NYTimes 11

Breaking Free From the Nesting Doll

What do you owe someone who’s loved and healed you?

Decades ago, I arrived at the State University of Leningrad in the old Soviet Union as a college junior along with two dozen other American students and a pair of professor chaperones taking a semester abroad. We were segregated from ordinary students in special classes and a dorm designated for foreigners and the carefully chosen Soviets who could be trusted to live with us.

We were warned that many Soviets would see us as enticing marriage prospects because marriage to a Westerner offered an easy way out. Of Western countries, the United States was the most coveted destination, and that made Americans as desirable as movie stars.

I had no intention of marrying anyone. I’d had high school boyfriends but never a serious relationship. And besides, I was ambitious. I wanted a career, not a family.

I was also a wounded soul. I had been date-raped the year before, my first real sexual experience. I told no one.

It sent me spiraling into depression. I felt lonely, isolated and mistrustful. Going to gloomy Russia for five months seemed destined to isolate and depress me further, but then, I thought, what difference did it make? What difference did anything make?

Two weeks into the semester, a Russian man stopped me on my way home from classes. He was 32, thin, with longish hair, a mustache, jeans, a parka and kind eyes. He said that his name was Sasha, and that he was an artist. Was I American? He wanted someone to practice his English with and was wondering if I would meet him for coffee.

I knew I should be careful about strangers, but Sasha seemed nice; besides, how could I learn about Russia if I didn’t make any friends?

I took his number. He gave me elaborate instructions: Call from a phone booth only, one that was far from the university, where all phones were surely bugged.

We met at Dom Knigi, a landmark bookstore. I liked him right away. Russian men are often stereotyped as boorish drunks, but Sasha was solicitous and gentlemanly. Soon he was inviting me to parties, where we sang folk songs and drank vodka.

He gave me cards and flowers. He painted a matryoshka — one of those Russian nesting dolls — to look exactly like me, right down to my sheepskin coat and heavy rubber boots. Nestled inside was a doll he had painted to look like him. And inside that doll were keys to his apartment.

We almost never practiced English, so my Russian quickly became fluent. He was honest, funny, good-hearted and patient, qualities that were healing the wounds I had taken with me to Leningrad. Before I knew it, I was in love with him.

Sasha seemed to be in love with me, too. But I couldn’t know for sure, because he was unhappy there and desperately wanted to move to America. He was an academy-trained artist whose work was considered subversive, so he was consigned to a menial job painting signs for movie theaters, with little hope of ever being able to show his work in a gallery. He had no meaningful future in the Soviet Union.

So when he asked me to marry him, I was in a quandary.

If I didn’t marry Sasha, he would be stuck in the Soviet Union, I thought, possibly forever. I wouldn’t see him again unless I returned on a tourist visa for a week or two. Basically, I had two choices: marry him, or never see him again.

The idea of never seeing him again was unbearable. But more than that, I believed I owed him something. He had brought me out of my depression, and his gentleness had restored my ability to trust and love. In return, I could rescue him from a dead-end life. But was that a good reason to marry someone?

I was under a lot of pressure. His friends summoned ghosts with their Ouija boards to announce that marrying Sasha was my fate. I met his parents, who approved. Everyone in his life seemed to rally behind the idea. In their eyes I was a rich, happy, free American, and they were poor and oppressed. I should share what I had with one of them. And didn’t Sasha deserve it?

My fellow American students, many finding themselves in similar situations, were suspicious. The two American professors chaperoning our group caught me at the United States Consulate when I went to ask about marrying a Soviet citizen. They took me aside to warn me what I was in for: Getting Sasha out would be a Kafkaesque struggle with Soviet bureaucracy.

Americans sometimes waited years for their Soviet spouses to be released. I would be living in limbo, married to a political prisoner. And then, once he arrived, the marriage would have to survive the scrutiny of the immigration service.

I would be responsible for him, a man who barely spoke English, who knew nothing about the West, who didn’t know how to drive, how to use checks or credit cards, and had held only a make-work job that didn’t exist in America. It would be like taking care of a child, when I had no way of making a living myself yet.

Sasha breathlessly awaited my decision. When the semester ended, I told him I wanted to think about his proposal and at least finish my last year of college before I married anyone. He said he understood.

