In many ways, I am not a very nice person. Trust me: if you knew me, you would know this. And one of the ways in which I am not a very nice person (although you might not spot this in action, unless you knew me well) is that I have zero patience with and interest in people I don't like. If I don't like you, what I really want to do is simply turn on my heel and walk away from you. And if I don't do that, you can be certain that inside I am roiling with rage that I have to be polite to you.
But while I am not a very nice person, what I mostly am these days is a very sad person. Please note that this is different from unhappy: I'm sad. Now, I'm under a lot of stress about the book, and I have no doubt that my decision to remain here is causing me a lot of stress that I don't feel consciously, but I suspect what's causing me the most stress is the re-evaluating that I do every year as my birthday approaches.
If you knew very little about me, you would imagine that I am feeling stress because I'm getting older. In this case, you would be wrong (although you might be righter than I think). I don't really think of my birthday as a day when I get older, exactly: I think of it more as a time when I examine my life and see if I'm where I want to be. And since that where I want to be has been pretty much the same since I was about 21, it's hard to say that the passing of time is what affects me.
Here is what I wanted when I was 21: a job I liked and a boyfriend. And here is what I want now that I'm about to be 41: a job I like and a boyfriend. And you got it; it's the boyfriend I mind the most.
In Slings & Arrows, as you know one of my favourite TV shows, there comes a point when the main character is kicked out of their house by his girlfriend. He has nowhere to stay, so he lives in the theatre storeroom, and the ghost who appears to him moves in with him. Towards the end of this set of episodes, when he reaches a certain low point, he looks at the bowl of soup his dead roommate has made for him, and he says, "This is my life: I live in a storage room; I eat soup with a dead man" (here, at 7:47). Well, that is my life. And maybe I don't live in a storage room as much as I used to, because I've cast my lot in here for the next year, but I sure as hell eat soup with a dead man.
Sometimes at night, or in the afternoon when I'm working, I try to trace back to the moment that I made the terrible mistake that got me where I am. Was it when I got divorced? Should I have stuck with my husband? We would have got divorced anyway, but maybe the delay of that would have made my life go differently, in that "butterfly flaps its wings" way. Was it the collection of moments in which I decided not to go to graduate school for five years? If I'd gone earlier, I certainly would have been mid-career by now, and that would at least mean I was settled in my job. Was it when I decided to take the job at my present university? If I'd stayed where I lived and done adjuncting, I would at least have been in a bigger city when Dr. Higher and I had our inevitable break-up. Was it all those times I decided not to break up with Dr. Higher? Maybe if I'd ended it after two years, or one, or even the six months it probably should have got, I'd have met someone else.
I had a student once, now a friend, who, when I was telling her after Mr. Fallen let me go how sad I was, said to me, "Your students love you; that must count for something!" I appreciated the effort, but it doesn't. For me, you can't count up what you have against what you want and make the first cancel the second out. If you don't have a job, the fact that you have feet isn't going to make you feel much better about that - even when you reflect, as I frequently do, that there are lots of people with no feet, or no arms, or Parkinson's, or caring for their dying, carping parents with little or no acknowledgement. Indeed, when you feel unloved in an important way, the knowledge that you are loved can be an added thorn. I used to say to people, and sometimes still do say, that when someone breaks up with you, your friends shouldn't tell you that you're fabulous and someone else will come along. They should say, "Yeah, there are a lot of irritating things about you. I'd dump you, too." Because knowing that other people love you just makes it more inexplicable, and more hurtful, that the breaker-up didn't love you. (who but the comfortably middle-class could make such an utterance?)
When Mr. Fallen asked to be friends, and I said yes, what I really longed to say, but didn't have the conviction to, was, "I have enough friends." And I do have enough friends. I don't want any more friends who love me, or students who love me. I want a single male personage to love me romantically. And I don't give a shit about the rest. If all my friends went away, I would be hurt, but I know how to be without friends. It was the condition of my young life, and it's been the beginning condition of every move I've made. I know how to make new friends, too; that one's easy. And I know how to have intimate friends. But the thing about intimate friendship is that eventually I think to myself, "These are things I ought to be sharing with a partner; these are things that ought to be building bricks in a life together."
And it's not about sex. I've had sex since I've been here, and I had sex before that, too. But here's the thing about sex: just because people have it with you, that doesn't mean they want you. It just means they want to have sex with you - and sometimes it just means they want to have sex. Even if they do want to have sex with you, it doesn't necessarily mean they love you (or, in the worst case that thankfully did not happen to me, that they like you): we are, of course, attracted to many people we don't love. I want to be in loved, to be more special than other special people to someone. But of course it also sort of is about sex, because if it weren't about sex I could just be satisfied with loving friendships (oh, please).
