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May 30, 2012

Love and the Single Girl

girl in field

Photo Credit: Jo Metson Scott

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How one divorcée navigates a social landscape dominated by couples - By Katherine Lanpher

I'm having a simple supper at the bar of a neighborhood trattoria when the hostess taps me on the shoulder. Would I mind sliding down a seat so that a couple can use the stools on either side of me?

She was nice about it. But as I move my bruschetta, purse, coat, and drink, it occurs to me: It'd be hard to find a more literal example of a single person's lot in our two-by-two world. Um, could you move over? A couple needs that space. It's date night.

I've had residencies in both countries — Singleland and Coupledom. I spent my 20s overwhelmed by a checklist of cultural expectations: Graduate from college? Check. Launch career? Check. Get married? Check. My nuptials were a week before my 30th birthday, and I spent the bulk of the following decade living in a blur of motion, figuring out how to throw dinner parties, get promoted, and get pregnant.

My career blossomed. I mastered place cards and knife rests. But my marriage foundered because of the stresses of infertility. By my early 40s, I was divorced and childless. So when I got a job offer to cohost a radio show in Manhattan — a chance to leave my life in St. Paul, Minnesota, and start over — I took it.

Now here I am in New York, a single woman in the dawn of my 50s. This was not on that checklist I envisioned years ago. The very idea would have made me shudder. I saw the world as a Noah's Ark of couples, and I wanted to be on that boat. But now I don't need to be; I can make my own.

When I think of how married people and single people hear the details of each other's lives, it's like we're trying to pick up radio signals from another country, ears pressed to the wireless, fingers carefully turning the dial through the static. But some of my married friends don't even try to tune in. Their lack of interest in my love life would annoy me except for this: I often did the same when I was married. Oh, are people out there still dating? Glad I don't have to worry about that anymore.

A few years ago, in a fit of dating derring-do, I asked a married male friend if he knew anyone I could possibly date.

He looked so stricken you might have thought I had asked him to go find me a living dinosaur egg. That I could sit on.

"What's wrong?" I teased him. "Is it that hard?"

"It's just — it's just that it would be difficult to find someone good enough," he stammered gallantly.

Maybe he was looking at the wrong demographic. My last two flirtations have been with men a dozen years my junior. They've made up for those parties where I'm the only single woman around and the only available men are the ones serving canapés.

And it's odd how people — strangers — can judge a single woman in midlife. As a guest at a 4-year-old's birthday party who showed up with gifts but no kids or husband, I found myself under scrutiny. "Why are you here?" one married mother asked. "I love children," I responded, although her effrontery tempted me to add, "broiled, with fries on the side."

Another time, when I had shoulder surgery, I took a predawn cab to the hospital. It was so early, I went by myself.

"What do you mean you're having surgery?" the cab driver demanded gruffly. "You're alone! No one goes to surgery alone!"

My friends who arrived to take me home after the operation — a married mother of three and a single mother of two — laughed with me when I told them that story. They are part of my extended family here in my new life. We share new puppies and everyday dilemmas, Thanksgivings, and vacations.

That girl who made the checklist? If I could go back in time, I'd put my arms around her and tell her that life in either Singleland or Coupledom is what you make of it. I'd tell her how much I love my life right now — my friends, my work, my home. Last year at a Thanksgiving feast I hosted, there were 24 people at the table — married couples, single parents, single men and women, gay people, straight people, newlyweds, and children. I've built my own ark, and it's come as you are.

And there's always room for one more. Or even two. But next time, if I move over for you, maybe you can pick up the tab for the bruschetta.

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