I Don’t Like Her, You Can Have Her

At least once a day I am utterly gobsmacked. I have never made so many Scooby Do sounds as I have in the past 4 1/2 years. I have no idea if the world has changed while I wasn’t watching or I’ve simply had my head someplace it didn’t belong for 20 years. I’ll admit that while married my life was about my marriage. Yes, I worked and had scads of friends, but most of my “observing” was done in the context of my marriage (i.e., why does your family act that way?!) Now I’m exposed to many more new people and behaviors…daily. Of course, the world has changed since the mid 90s as well. It’s not just me.

The last time I was single people met in real life and ghosting hadn’t been invented. If you wanted to view porn you had to make an effort (or at least get off the toilet) to do so. The backlash to feminism hadn’t occurred yet and women weren’t being sold girdles, false eyelashes and hair extensions and encouraged to use upspeak. Now take those ingredients and slowly stir in my own naiveté and cue the Scooby Do head tilt.

There are several specific boorish behaviors that send me ’round the bend. But the one that really flummoxes this feminist is a bit of a weighty issue. When did it become okay to mention a woman’s size and/or shame her for it? I have been on dates and even (gulp) in relationships with men who talk about overweight women with derision. Recently a date actually showed me a profile pic he had saved (and sent to friends) of a curvy woman. She was standing in front of a baby elephant and I suppose therein was the joke? She looked warm and lovely and perhaps was a size 14. Not that it would make any difference what size she was, it would never have been okay to save a photo and use it as a joke. But what was doubly icky is that she was utterly normal. I have been told by countless dates that women post photos of themselves that are “misleading”. Cue the Scooby Do head tilt; “misleading?”, I ask. Apparently there are people who post photos of their thinner (and younger) selves. Hmm, I wonder why? Could it be that you men (with your lack of head hair, abundance of ear hair, middle aged gut and better virility through chemistry) are a tad superficial? Could it be that you’ve watched too much porn or perhaps haven’t noticed that even R-rated actresses have body doubles? Is it that you feel that perfection is a reasonable and safe substitute for real connection?

I don’t know and I’m not even sure that I care. It’s just one more red flag as far as I’m concerned. I’m not entirely clueless, I know that obesity is a real and relatively new problem. All one needs to do is watch a television show from the 70s to see that was once considered “fat” wouldn’t even be noticed today. We are now big, very very big. But that isn’t what this little diatribe is about. What frosts my bum is that what I’ve been experiencing is a fat shaming that is utterly repulsive. I’m a relatively small person and perhaps that’s why men talk about this stuff to me. But you see the thing is, I’ve always found it easier to be outraged on others’ behalf. So now this will have to be added to my teachable moment list. It’ll take pride of place right after; “No, I will not discuss my husband’s death with you…on a first date!” and “Sexual harassment has nothing to do with a woman’s appearance!” Fun date, eh? It pleases me none to have to do it, I assure you. I honest to goodness assumed that men (particularly of a certain age) were evolved, respectful and aware. I never ever expected to travel through my 50s with a constant Scooby Do crick in my neck.

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False Victory

What a sense of victory it was; all those firsts! Each time I survived a holiday or milestone I did so with shock and awe. When I made it to the first year anniversary of his death I felt as if I was crossing a finish line. I did it! And I did, gritting my teeth and with white knuckles. Each and every little thing that I had to do by myself for the first time, shook me to the core while filling me with pride. I did it! I made it through the birthdays, anniversaries, lawyer’s appointments, financial decisions, travel, health issues, and holidays completely on my own. Twelve months of firsts and I made it.

Over four years later it occurs to me that those firsts may have been the easy part. The adrenaline of “I can do this!” mixed with my shock and numbness helped ease the way. Now it’s no longer about “getting through” anything, it’s about the stunning and cruel fact that this is my life. Doing it all on my own; the financial decisions, the legal affairs, my health and happiness, all of it, are my one-woman show. It shouldn’t really be so startling to me. I didn’t marry until I was a ripe old age of 32. I had lived on my own for a decade, coming home to an empty house and being my own counsel. If anything it should be easier now. I was stupider then (isn’t everyone?) and had zero professional or financial safety net. I certainly did not have the confidence acquired sometime in my 40s. So you would think that now; devoid of the unflattering perm and having a modicum of security I would find it if not easier than at least comparable. Alas, no.

If you’re a math person you’ll have no doubt noticed a bit of a mathematical formula in the paragraph above. Call it the Happiness Formula if you will:

Youth – knowledge – confidence – resources = 20s Happiness

Experience + confidence + resources + knowledge – perm = 50s Happiness

But there’s a factor missing, one that can’t really be quantified: my broken heart and spirit. I may be stronger on paper but I’m less than whole in reality. I am wounded. It’s that simple. Yes, I am capable of love and happiness, but I am fundamentally bruised and changed. Each difficult task or setback feels bigger and darker now. It’s embarrassing to admit, but there are times I feel I’m owed a break and even happiness after what I’ve been through. I feel that every time the world is not nice to me that it’s personal. I feel resentful that on top of everything else, I still need to fight with the co-op board about my cable bill. I know it’s utterly absurd and unpleasantly self-absorbed but it is how I feel.

