What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that remaining uncoupled in a culture that insists, as the bachelor poet Philip Larkin noted, that “the lion’s share of happiness” belongs to couples, requires not only a degree of independence but a curious purism, a singular refusal to yield to the implicit realpolitik that governs our decisions to pair up. For instance: He is not very dashing, but he is movingly generous about my doddering parents. Or: She can’t cook for beans and spends too much on clothes, but she lights up any dinner party.
Or, again, where women who want to have children are concerned, there’s the pressure of the ever louder and more insistent ticking of the biological clock arguing in favor of the next presentable sperm donor. These are the types of compromised decisions that are made all the time. Although no one accuses couples of being inherently cynical because they may engage in these types of internal negotiations, I’d like to suggest that it is the uncoupled of the world who are the true romantics, sharing in a persistent, possibly puerile, and mostly unvocalized dream of the perfect, unmet Other—the longed-for Platonic half that floats somewhere just out of sight.
If I look back in time, I can spot the origins of my unease with the institution of coupledom fairly early on. It began with my parents—and the fact that I was mystified by my mother’s having chosen my father, a remote and irascible man, to be her mate. I would kindly point out to my mother all his physical flaws, ranging from his “peensy” eyes, as I called them, to his thick, thuggish lips. I could glimpse a few positive qualities from time to time—a honed wit and a wry way with endearments—but I couldn’t see these as enough to hook a woman.
On top of this, my father had remained an indulged bachelor until the age of 42, one who had employed a personal valet. My mother ceremoniously laid his clothes out for him every morning and set out a tray with tea and a piece of cake for him every night—in return for which she got, well, I wasn’t quite sure. I sensed that my parents shared a certain common frame of reference based on their German-Jewish background, as well as a sophisticated appreciation of theater and movies and a sardonic approach to anyone who came into their purview. But I didn’t understand how any of this compensated for my father’s tantrums about everything from mislaid pencils to an overlooked phone message and his ceaseless expectation of being waited on hand and foot.
Eventually it occurred to me that for all her lofty espousal of romantic ideals, her dreamy evocations of having waited for a soul mate (she married at 30, which was the equivalent of 50 for an Orthodox Jewish woman of her time), my mother had struck a fairly cold-blooded bargain. Although she routinely denied her interest in the luxuries money can provide, it seemed to me that it was precisely those things that kept my mother tied to my father. His Wall Street earnings paved the way for her to be an unencumbered mother of six children, with a household staff that included a cook, a laundress, a cleaning woman, and a dour Dutch spinster who oversaw us kids. I never saw my mother iron or chop onions—or, indeed, get us up in the morning. Once she waved my father off for the day, buttoning his coat and tucking a Sulka scarf into his collar when it was cold, she was free to spend her time as she chose—which included meeting with her interior decorator and going to the hairdresser, as well as spending the afternoon reading the latest literary fiction.
All the same, it’s not as though I have ever been immune to the charms of men. If anything, I’ve tended toward an obsessional style in love from the moment I took an interest in the opposite sex. Although I was riddled with ambivalence about anyone I actually dated, I was paradoxically never able to move on with any ease if a relationship didn’t work out. There was, for instance, the lawyer with a great sense of humor whom I fell really hard for in my midtwenties. Although we had an impassioned time in bed, so much so that he deemed it wise to invest in a pair of pajamas so that we wouldn’t be up all night, I contrived to find him inadequate in the “suburbanness” of his outlook—as opposed to my own presumably more sophisticated Manhattanite perspective.