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Living single: Why alone is enough

Society and Hollywood would have you believe that it's a sin to be single. But there are benefits to staying solo, say women like Amy Cohen. In her sassy memoir, “The Late Bloomer's Revolution,” the author recounts her inspiring adventures — like a week-long bike trip through the Canadian Rockies — as a not-quite-so-young single woman.An excerpt.Recently, I went for a mammogram. This was n
/ Source: TODAY books

Society and Hollywood would have you believe that it's a sin to be single. But there are benefits to staying solo, say women like Amy Cohen. In her sassy memoir, “The Late Bloomer's Revolution,” the author recounts her inspiring adventures — like a week-long bike trip through the Canadian Rockies — as a not-quite-so-young single woman.An excerpt.

Recently, I went for a mammogram. This was not my first, as I’d had a false alarm at twenty-five when I found a firm, peanut-sized lump under my arm. At the time I was living in Los Angeles, a city that is to buxom, young blondes, what birds are to the Galapagos Islands. This was why, even though I got my test at a major teaching hospital, my technician looked as if she could be serving Tailgate buckets at Hooters. When I untied my gown, revealing myself to be naked from the waist up, she clapped.

“I’m psyched!” She squealed. “You’re so flat! You’re going to be so easy! The last woman I had — ” She cupped her hands and let them sway and dangle around her waist. “Was, like, huge. It was a nightmare. And the woman before her was, like, a B cup, but you’re so flat! You made my day!”

My more recent technician was also young, with a sweet, earnest voice. She wore a lab coat over her neat, black clothes and her hair slicked into a serious-minded bun. After she told me my result was fine, she sat down to fill out some papers. As she did, she sighed loudly. I asked what was wrong.

“All my friends are getting married,” she said. “I’m worried. I’m the only one left.”

“Really?” I said. “How old are you?”

She shook her head, woefully. “Twenty-six. Why, how old are you?”

“Mmmm. Thirty-eight.” I reached over to her. “You have nothing to worry about. Trust me. Absolutely nothing.”

She asked me if, at her age, I had worried about ending up alone.

“Well,” I said, a little too brightly. “Apparently, not enough.”

The fact was that I had started worrying, really worrying, that I might actually end up alone as it dawned on me that my once irrational fear was slowly becoming a reality. Apparently, without realizing it, I had been assuming that I would eventually settle down by age thirty-six. Latest thirty-seven, but it would never come to that. That was just crazy talk. I figured I’d be on my own for a few years, just long enough to hone my independence on trips to Cuba, Vietnam, and the hardware store, and then I’d find my great love. But now I was two years over my limit and counting.

The first time I got really nervous was at my friend Madeline’s party for her son’s birthday, a large gathering where guests, many of whom I’d known from college, were encouraged to bring their young children. A whole room in the apartment was partitioned, crammed with a musical Jumperoo, a sticky alphabet mat, and something called the “Baby Einstein Activity Center,” a learning toy meant to encourage innovative, complex thought, on which all the babies punched and drooled.

I tried to spend time in the children’s play room, but it was cramped, and no one offered to let me hold their screaming toddler, so I just stood there smiling and nodding and repeating, “what a cutie!” I eventually moved to the buffet table, where I met, Gert, an aggressively tan woman who had just lost her husband to a stroke on the golf course, and a shy aunt named Rhonda who told me, in her barely audible, evaporating voice, that she had been divorced over fifty years before. Rhonda wore large, round glasses and her long hair piled over her face. She carried herself like someone who assumed that even after you’d met her ten times, you’d forget who she was. Gert was bolder, and at two in the afternoon, on her third gin and tonic. She wore a gray flannel ensemble: turtleneck and pants, with chunky, wooden jewelry that clacked loudly every time she moved.

As my friends launched into a hearty version of “Where is Thumbkin?” in the next room, I sat on the couch with Gert and Rhonda, talking about the state of the Democratic party after Bill Clinton.

“The problem for the Democrats is the word `liberal,’ ” Gert said. “It used to mean having a conscience, and now the Republicans are using it to mean `communist,’ as if having affordable health insurance is somehow un-American.”

“Oprah should run for President,” She said, softly. “She’d win easily. Did you see her show on makeovers for women over Fifty?”

