Letter From Away
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Letter From Away

Spin Cycle

Letter from Away — November 14, 2021

I wrote this in August, as part of my submission to the Medium Writers Challenge. The contest gave me a chance to write to four prompts: death, space, work and reentry. This story is about re-entering the world of single people and dating. Now that the judging is over and the winners announced, I am publishing it here, along with some link to give you context. Enjoy the music.

I had a date last week. It was my first dip into the pool of potential romance in a very long time.

We were in our early twenties when we met at a small northeastern liberal arts college. I arrived on campus a hippie dressed in denim overalls and thin cotton blouses from India; he wore multi-colored snakeskin boots and eye makeup. I leaned toward drama, philosophy, folk music, and the political left; He was into Motown, Bowie, and Lou Reed.

We were both into cannabis, which we called pot. I got mine in $10 baggies, the kind with the weird folding closure. He taught me how to roll up the bag, snug but not too tight, and lick the edge of the flap lightly as if it was the seal on a joint. We could smoke whole joints then, and not get wasted. The dime bags I got held as much leaf as bud, if not more, and my contemporaries might remember using the slipcover from a double album as a slope on which to sort out the seeds and stems.

He taught me how to do that, too.

I was a Celtics fan and he followed the Knicks, The Lakers, and Philadelphia. He knew the names of all the players in the NBA, drawing my attention to the young Lew Alcindor before he was known as Kareem Abdul-Jabar, and the airborne wonder of Paul Silas. We both appreciated the improvised choreography of the game and the excitement and shifting pace of the play.

And the sex was great.

The whole thing was fun, right up until the day I walked into the dining hall and asked a mutual friend if he’d seen him lately. Our friend must have thought I was in on the polycule because he simply told me that my boyfriend was, “… at M_____’s.” He was stepping out on me, and with his previous lover.

I stood there, waiting for my mind to start seeing the world, and myself, with any semblance of normal perspective. I remember looking at the wall of windows that looked out on the campus; I’m pretty sure I screamed some venom across the room at my absent, cheating boyfriend and all the other people there who clearly knew exactly what had just happened and had been waiting some time for the drama to play out. I remember being taken to a nearby Friendly’s where I downloaded a tall beaker of something cold and sweet, and I remember the way it came right back up.

I can’t remember the circumstances under which I confronted him. I already told you I was into drama. It was probably loud and public. I remember he quoted Marvin Gaye when apologizing for the way I found out.

I was married with two almost-grown-up kids and living in a funky rural house when he called me, 30 or so years later, to add a coda to that apology. He’d found my mother’s phone number and gotten mine from her. “I was a snake, back then,” he said.

Yeah. He was.

Last winter, I hunted him up on Facebook. I wasn’t looking for the commitment I had imagined as a younger me; Thirty-five years of marriage, raising two kids into independent adulthood, managing an artist’s sole proprietorship for my husband, and helping my mother die a good death had used up my appetite for commitment. But it had been a year and a half since the last of those promises had cut me loose and we were entering the second year of COVID.

The last time I was looking for love, I was thirty years old and the best place to shop for romance was among the washers and dryers of the neighborhood self-service laundry. It was safer than the bars and you could check people out unobserved: how they took care of themselves and their stuff, what they read while waiting, who they were when they thought no one was looking.

I spent a few weeks in January exploring internet dating sites, but I live in a county of a mere 40,000 souls and am one of fewer than 1.5 million humans in the state of Maine. We don’t all know each other but we’re guaranteed to know someone who knows the ones we don’t. Of the dozens of men whose pictures and profiles I scanned in those weeks, I found three I thought dateable. I skipped one because his ex is a good friend and I didn’t want to risk our relationship. I wrote to a guy I didn’t know and never heard back and I reached out to an old friend who I hadn’t known was cruising the digital laundromat. I didn’t hear from him, either.

Not wanting to play roulette with long-distance dating and figuring the statute of limitations had run out on the hormone-driven errors of our past, I looked up the glitter hippie in the snakeskin boots.

We met in Portland. I drove and he flew in from somewhere in Eastern Megalopolis. He got an AirBnB room and I stayed with a friend. I’m still a hippie, into performance art, folk music, and the social contract. He’d given up the glitter and picked up a PhD in Middle Eastern history.

We ate some good meals and had a lot of great conversation. We’ve both been busy; life hasn’t been dull and sometimes it has been downright awful. There was a lot to catch up on. We humans are fairly stupid in our twenties and it was good to talk about some of the things we’d done well, since then.

I think what I was looking for, when I reached out to him online, wasn’t so much a relationship with an old lover or even an old friend, but the feeling of endless possibility and the exhilaration of risk that was part of my youth. What I found when we met last week was our mutual mortality.

My old boyfriend is no longer the reptile who cheated on me and I’m no longer the horny innocent who was so shocked by his treachery. Instead, we are old friends who live far apart, meeting in texts and messages online. Our rendezvous in Portland wasn’t the gateway to mature romance I imagined it might be, when I first searched for him in the transactional mire of social media.

In the laundromats of the fearless ’70s and ’80s, we quietly watched as potential lovers washed, dried, and folded the evidence of their lives; in the 21st century, we make up facts we think others might be looking to find, anguishing over an adequate description for the product we imagine ourselves to be. Our sensory experience narrows to what can be seen on the screen and the people we run into are those who can pass through the algorithms that enthrall us.

We’re looking too hard for something no one can describe. It was easier in the less careful, last days of the 20th century, when I was still learning about the balance between how much they wanted me and how much I wanted them. Regardless of our advanced technology, romance is still a magic that no one has really figured out. There’s no logical procedure for happenstance.

I’m almost 70 years old and have come to enjoy my own company enough that I don’t want someone else always around. The easy affection of puppies and lonely men too often feels like a blanket on a way-too-humid August day. A friend, who has been divorced longer than I, says she stopped dating when she realized that most men are looking for wives and that wives are just mothers with benefits.

Every few months I get a physical reminder from a decades-old moment of inattention. The cartilage I tore on a bunny slope in 1967 that aches when it rains, the rotator cuff I jammed while walking a friend’s dog in 2000, a twinge in my right big toe that only reminds me that I don’t remember everything. These days, it’s uncomfortable enough to sleep alone. Why would I invite someone else’s aches and pains into my bed?

My lizard friend responded differently to our weekend in Portland, texting almost daily to tell me how much he enjoyed our visit, inviting me to visit him in the fall, to travel with him, to fit him into my life.

When I was 25, I longed to be the one in charge, the partner in a relationship who received more than I gave. But maybe the real joy is in the chase, in being the pursuer rather than the prey. The hunter’s anticipation is Pavlovian and delicious. The quarry feels fear more than exhilaration.

There is no way back to the woman I was in 1970 and I want a looser net than the one that held me for more than 30 years after that.

There’s an empty storefront in my town that used to be a laundromat.

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Shlomit Auciello

Shlomit Auciello

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who lives in Midcoast Maine. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print since 1992.