First Dates After Divorce

Sticking my big toe into the murky waters of personals ads

Among the more memorable things I hurled at my about-to-be ex-husband during our divorce more than 25 years ago was “I can’t believe I have to date again! This is the worst thing you’ve ever done to me!”

Those were the days before email and cell phones were commonplace, and so we shouted at each other, emoting into the receivers of old-fashioned landlines from a distance of 3,000 miles. He was in San Francisco, I in New York. That was part of the problem. We’d upended our lives on the East Coast for that charming little city by the bay, and after a year and a half I hated it with a passion and with his encouragement moved back to Gotham. We were going to have a trans-continental commuting marriage for a spell, or so I thought.

And it seemed to be working for about a year, until I returned to San Francisco for a long weekend and discovered his personals ad in the Bay Guardian. He billed himself as a “Mel Gibson lookalike,” an athlete (he plays golf) and a scholar (he has a degree from the Harvard extension school). It was clear that he had no hesitations about fucking someone else in our bed, in our “beautiful Pacific Heights home” (though in reality we lived in Russian Hill.)

So there we were, divorcing. And yelling at each other.

“Who’s going to want a 42-year-old woman?” I wailed at one point.

“Then why should I want one?” he shot back.

But that wasn’t the worst of the exchanges. The worst was when he gratuitously opined, “I haven’t been attracted to you for years.” “Gratuitous” because at this point I’d already been served with papers and I was reasonably sure he’d moved in with a girlfriend.

Nonetheless acceptance was slow in coming. If I was ever to have another partner, or even sex again, presumably with some age-appropriate person, I would have to “put myself out there.”

Dating. Just the word itself made my gut heave; the ten-pound stone I had begun to carry in the place where my heart once pumped would rock and swell in size.  When my mother prodded for details on the divorce, noting, “I suppose you are going to date again?” she made the idea sound like something vaguely obscene. She might just as easily have said, “I suppose you are going to suck some new guy’s dick.”

Dating. I hadn’t the slightest idea how to go about it. When I thumbed through my mental Rolodex, I realized there probably wasn’t a soul I could ask who had a brother or a cousin or unattached friends, and I would have felt vaguely shameful even asking. I trusted the flirting instinct might come back in time and had tried somewhat unsuccessfully to venture a little banter with the occasional seemingly available man at art openings (because by then I was on staff at ARTnews) but the muscles in my face felt screwed up, as though my head were one of those écorché skulls artists once used to understand anatomy.

This was a couple of years before Internet dating sites, when the personals at the back of magazines offered the only venues for matchmaking. And so I took out an ad in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, coincidentally the marketplace where I had first found my ex (for a job, not for romance, and for the full story on that you will have to stick with the reminiscences in Eat My Memoir).

If memory serves, I received a total of about three responses to a P.O. box through the magazine.  One was from a student, 20-ish, who wanted to “get it on” with “an older woman” and wondered if I’d been at Woodstock. The others, well, the others….I have blocked the memories.

Next I turned to the New York Magazine personals, and discovered how much work it really took to drum up suitable candidates. I had a long phone conversation with a guy who sounded like a possibility until he admitted that he suffered from alopecia and had no hair, absolutely none—not on his head, above or around his eyes, on his chest—anywhere on his body. I had a drink with a “Tom Brokaw lookalike” who burst into tears while talking about his ex. I received at least one response with a photo of genitalia or six-pack abs.

Finally I connected with a guy named Bill who said he was an art collector (we will run into more of these later and discover that good taste really doesn’t mean much of anything). He said he owned prints by Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, and Cy Twombly—all biggies in the art world. He described himself as an Ed Harris lookalike (“lookalikes” are very big in the personals world).  He said he didn’t want to do endless back-and-forth on and offered his phone number. And from somewhere I summoned up the nerve to call. After a few minutes of chitchat, I blurted out point blank: “Look, I’m really new to this stuff. I don’t think I’ve had a date in more than 15 years. I don’t know what the etiquette is….”

His laugh was more of a bark. “Yeah, well, I’ve been at it for only a few months myself, since my ex peeled out of my life. Maybe I’m not really ready yet myself. But what the hell….life is short.”

“Do we meet for a drink or what?”

“Since I’ll be driving in from Nyack most likely, I would say we need to bite the bullet and shoot for dinner.”

At least his metaphors weren’t too badly mixed, and he had a low and appealing voice on the phone.

We settled on Friday night. I told him to choose the restaurant and let me know where to meet him.

