“Oh my dear Pageling,” Hilda said. “Don’t be so sad.”
I suddenly came to. Realized I’d been staring straight ahead with an unhappy expression on my face. My housemate Hilda and her friend Crock were sitting in the living room with me, gabbing as always, about mutual acquaintances. Pet peeves. Life. It was a comforting cadence, something I’d gotten used to. So I’d completely tuned out their conversation. And apparently drifted somewhere unpleasant in my thoughts.
“This is Justin’s first work trip since she moved in with us,” Hilda explained to Crock.
“Awww,” Crock said. “Where is he?”
“Philadelphia,” Hilda answered, before I could.
Didn’t really bother me though. I had a sluggish feeling, and it was a kind of relief not to talk. It’d been a hellish couple of months. I’d moved twice, once cross-country, once cross-town.
The cross-town move had strangely been harder, spurred on by a painful series of breakups. The burning of my poly web. I was wandering like a ghost through my own life. But through it all, Justin had been one solid constant I could rely on. A person who gave me at least as much as — if not more than — what I gave him. Something I was not at all used to, but definitely appreciating.
And now, for a week at least, that was gone.
“I’m fine,” I said to them.
“Page, you don’t have to pretend you’re fine,” Crock said.
“Yes,” I said. “I do.”
Hilda laughed and pivoted back into what they had been talking about before which, as best as I could tell, was kvetching about their ex-boyfriends. A solid gold oldie. Since I knew all the words to that one, I slinked off to the cupboard to find something to fight the pit in my stomach.
I smiled at the multiple cans of white albacore tuna Justin had left me, knowing that I normally bought the chunk light kind because it was cheaper even though I didn’t like it as much.
A giant jar of curry powder also caught my eye. I’d picked it up with Hilda and our friend the Sexy Librarian at an Asian market just a few weeks before. It was a great outing. I ate candied ginger for days after the Sexy Librarian picked up a bag and I copied her. She was so impossibly chic that I couldn’t help but find myself imitating her. The kind of woman who everyone either wants to date or to be — and sometimes both.
The candied ginger was gone now, but I still had the curry powder. I carried the tuna and the spices to the counter. Pulled the mayo out of the fridge. Curry spiced tuna salad, I decided.
It sounded good.
I mixed it up. Tasted it.
It wasn’t good. Maybe there was too much curry powder. Or maybe the whole thing was a doomed venture.
I took another bite. Yup, still terrible.
I walked back into the living room, still carrying the bowl. As Hilda and Crock continued to talk, I sat down and ate the tuna. Wincing after every bite.
“Pageling, what are you doing?” Hilda asked me.
“Eating,” I said.
“Yeah, but you look like it’s torture,” Crock said.
“It’s pretty terrible,” I said.
“Why don’t you just throw it away?” Hilda asked me.
“Because it’s what I made for dinner,” I told her.
I continued to eat the dinner even though I hated it. They pressed further. I tried my best to explain: It just felt like the right thing to do. I was miserable anyway. Did it matter that the food tasted terrible to me? It was healthy enough. Cheap.
“Page, you’re like a rat,” Hilda said suddenly. “Scree scree.”
I laughed. “Yeah. Okay, we’ll go with that.”
I ate the whole bowl. Every awful bite.
Later when it was just Hilda and me in the house, she sought me out. “You shouldn’t be alone. You seem so sad.”
“Hilda,” I said. “It’s fine. I’m getting by. I just want to ‘power down.’ Go into battery save mode until Justin gets back.”
“But you’re not an appliance, you’re a human being,” Hilda said.
It was something she reminded me of often, when I’d start sentences with phrases like “people tend to” or “humans are known to.”
She’d say, “Page, you’re a person, too. You always talk like you’re not. You forgive people for being imperfect. Why can’t you forgive yourself?” A loving truth bomb to the chin.
But then, just as suddenly, she’d pivot to lambasting someone else for their imperfections — and boy, was that quick swivel ever confusing. Transitionless. Disorienting.
“I know I’m a human being,” I said now, as she stood in my bedroom.
“Do you?” she asked.
I didn’t know what to say.
“I’m not leaving you alone,” she said.
“Seriously, Hilda, it’s okay. I want to be alone,” I said.
“You’re not going to be alone tonight,” she said.
I sighed. This was not at all how I wanted to spend my evening. Forced into companionship with a well-meaning person who was just trying to cheer me up. Feeling like I had to put on and maintain a brave face. Maybe I wasn’t human, after all. No, I was a bit like a shapeshifter who wanted to stay an amorphous ooze in their canister but was suddenly being asked to attend a formal dinner. I didn’t want to act “human” tonight, but knowing Hilda and myself, I knew that’s exactly what would happen.
Maybe that’s what she was after. The social performance could arguably distract me from my loneliness. But it’s not what I wanted.
“I have plans anyway,” I lied.
“Oh!” she said. “Why didn’t you say that?”
I shrugged. “I’m heading out soon,” I said.
Hilda smiled. “Well, I hope you have fun.”
“Thanks,” I said. I gathered up some belongings as Hilda watched. Several books thrown into a bag that also had my pocketbook (wallet, keys, phone, etc.).
She headed back to her room, satisfied.
I slipped out the back door and walked to the garage. I opened and shut it quickly. Pulled up a camping chair. Sat down and read one of the books from start to finish.
“Isn’t It Weird for You When Your Partner Is Out?”
That first work trip that Justin went away was hard, sure. But the next one wasn’t so bad. And they got easier and easier. He traveled a lot for work back then, enough that I joked I was a “work widow.” But I grew to enjoy the time and to use it to be productive on my own — as a researcher and as a writer.
And the reunions were wonderful. Like something out of a freaking movie.
True, the prolonged absences were hard at first (for example, one time he spent a month in South Africa), but I came to appreciate having the opportunity to actually miss one another. To really appreciate what the other person contributed to our life, demonstrated by their absence.
And looking back on my early days as a polyamorous person, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to when I’d adjusted to my partner going out on date nights with others while I was home alone. But over time, I came to look forward to being home alone for the evening — they turned into mini staycations where I took myself on a date.
It’s also been a nice parallel I’ve been able to draw when talking to monogamous friends who wonder how I manage it. “Isn’t it weird for you when your partner is out for the night?”
I can be honest about it — admit that, yes, it was at first. But that it’s not a lot different than when I adjusted to having an anchor partner who traveled quite often for work. Hard at first, but you make the most of it — and as time goes on, you learn to appreciate the chance to miss them. And the reunions.
I find that people usually get it then, especially if they have a partner who’s done the same. If they’ve had to adapt to being a work widow themselves. Especially if they have some understanding that jealousy isn’t a crime or a fatal condition. That jealousy is a strong signal but not a very specific one. That insecurity is something that can be worked on.
Frankly, at this point, long work trips are still more challenging than date nights. More disruptive, for sure. But worth it.