Thus began a year of constant love letters, of expensive, tearful phone calls, of drama and sadness and confusion. When I returned to college in the fall, I met up with a friend, Craig, who had spent his junior year in London. We traded stories of our adventures abroad and eventually fell into a romantic relationship.

Was it love? What did I know? By spring, I felt less than enthusiastic about marrying Sasha, but I couldn’t admit it to myself. After making him wait so long, it seemed cruel to say no.

Even so, I wanted to return to Leningrad to see, and my parents, as a graduation gift, agreed to pay for my flight. I would go in June for 10 days.

Sasha was ecstatic at this news. He assumed, not unreasonably, that I was returning to marry him. I was not so sure. It had been a year since I’d last seen him. My plan was to see how I felt when I got there. Maybe the sight of him would cause all of my old feelings to flood back.

He was waiting with flowers when I got off the plane. My heart sank at the sight of him. He looked tired and desperate. I knew instantly I did not want to marry him.

We went back to his apartment, where I told him my decision. He locked me in. He begged and pleaded. Why had I come if I wasn’t going to help him? I was a callow, spoiled American. He wouldn’t let me leave until I changed my mind. I refused to do it. The more he begged, the less I wanted to marry him. But I was afraid he was right: I had tortured him with my girlish wishy-washiness.

When the 10 days were up, he let me leave to catch my flight home. I felt sad and guilty, but also relieved. I was free. I’d always been free. He was the one trapped.

In spite of his disappointment, Sasha and I kept in touch. A few years later, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, and conditions in the Soviet Union began to change. The borders opened, and Sasha came to New York to visit me. By this time I was engaged to Craig, the college friend I’d started dating during my year of indecision. Sasha and I were just friends now.

It was Sasha’s first trip out of the Soviet Union, and he was overwhelmed. He came from a big city, but one with light traffic, and the speeding cars and blaring horns of Manhattan scared him so much he was afraid to cross the street. In delis, he’d stare at the cases of juice, baffled by unfamiliar flavors like mango and tangerine, unable to choose. He got drunk a lot.

I was glad I hadn’t married him. It would have been a disaster.

We stayed friends for a few years, sending cards and then e-mails on birthdays and Christmas until eventually they tapered off. But all this time I’ve never quite overcome my shame at the way I treated him. He had done so much for me; what had I done for him? Tortured him for a year, making him wait for my decision, only to let him down.

And yet, in the end, he hadn’t held it against me. Maybe he really had loved me. And maybe I really had loved him, too. And maybe sometimes it’s hard to know what, exactly, love is.




NYTimes 10

What’s Alikeness Got to Do With It?

I always thought love was love, no matter where you were in the world. I learned differently when I was based in New Delhi for two months in 2006.

On my fifth day in the country, one of my new colleagues told me he was in love with me and had been from the moment I walked into the office.

This conversation took place in a hotel room in Agra. I had mentioned on my third day at work that I wanted to see the Golden Triangle (the cities of New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, home of the Taj Mahal) that weekend.

My colleague volunteered to accompany me.

Actually, he didn’t volunteer. He said: “I’ve never seen the Taj Mahal. I’ll go with you.”

It was a little weird, but mostly I felt relieved. I’ve traveled on my own a lot, but India is a tricky place, especially for a single white female. Having a local accompany me on my first adventure sounded great.

It wasn’t until we were in the train heading to Jaipur that I realized he might have motives other than seeing a monument an hour away that he hadn’t bothered to visit. But I wasn’t averse to a tryst. I had come to India in part to get past my last relationship, which had not ended well. A fling on my first weekend in the country seemed like a good start.

Nothing happened the first night. On the second night, in Agra, we decided to split a room to save money. Before long we were kissing, and it occurred to me that we should discuss our relationship before things went further. We worked together, after all, and it could be awkward on Monday if we didn’t set some ground rules. So I stopped him and said we needed to talk.

He said, “Yes,” and then, “I love you.”

Needless to say, that wasn’t what I was expecting. I asked him how he could possibly love me when he didn’t know me. He said he didn’t need to know me.

I said I was a difficult, complicated person. He said he didn’t care who I was.

In retrospect, that admission should have bothered me more than it did. Instead it felt romantic and exotic and like something one didn’t say no to when one was in India for two months and trying to mend a broken heart.

