In Praise of Dating Too Soon and Too Often

In Praise of Dating Too Soon and Too Often

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I wasn’t dating to find a man. I was dating to find me.

I dated within weeks of my marriage ending. I don’t mean I was dating within weeks of signing my divorce papers. I mean I was dating within weeks of sitting down at the kitchen table with my husband and saying, “I’m done.” I was dating within weeks of standing at the local car wash and wondering if that same soapy water cleaning off the dirt on all those cars could also wash away the pain of my impending divorce.

I wasn’t dating to find a man. I was dating to find me.

As I shared in “When He Died,” my divorce was not typical. We did not consciously uncouple. There was no great betrayal or scandalous affair. He stumbled down the rabbit hole of mental illness, and I chased after him, children in tow, to no avail until we were all in serious danger. He was gone. But as is true with so many people with mental illness, he didn’t know he was sick. What he saw was a world taking his job, his wife, and his children away—all because he knew secrets of the universe that we did not know. He saw conspiracy everywhere. And I was at the heart of every conspiracy. I was the Devil.

He fought the divorce like a cornered animal. He broke into the house to shower after he’d been removed by the police. He landed in jail so often that he joked with the guards. Meanwhile, I made salad for the children; children need greens. They were confused, and I comforted them. I went to work to secure the family’s only paycheck. I spent hundreds of hours in family court with its sickly smell of sweet detergent. My clothes fell off my frame.

I talked with my pastor about how hard it was to slog through all the ugliness. She told me, “Keep your own side of the street clean.” I tried my best to keep the home and family running. I painted the walls of our house. I tried, and sometimes failed, to do what was right. I prayed that my husband would get the help he needed, and when he didn’t, I mourned the death of the man I had loved while I ran in terror from the man he was now.

And I dated. If dance cards still existed, mine would have been dripping in ink. Before every date, I washed the tears off of my face and put on fresh lipstick. I’ve always favored high boots with short dresses. And when a man asked me if I wanted to go to a beautiful restaurant, I said yes. When another asked me to the theater, I said lovely. I soaked in the beauty around me. In my late 30s, I was still beautiful. People nodded and smiled, as if my presence, pulled together with just enough care, made their day lovelier, too. I reveled in the generosity of men buying me coffee or bringing me flowers. After so much darkness, there was light.

Not all first dates were meant to turn into second dates, of course. I sat through my share of drinks, ticking off the minutes until I thought it polite to leave. But even the most mundane dates gave me a chance to say, “Hello, I’m Robin.” “I teach, I write, I research, I love color and music, and I am goofy and spell badly. I love dresses and am obsessed with sunscreen. I am me, and I am alive.” Each time a man across the table asked me about myself, I had to think. Who am I beyond the woman who gets the children to school? Who am I beyond the woman begging the court to order a mental-health evaluation? Who am I beyond a widow without a corpse? And do I like Italian food? No, honestly, I don’t. But sushi? I like sushi. Each date brought another set of questions about myself to which I did not know the answers. I knew that, inside, I was a very strong woman and a very silly girl. Dating let me keep the silly girl alive.

Dating also took me on adventures, from Obama’s inaugural ball to Paris to a crazy wedding in Brazil. It took me to hear music I never would have heard and to see art I never would have seen. Each romance ended. I was engaged but never remarried. Maybe I will remarry one day, but to me, that is not the point of dating. It isn’t to find the “one.” It can be a way of embracing your life no matter how hard and tragic it has become. I’ve always had a bit of Cabaret’s Sally Bowles in me, and through the darkest days, her iconic song resonates with me: “What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a Cabaret, old chum.” It’s only a Cabaret.

Robin Rogers is an associate professor of sociology at Queens College, City University of New York. She lives in Brooklyn with her two boys.

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