Many days later, as I lay on the bean bag chair to take my siesta, I would remember my last contact with humanity on those cold, windy days. At that time no one had expected that the remote virus would spread as readily as rumors on the internet and banish the world to a collective solitude. I was perhaps among the first to witness its power on the western hemisphere.
On the fourth Friday of January, when there were barely any cases of the new plague of solitude outside of Wuhan and only one confirmed case in the U.S., the Exeter Math Club Competition was found dead the day before it was to be executed, murdered by some kindhearted parents afflicted with fear from their distant memories of SARS. We, too young to understand solitude and too naïve to let our work die in vain, tried to salvage it by bringing the competition online. And as I sat in the empty dining hall that Saturday night, while everyone still went out to eat, recording answers sent by participating teams, I felt for the first time some indescribable substance gathering in the air.
Some days later, as that substance would fill my every breath, I would come to know it as gaseous solitude. But back then I did not take notice, as the faint scent was easily covered by the adolescent joviality in the air. And despite the mounting concerns for the plague, I seized the opportunity which as my solitude deepened, I came to appreciate more and more, to go to Boston almost every weekend before my banishment to Bellevue, Washington.
Two weeks after our own competition was found dead, our math club went to a tournament at MIT, and we mocked the inconsistency of the world that our event should be cancelled based on speculations and an infinitesimally small probability but a larger one scheduled nearly two weeks later in a big city should not. Several times, I ate at a Chinese restaurant with a friend, in the time when only Chinese people had contracted the virus and rumors had it that only Chinese people would contract it. On the rare occurrence of February twenty-ninth, I gave this friend, as a joke and as a gesture of gratitude for her hospitality, a box of surgical masks.
I had not known that my six weekend adventures in Boston would become the final proof of my physical existence in the world. When spring break started, as the situation in China started to get better and the rest of the world’s prospects grew worse, and as all of my Chinese friends flew back home, the current of uncertainty and hesitation brought me and my mother the opposite way to Washington state. And thus, began my days of solitude.
As I sat in the warmth of a May afternoon sun ruminating on the lively coldness of February, now a close acquaintance with my solitary self, I realized, as Colonel Aureliano Buendía must have when he made and melted, made and melted those twenty five little gold fishes, that one never contracts the plague of solitude but is born with a predisposition to it. Only when the whole world was experiencing it did I notice, even in my most distant memories of childhood, that solitary ghost wandering about, looking down at a child working among a pile of LEGO parts, whispering to him as he lay sleepless on a bed, eyes closed yet open, standing over him and mocking silently as he blundered in his calculations.
The ghost was at first almost transparent, but gradually took form and materialized, and sometimes I would see this third inhabitant of our house more than my mother, whose fading existence on some days was only confirmed by the humming of the fume hood and the mysteriously appearing food on the table.
On the occasions that I observed my mother in our haunted house, chopping vegetables, stirring eggs, vacuuming the floor, I found in her no trace of the solitude which had so fully occupied me that I needed an incarnation to contain it. I saw in her the shadow of Ursula, who in her restless diligence lost all individualistic qualities. I would see her wander from the kitchen to the laundry room, passing through my ghost without noticing it.
Sometimes I forgot, or could not tell, which one of the other two inhabitants of this house was my mother and which was the ghost. So weak and ephemeral were the connections between humans that once immersed in my solitude I could not perceive an existence outside of my own. Sitting in my bed at midnight, the ghosts of Macondo would tell me that we could never understand another human being, for we saw only the functioning of their flesh and never the soul buried in the darkness of their private solitude.
On sunny afternoons, when I took walks with my mother around the block, my optimism for humanity would temporarily grow with the sprouting flowers that she named and I forgot as we passed by. At first our walks were surrounded by the bleakness of bare twigs and dreary pines. But after a few days of rain, which may as well have lasted four years, eleven months, and two days like the one in Macondo, as the passage of time started to blur, the sun came out. It was almost half way through our first walk after the rain cleared when I noticed that spring had snuck up on us.