A week later I started to have reservations. When I told him I wasn’t sure this was going to work out, he looked distraught, drew me to him and said, “Don’t leave me.”

Given how little time we had spent together, I didn’t even realize I was in a position to leave him, but I couldn’t do so then. I put my arms around him and told him not to worry, that everything would be O.K.

And that’s how I ended up in a serious relationship with someone I barely knew, and who seemed to have little interest in really knowing me. And how I learned that love is not a universal language after all. It’s cultural and it’s specific.

In India, at least for my new boyfriend, love didn’t lead to commitment; love was commitment. It was a leap of faith made by two people to stick it out no matter what.

From that first conversation in Agra, it seemed like a crazy approach to me. And yet there I was: 40, single, a string of broken relationships. The wait-and-see strategy wasn’t exactly panning out. I decided to try it his way for a change.

It was certainly more romantic, at least in the beginning. My Indian boyfriend fed me the loveliest lines, the ones only the heroines in movies get, that you never hear in real life. And though he may have borrowed every last one of them from Bollywood, or his pirated Hollywood DVDs, I think he meant them.

That first night, for example, I told him I was probably too old to have children. He told me he didn’t care; families come in all shapes and sizes.

(A little cheesy, perhaps, but my last serious relationship had ended over the child issue. He claimed he wasn’t ready. I felt like I was running out of time. I loved him, so I waited, and waited, until it finally dawned on me that running out of time, for him, was the whole point.)

So I admit it, I was moved. The next morning we woke at 5 a.m. to see the Taj Mahal, a universal symbol of everlasting love, in the first light of day. Two months later I returned to the United States, and four months after that, drawn by a job offer and my Indian boyfriend, I moved to Mumbai, where he soon joined me in an apartment I had rented. Little by little, we got to know each other. In India, had we married, we would have been able to tell people ours was a “love marriage” as opposed to an arranged one (it is a surprisingly common question). But other than not having been introduced by our parents, I saw little difference.

Living with this practical stranger, I felt like a character in a Jhumpa Lahiri story, slowly getting to know the likes, dislikes, habits, and quirks of this man who was sharing my bed, bathroom and life practically from the word hello.

But had it been a Jhumpa Lahiri story, the budding knowledge would have morphed over time into a mutual fondness, and, incrementally, into love. This didn’t happen to me. Instead, as time wore on, I became increasingly aware of how different we were.

When I went back to New York for a visit and realized that all of my friends, even the relatively recent ones, understood me better than my boyfriend, I knew there was a problem. But every time I broached the issues in our relationship, he wouldn’t hear it. In his mind, we had made our choice, we had made a commitment to each other, and he wasn’t going to let my shallow Western desire for a shared sense of humor or common way of seeing the world tear that apart.

We started to fight a lot, and each time it came down to the same thing: Did we have enough in common? (That would be me.) Did it matter? (That would be him.)

In the end, I always gave in. He made some good points. We had built a home together, one with pleasant routines and ample socializing. We got on with each other’s friends. We loved to travel and traveled well together. But more than anything he ever said, I think what made it so hard for me to leave was the sheer force of his commitment.

In my whole life, nobody had ever fought so hard for me. It was unfortunate that the person doing so didn’t get my jokes or know what to say when I was down.

On the other hand, to be able to do or say anything, no matter how horrible (and I was horrible — I said hateful things) and still be forgiven, and know I would be forgiven ... I had never felt so secure in a relationship. He didn’t get me, but no matter what, he would never let me go.

Until he did.

To be fair, I pushed him away. After two years in India, I moved back to the United States. My mother’s health had taken a bad turn, and I wanted to be with her.

He wanted to come too, of course, but I needed time away. I couldn’t sort through my feelings while he stood in all his absolute certainty right next to me. It was too seductive and too confusing. So I left him in India, with vague protestations about needing to clear my head and figure things out and all manner of clichés that made absolutely no sense to him.

He said O.K. (what choice did he have?), but as soon as I arrived home, he was calling and sending text -messages, wanting to know where we stood and when would I get my head cleared out and what was going on anyway?

With the distance, and back in my own cultural landscape, his determination came to feel more obsessive than romantic. I cut his calls short, refused to talk about our relationship. When he forced the discussion, I told him it wasn’t working. I started to contemplate other men, and fantasize about his meeting someone else, just so he would back down.

