Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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Last summer, when trouble started heating up in the apartment building next door, it occurred to me that I was a potential statistic: a single woman in a ground-floor apartment on the wrong side of town. Exhausted from lying awake till all hours with my ear cocked for the faintest sounds of forced entry, I decided to do something.
So I got a dog. Barney was a middle-aged, raggedy black cocker-spaniel mix with a gray muzzle, legs like lacquered canes, and paws the size of oven mitts. He was talented: knew how to sit, stay, and “go lie down.” He could also, as a neighbor’s kid discovered, shake a paw — something I’d never have figured out, because I wouldn’t have risked embarrassing him by trying. Barney conscientiously set to work warding off evil — a task that consisted mainly of barking at the couple upstairs, whose telltale smokers’ coughs unrolled every day in the hallway like a suicidal lovers’ duet.
For the first month after I brought him home from the pound, Barney crept into my bed at night and wedged himself tightly against my back. Asleep, he shivered and wept and shook, caught in the grip of nightmarish memories. I soothed and quieted him, stroking his body and murmuring, “It’s all right. . . . You’re safe now. . . . Safe.” Some mornings I’d turn over and find him lying beside me with his head on the pillow, nose pointed toward the ceiling, like a husband.
I have not been in a relationship with a man for more than a year now, a situation that has resulted in a dangerously high increase in my doughnut consumption. I eat doughnuts each time I realize, with fresh pain, that the men I’m attracted to are completely out of reach: monogamous, left-leaning, gentle-spirited, broad-shouldered carpenters with a love for the works of minor poets — and, inevitably, a family.
I see this type of man in hardware and grocery stores. He’s dazed from sleep, and his hair resembles a cornfield after a flying saucer has landed. He shuffles slowly down the aisle, work boots untied, children hanging off him like Christmas-tree ornaments. He’s like an old sofa you can lie down on without worrying about spilling food. But there’s also an air of thoughtfulness about him, a sense that he’s going over lists and calculations in his head as he stands motionless, staring at the items in the sale bins. He’s the type who speaks infrequently, and when he does, your ears prick up, because you imagine any ideas that have taken so long to develop are definitely worth considering.
On Saturday night, this guy gets cleaned up to GQ level and stands in line at the movie theater with his wife, who is usually tall, slim, and self-contained. She believes that, without her, this man would lose his sense of direction and become just one more dreamy, cosmic, hairy-chested innocent wading through a sea of inchoate emotions. She imagines that she helps him to realize who he is and what he wants.
He allows her this illusion.
The city where I live is small historic, picturesque — a city of century-old limestone buildings and annual boating events. It has one good university, five penitentiaries, and two factories: one manufacturing plastics, the other aluminum. In a nationwide almanac, my city is listed as being a good place for senior citizens to retire. Single, educated women outnumber comparable men here by about four to one.
How I ended up here is not very interesting, nor is the reason I continue to live here. I have a handful of friends, but no one I would miss terribly were I to be transplanted to some other city tomorrow. I stay because I’m a reclusive painter, because this place is familiar, and because I can’t think of anywhere else to go.
For the past few years, I’ve looked for love in the personals. Almost without exception, the men who place ads list sports as their number-one hobby. They want a woman who is (surprise!) also into sports and is “happy” or at least “easygoing.” There are those seeking a “slim” woman and others looking for someone “queen-sized” or “height-weight proportionate.” I once read an ad by a man who said he’d take any woman who wasn’t “too ugly to look at or too stupid to talk to.” Then there are the cheaters: the sly, bored, unhappily-married-but-powerless-to-leave-her men looking for a “discreet relationship.”
Dispirited, I barely glance at the men-seeking-women ads anymore. I stick to creating my own, which I hope convey something in utter contrast to the meat market that surrounds them.
I met my last boyfriend through the personals. Tall, soft-spoken Curtis was a farmer who walked naked in his fields to feel the warm summer air caress every part of him. He was the most complicated man I’d ever met: beautifully articulate, emotionally expressive, and clinically depressed.
Curtis had answered several women’s ads at the same time, he confessed, and I was the only one who’d called him back. Almost immediately, he told me about his depression.
“That’s OK,” I said. “I think I’m agoraphobic. I’m looking into it.”
“Really?” He brightened. “My dog’s agoraphobic.” He told me how he’d rescued it from a neighbor who’d kept it shut up in a barn for the first six months of its life.
Curtis said that meeting me was a gift, and that it cured him of wanting to be a tree — stationary, uninvolved. He requested that I give him a ring to let other women know he was taken. I picked one designed by a jeweler friend of mine. It seemed made for Curtis, with flowing, interwoven strands of silver — like water, like roots. I said it was OK that he couldn’t afford to buy me one.
It was a potent attraction. For three months, we made love fiercely, marveling at our amazing good fortune at having found each other. Then the hints of trouble I’d been ignoring came more clearly into view: Curtis talked only about himself and was rarely interested in the daily workings of my life. He called a former lover a “dragon-breath bitch.” When I told him I was thinking of writing a story about us, he offered as a possible opening line “Pine trees are the architects of their own destinies because of the space they create around themselves.” And then he actually said, “I want someone in my life without that person affecting my life.” And finally: “I’m sick of you.”
