Friday evening, 8 p.m., early summer, New York City. I sit at my desk, face aglow in Macintosh luminescence. On the desk sits the detritus of the hour, of the day, the week, the season. There is dinner of sushi in the little takeout tray from the supermarket. There is leftover coffee in a mug from the afternoon. There are books and notebooks and checkbooks. There are pens and lip balms and hair ties and postage stamps and unmatched earrings and a MetroCard. There are a gazillion paper napkins for some reason. There is a computer modem whose lights flash with the irregular, listing cadence of a heart murmur. There are several Word documents up on that glowing screen, each competing for attention, not so much with one another, but with the email interface to which all roads lead back.
It is 1997. It is 2017. It doesn’t matter. It is both. In 20 years, my life has come full circle, 360 degrees for real. People often say 360 degrees when they mean 180. They say full circle when they’re really talking about a semicircle. It’s an oddly human error, as though they can’t quite grasp the concept of a human being turning on an axis as readily as the earth itself. But in my case, it’s true. At 47, my life looks uncannily the same way it did at 27.
How did I get here? Nearly two decades ago, I moved from New York City to the Midwest and then to California, where I came as close to settling down as I’m probably ever going to come, which is to say I got married. Nearly two years ago, the marriage ended, and I got in the car and literally drove through my life in reverse. I drove west to east, backward in time, until I landed right back where I started: alone in a scuff-marked apartment in a clanking old Manhattan building much like the one I occupied in my twenties, eating supermarket sushi at my desk and trying mightily (yes, on a Friday evening) to complete a writing assignment that was due a week ago.
There are a few differences, but they are minor. Because it is 2017 and not 1997, I am writing on a MacBook Air laptop and not a Quadra 650. The modem is wireless rather than dial-up, which means email comes in automatically and my opportunities for screen-based distraction and procrastination exceed anything I could have imagined back then. Thanks to these opportunities, I estimate that my attention span in 2017 is about 30 percent of what it was in 1997. Conversely, my rent back then was 30 percent of what it is now.
Same life, higher rent. This could be the motto of my life after 45. For many years, I had a very different life. I had what is commonly perceived of as a grown-up life, with a husband and a mortgage and a yard that required regular upkeep. There is much to be said for this life. For starters, it’s a lucky thing to find someone you like enough to enlist as a partner for such an endeavor. There’s also no getting around the fact that the gears of the daily grind tend to run smoother when they’re greased with the benefits of coupledom. You never quite realize what a pain it is to drive yourself to every social event you attend until you have someone to share the burden with you. (Second glass of wine? Sure!) You never quite realize how much food you’ve got sitting around on high pantry shelves until there’s someone who can reach it for you — and, in my case, cook it for you.
But even my 1997 self would have told you that the membership associated with these benefits probably wasn’t going to be a lifetime deal. My 1997 self would have suspected, correctly, that such benefits would lead to a severe enough case of impostor syndrome that I would slowly, and very sadly, wend my way back to the life I had before. What I would not have understood were the ways in which this return was less a defeat than a homecoming. I did not know that the life I was living in my twenties, a life I was certain was a temporary condition, was, in fact, the only one for me.
This is not to be confused with my best life or even the life I’m still on some level programmed to believe I want. I’m talking about my situational set point, the version of myself that inevitably swings back into the foreground even if I’ve managed to pretend to be another kind of person for a period of time. It’s like an existential version of that number on the bathroom scale that manages to own you no matter what you do. You can drift above it or claw your way below it, but eventually it’s always there again.
I’ve spent plenty of time over the years fighting my situational set point. I’ve lived with boyfriends and roommates and, of course, my husband. I’ve attempted to keep my desk neat. I’ve given credence to all those studies suggesting that people who live with long-term partners are healthier and live longer than sad solo dwellers who eat while standing over the sink — or, in my case, at my desk. I’ve tried to stick it out. But always, I swing back. Like it or not, this life works for me. I love living alone. I love eating when and where and what I want. I love sleeping when I want and socializing when I want and being able to travel at the last minute without throwing another person’s life out of whack as a result. I love talking to my friends on the phone for hours without worrying about someone in the next room overhearing me and (at least in my imagination) silently judging me for all the cackling gossip and bombastic complaining. I love hosting parties by myself. I love drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning while standing by my window and (did I mention I pay more rent now?) looking out at the barges floating by on the Hudson River.