I wanted it to be over. But on a deeper level, I must have believed that wasn’t an option and that he would be there no matter what I said or did.

I guess in some way I was relying on that fact. Because when his e-mail arrived one morning saying he had met another woman and was ready to move on, I felt punched.

Did I ever love my Indian boyfriend? I don’t know. I do know that I was smitten with his love for me.




NYTimes 9

Yes, I Really Am Bisexual. Deal With It.

When I told Jared I’m bisexual, he couldn’t, or at least didn’t, hide his discomfort.

“Why do you have to announce it like that, like it’s still relevant?” he asked, his eyes darting around the restaurant as if he were on the lookout for gun-toting bigots or maybe a pack of lesbians (in sensible shoes) poised to drag me off and feed me herbal tea. “When we get married and have kids, it won’t matter who we dated before we met.”

He spoke with such dazzling confidence, I breezed right past his bold assumptions. This ambitious, unapologetic doctor who apparently was going to become my husband had a point. I didn’t want to hear about his ex-girlfriends beyond what terrible lovers and inadequate friends, cooks and travel companions they were. Why would he want to hear about mine?

But I wasn’t looking to chronicle my romantic escapades. I was clarifying my identity. I like men and I like women. That way. I’m attracted to both, fantasize about both, have dated and kissed and enjoyed sex with both. I like the soft roundedness I’ve found in women, the scratchy ridiculousness I’ve found in men, and the culinary generosity I’ve found in both.

If you lined up 100 people I’m physically drawn to, maybe only 4 would be women, but the depth of attraction I’d feel for those women would be the same as for the men. This was true when I was 23 and entered my first romantic relationship (with a woman), and it’s true now that I’m 38. I do not think of myself as 4 percent lesbian but 100 percent bisexual.

“I’m not saying I want to be with men and women at the same time or alternate back and forth,” I told Jared, cocking my head like a parakeet in an attempt to make eye contact. “And I’m not suggesting, like, threesomes. My longest relationship was with a woman, and I pictured a wedding, trips to Europe, raising kids. I’ve been to couples’ counseling with a woman. So yeah, it’s relevant.”

Over the next few weeks, as I felt myself falling quickly under Jared’s self-assured spell, I became terrified of clasping his hand and stepping onto the hetero-normative conveyor belt: engagement, wedding, mortgage, children, evenings on the couch watching a bunch of straight people behave just like us on TV. My woman-loving side would be obliterated, and with it a piece of myself.

Once I was committed to this man, how would anyone know I also liked women unless I went out of my way to tell them? And under what circumstances would I do that? If I was going to hitch my star to Jared’s till death did us part, I had to still honor the jeans-wearing, boot-stomping, Ani DiFranco-loving, I-don’t-need-no-man side of myself.

Early on, I’d made coming out part of my routine. First date: Reveal introverted bookishness (usually made obvious by my cat-eye glasses and social awkwardness). Second date: Pet heavily. Third date: Announce bisexuality.

No matter how open-minded I believed my companion to be, the coming-out conversation was always excruciating. I was a sweaty, self-conscious mess, having no idea what reaction I would get. Would I feel as if I was seen and heard and accepted and embraced — the whole object of the painful, naked-making horror show that is dating? Or would I get metaphorically punched in the gut, shamed for merely being who I am? Would she shrug? Would he think it was hot?

“So you’re, like, one of those four-year lesbians,” one guy said in the middle of a make-out session — no matter that all my relationships, gay and straight, have taken place after college.

“I think you’re just too timid to face your deepest personal truth,” one woman told me as she reached for my shirt buttons.

A man I was on the verge of loving said he was “totally cool with it” — so long as I didn’t mention anything to his parents.

Would they next ask me to explain why I can’t choose, to untangle the mystery of how I can be drawn with equally lusty force to both Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal? Who can explicate their attractions, their fantasies, their loves?

I could say I like variety, but I always get a manhattan, in a lowball glass if possible. I could claim I’m on the prowl for new experiences, but usually I’d rather stay home and read a book. I could profess to love ambiguity, but nothing drives me crazier than trying to follow the “plot” of an art-house film.

It’s true that I gravitate toward seeming contradictions — a buff, heavily tattooed guy stooping to pet a kitten, or a delicate, longhaired woman with perfect makeup pounding a bunch of nails — but that only explains so much.

