October comes in innocently enough, stretching the edges of summer into fall. But then, one night, seemingly out of nowhere, a cold chill touches my shoulders like a former lover I've tried to shake from memory. I shiver. My heart falls; I know that another long winter is approaching and I'm still alone.
I hadn't planned it this way. I have always been open to love and relationships. I have held on to hope and to expectations and to dreams and to grief and to men I should have let go of much sooner. I have been high on love and tip-toed on top of clouds. And I've lost my breath under a dark cloud, wondering why it's so hard for me to have the long, meaningful relationship I deserve.
I'm at a bar, on my first date with Brian, a man I met online. I'm happy to be inside, sitting next to this man, warm and calm. At age 45, I'm no longer focused on the future; I'm no longer envisioning my life as one half of a young couple, thinking about our future children. I'm focused on the moment I'm in right now. This is life. This is my life. And notwithstanding it not turning out the way I had expected, my life is beyond my expectations. I have chosen to live my life to its potential, and I've never felt better about myself or more comfortable in my own skin.
Brian is handsome, self-made and from his body language, I can tell he's happy to be sitting at the bar next to me. He swivels to face me, smiling, and I smile back. The date is off to a great start. But soon enough, his tone changes. Brian has decided it's time to find out what's wrong with me. And after all these years, seasons of men, loves and likes and not-quite-there feelings, I recognize the conversation that's about to begin.
First, my dates prove their ability to be in a relationship. They describe their marriage and how it concluded, or why their recent long-term relationship finally had to end, as Brian's had earlier this year. "We argued so much it no longer felt good to be in the relationship," he volunteers. And now, as these exchanges go, it's my turn to share why I'm still single.
"Have you ever been married?" Brian asks.
"No," I say.
"Have you come close? Like engaged or lived with someone?"
"Nope," I add.
Brian presses his lips together in judgment. "When was your last long-term relationship?" he asks, believing my answer is the answer to whether or not I want to be in a relationship. Or, perhaps more importantly, whether or not I am capable of being in one.
"It's been a while," I softly respond, noticing my own disappointment, let alone his.
"But you're attractive and smart. I can't believe you haven't had a boyfriend in a while," Brian says, but I know his flattery is a guise to learn the great mystery of why I'm still single. "Like how long?" my date continues. "How many years?" He wants details. He wants to hear proof that he's right about his assumption that there is something wrong with me. Perhaps, he thinks, she can't commit.
"I don't even know," I say with a smile and a nonchalant shrug. And I'm being honest. I don't know. I don't know how many men I've gone out with or how many men I've kissed or been intimate with or how many men I've lost to what was simply not meant to be. I don't count the men because, in the end, they are all one closer to one that will be the One.
"That's OK," Brian offers as consolation. "Some people aren't interested in having a serious relationship."
I immediately find myself rising up to my own defense and resent us both for having to do so. "Does it mean I'm interested in having a serious relationship if I stay in one too long because I don't know how to leave or because I can't bear to be on my own?" I ask. "I never married the wrong guy or pretended to be happy in a relationship when I wasn't. And it hasn't always been my choice for a relationship to end. I've been in love. I've wanted to be in love forever with some of the men I've dated. My heart has been broken," I add.
My date seems unsympathetically relieved at this last note. My black-and-blued heart is proof to him that I've gone to battle for love. But I'm more focused on the fact that I've survived and have moved forward than on the battles I've lost.
"So, what's the issue?" he asks. "I can't believe you would still be single. You must be picky."
We're entering the "dating-deduction" phase. Brian will keep trying to deduce what's wrong with me until he hits the jackpot.
"Of course I'm picky," I say with confidence. "I want to be in love with the man I'm with and he deserves to be loved. If being 'picky' means I won't settle for a lesser love, then you are right: I'm picky."
My date pours more wine into my glass from the carafe we're sharing. Our conversation moves on to entrepreneurship, a passion we share. He goes first, and I'm sincerely impressed. And then I share my work and the business I've grown over the last seven years. But for my date, he's not so much interested in my work, but in how my career might be the root-cause of my singlehood.
"Some people choose to focus on their careers and some choose to have families," my date says emphatically, making the assumption that because I haven't had a family, I've made my choice.
"I didn't choose to have a career over falling in love, getting married and having children," I reply, my voice again slightly raised. "I can control many aspects of my career, but I cannot choose when and with whom I fall in love and who returns the love to me. I didn't plan to be single at 45 or not to have children."
"I have a friend who admits she spent too much time focused on her career and not her dating life," Brian says, like it's a diagnosis: "Career-Womanitis."
"Women don't often forget to fall in love. They don't often forget to have children. Sure, time passes faster than we'd all prefer, but if someone wants to be in a relationship, and most women do, then we find a way to do that when a man who wants the same thing is present in our lives," I reply. "Women are better multitaskers than men are in general, so I don't buy into the 'too focused on career' script modern women have been given instead of the truth: Despite having a great career and taking care of ourselves financially, while also taking care of our health and well-being, we haven't met the man we're meant to be with."
"Maybe you're too independent," Brian suggests, more to himself as he looks down his mental list of possible reasons for my singlehood.
"I'm independent," I reply. "But that doesn't mean I can't be dependent on someone else for a change. We keep hearing about how women should 'lean in.' I am leaning in so far that I'm falling over. I don't have a net, emotionally or financially, to fall back on. What I would do to be able to lean back for once. What I would do to have a man in my life whom I could count on when times are tough..."
Brian is running out of arguments. I'm running out of patience.
"Brian, if you spend the rest of our date searching for what's wrong with me, you'll never discover what's right with me," I say, trying to soothe us both into another topic of conversation. "I have no regrets. I'm living a life I never dreamed of in many respects. Yes, I wanted to be married and become a mom in my twenties, but here I am, in my forties, with all my bumps and bruises, still in the ring, unwilling to give up on love."
My date seems satisfied, at least for now, and we begin to chat about other things. As we leave the bar later that night, Brian gives me a hug. "You're shivering," he says, sweetly. "Let me get you into a cab." He hails a cab and asks me for a second date.
"Yes," I say. "I'd like that." I'm open to a relationship, after all.
"I'll call you tomorrow," he says with his handsome smile as he opens the cab door.
I smile back as I get in the cab. I am happy to be out of the chill.
Melanie Notkin's second book, OTHERHOOD: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness (Seal Press/Penguin Canada), is available now. OTHERHOOD received a prestigious *starred review* by Booklist.
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