I don’t know when he left the ring I’d given him in the dark blue velvet box in my desk drawer. I hadn’t noticed that he’d stopped wearing it. For a long time afterward, whenever I had to go into that drawer, I’d tell myself that I really should move the ring someplace where I wouldn’t have to see it. But I couldn’t bear to touch it. I think I needed periodically to experience the shock of finding it, a tangible reminder of my phenomenal lapse in judgment.
I retreated from the personals and focused on trying to be single with integrity. I devoured all the books I’d accumulated from yard sales but never gotten around to reading, took a yoga class, and got together with my women friends for videos and popcorn. I alternated between feeling relief at having myself back again and grappling with the low-grade depression that always accompanies my not being in a relationship. My friends preached to me about how happy, fulfilled people attract love, and emotionally needy people repel it. Be self-sufficient and industrious, they advised, act as if you don’t need anyone, and you’ll attract someone who’ll love you as an independent equal. Of course, most of the women who imparted this advice were in relationships themselves and therefore not stuck for someone to massage their backs at night.
My single women friends weren’t much better. Most of them had gone without relationships for years, like camels without water. Some were perpetual students, full of enthusiasm, with an insatiable desire to learn. “The world is such a fascinating place,” they’d say. “There’s so much to do that there’s just no time for the emotional demands of a relationship.”
I, on the other hand, crave those emotional demands, though I admit I approach relationships irrationally. As I begin to fall in love, it’s like an ego death. I lose myself to the intoxicating drug of lovesickness. I barely eat or sleep, and something inside me explodes with creativity: even before the possibility of sex is on the table, I have accurately sketched, from memory, the face of the man who has me enthralled and richly celebrated him in a poem, which I’ve then likely set to music. When I love a man, I want to portray something of his beauty to the world — or maybe just to myself.
My friends tell me I’m too intense, that in a past life I was probably a medieval troubador, writing sonnets for my lady, wearing her colors into battle. I’m at my most hopeful and believing when in love. True, it dissipates after a while, becomes something familiar, sedate — but that’s agreeable, too. I love the comfort and companionship of doing a crossword puzzle together over breakfast, or going on yard-sale excursions, or driving to the ocean. I’d even settle for just helping each other fold the laundry. I’m easy to please where love is concerned because, to me, being alone is just running errands, remembering to floss, and making sure the recycling goes out on the right night. It’s having no one to consult at the video store who actually has a stake in which movie I choose. It’s watching people make love in those movies and feeling as though they’re the ones leading a normal life, while I’m living on a piece of celluloid. Being alone is spending too many nights in a row sharing doughnuts with my dog.
A year after the Curtis fiasco, I placed another ad. The first man I met was Andy, who on the phone had the voice of a DJ playing exotic world music from a moonlit, tropical location.
In reality, Andy drove a van for a maximum-security prison, transferring violent criminals clad in hand and leg irons to special-handling units. In his spare time, he liked to work out at the gym, cook, and read supermarket novels. Though forty years old, he looked as if his mother still picked out his clothes. When we went out to a restaurant, he wore his baseball cap throughout the meal and neglected to pull his sweat shirt down over his blond-haired potbelly. He answered my questions in monosyllables and asked none of his own. I tried to reconcile that beautiful voice with the entirely ordinary man sitting in front of me, but it was as though he were part of some real-life ventriloquist act.
So as not to appear too hasty in my judgment, I invited Andy back to my apartment for tea. He sat on my couch with the baseball cap still glued to his head, the odor of his spicy after-shave circulating on small updrafts of air. Barney fawned all over him as if he were an emissary of God. When I pointed to a bulletin board displaying photographs of my paintings — as if to say, “There’s my soul” — Andy squinted at it for a second without bothering to get up, and then gave, I’m positive, a mental shrug of boredom.
The next man I met was Joe, a fifty-three-year-old master mechanic and right-wing Christian fundamentalist. He was all man, with the rugged, intelligent face and powerful bearing of a Celtic druid. He called women “gals” and men “fellas,” and began sentences with “I seen.” He talked mainly of his work — the technical details of repairs he’d made, the trucks he’d seen jackknifed on the highway, the one sitting in a pool of titanium dioxide, or something like that. He described these things as though recounting ancient battles, and I drank in every word with a sense of accomplishment, as if I’d been the one to repair the trucks myself.
I was smitten by Joe’s cheerful ability to fix anything that broke down, and by his chivalry in general. He joked about his right-wing politics and Pentecostalism as if they were just offbeat ideas he was flirting with, and the jury was still out. He brought me wine and steaks for dinner and inspected my art with a passable attempt at interest. It was enough.
