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Dating Again After My Partner's Death Is Even Harder Than I Thought

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Litsa is a 44-year-old woman living in Seattle.

Twenty-eight months ago, my partner died in a climbing accident. The rock broke away, he fell 1000 feet and died instantly. It was four and a half days before his body was found.

We first met in a creative writing class at the University of Washington, spring quarter of 1988. He said he liked one of my short stories; I said he had a great name for a mystery writer. He asked me out, but I had a boyfriend.

We remained in each other's lives and finally went on our first date when we were 24, each clad in Doc Martens. We dated on and off until his death, but our "off" periods were confusing even to us because we were each other's best friends. As he frequently said, he loved that we never ran out of things to talk about and that he was always attracted to me. I felt the same. We loved each other deeply and trusted each other implicitly, and the sex was consistently phenomenal. For all our ups and downs, resulting largely because we are/were (there is no verb tense that accurately applies when one of you is alive and the other is dead) among the two most stubborn people of all time, we always felt connected. We were lucky.

I feel I died when he did, and the body I inhabit is a replicate. The person I was before and the person I am after look the same, but the "after" me bears a scar so deep she can't adequately describe it. When his body was found, his food was still in my refrigerator and his things were scattered around my home. My shock was so profound, I couldn't recall what day or time it was. I'd check my BlackBerry and by the time I'd return it to my satchel, I'd forget the date I'd just seen. When I'd go for walks, I wouldn't hear people behind me and would jump out of my skin when strangers suddenly appeared next to me. I could no longer cross the street against the light, regardless of traffic, because I couldn't trust my senses. And even months afterward, I felt so entirely asexual that when a friend asked me who I would sleep with next, I nearly vomited. I began wearing a hat and sunglasses as often as possible and avoided crowds. When an attractive man would make eye contact with me, I'd quickly look away. I felt like I had no skin, like anyone could damage me, and I had no defenses. Interaction with anyone promised additional pain.

But in recent months, my sexuality has been returning. When I watch "Mad Men" on Netflix, I want to nail Jon Hamm until both our knees bleed. (Admittedly, this might just indicate that I'm a carbon-based life form.) My sense of humor has resurfaced. I do my hair and make-up again. I'm fortunate in that I've retained a decent figure. I playfully flirt now, despite sometimes feeling off-kilter. While playful flirting used to come easily to me, now it feels like I'm re-learning a language I once spoke fluently. I've let friends and colleagues know I'm ready to date again. I know I bring unusual baggage, but I want to love again, and I know he'd want this for me. My new partner won't be in competition with my dead one because that would be an impossible situation for all involved.

What follows is a seven-day diary of the steps I'm taking to reclaim my sexuality, which, I hope, will eventually culminate in sex with someone I like and who likes me. Here goes.

Monday

Things get off to a pleasant start. While I'm out walking my Pomeranian puppy, Thomas, a cute runner smiles at me. Despite Seattle's unusually bitter cold, he is wearing shorts and his legs appear to have been sculpted by Michelangelo. My neighborhood features large numbers of artists and gays (as I like to say, "We belong to the same union") and he runs by too fast for me to determine if he's straight, but I don't care. He is friendly and, seriously, those calves belong in a museum.

I drop off Thomas at home, return emails from two of my editors and a publicist, then head to Oddfellows Cafe, one of my favorite nearby restaurants that features free wi-fi, Stumptown Coffee, homemade desserts and, as such, has become a hub for Seattle's arts community, particularly freelancers. I've always felt comfortable dining alone, and it's a locale where half the patrons are solo, so I'm at ease. Just as I'm contorting my tongue to dislodge a pistachio shard from a molar, a tall man with wavy dark makes eye contact and smiles. I would return the gesture, but any attempt is thwarted by said pistachio. Damn you, nutmeat. Damn you.

As I return to my beet salad, a guy in his mid-thirties sits at an adjacent table. The layout is such that we are roughly three feet apart, and he positions himself so he is looking at me. He, too, smiles, and makes small talk as he sets up his laptop. I reply in a similarly friendly manner. We're camped out next to each other for the next 45 minutes, and he makes non-creepy eye contact a number of times, which I return in kind. I'm enjoying the day until I realize his eyes are the same shade of blue as my dead partner's. And then I'm reminded why I'm undergoing this project in the first place. I catch myself starting at the restaurant's clock, just to have a concrete object to focus on. God, I miss him.

Tuesday

I discover that the musician I'm supposed to interview the next day for MSN has postponed and that instead, I'm interviewing Estelle in less than 24 hours. Days of prep work on the first musician is now shelved. The day's schedule gets rerouted around Estelle research and listening to her upcoming record, which her publicist has sent me digitally. I'm invigorated for the interview and enjoy the record tremendously, but spend the day in my cupcake pajamas and immersed in all things Estelle. My naturally curly hair resembles the weeds that tumble across the plains in all films about the Great Depression. Not only do I feel asexual, I basically forget I have a vagina. Plans to watch the State of the Union at a local bar's viewing party get scrapped out of necessity. Puppy and I quite impressed with President Obama's speech and remain proud supporters, though.

