My married friends were standing just inside their screen door. I was on the front porch lingering over our goodbyes after a long evening meal.
“But what is it,” I finally asked, intending the question for her, “that you’d like to know about being single?”
“Well…” she paused. “I guess I’d like to know what happens with women.” I said, “Yes, that’s what I wanted to know too.”
I had been living with her for three years. There was no one else in particular, but we had nothing left. We were both wondering how to say that, what to do. Our wondering made us lethargic and our tiny house, never very neat or well furnished, became gradually more squalid. Our bed sagged and felt clammy, the floor was dirty, the kitchen smelled.
Just six months earlier, in a final effort to create a life together, we had bought an old, dilapidated, but usable couch and a few chairs in similar condition. I had built bookcases from cement blocks and pine boards. They went from floor to ceiling and covered two bare walls in the living room. A friend gave us a handsome, handmade coffee table and a throw rug for the middle of the room. After I built the bookcases and arranged the furniture I sat on the couch for several hours and admired the result. I had never had a living room of my own. I liked the way the books looked against the walls, liked the dilapidated chair and standing lamp, even liked the couch I was sitting on. I rested my stockinged feet on the handmade coffee table and smoked cigarettes until very late at night.
That contentment didn’t last. Soon the faithful old dog had taken over the couch, dirt seemed to exude from the fabric of both the couch and the chairs, and empty glasses and overflowing ashtrays collected on the coffee table. We tried to ignore it just as we ignored each other. By then we seldom spoke. We weren’t angry, we were bored. If we had been married, we would have begun to talk about divorce, its details, what our lawyers were telling us. This was like a divorce but one without rules and therefore there was little that needed saying.
One night as I was reading a book at the kitchen table, she walked in. “We aren’t getting along at all,” she said.
“I know. I want out.”
She turned and walked away.
The next morning I moved out. I was 28 and again on my own.
I looked around haphazardly for a place to live while I stayed in a succession of friends’ houses, sleeping on couches or in back bedrooms. I had left everything but my clothes in the house with her. My shirts and pants hung in closet after closet as I moved around. I kept my clean underwear in one side of a suitcase and my dirty underwear in the other side. When the clean side was empty, I closed the suitcase, took it to a laundromat, and after an hour of waiting for the machines to do their job, I left with the clean side full again.
Meanwhile, between moving around and trips to the laundromat, I was having an exciting, clandestine love affair. It went to my head and made me feel very cavalier, for women were the main thing on my mind. They were the whole point of being single and, at least I thought at the time, the greatest danger. I therefore made a resolution: I would not worry about women. When a woman was with me, I would be happy and make the most of it; when no woman was with me, I would also be happy and make the most of that, too.
A difficult resolution, perhaps, but one that was easy enough to make while I had a woman available not to worry about. Nor was my resolve shaken when the affair began to cool, because luckily, about that time, I found myself one night with an extraordinarily pretty girl whom I had watched from a distance for months. Not to my great surprise, considering the notions about her that had floated through my head in the past, I found myself infused with a passion I had completely forgotten. And, as we lay among the shadows cast by a candle, we joked about an imaginary dinner where everyone would have to wear blue and all the food would be dyed blue—blue meat, blue mashed potatoes, blue green beans—and the music on the phonograph would be “Blue Moon,” “Blues in the Night,” “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” and the only thing to drink would be Blue Nun wine.
But when I called her again, I discovered I was on the short end of a one night stand. “No,” she said, “I guess we’d better not.” I hung up the phone and took a deep breath. Hell! I wished I had known another girl to call. Apparently, my free and easy days were over for now. The future, I glumly reflected, would require effort. I had come to think that, once I was alone, my life would begin to take the shape I wanted. But now I wasn’t sure what shape that was. I knew I didn’t like the way I’d been living, but there was no other way I had lived before that I wanted to re-create.
