I’ve been avoiding the topic of dating. It’s primarily, although not exclusively, an issue of tone. The only voice that seems to fit is one of black comedy, which fiction is best suited to support. Because the whole thing is fucking absurd, on multiple levels. Your baby should not die. And should your baby die, you should dissolve quietly and decorously into a family structure, never to be heard from again except in the proscribed places and the acceptable ways: at school pickup, or the gym, or the therapist. Get a journal. Volunteer in the neonatal unit. You are not meant to buy a spandex skirt from American Apparel and go on Tinder.
The situation is akin to a Grace Paley protagonist, sitting on the stoop and greeting her ex-husband as he passes. It’s like a Bible salesman stealing a girl’s artificial leg. It’s Donald Barthelme riffing on his dead father. It’s any Lorrie Moore character ever.
One of Jonathan’s close friends has a sister who is an ob/gyn, and right after Balthazar died she told Jessica that Jonathan and I would divorce. It wouldn’t happen right away, she said, but it would happen. Then I read that Emily Rapp, who wrote Still Point of the Turning World about her son’s slow death from Tay-Sachs disease, had divorced. Not that I wanted that for her, or anyone, but it made me feel, if not absolved, at least less culpable. A writer, a tragic circumstance involving a child, a divorce. See? I told all of the voices, inside of my mind and out, who were busily judging me, it’s not ALL my fault.
Still, most people who lose a child, despite what you’ve heard, do stay married. I don’t know how any of them do it, except that in the case of stillbirth it seems that most if not all have another baby if they can. But it does make my situation, if not unique, at least anomalous.
Here is the protagonist of Anne Enright’s remarkable novel The Gathering: “I thought about this, as I sat in the Shelbourne bar—that I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn’t seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died.”
And when and if a death has rendered you unfit to live more or less contentedly at an emotional remove from your own life, you might find yourself out at 2am, listening to a local band play a dive bar, drinking Bulleit on the rocks and kissing someone on the sidewalk. Who is the person who is doing these things? you might ask yourself. Was she in there all this time? Is it good to let her out, or would continuing to suppress her have been the better course?
I imagine that trying to date in your forties would be fraught no matter the circumstances, and perhaps everyone at this age feels like they are walking beside a palanquin filled with personal disaster, just hoping that some other brave soul won’t be too put off by its weight and the darkness hidden behind its curtains, or at least not enough to take a peek and immediately light out for the hills, where the unbaggaged thirtysomethings Instagram their picnics of locally distilled moonshine and homemade charcuterie while wearing garlands of peonies and significant tattoos, riding their vintage bicycles and saluting the sun on their salt-cured yoga mats.
I began dating two years after Balthazar died, when I was somewhere between crazed with grief and more or less fine, a section of the continuum I expect to occupy forever. I approached it a bit like a sociological experiment, which produced some weirdly meta moments as I texted with men who were ostensibly interested in me, asking how long they’d been doing this, how many other women they were in contact with, how many they’d gone out with, how many they’d kissed, how many they’d slept with. Statistics seemed an important way to manage an unfamiliar, chaotic and frightening system. It was the first and perhaps only time that I will ever seek refuge in math.
Because I hadn’t dated since Bill Clinton was president, and because things were radically different and because I had been none too good at it before, it was a steep learning curve, complicated by my identity as The Woman Whose Baby Recently Died. The fact of Balthazar still seemed like the most important thing about me, and though I didn’t put it on my OKCupid profile, perhaps I should have. It would have saved some men an awkward, discomfiting experience.
Like a woman in one of those contemporary Harlequin romance novels that were too cloying for me even when I was nine years old and flipping through my great aunt’s stash of paperbacks to find the really good sex parts, I was, at least initially, on a mission of wish fulfillment rather than reality. I was looking for a man who would be able to see all of it, all of my pain and vulnerability and be able to hold it. Not be horrified, or disgusted, or indifferent or uncomfortable. Who would not feel sorry for me. Who would enfold me in his arms. Who would lift the crushing, boulder-filled backpack of it off of my shoulders and carry it himself.
Instead, there was the man who, upon hearing the story of Balthazar, felt compelled to tell me about the bleeding scare his ex-wife had when she was pregnant with their daughter, now fourteen and a star soccer player. They were so scared. But then everything turned out fine after all!
Was that an attempt at empathy? I resisted the urge to stab him in the eye with a kitchen knife.
I got a few versions of ‘shit happens,’ and at least one ‘that’s heavy,’ but no one did or said the things I was hoping that someone would do or say. There was plenty of discomfort, maybe one or two moments of compassion, but nothing like what I was hoping for.
I now have some measure of compassion for these men. Now I think, bless their hearts, it’s a miracle they did as well as they did. They thought my picture on OK Cupid was cute, or that something I wrote was funny. They were hoping for flirty chitchat, or a frisson of romance, or hot sex. Instead they got a stranger telling them the story of a dead baby and waiting in the dark for them to do or say the impossible.
The truth is that most people are struggling hard enough with their own stuff that the last thing they want is to take on someone else’s, and if they do want to instantly take it on that’s probably not a good sign. It’s up to me to handle, and deal with, and fix. To dump some of those rocks by the side of the trail. To see myself whole, and hold it all for myself. When that happens, I expect someone better will meet me in the wildflower meadow with a vegan, gluten-free cheesecake and an iced tea.