The Single Life

Michael Austin


If you would have told me in 1975 that in the year 2005 I would be unmarried with no children, I would have laughed until my baseball mitt fell off of my hand. I remember being disappointed back then knowing I would have to wait practically a lifetime for my golden birthday, the day when my age matched the date of my birth, on the 28th of December. I was envious of the kids who got to celebrate theirs at age 9 or 12 or, my goodness, 16. But at least my wife and kids would be there to celebrate mine, I told myself, and how many 12-year-olds could say that? Having a family of my own to help me celebrate my golden birthday seemed like a fair trade-off for being born near the end of the month. I even pictured us all huddled around my cake with those glorious, golden candles burning.

Twenty-eight was the height of adulthood to me then. Now that my golden birthday is 10 years gone, I can't help but think what a punk I was at 28 and how little I knew about living. When I was a kid all I could imagine was being married as an adult, a way of life I learned at home watching my parents, who will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this August. This is part of the great paradox of my life. Why, so many years later, after growing up in a stable, happy home, am I still running the range on my own? I have a theory. But it goes nowhere until you know some of the back story.

By the time my parents were my age they had six kids.

They had a house and a station wagon, stacks of plastic dishes and a linen closet piled high with sheets. They had photo albums, a king's ransom of hand-me-downs and a family history that reached back for a decade and a half. Then, six years later, as they approached their mid-forties, they had something else: me.

I didn't mean any harm, arriving all pink and chubby and helpless as I did. It just kind of happened, you know? There are people who would call this a mistake, this middle-age pregnancy 20 years after the first one and six years after the last. But in the Catholic tradition we prefer to use the term "surprise."

And, oh my stars, I was a pleasant one. The mere fact that I was new guaranteed my instant appeal, and for years to come I would be adored, tutored, prompted, dressed up, dressed down, costumed and photographed, and generally made to entertain anyone old enough to think of me as cute. On the day I met my youngest brother and sister, a few days after Christmas, 1966, they stood outside the hospital on the sidewalk as my mom held me up to our fourth-floor window. Lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in the cold below, they craned their necks and waved at their new brother.

A few days later, a nurse, coincidentally our neighbor (or should I say their neighbor), tucked me into a red Christmas stocking with white polka dots and handed me over to my parents who hastened me home, protecting me from the dry sting of the winter air. And this, in so many ways, is where my proclivity for the single life began. I've felt that stocking wrapped around me all my life.

Let me spare you the details of the 20 years that followed that relaxing ride home in the stocking and that warm reception back at the house (which, from what I hear, was fantastic), and let me just say that I received no shortage of attention. Everything was easier for me than it was for the older kids in our family. My parents had a little more money, a little more breathing room, a little more tolerance for bad behavior. The next sibling up from me, a sister who is six years older, liberally used the word "spoiled" when describing me to her friends. She has a hell of a nice family of her own now, and appears to be happy as a clam. But there is a word I could have used to describe her to my friends back then: "jealous." Are you starting to get the picture? I had confidence, I felt loved, protected and empowered.

Without really being aware of it, I collected and stored affection like a squirrel preparing for winter, and consequently needed less of it as I aged. When I was growing up, our family took vacations to faraway places—something the older kids didn't get to do as much as I did—and suddenly a different way of thinking and being was revealed to me. I was a child who knew first-hand about a whole new world—the old world—and more possibility than I could imagine what to do with. Tapping into that experience, and my stockpile of self-assurance, I began traveling alone and exploiting solo travel's principal by-product, silence. When you have no one to talk to, you observe and learn and you start to hear the voice inside of you.

That voice, so far, has told me to remain single. It has told me that "checking in" is not for me, that "settling down" remains to be an option, that "nesting" is not my overwhelming urge. I also have heard exterior voices, many of them, telling me things like, "You're not getting any younger" and, "Maybe you're not sending out the right messages." I don't imagine myself being single forever but even if I did, the odds would be stacked against me. According to the 2003 United States Census, only 4.3 percent of American men had not been married by age 65; for women of the same age, it was 3.7 percent.

I know a lot of people who are happily married; unfortunately I also know people on the other side of the coin. And I know that marriage is not right for me right now. Had I been married in my 20s (and I could have been), would I have been able to hitchhike in Venezuela, jumping onto a flatbed truck that slowed only enough for me to catch up as I ran full speed with all of my belongings on my back? Would I have seen the smiles on the faces of the men inside the truck, and would we have exchanged thumbs-ups as I caught my breath? Had I had a wife and kids in my 30s would I have been able to quit my perfectly stable job and go to work for myself, my life's dream? And if I'm married in my 40s will I still be able to throw away certain dishes instead of washing them?

I know a woman in her early 40s who has never been married and doesn't want to be. Doesn't want kids. Doesn't want someone telling her what to do or when to do it. She lived with a man for three years, but admits the relationship succeeded as long as it did only because the two of them worked on opposite schedules and barely saw each other. In the end, she needed her space and her total freedom. We had lunch recently at a gourmet hot dog stand (only in Chicago, friends), and after rattling off a litany of reasons why she won't get married, she picked up a French fry and pointed it at me, shaking it for emphasis at the beginning of each word.

"A rolling stone gathers no moss," she said.

Well, yeah, I thought, but have you seen the Rolling Stones lately? Mick looks like a prune stuck onto a bag of bones and Keith looks like walking death. I surfed the 'net a little bit and confirmed what I already sort of knew, that the lone wolf meets an early demise. I found several studies from different parts of the world that say married people live longer. I also found one that says tall people live longer. So, the good news is, at 6'2", if I ever get married, there's a chance I'll live to be 100. And if my wife and kids aren't at that party I'll really be bummed.