His selection was a classic bistro-type place in the East 50s. I was 15 minutes early and waited at the bar, sipping Chardonnay, dressed in a red wool sheath from Filene’s, worried that it made me look a little too vibrant. I remember pearls and black patent-leather heels. All in all, I felt like I was dressed up for an interview as a cocktail hostess, but the effect, as my full-length mirror at home informed me, didn’t seem half bad.

At least he looked visibly pleased when he spotted me. And I could let out a sigh of relief too. He was tall, as advertised, and did look a little like Ed Harris, but with a shaggier fringe of hair, glasses, and, as I soon discovered, a nervous habit of wiping the side of his nose with one hand, the way a cat will swipe at its face while washing. His voice also seemed much louder than when we talked and he was a few years older than his advertised 50 years. But all in all, he was presentable in a tweed jacket and subdued tie.

After we were seated at a corner table, he immediately ordered a very dry Bombay martini and, without asking, another glass of whatever I was drinking, though at that point I was ready to switch to sparkling water. I was trying hard to cut back on the post-divorce drinking.

He flapped open the menu. “Ya gotta try the coq au vin here,” he said. “And the salade frisée is fabulous. Unless you’re one of those vegetarian types.”

I shook my head no and looked around me. Did other people notice what a loud voice he had?

He told me his specialty was laser eye surgery and his clients came from all over the country.

“Then you must be very good at what you do.”

“Yeah.” He took another swipe at the side of his nose. “But what I really love to do is play golf and collect art.”

“Tell me more about your collection.” I propped my chin on my hands and pretended serious interest, though by then my biggest interest was in making a short evening of it. Within five minutes, I would soon discover, you know if you want to see someone again, and I had no interest in spending any more time with Bill than I had to once the evening was over.

“Yeah, well. The prints I bought when I was dating an art adviser years and years ago. But what I really love is this stuff by this guy Erté. You ever heard of him?”

An Erté Sculpture from the 1920s

“Yes,” I said, almost inaudibly. In my book, he was about the kitschiest of the Art Deco designers, suitable mainly for Las Vegas hotel rooms.

“I’ve got this little sculpture of a naked girl in the shape of an L, for Landmann. That’s my last name, if I haven’t told you. Her legs are up in the air and she’s laying on her back. Really sexy.” He signaled the waiter for another martini. “What about you? You write about art, so do you collect?”

“Not really. I wouldn’t know what to buy….there’s so much that’s wonderful out there.” But not Erté, I wanted to add, feeling mean and angry that I hadn’t been able to limit this guy to a drink and was faced with an entire dinner in his company.  And by the time the main course arrived, he was clearly half in the bag. And I was wondering who on earth would trust her eyeballs to this lout. By the time he told me a little about the girlfriend of six years who had left him in September, I was looking around to see how much of his conversation was pricking the ears of other diners. But the restaurant had filled up (at least the food was excellent) and no one seemed to notice, not even when he announced, “Couldn’t understand it. We had a fabulous sex life right up to the end. Three times a week, at least. One night was for her, one night was for me, and one night was for the both of us.”

Pushing a crust of bread around my plate, I tried not to think about the mechanics of this. “Then why did she leave?”

“I dunno.” He removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose,  closing his eyes, as though fighting back tears. “She got itchy.  That time of life, I think.”

I didn’t know this woman, but my heart was going out to her.

“You know,” Bill added, “I’ve reached the point where I just won’t go out with a woman older than forty-five. Ever. I just can’t go through that menopause shit again.”

Well, what are you looking for? I wanted to scream. A twenty-five year-old who’ll be on hormone therapy by the time you’re on your death bed? Why even go out with me? I told you my age in the ad. If we were to hit it off, which will never ever happen, you’re just going to have to suffer through the “pause” with me.

He suddenly grabbed my hand, squeezing hard enough to hurt.  “I know I’m running on too much. Forgive me. I guess I’m just not over it.”

I managed to wriggle free of his grasp. “If you don’t mind….it’s been a long week for me. The art fairs, you know.” I was lying. “And I’m not really used to three glasses of wine at dinner.” I lied again.

“Sure, sure. I’ll drive ya home. I got a nifty red Porsche.”

“No, please. Get me a cab. That way you can just shoot up the FDR. Much as I would love a ride in your Porsche,” I said sweetly.

“You wanna see me again?” he asked forlornly.

“Let’s talk.”

When I got back to my apartment, I pulled out a photo of my about-to-be ex, one of the few I had not torn up, and cried for half an hour. How could you do this to me, I wailed to myself over and over. Dating! At my age! You miserable turd.