During the New York stop of D’s and my nine-day, four-city Extreme East Coast Adventure, we landed for a couple of nights at my brother, sister-in-law and niece’s Park Slope brownstone.
The day before, D had met a few of my numerous New York relatives—mother, one grandmother, one brother—but not yet F, my sister-in-law. (I feel obliged to note that, for her, this title seems distinctly weak: I have known F since she was seventeen and I was five: throughout my childhood she took to regularly supervising my backyard birthday parties—from kimonos to tie-dyes, bless her then-teenage heart.)
And that afternoon–considering F’s lifetime of childcare, it was the least I could do–D and I picked up S, my seven-year-old niece, from elementary school–and, by way of a chaotic playground on 7th Avenue and a slightly calmer stop for Italian Icies on 5th (rainbow for the kid, lemon for us), brought her home.
A little while later, D was downstairs starting a load of laundry when F walked in the house, home from an afternoon pedicure up the block.
She looked down to see S and I sprawled on the hardwood living room floor with sharpies and construction paper, books and scissors, glue sticks and stickers–but no D.
“Where is he!?” she stage-whispered, still only partway through the door.
“Huh?” I looked up, reluctant to distract from my intense focus on the startingly Herculean task S had just charged me with: drawing a cat.
“The boyfriend! I haven’t seen him and I don’t believe he exists!”
“Really??” I said, playing drama for drama. But in all honesty the comment hardly came as a surprise. Sometimes I even doubt that D exists. For so long I was single, a person without a boyfriend, that it’s been no small adjustment to begin thinking of myself differently–as someone with a real, live, human being of a partner who sometimes steps away to put his things in the wash.
This awkward adjustment showed itself during another moment of our trip, too, earlier in the week. When we were in DC I visited NPR, my old employer, to record a minute-long segment for their “sound of summer” series–and to say hi and catch up with old coworkers.
The night before D and I had gone out for beers with a few of my friends, including one former NPR colleague, B. But that day I flew solo, while D spent time with his close college friend.
B happened to walk by the production desk as I was chatting with G and C, a producer and editor I used to work with–back when I lived in DC, worked at NPR, and spent three years very, very single.
I’m sure it was no accident that I managed to mention, during our conversation, that I was traveling with my boyfriend.
As B walked by, probably on his way to record or edit something important about tornadoes or tyranny, I stopped him: “B met him!” I pronounced, by way (I thought) of assurance for G and C. “My boyfriend! He really does exist!”
Both of them laughed uncomfortably. “Great!” G said. “Now we have two sources!”
I realized then, that, unlike F, it had not occurred to them to doubt the authenticity of my relationship. Sure, I was single when they knew me. But people move on, move cities, meet people, get boyfriends. Happens all the time. Why should they be skeptical? More importantly, why should I think they should be skeptical?
Of course, I shouldn’t.
Old news department: there’s a stigma to being single. It’s hard not to be conscious of the way people view you, and let that shape how you view yourself: when you’re single, it’s often as someone lesser, as someone who isn’t good or attractive or accommodating enough to make it work with someone else.
It’s bullshit, obviously. Because when you meet someone you like–and become not someone who is single but someone who is attached–you’re still the same person you were before. (Just, hopefully, with a more satisfying sex life.)
And yet, you are viewed so differently.
I recently had a conversation about a family friend who has always had a hard time figuring himself out. And yet, I suggested, people around him have never felt too worried–because he’s always had a girlfriend. That doesn’t mean he’s made any more progress than the next (single) guy in finding a path for his own career and life. But being in relationships lends the appearance of stability, of some sort of competence: if she (read: someone) is willing to be with him, he must be okay.
To have joined the ranks of people who are “attached” feels like having gained some sort of newfound privilege. I can go out as a couple now, with other couples, do couple-y things, together! And even if I feel existentially lost or professionally stifled, people will be less likely to judge me!
Perhaps it’s because this notion of transformation is so absurd that I feel so reluctant to accept it. I might have a boyfriend–one who, most of the time, I recognize as flesh and blood–but I still can’t help but think of myself as a fraud. As someone who, really, is still single.
Or at least, someone who other people think of that way. Even when (usually) they don’t.