I plopped a sad glob of guacamole into an exquisite black Art Deco bowl, and I knew. The guacamole would not be right.
In fact, now I was sure, none of the food would be right. Potluck indeed. Too insecure about my cooking to prepare the dinner myself, I had asked everyone to tramp through the January cold with a dish. Now I didn’t know what would turn up—sodden casseroles, gluey bean dip, goopy guacamole. Oh, right, the goopy guacamole was mine, the same guacamole that once came in last in a family guacamole-making contest. And my family originated in Scotland. Worse, I had run out of time and left out the jalapeño, and I had forgotten the cilantro completely. And possibly the lime. So the guacamole, at least, would not be right. This party would be lost.
The room would not be right, either. I could see that now, as I placed the bowl on a side table next to the couch and straightened up to scope out the scene. Denise had offered to host in her Upper West Side apartment, one of those classic 1920s buildings with French doors and endless bookshelves and rooms the size of Stockholm. It was the most convenient location for all of us. But now, after arriving early and waiting around for everyone else, I was sure that the living room would not be right for our purpose, the layout a nightmare, too spaced out for any real intimacy. There was a couch, backed up against the wall on one side, facing one lonely armchair along the other. I could picture it now, five of them, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder along that couch, like patients in a waiting room, waiting for bad news, and me in that chair, like Jonathan without his five stages of grief to fall back on, wondering whatever had possessed me to plan this evening.
The people wouldn’t be right, either. They were strangers, a real grab bag. I was the only unifying factor. Me. They’d each met me, just once. Some of them twice. I’d collected them haphazardly by asking around, consulting friends and friends of friends. Only now, as Denise was dressing in the bedroom and I plunked down on that couch, sinking, sinking, it began to hit me: These women had practically nothing in common. The youngest was thirty-nine, the oldest fifty-seven. One was a blunt, scary-successful lawyer, one a chatty homemaker, and every postfeminist option in between. Some lived in the city, some in the suburbs. Some had children, some did not.
I reviewed their names in my head, hoping not to botch the introductions: Denise, Dawn, Marcia, Lesley, and Tara. Why had I invited them? There was only one thing they had in common, and that was not the sort of thing guaranteed to light a fire under a party: Every one of them had become a widow in the last couple of years. And that was definitely not right. That was not right at all.
What was I thinking? Why had I tried to orchestrate what would surely be a social debacle on the scale of . . . well, getting kicked out of my widows’ support group? I tried to remind myself that this evening had grown out of an idea that hadn’t seemed so misguided until a few minutes ago, an idea that grew out of my own confusion and pain and rebuilding when I too became a widow, and what I had learned from all that. What I still hoped to learn.
The idea was pretty straightforward. I would invite these five women, five young widows, to join me once a month for a year. We would meet on Saturday night, the most treacherous shoal for new widows, where untold spirits have sunk into gloom. We would do something together that we enjoyed, starting small—this dinner would certainly qualify—and ending big, maybe a faraway trip. By the end, we would test my theory that together we might find a way to triumph over loss, take off in unexpected directions, and have some fun along the way. There would be setbacks and pain, I supposed. And tears, certainly there would be some tears. But there would be kidding and silliness, too. There would be progress. There would be hugs. No one would be asked to leave.
If nothing else, these women would provide each other with traveling companions past the milestones of this common but profound transition—the first holidays without a mate, the first time taking off the ring, the first time daring to flirt. We would converge at this most vulnerable, weak, and awkward turning point and pledge to each other that this was not an end, it was a beginning.
I also reminded myself that I was basing this project on some actual research. A fair amount of time had passed since I escaped the defeatist vibe at that widows’ support group, perhaps a low point in the annals of social services for the bereaved. Four years, in fact. Throughout that interval, I hadn’t been able to let go of the conviction that there must be a better way to help people move past heartbreak. I consulted scientists who were beginning to conduct serious research into our natural ability to recover after loss and learned that they were challenging the conventional wisdom. They were finding, to my relief, that the famous five stages were a bunch of hooey. Many of the researchers said that happy experiences with real people can be more helpful than wallowing in old-fashioned support groups based on outdated theories. Jonathan’s widows’ support group, I had learned, wasn’t only bad juju, it was bad science. This new group, I hoped, would be informed by the principles of what most helps those who have become uncoupled: friendship, practical help, openness to new experiences, and laughter.
