At 18, I began my unsingle life.
After I announced my June marriage, the dean at Wellesley told me I couldn’t return to college for my second year. I would lose that privilege along with my virginity. In 1956, even a prestigious school like Wellesley saw a woman as her body, and a woman’s body as her possible role in life. I impressed my housemother, Mrs. Tower, with my diamond engagement ring.
I impressed myself as well. My husband would be completing his last year at Yale Law School. His parents would pay the rent on our furnished third-floor apartment above a private house in New Haven.
Maybe in 1956 I thought it would be easier to live my husband’s life than my own. He knew he wanted to be a lawyer. I only knew I wanted to escape, while pleasing my critical, fearful mother. What’s more, protecting my virginity proved tiresome.
Now at 84, I can give you a dozen reasons why I made the choice to become unsingle before I became a person. I could have given you at least a half-dozen reasons in 1980 when, three children and four houses later, I finally divorced my first husband. But during most of those 25 unsingle years, I depended on him for money and social status. I prepared his dinner at the same time every night and listened to him play the Carpenters on the record player after our family finished eating. Our conversations revolved around his career.
I pretended to listen. Even when he repeated his stories, which he often did. The law interested me less than books, poetry and tennis. More important, my first husband didn’t make me laugh. He didn’t get who I was.
I can’t blame him entirely for that. I didn’t know who I was either.
I knew I loved my children. I enjoyed listening to them laugh and watching them grow. I even liked decorating my house and giving dinner parties. But there was a huge part of me that needed to grow as well. I didn’t know how to do that and my first husband couldn’t have been less interested in my plight. He told me he had given me the perfect life and couldn’t begin to understand my dissatisfaction.
During 15 of the almost 25 years I stayed married to my first husband, I had sex on and off with other men. Even though my husband knew about these activities, they helped me to pretend that I had a life of my own. They also provided me with new spaces and fantasies of different lifestyles. My sexual escapades either ended in disappointment or flight.
Finally, when my third child started kindergarten, I went back to college and then graduate school. When I got my first teaching job, I left my first husband.
My story is not original. Many women in my generation did the same.
Here’s where my story gets odd. Even though my friends told me I was unmarketable, too old to be pulled off the hook, another man found me – and I responded to him – almost immediately after I separated from my first husband. I guess he smelled my insecurity, my need for a partner. He wasn’t rich but he was creative and exciting.
Less than a year after I left my first husband, I moved into my second husband’s house and began to live his life. It turned out to be more like the life I wanted, but I didn’t choose it. His house and woodstove and family furniture already existed before I moved in. We both loved teaching and our creative lives. My second husband planted a garden that encompassed almost an acre. He also painted watercolors, mostly landscapes.
I loved my second husband’s work and thought he looked handsome doing it.
He criticized my writing and tried to teach me how to write better. He also wanted to improve my tennis serve and the ridiculous way I cast a fishing line. I paid the bills and tried to maintain some semblance of order in our hectic lives. He was a gourmet cook and prepared an artistic dinner nightly. I peeled tomatoes from our garden and made sauce. We stayed married for twenty years until he died of metastatic bladder cancer.
When he died, I didn’t think I could live without him. I had mythologized him as immortal.
At the age of 65, after my second husband died and I cleared his flannel shirts and workpants out of the closet and his tools out of the basement, I began to search secretly for another man. Six months after my second husband’s death, in terrible loneliness, I emailed an old boyfriend. Nine months after my second husband’s death, I called a widower in the community even though I found him boring. A year and a half after my second husband’s death, I signed up with a dating service.
Why? I had lived an unsingle life for 47 years and had certainly experienced my share of the prizes and pitfalls of romance. I was lucky enough to have 3 children and 6 grandchildren I loved. I had tennis friends, writing group friends, and friends I took long walks with to talk about my life and theirs. I lived in a comfortable house with a garden and a paid-off mortgage. Even though I was finishing my career as a public high school teacher, I still had opportunities to teach and write. Practically speaking, I had enough money and medical insurance to take care of myself.
My sex drive was not as strong as it had been in my twenties or even my forties. Besides, I had learned to satisfy my own sexual needs. Why did one of my needs include continuing to be the female half of a heterosexual couple? Why did I feel uncomfortable sitting alone in the back seat of a car when couple-friends drove me to a restaurant or a concert? Why did I focus on so many smiling women accepting gifts from men in the pages I turned in magazines?
My second offering from the dating service produced my third longtime partner. When I met him, he told me he wanted to travel the world with me. That turned out to be true. Although he lied about his age, he had the energy of a younger man. He adored me and thought I was beautiful. I had never felt that kind of acceptance before.
We saw ourselves as a couple – and the world saw us that way – even though we never married. He died at almost 92, 12 years after we met. I expected him to die. I lived closer to mortality by then.
I don’t know if I decided after he died that I would live alone for the remainder of my life or if life decided that for me. I’m an octogenarian. I have a botched hip replacement and don’t get around without a walker. Good-looking men are not knocking down my door. But I’m not looking for them, either.
Now after more than 4 years living alone, even through the isolation of the pandemic, I select my own television series and watch as many episodes each night as I want. I do sun salutations and downward facing dogs in the middle of the living room without making excuses, and I talk on the phone without thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner – or if it’s time to put a potato in the oven.
Sliding glass doors in my apartment overlook the Pacific Ocean; and even though the roar of motorcycles and blare of sirens on the street below me obscure my idyllic picture, I can still sit in the sun on my balcony, dip carrots into hummus, and watch couples take a walk or sails skim the water.
Sure, there are gray days. Framed photographs of my second husband and my third longtime partner smile side by side on my bedroom dresser. I look at them regularly and smile back.
But at night when I pour myself a glass of wine, I lift the glass and say, “Cheers, Joyce.” At times during the day I tell myself how well I’m doing, the way I used to tell the men I lived with all those unsingle years. Sometimes I even say, “I love you” out loud, just to myself, which I had always waited for someone to say to me.
Maybe I’ve finally lived long enough to know who I am.
Joyce Greenberg Lott’s poem “After Edward Hopper’s Painting The Nighthawks” was published in RavensPerch this past year. Finishing Line Press published her two poetry chapbooks, “Dear Mrs. Dalloway” and “An Unexpected World.” Her prose has appeared in Ms. Magazine and The Writer’s Chronicle. This year she was honored with a Pushcart nomination from U.S. 1 Worksheets for her poem “After Grant Wood’s Gothic.” Passager 2020 Poetry Contest published her poem, “Noreen.”