Wednesday

Estelle's schedule is jammed and her publicist calls twice to politely explain the interview will be pushed back later in the day. I've conducted several dozen interviews and know this stuff happens. The rescheduling keeps me tethered to the phone, however. When Estelle's publicist finally puts Estelle on the line late in the afternoon, the Q & A goes quite well and I'm pleased. Must now finally fetch groceries, a prescription and puppy supplies from the stores a few blocks away. Despite my commitment of late to eschew hats, I pull one firmly on and obscure my violet coat with a giant wool scarf because it is pouring freezing rain. When the pet supply clerk playfully flirts, I'm flattered, until it occurs to me he might have a weird Yeti fetish, as that is who I most resemble right now.

Thursday

Spend the day writing, sending out queries and answering emails about two upcoming readings, one in Seattle and one in New York, where I'm one of the featured writers . Excited because I genuinely love reading, but also feel like someone is pinching my heart. My partner attended most of my readings and was hugely supportive. Head to the upscale neighborhood watering hole across the street that is known for its custom cocktails. I order and sit and read for two hours and enjoy the chance to unwind. The clientele veers from twenties to fifties, so again, I feel comfortable. Then the guy on the adjacent barstool begins describing his "breakup beard" as if it were Cezanne's pears, and I'm reminded that during the two years following my partner's death, when I was sequestered myself and engaged with other only when it was absolutely necessary, I might have idealized the outside world. A nearby real estate attorney describes his case so loudly, you'd think we were at a seminar. I tip the amiable female bartender well -- she has to deal with these clowns all the time -- and head home.

Friday

On deadline all day. Feeling antsy and decide to shower, head downtown (adjacent to my neighborhood) and catch the 10:30 p.m. showing of "Young Adult," which I've been wanting to see for weeks. But first, I must circumvent an obstacle. By all standards, Thomas is a remarkable puppy, wonderfully intelligent and affectionate. And when I brought him home over a year ago, I was still feral with grief. Allowing Thomas to sleep on the bed next to me is what finally made it possible for me to sleep. It didn't occur to me at the time, though, that this would present an obstacle to masturbating in bed. (I tried it once and woke him when I came. It was just too weird.) So, in the shower, I put the extendable handheld nozzle to its intended use (no one in history has turned it on their "tired shoulder muscles ," let's face it). Calmed, I get dressed up and call a cab. The cab driver refers to me as "Mona Lisa" in a way that's sweet, not cheesy, and when he drops me off, I have half an hour to wander the streets before the film starts. I can't recall the last time I was downtown past 10:00 p.m. and the cacophony is invigorating. Increasingly, I feel among the living.

Saturday

Write half a chapter of the novel. Stop for late lunch before I attend a reading at Elliott Bay Book Company, which, like the Strand in New York and Powell's in Portland, remains among the country's best independent bookstores and is routinely packed with knowledgeable book lovers. At lunch across the street, the waiter sees I'm (re-)reading "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and insists with a certainty rarely displayed outside of T.V. operating rooms that "Hemingway's short stories were much better than his novels." Take that, "A Farewell to Arms." When I politely reply that is open to debate, he digs in his heels. Envision him sleeping in a homemade t-shirt that says, "Nick Adams #10." The reading addresses food safety in a global economy and is engrossing.
Afterward, an older lesbian asks if she can sit next to me in the bookstore's cafe, where I'm drinking white tea and reading. She strikes me as lonely and because I can relate, I say, "Sure." Her clinginess is a bit grating after a few minutes, but she is nice enough and offers no insupportable opinions on century-defining authors.

Sunday

I take my laptop to a coffeehouse on my street and work for a few hours. Despite the crowd, the barista with perfect forearms and hands offers to refill the hot water on my tea when I run out. And when my cup runs low, he pops over my shoulder as if on cue. I realize how much I'm enjoying the week. I haven't yet met someone I want to sleep with, but taking steps to get there has been more fun and buoying than I anticipated. Of course, there's still some weirdness to the whole endeavor. I've always loved sex, and if feels surreal that I have to "work" at the idea of enjoying it again. It's like psyching myself up to eat ice cream -- who needs encouragement to dive into a pint of Ben and Jerry's? On the other hand, when I talk to others who've lost a partner at a relatively young age, I hear nearly identical stories. Grief essentially explodes all your feelings about everything, so why would sexuality - so integral to who you are -- be spared? But my head, heart and body are in alignment now, and I know it's time to get back on the proverbial horse. Instead of relentless bleakness, I see possibility again.

Okay, world. Let's do this.

Litsa Dremousis is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, Jezebel, The Onion's A.V. Club, MSN and dozens of other publications. She writes a column for Nerve and is completing her first novel.