Bisexual people have gotten a bad rap for so long. To some, we’re confused sex maniacs who love threesomes, hate monogamy and spread AIDS to straight people. We’re totally gay but too petrified to admit it, or we’re totally straight and “just going through a phase.”

Protective friends counseled me not to mention my orientation until later in the wooing process. “Why scare people off?” they would say. “Not everyone’s as comfortable with the whole ‘bi’ thing as you.”

They suggested it might be better to let people fall for me before I came clean, so when I did, my love interest would already be too smitten to dump me (the same advice, I imagined, given to registered sex offenders and convicts on parole).

But waiting until someone likes me before I share potentially hard-to-swallow aspects of myself has never been my style.

Jared contacted me on an online dating site, and before we had even met I told him via e-mail that I hate tofu, sausage and girlie cocktails; I’m sensitive about textures, depictions of violence and buzzing noises; and even though I was only 32, I was wary he would indicate on his profile that his age cutoff for women was 36, a full two years younger than he was. What was the deal with that?

My declarations and pushy questions made him wonder if he was pursuing the wrong woman, and he required a glass of Jack Daniel’s and a phone consult with his mother before e-mailing me back. Still, he agreed to meet me. And in the six years of our relationship, I’ve never once had to pretend to enjoy a tofu-sausage scramble and frozen daiquiri while watching “Pulp Fiction.”

Better to be upfront, I knew, than trick him into believing I was a stiletto-wearing hetero girl, only to reveal my true self after the honeymoon, once we were married and pregnant and had everything to lose. What if he found the whole thing — found me — too threatening and weird?

By the time I dropped the B-bomb, on our third date, Jared was well prepared for my proclamations of selfhood. And he did not run away screaming. Instead, he eventually bought a sparkly vintage ring, proposed on a tiny Hawaiian beach, got me pregnant on Valentine’s Day, and declared before our closest friends and family that he would love me in sickness, health and, I have to assume, in moments when I’m crushing on some woman.

In our little family, Jared is more or less the sole breadwinner, and I’m usually at home making sure our two children don’t stick their diminutive flatware in the outlets — which is to say, our roles aren’t just hetero-normative but old-school hetero-normative.

Is it strange that I call myself bisexual even though he and I have been married for four years and I haven’t so much as held hands with a woman in seven or eight? Is it reasonable for me to claim queerness when I’ve benefited so much from heterosexual privilege: shared health insurance, uncomplicated baby-making, implicit legal guardianship, inarguable life insurance beneficiaries, a federally recognized union?

Strange or not, reasonable or not, it is what I am. And because my bi-ness seldom has occasion to come up organically, I intermittently bring it up apropos of nothing. “I can’t pick a restaurant — I’m bisexual,” I’ll say. Or “I’m wearing jeans and a skirt today because, you know, I’m bisexual.”

“How’s that working out for you?” Jared asked the last time I did this, feigning nonchalance.

“Pretty great,” I said with a smile I tried to make reassuring. Then I couldn’t stop myself from adding, “When we’re old and the kids have forced us into a nursing home, it could work out particularly well, given how much older you are and the fact that women live longer than men.”

Even when I’m gray and wrinkled and have had my life forcibly downsized and my driver’s license revoked and my wardrobe reduced to velour loungewear, I will still go both ways. And when I’m an octogenarian, I’m sure I’ll find sensible shoes to be an even bigger turn-on than I already do.




NYTimes 8

Adrift Too Long, Searching for a Navigator

I was hurtling toward Brooklyn on the Q train, wearing cherry-red pants that hugged my hips. He was tall, bald, in his early 30s, with pale skin, tired eyes and a thin nose over a goatee. His smile was bashful, but his legs, in baggy track pants, were spread confidently on the orange seat.

I stood up and studied the map as if I had no idea where I was going, putting a little tilt in my pelvis. As he kept the place in his book with one long finger, his eyes followed the curve of my back.

“What are you reading?” I asked, dropping down beside him. His attention made me bold.

“Middlesex.” He showed me the cover.

“Is it good?”

“It is,” he said. “I’m Luke.”

I took his hand, squeezing closer to him. “I’m Leah.”

He smiled. “Like the princess.”

“Which princess?”

“Princess Leia, from ‘Star Wars.’ ”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “I’ve never seen it.”