If I were to meet the right woman tomorrow I might be married six months from now. On the other hand, if I don't meet her for seven more years, c'est la vie! Am I being irresponsible with my life, coming and going with the wind? Maybe. But no more irresponsible than the person who marries too young, or simply because getting married feels like the next logical step in his or her life. Besides, 40 is the new 30; you've heard the news, I'm sure. Youth may be wasted on the young, but youth actually lasts a lot longer than most people think. Now I have not only the resources but also the freedom to travel, go back to school, stay up reading until 3 a.m., go to the movies in the middle of the day or eat Thai food 11 days in a row—all things that were impossible or difficult when I was 25 with one week's vacation and barely enough money to afford imported beer.

I don't want to become the old guy who can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants; that always seemed a little hollow to me. But I also don't want to commit simply for the sake of commitment, or because I feel like I am running out of time. The last time I checked, the world wasn't short on husbands, young or old. Maybe I haven't found the right girl yet; that's what some people tell me. Others tell me I'm afraid of commitment. Maybe there are things I haven't gotten out of my system yet. Not that I have a checklist. But I know if I were married my lifestyle would change by, oh, about a million percent. There would be no more spontaneous road trips (or sky trips), no more pulling clean clothes directly out of laundry baskets on the floor. In the living room.

When I was in grammar school one of my teachers told my parents that it took me longer to grasp a concept, but once I got it I remembered it better than anyone else in class. It has always taken me a while to get my mind around things. And I have been a bit of a slow starter all of my life. Hell, I didn't even start writing this story until 10 o'clock last night. (That is a lie.) But through all of the slow starts I have learned to listen more carefully to my internal dialogue, and wouldn't the world be a nicer place if everyone knew themselves a little better before getting married? I won't bore you with divorce statistics—they were even too boring for me to look up—but come on, who, off the top of their head couldn't name 20 people they know who have been divorced?

After a three-year relationship of mine ended in the '90s, a relationship that disintegrated because I wasn't ready to get married, I started shopping for a sailboat. I looked forward to getting in my car every Saturday morning and driving up to Wisconsin or over to Michigan to navigate through boatyards and climb onto boat after boat, surveying the deck and rigging, wiping away snow to peek through portals at the interior. It was a healing road I was on, and the search took my mind off of the painful break-up. I looked for any excuse I could find to get on the road and strap in for a three-hour drive.

I would call prospective sellers during the week and say things like, "It floats? Great, see you Saturday!" or "That's about triple what I can afford, but what's the harm in taking a look, especially since you're only two hours away!" or "When you say, 'Needs minor repairs,' what do you mean? Wait, never mind—I'll just come have a look for myself!"

I wasn't even thinking at the time of the sailboat's symbolism—that it is the icon of the romantic, solo journey. There's some irony for you: the romance of being alone. But that is the other part of the paradox of my life—that I am often alone but rarely lonely, consistently aware of the romance and beauty of life all around me. When I am on an adventure and lost in my thoughts—in an exotic foreign land or in a River North coffee shop—I am convinced that anything is possible. That is a powerful conviction. I am open to the possibility that in an afternoon I could meet my dream girl and court her with every ounce of poetry in my being, or I could rush home, pack a bag and move to a monastery for a life of silent contemplation.

Okay, almost anything is possible.

The fact is, I don't have the answers, and I don't know exactly where my life will lead. Right now (and in the indefinite future) I am happy to hoe that road alone. Maybe I'll be ankle deep in diapers in five years, or looking at myself in the mirror and asking why I indulged in myself so much, why I wasted so much time. These days are good now, though, and I don't anticipate having many regrets, if any. Then again, 38 wasn't so clear to me when I was 28. But frankly that makes the future even more seductive to me.

In the end I found a boat, pretty much the exact boat I was looking for, at a much better price than some of the others I had considered. I felt good about not being too anxious to sign on the dotted line earlier. And I found my boat less than a mile from my apartment. It had been right under my nose the whole time. Perhaps I finally visited that local boatyard because I had had my fill of driving the open road.

One night, I had an urge to go out and just sit on my boat in Monroe Harbor. As I rowed my dinghy through the quiet harbor, every squeak and thud of my oars was followed by the rushing of water beneath me, reminding me of the steady passage of time and my aloneness in it. I sat on the deck of my boat for a while, then climbed below to lie in a bunk. I bunched up a sail for a pillow and was surprised by the view I had of the sky through the boat's rear hatch. I was nestled deep inside that vessel of solitude, comfortable and concealed, unable to see anything outside except what was directly in front of me—a crystal clear vision of a bright moon smiling down on me from the black sky. Suddenly the rear of the boat swung around in the wind and stopped on a dime, which was strange enough. But what happened next was even more bizarre. I heard a deep thump a few seconds later, and a few seconds after that, a colorful fireworks explosion lit up the sky, centered perfectly in the frame of that rear hatch, as if the show were exclusively for me. Another thump followed, and another brilliant explosion, and then came a frenzy of cascading spider legs and thunder. It felt like the 4th of July, but I quickly realized it was a Wednesday, an ordinary Wednesday in the summer, when the city puts on fireworks shows at Navy Pier.

But isn't it funny how I chose to make my way down there at that time, on that random night—and how my boat swung around at precisely the moment the show was to begin, and put me in the front row? I lay back and enjoyed the spectacle, an experience, among others, that I will remember all of my life. I had to laugh because during the rapid-fire finale it occurred to me that I have witnessed some fairly wondrous and profound events in the company of others, but when I'm alone, stuff like this happens to me all the time.