At the campground, a young couple frightened me by virtue of being the only other people around. They had tethered their barking dog to a stake and hung a set of prayer flags from the open trunk of their S.U.V., but now they were packing up — silently at first, and then with hard, fighting words.
I shut my door and pretended I couldn’t hear.
They could see me as clearly as I saw them, though, and when I looked at myself through their eyes, I saw a person who couldn’t possibly be having a good time. My aloneness eclipsed everything else about me; I lacked even the company of a series of “thinking of you” texts to convince me otherwise.
I felt conspicuous, as odd and unsettling as a mermaid in the desert. I felt queer.
It was a feeling that had chased me all year, first at an orientation event for new faculty at the college where I had begun to teach. “Let’s get to know each other,” our leader had said. “Tell everyone about your hobbies and your partners.”
I joined in congratulating the business professor on his summer wedding even as I worried about what I would say. The request accommodated varying sexualities but left the possibility of singlehood unacknowledged.
“I’m single and I like long bike rides,” I finally declared, wondering if these strangers pitied me or if they saw my singlehood as the sign of something unpleasant and uncooperative. I had considered “happily single” but knew the emphasis would ring false — no reason to emphasize unless you had something to defend.
Later, when new friends in that town effused about having me over for dinner but failed to follow through, I felt queer again. I suspected they felt awkward inviting me when everyone else would arrive in twos. I was the only single person among 11 at a dinner I did attend.
When I heard of an acquaintance who, running for local office, worried that her singlehood made her untrustworthy in voters’ eyes, I could empathize. There was something queer about being single: queer in the sense of “strange,” yes, but also in the sense that connotes a threat to the conventions around which most people arrange their lives.
Before the call dropped with my newly separated friend, we had been talking about shame.
“I’m so old to be single and so young to be divorced,” she said. “What will people think?” Her husband had been abusive and she knew she would be better off, but she still feared that something was wrong with her for not making the relationship work.
The shame of having “failed” at marriage isn’t unlike the “failure” of being single, if you consider the congratulations offered newlyweds the sign of a universal goal achieved.
Mine was a shame I only recently had begun to inspect. How much of the feeling arose from my own desire to couple up, and how much from the sense that, by not doing so, I was confounding family and friends? How much came from the suspicion that, when colleagues asked whether my new apartment was spacious enough, they were actually wondering if I lived alone — but found the prospect too tragic to name?
Shame, after all, is pain with a twist: It shows us more about the communities we live in and the stories we tell than about ourselves. What my own shame revealed was a desire to conform. And when I viewed singlehood as akin to queerness, I felt grateful for the queer community’s reminder that convention shouldn’t dictate how relationships are defined. The opposite of shame, of course, is pride.
“When I was a young person coming out, it was like I signed up for this crazy, marginal life,” a lesbian in her 50s once told me. She is married now and rarely feels queer. Her sexuality hasn’t changed, but her life had mainstreamed.
The history and the present of queer people’s marginalization are far more severe, but the strides they have taken toward having their lives recognized are proportionally as vast. Meanwhile, queer or not, single people are treated with a mild exclusion and a bafflement that feels centuries past.
Maybe this is because, unlike the identity categories under the umbrella of queerness, singlehood can be elected or cast aside. As a result, and especially if you’re a childless white woman in her 30s, like me, singlehood is a state people assume you are trying to flee. For years, without reflection, I made the same assumption about myself.
How could I not, when even the Supreme Court would declare, with the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act, that to be unmarried was to be “condemned to live in loneliness”? The pathos typically associated with singlehood is that severe.
But if I wanted coupledom as badly as I have been led to believe I must, I’m pretty sure I would have dated more intensively and made bigger compromises. Strangers may refer to me as “still” single, as though I suffer from a persistent disease, but some part of me must love the life I lead.
To call the unmarried “lonely” is to pretend that marriage confers companionship, not merely a set of privileges historically reserved for long-term companions. But the longer I have been single, the more I have devoted myself to companionship in the form of close friendships that enrich my life. Thriving as a single person doesn’t challenge conventions of gender or sexuality, but it does contest the notion that romantic partnerships must take precedence over other relationships.
I have a long-married friend who used to question why I lived alone until we realized that to do so without questioning why she lived with a partner was unfair. Another friend reminds me that to reclaim singlehood the way queer people once reclaimed “queer” is a means of seizing power.
Even when doing so is an attempt to console yourself, as you sit frightened and alone, in an endless desert, under a sudden hailstorm, trapped in the bubble of your car.
Or later, when you have to relearn — as I would after the end of the relationship I was in then — that owning singlehood doesn’t just mean staring down others’ discomfort; it also means facing the fear and pity in yourself.
First step: Get out of the car.
It had stopped hailing. The couple had driven away. There was a steaming hot-spring pool to warm up in and a bathhouse whose two hot-spring showers ran continuously.
Inside, I discovered I could lock the door. The huge space was mine alone, but when I peeled off my bathing suit and searched for my reflection in the mirrored wall, I saw abandoned flip-flops, damp paperbacks and bottles of shampoo — the traces of other lives. Names and messages were carved into wet wood. Someone had painted a heart on the wall, or maybe just a big kidney bean.
It would be a lie to say I didn’t crave the heat of another body in that space. Contrary to what the Supreme Court might suggest, though, companionship doesn’t always mitigate loneliness. Loneliness dissipates when you find comfort and pleasure in your own company.
To that end, I suggest a long, soothing shower, in a gorgeous and mysterious place.