If Wendy Braitman were writing a screenplay about her life, this scene would play at the top, to set the tone.
It is 1993, and she is the 39-year-old only daughter of her parents’ long and loving marriage. Her mother has suffered a stroke, so Braitman has flown from California to New York to be with her. She finds her mom awake, but groggy, and hopped up on meds. After an embrace, her mother asks, “So, how’s your boyfriend?”
“Mom, what boyfriend?” Braitman replies. “We broke up six months ago.”
Braitman patiently retells the story of their split: He wasn’t the right guy, it just didn’t work out.
Her mom reacts with disappointment. Then a moment later, she looks up and says, “So, how’s your boyfriend?”
Dumbfounded, Braitman repeats the explanation. After another beat, her mom asks the question again. And then again. And again.
“We went around and around in this circle of hell,” Braitman recalls from her condo at the foot of the Hollywood Hills. “In the little capacity she had left of her brain, all she wanted to know was: Who am I with?”
Braitman’s mom died six weeks later. She had always loved her daughter fiercely and supported her fully, except in this one aspect, her singleness.
Q&A transcript: What Ellen McCarthy and Wendy Braitman had to say
Even today, Braitman sometimes mentally revises past conversations to find the right words to make her mom understand: She didn’t stay single on purpose.
Braitman is 58 now, though she has the carriage of a much younger woman. Her body is taut and pliable from rigorous daily ballet classes. She wears boyfriend jeans, rolled to the ankle, and chunky sweaters layered over tight cotton shirts. It’s the look of someone with great style, opting for comfort. Her brown, curly hair tapers to the neck, highlighted with flashes of caramel. And her conversations, like her movements, are imbued with the elegance and self-awareness of a woman who has looked deeply inward and come up feeling more or less okay.
But she wanted a partner. She still does.
Braitman grew up in Queens, watching her father dote on her mother. She saw her brother become a wonderful husband. She does not think marriage is broken and does not think life — at least her life — is better lived alone. It just worked out that way.
She went to college, moved across country, built a career in media. She dated, took up hobbies and developed a loving circle of friends. For most of her life, she assumed the right one would eventually show up. Now, she thinks there has been a detour.
After Thanksgiving last year, Braitman read a review of Diane Keaton’s new autobiography, “Then Again.” It contained this quote: “I never found a home in the arms of a man.”
The sentence laid Braitman flat. That’s her truth, too. Of all the men she has known romantically — and there have been plenty — none ever felt like home. It’s that plain. Whatever point-counterpoint, yin-yang recognition of a kindred other happens to people, it has not happened to her. At least, not yet.
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We talk a lot about singles, but we don’t talk about this: what it’s like to live without a partner while longing for one, over years, then decades.
Just 51 percent of the adult population is married, down from 72 percent in 1960. So we talk about swinging, “Sex and the City” singles and extended adolescences. We talk about the delay of marriage or the rise of cohabitation and single motherhood. Depending on our perspective, we cheer the broadening definitions of family or bemoan the breakdown of the nuclear unit.
But the cousin or neighbor or co-worker who always seems to be on his or her own? We don’t give them much thought.
It’s easier not to. Perhaps as much as religion, our society hinges on belief in romantic love. How many songs and novels revolve around the long search and eventual discovery of a beloved? The phrase “happily ever after” implies a singular outcome: two lives made ever better by virtue of their union.
Never mind that close to half of marriages end in divorce, that many of those who stay married do so unhappily, and that, rationally, we all know life can be a struggle regardless of relationship status. Ninety percent of us will marry — often repeatedly — on the belief that marriage can add something fundamentally good to our lives.
Certainly, there’s a huge biological imperative to pair up — procreation and protection of the young used to demand it. But reproductive technologies have expanded our baby-making options, and security systems do a good job of deflecting predators. And we still want the ineffable. We want love.
The hope is for a constant companion who will bear intimate witness to our lives. Who will heighten our joy and ease our suffering. Who will be our designated collaborator and caretaker, sparing us the effort of constantly fending for ourselves.
And we’re promised as much. There is a lid for every pot, they say. Someone for everyone.