“It’s so true,” Gert said. “You can have ten women in a room who don’t have anything in common — religion, race, class, even where they stand on abortion — but they’ll all agree on Oprah.” She pointed her finger at me, her nails painted in a pale salmon. “I’m old enough to be your grandmother, but you and I agree, don’t we?”

“I like her,” I said.

“It’s true,” Rhonda said. “There’s nothing more unifying than Oprah.”

Now the other room was singing, “Old MacDonald,” loud mooing followed by quacking. Two women I knew from college walked toward me, hunched over their little boys, who tumbled forward. They looked alike these young moms — trim and bookish, wearing sweatshirts that could endure spit up and juice spills.

“Hi,” they both called over.

“Hi,” I called back.

The women continued down the hall. One of the little boys started to cry and his mother scooped him up.

“Who’s a Mr. Whiney puss?” she said, kissing him.

Gert turned to Rhonda. “Do you think I should redo my kitchen or get another face lift?”

The conversation continued until I realized that I felt more comfortable with a widow and an aging divorcee than I did with many people my own age. Once I had viewed women like Gert and Rhonda as “those people,” unlucky women who had somehow found themselves alone, but now I wondered, were “those people” actually “my people?” Had I already become one of “those women” without knowing it? I’d always imagined that ending up alone was a sluggish, steady process, years of ominous warnings that were ignored or even flouted, but now I was starting to think that maybe ending up alone was like getting your wallet stolen. Something that leaves you asking, “Hey, Wait a minute, when did that happen? I was looking the whole time.”

Adding to the problem, when I typed the words “famous unmarried women” into Google, the words “Famous Old Maids” came up, which included a web site called, “Famous Freaks.” Among those mentioned was, “Lucia, the Puppet-Lady,” who was, at one time, the smallest woman in the world, weighing “less than most cats.” She was unmarried, which was how she came up in the search, but was also “surprisingly happy for someone so small” and among the highest-paid midgets of her day. Another web site referred to unmarried women who were “handpicked by God.” As I read on, I realized these women are often referred to as nuns. All of which made me realize that if I were going to be alone for awhile or even longer, I had to find a way to picture it that didn’t involve a traveling sideshow or lifetime vow of chastity.

I decided to take a trip. It wasn’t the romantic getaway I’d dreamed of: the tour of French vineyards, where a Sommelier says, “we enjoy za wine now and zen later time for love. No?” But it was something. I chose a week long bike trip to the Canadian Rockies, riding from Banff to Jasper. For many people, this would have been a refreshing, even challenging exploration of vibrant mountain terrain, but since I learned only to ride a bike three summers ago and still didn’t know how to stop once I was in motion, it had the potential to be the kind of free spirited, good fun that would land me in a full body cast. For life.

In the years since my mother died, my father had traveled many times with groups. On one trip he went to the Galapagos Islands, which he called, “The Gapapagos,” and which he described as, “Fine. It was nice trip. It was a bunch of birds.” This was only his second vacation without my mother, and at the time, I remember wondering how she would have described the same adventure. She was a woman who would call and say, “I was walking down Lexington Avenue today and I happened to look up and I saw the most unusual and creative fire escape!” And now I could only imagine how she might have described the Galapagos Islands. “The Tortoises have these voluptuous shells, and thick, lumpy ankles that looked exactly like mine!” I imagined her laughing at her own joke. Then knowing her, she would have added some peculiar detail like, ”And today I bought a banana from a toothless woman with the most exquisite feet!”

Looking through the brochure of my bicycle trip, my father told me what to expect when traveling with couples. “After dinner, these people don’t want to sit around and fumfernick with you,” he said. “They might act like they want to talk to you, but that’s only because they’re polite. What they really want to do is go to their tent and relax, spend time with each other, so bring a good book.”

On his first trip as a widower, my father had gone on Safari with a company known for its ability to deliver luxury in even the most remote locations. A friend of mine went on a similar tour and said during dinner there were several men in sheer, white robes whose sole job was to shoo away all the monkeys. When my father returned, he was eager to show me his photographs, proud not only that he had gone all the way to Kenya, but that he had finally learned how to use his point and shoot, insta-matic camera. We sat at his dining room table, surrounded by sleeves of photographs, as he took me through his whole trip.

