I married my college sweetheart in 1970, and we were together for twenty-eight years while raising a son, earning advanced degrees, and finding success in our careers. We rarely argued or raised our voices, but we drifted apart.
We divorced, and I made new friends and tried dating, but my relationships never lasted more than a few months. My therapist told me I was “conflict avoidant”: whenever I met a strong woman, I wouldn’t stand up for myself. I’d just accuse her of being too pushy and break it off.
Three years ago my five-year-old granddaughter became gravely ill. She survived, but for an agonizing seventy-two hours my ex-wife and I were camped out in the hospital where she was being treated. Several times we went downstairs to the cafeteria to get coffee and talk.
After the crisis ended, my ex and I continued to talk. We discovered that, despite our differences, we missed each other. We saw a marriage counselor, forgave one another, and rekindled a sense of closeness. We even dealt with my fear of conflict and her so-called pushiness.
Most important, we discovered how much we had both grown during our years apart. The faults and foibles that had previously come between us no longer seemed insurmountable. We remarried last year. Being single was the best thing that ever happened to our relationship.
Richard J. Vantrease
St. Petersburg, Florida
My ex-boyfriend frequently criticized me while we were together, usually labeling the problems in our relationship as my fault. After we broke up, I realized how much of my identity I had lost. He found another girlfriend immediately, then moved to an apartment a few blocks from mine. I saw them together almost everywhere I went.
To help temper the pain, I immersed myself in unfamiliar activities, including some that had once scared me. Always unsure of myself in the water, I took swimming lessons at a community pool. I rode my bicycle to work. I took yoga classes. Eventually I lost forty pounds. I started running three times a week. I ran my first 5K race, then a 10K race, and, in 2015, a half marathon. Before I realized it, strength had become a habit. With each terrified step into something new, I was finding my way again.
I often wonder what would have happened if I’d married that man. How long would I have continued to believe his criticisms?
Being newly single was one of the hardest times of my life, but I look back on it now with gratitude. Even the most painful moments helped transform me into the person I have become.
I’d always believed that my husband would outlive me. He was the healthy one, whereas I had various medical problems. So when he died after thirty-nine years of marriage, it came as a shock.
People told me that the first year of widowhood would be the worst, but I’ve found that not to be true. My grief is still immense, and I’m constantly aware that I no longer have my husband’s shoulder to cry on.
I despise filling out forms that ask for my marital status, and I dislike calling myself a widow because many people treat you differently when you tell them that. The married men in my neighborhood used to talk to me when my husband was alive, but now they avoid me. Are they afraid I will reminisce about my deceased spouse and they won’t know what to say? Or are their wives concerned that I might try to steal them away? I’m not romantically interested in these men, but I do miss the casual conversations we once had.
In our marriage my husband and I made decisions together, each considering how the choice would affect the other. Now the decisions are all mine to make, alone. And the effects of those decisions, the successes and the failures, are mine alone, too.
I am currently dating another man, a widower. There is something comforting about being with a person who has also experienced the loss of a spouse. We can discuss our deceased mates without worrying about making each other angry or jealous. I realize that this man I love was shaped by the woman he was married to for many years, and I enjoy getting to know her through his memories. But I’m at a loss for how to correctly introduce him to someone. “Boyfriend” sounds like a word a teenager would use, and “significant other” is too politically correct. What do I call this man who has become a part of my life? Once again I’m not sure how to describe my “marital status.”
My great-aunt Lydia is the matriarch of our family. She and her husband left Cuba as political exiles. She’s the mother of five, the grandmother of twelve, and the great-grandmother of ten. When she was my age, twenty-eight, she was already married with three kids.
Although Lydia couldn’t understand why I wanted to go to college, especially so far from home, she helped pay for my Ivy League tuition. When I told her goodbye, she said, “Find yourself a nice boy.” That was the only use she could think of for my education.
Every time I came home for the holidays, she’d ask me the same question without fail: “Tienes novio?” (Do you have a boyfriend?) Her question always made me laugh. At my school no one seemed particularly interested in a relationship. Students often slept with strangers they never spoke to again.
Since I graduated, Lydia’s tongue has swollen to the point where she cannot speak. When I come to visit her, she tries to talk but can make only garbled sounds. I don’t have to ask her to write her message down; I know she is saying, “Tienes novio?” She has never asked me about my studies, my career, or my travels. For her only one thing matters.
