There's no waiting room for an interesting life

February 12, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

Another year, another Valentine's Day, and still no sign of Mr. Right on the horizon.

Or even Mr. Half-Right.

It's odd, but Valentine's Day is beginning to affect me in the same way as New Year's Day. Which is to say: I find myself looking over the past year and assessing my life. In this case, my love life.

Right now, for instance, I'm trying to remember two things: The name of every man I've ever loved and the name of every man I ever thought I loved.

The first list is short. You could count the names on two fingers of your hand.

The second is long. Suffice it to say that for every Mr. Right there existed a half-dozen Mr. Wrongs. It's so easy, isn't it, when you're searching for a partner, to re-invent a person into someone you could love.

Or, more to the point, into someone who could love you.

What I'm thinking about, this Valentine's Day, is that last bit: the urgent need we feel to be loved by someone. For the unattached person -- or, for that matter, the newly widowed or divorced -- it's the absence of feeling loved that's most painful.

And the fear of being alone.

A lot of women fear being alone. Or, more precisely, they fear being alone for the rest of their lives.

It's an attitude caught perfectly in a description by Doris Lessing of the unattached woman's response to men.

"A woman without a man," she wrote, "cannot meet a man, any man, of any age, without thinking, even if it's for a half-second, 'Perhaps this is the man.' "

And it's an attitude -- if only a half-second attitude -- that most women, regardless of age, have experienced.

What has become clearer to me over the last few years, however, is that I no longer have such an attitude.

I can't pinpoint the day or month or year when I stopped walking into a party with some vague thought that maybe this was the night I'd meet him.

Which is not to say I haven't made the occasional inquiry, upon meeting an attractive man, as to whether or not he's married.

I have.

And they almost always are.

L What's changed is that I'm no longer a woman who is waiting.

Throughout history, women have been consigned, by and large, to the role of waiting. Waiting for love. Waiting for marriage. Waiting for a house of their own. Waiting for children. Waiting for grandchildren.

We see the role that waiting has played in women's literature. Even the strong and lively women created by such authors as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte seem ultimately to have been waiting for marriage and their own household. Such books always end when marriage begins.

And we see the role that waiting still plays in the attitude of women and the subject of being single.

Or, as some would put it, of being alone.

True story: On a trip to Venice last year I met a woman -- a divorced novelist from New York -- with whom I struck up a friendship. At dinner one night, she kept looking longingly at the table nearby where three couples were dining and laughing.

"Tell me the truth," she said as we were leaving. "Wouldn't you give anything to be like them? To be a part of a couple again?"

The truth? It had never occurred to me. I was having a wonderful time: The food was great, the conversation stimulating and the view spectacular.

But my friend refused to believe me. In the end, Venice saddened her because she was not accompanied by a man who loved her.

In effect, I decided, she had chosen the "waiting" life. Even though she was traveling, her journey was essentially one in which she was "killing time" until her next marriage.

On the other hand, I also met a woman -- once divorced, once widowed -- who offers an instructive lesson in the richness of choosing a life free of "waiting."

Over the last dozen years she has pursued her life alone with curiosity and openness. But she has not shut herself off from closeness or intimacy. "I haven't given up on anything," she told me. "I just don't sit around waiting for it to happen."

I like to think it's what I'm working toward: not giving up on closeness or intimacy. Or on being open to the world or anyone in it.

What I'm working toward, I like to think, is not giving up on anything.

Anything, that is, but waiting.

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