I was 32 and living in Washington Heights the year I should have fallen in love. Something else happened instead: A man tried to rape me on my way home from work.
It was mid-October, and I was walking in a park near the George Washington Bridge. I had been caught off guard by how quickly darkness fell that evening and was already feeling spooked when I caught sight of a man running through the bushes beside the path.
Despite the fear, I forced myself to stop and stare, to wait for him to see that I had noticed him.
Robbed of the chance to take me by surprise, he had to think of another way to play it. So before he attacked me, he walked beside me for maybe 20 yards, saying, albeit clumsily, some of the most romantic things a man can say to a woman: that I was beautiful, that he wanted to be with me forever, that he wanted to marry me.
He also said, mixed in with the romantic stuff, that he knew where I lived, that he had been watching me. We came to the bridge over the railroad tracks. As a train passed under, he said, “You’re going to die tonight.”
Then he grabbed my throat, pushed me against the fencing, forced his tongue into my mouth, pulled at my clothes.
He was wrong; that wasn’t my night to die. I drove my thumb deep into his eye, made him let go of me and walked away: bruised, breathless, spitting the taste of him from my mouth. Shaking with fear, I forced myself not to run, because I had learned in self-defense class that running makes you prey.
I called the police and they came, but they didn’t find him. I went to my apartment and brushed my teeth, but I never slept there again because the stranger had said he knew where I lived.
So I called a guy I had started seeing, Ralph, and moved in with him, more or less, that same night. Within a year, Ralph and I were married. Two years later, we had a daughter.
I got married, I now realize, because I was afraid.
I brought an immense sense of gratitude and relief with me into marriage, and not only because I was recovering from a traumatic attack. Already, in my mid-30s, I had been scared of ending up alone.
Gratitude and fear are strong emotions, but they may not be the right ones to sustain a marriage. Ours lasted five years; the divorce, a bitter one, dragged on for three.
During those years, I lost touch with that grateful feeling; I wouldn’t remember it at all if I hadn’t written it down. “I’m so thankful to him,” I had scribbled in the pages of a sketchbook, “for giving me refuge.”
If I had found those pages during the divorce, I might have thrown them out, denied they ever existed. But I only found them recently, when I came to understand that I’m still facing all the same fears.
Now, at 47 — six years after my divorce — I’m that much closer to ending up alone. You might say I already have ended up that way. I own my home; I have some semblance of a career; my daughter will soon be a teenager. People have started to ask me why I’m single.
I tell them I’m not looking for love anymore, but this is a lie. When I see two lovers kissing or hugging, even onscreen, my heart jumps and begs like a dog to treats.
But taking the next step seems beyond me. I’ve begun to wonder if that October night is the reason. Those two events — being attacked, getting married — happened so close together that they are perhaps too tangled up in my mind to separate.
I’m not the first to notice that romantic comedies sometimes hinge on stalker-ish obsession. I have never been the most trusting person, and now I may be so wary that normal signs of interest read as signs of danger.
I don’t watch romantic comedies anymore.
I have taken up boxing. My trainer tells me I have a tendency to drop my right hand. “That leaves you open,” he says, aiming a punch that stops short of my jaw. “You don’t want to be open.”
He’s right: I don’t want to be open. Even so, I start dating, mostly because everyone says I should.
“You have to treat it like a job,” a friend’s father tells me. “Make a spreadsheet.” He found his girlfriend on a dating site.
My profile describes me as “sweet,” “shy,” “a good listener.” The prevailing wisdom says you need good pictures, which I have. Maybe they’re too good. One man complimented me on my pictures, which was nice of him, but then he started sending me porn. This, it seems, is part of dating online: People send porn.
“You need to make a list,” my friend Lisa says. Lisa found love online after listing the qualities she wanted in a man: passionate, funny, close with his family.
I don’t have a list. All I want is what I’ve always wanted, to love someone who loves me back the same way.
I think about putting that in my profile, but it sounds too sincere, too unguarded. I am not like that anymore; it would be misleading. And what if I were to put that out there and all I got back was porn?
I meet men for drinks but sip club soda. In six months of dating I go to dinner only once, drink alcohol only twice. It isn’t that men don’t want to buy me dinner; they do. It’s that I can’t make myself trust these strangers.
I make a rule that I’ll only meet people for coffee, but then a guy shows up high for our coffee date and I rule out coffee dates. It starts to seem, admittedly, like I’m finding excuses not to get invested.
By now I’m boxing four mornings a week. In a shift from our typical conversations about keeping up that right hand, my trainer tells me one day that he writes love poetry. He knows I’m a writer; he asks if I’ll read it.
“Of course,” I say. But I’m unprepared for what he shows me. For one thing, it’s lovely. It’s about a woman he dated; they’re not together anymore.
“Did she read this?”
“Yeah.” He shrugs.
I sit with the shock of this. I try to imagine showing my ex-husband those sketchbook pages about gratitude. It’s an act of vulnerability that, for me, is past imagining. How is this boxer, the embodiment of toughness, more capable of taking emotional risks than I am?
I’m not that strong, not yet. If I learned one thing from marriage, it’s that finding a man to protect me isn’t the answer. I don’t need that anymore; maybe I never did. I protected myself that October night, and if anything, I’m tougher now. But maybe there is another kind of strength I need to learn.
“You should stay with this,” I tell the boxing poet. “You’re good.”
I get better about keeping my right hand up. I change my online profile, taking out “shy” and “sweet.” No one reads that stuff, anyway. Instead, I start using “bloodthirsty,” “capricious” and “tyrannical.”
The number of swipes doesn’t seem to change. Who are these men who look at pictures and don’t read words?
My last profile reads: “Vicious and frightening ice queen seeks charismatic, indomitable king. Intense qualification process culminates in a fight to the death with my other suitors. Swipe if u dare!”
Men swipe as usual, because, well, why not?
Still, I go home one night after a pretty normal date — with a guy who clearly hadn’t read what I wrote — and delete everything.
It doesn’t feel like a major decision. I don’t think much about it until a friend mentions she’s being recruited for a job at a big online dating site. “They’re rebranding,” she says. “What’s your user experience been like?”
“I stopped doing it,” I say. “It wasn’t making me feel anything I wanted to feel.”
“You’re giving up?”
“I’m not giving up.”
And I’m not. I just don’t want to make spreadsheets and lists. I don’t want to date someone for the sake of dating someone. I want the real thing.
Despite everything, I still believe he’s out there. Life isn’t worth living without at least the idea of someone to love. But if he really exists — my charismatic, indomitable king — not only will he have to find me, he’ll also have to battle through my defenses.
The good news, my love (if you’re reading this), is there isn’t really a fight to the death. That part was a joke.