single ladies week

Alone at 37, I’m Learning to Love the ‘Worst-Case Scenario’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Presenting Single Ladies, five days of essays about the ups and downs of being a woman, uncoupled.

It’s supposed to be the worst-case scenario: I’m 37, divorced, and alone.

I only got here about six months ago, when my fiancée and partner of five years left me for a woman in her marketing department. My mom is worried. Distant aunts are worried.

Who’s going to shovel out your car? Who’s going to do your taxes? How are you going to buy a house on one salary? Who’s going to support you when you’re old?

I was never supposed to be here. I got married when I was 25, to a very sweet guy I will always love. It was a beautiful ceremony, and I meant it when I made those huge, life-defining promises that few humans can ever hope to keep. I was, as ever, gay as a hat, which was not news to either of us going in. We were best friends, idealists. We’d been through everything together.

I knew in theory that it “might not work out.” But being married was like a magic force field, right? We were unshakable! I was totally unprepared for the shock that love was not impervious to any flame I put to it. For the idea that commitment meant compromise. Almost exactly ten years ago, I left him. Guilt clawed at me for years, even though we both knew that splitting was the only way to give each other a chance to grow up and find our own ways. The hardest part was accepting the idea that real love could fail, or that I could fail it.

It was a lucky break, though, getting a divorce so early in life. My friends wouldn’t start getting married for at least five more years. I’d already essentially had my soul broken in half — worse, by my own hand — then amassed more hours in therapy than an average middle-aged person trying to figure out what went wrong.

I recommend failing spectacularly at major life milestones early on. Now that a few friends are getting divorced, I’ve already amassed some wisdom. Plus, it got everyone around me (but mostly me) used to the idea that my life might always look a little different.

Ten years later, I am at a club above an Ethiopian restaurant. I have assembled every “younger friend” and single person who responded to my annoying group text to come out. No one comes out anymore. Most of my friends are home, asleep with their spouses or rocking their babies. They have big days tomorrow. I am disco dancing at 2 a.m., awkward as hell without alcohol, which I no longer drink. At 27, cruising was fun. I had confidence and enthusiasm. Now I’m 37 and amazed I am out at all.

I am supposed to be pregnant right now, not dancing. By society’s clock, I was unconscionably late already. But my fiancée and I had plans, happy plans. We’d been engaged for half a year. A drag queen wearing a clerical collar and pasties blessed our union after my partner got down on one knee in front of all of our friends. My eggs were in order. We were looking at donors. We had picked out a name, something that honored her father and my brother, both gone.

Then, I don’t know: A work party? Team-building exercise gone far too well? True love?

I did not take the breakup well. It’s not that we weren’t struggling. But I thought they were growing pains, a natural part of our moving forward. I still hadn’t learned that love — and marriage — wasn’t some kind of crystallizing force that created its own stability.

Now I know it is not. Anyone — no matter how much you love them, how much you trust them with your one life and your deepest hopes for a shared story — can go at any time. No matter how much you’ve been through together, no one owes you anything they don’t want to give. There are no guarantees, especially involving people. You’ve gotta save your own life. Over and over. You’re the only one invested in it to the degree that you deserve.

Maybe that sounds like a bummer. For me it’s been a revelation. I’d been planning my life around another person again — to the point of wanting to make another person with them. Most people do this; it’s hard not to. And then who wants to admit that the life they’ve built with someone is almost comically vulnerable? Every company’s got a marketing department. And my therapist likes to remind me that even happily married people get hit by buses.

Once the dust settled and the social-media blocks were in place, I jumped into dating — in search of fun, not a wife. I am back in a sea of 25- to 30-year-olds. This is not an insurmountable age difference, but it is a culture gulf. I find myself at dance nights themed around what was cool when I was in high school — a time I was definitely not cool, and when some of my now-dates were in the third grade.

My coupled friends ask about my dating life in supportive ways, and I regale them with tales of the weekend while we give their toddlers baths. They say it sounds exciting, and sometimes it is.

Over the past several months, I’ve been stood up and dumped twice, and had a couple of one-night stands. I gave polyamory a good try, which worked great until it didn’t. I’ve learned to be comfortable with being honest about who I am and where I’ve been. I even have ideas about where I want to go. But none of my plans involve plugging someone into a person-shaped hole in my life.

I have tiny, tightly curated résumés of witty non sequiturs and fun photos in at least ten virtual locations: OKCupid if you’d like a CIA dossier on the sex habits of a complete stranger. Tinder if you want to scout the people you’ve always liked who are back on the market now. I even tried “High There,” an app for stoners where one of the main sorting criteria is whether you like to leave the house.

My bar is a little higher than that. I’ve chilled out on the volume, too. Right now, I’m seeing a few people I like a lot for different reasons whom I’m excited to get to know over whatever time we turn out to have together.

What do I want now, though? I want my friendships and family relationships to grow as much any romantic ones. There are gaybies to be a good, present aunt to. I might buy a house with one of my ex-girlfriends from my 20s, now one of my closest friends. I bought a snow shovel for $10. I’ll find an H&R Block sometime before April.

I was talking to a friend recently (also my age, divorced, and single), and posed a question: What if we never find another “one”? What if we don’t settle down and have families? What if instead, we have careers and adventures and friends? What if we have a succession of loves with the expectation of change instead of permanence? What if our chosen families are the story of our lives?

This is supposed to be the worst-case scenario. But why? That list sounds aspirational. That list sounds deliberate and fulfilling. Nothing on that list says, “I settled for this.” And so much worse than settling would have been bringing a child into the world with someone who didn’t love me.

I’ve taken myself off the Imaginary Life Timeline. Okay, I was pushed off, but it turns out to have been a favor. Because it’s outmoded and not useful. It’s arbitrary and patriarchal. Worst of all, it distracts from the real work of learning self-love and making my own life and legacy.

I’m still making peace with that, but I’m getting there. It starts with … well, it starts after this date I have coming up with a hot silver-haired butch I met on OKC.

Learning to Love the Worst-Case Scenario