Most men I know believe that their early twenties were the worst time of their lives—even though they had always expected those years to be their best. My case was typical. Shortly after graduating from college in 1966, I moved to California. During five years there I existed on a series of petty jobs and vague businesses, none of which seemed to work out very well. All the while I felt my true calling was being an artist of some kind. That wasn’t working out either. I remember walking long blocks one gray afternoon feeling both panicked and despondent because it had occurred to me I was now 25 and still hadn’t accomplished anything. All around I saw evidence of writers who really were writing, painters painting, filmmakers filmmaking. I passed bookstores, galleries, moviehouses, none of which held anything of mine. Trying to discover what had gone wrong, I reconstructed my life counting forward year by year from when I was born in 1944. Much to my amazement, I realized I wasn’t 25 at all but only 23. It made me feel so much better. I had gotten a two-year reprieve. But time passed very quickly and suddenly I was 25. I faced the memory of that incident with horror, for in two years nothing had changed.
All this time I was living alone, and I was certain that was directly related to my lack of success. Loneliness, I thought, had infected my mind to the point where I could not work. Whenever I tried to work, what swelled into my consciousness was not the subject at hand but the image of that long-haired California lady who must, by the law of averages if nothing else, be waiting for me somewhere. But since I had nothing to show for the way I spent my days—I had remained sensible enough to know that just saying you were an artist didn’t make it so—I felt I had nothing to win her with even if she could be found. I was too young to think of myself as a failure but not too young to begin feeling hopeless about where my life was leading. That hopelessness left me withdrawn, sullen, defensive—not qualities that prompted women to swarm around me. I couldn’t work because I was alone and I remained alone because I couldn’t work.
Finally, I met someone as desperate and confused as I was; and, of course, having someone helped. Although neither my concentration nor my confidence improved immediately, I was eventually able to start writing for a living. But our life as a couple remained grim. During more than three years together we were never able to decide whether our troubles were caused by being with the wrong person or by some internal failings—not being able to love, for example—that prevented us from doing justice to each other. But that dilemma, without really being resolved, began to loom less and less large for me during our final year.
We were approaching 30, a time when many couples break apart. By then people are no longer “going to be” but have become, and the dreams and promises of youth must be measured against the tangible facts of their life together—house, friends, physical appearance, social class, personal habits, all that. Those tangible things are what make their life what it is, and they will, if both man and woman like what they see around them, buoy a couple over troubles.
We had been so obsessed with discovering who we were and where we were going wrong, and had been so convinced that the trouble lay deep within, that it was a revelation when, looking around at our household, I realized that it was making me miserable. We had never lived any differently; there was no reason to think we would change in the future. Our style as a couple had hardened by long habit. The answers to those deep personal questions weren’t as important as the certain knowledge that we would have a dismal future together. Deciding to leave her was also deciding to reconstruct my life in a completely different way, and it wasn’t until I wanted to do both that I was able to do either.
Finally, after living with several friends, I found a small apartment in a rough cedar building set off the road and surrounded by trees. It was unfurnished. The only things I took from our house were the cement blocks and boards I used for bookcases, a table lamp, and a two-headed gooseneck lamp. I bought an old oak desk, the kind school teachers once had in their classrooms, and put it in one of the apartment’s two rooms. In a department store I spent an afternoon picking out a mattress and frame, some sheets and pillows, and a denim-blue cotton bedspread; I arranged them all in the same room with the desk. I bought a stereo and put it against one wall on a platform I made from some of the boards and cement blocks left over from the bookcases. I borrowed a television and placed it on the floor in the middle of the room. At an army surplus house I bought a thick piece of foam rubber the size of a single bed, covered it with a fitted sheet, and put it on the floor in front of the television. After adding two large floor pillows as backrests I now had a comfortable couch I could sit on while watching the late movies.
That was all the furniture I wanted just then. Furniture seemed so bulky and permanent and I didn’t want to establish a home for myself just yet. What I wanted was a launching pad.