Nature bloomed blatantly, knowing now that fewer humans laid eyes on it. My mother busied herself taking photos of flowers, and I walked into my mind, then dark and dense with an air of solitude like the forgotten room of Melquíades, and opened the door to let in the little yellow butterflies of Mauricio Babilonia. I felt alive in that moment, not perpetually on the way to some distant goal as I had always been, but merely for the sake of being alive. I felt a sudden appreciation for my solitude, which allowed me a glimpse of the essence of life by stripping away almost everything else. It occurred to me then that more than “think”, it should be “I feel, therefore I am”.
The afternoon walks soon became a time for me to reflect upon the nature of solitude. Depending on numerous variables—the weather, the chapter of One Hundred Years of Solitude or Brave New World or 1984 that I had just read, the length of the list of my responsibilities—my attitude toward solitude varied. At times I would take a positive stance and try to justify or appreciate it. Solitude was a necessity for the individual existence, I told my mother who walked beside me. In solitude, one returns to the world in one’s mind and furnishes it with contemplation, without which an individual can exist only superficially, defined by their surroundings rather than by their own beliefs and values.
On the day that two and two made five for Winston Smith, my skepticism for government and society told me that even the beliefs and values one sees as the cornerstone of one’s existence could come from an outside source. I remembered the hypnopedia conditioning that made the World State’s Deltas and Epsilons genuinely love their degrading work as miners or servants, their Alpha and Beta oppressors, and their inferiority. What I found in common between the visions of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley was their dystopian governments’ effort to eliminate solitude. In solitude, Winston wrote down his axiom of freedom: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four”. Thus, I concluded, as my mother and I walked back to our house, that only in solitude can we discover our own truths—and in that way, solitude was freedom.
Yet as it dragged on indefinitely, solitude did not always feel like freedom. The ghost emerged again, and I realized, as Colonel Aureliano Buendía realized that he fought his wars only for pride, that my reconciliation with solitude had only been a ceasefire between my susceptibility to it and my fear of its societal name, loneliness. And just as he suddenly lost all motivation to fight his pointless wars, I gave up pretending that I loved solitude.
During the following days of deepening solitude, the most common circumstance under which I greeted another person was under virtual gunpoint. One day, before lunch time, as I waited to respawn in the middle of a game, listening to the humming of the fume hood and my mother’s footsteps in the kitchen, I understood what Colonel Aureliano Buendía had meant when he said “the secret of a good old age is simply an honorable pact with solitude.” One has to find a way to occupy oneself in solitude so that it does not ferment into loneliness. I came to fill up my leisure time—which is when we are most vulnerable to melancholic brooding—by studying and experimenting how to best destroy my enemies in a shooting game.
As I delved deeper into the art of shooting people, practicing unpredictable movement, perfecting my aim, memorizing the statistics of all the weapons, I began to understand the true nature of the Colonel’s twenty-five little gold fishes that were melted and forged countless times to perfection. His little gold fishes and my shooting game were not work, like school or my math research or my mother’s and Úrsula’s cooking; nor were they entertainment, like the afternoon walks or the reading or Aureliano Segundo’s champagne parties. They were simply containers for our excess of solitude.
On the March morning I checked my email lying in bed and found out about the cancellation of the spring term on campus, I had never imagined that the following days of solitude would become anything more than an extended spring break with online classes, or that many days later I would sink into the bean bag chair, scorched by a burning sun that forecasts a hot summer, on the verge of drowning in the cold waters of solitude. Of all the ages to experience solitude, it had to be seventeen for me.
In those elongated days of sadness and self-pity, I finally lost the siege to solitude. It had planted a seed of fear that conceived desires that I had to use doublethink to unthink and drove me to search desperately for ways to escape. In my prison cell in Bellevue, Washington, guarded by my ghost, I was near the point of buying the $10,000 plane ticket back to Beijing when I was somehow reminded again of the truth that I must have known since that night, twelve years ago, when I first cried over the inevitability of death.
Solitude, like death, is inevitable. But unlike death, which usually happens only once, solitude is the background of existence; it is the air we breathe. We may forget about it with work and play; we may forget about it for a day, a month, or a year; but it is always there waiting for us, in the silence of the night, behind the fluttering curtains, rising with the fragrance of the pillow. Sometimes, as I had been in these days of solitude, we are engulfed by that mist of solitude and cannot see anything else, but we keep breathing it in, for we know that life offers something more than solitude: truth, beauty, love.