“Here’s a zebra drinking,” he said, pointing to a what looked like a faint, marble rye in the middle of some tall grass. “Here’s a lion sleeping. Here’s an elephant by a tree. Here’s another elephant by a tree. And there’s me with the rest of the group. All couples except for that one lady I told you about.”

He moved on to the next roll.

“Here’s me with the Masai tribe,” he said, showing a picture of himself surrounded by African women wearing layered cotton shawls in various shades of mustard and stocky brass neck rings that saddled their clavicles. “They’re no dummies, the Masai,” he explained. “For years they had all these tourists bothering them all day, so they got smart and decided to start charging five dollars per picture.” He flipped through the remaining roll. “Five bucks,” he said. “Another five bucks. Another five dollars and this one’s blurry!”

He slipped the photos back in their envelope.

“I liked the trip,” my father shrugged. “But after awhile an elephant is an elephant.”

On the plane to Calgary, I sat next to a woman in a Mandarin collared business suit with pale, chubby hands she couldn’t keep still. She fiddled with several different ways to roll her blanket into a bolster that might support her lower back, which she rubbed while groaning loudly. She went through a dozen sleeves of sugarless gum. She fluffed and poked at the manic, black curls that rose out of her head like flames.

Smiling, I said to the woman next to me, “That was so great, wasn’t it?”

She shrugged. “Yeah. I guess so. I just hope he’s not drunk. You know, a lot of pilots are alcoholics.”

She confessed that it was her first time flying since September 11 and she was very nervous.

“Usually I really, really, don’t mind flying,” she said. “But today I feel a little jittery? You know what I mean? I’m sure part of this has to do with the media and how susceptible I am to the images they dictate? But I just feel-” Her voice trailed off. She put her index finger into her mouth and bit off the nail and then, with the tip still glistening with spit, held out her hand to shake. “I’m Gail, by the way,” she said, swiveling her body so that she faced me. “Can I use your pillow? I just can’t seem to get comfortable.”

She went on to describe the many health problems she had endured over the past year. They were minor things, she said: a tipped uterus, persistent disc problems, an allergy to pigeons. This was when I realized that as bad as it is to sit next to someone who wants to chat the whole flight, it’s even worse to sit next to someone who, it seems, wants a hug. This poor woman, I thought, that is until she said: “Are you traveling alone, too?”

And there it was: the word “too.” As in “also,” as in “look what we have in common!” I wanted to say, ”no, no, no, please don’t lump us together. My compassion for you is based on pity, not camaraderie.”

“Sort of.” I explained that I was beginning a bike trip with a group the next morning.

“You didn’t want to bring a friend?” She said, sharply.

“I wanted to go on a bike trip, and none of my friends could go. I didn’t want to wait.”

She fluttered her eyes. “I’m sure you get this all the time too, but everybody tells me they can’t understand it. They say, `What is wrong with this world? How can you be single? You’re a beautiful, smart, intelligent, vivacious, sensual woman.’ And I say it’s not me, it’s the men out there. Do you get that all the time too?” She pointed at me and then back at herself. “I mean, you and I aren’t super models, but so what? We’re in the, twenty percent, right? And that should mean something.”

At that moment, had the cockpit door not been so tightly locked, I’m fairly sure I would have jumped.

For dinner, I chose a restaurant with a lively outdoor balcony, which overlooked the Main street below, with its peppy, Swiss chalet architecture and rugged couples strolling in matching ponytails. In the right mood, anything can make you feel more alone, and this night was no exception. I was nervous about my motel room, with its flimsy door, perfect for someone who didn’t want to fiddle with a lock when he could be hacking me to death with an axe. I was nervous about eating dinner in a place I didn’t know. Perhaps this was why when the hostess asked, “Are you just one?”, it got to me. Just one. This is when you realize that “just” put with anything is never good. “Just” belittles anything it touches. Just friends. Just looking. Even “just a million dollars” suggests you were hoping for more.

“Yes,” I said. “Just one.”

The hostess was probably twenty-two, tall, with a jagged, bleached, pixie cut and wispy legs that were spaced so far apart I wondered if each knew the other existed. She lead me past the crowded dining area to what was essentially the single room occupancy section of the restaurant, a group of lone adults positioned far away from the families with jumpy, small children.