I’m disheartened to realize that I did not in fact cross any kind of finish line. That victorious feeling of surviving the first year was a false victory. There is no benchmark, there is no end point. I am not owed a happy ending or even kindness. There is no epiphany waiting around the next corner. For each day I wake up and think; I’m okay, I like my life, there will be an evening that I cry myself to sleep. This is my life now.

 

I Shouldn’t Have To

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.

I Yam What I Yam

“You’re so strong”

I lost count of how many times I’ve been told that. It’s happened so often that I’m almost inured now. In the beginning I wanted to demonstrate how strong I was with one swift kick. They meant well, and it is true, but it felt dismissive and to be perfectly frank I’d love the option of not being so strong. I look around and see people who aren’t forging ahead and making scary lonely decisions. I see and know people who have suffered loss and have a village of family and friends swooping them up and into their lives and homes. When you’re strong, no one volunteers to take care of you.

So I forge ahead, through sheer will and a shark-like sense of how to survive. I don’t stay in the past, musing how it’s the pictures that got small. There is no shrine, no visible reminders to the unknowing eye. Of course, I know that the mini wooden giraffe perched on a cabinet was a shared joke. My husband was heading to Africa for business, during that insurance ad campaign which featured a mini-giraffe. When he asked what I wanted him to bring home I did my best Veruca Salt and demanded a mini-giraffe. Two weeks later, he handed the 6-inch carving over (with a small bag of precious stones.) There are little things like that scattered around and in my closets. It’s not that they’re a monument to him, it’s that they are us.

I’ve consciously fought being a living monument to my husband. I’ve seriously considered changing my last name and I had my wedding rings reconfigured into a necklace. However, I could throw out the entire contents of my home and closet and you know what? It wouldn’t matter. As long as I’m alive, I will be a living monument. It’s not that “love never dies” or anything else terribly twee. It’s that we were together too long and too much that I can no longer discern where he ends and I begin. And maybe, just maybe, that makes me stronger than I know.

 

My Diary Is My G.P.S.

I’ve kept a journal since I was eleven. The pages were never filled with artful passages but high-pitched strum and angst. I’ve avoided reading them but it’s a pretty safe bet that 90% of the strum was about boys. They are all (except for the current one) packed in a box, topped with a note in bold Sharpie: “Destroy Upon My Death.” (The note is for my sister whose curiosity and hunger for drama outweigh any sense of integrity.) The curious thing is that it is not a large box. There are only two journals for the entire 18 years I was with my husband. Lots of things happened during those years. Lots. But I was rarely sad and/or filled with angst. My marriage wasn’t boring but it was relatively calm and steady. These past four years have been anything but.

I have probably filled more notebooks during these past four years than I have my entire life. It’s not just the grief, I’m lost.There seem to be too many paths to take; a luxury, I know. My kingdom for simply a fork (versus a loom) in the road. I have tried so many roads, and gotten lost or reached a dead end more times than I can count. These journeys are probably invisible to everyone else, as they are more about my perspective and/or trying new things. I have tried work, play, dozens of volunteer gigs, politics, religion and apathy. I have dated people I considered good matches and people I knew were anything but. I have grown my hair and shrunk my wardrobe. And when none of it feels enough or right, when the loneliness and loss come crashing upon me, I grab my journal. I’d be embarrassed to read what I wrote a year or two or three ago. I fear I would discover little if any personal growth. If my journals were a therapist they would probably tell me it’s time to shift my narrative.

Life IS loss. My rabbi once told me that not everyone experiences loss. I argued (yes, with a rabbi) that was impossible. To be alive, in any real sense, means you have suffered loss. Even if it was “just” the loss of a dream or one’s youth, it is still loss. I accept that the cost of survival is learning how to live. There is even something to say for the creative freedom it allows. At least that’s what I tell friends over lunch or drinks. But I’ll tell you the other truth; it’s hard and sad and very lonely. I know I’m less lost than I was, but I still struggle for direction. This is particularly frustrating for a gal who has an exquisite sense of direction (seriously, my husband used to say you can spin me and I’d always point north.) I am learning self-care, which is huge progress. I am also learning not to say “yes” to everything but to trust my own judgement again.

Regaining trust of judgement is nothing to sneeze at by the way. The thing about being lost is one tends to ask for directions (regardless of one’s gender!). This is not always a great strategy, as no one knows you as well as you do. I’ve received some rubbish advice these past few years! I saw a therapist…once, who told me that the reason I still had sadness was that I made no difference in anyone else’s life. She said I lived a very self-absorbed life and I’d always be unhappy. So…I turn to my journal. I write and write and write, in the pursuit of clarity. I rely, as I always have, on my dreams to reveal my inner thoughts. And I live. I put one foot in front of the other. I do the things that make me happy whenever I can. I seek out experiences that feed my soul and spend time with people I love. That’s all I know to do. But oh do I miss the assuredness I had when married. I so miss feeling solid in my life…feeling I HAD a life.