My husband is going away on a business trip: London and then Monte Carlo. He doesn't want me to come with him. He says the airfare is too expensive. I ask him if he has a mistress. He says no. I believe him—even though five of my friends have had husbands who've had girlfriends, and Monte Carlo is known for its mischief.
It is the beginning of a new semester, and I have almost nothing scheduled until I go back to teaching and he comes back in nine days.
I worry that I will develop bad habits, like drinking white wine alone at lunch, which I did once with a friend who was going through a hard time and have yearned to do many times since.
I have students and friends who are alone now most of the time, women who were married and busy for decades raising families and who lost their significant others to illness or other people. My mother is alone — her three husbands and longtime live-in-boyfriend are all dead. She works full-time and goes out to dinner almost every night. I joke that she knows how to keep her dance card full. I'm not used to keeping my dance card full since my husband usually fills it. The prospect of all this solitude is making me bonkers, so I decide to go to the Jersey Shore.
I walk with two friends: a therapist and a writer. I tell them I'm going to the beach alone.
"You are?” the therapist says admiringly. “How lucky.” The writer looks worried. I say I'm going to break up the time by taking a surfing lesson, three days in a row. The instructor said I had to schedule the lessons between 3 and 6 p.m. because that's when the tide comes in. It's also the low, lonely part of the day, so I'm glad to fill it.
"Will there be friends around?” the writer asks hopefully.
"No,” I say.
The writer says that her older sister spent the prior weekend at the Jersey Shore, and a little boy was swept away in a riptide and drowned.
The surfing instructor texts: "Hi, this is Jeff@lbisurfing. So this hurricane that is down by FL now will be giving us huge surf on Friday and Saturday. Are you available on Sunday afternoon?"
Of course I am, but now I have nothing to do on Saturday.
I go out for dinner and sit alone at the end of the sushi bar, on the stool closest to the wall and the bathroom. No one speaks to me except the waiter. I get tipsy on a bottle of sake and stumble home. My older son calls, and we chat about his classes, his brother and their vacation breaks.
The next morning, I have nothing lined up for the day. Zero.
The hours ache. I shower, meditate and take my watch to have the battery replaced. On the subway, I realize how much my husband anchors my life. This is not something I want to acknowledge. My parents had five marriages between them; I know not to depend on a man. But the truth is that now that our children are out of the house, my life revolves around my husband. Without him to trade texts with about when he is coming home for dinner; without him to say yes to when he looks at me hopefully and asks if I'm feeling amorous; without him to say no to when I don't feel like it and pull my eyeshades down over my eyes before he gets into bed; without him grabbing handfuls of almonds and asking if I've heard from the kids; without him opening the closet and asking me to move my shoes so he can make room for his; without him wondering where the printer paper is, even though it's always on the same shelf in the same closet in the same room; without him asking what he is supposed to do about the white towels that are leaving white shreds all over his face. … Without him, I feel terrifyingly unmoored.
My grandparents were married 65 years. I wonder if this is how Grandma felt after Grandpa died. As the sky darkened, she had no one to cook for, wait for, talk to. I wish I'd visited her more at night.
The wind is howling as I drive up to the beach house. I forgot about the hurricane, but the wind whistling through the trees reminds me. It is strange to drive up to this house alone, without groceries, without our dog, who died last spring. A student emails and says she can't participate in a workshop I'm teaching because it turns out her therapist is in the same workshop. A longtime student, a widow who took the class last semester with her daughter, writes that she is too busy to come back. A new friend texts that she has put a bid on a house in California. I've only known her for six months or so, but she and her labradoodle are my best friends in the neighborhood and, after our dog died, the only reasons I kept walking in Central Park. Everybody is bailing on me.
I have to pee as I fumble for the keys, and none of the lights are on. And I wonder if I remember the alarm code, and I race across the pebbled driveway and feel the pee starting to seep out of my bladder. And I find the key and fiddle with the lock and turn off the alarm and race up the stairs. Normally, my husband would call or text within minutes of my arriving. “Everything OK? House look OK?” he would say, and ask about the water or the AC. But he is six hours ahead in London and asleep.
The wind continues to hurl itself against the trees and the windows, and I wonder if I'm going to have my surfing lesson on Sunday. The water and wind keep me company.
I go through letters my parents wrote decades ago, letters that provide insight into their failed marriage. Their past keeps me company. I go for my surfing lesson. Jeff is gorgeous. Broad shoulders, muscular chest, strong arms. He greets me at the top of the beach, wearing half a wet suit. He had spent the day before surfing for seven hours — Long Beach Island was the place to surf after Hurricane Dorian. “I was sore by the end of the day,” he says happily.
I slip on my wet suit, wade into the ocean and shiver. “Get yourself wet,” Jeff says, laughing. “You will anyway.” I duck my head and body under a wave. Jeff gives me an 8-foot board and tells me what to do: Lie down. Paddle, paddle, paddle. Get up on your right knee, put your left foot forward, turn and stand. “Only stand when you're ready,” he cautions.
The first wave is magical. I stand up so long I have time to wait for a wave to knock me over. The next few waves are harder. I get knocked into the water almost immediately. I can't think of anything except paddle, paddle, paddle ... right knee ... left foot ... turn ... stand. The unexpected thrust and demands of the waves, the need to remember to stand, stop me from thinking about anything else.
At the end of the lesson, Jeff tries to sell me a used board ($99) and a new wet suit (also $99.) I say I'll think about it after my lesson tomorrow.
The next morning, I go for another lesson with another Jeff. This Jeff owns the company. He gives me a smaller wet suit and a longer board (9 feet) and tells me to stand up faster. I ride one wave for eight seconds; others, just a few.
One wave I ride for so long that it feels like I am standing still on the water. Jeff says I have good balance. On the last wave, I can't stand up at all, so I lie on my surfboard and ride it in to the beach. Wheee, I am flying! The board rams into the sand and two seagulls, who cluck and scatter.
Jeff tells me not to do that, explaining that a big wave could send me flying into the sand. I hang my head. Still, I'm exhilarated.
Jeff takes my board and offers to carry it to his truck. Peeling the wet suit off is hard. Jeff has to unzip me. There is something pleasantly unnerving about this handsome guy watching me take off my wet suit, after we've spent an hour alone together in the water. I decide the rush comes from learning something new and feeling like a kid again, splashing around in the ocean, getting thrown off the board by the waves and getting back up.
I text my husband about my surfing adventures. Three days later, he comes home. We resume drinking strong coffee together in the morning, texting each other late in the afternoon and talking about everything and nothing at night. The day will come when I will end up without him, or he without me. “Please bury me, baby!” I pray, and not the other way around.
Until then, I relish the rituals — and, sometimes, the time alone.