A man with blonde dreadlocks jogged after his little boy, who was running with a chopstick held above his head like a spear.

“Come back Montana,” he called, catching the boy by the waistband of his dungarees, just before he entered our territory. “Those people didn’t ask to eat with you.”

Those people. There it was again.

My friend Ray once told me that the first few times he ate dinner alone he always felt he needed to bring a prop, a book or a pad of paper and pens so that he could jot down very important things and look ensconced in his rich, inner life. I had forgotten my book in my room — a Dorothy Parker anthology, which included the story “Big Blonde”, about a desperately lonely woman who’s passed from man to man until she ultimately tries to end her life with pills — and only had my cell phone, which I placed on he table as if to announce, “Look, everyone, I have friends. Somewhere.”

It wasn’t as if this were the first time I was dining alone; I’d eaten by myself lots of times, but when I worried I might be eating this way for the rest of my life, my independence started to feel more like a liability. On that balcony, I had the sense that I was facing something that terrified me. I felt like someone who’s afraid of heights and confronts it by going to the top of the Empire State building and peering over the ledge, except this was a fear I was meant to face calmly, even cheerfully. I was choosing to be afraid, I was even told on occasion; after all, if you wanted to, you could always find someone. Lots of women are taking trips to Alaska these days.

I’d read about a study that said that people who thrive on danger, sky divers, ice climbers, often produce a natural opiate that masks their terror. The more they confront danger the less they feel it. If only, I thought, that worked for me. These days when I heard the song “Eleanor Rigby,” with its chorus of, “Ah, look at all the lonely people,” I practically needed a Xanax.

I observed my fellow solitary diners as the ghosts of Christmas future, all cautionary tales I was meant to heed. Looking at them, I started to wonder how each came to eat alone. There was the man who sat Indian style in his chair, one hand tugging at his beard, the other turning the pages of “Carl Sagan's Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective.” I imagined he’d been in love once, with a math major who shared his passion for The Monkees and “Dungeons and Dragons” marathons. She hurt him and now he was done. Aliens were much easier to understand. Across from me was another man who, it appeared, had fashioned himself as a kind of Burt Reynolds in Santa Fe, down to his woolly, plaid blanket jacket, Frye boots, and stiff, puffy toupee. He was divorced, I thought, at least once. Maybe he liked the falling in love part, but grew tired of the work that came later. He actually seemed like a perfectly nice guy, smiling and lifting his ceramic beer stein in my direction, but I looked away, as if to say, “no way buster. You’re not getting any of this,” ignoring for the moment that he hadn’t even asked. At another table, a dour redhead isolated parts of her salad, scratching the fork against her plate, so that the beets and onions were in a kind of ghetto along the edge. I pictured her online personal ad filled with so many explanation points it looked like there was a picket fence after each sentence. I LOVE FUN!!!!! I LOVE SUNSETS!!!!!! NO SMOKERS OR DRINKERS!!!!! WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE!!!! I wondered if she scared men, revealing too quickly that she used to pluck out all her eyebrows in high school and commenting that these days, everyone she knew was being diagnosed as ‘bipolar.’ “It’s this year’s ‘Epstein Barr,’ ” she said.

Were these my people?

I guessed they were, as much as any married person has something in common with another married person. I wondered which of these people considered themselves in transition — I’m alone until I meet the right person — and which had resigned themselves to a solitary existence. In the past few years, I’d found that whenever I mentioned the possibility of ending up alone, it was usually met with, “don’t be crazy. Of course you’ll meet someone,” or from my friends who were worried themselves, “please don’t even say that word. I’ll stick my head in the oven right now.”

I maintained that part of the problem was that my generation didn’t have many single role models. Growing up, I knew of only three women who were unmarried. The first was my mother’s friend, Eden Levine, who always traveled with a padded photo album featuring professional snapshots of her cats posed in costume.

“Here’s Fluffy as a bandito,” she said, looking tenderly at a plump Persian wincing under the weight of a sombrero. Then she showed us a photo of a deeply aggravated white, American short hair. “And here’s Spongecake as a bride,” she said.

