What’s Even Worse Than Being Single in a Room Full of Couples?

Miron Cristina

Oh, I’ll tell you what’s worse. Having your friends seat you next to their cat at the dinner table.

I can’t do this. Stay sitting with all of these laughing couples. So I go to my room and lie in bed.

Come up with a better mantra, Leslie, a positive one.

OK. How about, I love myself is a stretch.

“I’m having a mid-life affair with myself,” I once told Lauren, my therapist, when I found myself single after more than two decades of being married. Lauren liked that line so much that she’s brought it up a few times now. Wonderful, she tells me! I should feel good that I’m self-actualizing, getting to know myself, no longer people-pleiggyasing, no longer self-effacing and hiding, not always accommodating.

Talking with actual people is way too much to bear

Tonight, after a dinner in a room full of people without masks, the sheer enormity of being surrounded with all of those faces — talking, talking, talking — is too much.

“Jim, look, you’re painting is here in the house,” says one woman to a handsome man in his sixties. “You’re famous.”

“No,” says Tom with a smile. “Bryan is a far more famous artist than I am.”

“Jim,” says another woman, “I have one of your prints hanging in my house.”

“Wow,” I say, me the accommodating, people-pleasing woman, even after my affair with myself, and even though I do like the painting of a mountain. “You did that beautiful painting of the mountain?” (Cue the Greek female chorus chanting: “Jim, Jim, Jim!”) Jim presses his crossed palms against his chest, tilts his head, and smiles, showing off brilliant white teeth.

“That one was a long time ago,” he says, turning to his beautiful wife who never leaves his side. “But that was one of your favorite ones, wasn’t it? You didn’t want me to sell it, did you?”

“No,” she says in a whisper, “I didn’t.”

So many couples

Let me back up. I’m at this fanciful seven-bedroom barge in a remote Northern California coastal hippie town with friends. We have met here once a year for years to this magnificent house where at high tide the Pacific Ocean flows underneath us, making us feel safe at sea.

My friends are all in long-term marriages, most together over 30 years, and over the years they came to the barge with their nuclear families intact: spouses and children. For years, I did the same, coming here with my nuclear unit: husband and wife, son and daughter. We fit in perfectly.

“Why do I keep finding myself on blind dates with cats?”

But that all changed when my husband and I separated over four years ago. (For privacy sake, I’ll call my husband “Jake”.) We’d been “Jake and Leslie.” Actually, my identity was entrenched with “Jake and Leslie“ as if that was one of my nicknames. Now, it’s just me, Leslie. Strange. I’m still not used to being a plus no one.

My best date ever. He was a cat. But a good cat.

The first time I saw this group of friends as a single person wasn’t at the barge, but at one of their homes for a multi-family dinner. Having no spouse for me to sit next to, my friend sat me next to Oscar, their cat. “Leslie, shake Bruce’s paw,” she said. I shook Bruce’s paw. He had a firm and confident grip. “Give him a piece of chicken, like this, and he’ll turn around.” Bruce did. “Give him another and tell him to go on his hind legs.” Bruce was so talented, a very good date, one of my best ever. But he was a cat.

Now, at the barge, they have a new cat because Bruce died. Yet again, like me, Ziggy Wilder is also uncoupled and aptly named. He is a wild and clever kitten, more cartoon cat than real one. He’s constantly arching his back dramatically, shooting up into the air two feet, and running sideways. For a stretch each night, Ziggy gets the kitten crazies and transforms into a four-pound demon. Last night, we were watching in which a nature photographer, having a midlife crisis, falls in love with a brilliant octopus. They hold hands. Well, one of her hands, her tentacles brushing tenderly across his bare arm in sun-dappled, swaying kelp forest.

I’d seen the movie before. I couldn’t bear staying for the denouement, so I left before a shark took a bite out of the octopus. But I didn’t leave soon enough from my roomy armchair, room enough for another person, or a cat. If I had made my escape a minute early, I would have escaped the sharp, baby teeth and Edward Scissorhands claws of Mr. Wilder, who tried to take a bite out of me. He jumped up on my seat and dug his claws and teeth into my arm, hoping to play Kill the Antelope in the Savannah. I tossed Ziggy onto the carpet but he came right back at me. My friend, Ziggy’s human mom, is an excellent person with animals and firmly told Ziggy to stop and he did. Smart cat. Smart octopus. Even so, whether you run into it in a kelp forest or a living room, nature is violent. You would always do better to remember this.

Set up with, yup, yet another cat.

Back to tonight. Now that we’re all vaccinated, people can be together again. More friends of my friends stop by for cocktails, so by now, there are five couples. The adult son of one friend stops by. Otherwise, it’s all couples, plus Ziggy and me. Why do I keep finding myself on blind dates with cats?

Having been in my house for a year with mostly only my teenage daughter, I’m not used to being around a lot of people, and certainly not unmasked. None of us are, I suppose. I haven’t been drinking for almost a half year but tonight, I clutch a glass with only an elephant’s teardrop of wine and skulk around a bowl of chips and dip. When I come face-to-face with someone, I pull out my divining rod in search of commonalities that will keep the conversation afloat:

I am normally curious about people and interested in their stories, but tonight I find talking exhausting and uncomfortable. I don’t know if it’s because I forgot to bring my Zoloft on our getaway, and now, two days in the lack of antidepressants, I have little to no ammo to shield me from my spinning. Or is it the shellshock of being with people again as we emerge from pandemic life?

Where is my person to rescue me when I give the “Help me” look?

Or is it feeling self-consciously single in a crowd of couples? With all of these nice, smart people — even my daughter is here with her boyfriend — I’m feeling sorry for myself. I don’t have a person, my person, who is there when I look across the room and, if need be, widen my eyes in that, “Help me” look. Not that conversation with anybody here you’d need to be saved from. Everybody here is are thoughtful, kind, nature-loving people who’ve spent purposeful lives as artists, teachers, scientists, and environmentalists.

Even surrounded by all this bonhomie, I want to run and hide, which is what I do without apology after we sing “Happy Birthday” and eat slices of chocolate birthday cake my friend made for her husband. I go to my room that looks like a ship’s cabin with a real porthole. I put on pajama bottoms and excellent Diana Kane “FEMINIST” t-shirt that, in this house, is a challenge to those representing the non-distaff side of all these hetero pairings. I get into bed and instead of finishing a somber Joan Didion essay, I start scrolling Instagram and scanning my recent history, two favorite single-life pastimes.

So much took place within the last few years that unmoored me. Most especially the deaths of my lifelong anchors, my father and mother, sent me down this singular path, and suddenly, life’s intensities didn’t permit me to coast anymore. I was so thrown off course it was as if I was seeing through a new pair of eyes. Forever after had seemed unassailable. Suddenly, what lent my life purpose and gave it shape seemed an illusion. I was forced to wake up.

But I want to go back to sleep. Earlier in the day, a sparkling spring Sunday, I slept most of the afternoon here in the dark ship’s cabin. Not because I was tired, but because I couldn’t bring myself to do anything that didn’t, ultimately, lead to feeling sad. .

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