I’m not supposed to be here.
I don’t mean “here”— standing in an unmoving line in the middle of Madison Square Park waiting for a cheeseburger I don’t want on a hot June day.
I mean that I’m not supposed to be the thirty-something with the two cats, one toolset I don’t know how to use and zero prospects on the horizon.
And yet I am.
How in God’s name has it taken me so long to see this?
“Hey,” he said as he sauntered over to where I was on my phone in the corner of a room. We were at a party in an L.A. warehouse and I was checking my voicemail. Thrown by his directness, by the way he walked right up to me even though I was busy, and then by how he looked at me—again, so directly — I hung up the phone even though I was in the middle of listening to a message I’d been waiting for. “You look stressed,” he said. He appeared bemused.
This guy wasn’t gorgeous; his brown hair was starting to gray, his face was a little pinched, he wore glasses and was neither rugged nor slim. But for some reason, I shook as I smiled at him. “And you look amused by that,” I responded.
He laughed — a loud, guttural guffaw. “You were very focused on what you were doing,” he said. “It made me want to see if I could break your focus.” I noticed that stubble decorated his cheeks and chin.
“Mission accomplished,” I said. Under normal circumstances, I would have been annoyed— being accosted by a stranger doesn’t tend to bring out my good-natured cheer. But nothing about what was happening felt normal: the air was suddenly charged with energy from some otherworldly place.
We introduced ourselves. When he told me his name was Will, I suddenly realized he was the painter my friend had been telling me earlier was going to be at this party. Since my knowledge about art was somewhere between minimal and nonexistent, I’d only half listened when she’d talked about how he was a hero of sorts in the art world, credited with creating some new medium that enraged purists but was celebrated by modernists, and how his work sold for millions of dollars. But I didn’t tell him that I’d just figured out who he was; by this point, I was focused on his eyes which, now that he’d removed his glasses and tucked them into the front pocket of his white button-down shirt, I could see were swimming-pool blue. I could see vestiges of pain in the irises but they also looked simultaneously delighted and seemed to be pleading with me to stare back at them, a request that felt so overwhelming I had to look away. And when I glanced down, I noticed the wedding ring. Of course, I thought. The first man to captivate me at first sight couldn’t be single.
We continued talking. I didn’t understand what was happening — I’m a realist, practical and pragmatic, someone who believes in the right timing and compatibility and not soul mates and Cupid’s arrows. But I couldn’t deny the fact that this stranger was eliciting something in me that I hadn’t ever experienced instantaneously —a feeling that was simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, like a song I used to love but had long since forgotten the words to. Our communication, I soon discovered, was just as unusual: words began coming out of my mouth as sentences before I had the chance to experience them as thoughts, and I had no desire to try to impress him or make him laugh or showcase my intelligence. Somehow, he — or the combination of the two of us —rendered my omnipresent self-consciousness obsolete. Time both slowed down and sped up. I wanted to crawl inside his eyes and take a swim. I wanted everything else to disappear. Within three minutes of being introduced to this man, I felt like he was the only thing in the world that mattered.
I tried to act normal. He was married—and, he told me, had two kids—and I wasn’t going to go there. We made small talk, jokes. I pretended I wasn’t having trouble breathing. But when I went to the bathroom, I realized that there was only so much I could deny. My panties were soaked all the way through.
The Shake Shack line continues not to move and tears stream down my face—something so common these days that it takes me at least a minute to even notice. They’re certainly not my first tears of the day. Before I ventured out to get this burger, I’d actually been curled up in the fetal position sobbing for a good week straight, one sentence making an endless loop in my brain:
I’m going to be alone forever.
Then that thought elicited an endless stream of far more disturbing ones.
I’m going to be alone forever while the rest of the world is coupled off.
I’m going to be alone forever while the rest of the world is coupled off because there’s something terribly wrong with me.
I’m going to be alone forever while the rest of the world is coupled off because there’s something terribly wrong with me that’s obvious to everyone but me.