I was acting on my own intuition, too, gleaned from all the changes I had undergone in those four years. I had kept at it, plotting to start my own widows’ group even as my own life evolved in extraordinary ways. It was a long list, but an abridged version might include the following: I met a divorced dad, a writer who lived in another state, and married him a year and a half before this meeting. Quite unexpectedly, I now found myself with a new man, a new home, a new teenage stepdaughter, a new job, and a very old dog with one eye. I had learned that one life doesn’t have to end because another one does. Mine continued to offer up surprises, many of them happy ones.
But it’s also fair to say that new relationships at this stage of life come wrapped in complications. Wounded as I was by grief, I was still full of doubts, still seeking guidance, still wondering whether I had what it took to work through all the complications—new man, new home, new stepdaughter, new job, and old dog come to mind— that arise from creating a new life when the old one is broken.
So I would be the sixth member of the group that was gathering tonight. More as an observer—at least that was what I thought at the time. Whatever happened, the other widows and I would agree, we’d share it in this book.
We would share our stories, and we would share one story. We couldn’t know where it would lead, but I resolved that ours would not be a story of sorrow. No, it would be an adventure story. Not that we’d be paddling through the deepest reaches of the Amazon or scaling the jagged walls of Annapurna, but an adventure story nonetheless. An exploration of life, of new opportunities, of newfound desires—dangerous territory indeed. The story of six women, remaking themselves. Six women seeking new discoveries and new purpose. Six women heading into the unknown, navigating life in extremis.
That was the theory. This was the reality: These women were strangers. They were widows. They were supposed to be sad. They wouldn’t like the guacamole.
“Are you nervous?” Denise already knew the answer when she joined me in the living room.
“No. No. Not at all,” I lied. “I’m completely confident it’s going to be great.” When what I really meant was, Would you mind if I step out . . . for the next few hours?
Denise looked at me as if I were a mutt that she wished she could adopt. “I’ve had other parties here,” she said, taking in my dubious expression. “It always works out. People sit on the floor. I’ll have my shoes off by the end of the night.”
If I was trying to calm myself down, Denise was the person to see. Her allure lay as much in her imperturbable composure as in the well-proportioned harmony of her face and body. Only thirtynine years old, she managed to conceal the grief she was feeling behind a serene mask. Denise was one of those people who practice yoga with the kind of discipline an honors student brings to final exams, and it gave her the grace of a gladiola, tall and true. Even her apartment was hushed, Zen, filled with books. Denise, in fact, was an editor of books, and I could tell that she had applied the measured care of her profession to organizing her library shelves, interspersing classics and current titles with black-and-white photographs taken by her husband. Now that Denise and I were sharing the room, I knew what had been throwing me off about it. This apartment was too spacious for one. Denise’s husband was missing. Together, they had been restoring the place and adding furnishings from the 1920s, like reclaimed lamps with shades made of mica, casting soft amber light. I could see his taste. I could feel his absence.
I had shown up at this meeting dressed with no particular effort to impress, in jeans and a black turtleneck, and Denise had put me at ease when she met me at the door in her yoga clothes. Now, minutes later, she’d emerged from the bedroom, still casual, but in ballet flats and a bell-shaped black skirt with a boatneck sweater that showed off her waist. Her fine brown hair was slicked back, wet from a quick shower, her face free of makeup, the better to emphasize her eyes: the wide-set eyes of a sorceress, the pale, ghostly blue of a winter sky. Looking closer, I saw something beneath the surface of those eyes, a subtle expression that seemed to be saying, seemed to be whispering, Help me. It was the look of a tourist lost on an unfamiliar street but too timid to ask for directions. I recognized that look. I’d employed various masks to cover it myself.
On the surface, though, as we waited for the others, Denise radiated thoughtful stillness. Whereas I radiated a sort of toxic anxiety.
Would anybody show? Everyone had confided doubts about walking in on five unknowns with nothing but their stories to share. Who could blame them? Then the bell rang. Fortified by Denise’s encouraging smile—a smile informed, no doubt, by all the wisdom of Eastern philosophies that I did not comprehend—I opened the door, and our Saturday night adventure began to unfold.