As I said in the original post about the triptych, I’ve been teaching my memoir students the triptych form over the last few years. During the first drafts, I encourage writers to use a one-word title that announces the theme that ties the scenes together. Today’s triptych writer is Abigail Carter who took my Writing the Memoir class in 06/07. Her starting word for this triptych was “dating.”
During the time Abby was in the memoir class, she was developing the material that evolved into her book The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow’s Transformation. Published in 2008, Toronto’s Globe and Mail called the book “eloquent and honest” and listed it in its top 100 books of the year. Check out Abby’s blog at AlchemyOfLoss.com. You can also read Abby’s work in the brand new collection We Came to Say.
by Abigail Carter
“Online dating?” I said, trying to keep the sound of horror out of my voice. “No, I haven’t tried that yet…seems too impersonal.” I had never contemplated online dating for myself. I had never even considered dating. I hadn’t dated since I was twenty. Counting on my fingers, I realized that was eighteen years!
“It’s kind of fun,” my colleague was saying. “You write a profile about yourself and then upload a picture and guys look at you and write you an email if they are interested.”
“Wow” I managed, trying to sound positive rather than terrified at the thought. “That sounds easy enough… Has anyone emailed you?” I was looking over her shoulder at her computer screen (during working hours) as she scrolled through the endless pages of mug shots.
“Yeah, I was emailing with this one guy for a week or so and then we went out on a date,” she said. “But since then I haven’t heard from him. I don’t know what happened.” She was trying to sound light hearted, but I could hear the disappointment in her voice.
“I guess that must be a problem…” I trailed off.
“You should try it,” she cheered. “You will have a million guys writing you”.
Months later, after prowling the man-site anonymously, I resolved to write a profile about myself. Artistic? Creative? Smart? Insane? Everything I wrote sounded trite and ridiculous. Tall, smart, 9/11 widow, mother of two, seeks handsome rich prince who is not afraid of ghosts of dead husbands in the closet…someone with nice ears…must have a good giggle and an eclectic sense of humor…
My choices of photos were limited due mostly to the fact that I was the photographer in the family. There was the coy one, with an 18-month old Olivia and my Grandmother cropped delicately out of the picture. Was it still possible to tell that I had a baby who was now seven years old, propped against my hip? Or perhaps I should choose the demure photo; I am in a turtleneck, posing smartly for a corporate newsletter. Where were all my sexy shots? Surely I had a least one? I sneaked glances at the other women’s profiles, to see what I was up against. Even the 50-year old women looked sexier than I could ever imagine being. I settled on the coy-girl-next-door-with-cropped-out-baby-and-grandma-shot. I posted everything to the website and then waited for some kind of response. I got a few horrifying “winks” from a couple of elderly looking types claiming to be forty four, and one from a man who showed only his naked torso in his photo. I browsed the site as though I was in a giant man superstore. Nope, too pudgy. Too short. Smokes. Doesn’t want kids. Weird bulbous nose. Can’t spell. I couldn’t do this. I was too picky. But then one caught my eye. Widowed architect, loves to garden, lives in Manhattan… He was interesting in a sort of geekish way. I spent two weeks working up the nerve to write him an email. What to say? Hello fellow widow person. Isn’t this a strange club to belong to? I am absolutely terrified of dating, and still love my dead husband, but would you be interested in going out with me?
Finally, I wrote him: Hi! (Trying to sound upbeat). Loved your profile. I like to garden too! (Showing common interests) I look forward to hearing from you (positive, yet non-committal). Regards, Abby. I waited for a response. And waited. And waited. And waited. I am still waiting. It was humiliating. Why didn’t he write me back? Was it because I was a widow? Too old? Was my photo too coy? Was it because I lived in New Jersey? (Enough to put off many). I would never know. I retreated from the man-site to lick my wounds. Perhaps I should resort to the traditional bar scene. Hire a babysitter, get all dressed up and hit a bar with a scene. Were bars with scenes listed in the yellow pages? Maybe I should join a church (Does one “join” churches, or was it more of an initiation process where wine and bread was consumed from a kneeling position?) Did single men really go to church? I was skeptical. I had heard that the grocery store was a good way to meet men, but I only ever met other moms and the grocery store pharmacist (who, come to think of it, had been getting awfully friendly lately).
I loathed the idea of letting fate take its natural course and waiting patiently for things to happen to me. I had spent my whole life pretending that I had a hand in how my life was proceeding, that I was a master of my own fate. Arron’s death had proved to me how frivolous fate could be, but I still clung fiercely to my old ways. I wondered why I so desperate to have a man in my life. I had to admit to myself that I was lonely for companionship, plus my kids begged me regularly to have a “new” daddy. I think though, that my biggest motivator towards rushing fate was my determination not to waste a moment of my life. If Arron’s death had taught me anything it was that there wasn’t time to sit around waiting for my life to happen to me. It was up to me to take my life into my own hands. Whatever I desired, be it meeting someone special, (even by the dubious man-site methods) or even just having the experience of getting to know someone new, would be available to me if I just made some effort. I resolved to live my life fully by enriching my life through the people I was determined to meet, no matter how painful the experience may turn out to be.