Two Years Later
I went to play pinball across the street from the University of Texas. It was finals week and I had to wait a while before the Jumping Jack machine was free. The usual groups were present in greater numbers—more Arabs, more tough black teenagers, more West Texas cowboys around the pool tables. And more who had come by themselves. Most of these were students, ten years younger than myself, who, judging by the thick stack of books they each placed under the machine they chose to play, must have all had finals the next morning. They dropped in their quarters, assumed a crouched position over the machine, and played with that total, committed concentration only possible when you have something else you desperately need to do. I had seen that same concentration over the machines on Saturday nights, nights when pressure other than a final had driven them to the arcade. I had gone there this time because I needed a rest from writing this article, but that other pressure, that Saturday night pressure, can tighten its grip on me whenever it wants and does so no less frequently now than it did when I was 21.
If being single has bred anything in me, it is a compulsion for prowling around at night. Besides arcades, I hit newsstands, record stores, book stores, coffee shops, public libraries, movie theaters, drugstores, and anything else that looks, if not exactly inviting, at least open. Periodic changes in the nighttime scenery—new issues of magazines, new movies, new record albums—are important events in my life, more or less like the first flowers of spring must be for a nature lover. As flowers are, this prowling is something that is compelling without being nourishing. I return home having filled some time but not having satisfied what led me to go in the first place. Along the way I recognize others suffering from the same compulsion: men shuffling through magazines while leaning with one elbow propped against the rack, coffee drinkers hunched over their cups who look up whenever anyone comes in the restaurant, solitary moviegoers staring at the screen. When they are my age or younger, seeing them is no more unpleasant than looking in a mirror; but when they are older, it scares me. Will I, at 50, still be checking out the newsstands and playing midnight games of pinball?
Obviously all this prowling has something to do with women, or the lack of women; yet, except for bars, where I rarely talk to anyone I don’t already know, the haunts I mentioned seldom contain women who are looking for a man. (The only time I’ve ever picked up a woman in a bar was in Dallas. She was about 35, part Oriental, short, darkhaired, beautifully dressed in a green wool suit. Driving to my motel, we managed to have a conversation that wasn’t especially strained and when we arrived we kissed each other with passion. “But,” she said, “I have to tell you something.” We sat down on the bed and she told me that not long ago she had been divorced from a husband whom she had hated for several years. She had gotten into the habit of taking sleeping pills so she could endure sex with him and the habit had become an addiction. When she told him she wanted a divorce, her husband raped her while holding a pillow over her face to stifle her screams. He tried it again the next night, but she fought him off with an ornate beer mug she had placed on the bedstand earlier. I had no idea how much, if any, of this was true, but we both agreed it would be better if I drove her back to her car.) While I assume that if I had a woman at home I would not be inclined to prowl at all, or resort to it only in times of domestic crises, I must not be looking for a woman while I’m out or I would go where I might have some expectation of finding one.
But where would that be? I have never walked into a singles bar without very quickly walking right out again. Every man’s eyes have the same sad, desperate glint, and the women there either enjoy exploiting that desperation or, desperate themselves, they ignore it hoping the man will treat them with equal charity. I am too old for university hangouts; besides, I’ve found with most college girls that I inevitably begin sounding like a professor or a father. Those images may be just what some girls are looking for, but they both bore me. I have learned some of the tricks of approaching strange women—talking about something neutral is the main thing: “Hello. I hope you don’t mind my asking but I’ve been thinking about buying a bike and was curious about yours. Does this part here…” But I don’t really like myself for doing it and I have never met a woman this way who, no matter how far she may have played along, didn’t remain slightly suspicious of me because of the way we’d met. So I have given up the notion that I will leave home at night with empty hands and come back with them full. I just prowl. When I do meet women, it’s through work, through friends, or at parties. Those are the only sensible ways.
