In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I went out with the same woman for ten years. It ended with her marriage to someone else. As she was the first woman I’d really dated, I soon discovered that I wasn’t good at going out.
Thirty-three women later, it’s still difficult. I went out with one woman for two months, and we never kissed; another woman had an orgasm the first time I kissed her. Some women talk endlessly; others speak rarely, and then only at the behest of mysterious forces I have yet to discover. Some are touchers and need to be close; others have a radiation field that protects them from intruders like me. Tall and short, smart and not, at ease and tense, feminine and otherwise — they’re all different.
I’ve learned a lot about human nature since going out with that first woman. Mostly I’ve learned that I liked her best.
Staying inside often feels a lot better than going out. No matter how many homes I’ve lived in, I always feel safer once I am inside the front door.
Lately I’ve been trying to decide what it is “out there” that feels dangerous. I was born and raised in a big city. I know how to walk in relative safety on city streets. I know how to look as if I have a destination even when I’m out for a stroll. I know how to hold my head, where to look, which looks to avoid; I know how to own the street.
Streets full of strangers don’t worry me; the people I know do — friends, family, business acquaintances, lovers. In the bad times, going out means coming face to face with people who might say something hurtful or disregard me altogether. At those times, I lock the front door and turn on the answering machine. I read, write, listen to the radio and the voices in my head; I wonder who out there can hear me. Thoughts of rising, getting dressed, opening the door, and going out land on me like a slab, and how can I move out from under a three-thousand-pound slab? Just trying to decide what to wear exhausts me. Something flashy and short? Maybe a sober business skirt and blouse, or casual, comfortable clothes, or a lumpy sweater and shapeless sweat pants. Meanwhile, the slab presses down.
In good times, I can’t wait to leave the house. Today I have a meeting at 10, lunch with a friend, and tonight I’m seeing a man for dinner and a movie. Rush, rush, run from one face to another through the city lights and the traffic. Heart is home and it goes wherever I go. I’m out. I’m going out.
Los Angeles, California
Going out calls for a persona, a coherent identity I can present to others. I have a lovely one, cultivated as a temp — friendly, capable, adaptable, moderately sympathetic, humorous, optimistic. Every element is individually true. But of course the sum of these qualities is not true, because it is not whole. Its coherence is spurious, formed by the exclusion of all the awkward bits that don’t fit. No wonder I feel ambivalent about going out, when it means leaving half my self at home.
It is a self many people would be glad to leave behind, unreasonably fearful, ashamed of its inadequacies, frankly lonely, often confused. Yet it is a part of the whole self; I would like to bring it along, to speak candidly with one or two others. This seems not to work. Awareness of another’s need makes people nervous: they fear being asked for something they cannot, or dare not, give. I myself have felt this about others and cannot blame anyone for feeling the same about me, but still it puzzles me. Most of us seem reluctant to hear each other’s truths.
It is not hard to put on my persona and go out and have a good time. It is easier than repeating my latest blunders and wondering yet again how I have managed to botch so many friendships. But I would rather stay home. At least here, I don’t have to lie. I do sometimes, but I don’t have to. No one is frightened if the truths look weak or ugly; there is no one wanting to be assured of my independence. If I stay home, I may not be lowering barriers between myself and others, but I am lowering those between me and myself.
Katherine W. Rylaarsdam
My husband of sixteen years grew tired of our struggle with life and each other, and divorced me. It was a wrenching turning point; having gone directly from my family to college, and from college to marriage, I now had to go out into the world as a single woman. My emotional skin felt thin and fragile. It was the shadow side of a debutante “coming out.” I had to learn to face the world on my own. I set challenges for myself: I took myself out to dinner, a movie, a play. I was determined to enjoy myself. I took myself out to a nightclub once; I didn’t enjoy it much, but I gave myself credit for doing it. I’m still single after eight years, and going out by myself still brings a shiver of fear, but now I know I can do it — and usually, enjoy it.
In the beginning it wasn’t easy; I had to hide behind sunglasses and prop up a book. But now, going out alone rates as one of my biggest pleasures. I began by going out to breakfast alone; now I’m comfortable in a candle-lit restaurant, surrounded by couples. Compared to that, plays, movies, and lectures are a breeze.
I still do breakfast three or four times a week. I have a hangout, a tiny log-cabin cafe that serves espresso and wonderful homemade muffins. In the summer, I sit outside on the big deck with my dog Taggart beneath my chair; in winter, I sit inside at one of only seven tables and struggle with my guilt over taking up so much room just for myself.
One day this summer I had breakfast with a friend. Sally, the waitress, gushed, “Oh! You’re with a friend! How nice!” She was pleased — way too pleased; her pleasure was the flip side of pity. That’s the hardest part of going out alone — too many people assume it’s not by choice, that I’m forced into solitude by my lack of choice.
I wanted to tell Sally how much I love going out alone, how much effort I’d put into earning the comfort of this liberty, how often I connive to go hiking, dining, and skiing by myself. I adore my friends and consider them one of the great pleasures of my life. Yet, I’ve earned the friendship of myself. When I walk past a restaurant window and see a woman dining alone, I think, oh, how nice, she’s alone!