Carmella de los Angeles Guiol
After separating from my wife in my late forties, I dated a couple of women, but those relationships didn’t last. I vowed to myself not to see anyone else until the right person came along. I rented a four-bedroom Victorian and took on two housemates, both friends of mine who were also undergoing major life changes. We were three single guys, but we kept a relatively clean house and got along well. Our one quirk was that we decided to set up our computers in the large dining room. We called it the “Boiler Room.”
The women in our lives — friends, relatives, girlfriends — seemed hesitant to spend much time in the house. They would come in for a few minutes, then be ready to leave or go wait in the car. One woman wouldn’t come any farther than the front steps. We jokingly dubbed our home an “estrogen-free zone” and figured that any romantic relationships would just have to take place outside of the house.
After about two years I began dating a new woman, who also had been divorced. When she came to my home, she commented that the Boiler Room in the middle of the house was certainly a “guy thing,” but she immediately got along with my housemates. From then on she came and went comfortably, without feeling a compulsion to leave early or wait in the car. That’s when I knew she was the one.
I had made a vow and stuck with it until I met the right woman. We moved in together and are still in love fourteen years later.
Mount Vernon, Oregon
When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, unmarried women were considered pitiable. I got married early, to a young man from the Bronx. After my husband finished college, he had to fulfill his ROTC commitment, which meant that for a few years we moved from one military base to another: Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, Indiana.
During my husband’s overseas tours I had to handle everything on my own: our daughters, house repairs, car maintenance, financial planning. When my husband returned, he expected me to resume a more traditional role, even though I’d managed our finances better than he did.
Once our children entered school, I set out to get a degree at the University of California, Berkeley, where the women’s movement and resistance to the Vietnam War were in full swing. My husband had promised to leave the service as soon as his commitment was finished, but now he refused. Then I received a letter from a woman overseas who had borne him a child — and whom he had vowed to marry. I declared our marriage over.
“You’ve changed,” said my husband, angry at my decision. “I don’t know you anymore.”
He was right. When we were first married, I would have been afraid to leave him and raise our children alone, three thousand miles from family. But that was no longer true.
In the years that followed, I taught my girls to be strong and accomplished women, and I traveled the world. I’ve realized I am happiest and most productive when I’m independent.
Santa Rosa, California
I arrived at the hospital at 4:30 AM to begin my morning tasks as a medical student. The overnight intern told me about a new patient, Mr. Clifton: an eighty-three-year-old man with diabetes and end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung condition he’d probably developed after years of smoking. He’d come from a nursing home, where an aide had noticed his difficulty breathing. The intern asked me to take Mr. Clifton’s medical history, perform a physical exam, and draw his blood for tests.
My schedule that day was hectic, as usual. Later in the morning, when I should have been having an early lunch, I shoved a granola bar into the pocket of my white coat, gathered some cheat sheets about COPD, and went to Mr. Clifton’s hospital room. He had sparse gray hair, a skeletal frame, and jaundiced skin. I said his name as I dragged a chair over to his bedside. His wheezing changed to a gravelly snore, but he didn’t respond. “Mr. Clifton!” I repeated loudly. His eyes opened, but he didn’t look at me. The flesh of his arm was cool to the touch.
Alarmed, I found the nurse assigned to him. She told me he had been unresponsive since she’d started her shift and that he had a DNR order: do not resuscitate. His papers said he did not want to go to the ICU. “If he’s comfortable,” she said, “then there’s nothing else to do for him.”
When I asked the nurse where his family was, she told me he was single, no wife or kids.
I walked back to Mr. Clifton’s room feeling a little dizzy. While I had been ticking items off my to-do list all morning, this man had been dying alone.
I’d never been with a dying person, and I was astonished that a life could end so anticlimactically. Who was he? Where had he lived? Did he have siblings, co-workers, friends?
I sat beside Mr. Clifton with my useless COPD cheat sheets in my coat pocket, and I began to match my breathing to his: Twelve shallow breaths per minute. Then ten. Then eight. I held his hand — was it cooler than before? A lullaby came to mind, and I quietly sang it while the pulse in Mr. Clifton’s wrist slowed to a stop.
