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In my mid twenties, I thought about this a lot: when my mom was my age, she was married. She was settling down with what was supposed to be her forever husband while I was still roaming through the wilderness.
My college boyfriend wanted to marry me. He was nice enough, but he was nice in a way that was suffocating. He didn’t think I should—or could—do any of the things I wanted to do, like go to grad school or apply to Teach for America. As we were breaking up, he told me that I had great dreams and all, but that I was too ambitious. I would never be a successful writer or actress and it was about time I faced up to that.
“You’re smart,” he said, “and talented, but just not enough.”
And what I heard was this: you are not enough.
He said this as we were breaking up, so they were probably words uttered out of spite. But still, they stuck with me, especially out in in the real world when success didn’t roll into my lap like I’d thought it would. Every time I ended up in another stupid job wherein I had a boss—usually a man—who treated me like I was an idiot, I’d wonder if I hadn’t made some colossal mistake in not settling down. I’d given up what could have been a life of “perfectly mediocre and occasionally happy” in order to chase a dream that probably was too ambitious.
I didn’t want to be like this. I wanted to be hard. I wanted to care more about myself than I did men. I wanted to be a raging 21st century woman who didn’t need to be loved. I never considered that the more sensible option would be to be a raging 21st century woman who knew that she deserved to be loved.
Meanwhile, my childhood acquaintances, the ones I thought were so stupid and so simple and so, well, boring were getting married. They’d post happy mason jar and burlap wedding pictures, and I’d hate them. I’d go to Wine Wednesday with my girlfriends and down glass after glass of cheap merlot while we all decried the futures we imagined we were doomed to inherit, futures filled with loneliness and cats and our stupid, unfulfilling jobs.
But no, I’d say, ever the optimist. Better days await! Our jobs will get better! We’ll find men who are as smart and as driven as we are and who are ok with us being smart and driven! And these men will be better than the boys we’ve walked away from.
And then I found one and he walked away from me.
My friend came downstairs looking both tired and peeved yet still beautiful, like a renaissance Madonna.
“Sorry,” she said. “He was fussy. He didn’t want to go down.”
Her husband got up to get her a beer, which she took like a life preserver.
Jimmy, on his third beer by then and obviously feeling more confident, turned to me with the twinkle of a question in his eye. I jumped up from the sofa and announced a bit too loudly that I needed to go home and feed my cat.
“I’ll walk you to your car,” Jimmy offered.
“I’m fine!” I said, and I flew through my goodbyes and thank yous to my friend and her husband so quickly that I figured Jimmy would not have a chance to get up. I’d been rude or at least brusque, but whatever. It was better for him to get the picture now. Because surely, he had. Surely, he knew where we stood.
But then, as I stood outside my car and fumbled with my keys, I heard a door open. I turned around and there was Jimmy, beer in hand, asking for my number.
“I’ve really got to go,” I said.
“But it’ll just take a second.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t.”
I climbed into my car and drove off, but not before I watched the goofy grin Jimmy had been sporting all evening cloud over into a bitter sneer. Even in the dim light of the summer sunset, I could see in his eyes the look that men give when they are thinking about what a fucking bitch you are.
My ex-boyfriend thought I was a bitch. He didn’t say it, but he thought it. I knew because he’d give me that look like a door had slammed shut in some passageway where his eyes connected to his brain.
And I could be a bitch. I was, for one thing, quite jealous. My ex was more successful than I was. If I’d been more mature, I would have been happy for him. But I was not mature. I was in my early twenties; I was a child, and I loved him the way that children love, with a tight fist and a starving, greedy belly.
Then of course there was this: he was a man succeeding in a man’s world, while I was a woman trying and wanting desperately to succeed in that same world and failing.
But I never considered the context of my life in this way. I never imagined that my failures might also have something to do with my environment. I never considered the penalty of being a woman.
Later that night, as I lay in bed beside the man with whom I had been trying to hook up, a man who was just interesting enough that he would distract me from my sadness for the next few weeks, if not the rest of the summer, I thought about Jimmy and his persistence in the face of my obvious disinterest.
I told the man about it as he traced his fingers down my back, across skin that had just months before been touched by a different man, a man that I had loved, that I still loved. The new man laughed and shook his head.
“I just don’t get it,” I said. “I did everything I could to show him that we weren’t right for each other, but he kept at it.”
“That’s just how men are about pretty women,” he said. “Someone looks like you, nothing else matters.”
I thought for a moment about resting my head on the man’s chest and looking up at him, about making a face that would somehow make him love me, and that by virtue of his love, I might love him back. I thought about softening my edges, about becoming the kind of woman that men actually stayed with, of filling my brain with the kind of sunshine thoughts that would make me a sunshine person, a sunshine woman, sunshine girl.
Instead, I rolled away from him and pretended to fall asleep. I thought about my mother, who told me once when I was thirteen or fourteen that if I was too picky when it came to men, I would end up alone and wouldn’t that be terrible? Ten years later, when she found out that my father had spent the better part of their marriage having affairs, she had different ideas. There are much worse things, she told me then, than ending up alone.
But when you are twenty-five and the world stretches wide ahead of you, and the promise of night after empty night screams out like a wild creature from the depths, you close your eyes and make compromises that you know are mistakes because you live in a place and a time that has taught you how to rage and that has taught you how to compromise but that has never taught you how to be alone.