dating, grieving, Jack, lessons, love, men, reflections, relationships, romance, trying new things

on staying up all night (and being alone)

I’ve been up all night, promising myself every five or ten minutes to put down what I’m doing and go to sleep, I swear! It’s not like I’ve really been doing anything, save for editing my LinkedIn profile and applying for a couple-dozen jobs I probably won’t get. (I keep my expectations nonexistent.) Mostly I just have a bunch of sensory data swirling around in my head, a funnel cloud of firing synapses filled with information that, in toto, makes both perfect sense and is the most confusing thing in the world.

***

At first, I told myself I never wanted anyone else other than Jack. If I couldn’t have him, then screw the lot of ’em (not literally, course; that would be a contradiction). This was in the weeks after I’d found myself with the urge to crawl into his coffin just to be next to him one last time. Just as it is with everything—raspberries on your baby’s belly; kissing your little boy goodbye in front of his friends; hearing your grandmother’s laugh or smelling her rose soap as you hug her after Sunday Mass; having a little hand reach for yours, out of habit if not for reassurance before crossing a busy street—if only you’d known it would be the last time you would have paid more attention. But we always know that everything with everyone has the potential to be the last of it, and still we go off in our huffs, and we go to bed angry, and we leave things unsaid, and we all live our lives filled with last moments slipping past us every day, like whispers or ghosts or cool breezes that we could notice if we wanted to. But there are just so many of them. Who could possibly keep track?

***

A Twitter friend—which is to say someone I’ve never met in person and could walk past in an open field, just the two of us, probably without an ounce of recognition—became, as the parlance goes, an unmarried widow about six months before I did. Neither of us has ever used that term to refer to ourselves (as far as I know; I’ve resisted it, and her writings seem to have done so as well). When I met her (or, “met” her), I was comforted that I wasn’t the only one to be experiencing what my grief therapist informed me was a “complicated” grief, a result of a death that comes with questions unanswered, problems unsolved, lingering doubts and other, well, complicated emotions that don’t typically arise when Aunt Betty dies of lung cancer after smoking a pack a day for thirty years. This confused me, since I hadn’t known that grief came in any flavor but complicated. All the things I’d ever loved and lost—and they were few, because I made sure of it—were taken away from me in ways that would make even the most neurotic Woody Allen movie seem like an episode of Mr. Rogers. But I took her word for it, and I read some books about complicated grief, and I DMd my Twitter friend about the subject and somehow the days turned into months turned into years, just as everyone said they would. I forgot about her until one day a few months ago, when I was reading an essay on a fancy literary website, a woman writing about how she’d found love again after unspeakable loss. I sent her a DM. “I’m so happy for you. It gives me a glimmer of hope that maybe I’ll get another shot, too.” Not even thirty seconds later, two words as simple as they were confident: “You will.”

***

I started wanting people other than Jack. In a way I can only describe as perverse, I started dating his friends. That was not the best of subconscious plans, but I can say I was treated better than I deserved, considering I was completely out of my mind.

***

Next came the stage I probably remained stuck in the longest, one I was only able to extract myself from in stages, as if I’d flung myself into a huge vat of primordial goo and could only crawl out very, very slowly. These were also not the best of times, nor were they the worst. The underlying premise of my behavior—I had one friends-with-benefits relationship with a man who treated me like Adam treats Natalia on Girls (to varying degrees, in that sometimes it was fun and okay and other times I was disgusted with myself for allowing it to happen) and another with a man who made me feel completely and utterly disposable and replaceable (again: disgusted)—was that I’d had One Great Love and that was more than most people get. It was too bad I was so young (36) when I lost it all, but more tragic things have happened to much finer people, so I figured my time for happiness in romance has come and gone, albeit briefly, and my problem wasn’t that I needed to Check My Premises! (inside joke there for those who know enough to get it; just pass it by if you don’t) and rethink the whole One Great Love theory but, rather, that I needed to improve my self-esteem and stop letting men treat me so badly.

