The comment was not meant for my ears.
The young couple walked over a carpet of grass under a smiling May sky. The shared yes shined all cheeks including those of the two-year-old daughter brought by the bride into the union. It was a postcard moment. The problem is that moments never sit still.
The groom, a co-worker, pulled the twosome into his grip. From the early courtship, I worried for mother and daughter both. He had a repellant tendency towards conceit and control, and the thought of their having to build a life with the guy made me shudder. I had tried to befriend the girls but he inserted himself into our interactions every chance he got. The mom was sweet but passive. Young, too. She believed her daughter needed a strong male role model. I wanted to beg her to run. How could she possibly have seen enough in the guy to want to stay? She claimed to love him. Ah, yes. Love. What do I know about the secrets that unfold when the door closes? And there they were, standing before the glittering lake together. Vows, rings, flowers, cheers.
One must wish for good.
As they walked away, legally bound now, I heard one of her male relatives lean over and say sotto voce to his neighbor, “Boy, she really got lucky with that one.”
The other fellow replied, “I don’t know how she managed it, but I hope she can hold onto him.”
A frost wrapped its grip around my veins.
This is how it is, I suppose: How we learn what is allowed for us, and how we come to know what we can expect from these messy lives. Hearing this whisper helped me understand more of the bride’s story. (With family like that, who needs enemies?) Yes, perhaps she had heard enough about her wasted chances that she believed she needed to be saved. And perhaps she had also been tromped on by stupid, arrogant men enough that she mistook dominance for devotion.
Also, though, didn’t that whisper shout a truth shared by too many of us? He is the prize, and it was just dumb luck that she picked the golden ticket. With all that baggage, she shouldn’t look too closely at the fine print.
Single moms have to take what we can get. If we hope to find companionship again in this life, we might as well accept that we are going to have to settle for less. Most men (even single dads) will take one look at the kiddos we bring into the relationship and will think twice. The sooner we face that we are not the hot commodities we once were, the better off we’ll be.
Or something to that effect.
How much of this do we internalize, despite knowing better?
Lately, I have been struggling with the beginning of a budding something-or-other with a fine fella who has a couple of kids of his own. We have enjoyed a few friendly, casual quasi-dates and exchanged some thoughtful emails. Our conversation has deepened, and something like interest has begun to push up through the polite chit-chat.
Now, I pause.
In the midst of this growing interest, three things happened rat-tat-tat to throw me off my game. First, a weekend work event and last-minute childcare issues had me scrambling to find 11th-hour care for a super-early Saturday morning. Two days of stress, planning, and pleas to friends later, it was resolved. Right on the heels of that, a freak roller skating accident busted up my wrist and ankle. In a splint and in pain, I was out of driving commission for the better part of a week. Both my work and my son’s school commutes had to go through some major contortions during that time. Finally, as soon as I was driving again, a tire puncture left me flat as we were pulling out of the driveway on the way to school. Several more days of commuting kerfuffle ensued.
Needless to say, I was exhausted.
This new fellow, he heard about all of this going on. He continued to express his interest. To ask me when I wanted to get together. To send me friendly texts about his thoughts, his day, and even to inquire into my well-being.
Not once did he offer to help.
I am a tough mama. I can go it alone. I have friends and family, and hell, I got this shit down. Nevertheless, as the two weeks went by and his chatty calls and emails cropped up, I felt a growing sense of disappointment. It is early enough in our friendship that I am unlikely to ask straight out for help. I didn’t feel like I should, as we haven’t built anything solid between us yet.
Of course, this isn’t the whole story. I also notice that part in me that wants to make sure he sees me as capable instead of needy. I want him to association me with fun! And Lightness! And not to create a link in his mind between me and having to work at something. Aren’t there a dozen other single moms lined up behind me that would rip my arms off for a chance to get at this guy? And wouldn’t it be stupid of me to destroy my chances on something as insignificant as a missing offer of help? I mean, can’t I live without that? Haven’t I learned to manage just fine anyway?
Isn’t he the prize? And shouldn’t I just be smart and not look too closely at the fine print?
So, instead of asking outright, I simply breathed through the confusion and decided to wait. I kept being friendly, kept responding with politeness, and waited to see what would happen. I sat in that open not-knowing, leaving the door wide open for him to decide what role he wants to play in my life.
The last time he called, he asked AGAIN about the flat tire. I told him it was not yet fixed, I was having to rely on my folks and friends, and I would be hauling my kid with me to the service station in the morning. He said, “Well, good luck. Let me know if you want to get together for a play date or something if your plans change.”
Like it did on that beautiful May afternoon, the frost wrapped its little fist around my veins.
A successful, attractive, sharp-as-a-tack fellow is expressing interest in me. He continues to reach out, ask me for drinks, and accompany me on walks. But in that moment on the phone, I realized something chilling. He has not once asked me on a date-date. He’ll say, “Hey, let me know when you’re free.” But he has not actually said, “Can I please take you out to dinner? There’s a performance I’d love to take you to see.” Something along those lines. If I honestly look at our exchanges over the past couple months, I’m a little embarrassed by how much I have made myself available to this guy. It has been me showing up with the token gift every time we get together. Me sending him suggestions when he has a project or is planning an event. Me making the arrangements for where we will meet. Me going over to his house for a glass of wine and a chat. I jumped from initial interest to courting him without him following a similar trajectory.
I was feeling happy and thankful that someone was interested, and doing whatever it took to keep it moving in the right direction. It didn’t occur to me to even acknowledge what I want, let alone ask for it. Isn’t it realistic to hope for him to put in the effort to keep me feeling good about us, too?
All of us carry the scars of our past relationships. The voices of the old lovers, fathers, friends and villains clang against our ribs, making it hard to discern the unique tattoo of our own hearts.
Sometimes distant echoes freeze us inside the threshold of our own home base.
I’ve been told I overthink things, that I crave drama, that I am cold and distant, that I don’t know how to love and that I fall in love too easily. That I am selfish and that I give too freely. I have clung, I have dismissed. Every time, these choices seemed both right and wrong, taking me both further from the easy catch and closer to my true path.
And so I wonder: Is it time to stop trying to make myself wantable, and instead seek partnership that guides me towards my purpose? Am I finally going to respect myself enough to build a relationship that honors my best self?
I do know how to love, and I also know there are hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of ways it can unfold between two people. Whether this guy and I are a good fit for each other is more about how we handle the places where we grate than it is about easing into a postcard-perfect embrace.
It may be the case that we will move to the other side of this, talking with care and creativity the way we have in every conversation so far. Perhaps I will learn that he is not as generous with his time and support as I would like my fella to be, and then I will be faced with a choice between acceptance and moving on. Perhaps he will surprise me, and I will be the lucky one to be on the receiving end of his generous spirit. Who knows?
Whatever happens, I will not put my head down and just be happy for any old attention I get because it is all I can hope for on this side of divorce. Instead, I picture a full-to-spilling life, with friends and love and meaningful work. I invite in the crazy ups-and-downs with my headstrong kid, the long walks over distant mountains, learning and then forgetting the names of birds calling from branches. I welcome garlic popping in oil on the stove, a sugared ginger decadence cooling on the counter, the jars and books and paints and splattered messes. In all of this, I feel the presence of someone near who places his hand on my arm and says, “Here, let me get that.” In all of this, I also feel the warm throb of solitude calling forth words on a page and candlelight in an empty room.
In any event, I do not feel frost gripping my veins.
I know that all of us – the fella, the Me, our children, the bride and her baby girl and everyone else besides – are precious and miraculous beings. We have it in us to craft a life meant for storybooks. But we have to be our own heroes, and we have to believe against all the forces whispering cold wind across our hearts that we are more than the lucky ones. We are also the gifts. Each and every one of us is the prize.