the touristy parts of town.

Design on the floor of the Duomo in Milan.

At the end of the week I stood on top of the Duomo again looking out over the city. People were milling in the Piazza with the pigeons. Tourists were taking photos and businessmen were hurrying to get home for the day. Marion had been right. There was a lot of beauty in the city, but I still felt the loneliness like a weighted blanket settling over my shoulders. I focused on my breathing, knowing I would have to face real life soon and hoping that there was more beauty to be found.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Yael Kisel permalink
    April 19, 2021 3:07 pm

    This is so good. Sending hugs to you and to young you, who I should have hugged more back in the day! :*

    • mlwattsupp permalink*
      April 19, 2021 5:37 pm

      We can all use more hugs! Thanks friend!

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