The last two years of our marriage my ex-husband and I slept down a long hallway from one another. One night, filled with longing, I padded down the hall and knocked on his door. He let me in and I climbed on his bed. I asked him what we could do to mend this, that I couldn’t live without love in my life.
As it turned out, I would for another ten years.
In the eight years since my divorce, I’ve had a million love affairs. Maybe just shy of a million. Pretend love, with men who were transiently available and I failed to acknowledge that fact until we were some distance down the road. Men who wanted the emotional goodies of a smile, back rub, and enthusiastic sex, but whose hearts were not open.
I fortified them on the road to someone else. Without them, there was no affection, touch or conversation with a man, which was less tolerable than enjoying someone for a short while. Often, the sweetness was real, just not grounds for a future together.
Of course, I only pined for unavailable men, which is another way of saying I spent a lot of energy playing out one narrative. Therapy is useful for this.
It wasn’t all men departing, I sprinted away from a few.
One texted me an awkward photo of himself and three restaurant employees lined up against a dingy wall. They looked like they were being held against their will, he with a full smile. The photo landed with all the seductive charm of a collect call from prison.
Another wanted me to look past the fact that he was fifty-two with twin toddlers and still lived with his ex-wife. He couldn’t meet me until after eight-thirty pm on any given night, which was about the time I start asking myself, “is it too early to go to bed?” He made sure to tell me he had a huge dick in our parting conversation, which I naturally found charming.
There was the photographer whose dating profile remained active after we agreed to stop seeing other people. I texted him a screenshot and asked how I could return the expensive lens he lent me. He replied that he was an ass, and I could keep it. In truth, I wasn’t exactly heartbroken and wondered about the ethics of accepting. Reparations for insincerity.
It’s a great lens, I still use it.
I fell in love with one man despite his resistance to me (or because of). He offered the perfect storm of laughing at my jokes and only allowing an occasional peek into the depths of his heart. He broke mine. Or, I did that to myself. It’s possible I just flailed around like a light-drunk moth, the light mostly unaware of all the activity.
We saw each other two years later. It felt like no time had passed, all the fun and affection were right there. Our romance hadn’t been in my imagination. A little distance allowed me to see he was offering me what he had to give, it just wasn’t enough. No one’s fault.
And, so it went. But, I wanted a boyfriend. A lot. I didn’t care that this sounded ridiculous for a woman in her forties to say. It did no good to settle, either. I wasn’t after the miraculous social benefits of coupledom. I wanted someone to tell my secrets to, who had adventures and ideas of his own. He didn’t have to be perfect, but he had to be worthy.
In my dating profile, it said I was looking “for a peaceful, happy coupling with some intellectual and physical sizzle.” I had no idea what a tall order that would be.
I can hardly remember all the dates I went on over the years. This had less to do with how wonderful I am, and a lot to do with dating technology. I wanted to slow down and get to know one person, but the churn was unrelenting. I would occasionally jump off, get lonely and hop back on, exhausted before my first swipe.
The years stretched on and nothing materialized. Friends marveled at my endurance. I worried I was too old, it was too late. Maybe I wasn’t the sort of woman someone could love? Sexy romps, meals, conversation, sure.
Sometimes, men did love me as one might hot coals or distant memories. Which is to say more fondly in retrospect, when I’d evolved into an idea of a person. I hear from them occasionally as they process memories and reach out.
Wasn’t that wonderful? You’re a good woman.
Yes, I know.
Undeterred, I kept putting in the effort. I thought in order to be coupled I would have to construct a path with rose petals, perfectly roasted chickens, and sex that would deposit a man in my arms before he had time to say ‘I’m not looking for anything serious’.
What I didn’t understand was simply being open and available was a liability. We all need to be tortured in our own special way.
I went stag to my senior prom. I bought a black cocktail dress and took myself. My high school class was small and it worked because we were all friendly. I had a great time, danced with boys whose dates generously lent them out, and chatted with everyone.
Over the years I’ve reflected on this memory with a mixture of pride and pain. Is this my lot in life? To go at it alone in a great dress.
That experience set the tone for a lifetime of solo excursions. I loved the freedom of coming and going as I pleased, but sometimes wished I had a man to collect me at the end of the night.
When I found myself newly single after ten years of marriage I picked up a few books on dating. It seemed prudent to get informed on best practices. One highlight was to have long, straight hair and wear hoop earrings. Men liked this, apparently. Love by way of shiny objects. My short, silver hair and jewelry-free ears were an obvious detriment to love.
In retrospect, there was no wisdom to glean. There is no way to angle for love, no step by step plan. No perfect hairstyle, meal, or rules on texting. I’m sorry I wasted any time on that nonsense. I’d have been better off doing cartwheels with the time I spent learning how to ‘land a man.’
These books were written by people who pretend to have certain answers to questions that have none. Love isn’t a reductive formula complete with wardrobe recommendations. It’s about the messy business of knowing oneself, and finding grace in the ways we fumble towards each other. It’s acknowledging that we need to stop choosing aspirationally, and maybe, just maybe, do our own work.
By the time I met the widower, I’d learned not to take dating too seriously. I wasn’t flattered by the hot pursuit, I never showed up to anything wondering if I was about to meet my person. I just showed up, sometimes, if I really felt like it.
I’d been diagnosed with my second (very early stage) breast cancer a month before, he’d lost his wife to ovarian cancer six months earlier. People sometimes think that makes it natural we would cling to each other. The reality was that all that loss triggered a lot of fear.
We fell deeply in love for the same reasons as everyone else. He’s funny and smells right. He thinks the same about me.
When I think of the men who couldn’t proceed because they were confused, or traumatized by divorce, or still hung up on the yoga instructor who blocked them on Facebook, I can’t help but be amused. The widower works through grief to be with me. I wouldn’t have blamed him for backing away from a two-time cancer patient, but he stayed. I’ll never have the exact right words to express what that’s meant to me.
We are told love will transform us, complete us. That’s right and wrong. It doesn’t turn us into sublime versions of ourselves. I’m still largely the same person.
It does create a baseline of nurturing and goodwill. I feel more secure and generous in my everyday life.
Love teaches us humility in the face of our shortcomings. We will be less than who we want to be. Real love seems to know that and carry on anyway.