My friend Samantha has a husband whom she adores. I remember her raving about him from the moment she met him: he’s a math professor and he does drugs, she cooed. I wouldn’t have gotten married if I hadn’t met him, we were destined to be together, we’re soul mates.
I have often envied Samantha’s domestic life. Her house always seems warm, busy, inhabited, full of grown-ups and babies and dogs, her own and other people’s. She has people over for holiday meals, mostly other parents with young children. A lot of these parents are people she used to spend sleepless raved-out weekends with back in college. Now they spoon-feed their toddlers, pull their breasts out to nurse, talk about preschools and potty training. There are always actual beverages like juice and soda and coffee and beer, and twice as much food as we need. I eat until my stomach hurts, because it seems impossible to be disciplined or ascetic here, in this recreated womb, where all needs are catered to and I am pretending to be part of a family.
In comparison, my apartment is a bachelor pad. Everything is sparse, arranged solely for convenience. All signs of sentient life derive from me or my cat; when I return at the end of the day, no one will ever be there to greet me and everything will be exactly as I left it. There is never anything like juice or desserts in the kitchen. All the food will be eaten by me and nobody else, so there’s nothing nice or special.
I know that part of the reason Samantha’s house is so comforting is because she is a mother, and plays that role to everyone in the house, myself included. If I were the one catering to everyone’s needs, stocking the house with juice, feeding the dogs and nursing the baby and cleaning up after it all, the house would seem much less peaceful. Still, I know that mothers and fathers feel a comfort in their family life that is not unlike what I feel at their houses. What seems a holiday to me—lots of food, conversation, children running around—is their everyday life.
One day when I left Samantha’s house, she asked me where I was off to.
“I’m going to go do two hours of kung fu,” I said, feeling especially happy about this fact; I had been looking forward to the class all day.
Her eyes actually narrowed a bit as she said to me, “I’m so jealous.”
“You can do kung fu if you want,” I said to her.
“No, I can’t,” she replied.
Of course she could, anyone will say. She could go take a class, have her husband watch the baby for an evening, even get a babysitter so they could go together, as a couple. But it would never be her priority, and, more to the point, it would never be just her decision. The sacrifices involved in moving from single to double are not so numerous, but they are weighty: the loss of autonomy, of the ability to make decisions about one’s life without anybody’s approval, of the right to prioritize oneself above all else.
I try to imagine my life from her side of the fence. I can do whatever I want all day, and I don’t need to check in with anybody. I don’t have meals with anyone, which means I don’t need to have meals at all, which means I can grab toast and peanut butter and run out to a martial arts class or take advantage of any other opportunity for self-improvement instead of eating dinner. I can come home as late as I want, as drunk as I want, or not come home at all; no one will notice or care. And of course, if when I come home, I were to bring some drunken stranger with me, that would be perfectly acceptable.
These are all circumstances that I know Samantha sees as benefits of being single, whether or not I do, losses that she and her coupled brethren will lament when they are feeling bored, trapped, in a rut. But I know if she had the chance to trade lives with me, she wouldn’t consider it for a second, not for all the kung fu classes and one night stands in the world.