My life doesn’t look like it’s supposed to, and I’m being very literal: it’s visually wrong. My eyes are supposed to be seeing other things.
Here’s how it was supposed to look: after college, I would live in a New York downtown loft with paint-splattered cement floors and industrial pipes transversing the ceiling. There would be melted candle wax and incense ashes and dinner parties that consisted of one large bowl of pasta everyone would pass around.
There was a man I was sharing this all with, but he was only vaguely outlined: an artist of some kind, with worn-in Levi’s and longish hair and nice biceps. I don’t marry this man; he’s just there to release my wildness — pot-smoking, no real career, a stab at being a painter — that eventually will dissipate before I get married and have a real life.
Next, I was supposed to live in a house with wainscotting and beautifully painted walls — maybe soft lavenders in the entryway and intense reds in the formal dining room. Or maybe it was all white with wide-planked wooden floors and kilim rugs. In both scenarios, there is a staircase with a landing and a polished wooden railing.
There would be a wild garden of flowers and vegetables. And in this house I am married: to someone with an important job that remains vaguely creative — no Wall Street men for me, my guy would be the head of the anthropology department at the college down the street (did I mention I’m living in a university town?) or a literary agent. He’s not much more fleshed out than the hot artist guy of my loft-living days, but he exists.
There are variations on the theme, of course. Sometimes the house with wainscotting is replaced with a Spanish-style house in California, and I’ve traded hydrangeas for bougainvillea. When I was dating a political science professor, originally from Michigan, the vision morphed to include brick houses in Ann Arbor, and I scoured the L.L. Bean website for cute long underwear. A few years ago, during an upswing in a decade-long on and off relationship, I went to visit my boyfriend’s parents in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico. They had a huge custom-built house on a dirt road, a garden full of rocks with rose quartz running through them, and cacti that I couldn’t stop touching. I imagined living there too, with views of the horizon and an army of hummingbirds buzzing around the veranda.
Bottom line: I was supposed to get married and live in a pretty house. I never got married, and now that I’m pushing fifty, I probably won’t. (Let’s face it: I won’t). And while I live in a semi-pretty house, it hovers dangerously close to an Anthropologie catalog: antiques from my grandparents mixed with cheap modern pieces; a wallpapered kitchen and bathroom because there was no man around to object. Too many tchotchkes and wicker baskets, too much tangled jewelry scattered across two dressers stuffed into my bedroom. A bed pushed into the corner of my bedroom because the room is too small to have the bed where a grown-up would put it: the center of a wall, facing the windows.
I have dining room chairs I upholstered in dark navy fabric with koi fish, but a dining room table too small to accommodate them. And this is a metaphor for my unmarried, single life: a stab at adulthood (beautiful chairs) bumps up against the cheap, temporary solution (a scratched, wrong-sized table). My entire life feels this way, and I suspect it’s because I never got married. I am feral.
Intellectually, I understand it’s fine that I never got married. I make enough money, some might say more than enough. I own my own home. Not getting married hasn’t damaged me financially, something my divorced friends like to remind me of while they complain about alimony and child support payments. I have loved and been in love; I’ve had intense, intimate relationships with men that made me feel like I’m on fire — in a good way. I have deep female friendships that are the greatest honor of my life. So intellectually, I know this is all fine.
Emotionally, I’m okay too. I don’t feel sad or lonely when I’m home alone. In fact, I’m relieved. As a proud member of Gen-X, being alone for hours gives me the cozy feeling. While admittedly my ego took a hit in my thirties when all my friends were getting married, in my forties I saw those same friends go through awful divorces — some with breathtaking cruelty — and I got over that feeling real quick.
But there’s a feeling located somewhere else, somewhere between spirituality and aesthetics that just isn’t sitting right. It comes from the same place that gives you a chill up your spine when you look at the Grand Canyon or slice open an orange and see those perfectly beautiful pieces of pulp in perfectly divided slices, making a perfect pinwheel. It comes from that place that causes a horse to nicker hello or your rescue dog leaning up against you the moment you bring her home because she knows that you were the one who busted her out of the shelter.
I don’t know what to call this place of feeling. Nature? Close, but not quite. Religion isn’t right. I frankly don’t think it has a name, but feelings flow from this place quite often these days. Sometimes it’s wonderful; there is, of course, nothing better than a dog leaning against you. But often it’s disconcerting: something is not right, there is a tear in the fabric of the universe and I can’t put my finger on it.
From this mysterious place, there is a new constant feeling: as I approach fifty, I can’t help but feel that being unmarried is very wrong. As a feminist — heck, as a human — I cringe writing that. But it feels true and I’m tired of pretending it’s not true. Something is not right. It doesn’t look right.
Long ago, I had a conversation with my friend’s mother about getting married, whether it mattered, whether I should care. “Adeline,” she said quickly and confidently “the reason to get married is to have someone witness your life.”
She’s right. There is no one in this house to witness my life, unless you count the dog. And there is something off about that, like a shopping cart with one wobbly wheel: it works, but not really.
I’ve never admitted this before because I was committed to the narrative that a woman doesn’t have to get married to be complete. And of course, that’s true. But it’s also true that we need witnesses to our lives. We need someone to see our mundane moments and our important moments: from making a grocery list to the death of a parent. What happens to these moments if no one is watching?
So as the old saying goes — can I get a witness? My life doesn’t look like it’s supposed to, but I need someone here to see it.
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