My mother’s longtime boyfriend (life partner? gentleman friend? paramour?) owns a multi-week timeshare at luxury resort in Cancun, Mexico. My mom’s boyfriend is an exceptionally kind and generous man, and he has always allotted one of his timeshare weeks to me and my family, so that we can join mom and him each year.
The first time I visited the resort was nearly 15 years ago, with my now ex-husband. I had just completed graduate school, and it was a near-perfect vacation. In fact, that trip to Cancun probably sealed my destiny in terms of marrying my husband. I remember being a little surprised by how much fun we had and very caught up in the romance of the place. We came home from the trip and moved in together the following month.
After we were married, and then after we had our children, we continued going to Cancun with my mom and her boyfriend nearly every year. Most of those years blur together for me now. I know there was laughter and fun; my husband and I were always at our best together when we were in Cancun.
The last time I vacationed in Cancun as a married woman was pivotal for me again. One night, my mom watched our daughters, and my husband and I went out for a “date night.” The night should have been incredibly romantic. The restaurant was perfect, the food divine, the wine delicious, the sunset impossibly poetic. When we returned to our villa, my husband went into the bedroom and waited in bed for me while I changed out of my clothes and prepared for bed. I bent over the basin, washing and rinsing my face, until I heard his voice calling for me. I raised my face to look in the mirror in front of me, and saw, in the depths of my own eyes, a loneliness so deep and wretched that I could taste the desperation. A gentle voice from somewhere inside me said, “You can’t do this anymore,” and was answered by a small, pained voice that said, “I know.” As I stared at my reflection in the mirror, I realized that I had been rinsing my face for a long, long time, stalling the inevitable act that awaited me but no longer felt real or true or good anymore. But because this is real life and not a Hollywood drama, I dried my face and entered the bedroom and didn’t leave my marriage for another six months. I had, however, taken the first step down a totally new path.
Fortunately, my mom, her boyfriend, and his timeshare landed in my column on the division of assets ledger in the divorce, so my daughters and I have continued visiting Cancun. The first time without my husband, six months after I moved out, was gut-wrenching. Loneliness doesn’t begin to describe it. Each night, as my children slept, I sat on the veranda outside my villa, sobbing uncontrollably, typing pathetic tomes of self-pity in my journal, drinking altogether too many fruity drinks, and swearing that I was never — never! — again going on vacation to a romantic destination with my children and my parents as my only traveling partners.
The following year, I was in a better place by nearly any measure, but I still wasn’t dating anyone seriously enough to want to spend an entire week with him, let alone bring him along on a family vacation. I had dated quite a bit in the intervening year, and my confidence had improved, but I was still feeling the poignant reality of being in Cancun and, once again, being alone. All week I carried around the cumbersome and heavy burden of wondering if I was destined to always be lonely in paradise.
And then I saw her.
She was probably in her early 50’s. Her blond hair had nearly gone to silver and was held back from her face by a set of stylish sunglasses. Her bikini showed off her lightly tanned and very fit but clearly middle-aged body, and she held, in her elegant hand, an iced tea with a large slice of lemon. She sat at her table with her closed laptop and a book in front of her. It was clear to me that she was alone, and I searched her face for clues to her situation. She looked past me, at the horizon where the aqua hue of the Caribbean meets the royal blue of the sky, and her expression spoke of peace, contentment, serenity. She did not appear lonely, or sad, at a loss for anything at all. She was so very present in her contentment, so at ease in her solitude. I marveled at her, this amazing woman whose very energy conveyed her self-respect and sense of place in this world. How I envied her. How very much I found myself wanting to have what she had.
The host came to seat us, and we walked past her to our table, but all day the image of her stayed with me. I felt, with a completely unfounded certainty, that this woman was on vacation alone. In Mexico. Without a man. And she was happy. She was alone, yes, but clearly not lonely. She was at peace with herself and her solitude, at least in that moment I saw her. And I realized that day that what I really wanted, more than a partner, more than romance, more than anything else in the world, was the serenity I’d seen on her face. When I returned from Mexico, that woman stayed with me, an icon in my mind of where I wanted to be emotionally. She had given me a wonderful and blessed gift — the possibility of an alternative definition of happiness. The tangible representation — reassurance, even — that I could truly be happy and alone.
Now, most adults know that there is a very clear and important distinction between loneliness and solitude, but we struggle with the two just the same. Loneliness is a melancholy fellow who will show up, uninvited and unwelcome, at the most awkward or upsetting of times. He moves right on in and camps out on your sofa and eats all your food and makes you fat and sad and sometimes even invites his buddies Hopelessness and Neediness over for a really rowdy pity party. Solitude, on the other hand, is a gracious and serene friend who boosts your productivity and creativity with her quiet supportiveness. When Solitude is around, she helps you think clearly and feel grounded. Often, when we seek Solitude, we are ambushed instead by Loneliness. Solitude doesn’t live by anyone else’s schedule, and she won’t stop by when Desperation is in residence; those two really don’t get along at all.
In an earlier post, “what is all that noise?,” I recounted my journey this winter into a completely new place emotionally; a place absent of the drama and noise and chatter of my life that had been dragging me down, obscuring my vision, and generally getting in my way of creating happiness. One of the many gifts that came out of that period was that I got acquainted with solitude again. I learned to move peaceably through my day, recognizing and celebrating all that was good in it, rather than all that was missing. I began to enjoy my own company again and rediscovered small joys that I could find or create that were special and unique and just for me. And I realized that just because I was enjoying those small treats alone didn’t make them any less wonderful.
Today I had a conversation with a friend during which she brought up the woman in Cancun and how seeing her had changed in my life in a very small but important way. And I realized in our conversation that even now — even when things with my guy are going so well — I’m still okay with the idea of being that woman, too. That alternative — of being that woman sitting by the sea, content in her solitude — is still just as comforting, just as alluring, just as much of a pleasant possibility as before. Because, the truth is, I just want to happy. Whatever that looks like is just a detail.