When Dating After Divorce Feels Like Cheating

My problem is not the men I meet, though living in a rural Pennsylvania makes it difficult to meet anyone who doesn't spend his weekends in camouflage tracking deer. My problem is that being with someone other than my former husband still feels like cheating.
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I have never dated. Not an adult man anyway. High school boys? We went to the diner, shared French fries with gravy (calories quickly burned in the nervous, metabolic state of awkward teens), and maybe exchanged a quick, tooth-bumping kiss before boarding separate buses home. That was when we were sober. Drunk on room temperature Budweiser? Unsteady sloppy kisses in basement back rooms at keg parties. This is how I met my high school boyfriends, my college boyfriend, even my husband. Lust under the influence led to long-term love. Less talking in the first few heady weeks, and more beer bongs, Jell-O shots, and in graduate school, jugs of cheap wine. It's easy to skip ahead to "I love you" after four or five drinks, though harder to backtrack to "But do I like you?"

My husband and I were together for 20 years before we divorced. In all that time, I rarely fantasized about another man or woman, or man and woman. Certainly, Colin Firth might have been imaginatively energizing in Pride and Prejudice. Generally, though, I couldn't swap my husband's face with Mr. Darcy's as easily as I used to exchange the heads of my Barbie and Ken dolls as they rolled around on the Dream House bed. Additionally, my hockey-playing, Wisconsin-born husband didn't usually woo me with haughty, aristocratic-speak (nor did he ride into the bedroom on a steed). The dog, too, followed us onto the bed and invariably jumped off to vomit bottle caps and Legos on the floor. So I was anchored in the now and the we of my romantic life rather than what else might be possible.

When my husband became "ex," he told me that he hoped I had moved forward, as he had (though he already had lead time on a new girlfriend). To prove that I had and could (and wasn't ready to consign myself to yoga pants and Downton Abbey), I accepted a lunch date with absolutely the wrong guy. He asked, I said yes, flattered because it was the first-time since I was twenty-two that a man other than my husband was interested in me, and not just because I was his wife. (A panicked "yes," too, as I'd just plucked my first gray pubic hair.) What else was I supposed to say? All those drunk, initial hook-ups were about yes and yes and yes even when a sober no might try to assert itself as I jumped out of the bed and ran to the bathroom to vomit (last call tequila shots).

The first-in-twenty-years date stealth-kissed me at the end of lunch. Though I no longer drink and generally now have temperate judgment, instead of dodging the kiss, I moved toward it. In the waning last years of marriage, my ex and I exchanged friendly-enough pecks but that did not imply the progression of romantic acts. This kiss, terrible in both chemistry and execution, was no better because my thoughts leaned toward exacting clinical assessment: "First kiss in 20 years from someone other than my ex. What are my lips supposed to be doing and how do I keep his tongue out? Doesn't he have a cold?" If we were having a moment, it was over.

I've been trying online dating, mostly under the influence of my ex's words: forward, forward, forward. What better way to throw off the past and its mutual, married memories? Online dating promises variety and deliberate choice not muddled by late-night booze. I could choose: taller than me, not a writer, maybe even a Republican (fiscally conservative, socially liberal, though not Tea Party). I've gone on a few dates or "meet-ups," as the 26-year-old "match" corrected me before proposing a night of oral extravagance. "C'mon," he said, "how long since you've had that?" (He knew exactly how to speak to my graying, newly-divorceéd self, but I turned him down. Closer to my daughter's age than mine).

The Quiet Man: I leaned so far over our table at Starbuck's to hear him that my chin skimmed the top of my Venti Latté and I still had to ask him to repeat himself; after 30 minutes, I was exhausted. Mr. Photoshop: His profile picture was ten years younger and twenty-five pounds lighter. Even a minor misrepresentation could be trouble. Was he really a smoker? Was his wife at the park with the kids? Professor and A Gentleman: Our profiles said we were a 96 percent match. Witty, intelligent messages back and forth. A lovely date at a museum where we admired an exhibition of lascivious porcelain. At the end of our second date, a quick (post-divorce #2) kiss. Collegial despite the romantic rain.

My problem is not the men I meet, though living in a rural Pennsylvania makes it difficult to meet anyone who doesn't spend his weekends in camouflage tracking deer. My problem is that being with someone other than my former husband still feels like cheating. He kissed me on the altar promising his love, in sickness and health, and his faithfulness, not random lunch man; he stood beside me in the birthing room, holding my hand, as my daughter, and then three years later, my son slid into the world, not Colin Firth; he knew me when I was twenty-two and thirty and forty, knew me well and sick and then better, not OkCupid matches (at least, not yet). Though we fell out of love, he loved me best for so many years. But I know some day my kiss will come that will make love possible again.

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