I spend most of my time alone. My hours of daylight have been scattered across modernist novels, SEPTA rides to Trader Joe’s, and dozens of cortados from the café two blocks away. It took me several years to realize this was ideal—to realize how much comfort I find away from the gaze of others.
Yet, as a 21–year–old about to graduate university, I can't deny that there has been a gnawing in me to want more. I am a cynical romantic; somewhere inside of me lies a desire to be a half of a whole, a character in a Sally Rooney narrative, a crystallized Hallmark ending scene. But coated in this desire is a film of jadedness. I can't imagine salvaging all of my coveted free time getting to know the entirety of someone else’s existence and then potentially having it be tarnished, along with my emotional state. That is the greatest takeaway I’ve learned in university: I experience emotions far too intensely.
It’s not an excuse to want to stray as far away from intimacy as possible, but it is a major factor in my reluctance. I turn over the most insignificant memories of affection until they become obsolete. I pen short stories about quick chess games and conversations of love. I fixate on every word others say until they feel like sandpaper on my tongue. Above all else, I stop perceiving myself as my own person but through the eyes of men. I ruminate over all aspects of myself, physically and psychologically, to predict every single opinion one might have of me from a brief interaction. It becomes exhausting trying to navigate how you feel towards someone when you’re piecing together how they might feel about you.
Arriving at my final year of college, I struggled heavily with this personality trait of hyperawareness. I wanted to retreat into myself while others at Penn embarked on relationships. Love appeared as a dreamscape that I wouldn’t allow myself to access, because of my hyper–fixation on how I would exist within it. My immense comfort in being alone was not out of my own free will, and instead out of my anxieties towards spending myself emotionally.
Over dinner conversations, my close friends and I would poke fun at each other’s failed romantic endeavors, from being the subject of an ex’s diss track to being friend–zoned because my family was from the “wrong part of India.” It was cathartic, glossing over our abandoned paramours in a way that mellowed out their intensity. But it was also excessive, for the more time we dedicated towards discussing other people who were no longer relevant, the less time we spent talking about what actually mattered.
This past autumn has been an experiment for me: How do I find solace in enjoying quality time, with both myself and others, without worrying about how I am perceived? In other words, is it possible to be not only content but happy in being myself, for myself? As I’ve worked to shift the narrative away from “Would someone like me?” to “Do I like myself?”, I’ve come to terms with enjoying who I am. Of course, it’s a glaring cliché to “fall in love" with yourself, and I admit that wholeheartedly. But it also has some sincerity behind it, which is that securing your understanding of reality and how you exist within it shapes how you experience it.
I think often about Virginia Woolf’s quote, “No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself.” Although she was writing this in the context of women’s fiction, it brings a certain clarity about being a woman in general—understanding one’s self is the apex of existing, and everything else that falls after is a side effect. It may be impossible to remove myself entirely from the male gaze, but I shouldn’t have to subject myself to it at every possible moment.
So perhaps I do feel all too intensely, but there is a beauty in the melodrama that I don't want to change. I didn’t have a romantic relationship in college—I never experienced the cinematic qualities of shared ice cream or Center City date nights. But I believe I got something much more valuable in return. I have a handful of friends who understand me deeply. I have long nights spent arguing over who broke the oven until we cry, spontaneous drives to an empty Times Square at three in the morning, and a collection of platonic love notes pasted on my bedroom wall. Above all else, I have myself, and perhaps there is no need to sparkle indeed.