I like to joke (a lot) about being single and scared I won’t have sex again before I turn 40 (in 16 days). I also frequently mention other fears regarding growing older and alone: for one, dying and not being found until after my (currently nonexistent) cat(s) start eating my eyeballs for sustenance. And as is the custom among women of a certain age in New York City, I also tend to lament the lack of “good men” and how “difficult” and “demeaning” it is to date. What most people don’t realize amid my banter and my bluster is that I don’t mind being single, not dating, not having regular sex in a monogamous committed relationship, or even not having a companion to see movies at the Film Forum on a Saturday afternoon. In fact, if I were to stay single for the rest of my life, going along as I am now – fostering friendships with both men and women, occasionally having no-strings-attached sex with people I consider true and deep friends, and exploring the world around me without any one person holding me down (or back) – I’d be fine with that. Except for one thing: I know what’s possible in life and love when you find The Right Person, and rather than that knowledge spurring me forward to find it again, I’ve quite nearly resolved to give up on the whole romance thing, because why bother if you doubt lightening ever strikes twice?
Grieving Jack for what seems like forever (and, going on four years, it’s been nearly all of my sobriety, which also coincides with nearly all of the years of which I have sincere and honest and specific memories of feelings, events, and interactions) has changed me in ways I could never have predicted on our first date, the first time I realized I loved him, or the first time we both realized marriage would be inevitable. It’s also changed me in ways I couldn’t imagine when I’d first learned he’d been drinking on the sly, when he called me drunk to complain about my shower curtain needing to be replaced, when his friends sheltered me (first) from seeing him passed out on his neighbor’s lawn and (finally) when his dead body lay on the floor of the apartment he shared with a mutual friend.
There are many regrets, none of them involving thinking that I could have saved Jack or cured him from his ills. He had deep spiritual issues, most of which I could neither understand nor identify until long after he died. No one but Jack, in conjunction with a higher power he’d long since resented, could have changed the trajectory of his life. In retrospect, dying was probably the kindest thing that could happen to him, if only because he suffered so very much. A lot of people told me that in the days after he died, and I hated them for it. But they were right. I know this now.
The regrets I have are more about the things I could have changed. I could have been nicer when he wanted to continue to foster a close friendship while we were on “hold” rather than cutting off all communication. I could have shown a great deal more compassion. I could have taken his relapse and descent into alcoholism about 10,000x less personally – at the time I described it as having him cheat on me with the ugliest, most disease-ridden, horrible woman to ever exist (no one’s ever accused me of sparing use of hyperbole). He broke my heart, deeper than I ever thought possible, and I held that against him until the day he died, if not long after. I’m sure he knew it, too. I could have been so much kinder, more patient, more understanding. Most of all, when he called me as he was walking to buy a bottle of vodka and said he was passing by a church, I could have done something other than say, “If you’re not going to walk into that church and pray your ass off, you might as well just throw yourself in front of a bus.” I don’t think my doing any of those things would have saved him, but I do think they would have left me a better person in the long run. Making amends is hard when the person you’d like to forgive you is dead (and you don’t even know where he’s buried, to boot).
Back to dating (or, as it may be, not dating). For a long time, probably two or three years, I didn’t really date because I wasn’t ready. I did “hook up” with people for two or three weeks and then make some excuse about how I wasn’t ready – which, really, was the truth – before treating them very, very badly and running away. Or I’d find situations designed to be uninvolved: skinny-dipping on Fire Island with a LIRR engineer stranded due to an impending hurricane, followed by a hasty blow-job in an outside shower stall; sex on the beach in Kismet with a bartender from Brooklyn whom I spent a week trying to seduce and then promptly abandoned after he walked me back to the cottage where I was staying; random occasional encounters with good friends who I trust and care for but aren’t available to me (either because they are in quasi-relationships or just aren’t into me in that way). In any case, whatever I’ve been doing for the past four years hasn’t been dating: it’s been avoiding intimacy and telling myself that if I can’t have the sort of relationship I had with Jack, then I shouldn’t even try and – meanwhile – I might as well at least engage in some sort of physical interaction, because I didn’t want to end up like Jesse in Before Sunset, when he says,
“I feel like if someone were to touch me, I’d dissolve into molecules.”
What I didn’t realize is that not only would I still feel that way – and I do – but that such behavior comes at a price, which Celine vocalizes in the same film:
“Even being alone is better than sitting next your lover and feeling lonely.”
Worse yet is the realization, at some point, that youth truly is wasted on the young (again, from Celine):
“When you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.”
More than ever, as I approach my 40s, this is what’s sinking in. I’m not afraid of being alone or not dating or no one ever finding me attractive or (really, seriously) my future cats eating my future dead body. I’m not afraid of dying in obscurity – I’ll be dead; what will I care? – or even never accomplishing the 1,001 things I’ve set out to do at various points in my life (most of which I’m skeptical will ever be done, since I have a difficult time these days even remembering to take off my makeup before I go to bed ). No, what I’m afraid of is possibly even more silly but, to me at least, more important and dire: I’m afraid I’ll never find someone to truly love again and that, even if I do, I won’t find someone who will love me in the same unconditional, supportive, and loving way Jack managed to pull off, despite his struggling. He believed in me before I believed in myself. I am the woman today because he did that, because he encouraged me to be exactly who I was meant to be (in sharp contrast to all the men who came before him, whose role I assumed to be to change me into exactly who they wanted me to be). He thought I was an artist and beautiful and able to do great things and love deeply and make people happy and bring light into the world. Once he told me I was like someone who was throwing a tea party and wanted everything to be just right, for everyone to be happy and fulfilled, before I could join in the fun. Whether that was a compliment or not (and he meant it as one), it was a sign that he could see things in me that other people had either tried to beat out of me (literally and figuratively) as well as love me for the person I was today, would be tomorrow, and would end up before it was all over.
I don’t expect anyone to make me feel like Jack made me feel (the phrasing of which is even bizarre; it’s more like I don’t expect anyone to inspire in me the sort of feelings and visceral experiences I had in regard to him). Even if I do find that sort of love and relationship again, each person is so different that no one can replicate that kind of experience. I’m not avoiding dating because no one can fill his shoes (which is impossible); I’m avoiding it because I think that the brand of shoes he wore are so elusive and rare that the chances of my finding someone who wears them are slim to none. And so I end up having occasional sex with people I trust, joking publicly about the tribulations of dating, and pretending that my woes are the same as the stereotypical woes of an almost-40-year-old woman in New York City.
Writing this all down? It’s my way of reminding myself the extent to which I tell myself lies, then broadcast them, in order to avoid the real heart of the issue: I’m not convinced trying is worth the effort, especially when being single has become its own kind of a comfortable shoe I’m not willing to give up. I’ll end with a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca – It would be neat if with the New Year – that I once sent to Jack, a smoke signal of the wariness I had about falling in love with him.
It would be neat if with the New Year