“If you can tell the tale, then you are not overwhelmed.”
When I got divorced my confidence was at Kanye level. I think that was a motivator, beyond the constant arguing and the Mariana Trench of resentment, there was the underlying idea that I was wasting all my amazing qualities in marriage. I needed to be unleashed on the world. I have great hair and a master’s degree. I am funny. Entertaining. Sexy. Who wouldn’t want to date me? Well as it turns out, a lot of fucking people.
Or at least just all the guys I meet. Mainly on Tinder. But I have also met some people naturally without the epidural of being able to make split second judgments just by looking at photos. The naturally occurring relationships might have more legs to stand on but they still end up exactly the same: us not actually dating. Sometimes I get real bummed. Because I have feelings. But I try to keep my confidence above sea level with my CAP LOCKS BUTTON IN FULL EFFECT.
I don’t play games in dating mainly because that assumes I am doing so well with the basic premise that I can add on difficulty, like putting a blind fold on me and spinning me around before I aim for the piñata. I am not going to hit the piñata even if you give me a shotgun. But I also don’t play games because I think I should be able to do whatever I want, and he should still be interested. And by whatever I want, I mean crazy things like responding promptly to text messages, making myself available for dates, and having sex whenever I want and not on some arbitrary vesting schedule. I have no strategy, just an ego.
The day I filed for divorce, I came home and sent a stack of essays to The Funny Times. It was something I could do that was proactive. I could have worked to secure food and lodging for my children, but instead I chose to focus on my art. At a meeting with my attorney, we talked about my income, and I said that I had an adjunct position teaching two classes per semester. She started writing then held her pen, still looking down at the paper waiting for me to continue. As the crickets filled the room, she looked up and said, “That is not going to be enough.”
A few weeks later I walked down the driveway in the hot August sun and pulled an envelope out of the mailbox. The Funny Times accepted all five of my essays. And they wanted more. I walked back inside the house, a liminal space between a married home and a place of my own, and sat at my desk and read the letter again.
I spent the rest of that year in a state of total confusion. My ex moved out, my daughter cried, my son changed from a seven-year-old boy to the man of the house—in an instant. I took down photos and left large blanks on the wall. I put my kids on the bus each morning and went to my job as an adjunct. Then I came home in the afternoons to write. Or I tried. Sometimes I just stared at old writing. Sometimes I sobbed. Sometimes I called my attorney in a panic because I felt like someone was following me. Sometimes I had to call the locksmith to change all the locks. Sometimes the neighbor’s teenage daughter would knock on the door to ask if the kids wanted to play, and she would find me with a puffy red face and fat dewy eyelashes and would ask me if I was okay. But like she meant it, and I would say, “No, I don’t think so.”
But the writing was easy, like an oil drill struck black gold, and I could sit at my desk, wipe my eyes and type, slowly at first, just a pitter patter of clicks until eventually some type of inspiration—like my ego—took over and controlled my fingers as if they were a tiny puppet army.
I decided that if I wanted to be a writer, not just someone who wrote for fun, but a damn professional, then I would have to be willing to put everything out there (I hope my kids can forgive me). It was a decision that I remember making, which is rare—one of those moments when a thought actually changes the trajectory. I knew the barrier between being someone who was a good writer and someone who might actually get published was about vulnerability, and it was great timing for me because I was—at the time—just a single gaping wound, which is much different than today when I am a fortress of emotional detachment and self-respect.
I also decided this was a great time to start dating.
My inner narrative lacked omniscience. And still does. Maybe I have progressed to limited omniscience, but there is skepticism about my reliability. I have at least arrived at a place where I allow myself to not take dating quite so seriously. Before marriage I dated the way one would shop for an insurance policy, comparing rates and stats, reading the fine print, and making choices based on logic and calculated risk. Now after the divorce, every interaction is like an episode of the Dating Game, and I choose people from behind a screen, gauging their entire persona based on a few questions, like “What do you do for fun on the weekends?”
If he responds, “You!” then I know I have a winner.
I have also found myself continually in scenarios that are well outside the box of traditional relationships. Maybe we are just friends or maybe he is seeing someone else or maybe he is unable to commit because he is too sad and broken. It seems like I say, “Oh we are not in a relationship” frequently, like when I show up with a new date to a weekend excursion, or when I am sitting on his lap by the fire, or when I bring a guy home for Thanksgiving and he is also living with me. We aren’t really dating. If I never acknowledge that we are actually dating, then we can’t ever break up. Maybe we are still not dating right now!
As far as my career, I eventually secured a full-time teaching position. The timing was so precarious that the health insurance from my ex-husband’s employer expired the day before my new insurance became effective because like with diffusing a bomb, why have the leeway of time if I am not going to use every single tenth of a second? The benefit of being full-time is that it gives me more hours each day to roll my eyes. I approach my job with the destructive instinct, the same way I approach dating, as if I do not have a single thing to lose.
Sometimes I worry about getting my life together because then what am I going to write about? Dating has been the circus side show of my post-divorce life, and it provides me with excellent material. What if I meet someone who does not have a PODS unit of emotional baggage in his driveway? What if my recycle bin stops looking like I have recently hosted back-to-back-to-back bachelorette parties? What if I finally figure out how to program my coffee maker? Can happiness be hilarious?
When I was married and unhappy, trapped, drowning, imprisoned (should I go on?) I remember telling a single friend that what she had was hope. I told her that she should be happy because she could end up with anyone, unlike me . . . and then my words trailed off down a path of sadness and desperation and when I turned around the thickets had closed in and blocked the way back to light, and I started to spin.
The last years of my marriage and the time that has followed remind me of the movie Cast Away. The lead character is in a plane crash. After the plane hits the water, he is thrown about and taken under water, not knowing which way leads up to air and life and which way leads down to the sandy bottom of the ocean and a cold, lonely death. But with the pull of a cord—a momentary decision that is at least something he can do that is proactive—he rises to the surface and into the middle of a cold ocean. Then he is trapped alone on an island for four years with only a volleyball to keep him company. When he gets back to civilization, the life he knew has closed in and filled the space of his void, like water. The film ends with him at a crossroads. Alone.
Some days when I am sad or overwhelmed, especially when I lose focus and think that dating or being successful with dating, whatever that means, has any relationship to my happiness, then I try to remember that I was married for nine years. And not happy. I was like a prisoner who spent years digging a hole with my hands, clawing at the hard dirt until I finally felt the fresh surface air, and then I emerged with the barbed-wire fence behind me. I had to fight to get here, so maybe I should not be so determined to climb back down into the hole.
Sometimes I have these glimmers. Something that shouts “Sequel!” As if there is more to tell. I remember that all I was really fighting for from the beginning was the hope. And I have that. And I am so terrified to give it away. But if I can be still, which is something I have struggled with since childhood—my natural state is aflutter—then I can see hope in a new way. I have a bad habit of always looking ahead, but maybe I can figure out how to make hope less about expectations and more about trust. And it will be in this new liminal space that I sit and begin to write the next chapter.