The forties and fifties are decades in which the goal is to try to maintain whatever operation (child rearing, career building) you got started in your twenties and thirties.
All of that I did and also loved in my twenties. The only difference was that I didn’t realize how much I loved it. Also, my window had a view of a brick wall.
I’ll state the obvious and say that much if not all of the reason my life hasn’t changed is that I’m not a parent. Children are life’s great timekeepers, and when you don’t live with any, you’re at the mercy of your own internal clock, which, like everything else in the body, becomes less reliable with age. In that sense—and probably in several other senses, but who’s counting?—my life is very different than that of most women in their forties, the majority of whom share their personal space with members of future generations and therefore have no trouble distinguishing the past from the present. If I had a kid, I trust I’d have no trouble either. At least I hope I wouldn’t, since eating packaged sushi off a desk that’s covered with hair accessories is no life for a child. Neither is having a routine in which it’s possible for many days to pass in which there is no need to leave the apartment. If I felt like a recluse in my twenties, I’m a bona fide shut-in now. That’s because if I need food or clothing or contact lens solution, I no longer have to go to a store to buy it. I can just click “buy now” and stay home and wait for the mail. This is a huge quality-of-life improvement over having to walk four blocks to CVS.
If the digital age has had a profound impact on my shopping habits, it’s left my social life — at least its romantic iterations — surprisingly untouched. The dating patterns of my 1997 self and my 2017 self are virtually identical, which is to say they’re sporadic, half-hearted, and marked by an attitude that lurches between grouchy and what would now be called DGAF (for the uninitiated, that’s Don’t Give A Fuck, a phrase I rarely use in either long or abbreviated form). In 1997, there were only two ways you could wind up on a date: You could be fixed up by a third party, or you could happen to meet someone in real life, exchange phone numbers, make use of those numbers, and have an actual voice conversation in which a date is proposed and then accepted. Because of all this heavy lifting, it was rare to find yourself in a situation that you might construe as a date — at least for heterosexual women in my social circles, where the underrepresentation of men in general resulted in an overrepresentation of the kind of men who couldn’t be bothered to ask women out. I estimate that throughout my entire twenties, I probably had fewer than 10 proper dates, by which I mean outings with men who called me on the telephone, asked me out, and bought me dinner under less-than-platonic pretenses. In retrospect, I see those men as terribly brave, not only because they had to go through all that heavy telephonic lifting, but also because they had to sit across the table from me, and I was just as grouchy and defeatist about the whole enterprise then as I am today.
In this age of Tinder and Match.com, you can go on seven dates a week, or maybe even twice that many if you have the energy, without having to summon up any courage whatsoever. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’ll never know, because every time I load a dating app onto my phone, I delete it and cancel my subscription after one date. In my first two years back in New York, I joined and quit OkCupid three times and went on three dates in total. The men were perfectly fine, but somehow I could never quite muster enough enthusiasm to see them again. They were interesting and smart and had 20 to 30 more years’ worth of things to talk about than the men I’d dated in my twenties. But they were still no match for the solace of my apartment and the familiar rhythms of my own company. I couldn’t imagine going home with any of them, partly because there’s nothing I like more than going home by myself.
If that sounds like the waning desire of a middle-aged woman, I can tell you that it’s not that at all. I was the same way in my twenties. The relationships I sought out back then were temporary by design, preferably long distance. I had a weakness for men whose unsuitability I could reframe as exoticism, men who didn’t read books or who had troubling political beliefs or, best of all, lived far away and existed mainly as voices over the phone and occasional houseguests. I told myself I wanted a real boyfriend — and I often grew frustrated when these men inevitably stopped going through the motions of acting like one — but in hindsight, I can see I wanted no such thing. I wanted the safety of impermanence. I wanted round-trip excursions on ships whose pleasures were all the sweeter for my knowing that I’d eventually be returned to my home port.