Breezing in for a week-long visit, Eden always seemed so glamorous. I remember once saying in awe, “Eden is so pretty. She looks just like a stewardess.” Her hair was the color of a lemon left out too long in the sun and her thick, white lipstick shimmered. She always dressed in short-sleeved leisure suits and smoked cigarettes as long as drinking straws, which added gravel to her powdery, girlish voice.

The second unmarried woman was my friend Jackie’s beautiful godmother, Denise, who sported lime green hot pants I initially mistook for underwear. She maintained it was her part-time job as a cocktail waitress that afforded her a huge apartment off Fifth Avenue, with a vast, mirrored ceiling over her vibrating, round bed and several different boyfriends who called every ten minutes to make dates with her. The third was my Hebrew School teacher, Miss Yarone, whose overbite was so pronounced that I often feared as she ate her egg salad sandwich, she might accidentally bite through the ample flesh of her chins.

In the same way you might go to China, meet a handful of people in a country of one billion, and think, “oh, so that’s what the Chinese are like,” these three women were my ambassadors from the land of the unattached. It never occurred to me to feel sorry for them, with the exception of Miss Yarone, but only because she was entirely unprepared for how restless a group of eleven year olds could be. She learned quickly not to let us take our coats, scarves, and book bags when we said we were just going to the bathroom. She was also the one who confiscated the thick, ham and cheese sandwiches we brought to a Yom Kippur service.

In the weeks before she stopped showing up, Miss Yarone quit trying to teach us Jewish history, preferring instead to teach us about life. She told us that Israel was essential to the survival of the Jewish people, and that Tel Aviv had some of the best health clubs in the world. She told us about her favorite singers.

“My favorite is Barbra Streisand,” she said. “You know if she had lived in Nazi Germany, she might have been gassed.”

To which one of the girls in class responded, “God, Hitler was so obnoxious!”

Miss Yarone also told us about her search for a boyfriend. “The mens here only want one thing,” she said, securing the bobby pins around her short, stringy wig. “They want bing, bang, bong, goodbye. In Israel, men don’t mind a fat wife because they just want to live in peace.”

As a child, I could sit on my bed for an entire afternoon wondering, “what would it be like if I had to use my feet as hands?” I saw myself in the supermarket, hopping through the produce aisle, lifting a heel up to sort through some cherries, and at home, getting a callous on my big toe while writing a thank you note. I could picture every detail of that life, but I still couldn’t fathom what Miss Yarone did on weekends. What did you do if you had no one to do it with? In the rare moments I did try to picture her on a Saturday night, I always envisioned her as an Edward Hopper character, sitting in a dimly lit apartment, on a shallow cot in a half-slip, listening soberly to the lively sounds of the street outside. This was my vision of a woman who lived alone. And now I couldn’t help but wonder: Was I going to become one of these women? Did some little girl think of me as her Miss Yarone or Eden Levine?

I met my group the next morning in the dark, chilly dining room of a motor lodge. A round of quick introductions followed. The Fabers were finishing up omelettes that looked like yellow, mangled sleeping bags. They were traveling with their two freckled teenage boys, both as long and lean as pipe cleaners. Jenny from Chattanooga, waved along with her husband, a lanky, kidney specialist named Eugene. Kip and Dot were there to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday.

Although I tried not to, I found myself thinking in terms of The Group and me. The Group is packing up their bikes and I’m still trying to adjust my seat. The Group took all the Granola bars, and now I’m stuck with the ambrosia with the flaccid coconut. The Group is taking off without me. The Group doesn’t seem to notice I’m not with them. Now I can’t even see The Group, and it’s just me on this scenic, but desolate and drizzly road.

I’d experienced this isolated feeling many times. A boyfriend of mine once told me he thought it was because when I was in first grade, I was put in the slowest reading group. Originally, I assumed I would be placed with the best readers, Mindy Weinstein and Mark Negropont, who also happened to be the most popular and best athletes in the class. Instead, I was put with a girl who’d stuck a bobby pin into an electric socket and a boy who, it seemed, had no understanding of the word “soap.” I went to my teacher, Mrs. Stevens, arguing that a mistake must have been made, and she assured me that, no, my reading was actually that bad. Unlike the other groups, each of whom had their own shiny, formica table positioned around the classroom, our group met outside on the stairs, sitting in single file, so people could go up and down more easily. This, my boyfriend said, was the beginning of my life as an outsider. “That’s when you started thinking in terms of you and them,” he said. “That’s what did it. You’re screwed for life.”

