Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Every Which Way But Wrong

I just finished reading Sara Paretsky's new novel Body Work, starring her Chicago private investigator V. I. Warshawski. Paretsky's one of the writers whose work I'll buy and read pretty much as soon as it's published, despite my occasional political disagreements with her. I bought Body Work the day it appeared in my local independent bookstore, and read it a few days later because I needed to be in V. I.'s world.

Near the end of the book, V. I.'s young cousin Petra, who's been tagging along with her since the previous book (Hardball), hoping for excitement, realizes that there's such a thing as too much excitement. So she tells V. I.:
"I don't want to leave you in the lurch or anything, but, Vic, I don't think I'm cut out for detective work. People getting shot or cut to bits, I hate it. I was so scared last Sunday. And then I saw how tough and cool you were, and, don't take this the wrong way, I don't want to be like you when I'm your age. Like, living alone, and being so hard that violence doesn't seem to bother you."

"How could I take that the wrong way?" I said in my hard fashion [438].
That caught my eye because I remembered a time about twenty years ago when someone said almost exactly the same thing to me - except for the violence, which has never been part of my cowardly life, but probably including some version of "Don't take this the wrong way." The person who said to me was a gay man half my age (twenty-one to my forty-one at the time), who didn't want to be living alone when he was 40, didn't want to turn out to be like me. I was annoyed at him, as V. I. was at Petra, but also amused: the young man in question was a hard drinker with a number of public-intoxication arrests on his record, a former college student with no particular skills, who moved back and forth between his divorced parents' homes in different states when he ran out of money. I don't think I retorted that I didn't want to be him either, but I'm sure I thought it. I don't know what became of him, though thanks to the Web, I know he's still alive.

But in fairness, at his age I probably would have felt the same way about the person I eventually became. Like many young people I believed that the only worthwhile life is a coupled one, and like many young gay people I thought that it was necessary for us to form successful couples to justify our existence. When my friend criticized me for living alone at 40, he knew that I'd broken up with a live-in partner not that long before, and at the time I wouldn't have taken for granted that I wouldn't get involved with someone again.

I don't think so anymore, and I can't imagine being coupled again: not because I've 'given up,' but because I don't feel like giving anyone that much of my time and energy anymore. I'm neither alone much of the time -- thanks to a busy workplace, friends, and sexual partners -- nor lonely. Now that I'm nearly sixty and feel the shortness of the time left to me, compounded by the impossibility of knowing exactly how much time I have left, I'm determined to maintain my personal space. I couldn't have felt this way at twenty, or thirty.

Anyway, I was pleased to find that passage in Body Work. Paretsky herself is apparently happily married, but I'll bet she knows people who've been told what Petra told V. I. I wonder how many of us busy, involved, active singles in middle age have been told the same thing, and after the initial annoyance wears off, have thought that we wouldn't want our lives to be any different -- except, perhaps, for having found out sooner how much we needed to be single.