All We Ever Wish For

It was one of those days that just kept going and going, and the whole time I had to be on in a very public, TV lady sort of way. By the time I headed home, it was late, and my sense of humor–already eroded by the Winter That Will Not End–had evaporated. Still, when a woman on the subway platform pointed out she had the same hat, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s rare to find another adult who’ll wear the blue-dyed rabbit fur I refer to as my Muppet bonnet. The two of us struck up a chat while her boyfriend–tall, broad-shouldered, with a knitted brow–stood by, clearly not thrilled that his companion’s attention had been diverted. I knew his type well, had made the mistake of dating men like him when I’d been naive enough to conflate size with stability. After a bit it came out we all had been at the same event, and she and I compared notes while he continued to glower. Talking to her while he steamed reminded me of the conversations my mother used to have with female neighbors in the 1970s, all of them talking in lowered voices while glancing over their shoulders lest their husbands catch them lollygagging.

Finally he burst out: “I don’t judge.”

If I’d hadn’t been so fried, I would’ve let his comment go. I saw the quick hunch of her shoulders. Instead, I said, “You can have an opinion without judging.”

“You must be a critic,” he said. Quietly, I said I was. I realized, without pleasure, that he’d seen our show. Nothing incenses a male bully more than female authority.

A frightening smile crept over his features. “I don’t judge anyone but critics,” he said.

“That’s a little hostile,” I said, and smiled back.

”That’s because you critics don’t have a sense of humor,” he replied. “I could say right now that I was going to push you in front of this incoming train and you wouldn’t get it was a joke.”

I took a step back, and looked over at his girlfriend, whose face was frozen. “Ok,” I said. “Have a good night.”

“Hey,” she said to me. “I think you’re overreacting.” I looked at her a little longer, ignoring her boyfriend, who was preening by now. Her eyes were bright with anger and fear. They said: If you walk away I will not be able to ignore what I have been ignoring. They said: I want to pretend this is not happening. They said: When you walk away, I will agree with him that you are crazy. I flashed again on my mother, of how she would hang back whenever I raged against my father’s man-of-the-house tyranny.

”Good luck,” I said, and made sure to enter a different car when the subway slid into the station. “Good luck” is my Seven-Sister version of  “screw you,” which is a Boston version of my Southern girlfriends’ “We’ll pray for you,” always delivered with a brilliantly insincere smile.

I wasn’t feeling much bravado, though.

The whole ride, I did not move a muscle. I hurried to my apartment from the subway station, foregoing my nightly admiration of the heavens, and dead-bolted the door, even attaching the second chain. Looking at my permakitten guiltily, I wished for Max, my stalwart male tiger who’d hugged me every time I came home until his death ended our 15-year ritual. Then I burst into tears.

After I dried my face, I climbed into a flannel nightgown, and poured a tumbler of rye. Grace crept into my lap with the gentle temerity that is almost always enough. I gulped rather than sipped. And then I exhaled, and thanked my lucky stars for what I had rather than what I’d wanted.

It amazes me again and again that the single people of this world are pitied and scorned. We are the brave ones who call every bluff of modern life. We are the ones who know that being alone isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person–not by a long shot. My solitude is not always easy but I have never been lonelier than when I thought a partner whose self-esteem required my self-abandonment was all part of growing up. As much as I love peonies and pretty dresses and a city that glows right outside my window, the greatest luxury of my life is the right to shut that fucking door.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy