I used to love to watch him drive. Something about handing over the keys to my Jeep and settling in to the passenger seat, the chance to study his profile unabashedly, made me deeply, profoundly content. I dove into those moments when they came, absorbing their flavor and texture, memorizing every contour, because I knew they would be fleeting, and few. I was right.
He was a serious, careful driver, obeying all posted traffic laws and never getting angry when people cut him off. I’m more of a boundary-pusher, myself–I never met a speed limit I didn’t exceed by ten miles per hour–but I loved the look of concentration on his face when he changed lanes. Sometimes I’d have to look out my own window to hide my unaccountable smile.
Here I am, on the last night of my first ever solo vacation. I’m sitting at a little iron table in the garden of my B&B. The night air is soft, just the temperature of my skin, and heavily perfumed with nightblooming jasmine. (Someday, I will live in a house — a small blue cottage, hopefully — where I can smell this every day.) I know there was a time when I couldn’t imagine ever traveling so much that I wouldn’t be able to remember how many plane rides I’d been on, or which cities I’d already visited, but now I can’t remember what it must have been like to be that girl. Yet another new phase I tipped into, unaware, years ago now. (Have I been to St. Louis? What’s the name of that town I went to in Vermont?) I was the first person in my family to own a passport. A generation ago, my people went decades without crossing state lines. I remember what that was like, too, passing into West Virginia the first time I left Ohio and being awestruck by those green-blue mountains. I used to think I’d go to college there — it seemed so far away and exotic.
Key West is fine. I’m staying in a nice place. I went kayaking around a mangrove island–my first time kayaking in the sea, though not my first time in a kayak (that was in Costa Rica, in a jungle river where little spider monkeys stared at us from the banks.) Sailing out to the mangroves, I befriended a gay couple from DC who work in the same industry I do, and we did the usual virtual Rolodex comparison, drawing a mental map that placed us only millimeters apart. The world really is so small. In Zanzibar once, my sister and I started talking to a woman staying in our tiny, remote resort and discovered we we lived only two blocks apart in DC.
The reality of just how small the world is reminds me of one of my favorite self-help maxims, the one about geographic cures. Wherever you go, there you are. Your problems are not localized; when you move around, they go with you. Or at least find you, sooner or later. As much as I believe this, I ignore its essential truth all the time. Every time I exit baggage claim I expect to seize my birthright as a beautiful, dazzling, splendid creature whose laughter wafts down from balconies on to slightly envious people each evening. My frizzy hair and chubby, sun-scorched face are always such a shock in the bathroom mirror when I unpack my toiletries that first night. I avert my gaze and line up the “Radiant Glow” face powder I’ve brought so that I will subtly sparkle in the candlelight that is surely going to adorn every table where I sit from now on. Tomorrow, I vow to myself.
As a departure gift, my good friends from my last job gave me a gift certificate to an amazing spa here, and that’s where I went soon after the plane landed. I’ve had my share of massages, and this was a very good one. It’s amazing, really, that even at a high price point the quality of a massage varies wildly, though not as amazing as the fact that I have bumped through life blindly and still wound up a person who can confidently make that statement. My mother started working in the family store at 13, and I had my first spa treatment years and years before she had hers. On the great continuum of who deserves what, and who gets what they deserve, don’t bet that my location is the sensible one, from whatever angle you view it.
This is one secret of the ladies who lunch, who pay to have someone pour their water and knead their tired feet and smooth oil over the unloved skin of their necks and shoulders, who sit naked under plush bathrobes and enumerate their trigger points to smiling women with strong forearms while Enya plays softly in the background: no one else touches them. I have friends who have stopped having sex with their husbands, overwhelmed by the tactile demands of motherhood. Their only chance to be free of clinging hands is when they lay down to sleep. Intellectually, I get it. Whichever side of the fence you have to mow, the work is demanding, and sacrifice is required. Emotionally… emotionally, I pay people to listen to my problems for 50 minutes a week and to run their hands over my body a few times a year, when the gulf between me and the human experience gets too unendurably vast. Emotionally, I write an anonymous blog and cry every time I hold a brand new baby.
