I mean, I think. It’s been almost four years since graduation, and four years since somebody I loved said to me, “We should talk about getting married”—and with these last four years of mostly solo, mostly happy early adulthood under my belt, I’m, like, pretty sure the keys to being alone but feeling complete are as follows:

  • Get a job you love; dive headfirst into it.
  • Know who your favorite friends are; make them your neighbors, your cooking partners, your dining cohorts, your workout buddies, your travel companions, your designated non-judgmental receivers of drunk/why-am-I-still-awake texts.
  • Remind yourself regularly that three’s not a crowd at all if you like spending time with both halves of a couple.
  • Read good books all the time. Quit the ones you don’t like immediately.
  • Own exquisite bedsheets, and wear the comfiest, most absurdly ugly pajamas you can find to bed.
  • Challenge yourself frequently to conquer alone what you think you need a partner for, whether that’s dancing or hiking or a Valentine’s Day meat platter for two.
  • Sleep right in the damn middle of your mattress, and every now and again as you fall asleep at night, appreciate how nice it is that your whole bed—and all your time, and all your money, and all your personal space and DVR space and bathroom-shelf space, and all your wine—belongs to you and you entirely.

It’s a good regimen, if I do say so myself. In my experience, it works about 51 weeks per year.

This is a photo of my sister-in-law. That’s my nephew on her lap, and they’re participating in our family’s yearly Thanksgiving tradition, in which we all write down what we’re thankful for then share aloud what we’ve written.

It’s a lovely tradition—really, it is. First on all of our “thankful lists” is always each other. My nephew always reveals what exactly has been holding his little-boy world together that year by giving thanks for stuff like Cars 2, macaroni and cheese, policemen, firemen, and, as an afterthought, his sister. But now that I sit at the grown-ups’ table, this yearly ritual is often the loneliest I feel all year.

For me, annual Thanksgiving festivities mean sharing a table with eight other adults, some close to my own age, who all married young and married wisely. When they share their “I am thankful for” lists, they express gratitude for their partnerships of nine years, of 12 years, of 37 years, of 42 years; for their two beautiful children, their three beautiful children, their four beautiful children. Everyone else seated at this table has managed to maintain for decades what I seem to only ever be able to hang onto in half measures, or for a few months or years at a time. They gaze warmly and sometimes tearfully at each other as they give thanks for partners who really do stick by them in sickness and in health, and for the opportunity to wake up every morning next to their best friend.

So what’s cropped out of this very festive and #thankful Instagram, I suppose, is me—the aching ninth wheel, fumbling through “I’m thankful for my job, and, um… my education, and my apartment.” And then maybe lamely adding: “And being able to sleep late on the weekends if I want to, heh,” all the while wondering why the cool job and the grown-ass-woman apartment now seem not brave but selfish, and why the lifestyle so thoroughly optimized for Doing Whatever I Want now seems so crass and small.

I don’t really know what the moral of the story is here. Maybe it’s “Loneliness is real, and it happens to everybody, no matter how loneliness-proofed you think you are.” Maybe it’s “Commit to someone you love while you’re young and don’t overthink it.” Maybe it’s “Be better than this Ashley Fetters person is at being in relationships”—or “Be better than this Ashley Fetters person is at being alone.” Maybe it’s just “Always remember to pack some Xanax when you go home for the holidays.”

But it’s hard to know the moral of a story, I suppose, when you also don’t know how it ends. Maybe this is one of many table-for-one phases I’ll know in my lifetime, or maybe I’ll just keep on carving out a cozy space for myself in the world, accepting the challenge of building a life alone that feels meaningful—52 weeks per year, forever.

Or maybe one day I’ll accept the challenge of building a life with someone else that feels meaningful, 52 weeks per year, forever.

I guess I’ll have to keep you posted.

This story originally appeared on Cropped, a site that shares personal essays from 20-somethings that explore the experiences often left out of perfectly filtered and curated social media posts.

Ashley Fetters is the digital entertainment editor at GQ magazine. She lives in New York.

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