London, UK - October 2019
I've never been a confident driver. My first driving lesson ended with me in tears and a menacing scratch under my mom's car, the results of me slamming the gas instead of the brake while attempting to park. It was a slow road to improvement from there, and to be honest, it never got that much better. For most of my adult life, I've avoided cars by living in a city where having one is more trouble than it's worth, and where it's possible to walk across the diameter in about three hours.
Despite my aversion to automobiles, I recently found myself in a situation where I had rented a car, in the UK, where they drive on the left side of the road. This terrified me more than a little, because I already felt like driving overloaded my limited mental multitasking abilities without throwing the opposite side of the road into the mix. But I wanted to go to the English countryside where I could see wild ponies and stay in a rustic bed and breakfast with a garden spa, and the only way to do that was to suck it up and drive there.
I rented the tiniest automatic vehicle I could find and told myself it would be fine, as most things are. When I picked up the car, I could tell the woman at the rental place sensed my nervousness, because she spent half an hour demonstrating how to turn on the car and how all the buttons worked. Grateful for her instruction, I slowly made my way out of the parking lot and onto the open road.
After several hours of driving 20 miles below the speed limit (I wish I could say I was exaggerating) and concentrating on not hitting the left curb or overcorrecting into oncoming traffic, I finally arrived at my bed and breakfast. I texted a friend to let him know I made it safely. My friend had recently visited the UK with his wife and daughter and had also rented a car, so I knew he would understand my driving experience. I recounted the details of my journey, and he replied, "It's much easier with a copilot. I'm so impressed you did it solo!" By copilot, he of course meant his wife, who was there beside him through every roundabout, hairpin turn, drizzle, and downpour.
I could tell my friend was proud of me for driving despite my fear, and truly, I was proud of myself. But his text got me thinking — obviously this would be much easier with a built-in copilot in the form of a partner. And I didn’t do it by myself to be impressive, I did it by myself because I had to.
"Had to" is a strong statement, so I'll walk that back a little. I didn't have to do anything. I didn't have to go on the road trip alone, or even at all. I could've chosen to invite a friend, or to go somewhere I could get to by train. But I didn't choose to do either of those things, so there I was, in my little red rental car, playing the roles of both driver and copilot. Feeling at the same time happy that I was pulling it off without any help, and sad that I didn't have any.
The next morning, I came downstairs for breakfast in my B&B's dining room. I was busy admiring the distressed wooden tables topped with charming succulent plants when the host came over to me and said, "Breakfast for two?" I looked to my left, and then to my right. No one was standing near me. In fact, I was clearly the only person in the entryway waiting to be seated for breakfast.
It dawned on me that the host's inherent assumption was that I couldn't possibly be there alone. I couldn't possibly have traveled to a place only accessible by automobile to stay in this cozy countryside hideaway all by myself. Surely I had a partner, or a friend, or anyone to share the experience with. I spent a few moments staring blankly at him before responding, "Nope, just me!" in the cheeriest voice I could muster. With us both a little abashed from the interaction, he led me over to my table. That morning, I ate hard boiled eggs and granola, drank an entire pot of coffee, and read several chapters of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (an excellent book that you should definitely read if you haven’t already).
I wasn't mad at the well-meaning dining staff who wanted to make sure my imaginary boyfriend didn't miss out on breakfast or my friend who applauded me for driving solo. If I've learned anything as an adult, it's that people overwhelmingly have their own experiences to bring to the table, and very few things are personal. These stories serve to highlight the fact that, from quaint countryside B&Bs to our taxes, society is set up to expect coupling. We're told our lives are not complete without a partner. If you don't believe me, watch Yorgos Lanthimos's "The Lobster". Actually, maybe don't; it's creepy as hell.
Through some combination of introversion, workaholism, and life choices, I currently find myself single. I try not to view this fact as overly positive or negative. It just is.
There are some days when I love being single — I get the whole bed to myself, I can move across town or across the world at barely a moment's notice, and my time is mine to spend on work, hobbies, or doing absolutely nothing. And there are other days when I feel lonely and overwhelmed from having to do everything on my own. Those feelings morph into fear that I'll never find someone willing to take on my unique combination of neuroses and less-than-favorable qualities — I freak out if objects on a flat surface aren't placed exactly parallel to each other, I'm generally pretty ignorant of politics and current events, and I hate cleaning the shower.
Two common pieces of advice on "meeting someone" are, "It'll happen when you least expect it," and, "It's not going to happen if you don't put in any effort." Have you ever noticed how these statements directly contradict one another? Which one is it? Am I supposed to not try so hard or try harder? Is it a matter of fate or chance, or is it within my control? This disparity used to bother me, but I've come to realize that it actually perfectly describes why being single feels so fraught and complicated.
Being single is at the same time a choice and not a choice. Sure, I could choose to get on all the dating apps, make a killer profile that shows off all the right angles and my winning personality (since we all know personality is what gets the most likes), and start swiping like it's my full-time job. That would probably work; I would probably meet someone. And you could say I would have had a certain amount of control in making it happen.
Or instead of putting myself through endless messaging threads about what I do for work, my weekend plans, or how many countries I've been to, maybe I could meet someone in real life, when I least expect it. Maybe I'll meet someone when I'm reading in my favorite cafe or commuting home from work. Here's the thing about "when you least expect it," though — once you get this idea in your head, you start looking out for all the moments when you would least expect it, and then you're always expecting it, which completely defeats the purpose.
Being single is both a choice and not a choice. Neither way of looking at it makes it feel any better when the world is telling you that you're not enough on your own.
We can't control how the world sees us or what other people's expectations are. We can only control the stories we tell ourselves and how we choose to spend our energy. If you're single, that may mean eating alone or not, dating or taking a break from the apps, speaking up when someone projects their own experiences onto you or deciding it's not worth it.
As for me, I'll keep taking up space at tables meant for two, and I'll keep driving solo when it's my only viable means of transportation.
Also published on Medium