I’d always spent January trying to improve myself: plans to work harder, be a more patient mother, a good wife. I’d set myself punishing regimes: gym at six every morning, a macrobiotic diet and Mandarin classes at night. Then 2018 rolled around. I was newly divorced and living in a rental house. The Christmas season had been a dirge. I’d taken the Christmas tree down on Boxing Day and shoved the decorations into a box I thought I might never open again. Over the festive season my married friends had tried to jolly me along with questions about what I was going to do for 'fun' now that I was free. Fun felt about as appetising as the new year colonic I’d once tried in a quest for better gut health. The consolation of January 2018 was that sobriety, healthy eating and the hangover from December credit card bills might send them all into some sort of existential tailspin about where they were in their own lives. Then maybe they’d have a glimpse into mine.
I’m at an age and stage in my life when the kids are mostly gone or on their way out the door and many couples are taking time out to travel and rebuild their relationships. What did this mean for me? I’d listen to their plans for the year and feel overwhelmed. I didn’t need tiger safaris in India or art tours of Japan; I didn’t even need to feel cherished. I’d have settled for someone to share an M&S meal deal for two on a Friday night so I didn’t eat the whole thing myself. Someone other than the dog, that is. It was starting to make me feel very low.
"Which is great," my friend K said when I told her. "You have to feel everything or feel nothing." K is a therapist; it’s always going to be painful when she thinks something is good for you. "Maybe you should start dating."
Married friends always think dating is the answer – maybe because they don't do it – but K is more astute than most, so I listened to her.
I scrolled through dating apps on other people’s phones but mostly found myself looking at the décor behind the men in their photos. Could I go out with a man who had a sofa like that? Or the places they’d taken their shots. Was that the coffee shop in Borough Market where they have those lovely cheese toasties? The men themselves disappeared like the artist who paints himself into the background. It was no better with the profiles I read. Spelling mistakes and poor grammar distracted me; it felt like correcting homework. The part of my brain that hooked into who that person might be and whether I’d like to meet them had been suppressed, beaten, pronounced dead.
"I have no idea who I should go out with," I said. "I don’t trust my instincts anymore."
"If you don’t know who you like, why don’t you see who likes you?" suggested K. "You could define yourself by what you don’t like."
"Not very feminist," I said sulkily.
"You’re only saying that because you feel vulnerable. I bet they feel vulnerable too." Probably true, I thought. Annoyingly.
I fired up the dating app, posted a photo and profile. When I checked back an hour later, I’d received 110 likes. There were 35 messages too. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so vulnerable. I was a goddess! To hell with being a feminist, I didn’t know anyone who’d had this sort of response. I like being good at things – maybe I’d discovered something that I was really good at. All those vulnerable men needed someone to talk to, someone who understood the pain that they’d been through. I could do that. Was it the way I’d written about my goals, my choice of the books that had changed my life, that picture of me looking soulful with the dog, I wondered?
It was none of the above.
In response to the question: "What do you want in a relationship?" I’d inadvertently ticked: "Hook-up only."
"You can’t blame them for trying," laughed K when I told her. "Why does it always have to be so worthy, why don’t you also try being a little less good?"
As a teenager, I didn’t date much. I always had a boyfriend and strong views, firmly held, about the perfect relationship. My true love and I would both be monogamous, ambitious, share a sense of humour, build a life, have perfect children and grow old together. What did I really want in this next stage of life? I was bored with ambition, I already have children, I have my own money and I’d like a bit more time before I have to think about the getting old bit. I wasn’t even totally convinced that monogamy was all that. My teenage self would have been shocked but isn’t shocking the young the prerogative of an older age group?
I decided to take K’s advice and adopt a more light-hearted approach.
Once corrected on the app, the response rate slowed down – a lot – but there were a few men who were interested in meeting me. It all felt too random though. I'm organised, I like a plan and I’d heard of women who only dated architects, or others who liked professional men because they themselves were professional. They felt that by choosing to date people who are interested in certain things, they could reconnect with aspects of their life that they might have let slide. I looked at the men who had favourited me and put them into groups. Maybe we all attract a type and maybe there is a reason for that. The types who had contacted me seemed to be, in no particular order: Americans (I had been married to an American, maybe they could sense it), men who work in construction (I’m partial to home improvement and know my way around a tape measure), and men called Steve.
The wonderful thing about the name Steve is that it doesn’t limit men by profession, interest or even country of origin. 'Stephen' has forms in nearly all world languages (I’d allowed myself to include all variants of the name). Stephens, for the most part, also fall into an age-appropriate group of men I might actually want to date. The name was incredibly popular in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. By the 1980s it was out of favour; today it’s gone the way of Percy, a once-popular name that dates its bearer. But for my age group, Stephen is the everyman of names; it carries no preconceptions. Perfect. I had no clue what I was reconnecting with but it didn’t seem much crazier than the decisions I’d made about relationships when I was a teenager.
I swiped right on Steves, Stephens, Etiennes, Svens. I met up with some of them too. Pretty soon I had things to do on a Friday night: a drink, a meal, a trip to a museum. It was like being a teenager again but without the spots or the curfews. I was actually having fun. I liked getting to know them, hearing about their lives, finding out their quirks. If you’ve been married a long time you get used to the madness that is your spouse but it is quite revealing when you start spending time with other men outside work or your regular social life. I was quick to be critical and comment to my friends on their many perceived failings. I was still a bit suspicious of men.
"If you reach seven you could call them the Seven Deadly Steves," a friend suggested, and it stuck.
For the most part you don’t know your date’s last name when you meet them online so to distinguish them on my phone, I assigned each of them a sin. Stefan who ate three pieces of cake while I had one cup of tea became S. Gluttony. Etienne who cancelled twice with the same lame excuse, S. Sloth. Canadian Steven who boasted about how much he earned, S. Pride; Steven who was still incandescent about his ex-wife, S.Wrath. Then there was Stevie who was texting another woman on Bumble while I was in the bathroom. I only know because I saw when I was walking back to the table. S. Greed.
Some of the Steves I only talked to online, some I met once or twice, some I saw for longer, some became friends. I made no initial judgements on the Steves I met based on the qualifiers that I might have otherwise used – education, work, political persuasion. I just asked myself if I’d enjoyed my time with them. In the end I met some very nice men who I might have easily overlooked. I also began to understand that like everything else I’d thought I liked in my life, I hadn’t got it quite right. Providing it’s legal and doesn’t traumatise my adult children too much, who the heck cares what I do? There are no rules so why do I have to define what I want?
This January, I'm giving up my usual routine of slavishly punishing myself for the month. I’ve joined a tango class, I’m learning to make pho, I’m drinking in moderation, I’ve decided I like to go out for cocktails. I’ve promised myself a massage at least once a month. I think these are all things I can stick to, things that make me feel good. I’m still dating but now I see that the sins were probably mostly mine, and there were definitely more than seven. The seven deadly sins are linked with the cardinal virtues and this year I plan to work on those, too. I’ll foster humility against pride, kindness against envy, a degree of abstinence against gluttony, a lot of patience against anger, some liberality against greed and a measured amount of diligence against sloth.
"There are seven deadly sins," K said. "You’re missing S. Lust."
Let’s just say, I’ve also learned to embrace my bad side. You can’t be good all the time.