Summer was over, and my apartment was still a maze of boxes. My bed frame leaned against a wall; I slept on the mattress on the floor. I hadn’t figured out how to turn on the oven. I ate dinner in front of the TV, (read: ice cream straight from the carton). This wasn’t how I’d pictured things when I’d envisioned a place of my own.
I’d been tired of my surly landlord. Of living with a roommate whose girlfriend insisted on sneaking plug-in air fresheners into every room until our apartment smelled like a taxicab. It was time for me to strike out on my own. At thirty-four, I was officially in my mid-thirties, and I had certain ideas about what that meant: a husband, a baby, a house. But there was no sign of a relationship on the horizon. I didn’t have a fancy job. I decided at the very least I should have my own apartment. So I threw myself into the search, daydreaming about paint colors and estate sales.
I found a sunny, third floor one bedroom, slightly rough around the edges but with beautiful bones, not too far west for me to walk my dog to the lake. Yes, it was mere blocks from the northernmost boundary of the city and yes, it was in a very residential area with no cafés or bookstores and yes, I’d probably have to get in my car if I wanted to go anywhere, but still, it would be mine. I’d write there and have dinner parties and a container garden on the roof. That spring I sat in an office at Chicago Title and Trust, signing papers and trying to absorb it all: escrow, closing costs, title insurance. Finally the seller handed me the keys, and the ground dropped away. In the midst of attaining this joyful milestone, it dawned on me that I was really alone.
I didn’t want to want a boyfriend, let alone a husband. I wanted to be all, a woman needs a man like a fish, bicycle, blahblahblah. But I wasn’t. And I did. It bothered me. I mistrusted it like I mistrusted wanting to be model thin–something suburban girls learn early on they’re supposed to want. I didn’t idealize marriage. I didn’t think it was the answer to all my problems. And though I scoffed at romantic comedies, I secretly longed for someone to forsake all others and choose me. And buying a condo suddenly brought it all home. I was on my own. This was life. It was happening now. It wasn’t about to start. I was in the thick of it. And I was alone.
When I was thirteen, my mother woke my sisters and me up before dawn to watch coverage of Charles’ and Diana’s wedding. We sat on the pastel plaid sofa and matching loveseat in our family room and watched Lady Diana arrive at St. Paul’s in a gleaming, horse-drawn coach.
“It’s just like Cinderella,” my mother exclaimed.
“Really?” I said, “Did mice sew her dress? Do birds land on her finger and sing?”
“That’s the ‘feed the birds’ cathedral from Mary Poppins,” my mother said. “Do you remember? Tuppence a bag. I so wanted to take you girls to Europe when you were little.”
“Why didn’t you?” I asked her.
“Your father nixed the idea,” my mother said. “Like everything else.”
Lady Di peeked from beneath a filmy, white veil pinned with a glittering tiara and slowly ascended the red-carpeted steps smoothing her taffeta explosion of a skirt while the crowd cheered and waved from across the street.
As the Trumpet Voluntary began and Diana took her first steps down the aisle, tears streamed down my mother’s face.
“Such beautiful flowers in the little girls’ hair,” she exclaimed. She turned to my sister who had jelly on her cheek and at least three days worth of knots in her hair. “Wouldn’t you like to wear a dress like that, Sam?” Then, catching sight of Prince Charles, my mother cried, “Oh, does he see her? Do you think he sees her?”
It’s a moment, I admit, I look for at a wedding–the moment the groom first sees the bride. I want to catch that instant of revelation. I want the groom to be overcome with emotion. I want him to cry. At one of the first weddings I went to as an adult, a few years after college, the groom was beside himself, reading e.e. cummings with tears streaming down his face whereas the bride was almost alarmingly stoic, and it was actually a bit like, uh oh, but I guess everyone handles their emotions differently, and those friends are still married with two kids, so who knows?
I did love Diana’s dress, being enamored of the flounced Laura Ashley look popular at the time. In the footage shot inside the cathedral you could hear the muffled sound of the crowd lining the street cheering when Charles and Diana said, “I will.” Even during the long singing parts when we went to get refills on our Swiss Miss, my mother remained, entranced by the beauty of St. Paul’s and the boys’ choir’s heavenly voices. First Corinthians 13. Love suffereth long and is kind. My mother marveled at how wonderfully Lady Sarah Armstrong Jones coped with Diana’s magnificent train, and praised the decorum of the other young attendants in their old-fashioned naval uniforms and ivory dresses with butter colored sashes. A little after eight a.m. Diana kissed Prince Charles on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, my sisters and I licked mini marshmallow foam from our cocoa mugs and my mother wept. She cried, she said, because it was beautiful and because she always cried at weddings.
“But we’re not at a wedding,” I told her.