“Your name is Leah and you’ve never seen ‘Star Wars’?”

“Uh-uh.” I flipped my hair over my shoulder. At 22, I had finally, in the last year, heard Beatles music, watched a Woody Allen movie and seen an episode of “Sesame Street,” but my knowledge of pop culture was still spotty.

I had been raised in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. As a girl, my life had revolved around modesty, obedience and dreams of an arranged marriage at 18, followed by a dozen children. Popular movies were irrelevant and forbidden.

But it had been six years since my parents ostracized me for having written letters to a boy; wanting to go to college; complaining when my father, a prominent rabbi, used a slur to describe an African-American person; and wearing an immodest sweater that highlighted my curves. Six years of wrestling with my forbidden desires.

I had finally given up on God and decided I would allow myself to be liberated from the confines of my faith. Now I was catching up on what I had missed.

“A Princess Leia who has never seen ‘Star Wars.’ ” Luke shook his head in wonder.

Of course, I didn’t get the significance of his being named Luke either.

We agreed to meet up two days later.

After showing me around his apartment, Luke hugged me, caressing my back with firm hands as his tongue found mine. We moved to the couch, and I sat on his lap, shedding my clothing, wrapping my arms around his neck. The moment was so intense I could not stop myself from moaning, “I love you.”

Eyes wide, Luke told me he loved me too.

I knew about love of God, the complete abdication of personal will to fulfill divine commandments. I knew about my mother’s love for my father: She hovered at his shoulder with a dish of food and a laugh for his jokes, her ever-pregnant belly stretching the front of her sweaters. But I had never encountered true love in the secular world. This must be what it feels like, I thought. A physical feeling that takes your breath away.

There had been several men in the months before Luke: the guy with 11 fingers, the married Orthodox colleague, the young Jehovah’s Witness, the Israeli techie and the Irish bartender.

Luke was different from those random flings. We talked like old friends about books, Brooklyn, our lives. The next morning, when we hugged goodbye, it felt as if we had already shed a layer of defenses that usually took months to peel away. Our connection seemed deep and profound. On my way home, I let myself imagine what it might be like to wake up every morning with him. I tried on his last name. I wondered what kind of father he might be.

The next time I saw him, he admitted he had a girlfriend. He liked me, but he would not leave her. His confession punctured my dreams, yet I was determined to make it work, whatever “it” was.

That afternoon, Luke asked how I felt about criticism.

“I can handle it,” I said. Despite my disappointment that Luke wanted casual sex, not commitment, I still wanted to be the girl I thought he wanted.

Later that evening, when he poked at the soft ridge of my belly and suggested I was fat, I realized what he meant by criticism. But by then it was too late to protest. And I wouldn’t have known how.

After we had sex, I went home and lay in bed with tears sliding over my ears. Luke would never become a great fairy-tale romance. This is how it would be, I realized. I had given up on ultra-Orthodoxy, and as my parents and rabbis had taught me, I would now be condemned to a lifetime of failed relationships. I could not expect to escape the discord that defined the nonbeliever’s life.

Luke and I met up a few times over the next year. Late one Saturday night, I woke to the phone ringing. Could I come over, Luke wanted to know. He was returning home from the clubs alone and wanted company.

I threw off the covers and went to brush my teeth. Despite my liberation, my mind had not released me from the patriarchal values of my religious youth. Luke wanted me: I went.

Later, as we lay together in a tangle of sheets, I said: “Man, that was good. Why didn’t we work out again?” I hadn’t forgotten about his girlfriend or his criticism, but I felt nostalgic for what seemed like a missed opportunity between us. I still had no man in my life, and in the oxytocin haze, I wondered if maybe Luke and I could make it work.

Luke turned on his side and put a sympathetic finger on my ribs. “I’m afraid you’re a little too intense for me,” he said. “I’m afraid that your hunger for this, for me, is your attempt to fill some hunger in yourself that only you can fill.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” I said. I had told him a little about my past. It was hard to prevent some pieces of my history from filtering into my conversation. But I didn’t think he really understood me.

His palm slid around the contours of my shoulders. “I get what you’ve been through. I have a theory about what happened. I think your dad saw you hit puberty, and he couldn’t handle you turning into the woman you are, so he pushed you out.” His hand slid down my side, but I moved away.

