Finding themselves newly single in their 40s, my friends have epiphanies about themselves as if they have been reborn, as if who they see in the mirror is someone new. It is not always pretty, that vision, the one they have to present to others to judge.
"My skin..." one friend said, slapping at the not-so-taut parts of her exposed epidermis to indicate one of the several hurdles she has discovered, surprisingly, in the post-separation search for a mate. "It's just..." she shrugged, unable to describe the new unexpected texture.
"Well," I said, trying to look on the bright side. "At least you're forced to give up that idea of perfection you once had, and then maybe you'll be a little more understanding of the other person's imperfections...?!"
She shot me a look then, like the silver lining I presented seemed more than slightly tarnished.
Facing down the impossibility of perfection in the puffy-veined, saggy-skinned years does not come easily for most, just as getting out of bed without groaning likewise doesn't come without near constant effort expended, without getting your body moving in some way shape or form every day.
It is clearly what prompted Nora Ephron to write the line Carrie Fisher utters to the late Bruno Kirby leaning back against the cushioned headboard in When Harry Met Sally: "Promise me I'll never be out there again..."
It is definitely top on the list of reasons to stay married, not having to deal with displaying one's old wares anew. On the way to a single friend's birthday party to meet her new boyfriend (a father of two), a friend of mine put her hands together in praise to the powers above that she was sticking with her husband, keeping up the commitment despite its many challenges.
"Thank GOD I'm never going to have to be out there again..." she said.
It is a sentiment I hear often from my married friends, either before or after their handwringing over how to handle one or another of their spouse's inadequacies, before or after their whispered fantasies over a neighborhood Dad or a hot young celeb.
But there is not so much difference it seems, at middle age, between Them and Us, the singles and the committed. It seems from so many accounts that we all look in the mirror wondering who, if anyone, might ever find us even vaguely appealing again. The ego, it turns out, does not recognize a marriage certificate as an energy source.
I am married but I am not dead. I am still desperately curious sometimes what I might catch if I were free to cast my net. Most of my friends, in honest moments, wonder the same.
For fun and a desperate touch of freedom, I went out dancing with a mom friend one night, leaving Park Slope at the tsk-tsk-for-wives-and-mothers time of 11 p.m. We went not to pick up guys but to feel the rush of excitement that comes with an evening being viewed by others other than those who know us, others that might, even with a look, make you feel like there are greater possibilities than ordering in Chinese and watching Mad Men, even if you don't avail yourself of them.
"Go home to your husband and kids..." I was told not long ago by a young gentleman I knew, whom I had been talking to along with a girlfriend of mine at a Park Slope bar. I turned on my heel as if I'd been slapped, and walked out, wandering around in a dither for a while trying to get over my anger. My husband has sat in that same bar far past close and has never been told to come home to me...
The night I made it out to Cielo, a slightly out of fashion club fitting to our own semi-has-been status, no standing in line required, I crossed my fingers no one would judge and jibe, that I could pretend for a few minutes that I was unencumbered, outside the so-many-rules of my age and stage.
We didn't give a rat's &%* what the guys around us thought, my hot friend and I, as we swirled and twirled and tried to rid our minds and bodies of all the stresses of marriage and motherhood.
When I came to after a particularly mind-altering bit of house music, there was a twenty-something in a tie standing near me with his similarly prepped-out friends, just the kind of guys who never hit on me in college, when I might have cared. He approached.
"Hey," he said, "you're a great dancer."
"Thanks," I said, feeling confident in my lack of self-consciousness, having danced like I used to at 13 to Saturday Night Fever and Bob Seger records on my family room turntable.
It was the usual bad dance-floor conversation, stilted and filled with stupid questions. Turns out we were both from Arizona. He lived now, as suspected, as young eager boys do in NYC these days, on the Upper West Side.
"A lot of strollers..." he said, somewhat sheepishly, like it would have been cooler to live downtown.
"Yes, I remember those, the stroller days..." I said with a telling smile.
He was slightly taken aback. "You...have kids?"
I laughed and held up two fingers.
I swear he looked around then, for my kids, as if they were there.
"Where are they?" he asked with concern.
I laughed. "With my husband, their father."
He backed up then, literally. "Oh..." I suppose he hadn't noticed the ring.
He chatted with me a while longer. He was nice, not nasty, even after it was clear I wasn't looking for anything except some sense of my younger self, my free self, a little bit of wares-showing without the necessity of knowing whether people might really still find me appealing in the light of day, not drunk.
I waved good-bye to my young would-be paramour, and my friend and I decided that the setting, around 2 a.m., was getting a bit dicey for two dames not on the prowl.
I walked out taller and prouder than I'd walked in, but more because I had dared to be myself fully, to dance freely and have fun and not fret over my wrinkles or what anyone else might think. My friend and I have tried, in vain, to push ourselves to go again, to take the time out to touch base with our one-time independent selves. Maybe tomorrow...There should always be time for remembering who you are.
This article ran recently in The Park Slope Patch under Ms. Thompson's monthly Aging Disgracefully column.