Chicago Reader

From Third Wheel to Driver’s Seat

As I skipped from table to table at the bar mitzvah luncheon last weekend, I felt a novel emotion. Although I wasn’t paired up like my friends who were attending the same celebration, I lacked any sense of third wheel.

I felt no envy, no mad desire to be coupled, simply a feeling of being comfortable enough to chat with strangers who were seat companions, in the buffet line, and anyone who caught my interest.

This was a very different experience than my previous episode of singleness. After my divorce from my first husband, and before my marriage to Tommy, I relished my freedom for a bit, but then wanted desperately to be paired up. I hated being the gal left at the ballroom table to keep an eye on purses while couples danced. I yearned for a man on my arm, so I would better fit in with my married friends.

The Chicago Reader was the of its day and I found several men to date. In the auditions, I was impartial. Fellows who I would’ve ignored if I weren’t so nauseatingly needy, would get at least one date.

Of course, that was 23 years ago and I have grown up since then. And although I have, on these pages, admitted eyeing men at the gym, I just don’t have the same pathetic ache, which I attribute to several factors:

*I really enjoy the studio apartment I have chosen to replace our home. Although only 615-square feet, at my petite size, it feels like a perfect fit. There is no space for a roommate and his stuff.

·      *At bedtime, I use a pillow as a stand-in for my late husband. In spoon position, I tell him my day’s activities. While this lacks an audible response from my proxy, I can easily imagine his voice and sweet goodnight. Schmaltzy as this sounds, it totally lulls me to sleep.

           *During the luncheon I described in my opening paragraph, I witnessed several friends who were either full-blown caretakers of their spouses, or were struggling with the impending role. Their plights reminded me of the last years of Tommy’s life when I was an around-the-clock caregiver. I have to selfishly admit, I am not eager to reenlist for the job, which, at my age, is a real possibility.

·      *Except for a few long-time friends, most of my crowd is single. If I want companionship, a phone call, e-mail, or text message can usually find me a delightful sidekick. And this pal is likely to be agreeable to my choice of event or menu.

·      *Although I no longer own a car, I have learned how to travel throughout the city and suburbs via public transportation. For example, here’s how I got to the aforementioned Skokie bar mitzvah: I caught the Brown Line at the Merchandise Mart, exited at Kedzie, took the #93 Foster bus to Dempster, and then the #250 Pace bus to Central Park. Okay, it was 90 minutes door-to-door, but I had a window seat and a scenic adventure.

·      *My waking and sleeping schedule would likely deter any potential swain. And I’m reluctant to adjust my body clock just to be part of a couple. I suspect that a single man seeking a girlfriend would want his female companion to remain awake throughout a movie or play, erect on a dance floor, and conscious for a goodnight kiss.

·     * I love television. No, I mean I REALLY LOVE television. My favorite evening activity – prior to falling asleep on the couch – is to watch favored episodes on HBO, Showtime, or Netflix. This viewing is typically accompanied by feet propped on my coffee table, an ice cream dish in my paws, and a sigh of solo satisfaction. Would a guy find this alluring? Would I be forced to share my Edy’s Slow Churned Butter Pecan?

·      *I won’t change my appearance or wardrobe to hook a guy. In my earlier single stage, I wore 3-inch heels, clothing I deemed alluring, and shopped at Victoria’s Secret for the “just in case” dates. Now, I refuse to dye my grey hair, get Botox or plastic surgery, or don anything that doesn’t stretch.

Having said all of the above, if you, dear reader, were to identify a divorced or widowed male, in my age group, who still drives – better yet, at night – I might be persuaded to shift some of my reasoning. For there are times when a ride in the passenger seat, with a sweet, bright, funny guy at the wheel does sound tempting.

Odd Number

There were five of us seated around the table -- circular, so much better than rectangle where an empty chair would’ve been haunting. Four dear friends, who didn't want me alone on my aborted 15-year wedding anniversary, treated me to dinner at a favorite neighborhood restaurant. It was the same spot Tommy and I, and this very same group, celebrated at each year.

 "So sweet," my daughters had said when they heard of our friends’ kind gesture. "Should we pick up the check like we've done before?"

“No,” I said. “Not this time.”

I remembered our grateful surprise at anniversary dinners the previous years. "Your meals are covered," the waiter said as he cleared the table. "Your daughters paid for it."

"Another round of drinks!" my friends joked. My husband and I, a stepfather to my generous girls, grasped hands and smiled. Misty eyes for both of us.

What was Tommy thinking? I wondered back then. Did he consider how much our lives had changed since our marriage all those years ago? I know that's where my thoughts flew. He had a bit of a vocabulary at dinner 2011, but occasionally, one of our friends turned to me with a blank look, hoping I could interpret my husband’s patchwork language.

By the time the six of us celebrated January 13, 2012, Tommy’s greedy aphasia had stolen all speech. My heart sank as he sat quietly while the rest of us debated our usual topics.

This year, 2013, I was the odd number at the table. I’ve only been a widow for just over two months, so the feeling of "third wheel" hasn't yet entered my brain. But, I remember how it nagged after my divorce from my first husband.

Initially, when he left our 30-year marriage that was often unhappy, I felt like a kid let out of school. I ate pizza on the couch, filled the house with overnight guests who often stayed for months, and hosted dinners that squeezed our dining room.

But after four years of this freedom, loneliness crept in. I missed being married. I wanted to be part of a couple again. I hated being the gal left at the wedding or bar mitzvah guarding the purses while couples danced.

I put an ad in the Chicago Reader (the pre-online matchmaking option), attended a few singles events, told my friends I wanted to be fixed up, and went on a series of dates that either ended the same evening or continued for several months.

And while none of these swains turned out to be “the one,” I did enjoy primping for an evening out and feeling like half a pair.

In the end, Tommy and I met through neither of the methods listed above, instead as the song suggests, “on the street where we lived.”  After our first date -- I had asked him out -- we became a couple. We each found what we wanted in a partner, and within two years married.

Although his friends say he fell head over heels when he met me, I think Tommy was a more content single than I was. His first marriage wasn’t nearly as long as mine and there were no children, so there appeared to be nothing he longed for or missed.

Unless it was someone to cherish, because that’s what my husband did from first date to last breath. As I’ve been rifling through dresser drawers in preparation for an eventual sale of our home, I’ve found stacks of yellow-lined notes bundled in rubber bands. Each bearing a sentiment from a love-struck middle-aged man who paused every day to let me know he felt as if he had won the lottery.

As for me, I reveled in being cherished by someone I loved. But just as much, I was thrilled to be part of a couple again, to be a married woman. When Tommy introduced me to his long-time friends, and when we double-dated with mine, all feelings of “third wheel” dissolved.

This time around, I’m not sure how long it will take for that sense of being the odd number will hit. Truthfully, I’m hoping it stays away for quite awhile. I’d rather savor the specialness I felt in my second marriage, where two was the perfect number.