My daughter brought me in from lonely street

WHEN I moved to the lonely side of the street, I didn't know what being alone would mean. I was exchanging a 22-year marriage for an empty apartment. First, I had to deal with pain, with guilt feelings, with a hideous sense of loss. With children torn between her and me. With their sense of betrayal by the two they had trusted the most. It was because of my daughter that I got through it.

This adjusting I had to do alone. I had always understood that being alone, living alone, was bad, especially for men. That we were considered the weaker sex - that we either jumped into hasty marriages rather than face coming home to an empty apartment - that we were prone to take to drinking because of loneliness; and worse, that we might die prematurely from loneliness.

I had never been alone in my life. I never had my own bedroom until I was a near-adult. As a child, I slept in the living room on a fold-up couch and shared that with a stepbrother. And so I slept my first night alone, in an empty bed, in an empty apartment, empty of all feelings save one - fear. I was truly alone and I was scared.

I will remember that first night for the rest of my life. How strange it was, crawling into bed, alone. How reluctant I was to put out the light. And finally, steeling myself, closing my eyes so that I would open them in the dark and maybe it would not be such a shock.

I could hide at work. But what about the endless evenings and nights now stretched out before me? How would I fill the hours? How would I address the world?

To make my fear even more real, I was a private person, a person who does not easily or readily seek out others. Who has a tendency to stay near the edge of a crowd and close to a door. Who always leaves early. Who has never mastered the art of small talk - who says what he has to say and stops talking. Who hates to talk on the phone for more than three minutes (if I can't say what I have to say in three minutes, then I didn't know what I wanted to say in the first place). Who hates crowds. Who is by nature a loner, but a loner who has never had the chance to practice his art. And here I was - alone and wondering how I was going to survive.

So, I felt, if I could get through the holidays without doing anything silly or foolish, I would probably make it all the way - even going home to an empty apartment.

I didn't tell anybody at work that we had separated - just let it seep out naturally. It was easier not to talk about it. Just went about my daily business as always. Only this time, there was nobody immediately to share it with, to ask about, to talk to, to consider before doing - which was the weirdest part - not having to stop and consider your partner anymore.

I had heard that it was beneficial to keep busy. So I kept busy: washing and cleaning and dusting and vacuuming and fussing and started all over again. But it didn't seem to help. Busy work was just that, and never actually engaged me. Besides, I have never been that fussy - so there was a little dust on the table or my windows were too cloudy to see out of. So?

Then I was advised to become a joiner - but no two lists were the same about what to join. For a time I drove all over the San Francisco Bay Area, joining this club and that organization - it was a royal kind of madness. But I discovered that I was supposed to carry on small talk and no matter the group, it all sounded the same. I watched a lot of football that winter.

There was a place I visited one time, farther north. I remember the drive there, reveling in the beautiful union of coast and sea. I had bought a weekend package - a sort of smorgasbord of experiences out of the many that were offered. I didn't have to talk if I didn't want to - listening got me by wonderfully well. Still, it was lonely.

I finally got up the courage to start dating. And being a rigidly honest fellow, I would tell the ladies right up front, feeling wonderfully righteous, that I was not looking for marriage or a serious commitment - which certainly got me as far as the door. But when a man announces that with the candor of a jerk.... Well, I spent a lot of time alone.

I was all for women's liberation, since I support everything they want to be liberated from, and didn't think anything of it if they called me for a date. They were certainly entitled to equal time. (I'm surprised I didn't also slap them on the back.) ``Sure,'' I would say, ``Give me a call.'' But the phone rarely rang after the first or second date.

On the other hand, there were a few dates I didn't want to see after the first or second time. But if the truth be known, most of it was my fault. It was hard to let go. It was even harder not being afraid of getting involved - of getting trapped again.

There was one woman, though: small, perky, bright, patient. She was such good company. And I must have bored her to death. I couldn't stop talking about what had happened - about my children - about my wife. In the middle of a sentence I would realize I was carrying on again and apologize and change the subject and 10 minutes later there I was again, before the separation. I really wanted to see much more of her, but after a while, she started canceling dates and I sort of stopped calling.

Groups didn't work. Single dates didn't work. Being one of the boys didn't work. The pain of being alone and not being able to deal with it was always just a hair's breadth away.

And then, one Saturday afternoon, I went to a matinee with my 11-year-old daughter. The film was so bad that as we were leaving the theater, I insisted that I could write a better screenplay than the one I had just seen. Sarah thought it was a great idea.

SO I sat down and wrote a screenplay. It was lousy, but I finished it. It was successful in a way, because the play was not as important as what happened to me while writing - sort of like walking across a bed of red-hot coals barefoot and making it. Like an act of faith.

The screenplay did not save my marriage. But the writing process helped rid me of some superstitions that had hampered me most of my life. I was able to break out of a dead end.

I was able to come to terms with my own feelings. It became easier to see myself as a distinct person, with my own integrity and needs that are legitimate, not dependent upon somebody else. I discovered that one does not have to be a performing clown or even a writer to get in touch with oneself, wherever he may be living.

After I finished the play I started dating again and was able to talk as well as listen, though I still don't talk to everybody. I kept the play, which nobody has read. Nor is there any need to have it read. Nor am I living happily ever after.

But I have climbed out of the black hole of despair. There is life after divorce. I've found my daughter again and there's a new commitment to relationships, to becoming, to life itself.

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