What Happens When You're No One's Number One?

“You had someone to go places with. You had a date on national holidays!” - Marie, When Harry Met Sally, 1989
For Sarah*
Perspective is everything. The way we understand and react to things is influenced by what we’ve experienced. Being single is a perspective. Being single for a decade is a perspective. As a single woman, when it comes to alone time, my bathtub runneth over. I love being alone, having space, being the sole input to the Spotify algorithm, etc.. But my abundance of solitude means that on occasion, I view time with other people as a treat. For my friend who’s a mom of 2-year-old twins, alone time is unheard of. An uninterrupted pee might as well be a trip to the spa. Perspective.
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It’s impossible to truly understand a situation until you’re in it, and the longer I’m single, the more I understand that it’s not that the world doesn’t care about things that happen to me, it just never realizes they’re happening in the first place. Single women exist in a bubble, or in my case a crumbly Brooklyn apartment, and what happens to us is largely invisible to the societal eye.
Most notably, we don’t have a casually present partner in life, a person we can always assume we’ll do the things that people do things with, with.
There are the big things, the Christmases, the New Year’s Eves, the motherfucking Valentine’s Days. We won’t be participating in cultural norms on these holidays, we’ll be MacGyvering the single woman’s version of all of them. And we’re good at it, too! Have you noticed the “Galentine’s” cards section at Target this year? The name is repulsive, but the message is great. We’ve versioned a holiday, you guys — they see us!
Birthdays are another fun one. With the exception of my 30th, I’ve been planning my own birthday celebrations for a decade. Nobody’s ever like, “What should I do for Shani for her birthday? I’ve got it, Kitten Party!!” It doesn’t happen. What typically happens instead is I email 10 people, five of them are available, I make a dinner reservation, the end.
If I’m honest, the big things don’t bother me half as much as the tiny ones. The morsels you’d never give a thought to until the world is spooning them down your throat. Those are the ones that pile up and suffocate me over time. For example, who’s your In Case Of Emergency person? Mine is my mom. She lives 1800 MILES AWAY. And yes, I could list a friend, but I don’t like how that makes me feel. Have you ever really been in an “emergency?” It’s terrifying, and I don’t like assigning that potential imposition to a friend.
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And I’m a lucky one, I have my mom. Not everyone does. But at a certain point in life, I developed a need to be number one to someone other than a parent. And I’m not. Past the age of three, I never was. I have three brothers. We share the number one spot. Do you like sharing first place? Me neither. I have in me the desire to matter most to someone, to be the first phone call, the first person they think of. I’m 36 years old and I don’t think I’m wrong to want that.

I have in me the desire to matter most to someone, to be the first phone call, the first person they think of.

Have you been sick recently? I haven’t, but I think that’s because I work from home now and have reduced my subway activity by 95%. But I’ve been sick, really sick, pneumonia sick — while single. You know who takes care of single women when they’re sick? Themselves sure, but really, it’s delivery people. Complete strangers that bring supplies and soup to quarantined quarters and hold the baggie as far away from their own bodies as possible lest they contract the plague. Strangers literally restoring my health and not even knowing it. Heroes.
Oh but my favorite one — the one I’ll miss the least when I’m part of a partnership someday — are the nice, little things. The nice, little things people do for their significant others, because it’s nice to be nice to the person you’re in love with. The things that can only really be fully appreciated when you feel their void. Enter my single woman world for a moment (it’s fine, I just vacuumed), and know that in the last decade, no one has: brought me a cup of coffee, made me breakfast, taken out my trash, put an extra blanket on a cold bed, buzzed in a delivery person, picked up a missing dinner ingredient (or wine) on the way home, turned off the lights before bed, or entered my front door using their own key. I’ve done all of this by myself for the last decade.
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Life’s little normalities are different for single women. When I look at them in sum, what they really mean is that I’m nobody’s number one. I don’t have a natural, assumed partner for the basics, and I don’t have someone to share joy with in the special moments. It’s a really untethered feeling. For me, it kind of feels like wearing a coat without a back, or always sitting on a wobbly bar stool that’s about to give out. It’s not a good feeling, I don’t want that feeling. And, since the chance that I can end that feeling by starting a new relationship seems to have the same likelihood as it raining Cheetos tomorrow, I’ve tried over the years to feel more fulfilled on my own.

In the absence of being someone’s number one, I’ve learned to be nicer to myself.

I’m in a dinner group. It was my friend Monica’s idea. Once a month I meet up with three other single women, and we each take turns picking the restaurant. It sounds so small when you type it out, but it’s not. It’s something I look forward to all month, something I get excited about. We all take pride (if not a competitive spirit) in selecting our destinations simply to delight the other three. We are being creative and invested, we’re doing something nice for each other. You might be more familiar with this event as date night. But we don’t have date night, so we do this for each other and ourselves.
I’ve also taken up cooking and baking. It might be anxiety baking, sure, but what it’s really done is given me a thing to do that I enjoy (I think they’re called hobbies). Baking is a nice, little thing I can do for myself — by myself. It’s also made my freezer look like a game of Tetris so somebody please come over and take these scones home, thanks.
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I make my iced coffee at night, so it’s ready for me and not a chore in the morning since there’s no one else around for me to share this task with; and I have my apartment lights on smart plugs so I can turn them off from my bed. I keep a small pharmacy on hand in the event of an illness. In the absence of being someone’s number one, I’ve learned to be nicer to myself.
I’m never going to stop craving company, not with this much alone time on my hands. I’m never going to stop wanting to matter most to someone. But the way I deal with those truths isn’t by waiting for someone to fill an empty space for me, or by viciously searching for a partner, because I don’t think that works. I mean, it’s been a decade — I think I can assume it doesn’t work. I have to find ways to give myself what I need, to make moments large and small more meaningful to me. It’s a bit Hallmarky, but hey — whatever works.
Being no one’s number one can feel really bad. Not mattering most or more than anyone else to someone can be a very empty feeling, and it’s okay to tell the truth about that. But I don’t want to feel empty, and I don’t want other single women to feel empty, either. I want us to take an active role in our own happiness. I want us to do things that delight us, bring us joy, and connect us to others who are living the same way. Because it's fine to be no one's number one, as long as we remember how much we count.
*Not long after Every Single Day launched, a woman named Sarah asked to meet me for coffee. We chatted about everything — careers, being single, friendships, etc., and when we got around to being no one’s number one, it was clear that this particular topic was big, and challenging, for both of us. I reminded her that she wasn’t alone, and she did the same for me.
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