Al went out to get the newspaper from the front yard and returned to bed. After skimming the headlines, he read an article on the op-ed page entitled Only the Lonely. It was a rehashed report of some dubious American research which was typical of much newspaper content these days. Lacking the resources or imagination to think of something fresh to write about, the columnist had presented the findings of a survey about the causes and effects of loneliness they had probably found on the internet. The article was mainly statistics linked by a few quotes from the original research paper.
Predictably, it was not good news. Sixty per cent of the survey respondents said they ‘often felt lonely’. Thirty three percent felt they did not have anyone to confide in. It said chronic loneliness increases the concentration of cortisol levels in the body. Stress hormones rise which can cause anxiety, heart disease, depression, digestive problems and stroke. It was enough to make Al get up and into the shower. Half an hour later he was on the train into the city.
Every Monday morning a group of people met at a coffee shop, then went to a film at a nearby cinema and after the film discussed the film over lunch. The timing annoyed Al but Monday morning was chosen because the movie tickets were discounted. Planning was informal and so the numbers varied. Some weeks fifteen people turned up, sometimes it was five. Al went now and then. At the start he went because Liz had suggested it and he enjoyed her company. They got along well. But she rarely attended now. Maybe she had better things to do.
Today he went with new resolve. He lived alone and needed to get out and mix with people. The article said it was beneficial to simply be with other people. Even if Liz was not there, he would get out of the house and talk to someone. Exchange a few harmless comments. Sit next to someone at the movies instead of an empty seat. We are rewarded with feel-good chemicals like dopamine when we connect with other people. We are hard-wired to be part of a group. Apparently.
Al had never really understood the difference between loneliness and solitude. He knew he was a solitary person, but was he a lonely person? He suspected the reason Liz had invited him to the film group was that she thought he was lonely, but how would she know? Al had conducted some google research into the symptoms of loneliness. Few of the indicators applied to him. One study had found that lonely people do a lot of shopping and binge-watch television series. He did neither. Another study demonstrated a strong relationship between loneliness and depression. But rather than feeling depressed, he felt fortunate he could spend as much time alone as he did. He was privileged to be able to do what he wanted, when and how wanted without the need to consult other people who would just complicate things. He tended to act on a whim which would be impossible if he had to consider others. More than once he had packed a bag, gone to the airport, gazed at the departure board and wondered ‘Where will I go?’ What might be regarded as an act of desperation, he thought of as autonomy and freedom. Yet he sometimes still experienced lingering concerns that he was running away from life and missing so much. Today was one of those times.
About ten members of the film group were sitting around a large table when Al arrived. He apologised for being a bit late. Liz was not there. No one seemed particularly pleased to see him. He said hello to Mark whom he knew the best, and nodded to several others. He ordered a coffee, pulled up a chair and sat at the end of the table.
They were reaching consensus about which film to see. Mark had a list in his hand. The cinema was near the university and showed lots of arthouse films. There were about fifteen theatres in the complex and several films commenced at a time which suited the group. An unwritten rule was that everyone should see the same film. It was considered pointless to form a film group and then see different films as they would not all be able to participate in the discussion. Al could see the logic of that but it annoyed him that he was obliged to watch films he would never bother with if he made the decision for himself. He had been in the group for about a year and in that time, had seen too many films he considered rubbish.
‘I’ve heard there is a lot of violence in that,’ said Brenda about a new film portrayal of the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk in 1940. She was a dreamy woman who never said anything of interest to Al. He had made a couple of attempts to engage her in conversation but he never got far. She only ever wanted to see ‘feel good’ films as she felt there was enough misery in the world without paying to see more. Well, that was one film Al would quite like to see which was crossed off the list.
‘We all saw that last week. It was quite good, but you weren’t here, were you Al?’ said Ken about another film. One more good one crossed off the list. Ken and his partner Jane were retired teachers who always seemed overly eager to tell everyone how busy they were yet seemed to attend the group every week and were often the last to leave after lunch.
‘I’d love to see that new one about the cats in Istanbul,’ said Lyn. ‘Even if the film is no good, I’d enjoy all the scenes of the city. I love Istanbul.’ Most of the group were quite well off and there always seemed to someone who was either overseas or had just returned from their latest trip. They all liked southern and western Europe. Al preferred northern and eastern Europe. They adored South America. He found North America more interesting. He prayed they did not all join in Lyn’s enthusiasm for the Turkish cat movie.
‘As it has only just started, we can see that next week Lyn. But the one about the Chilean poet is just about to end, so I suggest we see that today.’ Mark was the informal leader of the group and tended to bring the discussions to a close. Whether they agreed with him or not, no one objected to his suggestion. Al feared he was not going to get back the hundred minutes with some obscure, angst-ridden poet which lay ahead.
Al had quite liked Mark when they first met. Now he thought he was a bit of a know-all who liked being the centre of attention. He considered himself a film buff. He was a good talker but a poor listener. Several weeks ago, they had seen a film about Emily Dickinson. Over the lunchtime discussion, Al had noted that the reference one of the characters in the film made to ‘narcissism’ seemed a little off-key as he doubted that the term had been coined when Dickinson was alive. Mark had immediately disagreed, reminding Al that Narcissus was a character from Greek mythology. The others nodded and Mark beamed. He had completely missed the point but Al decided to let it go. He was pretty sure that the term narcissism was first used by Freud many years after Emily Dickinson had died. He had checked it on Wikipedia when he got home.
The group started to move to the cinema to get their tickets. Al had not finished his coffee and said he would catch them up and that if he did not see them in the theatre he would meet them at their usual lunch café afterwards. He allowed about ten minutes to pass, long enough for the others to get their tickets and enter the theatre. Then Al went to the ticket office and bought a ticket for the American film. He was not going to waste his time on some Latin claptrap.
The film was more enjoyable the second time as he could pick up more of the details and dialogue he has missed when he saw it first. The theatre was nearly empty, so he could sit where he liked. Al was glad the others were not there as it spared him from the lunch time discussion. He knew most of them would completely misinterpret the film and not bother listening properly to his attempts to explain it to them.
When the film finished, Al left the cinema by a rear entrance and came out on the street a block away from their lunch café. They would probably be there now, ordering a crummy bowl of soup or sharing a pizza. They occupied a table for well over an hour and the total bill was rarely more than one hundred dollars. They drank tap water. No wonder the waiters never seemed very pleased to see them. And the conversation on the film would not amount to much. A few corny comments about it being ‘different’ or ‘quirky’ before the talk reverted to something with which they were much more comfortable: themselves or their children. An hour of mindless drivel.
Al went to a little restaurant a few blocks away and ordered some excellent fish and a glass of Clare Valley riesling. He left a five dollar tip. Then he went home. It was a sunny day so he sat in the garden and read the rest of the newspaper.
He glanced at the article about loneliness. The experts say any social contact is better than none. Al would love to see if they still believed that after spending some time with his Monday film group.