When I go out alone, I wear my favorite clothes, I ignore the clock, and I attend to my feelings to the exclusion of almost all else. I follow my intuition, moving from one graceful moment to the next. I hike or ski with a backpack full of treats and no destination. I go to movies and cry if I want. I go out to dinner, I order odd things.
There seems to be something irresistible about the solitude of a lone person. People want to join it, perhaps because they see that a circle of pleasure has already been established. I recommend going out alone to anyone — especially anyone in need of companionship.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
During the last four years, my husband and I have lived in separate households — he with roommates in San Francisco, my daughters and I in an Airstream trailer parked on back streets and in trailer courts. We get together on weekends; ours is a part-time marriage. People envy us. “It must be nice to be married, and still have separate lives,” they say. “No wonder you’ve stayed together twenty years.”
My husband, however, does not find this a happy arrangement (especially when I go out with other men), and I’m not thrilled with it either, though I pretend to be. The gulf between us widens. It’s sad, too, for the children; they want us to get a regular house, to live together as a regular family. We seem unable either to let go of each other and move on, or to find the thread that once drew us to one another.
Then an old friend who lives on Maui invites me to visit him and his wife. It’s twenty years since I’ve been to Hawaii. There is the same fragrant air, the same mountains, valleys, the same warm waves that rock you like a hammock. Almost at once, I know this is where I need to be.
The final night of my visit, my friends and I go dancing. I meet someone. We dance. He buys me a soft drink. Later we sit in his car and talk, and kiss; I contemplate a one-night stand — something I’ve not done in the nine years since I quit drugs and alcohol. He is gently persuasive; he moves closer and whispers, “Don’t think.” Startled, I turn to look at this stranger who has read the moment with such accuracy.
Back home the following week, that night, with the moist breeze blowing through his room and the delicious tangle of our bodies, hardly seems real.
I receive a letter; he has business on the mainland and wants to visit. I say, “Bring some of Maui when you come.” Later in the week, a truck delivers a long, narrow box. Inside, each stem enclosed in its own water-filled vial, are nine tropical flowers, nine unbelievably sexy tropical flowers, and a card that reads, “Here’s a little Maui for you.”
We spend four days together. On the last night, we camp in a friend’s back yard. I wake early and listen to the birds. I understand now that the moist breeze and the tangle of bodies were real — as real as Hawaii, as strong as my desire to go back there. I realize the ambiguous state of affairs with my husband is no longer acceptable.
When my friend leaves, I call my husband and tell him I want a divorce. I tell the children, and my mother and sister. I commence the monumental task of reducing our essential belongings to eighteen cardboard boxes. My mother, convinced that I’m doing the right thing, offers to buy air tickets to Maui for the girls and me.
To raise money to rent a place when I get there, I run ads to sell the van, the trailer, and the piano. I get few calls, no buyers. My husband tells me over and over what a foolish thing I’m doing, that this latest scheme of mine is bound to fail, that I’m irresponsible and self-centered.
I’m poised at the edge of a cliff. My head says, be realistic. My heart says, don’t turn back. What can I do, but close my eyes and jump? Don’t think about the possibility of sharp rocks below, but focus on the sprouting of wings. Have the faith of a caterpillar, snuggling in its dark cocoon.
I will arrive in Hawaii with a hundred dollars. I think this is what it means to go out on a limb, like those old cartoons where the character gets chased to the edge of a cliff, but instead of giving up, plunges into that sheer emptiness of air. And he’s fine — as long as he doesn’t look down. Tomorrow, with my one hundred dollars, I will get on a plane and fly to Maui. And I will not look back. Or down.
Pukalani, Maui, Hawaii
It used to be that when I went out, I never knew what might happen, where I would end up, how long I’d be gone, or if I’d ever come back. Going out held all the possibilities of the universe.
I went out every night, looking for someone who might be interesting, for an all-night party, for drugs. Looking for the energy.
After a while, it was no longer a celebration, but a compulsion. I didn’t feel comfortable if I wasn’t out; I couldn’t relax, couldn’t read a book, or sit at the table with a friend. I hated the daylight; I lived for the darkness, for the life out there. I experienced a kind of despair in not knowing where I might end up, or with whom. It was a black hole into which I could lose a friend, or my job, or my sweetheart, or my car — or at the very least, my rent money.
I never will understand how things can start out so much one way and end up so much the other.
One night, years ago, I was sitting in a bar in Iowa City with my old friend, Frank. “You know, you and I sit in a bar in very different ways,” he said. “When we talk, I look at you; I don’t know what’s happening in the rest of the room. But you look around the whole time, every time someone walks by to go to the bathroom, every time the door opens. You’re looking all over the place.” I was embarrassed. I hadn’t seen Frank for years; if Jerry Garcia had walked through the door, it wouldn’t have been more interesting than Frank’s face, but there I was. . . .
Now when I go out, I’m not looking for anything. I don’t drink more than a couple of glasses of wine because I don’t want a headache. Around 11:30 I say, “Don’t you think we’d better get the kids?”
We come home and lie in bed together. The moon might be shining in the window, the rain falling on the roof, and the kids sleeping beside us. We’re surrounded by mountains and on windy nights, if I lie very still, I can hear the ocean.