I stayed with him for an hour after he died. No one came looking for either of us.
That was an important moment in my medical education: the day I learned that there is always something I can do for a dying patient.
Over the last ten years I’ve been in and out of relationships. The most single I’ve ever felt was after I broke up with my live-in girlfriend. At her request I went to a friend’s place while she packed up and moved out of our apartment. When I returned, the half-furnished living room seemed empty and cold. I suddenly realized how much I had hurt her. Afraid of subjecting someone else to such pain, I swore off dating for a while.
It was summer, and activity in my college town had slowed to a crawl. With little else to do, I devoted myself to cycling. I enjoyed wandering on my bike, climbing the hills and taking in expansive views. I followed nameless dirt roads far from home, sometimes covering more than 120 miles in a day. After rolling into the driveway in the dark, I would stretch out on the bare hardwood floor and listen to music.
I’m currently married and happier than I ever thought possible. I don’t miss being single, but I do remember with fondness that one summer when I was centered, strong, and alone.
Zac Del Nero
When my mother left my father in 1960, it raised more than a few eyebrows in our Catholic neighborhood. Some of my friends were no longer allowed to visit my house. According to them my mother was a sinner and would burn in hell. One day at school a girl announced that my mother had “signed her death warrant,” so I punched her in the stomach and got sent to the office. Classmates would suddenly hush when I came near during recess. Adults were overly nice to me.
Our beloved teenage baby sitter mysteriously became unavailable whenever my mother wanted to go out. After several cancellations my mother found an older, single woman named Mrs. Doyle. When I asked my new baby sitter where Mr. Doyle was, she replied that her husband had “gone to the greater glory.”
Mrs. Doyle would spin epic stories in her Irish brogue until finally she’d stretch and say, “Enough. We’ll finish this another time.” And with that, she’d shoo us to our rooms and tuck us into bed.
When Mrs. Doyle heard of my troubles at school, she asked my mother if I could come have tea with her. After church the following Sunday, I arrived at Mrs. Doyle’s tidy home, which sat back from the street with roses and hydrangeas hugging the outside walls. She ushered me into the dining room, where the table was set with her best china.
Mrs. Doyle poured tea, and we ate fancy cheese sandwiches with the crusts trimmed off. Then she fixed her radiant blue eyes on me and asked if I wanted to get married someday. I said I’d rather be single like her and my mother, but I was afraid of burning in hell.
Mrs. Doyle reached for my hand and agreed that it can be hard to follow the laws of the Church. “Just follow your heart,” she said.
I’ve always tried to follow the advice of this widow, who supported my mother’s choice to raise her children alone.
About a year ago I broke up with my live-in boyfriend and needed to find a new place to live. All the apartments I looked at were too expensive. So I arranged to move in with my friends Emily and Joe until I found a more permanent residence. I would housesit for them during their frequent travels.
I hadn’t been single in a long time, and I was determined to shake off my melancholy and spend my free time writing, walking on the beach, and practicing my violin. Then my friends left on a trip, and on my first day alone in their quiet, roomy home, I settled onto their couch in my pajamas with a stack of books and rarely got up again — except to drink their wine and eat their garlic-stuffed olives, imported sardines, and dark chocolate. Sometimes I cried, partly because I was afraid of being alone forever, and partly because I was disgusted with my slothfulness.
After about two weeks I realized that Emily and Joe would be coming home soon, and I got off the couch, took a shower, put on real clothes, vacuumed the living-room rug, cleaned the kitchen, and took out the trash and recycling. Then I went to the grocery store and bought ingredients to make them dinner when they got back.
The day Emily and Joe returned, the house smelled like a French bistro: a stew bubbled on the stove, and mashed potatoes with roasted garlic warmed in the oven while I seasoned a bowl of sugar snap peas with freshly squeezed lemon juice and black pepper. I set the table with cloth napkins and place mats and poured red wine, and we all ate dinner together.
Afterward I admitted that I had hardly been the perfect housesitter: I was lazy and depressed and hadn’t gotten up off the couch until right before they came home. The two of them laughed and told me they were happy to have me there.
A year has gone by, and I’m still living with Emily and Joe. Some nights I cook dinner for them, and other nights we have tapas and drinks on the patio. Every now and then I make a comment about getting my own place, and each time, Emily chuckles and asks, “Why would you want to do that?”