My palms were sweaty as I maneuvered the car into a space near the coffee shop where I was to meet my…dare I say it…date. Ugh! A date! Could I really do this? Me, on a blind date? It was ludicrous. I sat and breathed for a few minutes staring at my hands on the wheel, trying not to panic. Oh God! The wedding ring! I had forgotten to remove it. What to do? Stuff it in my purse? My bra? The glove compartment? I stared down at my hands admiring the chunky gold band on my left ring finger. It seemed to cling adoringly to my hand. I slid it up my finger a little and the shiny white skin that was revealed seemed to cower like a snail without its shell. I hesitated. Then I pulled the ring all the way off and held it in my hand. I had forgotten how surprisingly heavy it was. My finger seemed naked and lonely. I slipped the ring onto my right hand ring finger, struggling to push it over my knuckle. I held my hands out to survey the effect of such a huge transition. Both hands felt strange and backwards, like they weren’t my hands at all. They seemed sad and alone – the hands of a single woman.
I wiped a tear from the corner of my eye. “I’m sorry Fab.” I had betrayed my husband’s love with my bold, impulsive move. I had done it so unceremoniously, sitting in a car. No music, no pomp, no kisses, no smiles. Just a cold, grey New Jersey December sky to accompany my small ceremony. I recalled a day, not so long ago, when Arron (Fabbo to me) and I were sitting in the car on a warm and sunny Saturday with Carter and Olivia strapped into their car seats in the back. The kids and I had waited in the car while he dashed out and came back clutching a small blue velvet box. He resumed his seat in the driver’s side and opened the box and held the bright, shiny ring up in the sunlight, ready to slip it onto his hand. “Shouldn’t there be a little ceremony, or something?” I had said.
“OK. Here. He handed me the ring. It was a lovely gold band, strong and simple. We had chosen it together as a replacement for the ring he had married me in. His father’s pinky ring, though beautiful with his father’s initials embossed into its pink gold, had proved to be problematic as a wedding ring over the years, given that he wore the ring on his left pinky finger. “I keep getting hit on by gay men!” he had declared one day. I had laughed. “Well, Mr. Homophobe, why don’t we get you a regular ring, one that you wear on your ring finger.” I had offered gently. We were both aware of the potential for my vindication. I had always wanted him to have a regular ring finger wedding ring, but had deferred to his wishes, knowing the sentimentality he held for his father’s ring since his father’s death when Arron was only seventeen. Ironically, I still have his father’s pinky ring. Arron died wearing the new “proper” wedding band.
That Saturday in the car, I slid his new ring slowly onto his ring finger, smiling at him and then kissing him gently when it was in place. For different reasons, we were each pleased at how it looked on his beautiful hands. I knew he was relieved that his ring would no longer label his sexual preference. For me, Arron’s hands had been one of the first parts of him that I had fallen in love with – strong, creative, sensitive, loving hands. The ring looked beautiful on his hand and I felt proud being bound to him by it. That simple little ceremony had felt like an instant renewal of our love, something secret between just the two of us.
I stared down now at my own hands, grey in the dim light of the mid-winter morning and mourned him once more. “Its just coffee” I told my hands as I reached my thumb under my hand and touched the strange object now on my right hand. I hoped that my first-ever blind date would not notice the glaring whiteness on my left ring finger, wouldn’t see my hand shake as I held my teacup. I hoped my voice wouldn’t crack when I answered the inevitable question, ”…so how did he die?” I touched my thumb to my ring once again for reassurance as I opened the coffee shop door.
I fingered his ear, playing with it as I always had, contented, happy. But then he turned toward me and I realized that it was someone else’s ear that I held. The familiar ski slope of Arron’s nose was replaced with another, foreign slope. His eyes no longer contained the familiar gleam I had come to expect, but were instead a stranger’s – fearful and unsure, imploring me to disclose my mysterious thoughts.
How could I tell this strange, kind man that I had just mistaken him for my dead husband? How to explain the kinetic memory that had overtaken me, allowing me to behave toward a virtual stranger, the way I had with my husband of nearly eleven years? Unconscious movements, caresses, strokes all bubbled from my fingers, drawing me into a unnatural connection with another, one not founded on a history of love, but on a memory of it.
Perhaps I had begun to date too soon after Arron’s death, though two years seemed like it ought to be plenty of time. Loneliness hungered after me, hunting me down, feeding on my heart. I bled love, which pooled at my feet, wasted, spent. This new person offered a sort of vessel for my love, something for me to fill, something that could contain my love. Yet in filling it, I was empty, drained.
I had jumped into dating a little too zealously, expecting immediate relief from my hemorrhage, and succeeded only in stroking and caressing my way into a kind of emotional shock. I longed for companionship and intimacy, but now that I had it, it felt false. I was pretending to myself that I wasn’t missing Arron, wasn’t longing to be caressing his ear instead of this man’s. I had lulled myself into a feigned intimacy, willing new love to replace lost love. I had been trying carefully not to fall into the trap of comparisons that I thought was the pitfall of dating after widowhood. I celebrated every difference of character with glee. I loved this man’s full lips and luscious kisses, so unlike Arron’s. I admired his patient fathering, his kind, gentle mannerisms. But soon they annoyed me. I became annoyed at this man for not being Arron. I missed Arron’s giggles, his silly sense of humor, his cockiness. I had managed to convince myself of my easy acceptance of this new person into my life and in doing so had created for myself a surrogate husband.
The stranger implored me now to explain my look of horror, my recoil as he turned toward me. How could I tell him that in that instant I had realized my mistake: I had rushed fate. I had forced and coddled a false love, only to find it wanting. I was not yet ready for love. It was Arron’s ear I wanted to caress, his embrace I wanted holding me. I didn’t regret my own pain as a result of this realization, but I felt sadness for this kind man who wanted nothing more than to love me and have me love him back. I was not yet ready, but he had taught me that it would be possible for me to love again, when fate was ready for me.