I arrived at lunch as the group was finishing up. The small camp site was nestled at the base of a lush, green canyon, surrounded by towering trees.

“We’ve been here an hour!” Kip said, waving to me with one of his delicate, liver spotted hands. “We thought we lost you!”

“He’s seventy-five and he beat us too,” a woman named Candace said, sliding next to me at a picnic table. “I mean, it makes you wonder why you bother at all.”

Candace and her husband Louis had driven up from Seattle, where they were visiting their new grandson. Candace’s gray hair was short and choppy, and she wore the kind of wacky eyeglasses that German, avant-garde architects tend to wear. The kind that say, “I’m creative!” I knew I liked her when she leaned over and whispered, “How many other Jews do you think are on this trip?”

I laughed.

“No, I mean it,” she said. “You’re the only one who’s obvious, Cohen. That’s an easy one, but the others?”

Louis chuckled to himself, patting his wife’s leg. “She does this on every trip. You should have seen her at The Vatican.”

Just looking at Louis, you could tell the nature of his and Candace’s relationship. She was the wild one, and he, with his balanced smile and everyman haircut and clothes, was her rock.

Candace pointed to an older woman named Audrey, a creamy blonde who looked of Norwegian descent.

“I mean, clearly she’s not a Jew, but there have to be more than three of us. Right?”

And just like that, it was the first day of camp. The first day of first grade. You make one friend, and you don’t leave her side. Candace was now officially my best friend, even though she’d just asked if my name was “Emily”.

In the afternoon, I rode behind her, squinting to make out the back of her helmet. I was feeling pretty good about keeping up with Candace until she told me she’d recently broken her ankle and it was still swollen.

The next day, the weather turned unseasonably cold, a thin frost covering everything, making the roads very dicey. Breathing, panting actually, as I peddled up an eight mile hill, I exhaled what looked like a fine mist of talcum powder. Since I didn’t prepare for cold weather, I was wearing all the clothes I’d brought at once: two tee-shirts and two sweatshirts under a Patagonia fleece; green thermal tights under my long, padded shorts; a lavender bandana tied around my head under my helmet, and gloves. Today we were visiting Lake Louise, which had the most beautiful water I’d ever seen, a glamorous turquoise poised against all the surrounding mountains, some transcendent in pine green, and others, all granite except for a little white of fresh snow. It was at Lake Louise that I had the humbling experience of meeting someone whose dog was in better shape than I’d ever be.

This was all told to me as I reclined on a large boulder, wondering, after the morning’s ride, if I’d ever walk again.

At dinner, I was seated across from Ted, a man in his fifties who was also traveling alone. He was a genuine loner, I thought, unlike me. I was faking it for the time being. He didn’t need to make friends or fit in. He was happy leaving well before the group every morning and even happier never to speak to any of us. Ted had a fine stubble of hair that looked like glitter along his scalp and a businesslike stare when he addressed you. He didn’t say much until the conversation turned to bicycle trips he had taken before.

“Every trip I’ve been on someone lands in the hospital,” he announced, slicing into his venison. “In Tuscany, this gal flipped over the handlebars and when we flew back to America, no one was sure if she was permanently paralyzed or not. And when I was in Belize, this fella had a heart attack. And in Africa someone got this fungus. At first, they thought it might be a version of the flesh eating virus.”

Candace nudged me. “He’s a barrel of laughs.”

Tonight, Candace was wearing a white smock over a loose, flowered dress. She told me it was a cheese maker’s smock, which she had purchased in Paris. Looking at it, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes, by the 19th century food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin, who said, “a meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”

“But then the fungus started to blister,” Ted continued.

“P.S., Kate and Rodney,” Candace said, referring to a bubbly, athletic couple from Newton, Massachusetts. “Jewish. They told me at lunch.”

Ted then announced that he was off to bed. He wanted to get up before dawn. After Ted left, Jenny from Chattanooga said, “Do ya think he’s gay?” She leaned forward on her elbows, resting her pale face on her fists. “Eugene doesn’t think he’s gay.”

“He’s gay,” Candace said. “I think he’s one of those men who is, but nobody thinks he is. The kind of man who constantly falls under the GAY-DAR.”