Fernandina Beach, Florida
At my fiftieth high-school reunion the former captain of the football team served as emcee and gave out awards: to the person who had traveled the farthest to attend; to the person with the most children; to the person with the most grandchildren. I was out of luck on all of those. When he asked with a smirk, “Which guy remained a bachelor the longest?” there was some buzzing in the crowd, and a man jumped up to claim the prize. I waited eagerly for the next question — about which woman had remained single the longest. I knew I could win that one, because I had never married. But the former football captain announced a different category.
Miffed, I got to my feet and said, “I claim the prize for the women!”
Several people turned to look at me as if I had lost my mind. The emcee paused and then moved on to the next award.
Later, thinking back on what had happened, I was puzzled. Had he not heard my remark? Was he unaware of how sexist that particular award was? Is the idea of a proudly single woman unfathomable to some people, even in the twenty-first century?
Bainbridge Island, Washington
I’m married but think of myself as single. My husband hasn’t accompanied me to social events for the past fifteen years. At first he’d feign illness and take to bed, which provided me with a convenient excuse for his absence. Our friends began to see through this, however, and now they rarely ask where he is. If they do, I just say, “He’s not here.”
In the past few years I’ve been to four weddings, two retirement parties, one graduation, a family picnic (his family), and two funerals, all by myself. My husband lets me know he’s displeased when I accept these invitations, but what else am I supposed to do? Stay home and watch him watch TV all evening? Walking in alone continues to be awkward, though. Once, at a bat mitzvah where I hardly knew anyone, I was seated with friendly strangers and had a surprisingly good time. The most difficult event was a fundraising gala at which I knew only the host and hostess. It was not a welcoming crowd, and I spent much of the evening admiring the skyline from the windows.
The wedding ring on my left hand signals to anyone who might be interested that I’m not available. And I’m not, but I sure would like to have a companion.
My mother has dark circles beneath her eyes. She smiles at me before removing her dentures and placing them in a glass of water. Her fingers tire quickly as she unbuttons her blouse, so I help her, then turn to give her some privacy as she removes her clothing and pulls on her nightgown.
Her diminished size makes her look childlike and vulnerable. Her stomach gives a loud rumble.
She removes her wig and places it on the dresser next to her dentures and the boxes holding her prosthetic breasts. Then she squints at her baldness in the mirror, runs a hand over her head, and dons her cap to keep it warm. Sitting beside her on the bed, I rub lotion on her arms, hands, legs, and feet. She passes gas loudly and gives me a look of surprise. “Oops, sorry,” she says, and we both laugh. She’s still trying her best to see the humor, not the horror, of her situation.
As I leave, she asks, “When I find a man, honey, where do you think he will want to sleep: with my parts up there on the dresser or with the rest of me here in bed?”
“The bed,” I say. “It’s softer.” We both smile, and I tell her to call me if she needs anything.
She says playfully, as she has for the past fifteen years, “I need a man!”
Maureen E. Whittemore
Alexandria, New Hampshire
I’m gay, but to appease my mother I tried dating a number of women. I even got engaged to one — until I found out that she was sleeping around.
After I left the Navy, I moved to Boston and had many one-nighters with men and did lots of drugs. I fell in love with one guy, but he ended it because his parents wanted him to marry and have kids.
A few years later I began seeing a man who introduced me to Buddhist meditation practice. After a year we decided to move in together. The evening of our housewarming party, he left for a bar. Later that night he accidentally drove into a river and drowned.
I fell in love again, but he and I were both unfaithful and decided to break it off. On the rebound I met a large, muscular — and married — man. He lied to his wife whenever he spent the night at my apartment. But he was also seeing other men, and when he started doing cocaine, I left him. He later died of AIDS.
I moved into a house in the suburbs and have lived alone for twenty-seven years now. I have a few close friends, and I enjoy my garden and my books. It’s taken me this long to realize that being alone is not the end of the world.
There were four of us: female colleagues out for dinner and drinks after work. At fifty-five I was the oldest and had been divorced for many years. I had long since given up on dating and was content with my single life.