***

So basically I stopped dating and/or having sex (with other people) and thinking about dating and/or having sex (with other people) for a (relatively?) long time, about 15 or 16 months (which I guess is a long time for some people but not very long for others). And it was fabulous. Yep. I said fabulous. (I’ve now confirmed the fears of every super right-wing nut who thinks women don’t need men, just their sperm, and we’d be fine and dandy with a dildo and a turkey baster.)

I learned for the first time in my life how to be alone, something not a lot of people take the time to do. They may think they do, but if they really look back, there are only (at most) three- or six-month spurts of being single. And even those months are likely populated with dating, just not being exclusive. But to take a break, a real break, to discover who I was and how I liked to look and dress, what I liked to eat and drink, what I liked to watch on TV and in the theater, when there wasn’t anyone around I was trying to impress, when it became just me, wanting to make myself feel good and centered and true to the person I wanted to be (to practice “radical self-care,” as my friend Kristen described it to me) was an amazing experience.

But then (and here’s where the super right-wing nut’s going to do a Snoopy dance), after I figured all that stuff out, I started thinking that it might be fun to kiss someone who happened to have a penis. And it might also be nice to cuddle. And I kind of missed having my back rubbed while watching old movies on TV.

***

I still didn’t think I would find a Second Great Love, but I started imagining that I at least deserved to find a Good Enough Guy. Not someone who knocked my socks off, but someone I could have fun with and who made me laugh and who liked me well enough. Eons ago I shared someone’s definition of love as being related to who you become when you’re with someone, and I knew that I didn’t ever want (nor need) to be with someone who made me feel smaller or less fabulous than I felt when I was by myself. By no means did I want someone to be an ego-booster, but I did want a man who didn’t feel a need to harsh my mellow, as the Deadheads used to say on tour. And so I went on to date a few perfectly fine people until they weren’t anymore, either because they’d crossed a boundary I’d set from the beginning or because I felt better being alone than I did when I was with them. And the last of them was the married guy who lied to me about his impending separation/divorce/I don’t even know what… and suddenly I was back to being alone-on-purpose again, figuring that even the Good Enough Guy wasn’t worth the effort, that I was happy enough being alone. After all, I’d had my One Great Love. It’s more than a lot of people get. Right?

***

Except New York isn’t an easy place to be single for very long before you start to wander down that dangerous path (called “Thinking About Your Future”) again. You see couples cuddling in Central Park, riding the subway together and kissing goodbye at Columbus Circle or Bryant Park, holding hands as they walk down 14th Street. Your friends—much younger than you, but that hardly registers—are getting engaged and having babies and you’re going to weddings and holding newborns and even though you’ve done all of this already, nearly twenty years ago, it still feels as though you’re walking on a sidewalk while everyone else, at some important juncture, knew enough to decide to hop on a moving walkway. It was easy enough to keep pace for a while, but it’s exhausting now, and you just stop to catch your breath, wondering why they get to be happy and have someone whose toes they can touch in the middle of the night—just checking, seeing you’re still there—while you watch them recede into the distance and try to figure out a plan to get to some place that even remotely resembles the place they’re heading.

***

“You will.”

I have no way of knowing whether these words will prove prophetic or as useful as a cheap piece of paper unfurled from a cookie at the end of dim sum. I do know I’m a victim of neither chance nor circumstance; I have a say in the matter, even if I hadn’t realized it before.

***

I’ve lost track of nearly all time since Sunday. I have to look at the calendar, my phone, my watch, to figure out what day it is. This is slightly like losing my mind, only better and possibly with more cowbell. And because I do not publicly write about the specifics of intimate relationships, I shall be oblique and perhaps vague. It is intentional. I’m a creative nonfiction writer, not a dating blogger. I’m told there’s a difference.

It feels as though time has stretched itself over the past 96 hours, as if I’ve instead experienced 96 days. This cannot possibly be true; this must be sleep deprivation or a funny bug or a temporary form of insanity. It could be other things, too, though: life happening on schedule, a wall crumbling at just the right time, kismet or fate or luck or all three.

It might also be the second chance I thought I didn’t deserve because, after all, some people don’t even get one.

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