I was a turtle without its shell after my husband died. The air outside stung my skin during those first few weeks. I felt so exposed, so porous and so frightened. The first time I left the house alone at night, I could barely breathe. It was one month after he had died and my lovely and loving friends had come across the country and were taking me to dinner on Christmas night. My doormen eased me into the cab as if I were made of glass. He told me to call him if I wanted him to come get me. The look on my face must have frightened him. I arrived at the Central Park South hotel a bit too early and took a seat in the lobby. There was a piano player and I thought; “maybe I can do this”. I heard the first notes of “Christmas Waltz” and started to tremble. I should’ve been hearing that song at Birdland, as I did for the past five years. I would’ve been sharing a bottle of champagne with my husband, both of us looking better than usual in the table’s candlelight. By the time my friends came to swoop me into the dining room I was walking like a newborn colt.
Those days are far behind me. Thank God. I have forged ahead, making new friends and adventures. There are times I’m exhausted from the efforts. But I’m not scared anymore, and I no longer feel exposed…that is until recently. In the space of just one month I have felt, not so much like a turtle without its shell, but like I was being shown to my cell past the lifers. I’m not a prude and I certainly don’t take it personally when men gaze. But to have a man (I’d Just Met) grow angry because I didn’t want to have sex with him? That I take personally. When another man, after a first coffee, grabbed my breast; that I take personally. Chalk these up to bad dates. But then I was out of town and took an Uber, and the 28-year old driver spent the 20 minute drive hitting on me. No, there is nothing remotely flattering about this. And if you think there is, just picture that first walk to your cell. I was trapped in the Uber with a man telling me how hot I was. I arrived at my destination shook. I found a seat in my favorite restaurant, near enough to the piano bar and far enough from anyone else. While I ate, my waiter brought me a drink “from this really great guy and his girlfriend.” I declined but my waiter insisted that they’re great people. Fine, I’ll keep an open mind. Fast forward an hour when I ran out of the restaurant and hid waiting for my Uber. Yes, my 50-year-old self did not see the request for a threesome coming. The next day I could not shake the feeling that I had brought this on myself. I rarely go out to dinner by myself, but I was traveling and I just love this restaurant. I looked at the dress I had worn and actually wondered if I had “asked for it”! I spent the entire day feeling a bit sick and very very sad.
The next night I went out with two couples. I had never met one of the wives before and she had decided, before meeting me, that she hated me. I was dressed like a country club matron, and mostly kept quiet. In other words, there was nothing remotely threatening about me. But then I remembered my 20s: a single woman was either prey or a threat. That was the law of the jungle. I’m hopelessly naive, particularly for a cynic, but I just didn’t realize this was still true at my age. I’m not willing to stop being me so that other people can feel secure or treat me with respect. I will wear what makes me feel strong and happy. But I’m not sure I’ll go where I want to go. I have no desire to feel so exposed, so porous and so frightened ever again. The feminist in me rages against this decision, but my well-honed sense of self-preservation will prevail.
I am a homebody and an introvert by nature. It takes an awful lot to get me out that front door. But I do it. I do it all the time. Sometimes it’s fabulous but often times it’s not. But I still keep forging ahead. I don’t know what else to do to feel as if I’m still alive. The thing is, it takes so much strength to fight my own nature and participate in the world. I don’t have the strength to fight everyone else. And I shouldn’t have to.