Over dinner my companions shared their relationship troubles. One, in her thirties with a young child and a busy attorney husband, complained about her inattentive, often absent spouse. She was seriously contemplating divorce, she said. Another, in her twenties, had been waiting for years for her boyfriend to propose; recently he had left her for someone else — to whom he’d presented an engagement ring. (We surmised he’d been seeing the other woman all along.) The third woman in the group, a divorcée who’d just turned forty, complained that her wealthy boyfriend was manipulative and controlling.
I was silently congratulating myself for being single when they all turned to me with looks of heartfelt concern, and one of them said, “We need to fix you up with somebody.”
On Christmas night at my brother’s house, four of us sit around the kitchen table playing Monopoly. My brother plots strategy. His son counts his money and gloats. Mom beams because the family is together. After securing Illinois Avenue, I get up to go to the bathroom.
As I pass the guest bedroom, I see my father sitting on the edge of his bed in a terry-cloth robe, reading a book. His bare legs are skinny, pale, and hairless, like mine. We have each had a heart attack and a quintuple bypass.
“Dad, why don’t you join us downstairs?” I ask him.
He looks up in surprise, then mumbles, “Not right now. I’m near the end of the chapter.”
It makes me sad that in rare moments like these he chooses to be apart from his wife of fifty-three years, his two sons, and his only grandson. But I’m also forced to consider my own aversion to socializing. At sixty-nine I live in a cabin on the side of a mountain with my dog, five hundred miles from family and friends. A long dirt road separates me from my nearest neighbor. I have missed out on the comfort and messiness of an abiding relationship. I have no children to love and teach. So who is the lonelier, my father or me?
In 2001 I booked a flight to Italy for me and a close friend, but two days before we were to leave, the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, and all flights were canceled.
Once the airlines began rescheduling flights, a work colleague asked if I was still planning to go on my trip. I’d still like to go, I told him, since security would be so tight that the risk of another attack would be slim. He agreed and encouraged me to go, but when I told him that my friend’s husband was refusing to let her fly, he said, “Well, that’s different. She has a family.”
I responded that he shouldn’t assume I had no one in my life who relied on me, and he nervously apologized and walked away.
His words hurt me. I love my single life and am childless by choice, but I do have family and friends who would grieve my death deeply. My parents rely on me more and more as they grow older. Still, sometimes I’ll see a hostage scene in a movie and wonder: If I found myself in such a situation, would I feel compelled to sacrifice myself so that a husband didn’t lose a wife or a child didn’t lose a father? Would I believe that my life is less precious than theirs because I am single?
My fourteen-year-old son was crying at the kitchen table when I came home from work. I asked what was wrong, and he told me his mother had filed for divorce. It was the first I’d heard of it.
When my wife came home that night, she told me I was a good husband, a good father, and a good man. “But you’re boring.” I was devastated.
That’s how I became single again in my mid-forties. Friends set me up on a few blind dates, but most of them went poorly. I began to lose hope.
One day my son cut his finger, and I took him to the emergency room to get stitches. Our neighbor Jane was the receptionist there, and she brought us to an examining room, where a doctor and a nurse tended to my son’s injury. The nurse was attractive, in her late thirties, and not wearing a wedding ring, but it didn’t seem appropriate to ask her out.
The next evening I knocked on Jane’s door and told her I wanted the name of one of the nurses she worked with. She invited me into her dining room. There, painting the ceiling, was the attractive nurse.
“Is that her?” Jane asked.
Nearly speechless, I muttered, “Yes.”
“Oh, she’s taken,” said Jane.
Walking back home, embarrassed, I thought to myself that being single is not easy.
Palm Coast, Florida
My lifelong status as a single woman has been a source of discomfort as well as pride. My mother, who had three husbands, believed marriage is necessary for a woman’s financial and physical security. She was a beautiful and intelligent woman but spoke in a little girl’s voice whenever she asked one of her husbands for money, attention, or approval.
“Marriage is safety,” she would tell me when I was in college. According to her, by the time I reached the age of twenty-one, all the rich husbands would be gobbled up like gumdrops, so I had better go out there and get one fast.
