A prompt on the Hinge dating app asks for two truths and a lie. I could say: I was in a cult as a teenager. I got engaged after only two months of dating. I had a stroke at 44, after ending my 19-year marriage.
The only catch? All three are true.
I joined a cult because I didn’t know myself. Then I rushed into marriage because I still didn’t know myself. The marriage was my first and only long-term relationship. I used to be embarrassed about this. It was a painful marriage, but I don’t like to say that because it feels like a disservice to the beautiful things in it, especially our three children.
At the end of “The Wizard of Oz,” Glinda tells Dorothy, “You’ve always had the power.” I used to hate that line, but now it makes sense. I didn’t understand the power I had. Sure, someone could have told me sooner. I wouldn’t have believed them, though.
Near the end of my marriage, I saw a man across a room and both of us felt an electric sense of recognition. We became friends. With him, I experienced what it was like to feel truly safe. I felt sure nothing could diminish me in his view.
Our friendship was the red thread that finally led me out of the labyrinth. Eventually, though, it became impossible to ignore the elephant — we were attracted to each other, but we were both married and neither of us was willing to have an affair. Reluctantly, we said goodbye. We never touched, but it still managed to upend both of our lives.
After my stroke, I spent a week in the hospital. My hand and arm were blue-black from all the blood drawn. I couldn’t walk easily. I felt hopeless until he texted. We tried to process the situation.
“I feel like you now live in the place within me where I go to be alone,” he said.
He was afraid to be a cliché, wary of fantasy. He had been through several intense relationships and was in his second marriage. I’d had only the one. I said I felt like I had lost out.
“You set your own desires aside for your kids,” he said. “You didn’t lose, you gave.” He thought I needed to be more selfish while admitting he couldn’t be. We said goodbye again, for good this time. I grieved him more than my marriage.
It took me a year and a half to try dating. The first guy I went out with had candles blazing and a seduction mix queued up when I arrived. We made out for 20 minutes and then the date ended. I felt like I had auditioned to be someone’s girlfriend and didn’t get the part.
A few months later — a handful of dates with someone else, another dead end.
Eventually I realized every person I had ever crushed on had been unavailable in some way. Other revelations followed, but I hesitated to try again.
Last fall, I met someone through work. His pale green eyes met mine, and he stepped really close. It seemed involuntary. Normally, the proximity would have unsettled me, but I was intrigued.
“New crush just dropped,” I joked to a co-worker.
We met to collaborate on a project. There was an easy intimacy. He made intense eye contact, stroking his face and running his hands through his hair. I recognized his body language conveyed something, but I didn’t trust my interpretation.
My daughter came up behind me when I was on my phone and said, “Oh my God, are you seriously Googling whether someone’s body language says they’re attracted to you?”
“Yeah,” I said, embarrassed.
I was 47. He was at least 10 years younger, so I figured he couldn’t possibly be interested in anything other than a professional relationship with me.
When I took a new job with a different organization, I reached out about a program, and we chatted. He asked how long I had been divorced.
Maybe he was interested? No way.
Then he asked how old I was when I got married and how long we had been together.
I told him and thought: Here we go. He’ll do the math and this will end.
Instead, he said, “What are you doing tonight?”
“Seeing a movie.”
“I would have liked to go if I weren’t in the city,” he said.
“Watch out,” my daughter joked. “He might be a MILF hunter.”
We met up the following Tuesday. He hugged hello and goodbye. I still wasn’t sure it was a date. Was he into me or not?
Later, he broached the topic. No more confusion.
I looked in the mirror and cringed, thinking of the flawless 30-something bodies he was probably used to seeing. But he seemed happy enough with mine. We were well-matched in many ways. Most of the time, it didn’t feel like there was an age gap. Once, though, he said, “I wish I had been a teenager in the ’90s” and I, having been a teenager in the ’90s, wished I could disappear.
He knew about the cult, so he understood I hadn’t really been a teenager in the ’90s — at least not a typical one. I told him how when I left the cult, I didn’t know any of the music from that time; it was as if I’d been Amish.
“If you hadn’t joined the cult, you would have been part of the riot grrrl scene,” he said. “Maybe you would have been in a band.”
I hadn’t expected to feel so seen by anyone since I said goodbye to the man with the red thread. I found myself daring to hope maybe this could be something.
It wasn’t. He ran hot and cold. When we talked about it, he said, “If it makes you feel better, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.” When he kept withdrawing, I told him I couldn’t handle it. We said we would remain friends.
A couple of weeks later, I was with my son and daughter when he texted.
“Can you really just be friends?” my daughter said. “Won’t it make you sad?”
“What if he talks about other girls?” my son said. “Will you feel disappointed?”
Listening to their thoughts, I felt hopeful for them. It took me far too long to learn this stuff. They understood it so much sooner. Maybe they would make fewer mistakes than I had.
He texted again the following week and invited me to hang out. Against my better judgment, I went. He played music while I wrote and sketched. That parallel time was everything to me.
Later, he sat next to me on the couch and asked, “Do you mind if I sit closer?”
I should have said no. So much for just being friends.
When we slept together in the past, he had been so present, so connected. Now, he was elsewhere. Silent, eyes shut. Meeting a need.
Two days later, I told him we couldn’t see each other anymore. I was sad but not heartbroken. Sure, I was disappointed, but I preferred to grieve the friendship than cling to fantasies about our potential. I could acknowledge that although I cared about him, I couldn’t stay in a situation that was painful.
In the past, the fantasy would have eclipsed the reality. I would have believed it was love, letting it drag on even if it made me irritable and anxious. I would have wasted hours analyzing what I did wrong and waiting for him to come around.
This time, I could see the dead end. I wanted something consistent, and he couldn’t give it to me. I was willing to wait for someone who could. Instead of failure, it felt like an act of love.
It seemed so obvious that I couldn’t help wondering why it took me so long. I had to accept that I didn’t get to skip the learning curve.
Recently, my children and I were talking and laughing together, and it was the brightest joy. I remembered how the man with the red thread said I didn’t lose. He was right. I also remembered how he struggled with fantasy. “I need to learn how to sit with the void instead of trying to fill it,” he had explained.
At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant, but now I do. I’ve had to learn how to sit with the void too. I’ve needed to be present and love myself.
I’m no longer embarrassed that my path is unusual. I look in the mirror and feel such tenderness for the woman I see. I smile, thinking: It’s already been a full life. And there’s still time.