When my fiancé broke up with me last August, he consigned me to the tenth circle of Dante’s hell: Dating As A Woman Over Forty.
The dating pool for the 40 year old woman is frighteningly slim. The men have no hair, or missing teeth or four kids and a nasty ex-wife, or one kid and an ex-wife they’re still in love with. Or they’re handsome and youthful and chasing 25 year olds. Or they’re disillusioned with love and all the heartbreak and have decided to leave society and go build a cabin in the wilderness.
And then, of course, is the way potential daters looked at me. Why is this woman still single at 40? What’s wrong with her? Is she going to be desperate to have a baby? This relationship is not going to be fun and relaxed and flowy. She is going to have an agenda. A serious agenda. And plus, she’s aging, over-the-hill already. Used up.
I was one of only three women I knew who were my age and unmarried. Several of my friends were already on their second marriages. Most of them had one, two or three children. One or two houses. One or two pets.
I had no children, a drafty farmhouse, a dog, a cat, and six chickens. And very, very, very little dating experience.
I met a long-haired, doe-eyed man at a street festival in Vermont. He was age appropriate, also had never been married, and had no stray children. This alone was something of a miracle, and a rarity. He was also incredibly sweet and handsome and a great kisser. He picked me up and carried me over a puddle on our first date and we ate oysters and drank ice cold vodka. But he was also 40 years old and owned two towels, and slept in a sleeping bag on a king sized mattress on the floor, and got blotto drunk at least three times a month. He checked out every other woman in the vicinity when we were together. And he was still in love with his ex-girlfriend, whom he talked about constantly, extolling her beauty while railing against her weak and childish heart.
In addition to his two towels, he had a motorcycle, a 33 foot sailboat and a pick-up truck, along with various and sundry hiking, climbing, camping and skiing accoutrements. He was a playboy. But he had a skill set I found extremely attractive. He could build things, and fix things, and grow things and make things. I’d been brought up with the intellectual crowd. Those guys who couldn’t wield an axe or even identify a carburetor let alone fix one. I was a sucker for calloused hands. I called him my Frat Boy. But even then I knew I needed, at the very least, a Frat-Man.
There was the New York City J-Date guy who seemed promising enough, with his full head of movie star hair and his sexy name, Leonardo. But when we finally spoke on the phone, he had the whiney voice and angsty demeanor of Woody Allen and turns out he wasn’t sexy Leonardo, but impossible, Lenny Gross. He broke off our first date because he couldn’t pass up a bargain discount he got at a different ski area from the one where we were supposed to meet.
There was the grizzled hippy man with the floppy hat playing the accordion who didn’t own a car, which made it very difficult to meet up in rural Vermont. And the sexy looking guy with the fedora who wasn’t opposed to kids but just ‘couldn’t have them himself.’ And did not elaborate on that.
My sister set me up with an age appropriate man who lived five hours away but insisted he wanted to meet me after discovering that I was also a welder. But I made an 18 foot long three-dimensional fence with ocean waves and starfish and whales woven into it. He made stainless steel kitchens with crisp, clean corners and hidden, smooth edges.
He drove all the way up from New York State to meet me for coffee and we labored over the steaming cups like a bad interview. Even the polite questions fell like pennies into a hollow well.
My family begged me to move on and forget my fiance and find a man who really wanted to marry and hurry up and have a child before it was too late. But what could I do? I couldn’t rush the hands of fate. I didn’t tell them about my dating escapades as I didn’t want to get their hopes up. It was bad enough to get my own hopes up and I couldn’t handle the double disappointments.
I already had to struggle with a certain sense of pity that came from almost everyone I knew, and also total strangers. Poor you, not married, who do you have to go to bar mitzvahs and funerals with? It must be so hard to be all alone. Or just the more subtle long pitiful sideways glance which I couldn’t help absorbing then feeling ashamed myself. Why was I a 40 year old single woman? Why couldn’t I find and keep a man? What was wrong with me? I must be defective in some way. And then of course, pitiable.
