The last of the cherry tomatoes growing on my balcony.
It’s been a while since my ex-husband ruined my life. So long ago, in fact, that sometimes I think about how his life has been ruined and feel sorry for him, and not in the pitying vindictive way people imply when they mention karma.
The years of shredding my self-confidence have faded, leaving behind the dullness of disappointment. In him. In myself. Making me, not quite regret, but wonder about what might have been if we had caught ourselves before bitterness seeped into the solitary spaces of a marriage between opposites.
The impact, though, is on far more than the lost possibilities in our joint past; it is in my resistance to wanting to have a relationship today.
I tell friends that there are no men to meet, that no men attract me, and I joke about the men online (who start each sentence of their profile with “I,” and have manly pictures on motorcycles, and refer to women as girls, and write about wanting to impale a woman’s mind into his mind to discover something worthwhile). And about the men who make it past that hurdle to a date [there were the guys with whom I barely made it through the complementary one hour of conversation; the antisemite who thought he was going to score; the guy who brought his own teabag to Starbucks (not because he was a tea snob, but so he could just pay for his cup of hot water); the guy who didn’t believe in evolution (he made it to date five and sex before this revelation); and the married guy whose wife had a brain tumor who left (after paying the bill) when I was in the bathroom, sick from attempting to drink two lemon drop martinis]. I even comment, in a completely judgmental way, to my mother that when I look at my friends’ husbands, there is not a one who, in other circumstances, would entice me. Nice men, but not the man for me. She, being a supportive mother, states the same about her friends’ husbands.
Notwithstanding my objective lack of success, I wonder if there is a subjective element that bars me from meeting the/a man. Perhaps the question isn’t Why haven’t I met someone, but—with a slight shrug—Why would I want to meet someone.
The last time I was in a relationship was more than four years ago, with Kenny, who lived with me and my younger daughter for a year and a half. He said he loved me with all his heart and would do anything for me. Anything, it turned out, but make me happy. In that relationship I was increasingly stifled by his need to be acknowledged and loved in the ways that suited him. Which, not surprisingly, inevitably meant his disappointment in something I did or did not do in accordance with his desires, which, of course, made his love for me “better” than my love for him. I will freely admit that I ignored his request to wear dresses when we went out. Even if I liked wearing dresses, which I don’t (and he could have seen that in our closet), that was a huge invite for me to definitely not wear a dress even if I felt like it. Why is it so difficult for men to understand one of the thickest redlines they should not cross with a woman (it can’t just be me) is to tell her what to wear. I got the petulant silent treatment for wearing pants.
My reaction to his suggestion/demand shouldn’t have been a surprise because during our long conversations, when he was living in Beirut and then Belfast, I would tell him how harmed I had been by my husband’s controlling ways. He had been so understanding and supportive. He knew that I was dealing with the residual pain of insults and put downs, of my desires deemed wrong or inappropriate, and my need to not be curated.
So his man-structing was unexpected and devastating.
When we argued, I couldn’t leave the room because of his fear of abandonment. But what of my need to be alone and think so as not to immediately lash out? Being told that I needed to argue in a way that supported him was another redline too many. The relationship became as if on a continuum with how my husband had tried to control my actions and thoughts and emotions, or maybe it was worse because I had opened up to Kenny about retreating into self and how I was trying to not shut down.
The best part of that relationship were the trips we took together. We would talk in the car, opening up our internal monologues as we drove along the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Los Angeles, or along highways and backroads from Virginia to Key West and back again. We wanted to stop at the same time and try the same places, and we even needed pee breaks at the same time. We were in unison, at least on the road. But at home, his need to be taken care of, which had to be done exactly as he wished to prove my love and to prove that he was lovable, underpinned his declarations of love. I was increasingly reminded of how unhappy I had become in my marriage as I tried now to make him happy. I didn’t have the energy or the desire to take on someone else’s emotions.
If you’re not one of my daughters, then I don’t want to take care of you. (Except, maybe my mother, and I’m dreading that scenario.) And he did want to be taken care of. As did my ex-husband.
And I did it.
But I don’t want to anymore.
On weekends, I don’t want to think about what someone else wants for breakfast and I don’t want to try to anticipate his desires. And to be fair, I don’t want someone trying to cater to me.
My standing weekend desire for a soft scrambled egg with feta and fresh herbs from my balcony garden, right after I wake up and take Poops for his morning walk, and as soon as the coffee in the French press is ready, the bread toasted to a warm brown, every section of the newspaper available, and no talking required, is, frankly, why I don’t want to date.
Beyond the fear of being hurt and undermined again, lies the very basic question: What do I want out of my life?
Surely my inability to formulate a substantial why I should want to be in a relationship is a reflection of past failures, but I can’t help but dread that it would be more of a diversion from how I want to live and what I want to do, than a benefit. Do I want to be in a relationship just to have someone with whom I can travel or rehash the stresses of the workday? My inability to even perceive a relationship as a source of respectful, supportive love shows my state of being.
My two friends who date the most, and are in and out of relationships like my high school students, are also the ones with the most out-going personalities. Both of their lives center around doing, and not around contemplation (there are no books in their homes) or fulfilling an inner drive to create or express themselves. Perhaps relationships are their manner of expression.
I would rather sit by myself in an internal monologue than have a conversation, day in and day out, just to fill the time and play a role.
Am I missing the chance at a great love that will imbue my world with joy?
I had that grand romantic love when I was first with my ex-husband. I needed it then. He helped pull me out of myself and into the world. I was aglow; I bubbled. Now when I think about those years it occurs to me how intensely focused we were on each other. I can’t imagine wanting to narrow down my life again. If by some outrageous dating app algorithm that intensity of love at 22 were to revisit me, that insular quality of being part of a couple is not something I want to relive. An identity as part of a couple is not something for which I yearn.
I was married for 21 years; approximately 15 of those made the marriage worthwhile. So moments of envying people in marriages and relationships are quickly overridden when I realize that I prefer to be alone or with different friends, without limiting myself, then always having a partner, even if he is not physically present at that moment.
A life of placid contentedness is not a surrender, it is lake upon which I float or into which I plunge, knowing that no one will interrupt my daydreaming in the tub.