Beyond Romance

The solace of going solo


| November-December 1996



beyond-love

Image by Flickr user: NJ.. / Creative Commons

It’s Sunday morning, and I’m walking up Columbus Avenue in New York City. Couples are coming at me on all sides. They fill the street from building line to pavement edge. Some are clasped together looking raptly into each other’s faces; some are holding hands, their eyes restless, window-shopping; some walk side by side, stony-faced, carefully not touching. I have the sudden conviction that half these people will, in a few months, be walking with someone else now walking on the avenue as half of another couple. Eventually that arrangement will terminate as well, and each man and each woman will once again be staring out the window of a room empty of companionship. This is a population in a permanent state of intermittent attachment. Inevitably, the silent apartment lies in wait.

Who could ever have dreamed there would be so many of us loafing around, those of us between 35 and 55 who live alone? Thirty years of politics in the street opened a door that became a floodgate, and we have poured through in our monumental numbers, in possession of the most educated discontent in history. Yet we seem puzzled, most of us, about how we got here, confused and wanting relief from the condition. We roam the crowded streets in naked expectation of the last-minute reprieve. For us, human density is a requirement. Density alone provides material for the perpetual grouping that is our necessity.

The way I see it, I said yes to this and no to that, and found myself living alone. I never did understand that response itself is choice. For years, my choices were strongly influenced only by what I took to be a grand concern: I was on my guard against the fear of loneliness. It seemed important to me that I sort out the issues of life—work and love—without securing against the terrors of a solitary old age. Fear of loneliness, I maintained, had been responsible for so many unholy bargains made by so many women that fighting the anxiety became something of a piece of politics for me. A position I took with ease, as my understanding of the matter was primitive.

I married in my mid-twenties. My husband and I had been friends, but once we were married we rapidly became locked into other people’s ideas of a husband and a wife. One day we were a pair of serious-minded students putting our small meals on the table together, taking turns washing up, doing the laundry. The next day I was alone in the kitchen with a cookbook while he read the paper in the living room; when he looked up it was to speculate aloud, in the direction of the kitchen, about his work, our future. I grew alarmed, and so did he. Our alarm filled the apartment and became a bane of our existence. This bane held our attention to a morbid degree. We seemed continuously to be brooding on why we were not happy.

We thought of ourselves as enlightened people. The idea had been to go forward into life side by side, facing outward, at the world, but now we found that we faced only inward, each toward the ignorant other. Slowly, the relationship that was meant to serve our lives became our life. The more uncertain we grew the more we protested that love was everything. Nothing, we said, was to come between us and our love. We two would be as one. That was the norm. Deviation from the norm could only unnerve and unsettle.

This policy did not take us to the promised land; it led us further out into the desert. Neither of us, it seemed, was to be allowed an independent impulse. It became habitual for one or the other to complain regularly, “How can you say you love me and want to do that?” Inevitably, what either he or I had wanted to do that so outraged the other was to gratify an interest that served only our own separate selves, a desire the other experienced as excluding and therefore disloyal. But the restriction went against nature: The impulse kept surfacing, like a weed pushing up through concrete.

steve eatenson
6/15/2011 12:10:08 PM

Vivian Gornick, you have traveled your journey and arrived at your truth. And that's OK. You're OK. Rather than staring out your window, you've learned to stare out the real room you occupy, the room within your head, just behind your eyes descending down to the cavity behind your heart. "If you don't think too good, don't think too much." And none of us think too good. Your self-absorption has finally allowed you some insight, it appears. Just get out and walk, look around, smell, feel, see, taste. And for gosh sakes, don't think too much.