My domestic life is very regular. Every morning I have the same thing for breakfast: an orange and a bowl of Wheaties with a sliced banana. Otherwise my culinary skills are limited and have increased only slightly these past two years. There are three things I can cook which do not come out of cans. One is Shake ’n Bake chicken. Each piece sticks to the pan but I have found that if I leave the pan full of water overnight it can be cleaned in the morning without much trouble. A second dish, more famous than my chicken among my friends, is Curtisburgers. They are thick hamburgers I fry in an ancient electric skillet. Cooking Curtisburgers is both an art and a science, since I let one side cook a random length of time but regulate the cooking of the second side with a timer. They are served on English muffins. The third dish, which also requires English muffins, I created myself and have named Eggs Washington Carver. It is very simple: soft-boil two eggs and toast both halves of one muffin; spread the muffin with peanut butter and crack one egg over each half. In my opinion Eggs Washington Carver makes a good lunch but an indifferent supper.
I have, with one exception, no more furniture than I had after that initial buying spree when I first moved into my place. That exception is an expensive and luxurious couch I ordered from the factory to replace the foam rubber pad. I piled some cement blocks beside the couch, put a table lamp on top of them, and now I have a good place to read.
I enjoy having people come over. Even without much furniture, it works all right. We sit around the front room on the couch and on the floor pillows. Sometimes we play loud music and laugh a lot, other times we have more sedate conversations. It’s fine with me either way. I can make good drinks and that helps. And I make a reasonable effort at keeping things in order. I vacuum the carpet, pick up my clothes, empty the garbage.
In time my place has become neither a launching pad nor a home but a resting place. It’s where I go when I am tired of moving around. It’s comfortable because I want a place where I can rest, but I have kept it bare because I am reluctant to establish a household that cannot be quickly dismantled. It makes me feel mobile, unencumbered, self-contained. The price I pay is living more in other people’s houses than in my own. For example:
We walked awkwardly in an uncomfortable embrace down the hallway to her bedroom. She was pretty and rich and young, advantages that had attracted me to her and, during our short acquaintance, prevented me from seeing whether she were anything else. What I really wanted was not so much to go to bed with her as to know that someone pretty, rich, and young would go to bed with me. From the beginning of the evening I had concentrated my energy on finding out. Now I knew. When she said yes, that had been the climax of an intense sexual act. I was in a post-coital depression even as she opened the bedroom door and turned on a small hanging lamp near her bed.
I was very aware of entering strange territory with someone I didn’t know well. “Wait a second,” I said as I touched her cheek with the back of my hand. “I’ll be much more comfortable if…” I sort of shrugged and went back into the hallway.
The first door I opened was a closet filled with plastic clothing bags. The second door was the bathroom. I spent a long time running my hand over the cold tile and plaster wall before I found the light. I washed my face and hands. All I could find to dry with was a monogrammed washrag hanging on a towel rack near the sink. It was damp. I didn’t want to call down the hall to ask her where the towels were and I didn’t want her to hear me rummaging through her bathroom cabinets; so I used the washrag.
When I returned to the bedroom, she was sitting on the edge of the bed. She stood up the moment I entered. “Me, too,” she announced, and marched stiffly past me.
The little hanging lamp made a cone of yellow light in one corner and dimly lit the rest of the room. The walls were white. Prints and watercolors of various sizes, all in shining chrome frames, hung everywhere. There was a row of plants in bright, plastic pots in front of a long window that went from floor to ceiling. Her dresser was made of molded red plastic with large white knobs on the drawers. Thick throw rugs covered practically all the carpet.
I sat down on the edge of the bed, exactly where she’d been sitting. I wanted something to do while I was waiting. I took off my shoes and socks.
I put everything from my pockets into my shoes so I wouldn’t have any trouble finding my wallet and keys in the morning. I thought about taking off the rest of my clothes but decided against it. That left me with nothing else to do. I lay down on the bed. It was very comfortable and even smelled good. I moved to the side nearest the wall.