Emotionally, I haven’t even kissed anyone since he left.
Deep in a conversation about where our lives are going, an old friend commented recently that he envies my ability to be present in the moment and take life as it comes. We were having lunch in a nice restaurant, so I managed, with effort, to hold back the hot flood of tears his statement provoked. Taking life as it comes is exactly what I strive to avoid, every day, in every way. I shook my head. “I can’t talk about that,” I choked. I had an identical reaction when my therapist suggested that we envision what a happy life for me might look like if I don’t ultimately find a partner or have children. No. There is nothing down that road I want to see.
I know the conventional wisdom on this, that you find love when you stop looking, and get pregnant when you begin adoption proceedings, and lose weight when you learn to love the crappy body you have. That if you write down the name of your greatest fear and burn it in a smoldering fire spiked with sage, you will be free. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. For me and my worldview, this is anathema. If you take your eye off the ball, it’s going to smack you in the face.
(Sorry, therapy faux pas: If I take my eye off the ball, I will die alone and with a black eye.)
Maybe the people who get their heart’s desire when they finally give up wishing for it have actually just paid their karmic dues and earned their reward, and the timing is pure coincidence. You resign yourself to staying in a job you don’t like and someone calls you the next day with an offer you couldn’t have conjured up in a dream. I make peace with never having love or children and wake up ten years from now and realize that my life has been a complete failure in the ways that matter most to me, so I might as well just stay in bed forever.
A friend of mine who went through a bad breakup last January said recently that she still thinks about her ex every day. I’ve been mourning that relationship longer than I was in it, she said. Much like my unseemly preoccupation with love and babies, we are not supposed to talk about these things. Tell a roomful of single 30-something women that you are afraid you’ll never be happy without a family and watch their faces slam closed. The deal is, old boyfriends recede into the mist and we don’t talk about what they take with them. The deal is, if you say you are afraid of being alone and lonely, you are casting aspersions on the lives other women build for themselves to keep that fear at bay. The sisterhood of singledom fractures along these lines. The people who have resigned themselves wait for the rest of us to cross over, one by one. Step into the flattering, indirect light. There’s a rattan basket for your sandals on the left.
The women who have truly made peace with their single lot are a scarce breed, though from time to time, I hear of sightings.
I don’t know any more what I’m supposed to think about him. I juggle two narratives: in one, I think he was the one for me, plainly and simply the person I am supposed to be with, but it didn’t work out and now that’s the story I’ll be working with from here on out. In the second narrative, I became irrationally attached to the wrong person, who never loved me and was quite upfront about it, and even though I know how long it takes me to get over these things, I self-destructively gave him my heart anyway and now this hole in my chest is the story I’ll be working with from here on out.
I’m leaning toward version two lately. It’s the better of the two, but still: In the parable of the scorpion and the frog, which one are you really disgusted with in the end?
I think being away this week, knowing I’m going back to a whole new world when this job begins, has unmoored me a little bit. I’m daunted by the possibilities open to me now for reinventing myself, and so I’m buying a lot of shoes and taking a lot of naps. I want to be lit up by this new chance, incandescent with gratitude, my internal fire a beacon that draws new opportunity my way. (That damn geographic cure again!) Instead, I’m a little sunburned and with boinging humidity curls, my heart still cracked and sore these many months later. My room here is green and yellow, and I painted my toenails Big Apple Red for the trip, hopeful that I’d meet someone who smelled good enough to kiss. I might never actually lay eyes on him again, never see the tender hollow at the base of his throat that used to preoccupy me so. I hope I can evict his ghost from the space he still occupies in my head, and fill it with something vibrant and new as this next chapter begins. My hope has characterized our entire relationship, from the electric beginning to this burnt end.
The sunset today was spectacular. I was by myself, and it was not one iota less beautiful for that. Wherever I go, there I am.