You could say that in your life you're happy because you have certain things, but I would say that in my life I'm happy despite the fact that I don't have certain things. If you knew me, you would be proud of me, because you'd never know that. I've learned how to make my happiness, but it's always been me doing it, and it's always been a nearly physical effort. I look at myself at the lunch table telling people an exciting story, and I think to myself, I shouldn't be doing this for this bunch of people who'll all go off to their homes; I should be doing this for someone who'll think of it as another reason to love me tomorrow, or five years from now. I watch myself discussing some weighty philosophical issue with someone, and I think to myself, This is the use I get out of all that effort to be an interesting, cultured person? That I'm having this discussion with someone who'll probably go home and forget it, and who certainly won't see it as a reason to be glad he's met me and is together with me? (since he isn't) And it isn't that I'll stop doing those things, or even that they don't make me happy. They make me happy, but I feel I'm wasting my happiness. I'm not building anything intransient.
Here is what I will do for my birthday: I will go out to dinner with my friend M, and I'll have a nice time, and I'll love it, but I'll know that I'd love it more if I were doing it with a partner. Because I'm not a total pessimist, I looked for some reason to celebrate my birthday this year, and I finally decided that I could celebrate the fact that so many people seemed to like me: however sad I am, I seem to make other people happy. So now I'm celebrating my birthday for a creepily egotistical reason ("I'm great!") instead of a much simpler, much more pleasurable one ("I'm happy!").
And this is where it probably does have to do with age, because although I don't envy young people in any other way, I envy them because they still have time to fuck up. I look at all the people I sit with sometimes, and I think, not in a cruel way but in a knowing one, You have so much unhappiness ahead of you. And then I think, But you have time for that; you have time to be hurt and recover, and time to suffer and come out of it. And that's what I don't have anymore. My time is dripping away now, like water off your fingertips, and every day I spend alone, or waste on a wrong person, is a day in which I'm losing attraction, or getting further and further into the age group where everyone is taken and I'll be the skeleton at the feast. And it seems to me such a waste. In one more year, or five more years, I'll get some guy who can only have sex once a week, or I'll be in such a sorry state that no one will even dream of telling me I have a good body when I take my clothes off. Me! Me who loves to have sex, who loves not to wear her clothes, who loves to make her partner happy. All that lost. (so it is about sex. But, as that last phrase suggests, also not.) And in one more year, or five more years, I'll have had firsts that will never be replicated (first appearance in a publisher's catalogue; first book; already first month of tango), all of those potential building blocks gone, never to be marked or celebrated with a lover. And it's a waste of me: I, who am happiest being with another, who was born a twin, trapped in this ridiculous life where I am alone in the sense that really matters to me.
There's a scene in Truly, Madly, Deeply where the female lead says to her therapist, "...and I'm so angry. I look at people in love, or wasting love, and I'm so angry!" Well, that's how I feel. I'm sad, but I'm also filled with rage. I'd like to kill someone over this, if there were someone to blame and kill. But there isn't, and that just makes me even angrier. I understand that life doesn't owe me anything. I never believed it did, but I put so much effort into trying to make myself interesting, into building my confidence, into cultivating my mind and my person, into becoming kind, and forgiving, and understanding, and patient. And, okay, it's not like I'm perfect in any of those ways, but surely, SURELY you get some reward for that before you're too old to get your leg over athletically, before the thing you really want in a partner is someone who can drive at night.
And what will you tell me? Oh, you'll tell me that it'll happen for me. But you don't know that it will. You'll tell me that I should try throwing myself around to meet men. But if I threw myself around any more I'd be a squash ball. You'll tell me that I should find a young man. But I don't believe that people in their forties should get involved with people in their twenties and thirties in a long-term way - not because those people are callow, but because I don't believe it's fair to saddle someone with a partner they'll end up taking care of, thus wasting years of their own lives. And I'm smart enough to see that in any case all my male friends in their twenties look after women their own age, as they should. I don't want to be the skeleton at that feast, either. You'll tell me that men in their late thirties and forties are smarter, so when I meet a quality one it won't take very long for him to realise he's met quality, too. But there are just as many forty-five year-old idiots as twenty-five year old ones. You'll tell me that what really matters is meeting a partner who values you, and that that's worth waiting for. But that blanket doesn't keep you very warm at night. You'll tell me that what matters most is being happy with yourself, and that if I were happy with myself I wouldn't have these feelings. But I AM happy with myself; I'm so happy with myself that I have enough to share, that I want to have someone else to make happy, or to fuse happinesses with.
There is nothing you can tell me to make me feel better. I'm sorry. It transpires that another way I'm not a very nice person is that I'm filled with unjustified rage that refuses to be assuaged. But this is my life, and I hate it. Oh, I can do it, like some Beckett character with her sack, but it's looking more and more to me like a great waste of my time. And that might not be what I think, or how I act, and I might know it's not true (my mother told me once that I always paint my life as bleaker than it is, but she didn't need to tell me - I already knew). But it's how I feel.
It turns out it's quite hard to find a picture to illustrate this one.