I never did. I wanted a partner and friend, but I also had a penchant for solitude. To me married life looked shiny on the outside but hollow and scary on the inside. I remained single for decades. This meant I was fully responsible for my finances, my housing, my education, and my career. As I got older, it meant being the butt of jokes about old maids and spinsters. It meant burying my father and taking care of my mother through her long illness and death without any help. I attended weddings and parties solo and wasn’t always comfortable with it. “You’ll find someone someday,” friends would say. Men I dated seemed wary of a woman who’d never been married.
The loneliness would come and go like a chronic pain that I couldn’t reason away. Sometimes I would walk down the street humming with satisfaction at all I had accomplished on my own. Other times I longed to share life’s joys and disappointments with someone else.
At fifty-nine I met a man who readily accepted me as I am. We have become life partners but not husband and wife; together yet independent; joined not by law but by affection.
When I recently called to apply for Social Security benefits, a man with an affable voice inquired about my marital status. “Single,” I said, so quickly and assertively that he laughed.
New York, New York
I bought my first house at the age of fifty-four. Until then I had always felt that owning a home wasn’t worth the effort, especially for a woman who also viewed men and marriage as too much work.
When I saw this particular house, however, it immediately felt like home. I imagined working in the terraced backyard, listening to the birds, and talking with the neighborhood kids.
My home has been a pleasant place to fill my quiet hours, but, as I approach retirement, I worry about feeling lonely. I am accustomed to being solitary much of the time, and staying single is natural for me. I envision devoting the top floor to quilting and other creative activities. I imagine using the basement for messy projects like making mosaics and dyeing fabric.
I also remember Miss White, the “old maid” who lived next door to my childhood home. She seemed elderly to me at the time, with her pin-curled hair and colorful shirtdresses, but she must have been about the age I am now. I used to walk to the nearby cemetery with her and help her tend her parents’ graves. She didn’t have much company and often sat on her porch swing by herself, looking over her manicured yard. I remember being in Miss White’s house only twice: once to assist her with her medicinal eyedrops, and again much later, after she’d moved her bed to the first floor and hired live-in help.
Now I mow my grass with a push mower, like Miss White. I tend my parents’ graves in that same cemetery. I wonder about my future and growing old alone. But I still put in my own eyedrops.
I’ve had many fruitless encounters with women, all of them diligently recorded in my journals: The dear friend who couldn’t return my feelings. The adorable landscape painter whose curiosity about me didn’t survive our awkward first date. A radiant holistic-health teacher who offered me her phone number, then married a man she met soon after. A flirty co-worker with long black hair who caused me to lose sleep. The older woman I met traveling who gave me my first — and only — kiss when I was twenty-eight. As much as I longed for romance, it seemed like a foreign country to me, a place I was unable to reach. I assumed the right woman would eventually draw me out of my introversion, and the rest would take care of itself.
I’m now in my mid-forties, still shy, and beginning to go gray. At this point my single status feels as indelible as the lines in my palm. I often wonder which is more significant: what I’ve managed to accomplish in life or what I’ve missed. The possibility of loving a partner — something most people, I suspect, experience at least once — remains for me as bewitching as the moon.
Perhaps having a partner was never my path. After all, quiet and solitude are steady comforts for me. I’ve met some people whose creative passions outshine any relationship, and they seemed remarkably content. I can be happy without romance. But those thoughts haven’t convinced my heart.
As a single woman I joined the Peace Corps, traveled the world, got a PhD, and taught in Canada, China, Russia, and Egypt. Unencumbered by a husband or children, I was free to do whatever I wanted, without negotiation or compromise. My single friends and I would eat wonderful meals and drink homemade wine in my oceanfront home. As we sat around the fireplace late into the evening, I often found myself thinking, What an exquisite life I have. When I lectured to my cultural-studies students, I would urge them — male and female alike — to remain single and enjoy a life like mine.
At fifty-eight I took early retirement, and the next year I fell in love with a sixty-year-old organic farmer from the South and married him. I was his fourth wife, and he had four grown children and many grandchildren. I felt awkward in my new role as mother and grandmother. The family gatherings were uncomfortable and far too frequent for me. But then my husband’s children began texting or calling me to chat or ask advice, and the grandchildren started calling me “Mee-maw,” and my feelings changed. Now, when I attend family gatherings or play with a grandchild, I often find myself thinking, What an exquisite life I have.
