After splitting from her husband of 25 years, Bernadette Murphy wanted companionship, but quickly realized she had no idea how to date anymore.
Some women flirt by sending pictures of themselves in scanty little underthings to the man they’re hoping to attract. Men do this, too—even Congressmen. “Sexting” is most prevalent though, the media tells us, among teen girls. And that’s exactly what I’m feeling like. Only, instead of texting racy photos of myself, apparently, I send pictures of homemade soup.
Or at least, that’s what I would be doing if my friends weren’t actively trying to stop me.
I separated from my husband of 25 years a few months ago. After living with bone-crushing aloneness within that relationship for a decade, followed by months actively grieving that loss, I found myself ready for some companionship. Not a relationship per se—this business of being on my own and caring only for myself is intriguing and I’m learning too much to want to abandon it. I wasn’t interested in Match.com, nor a friends-with-benefits setup. But a date now and again might be a nice thing.
Or so I thought until I went on the one and only date I’ve had (outside that marriage) in the last quarter century. As a friend of mine put it to me later, &mmp;ldquo;Dating is like adding Miracle-Gro to every character defect you possess.”
He asked me to dinner. We spent three hours chatting, making connections, occasionally flirting, a bit of hand-holding. I enjoyed myself. I found him attractive and decided he was someone I wanted to know better. But the evening ended abruptly. He needed to get home, he said, suddenly slammed with exhaustion. He’d mentioned earlier that he was afraid he might be coming down with something. A goodnight kiss so quick I hardly knew it occurred ended things and that was that. I went home satisfied and pleased with myself. It had gone well; I had experienced my first post-marriage date and had walked through it with impunity. I felt like an adult.
He posted a smiley face on my Facebook page an hour after the date; I went to sleep content. But when he didn’t call or text the next day, I started to stew. Perhaps I’d read things wrong. I soon decided that pending illness hadn’t ended the evening brusquely. The truly flawed nature of my being must have somehow become visible. He’d glimpsed it over those three hours and had high-tailed it out of there as fast as he could.
Bam! With no warning whatsoever, I was 13 again, certain that the “cool kids” would never let me join their group, listening as they said, of course they’d love to come to my birthday party while harboring no intention whatsoever of showing up. I was certain I’d made a fool of myself, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how or where. I came up with possibilities. He was four years younger. What had I been thinking? Who would possibly want to go out with a woman four years his senior? He was talented, smart, and handsome. Who did I think I was to believe, even for an instant, that someone like that would be interested in me? I’d asked him some pretty blunt questions; writers are always looking for the story behind the story. Maybe he thought I’d been interrogating him. The litany went on. Had there been food on my teeth? Mascara under my eyes? Every insecurity I’d ever even glancingly known began to holler like a banshee.
I found this odd and disconcerting because in my regular life, I’m a content and competent woman. I am educated and smart; I work as a graduate-school professor and author. My students think I’m amazingly cool because I ride a Harley. I run marathons and climb mountains. I am interested in life, engaged, and curious. I am not a shrinking violet.
So why, then, this instant and deeply convincing I-am-flawed response? Is this the core shame at the center of every human, that hideous inner knowledge we spend as much of our lives as possible trying to keep hidden? Was I the only one who felt like this? And how, please God someone tell me how, was I to be free of it?
I sat with the feelings, talked them out with friends, meditated, and decided that the dating experience was here primarily to teach me about myself. I was already learning what I might one day want in a partner (if I were ever to decide I’d like to be partnered again), what I didn’t want, what I found attractive, what bored me, and had come to appreciate how much I enjoyed my own company. But I still felt off-balance. And obsessed. I checked email regularly, looked at my Facebook page, hunted for texts that might have somehow been overlooked. Could I have been so wrong about the chemistry?
I had foolishly thought that a date now and again would enliven my life, would give me something to look forward to, a reason to buy a new blouse, a more active social life. I was old enough, experienced enough, and happy enough on my own to not take any of it too seriously. It would all be good, clean fun.
