At the end of our date in August 2018, Justin escorted me to my car, where he nervously kissed me. When I kissed him back, he cheered, pumping his fists in the air like he’d won something. I walked from the curb to my car, and when I turned around, he was watching me, beaming.
“I just want to make sure you get to your car safely,” he said, even though I was less than a yard away.
I slipped into the driver’s seat, thrilled that our second date had gone as tremendously as the first. Justin had even chosen the restaurant for our third date, which was supposed to happen six weeks later once his travel schedule cleared. I moved giddily through the following days, convinced I was feeling the right combination of excitement and certainty that one was supposed to feel after meeting a person who could be “the one.” Finally, my romantic curse had lifted, I thought. I just had to wait until October.
Justin seemed worth the wait considering that, after my divorce at 30, love had been impossible to find. Over the 17 years since then, I’d had countless dates and a bunch of inconsequential flings, but the closest I got to an actual boyfriend ― that is, a male creature who wanted to give forever a go ― was a depressive pencil pusher with whom I had only loneliness in common. Once his jealous streak turned frightening after only a year together, I had no choice but to leave no matter the stresses of single life that once again awaited me.
At 46, it wasn’t necessarily a husband I needed. I’d had one of those in my 20s, and, though marriage had been enriching, I could live without it. What I needed was someone to share the emotional burdens of everyday life ― career setbacks, money worries, existential crises. The melancholy that emerged after too many lonely Saturday nights had morphed into something dire: an agonizing recognition that nobody had my back, that nobody was there to ease those terrifying thoughts that often wake us in the middle of the night.
But post-divorce, I’d developed a proclivity for falling for men who didn’t value relationships, or worse, didn’t value me. Men who wooed me zealously would ultimately cool when we got within throwing distance of commitment. Men I cared for told me point blank that they “would never fall in love with me” or that having a relationship with me “wasn’t worth it” despite their feelings. One man literally said dating me would be easier if I were “less pretty and dumber.”
Of course, many single women experience lousy behaviour. But after nearly two decades of such treatment, it became hard not to feel uniquely cursed.
“Post-divorce, I’d developed a proclivity for falling for men who didn’t value relationships, or worse, didn’t value me. Men who wooed me zealously would ultimately cool when we got within throwing distance of commitment.”
Knowing this, my musician friend Anna suggested I meet Justin, a music writer interviewing her for a book. The two fraternized casually, though Anna knew him well enough to know he was unmarried and in his early 50s. The lifelong bachelor bit worried me as I’d assumed a man who remained unmarried into middle age wanted to be single. Still, Anna knew Justin to be an amiable, even tenderhearted, man and so when he invited me to dinner three weeks before my 47th birthday, I accepted.
For our first date, he’d chosen a rustic, farm-to-table spot overlooking Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip, our table nestled into the garden on the front patio. Rarely had I been treated to such elegant places, so I imagined this to be a good sign.
When Justin arrived five minutes late, he apologised and did the same throughout the evening when he thought he’d dominated the conversation. He didn’t order meat after I told him about my ultimately short-lived desire to be a pescatarian and served me, unbidden, when our shared plates arrived. At the end of the evening, despite my insistence on going Dutch, he paid for dinner and my valet. I didn’t consider any of Justin’s apologies, accommodations or expenditures necessary, though I was moved to be with someone who wanted to make me feel attended to.
Most thrilling was the instant comfort I had with him ― a natural affinity like I’d felt with some of the people who became my closest friends, though I also found Justin sexy and wanted to kiss him. As we sampled each other’s cocktails, we discovered we liked the same bands and books, even obscure ones neither of us thought anyone else cared about. As we served each other slices of roasted branzino, our knees touching beneath the table, we shared some of the same fears about loneliness and artistic failure and then exchanged some of the most intimate details of our biographies: for Justin, the early death of his parents, and for me, the absence of my biological father. I felt I could be myself with Justin because he seemed genuinely curious about me and cut from the same cloth.
“The sign of a great conversation,” he said after noticing we’d shut down the restaurant. He asked to meet the next weekend and promised to call to make plans.
The week passed without a call. Then the weekend. When he re-emerged days later, he apologised profusely and blamed an unexpected trip out of town.
“I’d have understood if you had to cancel,” I told him. “But not communicating was uncool. I have family in town for a few weeks for my birthday. If you still want to meet afterward, reach out.”
“I will,” he replied.
Two weeks later, Justin sent a text that read, “Hey, you. Happy Birthday.” He’d remembered my big day and taken the time to send good wishes. Promising, I thought.
Our second date at the end of August was even better than the first. Again, we connected in vital ways. Again, we closed down the restaurant. This time, Justin explained in detail how the travel his new job required in the coming weeks would get in the way of seeing each other, then, without prompting, he walked me through his itinerary, telling me which cities he’d be visiting and when. The implication was that if I hung in there, we could get things going in October. After that fateful first kiss on the way to my car, I imagined we’d started something good.
Weeks went by without a word from him. Though I knew men who were interested in women found ways to stay in touch, Justin had warned me he’d be unavailable, so I tried to stay patient while keeping myself open to men I met online. The lack of chemistry I felt with them only illuminated what I thought worked with Justin.
When Justin didn’t call in October, I made a last-ditch effort.
“I’ve been looking forward to seeing you,” I texted. “If it won’t happen, I’d be bummed but would like to know so I can turn the page. If it will, I hope we can get together soon.”
Immediately, Justin responded with another apology, this time saying he had had the flu. But he said he wanted to see me and would call after the weekend. Of course, he didn’t.