Occasionally I’d switch to beating myself up for feeling this way while giving relationship advice on TV. It was shameful for someone who’d written hundreds of articles on sex and dating, someone who’d been the relationship expert on a cable show, someone who regularly shared her thoughts on romance on major networks, to be in this state.
As I inch closer to the Shake Shack counter, I rationalize that it’s okay that I offer relationship advice but can’t find and maintain one in my own life. How, I remind myself, could someone who easily found and married the man of her dreams help the lovelorn, the struggling, the confused and broken-hearted? I can understand people’s mistakes because I’ve made them myself. The fact that I’ve fallen in love with a married man and am now falling apart as a result will give me the experience and knowledge to be able to counsel someone else in the same situation.
But that still doesn’t mean I’m supposed to be here.
Before my trip to L.A., I’d managed to keep depressing thoughts about my single status at a simmer whenever they bubbled to the surface. Through a combination of optimism, denial, and a collection of other single friends whose lives appeared to be exciting and glamorous, I walked with relative ease through every form that asked for my husband’s employment information, every singles table at a wedding, every conversation about marriage. The “Have you met anyone special?” queries from my mom and other curious parties had, essentially, eased up, and I didn’t ask myself if this was because everyone had given up on me or was just assuming I was gay and in the closet. In therapy, where I dissected my relationships, the conversations tended to focus on the particular guy I was involved with — the micro, not the macro — so I usually avoided seeing the big picture. Whenever a romance fizzled, an I’m-going-to-be-alone forever mindset would set in and I’d agonizingly flip through people’s happy family Facebook photos and wonder why I couldn’t seem to do something that everyone — even the girl from my high school with the unplaceable body odor — had seemingly pulled off effortlessly. But those bouts tended to be ephemeral.
Of course, by the time I hit my thirties, I’d begun having impossible-to-ignore reactions to pregnant bellies and women or couples with children. I’d always smiled at, talked to and played with children but these activities took on a more panicked intensity once I started to pass through my prime childbearing years; a sensation that I’d better wave, smile, and coo at these kids since I might not ever have my own. I’d be struck with the feeling that the mothers of these children were much happier and better adjusted than I, no matter their circumstances. Since none of my good friends had kids yet, I didn’t experience this all that often and whenever I did, I never let the thoughts fester or cling to me: instead, I’d turn back to the manuscript I was working on or keep walking to the gym or check to see if a stranger had written something nice about me on my blog, and the fear that I might not have a husband or be a mother would be replaced by whatever thought I’d slid in there.
Most of the time, I convinced myself that I’d be fertile well into my forties, that I was simply someone who would not settle, and that when I did eventually commit to a man — a man whom I would of course feel had been well worth waiting for—our future children would never utter words like “dysfunctional family” or “I hate my mother” because I’d have worked out all of my issues during those long single years before I brought them into the world. Phrases to explain my situation poured out of me almost subconsciously whenever necessary. I’m happy being alone. Or: I haven’t met the right guy. Or my favorite, for when I was feeling particularly sanctimonious in the face of what I perceived to be smugness: People think they need a relationship in order to be complete but I don’t.
And I really didn’t think I did — until now. But interacting with Will had unearthed something so primal and overwhelming in me that not having a deep romantic connection suddenly feels unbearable. It’s like a dam inside of me has tumbled down and I’m mourning all the years I’ve felt this way without ever allowing myself to know I felt this way. I’m in my thirties, in other words, and just finding myself in the state most girls enter when they’re in their teens. I’ve never had a 10-year-plan or a must-be-married-by age and never worried about either of these things. Now it all feels like it’s too late – like while I was off screwing around and then taking advantage of the career opportunities available to women today, the men I’d want to partner off with went and married younger girls who were ready to forgo all the advantages of modern womanhood, who were happy to put their work lives second or possibly not even have them at all. It’s like coming out of a blackout and discovering that you’re in the process of losing a game of musical chairs – one you didn’t even know you wanted to play.