I began to consider how little experience I’d had in this realm. My dating history, if all pulled together, added up to about a nanosecond. I’d started dating at 16 and had experienced nothing but messed-up, far-too-dependent-on-each-other pairings from that first time out the gate until the day I married at 24. I had been that girl—you know, the one who thought she needed a man. Alcohol and drug addiction didn’t help the toxic brew. But now, with 23 years of sobriety behind me, a lot of emotional and spiritual growth to my credit, a very strong sense of who I am, and what talents I bring to the larger world, I still had no clue how to date.
A day and a half after our dinner, he sent another smiley face via email. What was I to make of that? I wanted to reach through the screen and grab him by the throat: Explain yourself!
A few hours later he posted on his Facebook page that he’d come down with the flu the night of our date. I felt immediate and overwhelming relief: Oh good, it wasn’t me!
No sooner had I heaved a sigh of relief when the caretaker in me kicked in. He needed chicken soup! I should make some immediately. I would put on my Florence Nightingale uniform and zip over to his place and nurse him back to health. The feel of my hand on his fevered brow would certainly do the trick and he’d realize I was the woman he’d long been looking for.
All this occurred in the time it took to blink my eyes. And lest we lose track of things, let me remind you (and me) that this was a man I hardly knew and by no means was planning a relationship with. I just didn’t want to be on the receiving end of a rejection. I started making a shopping list of ingredients needed, figuring out how I’d juggle the rest of the day’s activities to allow time for shopping, cooking, driving, and nursing—when I stopped myself. What was I doing? This was ridiculous!
My impulse, during my dating years and all the married ones, was to care for other people, including our three kids. On some level, I had grown to believe that I was loveable only to the degree that I had earned the love. It was only recently, since I’d been living on my own and encountering my friends and colleagues as a single person, that I had begun to see how deeply loved and appreciated I was by the people in my life, love given to me as a grace, without merit. I didn’t need to “earn” love. I was loved.
What would happen, I began to wonder, if I put that same nurturing energy I wanted to share with this man into myself?
As long as I had chicken soup on the brain (and, I reasoned, the healing properties of this soup might keep me from getting the flu I had marginally been exposed to), I went to the store and bought the ingredients for the best chicken soup ever, along with a baguette of crusty sourdough. I chopped and boiled and minced and peeled. My kitchen filled with the aroma of love: love for myself. I have cooked hundreds of pots of chicken soup in my life and yet this was the first time I made chicken soup expressly for me.
So why couldn’t I leave it at that? I enjoyed the soup and then had to email my sick acquaintance and offer to bring some over. I almost went so far as to add a photo of that lovely pot of soup but, thank God, good sense and friends who love me intervened. He hasn’t written back to accept or reject this over-the-top offer and the turmoil in my head has begun again: He can see the flaws! Oh man: I’m so broken.
I’m working to let it go. Meanwhile, I’m gobbling up the soup, enjoying the baguette dotted with salty lumps of butter and dipped in the piquant broth. Maybe dating isn’t for me, or maybe not yet. Or maybe this is just the nature of putting ourselves out there. I’m trying to figure out how to not wade in so deep, so fast next time.
Rule #1: When I feel the impulse do something for “him” (whomever he might be), I will look at my own life and ask if that nurturing thing is something I need to do for myself. I have no confidence whatsoever that this tactic will work, but I hope to try.
Rule #2: When in doubt, I will remind myself of my assets. Even when I’ve done that, though, I still can’t stop checking email like an obsessed idiot, as if the concreteness of my assets requires someone else to confirm them.
Rule #3: The next time I’m tempted to go too far, I’ll try texting myself a photo of my glorious chicken soup. It may not help with fighting sickness or bolstering self-esteem, but honestly, it can’t hurt.
Currently writing Don’t Call Me Biker Chick, a book about women, risk-taking and motorcycles, Bernadette Murphy has published three books of narrative nonfiction and teaches creative writing at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program.