Maybe Justin had someone else in his life. Maybe he was content being a bachelor. Maybe our connection wasn’t as rich as I’d thought. Any of these explanations would’ve been sad but survivable.
But the disappearing act threw me into a funk. Two dates is nothing to become heartbroken about, and if I’d had a different history, Justin may have only been a blip. Still, it hurt that someone I was excited about didn’t seem to like or respect me enough to let me know he was bailing even after I gave him an out.
I thought Justin might have been the one ― the kindred spirit who swoops in at the eleventh hour to save the disheartened romantic from a lonely old age. Instead, he became the straw that broke the camel’s back. Seventeen years without a partner seemed proof of a permanent state. Nearly two decades of people showing me, and sometimes outright telling me, how unlovable I was had taken a toll. It seemed time to throw in the towel.
Through the years, I’d known middle-aged women who’d given up on love, like Joan, a mentor who, on the eve of her 50th birthday, told me, “that part of my life is over,” when I asked if she’d been seeing anyone. As she described never again having to wait for a man to call or worry about saying the “wrong” thing on a date, I felt only pity. How sad to choose a solitary life, not necessarily because she wanted it ― although I’m sure some women did ― but because she’d never found anyone. Women like Joan seemed tragic to me, and I swore I’d never become one of them.
Yet, here I was. Giving up. Done. No more online dates. No more asking friends to make introductions. No more keeping my eye on the men in a room instead of focusing on the person I was speaking to. No more wanting.
As I began to imagine the rest of my days alone, I remembered Joan and realized that, although there was sorrow in her announcement, there was also optimism and relief. She’d bought a brand new BMW, which made her proud, and reinvested in the small business she’d begun years before.
I also remembered Yvette, who, after being left by her husband of 30 years, traveled the world.
I remembered Evelyn, unmarried and childless, whose career as a poet only flourished with age. And there was Katrina, who earned a graduate degree from MIT at 48. And Wendy, who joined the Peace Corps in her 50s.
These women exuded grace, likely because solitude offered them freedom and possibility. Their happiness was no longer tied to someone else’s romantic decisions.
Before Justin, I spent years trying to understand what was wrong with me. I saw therapists and life coaches, read self-help books and tarot cards. I even let a friend persuade me to buy an extra toothbrush for the partner I had to “conjure” into my world. At times I drank too much. Ate poorly. Cried frequently.
When I imagined not doing these things anymore, decades of stress lifted. I suddenly realized how much space there was in my life when fretting over my romantic status was no longer part of it. I learned how joyful life could be if I filled each moment with activities I wanted to do for my own pleasure or prosperity, and not because I might find the love of my life. How liberating to not only put myself first but also prioritize myself exclusively. How much healthier I could be. How much happier.
Now, a year after my last date with Justin, my world probably looks the same from the outside: same job, same apartment, same friends. What’s different is how I’m experiencing my life. Sometimes the best part of my day is returning to my one-bedroom apartment, where I can sing off-key, yell at the television, dance, zone out, wear mismatched clothes or let the dishes pile up without worrying what anyone else wants or thinks. I even become bothered imagining someone else in my space, rearranging the furniture or making something I don’t want to eat for dinner. I’ve become grateful for the complete control I have over my schedule and my wallet, and delight in knowing I can quit my job and move to the other side of the planet if and when I want.
Then there are my friends and family who no longer ask if there’s “anyone special” when we see each other, so I no longer have to feel the subsequent embarrassment and self-doubt that came when I told them no. Instead, we talk about my teaching and writing, things I have control over and which stand as evidence that my life is moving forward rather than remaining stuck in the same narrative about heartbreak. I get to talk about all the things I’m making happen in my life. Fortunately, there’s much to tell.
“There’s no more anxiety or fear about love. What weighed on me was the horror of imagining myself alone forever. But really, this lonely life I envisioned far off in the future was already happening.”
In the year since Justin, I’ve finished writing a novel and, because my mind isn’t busy obsessing about love, I’ve been flooded with new story ideas, two of which I’ve already started developing. I’ve committed more deeply to my friendships, so I’m enjoying renewed intimacy with old friends and more layered connections with new ones. After a decade without travel, I’ve planned two overseas trips, including a Costa Rican getaway where I’ll be greeted every morning by monkeys in trees outside my window. I’ve reformed my diet and my yoga practice. This year, I finally executed the elusive standing crow pose for the first time.
Social events are stress-free because I no longer care who’s noticing me. Men who flirt add an extra perk to my day but never absorb all of my emotional energy or determine my mood. Our conversations are simply conversations and not instruments with which to detect signs of romantic compatibility.
Of course, not every moment is rosy. Life without a partner can be agonizingly lonely and plain boring. Certainly, there are days when the emotional seclusion gets to me and I don’t do much at all. There are times when I desperately wish I had a partner, like if a nightmare wakes me in the middle of the night or a professional crisis hits and I need someone to talk to. When I face the trials and terrors that everyone suffers, I have to get myself through.
Still, there’s no more anxiety or fear about love. What weighed on me was the horror of imagining myself alone forever. But really, this lonely life I envisioned far off in the future was already happening. For nearly two decades, I’d been living it. There’d been good days, not so good days and days that were hell. But the same was true of marriage and the time I spent trying to find a new partner. I was already living the worst-case scenario, and I was surviving it. Once I accepted my circumstances, I started to thrive.
Do I still hope to meet a great guy? Certainly. Being single is not necessarily better than being partnered, at least not for me. Not yet. But there is still life. Lots of it. And whether or not someone comes, I want to live it.
Note: All names in this story have been changed.
Laura Warrell is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Writer, Salon and other publications. Follow her on Facebook by heading here.