The other problem was that I became suspect - a single woman among all these couples, many of whom had rocky relationships. What were my intentions in fact, at that dinner party when I’m alone in the kitchen with the incredibly handsome man, husband of the lovely angry woman slamming tequila in the living room. I always tried to be non-threatening, wore loose fitting clothes and my glasses and kept my hair pulled back in a ponytail or tight in a bun. But I couldn’t always deflect the wandering eye of the unsatisfied man.
And too, at those dinner parties 38 year old women would talk about finally having a baby at 35, when they knew their biological clock was almost run out. I’d stand idly by, silent, nursing a lemonade. What could I say?
I, too, wanted a child, a husband, a family. But desperation smells sickly, like fear, and brings on the wild dogs. And I didn’t feel desperate. Just a strange sort of unrest. A loneliness, and a pale sadness, like a smudge on the lens of camera, or like looking up from underwater to the surface of the world.
One night on my last date with Frat Boy - a three night bender that included motorcycle riding, skinny dipping, excessive alcohol consumption, half-naked yoga and recreational knife throwing - I met an angel.
We had gone out to a dance club and drank too much vodka and beer. This young woman leaned against the bar. She was gorgeous, with long, black, curling hair and dark clear eyes behind Wonder Woman glasses. She had angel wings tattooed on her back and drank Jack on the rocks, as only a modern angel would.
She pulled me aside and up to the open air balcony to which only she had access.
“What are you doing with that guy?” she asked, and then said, “Can I be blunt?”
“It’s just a transition thing,” I said, “My RR - rebound relationship.” Hiding the small lie that I was already falling for this player and wondering if I could fill in his lacks somehow because he had so many likes. I liked how he kissed me, how he kept his eyes open, how he looked into my eyes so deeply, and so often. I knew eventually he would get over his ex, just as I would eventually get over mine, and eventually we could possibly fall in love with each other.
“He’s a frat boy and a flirt,” my angel continued, immediately naming what I was trying so hard to ignore.
“I know,” I said, my enthusiasm deflating slightly as she spoke.
She lit a joint and passed it to me.
“He’s cute and all, in a surfer boy way, with his bleached blond hair and his ripped bod.”
“Yeah, he’s ripped,” I smiled, remembering curling up with him, fingers interlaced, limbs entwined.
“Yeah,” she smoked, “he’s cute and all. But you’re beautiful. You’re gorgeous. You could do so much better.
I looked up at her, blushing in the darkness. I didn’t feel beautiful, I felt old, sagging, tired.
“I mean it,” she said. And she said it again. “You’re beautiful. You could do so much better.”
I felt her anointing me with her open, kind and generous heart. I felt my own heart fluttering, hopeful.
We lived in a world that valued her far over me, for her youth, her youth, her dazzling youth. For her impending fecundity. She was the desired one in our society. I was past my prime, reject-able, dated not datable. The world of men wanted her, not me. I should best take what I could get, whatever I could get, and be happy.
But she intervened, this tattooed angel, to remind me that we weren’t in a zero sum game. There wasn’t need for settling or denying, or even self-pity. I felt a dizzy wave come over me, that wasn’t from the alcohol or the pot. It felt like some of her youth and optimism re-ignited my own youth and optimism. The spirit that is stronger than the body.
Ultimately no one knows what this world will bring. Sometimes bounty or famine, sometimes loss. Sometimes love. There was nothing to do with it but move on. The Frat Boy would find his perfect woman, and I knew it wasn’t me.
And I would find my perfect man too. And all of the sudden, I knew that I had plenty of time. The perfection of everything is hard to see in a moment of lack or a moment of loss. But my failure to trust in that moment wasn’t proof that the moment couldn’t be trusted.
The angel took my arm and we walked back down the rickety stairs to the bar. She gave me a hug and her email address and went back to the bar where the sea of men parted and waited to flirt with her. She gave me a wink and ordered another drink.
I went back to the dance floor and spun with my Frat Boy one last wild and sexy night.
To live in the moment, and honestly so, is the only way to move forward into the best future for yourself.
One day my prince will come. But right now, I’ll just dance to the music.
An edited version of this piece is published on Salon.com