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Today for the first time, I had to remove the propane tank from my barbecue. For the 13 years I've had a barbecue in my Los Angeles backyard, I've always managed to get a man to take care of it. Hired handymen, my girlfriends' husbands, even the occasional beau, were all too happy to do the manly deed. But I was waiting for friends to come over and grill steaks when I'd realized the tank was empty, triggering one of those rare moments when I wonder if it might not be better to be married, or to at least have some sort of husband substitute at my disposal.
I am living my worst old nightmare: alone, childless, 50-something, a little overweight, losing my looks. If at 19, I could have seen myself as I am now, I would have been suicidal at the thought of such a terrible fate. After an uninterrupted string of boyfriends that lasted for three decades, here I am, alone at last -- middle-aged and single. But aside from the propane tank crisis, I'm almost perfectly happy. When I told my long-divorced friend, Susan, that I was writing an essay about what it's like to be single and middle-aged, she said, "It's heaven. Just say that it's heaven." But do I dare? If this secret information got out, it could strike a blow to the very heart of family values. It wouldn't be good news for men, either, especially in the unlikely event that there are actually some single 50-something men out there looking for women of a similar age.
Yet the advantages of unmarried life seem perfectly obvious to me: I never have to do anything to accommodate the "other." I cook dinner if and when I feel like eating it, and only if I'm in the mood to cook. I stretch out all over my queen-sized bed. If I wake up in a good mood, I don't have to contend with someone who wakes up in a bad one -- and vice versa. It's nobody's business but mine if I spend too much money on clothes or makeup. I don't have to put up with anybody's boring friends or annoying relatives, or listen to the football game blaring from the den. If I decide I'd like to vacation in Mexico, I just do it. I could go on for pages without exhausting the list of petty annoyances inherent in a good marriage, without even beginning to address the miseries of a bad one.
As for that thing one imagines a single woman might really, really miss when there's no man around -- well, like cigarettes and chocolate, the longer you go without it the less you miss it. I may have a moment of longing when a beautifully muscled 20-something passes me on the jogging trail. I may even imagine my lips tracing a line from his powerful pecs to his washboard abs. But I have no illusions that anything like that might still be available to me, and I've learned to simply enjoy the view.
Thirty years ago, when my mother's sister was my age and single, all of her girlfriends were married. Divorce was much less acceptable then, and since women were ill-prepared to support themselves and their children, unhappy marriages were often endured to the bitter end. My Aunt Evie took great comfort from the misery of others. She told me, "Whenever I feel bad about being single, all I have to do is talk to my married friends and I get over it right away."
My generation is different. I get no solace from listening to the complaints of my married girlfriends. They are living proof that love is still possible. At midlife, they have been married long enough to have weathered the inevitable storms and settled into comfortable partnerships. If they hadn't been able to successfully navigate the rough patches, they would have gotten divorced long ago.
And, unlike Aunt Evie, I have lots of single girlfriends. No one is shocked to learn that I am not now and never have been married. Few eyebrows are raised when I answer "no" without regret to the perennial "Do you have children?" My family and friends may have worried about how I would survive some of my relationships, but nobody seems to be worried about how I will survive being single. I am neither a spinster nor an old maid, as my aunt sometimes thought she was. Those awful, archaic terms were far more pejorative than the male equivalent, confirmed bachelor, because they lacked the connotation of choice. A man was single because he chose to be so, while it was inevitably assumed that a woman was single because she had failed to be chosen.
Women of my generation got to choose as well as to be chosen, but often we chose badly. Sometime around my forty-fifth birthday, as yet another romance that had begun in joyful hope ended in painful disappointment, I finally paused to wonder if there was something wrong with my selection process. My only criteria had been that the guy had to be good-looking, smart, available, and wildly attracted to me. I had neglected to choose men who were also trustworthy, loyal, and kind. I decided to take a break from romance and work instead on having a good relationship with myself.
Learning to live contentedly on my own was neither easy nor fun, but it was worth it. I had to go through profound disappointment to twist my mind away from the thought that I had failed to meet life's most important challenge. There were nights when I lay sleepless with worry, longing for the comfort of a hairy chest where I could rest my head. There were lonely Sunday mornings, when I missed having someone to cuddle over bagels and coffee. But, slowly, I began to look forward to delicious, solitary hours spent lingering over the paper. And if my troubles seemed too hard to handle on my own, there were always wise and caring friends, just a phone call away.
One Friday after I'd finished work, I celebrated the arrival of the weekend by driving to the beach and running barefoot as far as I could, admiring the sunset over the Pacific. I realized then that I was as happy as I'd ever been -- just me, alone with the ocean. I no longer needed to share the moment to fully enjoy it.
I stopped waiting for Mr. Right to come along, and started to live as though I planned to stay single forever. For the first time I understood that I was a free woman, that I could live as I chose, be whoever I wanted to become. I hadn't stopped liking men: I had just stopped needing to have one of my very own in order to feel complete.
I bought a second home, a tiny apartment in Rome. I cherish the time I spend there so much that I have pondered what draws me back to L.A., since, as a freelance writer, I can live virtually anywhere.
Last month I had a little cancer scare. My mammogram was clear, but when I went in for my annual exam, my doctor felt something in my left breast. "It's probably nothing," she said. But she gave me the card of a specialist and made me swear I'd have it checked out within six weeks. I decided to postpone panic until I had more information, and I didn't tell any of my friends, because I didn't want anyone else to worry.
The day before the appointment, I phoned Susan. "Are you very busy tomorrow? I'm going to be in your neighborhood." Susan is rarely too busy to find time for a late-afternoon movie, but she wondered what would bring me to her side of town. I told her, as lightly as I could. "The whole thing is probably just an annoyance," I said. I'd call as I was leaving the doctor.
I got to the doctor's office early -- a few minutes after I arrived, Susan walked into the waiting room, and refused to leave until she knew I was fine. No matter that we waited more than an hour. No matter that she was missing a business appointment to be with me.
Susan was more relieved than I was when it turned out that the lump had disappeared. And I finally understood what was keeping me in L.A. As it turns out, I'm not really single, after all. I may not have a husband and kids, but I do have a family -- Susan, and all the other friends who would have loved me enough to worry about the lump in my breast if I hadn't loved them too much to tell them about it.
I don't have a beau to help with the tank on the barbecue, so I simply decided to attack the monster myself. Wearing my dirty gym clothes and armed with the inadequate tool I keep around in case a pair of pliers is required, I went out to the backyard sure I was about to be blown up. Ten seconds later, with a turn of a little knob, I had removed the empty propane tank and exchanged it for a full one. To think that for all these years, I needed a man to do that.