Growing up in Pittsburgh as the fifth of 11 children, I had tried to cement my status as my father’s favorite by emulating his proselytizing, trying to convince my less-religious classmates to follow my family’s ultra-Orthodox ways. My father was a firm and dignified man, but after he sent me to a strict high school in England, I had been stung by the hypocrisies of the larger ultra-Orthodox community and hurt by my parents’ brutal response to my curiosity. Then there had been my crushes, rebellions, anger, boyfriends, trauma and failed attempts to climb back into a pious lifestyle.

There had been triumphs, too — attending college, success at work, holding it together when I was sure I would split apart. As much as my father had failed me, I had become so much more than just my father’s daughter, more than just the product of his abdicating his role.

As morning light filled the room, I realized Luke was right in saying that my hunger for him, for sex, for men, was an attempt to fill a hunger only I could satisfy. In my new life, I didn’t often think of the teachings that had shaped my youth, but now I remembered a Hebrew teaching spoken by the sage Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

I would have to be for me. But the next question of Hillel’s teaching brought me, immediately, to a new conundrum. “But when I am for myself, what am I?” What was a woman without a man to define her?

I had no idea. But I had wasted enough time trying to elevate inadequate men into gods worthy of my devotion.

“If not now, when,” the ancient teaching ended.

Now? Not immediately. I did have a bagel with Luke that morning. But I saw myself laughing at his silly jokes, trying to pad his ego. I watched myself crossing my legs and playing with my hair. I saw myself trying to keep this man happy.

I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was ready for something new.




NYTimes 7

How to Break Up With a 2-Year-Old

A few months after I turned 40, a friend set me up with a guy she thought I’d like. She gave me a quick rundown: 50, former drummer now with a desk job, father of a 9-month-old girl.

“Wait, he has a 9-month-old?” I exclaimed. “What happened to the wife?”

There is no wife, she assured me. He’d gotten a woman pregnant after a brief period of dating; they now shared custody of their daughter.

Though I’d never dated a man with kids, I badly wanted children. With my eggs in their last viable years, I knew I’d never have the three or four children I’d dreamed of. But if this relationship worked, at least my future child would have an older sibling.

Most of all, I wanted a partner. No — I wanted a husband. For years I’d tried to pretend I was O.K. with my single status. I fought the clichés, but each eventually applied: I was tired of carrying the financial burden of my life alone. I felt depressed every time I had to check “single” on a form and when I sat down for a fancy meal I’d prepared for one.

Friends told me a relationship would appear when I least expected it, as if love could blossom only in the presence of nonchalance. My vigilance, I figured, must have driven it away. So when my friend suggested I go out with this guy who seemed promising, I had to tell myself not to get caught up in the fantasy.

“Sure,” I said casually. “I’ll go out with him.”

Andrew and I met at a coffee shop in Santa Monica, and I liked him immediately. Laugh lines framed his eyes and his laid-back manner put me at ease. He showed me photos of his daughter with wavy blond hair, blue eyes and chubby arms and legs. She was adorable and he clearly loved her, which made him even more attractive.

Within two weeks we were calling ourselves a couple. To friends, I crowed that I’d finally met the One. Soon after, I met his daughter. Both Andrew and I felt it was O.K. to ignore the recommendation to date for six months before introducing a new partner to a child. After all, she was an infant, too young, we presumed, to be affected by a breakup. A breakup wasn’t part of our plan, anyway.

In the beginning, spending time with his daughter felt like unpaid baby-sitting: warming bottles, changing diapers, cleaning clothes. Though she was placid, child care is exhausting no matter what. By the time we put her to bed, my boyfriend and I were spent.

“We’re already acting like an old married couple,” I complained, citing the canceled dinners, bickering and infrequent sex.

“Welcome to motherhood!” said my married girlfriends.

I didn’t fall for his baby girl right away. It was our daily interaction that connected us: driving her to day care, singing the ABCs, watching “Elmo’s Got the Moves” on my iPhone.

At night, as we lay among pillows reading “Goodnight Moon,” she held her bottle in one hand and stroked my arm with the other. I was there when she learned to walk, crying out in victory as she toddled triumphantly toward me. When Andrew and I dropped her off at a friend’s house so we could go to a movie, she would bury her head in my shoulder and refuse to let the sitter take her. On the nights she was with her mother, I missed her desperately.

