My dad and I make a lot of scenes in restaurants. It’s sort of our thing. He says something about writing that usually is not really about writing at all. I react with fury. He finds my reaction either funny or ridiculous and, instead of apologizing, goes full David Letterman deadpan until I simmer down or storm out the front door. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to these dinner explosions, though I’ll note that they have a higher than average probability of going down at Italian Restaurants. But that’s probably only because dad and I really like Italian food.
One of these scenes occurred sometime in the fall of 1999. We were in a chatty wine lull between Primi and Secondi Piatti and discussing process. I told Dad about a project I was working on, a project he’d read part of, and, after a bit, he stopped me and asked if he might make an observation.
“You know, buddy,” he said. “It would be really interesting if you ever decided to write something about people in love. It seems like your characters are never in love, not real love, anyway. It’s like they don’t know what it is or how to do it.” He shrugged. “Just something to think about.”
I was twenty-three at the time. I’d never been in love, at least not with anyone who loved me back. I was pretty sure he knew that. I swallowed. Then I emptied my wine glass. I could see he wanted to push on, but I slid my chair back and nodded toward the sidewalk. “I’m stepping out for a cigarette.”
“Go ahead,” he said, “but we’ll continue this conversation when you get back”
Like hell we will, I thought, and nearly cost a waiter his tray of sorbetto as I ran past him toward the door, desperate to escape
I am almost forty years old. I have still never been in love, at least not with someone who loved me back.
I like being single. I have friends and family. I have people I care about who care about me. I have a life undefined and unconstrained by romantic relationship. I used to worry being alone, but I’ve come to cherish my solitude and learned how to manage silence, which is never really silent. Not for long, anyway. I captain my own ship. I author my own story. I sprawl across the whole bed. I do not wash anyone else’s socks. I am fine, better than fine, with that.
Still, I’m not a nun. I’m not made of stone. I don’t lack desire. I’m plenty curious. I stare at myself in the mirror and wonder what it would be like to have someone look back at me with ardor, with tenderness. I’ve read a lot of novels and I think I’m pretty observant, but there are questions I don’t have an answer to. What does it really feel like to be in love, I mean, like, really in love? How do you know if someone loves you back? Does it make you feel beautiful? Does it make you feel confident? Does it make you feel secure? Can you get used to their bad table manners and weird taste in books if they love you enough? Do you ever really believe they love you enough? Do you ever quit worrying they’ll stop?
I think everything I write is a love story. In fact, I worry that I write so much about love, that it’s overwhelming and obsessive and delusional. I worry that in my writing people will see ignorance and unforgivable naiveté. They’ll peer through the spaces in the letters and see me on a Friday night alone on a sofa with a cat and a Netflix queue of BBC dramas about high-cheekboned WASPs doing something scandalous on a rainy moor. And they’ll know. And they’ll feel sorry for me. And they’ll be like, well, duh, have you seen her? That’s not the sort of person anyone could fall in love with.
When I was young, most men I liked did not like me like that. They respected me. They admired me. They thought of me like one of the guys, not like a woman, but more like a gay man. They found me almost attractive. They were surprisingly close to feeling turned on. They considered me like a sibling, a sister, maybe . They thought they might want to date me if I would lose a little weight, if I had whiter teeth, if I were more conventionally feminine. They’ve been embarrassed at my affection and ashamed at themselves. Never tell anyone this happened. This was a crazy mistake, right? How hilarious! I guess we can just blame this on the music. You’re a good sport, a real pal, a real first rate chum, Fields.
Women my age freak out about getting older because they worry about not being noticed. They think it must be a fate worse than death to be invisible to men. And I want to be like You know what: I’m pretty sure it’s not the worst thing the world. You’ll survive. Most of the time you won’t care at all.
I could lose weight. I could bleach my teeth. I could learn how to apply make up. I could grow out my hair. I could smooth out the lumps and conceal the faults and pluck and shave and tweeze and peel away everything unsightly. I could wear what magazines advise will flatter my curves. I could talk less. I could smile more. I could flutter my eyelashes and toss my hair around and act coy. I could not argue. I could feign ignorance. I could pretend I need saving. I could pretend I need nothing. I could pretend that he’s everything. I could become desirable, or at least as desirable as a forty-year-old woman reasonably could pretend to be. If you’d just lose forty pounds, you’d find love. If you’d just take better care of yourself, the men would notice. If you’d just be more confident. If you’d just be more vulnerable. If you’d just hold back. If you’d just be yourself. If you’d just laugh. If you’d just cry. If you’d just ,just, just, just, just, just, just, just.
But if that’s the way you make them love you, will they only ever love you when you’re like that? Is the memory of the maiden powerful enough to sustain love when she’s become the crone? At what point can you be step out of the lines and be flawed or fucked up or fat or frumpy or inconvenient? Does that void out love? Does that mean you no longer deserve it? Does that mean you never deserved it at all?
A friend of mine told me she was afraid her husband would leave her if she gained twenty pounds. A friend of mine told me she was afraid her boyfriend would leave her if he found out she used to be fat. A friend of mine told me she only had a few more years to find someone to fall in love with her before she became undesirable, ugly, unlovable, before it was too late for her.