I waited. I could faintly hear water running. After it stopped, I didn’t hear anything for a while. The position I was in began to feel unnatural. Every way I moved also felt unnatural; I felt overly conscious of my posture as I listened carefully for a warning she was about to reappear.
As it turned out there wasn’t one. She suddenly came in and walked directly across the room, glancing at me once out of the sides of her eyes. She opened a small drawer in her dresser and dropped her necklace and silver bracelets into it. She closed the drawer, pulled off her rings, and placed them in a small glass tray on top of the dresser. Once she looked over to see if I was watching her. Then she sat down on the edge of the bed and began to take off her shoes. She had washed away her make-up. Her cheeks were flushed, and her forehead and temples were pale, almost translucent. Her dark hair, which she had let down, fell in damp curls around the base of her neck. Letting her shoes drop, she lifted her feet, reclined along the bed, turned, and lay on top of me.
But my depression had not lifted. I had no idea what she was feeling, and when, in the midst of some determined foreplay, she suddenly climaxed, my longtime friend and comic sidekick remained uninterested. She became even more determined then, but this wasn’t something determination could solve. I suggested we lie back and relax for a while. Lying with her head in the crook of my arms, we talked a little bit, lay still, and she fell asleep.
She was lying diagonally, leaving me about a quarter of the bed. She was breathing deeply. I was cold. I thought about leaving, but since I was next to the wall, getting up meant crawling over her. I kept getting colder. Eventually I would have to wake her so we could pull back the covers; but the thought of interrupting her sleep made me feel like an intruder. I kept hoping she would wake up on her own. Shivering, frustrated, I watched her calmly breathing. I was jealous of her. She was sound asleep in her own home, in her own bed.
That night was typical of the single man’s dilemma: he feels the lack of a woman but not every woman can fill the void. His solace, for what it’s worth, is the chance to indulge a feeling that ranges from curiosity to lust with whatever woman he can find. It is an elusive and tantalizing feeling, one that can come to dominate the psyche so completely that a few men I have known have given their whole lives over to it. Their curiosity seems to stay fresh and their lust constantly renews. They live for the tension of the initial unzipping and unbuttoning, for the satisfaction of the first deep and private moan. They may acquire a wife or regular girl friend along the way, or still retain one from before the time the feeling took hold, but that doesn’t change anything; it simply gives them a place to rest in between. They are loveable rogues or just rogues.
But neither category contains very many men. It takes too much time and energy to be a rogue. A rogue must spend night after night meeting and courting new women; he must recover from a feeling of failure whenever he tries for a woman and she eludes him; and when she does not elude him, he must cope with the emotional difficulties that sprout when it’s time to start looking for someone else.
It’s true most single men want to have some experiences that assure them they could be a rogue, but those experiences are their own reward, useless in assuring a man he could be anything else. And most men want something else. Eventually they begin to weigh their general desire for a woman against the time and trouble any particular woman would require. Then curiosity alone isn’t enough. It takes either extreme physical attraction or the chance to enjoy the sort of tender feeling that ranges in quality from mild affection to reckless love. Yet neither strong attraction nor tender feelings occur as often as single men at first think they’re going to. Men alone might become virtually sedentary if lust didn’t follow its own dynamic and loom up without special provocation. Then, men push to completion things that needn’t have been started. Afterward, to the woman’s frequent bafflement, her insistent lover of the night before becomes the morning’s glum and restless stranger. These are the repetitious, dissatisfying experiences people are referring to when they talk about the emptiness of single life.
But emptiness isn’t really the right Word. Being single, unless you have decided to live alone permanently, is simply being in transit. I have the advantage now, which I didn’t have when I was younger, of knowing what I am in transit from; but I do not know, anymore than I did then, what I am in transit to. I’m not sure I could describe exactly what I do want, except, perhaps—why am I afraid to say it?—someone I could love. I simply wait, hoping I will recognize what I want when it comes and with every intention of doing then what’s necessary to get it. Otherwise, I try not to think about it very much. I would rather prowl instead.