Changing the Sheets
I’m walking into La Strada, a little Italian joint in Merrick, Long Island, on a Wednesday evening, when I see this guy who I think is Steven, slim, gray, and about 5’10, standing beside the bar on his cell phone. I hear him speaking to someone about contracts and inspections. I’m guessing he’s buying a house, or selling one, which is a good thing, because currently, he’s living with his ex. (I know this because he told me on the phone after we emailed and exchanged numbers, after we saw each other’s profiles on Match.com, and after one of us made the first move—that was me.) She’s not officially his ex, by the way. Not yet, anyway, but soon. Soon.
He’s attractive, more attractive than his pictures, and so far, he seems nice. But, then again, so am I, and I just want to get this show on the road because this first-date ritual is just an initial job interview, after all. To make it past that all-important first round, you need to keep it short and keep your baggage close. Being with me, for example, and my nineteen-year-old son who’s still living at home—we have our issues—would be like working overtime for half the pay. Not sure Steven would be up for the gig, so I’m definitely not going to share all that tonight. Not on the first date. Maybe next week. Maybe.
He finally ends the call. We make eye contact—he’s got lovely luscious brown eyes—and shake hands. He apologizes for the delay, I make note of his good manners, and then we sit at a cozy table against the left wall of the dining room and order red wine with our pasta. My dish has eggplant and red sauce—I’m a vegetarian —and his has chicken. Meeting for dinner like this is unusual. Could it be a sign?
I rarely do dinner on first dates, but when Steven mentioned he had a Groupon, I thought, what the heck. Coffee is safer, always much safer, because Starbucks offers a quick escape. Not that I fear bodily harm—I always arrive and leave in my own car—I just hate wasting time, stuck in a going-nowhere conversation with a man with whom there is no click. But I feel a click here tonight, not a love at first sight thing, more like an “I’ll give it another go.” I’m kind of liking Steven’s gentle vibe and his smile.
He talks about his three kids—two of whom he says are “profoundly” deaf. Just as I’m wondering what exactly that means, he starts to tell me about the youngest. That one acts and sings in plays—high school plays. Steven tells me that he never misses a performance, which is sweet, I guess, but I’m already thinking of all the times I begged my own kids not to join school band because I couldn’t bear to go and sit in the school auditorium on those hard wooden chairs for the spring and Christmas concerts to hear a bunch of elementary school kids play the trumpet or the sax off key. I mean, wasn’t chorus enough?
So, I’m not Mother of the Year, but Steven’s not looking for a mother, and I’m not in the market for a son. We decide to meet again, on Saturday this time, the coming Saturday, at Governor’s in Levittown, a local comedy club. The guy likes to laugh. So do I. (I put that in my Match profile, by the way, something ridiculous like “make me laugh and you’ll win my heart.” I know it’s incredibly corny but it’s true—and it’s been such a long time since I’ve had a good laugh.)
I’ve never had to play the dating game before. My first husband—who was very funny by the way—was also my childhood sweetheart. We had been together since I was fifteen, that is, until eight years ago. It was eight years ago, in November, that my first husband was in a car accident. He died. You know, life really can change in an instant. Ours did. Bang. Boom. Gone. But now, and I’m not quite sure why it’s taken me this long, now, after eight years of sharing my bed with my dogs, I’ve decided it’s time for me to rejoin the living. I’ve decided it’s time to join Match.com.
Being a fifty-year-old woman on Match, I quickly learned, is a lot like looking to buy prime real estate in a great school district on a limited budget. You just might have to settle for a foreclosure. Most men my age or older (or even much older) tend to limit their search parameters to the magic number “49.” A man, let’s face it, may be in his 60s and still see himself as a major catch for a hot younger woman—his daughter’s age, for example—while the woman, the hot, young woman, he convinces himself, will still love him for his mind. Online dating really is like searching for the perfect home. You start out with big hopes and bigger dreams but quickly land right back down on earth—with a thud. There are always concessions: would you rather have the extra half bath off the first-floor hallway or the bay window in the living room facing the street? I know it’s tough, but you must make a decision. Darling, when you’re over 50, you simply can’t have them both.
Would I choose the man who studies numerology and swears that the numbers in our names—I always thought they were letters—made us the perfect match? Or the man who is great fun, who had been married to a woman who had two kids from a previous marriage, kids he put through college? That guy is very generous. So generous, in fact, he had also paid for an apartment in Manhattan for a woman he was seeing on the side. She was young (I rest my case) and couldn’t afford an apartment on her own. I guess you could say the guy’s generous to a fault. Maybe more than one fault, come to think of it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve made some blunders in this dating game, too. There was one man I really wanted to meet. We had spoken on the phone a few times. He sounded so handsome—I think it was the music in his voice. He was quirky, genuine, and kind. But I called him one night after having dinner with a friend, where I guess I had one, or one too many, before the main dish came. So, I told this man whom I wanted to meet, this man I really wanted to meet, told him exactly what was in my heart: “I just want someone to rescue me.” Yes. I actually said that—and that was the last time we spoke.
“I just want someone to rescue me.” Isn’t that the real American dream? Someone who sees you in distress and wants you anyway. Someone who can look beyond the very messes you’ve made and is not afraid. He doesn’t have to be tall, or dark, or especially good-looking. He just has to want me, love me, and lift me out of my life.
I will learn soon, as I suspect even now, that fairy tales do not come true. I will learn that it is I who must be my own knight—strong and gentle with myself. I must accept who I am and the bed that I’ve made. And learn I can always change the sheets.
I will see Steven again on Saturday, this Saturday, and we will laugh at the local comedians on the Long Island stage and smile at our good fortune. We will think that we’re on to something here.
Two years later, we will marry in a ceremony on the beach, with dear friends and family all coming together to wish us the best. I will have gotten to know his kids—I will even go to one of his youngest’s high school plays—and he will have gotten to know mine. (He and my nineteen-year old will have become great friends.) And I will have learned to breathe. And he will have learned to trust. And we will create a new life together, in a teeny, tiny house by the Long Island Railroad. And that house will vibrate whenever a train passes by. But we will have built a sturdy enough foundation to withstand a few shakes. And we will laugh, at the world, at ourselves, at the crazy way we met—we still won’t have gotten used to the concept of clicking for love—and we will say “thank you” for today and “please” for tomorrow. And that’s the happily-ever-after that will be mine. And it is better than any fairy tale I ever thought I wished for. Because this is not a dream, American or otherwise. It is real—I can touch it—and when I wake up, it will still be there.
Diane Gottlieb, MSW, MEd, received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where she served as lead editor of creative nonfiction for Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, VIDA Review, The Hedgehog Review Blog, Hippocampus Magazine, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Entropy, among others. You can also find her bi-weekly musings at https://dianegottlieb.com.