So what is an independent woman exactly?
The question approaches as I spread my legs open for a Brazilian wax. The angel doing the honor strikes up a conversation to numb my mind from the pain. She tells me she made a watermelon smoothie that day to combat Texas heat. “Lovely,” I think, salivating over the image of a cold watermelon as a goop of hot wax makes a touchdown on my skin. Then I ask her who sliced up the watermelon for her. It feels appropriate; watermelons are hard to cut, even with the right knife. She’s single with the occasional Tinder date. I figure the chance of inviting a hunk into her apartment with the intention that he’ll slice up her fruit is slim.
“I cut it.” She replied nonchalantly, as she ripped off the sticky wax paper. I let out a sigh of desperation and awe that at 26, I have never cut my own watermelon, or changed my own tires, or grilled my own meat. I never envisioned a situation in which I’d need to. There was always someone physically stronger in my life, a man, to do those things for me.
Still, I tried to remember a time when I had savored my own independence. I landed on senior year in high school. A wave of selective solidarity befell me after learning that my boyfriend at the time had a girl waiting for him back home. Upon receiving the news, friends and family expected me to be a lot more upset than I actually was. Even I was taken aback by my reaction. But I couldn’t muster tears, because I felt immensely grateful that I revealed his lie before it blew up in my face. Reading through his act allowed me to end the relationship and walk away with my power and grace intact. I still remember his panicked face, banging on the hood of my taxi, his blue eyes welling with tears. I didn’t look back to watch his figure shrink as we drove away that drizzling Tokyo morning. In fact, I never looked back henceforth.
The following weeks were trying. We worked near each other, and the routine was to join him after my shift on the weekends. But I picked up a new routine, exploring Japanese ramen shops that stayed open until the trains started up again and I could return home. I must have tried every flavor of broth, every type of noodle, and every accessory one can find in a Japanese ramen dish, a solid education even the most aspiring ramen connoisseurs don’t receive in one lifetime. Some days I would be so exhausted after working all night and forcing myself to stay awake over a boiling plate of soup, that I’d fall asleep on the trains wrinkled into the shape of a wonton, only to wake up having missed my stop. He lived a ten-minute walk away from my job, while my house was an hour and half away by train. Despite this, each weekend I busied myself in Tokyo, wandering around aimlessly, sneaking in as much sleep as I could before a waiter shook me awake. I repeated this sequence until the golden hour of 5:00 A.M. when I could ride the trains home and finally earn solid sleep in my bed.
One night after work, I decided to buy myself a Louis Vuitton wallet. I was, after all, a hostess at one of the swankiest bars in Tokyo, so even at the humble age of seventeen, I stacked enough cash for such luxuries. This wallet was a trinket I had craved for a while but foolishly expected a man to buy me one day. It was so gratifying to pay for it in full then stash it in my purse. I fell asleep on the train that morning, spread out like a starfish instead of a wonton, with the song “Umbrella” repeating on my old school iPod. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning the importance of self-sufficiency during a crucial phase in my life when the person I’d put my faith in blatantly returned it with betrayal.
I was detached and at peace with our separation. In fact, when his other girlfriend contacted me in a fury of broken English on Facebook, I consoled her until she began to beg for my advice. I held her pain, even though our acquaintance was unconventional and helping her felt like the last thing a person in my place would want to do.
In the deepest parts of my heart, I knew she’d stay with him, and I was okay with that. They’d built a love with a foundation sturdier than ours. They shared a native tongue, the nuances of their culture, and I knew when he visited his home in Albania that she was apart of it. Live and let live. A phrase I didn’t know at the time, but one I very much abided by to my advantage.
I was snapped back to reality when a glob of hot wax clinging to my fuzz was too present to daydream over. Yes, I’d always boasted the idea of an independent woman, much like people call themselves organized in an interview they were almost late to because they tossed the paper they took down the directions on (which happened to be their dirty lunch napkin).
I like the idea of an independent woman, it’s as alluring as it sounds. A four syllable word that rolls off the tongue in strategic song. When I was twenty-one, I tattooed the words, “sola sto,” which is “stand alone” in Latin, on my forearm. It was a symbolic gesture at the time, a tribute to yet another disappointment in love. An expectation fallen short because of a man who wanted to eat his cake and have it too. It upset me that the only times I’d demonstrated my independence were when romance didn’t play by predetermined rules. In a sense, my independence still depended on someone else.
Now I’m 26. Stand alone is still boldly tattooed to my forearm. I’ve meandered over time, debating whether I still agree with the meaning of my tattoo. When my extroversion rewards me, I lean toward a firm, “No. No one should have to stand alone.” During productive solitary, I lean toward a soft, “Yes. We bring more joy to the world when we are self-sufficient and know how to be happy alone.” Most days I linger somewhere in the middle, neither expecting much from others, but hoping they’ll show up out of their own will.
But I think I’m finally beginning to understand the intention behind my tattoo. By making it permanent years ago, I was affirming a trait I wanted to see in myself indefinitely. Independence is so much more than paying my own bills and falling asleep blissfully with my texts not returned. Independence is independent of others, otherwise, it risks merely filling the shadow of its true-self, a pseudo-independence that fluctuates depending on circumstance. That’s not to say I’m not endeared by the idea of lovers taking care of each other. Needing love isn’t anything to feel ashamed of. We all need love. But before we go out seeking it, we need to learn how to belong to ourselves. Unfortunately, when we fling ourselves from one pair of arms to the next, we mistakenly believe that source is inside someone else.
The reason it’s so important to learn how to love ourselves before we learn how to love someone else is that the ability to find join within is much more sustainable than any romance we enter. Unlike a lover’s emotions, it remains intact. I don’t suggest we avoid falling in love out of fear. But our mind is much more powerful than we think, and we don’t give it enough credit when it comes to matters of the heart. I suggest diving deeper into ourselves before giving what we have to a perfect stranger. That is after all, what most lovers are before we add emojis to their name.
Mastering the ability to be joyful within is obviously the work of a lifetime and no feat I pretend to have mastered. But striving towards that standard gradually makes me the independent woman I romanticized when I tattooed those words on my arm. A woman who is both strong and soft, open but with boundaries. I envision a detachment from the need to identify with anyone or anything. Lovers come and go, but my sense of who I am remains the same. I envision a melting ego that doesn’t bear the need to prove anything and sees every act as the end to a means rather than a prerequisite to something better.
Mostly though, I envision a woman perusing in lingerie (worn for her own delight) on a scorching Saturday, carefully slicing into a watermelon, then removing the meat from the rinds as she sways to Turkish drums and blends herself the sweetest summer smoothie.