She was twenty-six at the time
First there were Nerve personals. Then there was Match. Then there was OKCupid. Then I guess there’s Tinder, but I think I’m too old and swiping sounds like something that would get you arrested at Bloomingdales. Online dating, they said. That’s how you’ll find someone. I wrote witty, complicated personal ads for myself. People agreed they were pretty great: You’re not my type at all, but great profile! Wow, you’re such a great writer. I’d love to read more of your stuff. I sent guys stories. They offered flattering critiques of my style, but never wanted to meet for drinks. That was probably okay because when we did meet for drinks I could never be as fluent, as quick, as effortlessly clever as I was in a profile I’d spent a whole day writing or messages I edited sixteen times before replying. I would walk into the bar or into the coffeeshop and could see his disappointment at first glimpse. Sometimes we’d still have good conversations. One guy told me again how much he liked my profile. “You’re really such a great writer. In fact, that’s why I wanted to see you. I mean, you’re way too big for me and too old for me . . .” He was 46. “ . . . but I wondered if you would help me rewrite my profile, you know, to attract the kind of girls I want to attract. Pretty, young girls”
I drank a lot of expensive Scotch on his tab and later cried about that date, because I thought he’d genuinely liked me. My mother said, You just have to keep putting yourself out there. You have to kiss a lot of frogs. I mean, when I was in college, I went out with a different boy every weekend. But I wasn’t in college. I was 37.
I kept a profile active until a few months ago. I tried to make my virtual self as transparent as possible—full body pictures, no makeup, no bullshit—so no one would be disappointed by reality. I got a lot of atrociously misspelled comments about my boobs and one request to pose naked for a guy who was doing a performance art piece about obese women. I got threatening notes from 70 year old men, who believed that I’d age-discriminated against them in my profile. You’re ageist because you set your upper limit at 50. And I would click through to find, unsurprisingly that he’d set his upper limit at 35. I got called a bitch. I got called a fat bitch.
I deleted my account at Christmas. It felt like a gift.
Part of the problem is I don’t really know how to date. I haven’t done a lot of it. The guys I went out with most recently have all already been married and divorced. They own real estate and have lawyers and stories about their elaborate first weddings (never paying for that bullshit again!) and hoary conflicts with every single one of their always “crazy” ex-wives. They are looking for no-drama, no-fuss stepmother material. Ideally cool with signing a pre-nup. Maybe all right with having another kid. Definitely into pooling retirement savings. Do I have my own health insurance? Would I provide a notarized copy of the medical history? My credit score?
I am so far behind the curve on romance that I’m still looking for mixtapes and slowdances and someone to write song lyrics on the rubber toe of my sneakers. I want a prom date. I want someone to go with me to see bands play. I want someone to drink coffee and do crosswords on the porch on Sunday mornings and sit around and watch dumb movies on rainy Saturday nights. I want to travel a lot and laugh hysterically and mess around and eat delicious food and mess around some more. I mean, it’s not that I’m against planning for the future. It’s not that I don’t want to be an adult but I still want to have fun in the present, man. Dig?
A friend of mine recently asked me what I was looking for in a long-term relationship. I told her I wanted a hilarious best friend that I could have travel and have sex with. She laughed and told me I was adorable and extremely naïve. I’m still don’t understand why.
I know I’m not alone.
I mean, I am alone, but not alone in my alone-ness. There are plenty of people out there in the world like me. None of us have spouses, or partners, or dates or even dating histories. We’re not all monstrous grotesques and miserable shrews hoarding cats in some dank smelly basement cloister. We don’t cry ourselves to sleep about it every night. We have jobs. We have friends. We have full and interesting lives. We may even look and act and behave just like you.
We don’t discuss our lack-of-love-life much because it’s embarrassing and because no matter what people say, you suspect they’re always trying to figure out what’s wrong with you that you’re still alone, that you’ve always been alone. We don’t talk about it because we don’t want to hear more Chin up, little camper, you’ll find your person! We don’t want to be set up on a dates with your cousin Ronnie, who is really sweet and kind of dumb, but he’s really sweet! We don’t want to hear how cousin Ronnie finally found the love of his life on eHarmony, have you tried it? We don’t talk about it because the only thing worse than someone saying I can’t believe you’re still single is trying to figure out why they’re not saying it.
Maybe my standards are too high. But I don’t want to settle, and I sure as shit don’t want you to settle for me. I’m good at being single. I like being single. I’d rather fly solo than be little more than some dude’s safeguard against accidentally choking on a frozen pizza when he’s old and alone in his farty apartment.
I don’t know if I’m a good catch. I’m probably not an easy catch. You have to be pretty smart to get my attention. Also kind and tender and forthright. Even if you’re not a total laff riot, it would certainly help if you can tolerate my sense of humor. You have to give a shit. You have to be open-minded, willing to compromise and willing to accept me as I am.
It would be a real goddamn bonus if you think the way I am is absolutely brilliant and gorgeous and marvelous (though maybe not all the time or even at the same time).
I’m not great at reading romantic cues, so you’ll need to be pretty upfront and reasonably patient if I sit there staring at you in weird, slack-jawed, uncomprehending shock after you try to make a pass. Be advised that I don’t know what I’m doing. Be advised that I may need to be disarmed. Even though I argue, even though I quip, I have huge heart, a little worse for wear maybe, but still beating and healthy and, I believe, quite capable of exquisite passion and extravagant love.
I’m almost forty years old and I’ve never been in love, at least not with someone who loved me back.
And yeah, Dad, sure. You were totally right about my stories. And sometimes I still hope that one day I’ll be able to write beautifully and honestly about affairs of the heart.
That kind of love might never happen for me. I’m cool with that. My life is full of riches and wonders and I’m grateful for it. There’s a whole world, worlds upon worlds and worlds inside of worlds for me to explore, with or without a partner. I’m pretty sure I can find something more to write about than just romance.