Unable to pronounce my name, she called me “Ooh-ahh.” Within six months, she was calling for me in the night as often as she did Andrew. At the first sound of her stirring, I would insist he go back to sleep, then I would leap out of bed, gather her into my arms, and give her a bottle. Our bond was cemented in those hushed, nighttime hours.

One night she woke up screaming. I rushed in to find that she’d vomited all over her crib. When I picked her up, she vomited again, on me. While Andrew called the doctor and I rocked her, she looked at me with searching, desperate eyes.

I was overwhelmed by her vulnerability. I’d been single for so long that feeling this needed came as a shock. With her finally asleep again, I stumbled into the bathroom to wash my face. Meeting my reflection, I saw a frazzled woman with vomit in her hair. I had to laugh: I’d spent years looking my best for work and fabulous events. But in my boyfriend’s smudgy mirror, I saw a person who actually looked good.

Yet as my connection with her deepened, my relationship with Andrew was unraveling. We fought because he didn’t like to spend money, because I was too controlling, because we were on completely different sleep schedules. But caring for a child was so consuming it was easy to ignore how bad things had become. The thought of leaving Andrew was painful — the thought of leaving that little girl, impossible.

With my 41st birthday looming, I couldn’t imagine meeting someone new, dating, getting engaged, marrying and then trying to have a baby. At a deeper level, I felt as if I already had a child I loved. It was torture to take her through her routines knowing I might have to leave. So I put it off, assuaging my guilt by buying her bath toys and clothes.

Until one day when I finally found myself in Andrew’s living room with my bags packed, mustering the courage to say goodbye. While Andrew cleaned up our breakfast, I squatted to his daughter’s level, hugged her and said I loved her.

She tugged at my iPhone, demanding Elmo. A good friend had warned: “Don’t get emotional or she will, too.” If I did one thing right that day, it was waiting until the door closed behind me to let the tears flow.

I’ve never been good at clean breaks, but this turned out to be the most agonizing ever. I rented a house blocks away, telling myself it was too good a deal to pass up, but the truth was, I wanted to stay close. For the next six months Andrew and I went back and forth, trying to decide if we could make the relationship work.

He didn’t keep me from seeing his daughter, but I stayed away, worried my presence would confuse her. A psychologist assured me she would be fine, but I couldn’t help but feel I had scarred her. As for me, I felt as though she’d been ripped from my arms like the wrenching scenes of adoption reversals I’d seen on TV. There were times I thought: People stay in unhappy marriages for the kids all the time. Maybe I should, too?

In the end, my therapist helped me see the folly of that logic.

If there was one bright spot, it was this: My time with her made clear to me not only that I wanted children, I also wanted them no matter what, partner or no. Nine months later I made an appointment to see a fertility doctor. Looking through my options, I saw that the quickest and most cost-effective way to motherhood was to get pregnant via a sperm donor. Adoption would be my Plan B. I knew, now, that I could love a child who wasn’t my flesh and blood.

The day before my insemination, I ran into Andrew near my house. He was pushing his now 2-year-old daughter in a stroller. It had been 10 months since I’d seen her. I’d dreamed of this moment. In one scenario, she leapt into my arms. In another, she failed to remember me. I couldn’t decide which would feel worse.

In the end, neither happened. She offered a shy smile. When Andrew asked, “Who is that?” she murmured, “Ooh-ahh.”

For 20 minutes I crouched before her, playing peekaboo and pointing out colors in the sky. She looked happy, loved and taller than I remembered, which broke my heart. She was growing up and I was missing it.

When we parted, I felt my knees wobble. After almost a year of not running into her, why did I see her on that day, of all days? Maybe the universe was showing me a sign: Love this one instead!

Steeling myself, I went forward. Two weeks after the insemination, I took a pregnancy test. My hands shaking, I stared at the stick. It was positive.

I was 41 and had never been pregnant. My first thought was, “Can I love another baby as much as I love her?” One of my girlfriends, the mother of a 6-year-old boy, rolled her eyes: “Oh jeez, just wait.”

So I wait. Recently, while curled up on the couch with my dog, it came to me: My bittersweet run-in with the toddler I missed so much had indeed been a sign, telling me I was exactly where I was supposed to be — and even, I dared to believe, that I had her blessing.



English learner


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