“I didn’t think Elton John was gay so you might be right,” Eugene said, reaching for the white bowl in the center of the table. “Is there an Equal packet in there?”

“What do you think?” Candace asked me.

“He could be picky,” I said. “Or shy.”

“Shy!” Jenny said. “I never think of that.”

“He could be asexual too,” Candace chimed in. “He’s told me he spends a lot of time with his nieces and nephews.”

Ten minutes before this discussion began, I was planning on going to sleep early, but now I wasn’t leaving. What, I wondered, would they say about me? Poor Amy, maybe she aims too high, they might say. You know so many women her age have unrealistic expectations. Or maybe she likes the wrong kind of men. Or maybe she’s bitter! Recently, I’d seen a few of my single friends get increasingly bitter, growing weary and impatient with their lives, sniping at other people’s good fortune because they felt so forgotten.

“I want to make the word `victim’ fashionable again,” one of them said. “Feeling sorry for yourself is so out of fashion now, and I want to bring it back in a big way. I’m tired of looking on the bright side.”

I’d seen them become more exhausted with each disappointment, angrier at a world that had let them down. I’d felt a little of the bitterness myself, never strongly, but the vaguest sense of not being completely happy for a friend who announced she was pregnant with her third child, when I was debating whether to try online dating. Bitterness now seemed like a world into which you could pass without even knowing it, just by letting your guard down.

After the dessert plates had been taken away, Jenny drank the last of her decaf. “Yer sa brave,” she said, looking across the table at me.

She wrinkled her pert nose. “I don’t mean the bicycle,” she said. “I mean, because you came on this trip alone. I mean, I could never, never do it.”

“Me neither,” Candace said. “You are brave.”

“I agree,” Eugene said.

“You’re so brave,” can be interpreted in two ways. The first kind is what you might say to a fireman. This is the version that says, “I admire you. I’d love to be more like you.” The other is what you might say to someone who was just in a terrible car accident but is making a full recovery. This is the one that says, “You make me feel better about myself, because I’m not you.”

I didn’t know what to say, and so I said, “No, I’m not.”

“No, you are,” Jenny said, shaking her head. “I just can’t imagine going somewhere alone in a million years.”

Candace nodded vigorously.

“I look at my mother and I don’t know how she copes with being alone all the time,” she said. “Although she’s getting senile. Which helps.”

The next day we visited the Columbia Ice fields, one of the largest accumulations of ice and snow in the Artic circle. There was an observation deck at the visitors center, where everyone stood admiring the dramatic expanse of ice in front of us. This afternoon, the group was scattered. Some were in the parking lot taking pictures. Some were signing up for the Sno-Coach tour of the glacier. Everyone else, exhausted from the forty miles we’d done that morning, had gone to their rooms upstairs at the Ice fields Chalet.

“Do you want to watch TV with us?” Candace asked, noticing me standing alone. “We can put Louis on the couch, and you and I can channel surf and raid the mini-bar!”

It was such a kind and generous offer. How could I tell her that the mere thought of it made me want to drink my way to the Betty Ford Clinic.

“That’s okay,” I said, waving. “I’ll see you guys at dinner.”

Although it was cloudy all morning, now the afternoon sun had come out: smoky and vibrant orange, and with it, crowds of people, delighted by the warm weather.

“Right there is a slow moving river of ice,” a man told his young wife, who held his thick waist from behind, resting her head between his shoulder blades. “I read in my book how they look powerful, but actually they’re totally fragile. Like, things die all the time, like the plants and wildlife, and sometimes you can hear avalanches in the distance. Survival is a daily struggle on those ice fields.”

Standing there, looking at that desolate, frozen mass, I remembered my father saying about his Safari, “after awhile. An elephant is an elephant.” I wondered if he thought the elephant would have meant more if my mother were still alive. I could imagine her watching the elephants’ enormous gray bodies, excitedly saying, “you know, they can live to be eighty!” and “According to The Guinness Book of Records, the largest elephant ever was from Angola and weighed Twenty-Four thousand pounds!” Or maybe she wouldn’t have said anything, and they would have just stood there, silently, content that they were not alone in the jungle.

Excerpted with permission from “The Late Bloomer's Revolution” (Hyperion) by Amy Cohen. Read another excerpt here.