After our second date, I was able to imagine us together — me pared down to my pioneer essentials, Joe like a character out of Braveheart. Granted, we probably wouldn’t be able to discuss books or paintings or films other than haltingly, but at least he would be loyal, dependable. Over time, we would develop things in common. I fell headlong into this fantasy as I waited for him to call. Five days of confusing silence ensued. Finally, I called him. He’d been up all night, he said, working on two trucks that had jackknifed, one of them driven by “a nigger — I mean, a Negro.”
After Joe, my friend Melanie decided to take me in hand. “Forget the personals for a while,” she instructed. “Let’s go to a singles dance.” There was one coming up at the Holiday Inn.
I didn’t see how that could be an improvement. In fact, the idea sounded hugely unappealing, an even more pathetic and awkward lonely-hearts situation. But Mel said it was fun. She called ahead and found out that we should dress the way we did for work. Although I worked at home in paint-spattered plaid shirts and ripped sweat pants, I basically understood what that meant.
The prospect of going to a dance was daunting to me. I spent so much time in solitude and silence that I hardly knew how to behave at large, noisy gatherings. I worried that my attempts at small talk would taper off into embarrassing silences. To avoid this outcome, I skipped work the day of the dance and instead practiced being in public by shopping for an outfit that would make me look as though I had a “real job.” I selected a paisley blouse and a short, dark jumper, which I tested in the dressing room, lifting my arms above my head to make sure it wouldn’t ride up too far if I happened to dance with any tall men.
Studying my reflection in the mirror, I saw a thirty-seven-year-old woman, never married, childless, with a smooth, unlined face and long, dark hair, carrying about fifteen extra, doughnut-laden pounds. The word wholesome came to mind. I looked as though I should be either the mother of a brood of preschoolers or an outdoorsy type, hiking ruddy-cheeked in the woods — not someone about to enter a world of lonely divorcées with their teenagers and mortgages. I was a renter with no car, no savings, and no particular plans in life other than to save my soul and maybe find true love, or at least become comfortable with isolation.
I was vaguely embarrassed walking through the door of the Holiday Inn lounge with Mel, who was the picture of calm, casually conversing with the woman selling tickets. Several pairs of eyes followed us as we found a table from which to begin our own surveillance of the room.
Mel draws a lot of looks. She has classic, timeless features, like an icon from the realm of art or religion. She’s how I imagine Joan of Arc — tall, slender, bobbed auburn hair, serious brown eyes gazing out from under delicate brows. Once, when we were sitting in a restaurant, I joked that she should pass on to me whatever guy happened to be stalking her that week. Her face split into a grin, and the man at the next table was so captivated that he accidentally lowered his newspaper onto the candle flame, catching it on fire.
At the dance, she resembled a gracious visiting dignitary, sipping a ladylike amount of white wine while I socked back three beers in a row. Because I almost never drink, I expected it to hit me hard, but I barely noticed any effect.
The DJ looked about seventeen and played a mix of seventies hits and country-and-western tunes of the two-stepping variety. The volume was low, probably because most of us were over forty — some over fifty — and we reminded the DJ of his parents. I visited the bathroom at regular intervals, just to keep moving. A heavyset woman with bleached-blond hair, wearing expensive, tailored clothes, leaned across our table to tell us that the men liked to be asked to dance; they were often too shy to do the asking themselves. I nodded understandingly and swallowed another mouthful of beer, knowing that nothing could induce me to ask anyone.
When a man finally asked me to dance, I was unnaturally calm, completely steady. His name tag said Rick. He was a few inches taller than me, thin, and trembling. My hands were warm and dry — one in his hand, the other at his waist — and I almost began to murmur soothing sounds to him, as I would to a frightened child or an animal. How unbelievable it is, I thought, that two complete strangers can join in an intimate embrace on a dance floor. I knew what it had cost him to work up the nerve to ask me, and I felt a sense of compassion. But I didn’t have a clue what to say to him. When the song ended, I bowed slightly, said thank you, and returned to my seat.
Rick kept asking me to dance. In the course of the evening, I learned that he’d driven a school bus for eight years and had recently gone back to school to learn to be a cook. He was thirty-eight, and, although he liked the Beatles better, he had bought a ticket to the upcoming Rolling Stones concert because he’d never seen them play and thought he should. He wanted to know if I was into hockey.
“Not really,” I said apologetically.
“That’s OK,” he responded, a little too quickly. He had a nice voice, not too high or too low, and an open, caring quality that I liked. But something in me couldn’t quite believe that his pleasant companionship would be enough. It wasn’t enough, I realized, to find a man I could stand to spend as much time with as I did with my dog.
What I really wanted sounds so clichéd and seems so far beyond my reach that I can hardly bring myself to voice it: I wanted to find a member of my own tribe, someone who spoke the same language. I wanted, not just another dizzying infatuation, but something meaningful and true.
After the dance, I went home to Barney, who is still fascinated by everything I do. He watches me operate the electric juicer as if preparing for a day when he’ll be called upon to make my morning elixir. He studies me fresh out of the shower, naked and combing the tangles from my hair. Sometimes I’ll look up from reading a book and meet his gaze across the room: still, dark, and contemplative, as if I’m the most soul-saving thing he’s ever seen in his broken-down life.