“Well, we are in spirit,” she said. “You don’t think it’s beautiful? You aren’t moved by anything. You’re just like your father. Look at her. She was working at a daycare and now she’s a princess. I cry at weddings. So sue me. It’s a real life fairy tale.”
“She’s so lucky,” my sister Molly said.
“Some people,” said my mother, “have magical lives.”
At thirteen, my life was far from magical. It was grilled cheese and tomato soup, retainers and teddy bears. If I ever got married, I thought, I’d want it to be with Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings or maybe Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. What I wanted then was to get away, to race out to meet my own adventures and leave my mother and her tears behind. I didn’t believe in love.
When, during their engagement, a reporter asked Diana and Charles if they were in love, Diana replied, “Of course,” with a tilt of the head and sidelong glance as if to imply what a silly question it was to ask of a couple engaged to be married. Prince Charles, on the other hand, infamously followed with, “Whatever in love means.” I was inclined to his way of thinking.
I always thought of getting married as one of those things that automatically took place when you grew up, along with going to work, drinking and having kids, not necessarily in that order. I wasn’t in any hurry though. In high school, I was voted most likely to leave the groom for the best man–not because I dated a million boys. But I announced a new crush pretty much daily. And I liked flirting. Anyway, by the time I was Diana’s age when she married Prince Charles, I thought romance was for the weak. Marriage was a social contract, not part of some fairytale. I couldn’t see myself settling down, staying with one person, relinquishing every other possibility for how my life could go. There was so much world and so many people to explore. Bohemian and free was the life for me.
I’d occasionally given thought to what my wedding would be like if I ever had a wedding even though I wasn’t the kind of person who thought about those kinds of things, but you know, if I were, I’d say peonies and a bias cut dress and Talking Heads’ “Naïve Melody”–but I wasn’t that kind of person. Then, one by one, my bohemian-and-free friends got married and started having babies. My social life suddenly consisted of attending the birthday parties of children under five where the other adults were discussing breast-feeding and sleep schedules and reminiscing about how they used to stay out late before they got so old.
I wanted to be grownup, too. So I’d bought a condo. And I’d moved, but I hadn’t moved in. That’s how I found myself surrounded by boxes, on the couch, eating ice cream and–wait for it–watching The Bachelor. Oy. I couldn’t tear myself away. In case you’re not familiar, it’s the show where ladies in bikinis and eveningwear vie for the hand of a gentleman with washboard abs. You hear the word princess a lot and fairytale; also, the bachelorettes feel like the luckiest girl in the world when they get to ride in a helicopter. The Bachelor is looking for his best friend, the mother of his children. He’s in it for the right reasons; he wants this to be forever. I couldn’t get enough. The Bachelorettes were unabashed about their longing for a husband. A twenty-three-year-old said, “I’ve been waiting for love my whole life.” I, on the other hand, had pretty much tried to uproot longing completely, deny its thorny existence. Unfortunately, my longing for love didn’t care what kind of rationale I had about relationships not being all they’re cracked up to be and how, unlike Jerry Maguire, I didn’t envision ever telling someone they completed me.
I’m not what my friend Lindsay calls a Tarzan, who can’t let go of one vine until the next is in hand. I’ve often had spells of singleness between relationships, and as I got older, they stretched out longer and longer still. Being alone played into all my fears that something was wrong with me (something I heard more than one bachelorette wonder out loud on being rejected), that I wasn’t worthy of love. It crossed my mind that maybe I was being phased out, evolutionarily speaking. If it’s survival of the fittest, I mean, maybe my genes weren’t interested in going on. Maybe I was the weak antelope.
You can’t predict when an epiphany will strike. You could be on the couch, eating Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, watching the latest Bachelor castoff slumped, defeated, in a limo. I could tell she was determined not to fall apart, but there was a catch in her voice when she asked the camera if she’d ever find someone to love her. I didn’t have any particular affinity for this woman, who had seemed kind of shallow and immature for most of her turn on the show, but in that moment I felt this wave of this like holy compassion that encompassed the sad girl in the limo and my own lonely self and the whole, entire world and I thought, this is how we are. It’s simple: feeling ashamed about needing love is like feeling ashamed about needing to eat.
It’s okay to long for love. And it’s good to learn to be alone. To unpack your boxes and paint the walls persimmon. So I did. Unpack. Paint. I got out the pots and pans and cooked dinner. Alone. Since then, I’ve tried to let go of the way I think things are supposed to happen and nurture instead a curiosity about the interesting way they are happening to unfold. Someday someone might strike that mysterious chord in my heart that will rearrange everything. But in the meantime, I’m home.
Maia Morgan’s writing has appeared in Glamour, Creative Nonfiction, The Chattahoochee Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She just finished her first book, The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures. She teaches writing and theater in schools, health care facilities and jails in Chicago and blogs about words, memory, road trips, yoga and dogs at thesaltwatertwin.com.
Feature image courtesy of mark sebastian.