When I was in my early thirties and single, I rented a sunny duplex and agreed to take care of the yard in exchange for a reduction in rent. I mowed the lawn in the summer and shoveled the driveway during the cold Wisconsin winters. For the first time I felt as though I had my own home.
My time living there was the most active in my life: I went to work during the day and to college at night, and I exercised at the local gym, where I got hit on by younger men. I taught myself to juggle, took tap-dancing classes, acted in community theater, acquired a love of gardening and photography, and went on long bike rides by Lake Michigan. Some nights I relaxed on my first-ever couch with my first-ever cat on my lap and a drink in my hand. And I had the best sex of my life in that bedroom.
Today I drive by that duplex and tell my seven-year-old daughter about my life there before she was born. The driveway has the same cracks in the concrete, through which sprout the ugly weeds that I used to pull by hand. I think about the moments when I’d sit on the front porch, smoke a cigarette, enjoy a glass of merlot, and daydream.
These days my life is full of routine, depression, and anxiety. I recently read the longing e-mails my husband sent to an old girlfriend of his. Our marriage seems broken, but I have stayed with him for my daughter’s welfare.
Sometimes when my husband and daughter are out, I’ll pour myself a glass of red wine and pretend that I’m alone, single, and back in my duplex.
The wedding is in less than a week. I put on my dress and twirl in front of the bedroom mirror, viewing myself from different angles. I sift through my jewelry box for a necklace that will match the dress’s deep neckline. I practice putting on my makeup and deep-condition my hair. I try on several pairs of high heels, looking for one that accentuates my legs the most while hurting my feet the least.
I’m not the bride. I’m the bride’s single, older cousin, and I’m not bringing anyone to the wedding. I know I’ll face a gauntlet of questions from well-meaning but nosy relatives. I will undoubtedly be asked where my date is. I consider telling them, “My boyfriend couldn’t get away from his wife and kids.”
I would enjoy talking about my career, my house, and my busy social life, but I suspect the wedding attendees won’t ask about those. They rarely do.
Raleigh, North Carolina
My mother was widowed six months before I was born and worked as a nurse while raising my two brothers and me. Before I reached school age, she paid a live-in housekeeper to stay with us while she was at work.
As I grew older, my mother advised me to complete as much school as possible. Even if I were to marry, I should be able to support myself. “You never know what’s going to happen,” she said.
Mother taught us there was no shame in being poor. To supplement her modest income we kept a vegetable garden — corn, peas, lettuce, beets, and squash. For entertainment we had a large floor radio and an upright piano, and we checked out books from the library. As teens my two brothers got jobs to help with expenses.
After my brothers and I were grown, Mother lived by herself. She never dated or remarried but found joy in growing flowers — gladioluses and African violets were her specialties — and drawing and painting. A favorite diversion of hers was to drive through the countryside until she found a beautiful or interesting place to stop and sketch. She exhibited her artwork at amateur shows and sold some paintings.
I learned that she had taken pre-med courses in college hoping to become a doctor and work abroad in places where women had limited access to healthcare. Mother’s family had been unable to send her to medical school, however. At the age of sixty she fulfilled her dream by traveling to Turkey as a missionary nurse and helping women in rural parts of that country.
When my own marriage ended after nineteen years, I realized my mother had prepared me well for being a single parent. Thanks to her example, I knew I could raise my son, have a career, and also follow my dreams.
Ruth M. Brandon
At twenty-two I lived in a two-bedroom house with four other people, a huge black Lab, and a hedgehog. My “bedroom” was a closet by the kitchen, just large enough to hold my single bed and a dresser. My housemates and I had recently graduated from college and were working low-paying jobs. It took all five of us to pay the rent. The house was freezing cold in the winter, the front door was covered in mold, and none of us had a key. Still we wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Though my friends were always falling in and out of love, I remained unattached. I worked long hours at AmeriCorps and would come home exhausted at the end of each day, eat some ramen noodles, and flop down on the couch. But every Tuesday evening we had what we called “family dinner.” One of my roommates would cook, and we would invite friends and boys we had crushes on.
Our small kitchen would be packed with people. I would pour myself a glass of wine and sit at the table, surrounded by people I loved. We’d share a long meal filled with laughter, and I’d feel extraordinarily content.
I was single the whole time I lived in that house, but I was never alone.