One is the Loveliest Number

One is the Loveliest Number



Paul Hendrickson, Washington Post Staff Writer


The Washington Post, Style Section; February 10, 1998; Page E1

On the cusp of Valentine's Day, when all of America is supposed to be gooey in love with somebody, here are two sophisticated and unattached middle-age women proud to say what they are: Happily single. And probably slated to stay that way. Happy, hell. One says she's blissfully single. Their names are Natasha Reatig and Trudy Todd. Both were once married, but that was a long time ago for each. They're very different people, from quite different backgrounds. But among the remarkable things they have in common -- for all their differentness of temperament -- is a willingness to say how much they've been hurt in affairs of the heart. But here's the twist: Neither is bitter, grinding in a hidden anger. Funny thing: You probe around on the edges of their lives, their histories, half expecting to find an inherent lie to their stories, and the lie just isn't there. They seem to be exactly who they say they are: Washington women for whom the single state appears to be the right state.

What's so refreshing is their candor. "Hate men?" says Reatig, who is 56 and seems the far less conservative of the two. (She has purple-tinted hair, but this is the least of it.) "You kidding? I adore men. They're my role models. I think they've had all the goodies in life. I just want what they have." She lives alone in an art-filled Adams-Morgan apartment that stunningly overlooks the city. Among some of the male goodies she says she is referring to is the seeming inalienable right of men to go into a bar or movie theater or crowded restaurant alone without feeling self-conscious.

And the other unattached woman? "I think I've always held out hope to be married again," says Todd, who's 51 and grew up in a religious-minded Mormon family. "But it's okay if it doesn't happen. I'm content the way I am. I wouldn't nip romance in the bud if it came along. I guess I could still imagine it. I do think the older one gets, the more reflective one gets. I hate, for example, the book The Bridges of Madison County.' Because anybody can be madly in love for three days." Affixed to her refrigerator in Northwest is a quote from Chaucer: "I am my owene woman, wel at ese." It seems fair to say that neither of these two exactly and precisely chose her singleness. In a way, it chose them. But as Todd has come to realize, "It may just be that we do a lot more choosing than we know."

And as for Reatig, she positively wouldn't go back. The state she wants for the rest of her time, she says, is unattached singleness. She's out in the company of men a lot, week nights and weekends, socializing with them, working with them, but "I am radiating that I'm not interested."

Just look around. The notion of "single and happy" (never mind "blissfully happy") is an oxymoron -- isn't it? When you're unattached, especially if you're a woman, the story goes, you cannot be happy. Something is deficient in you, something only half there, something waiting to be filled and fulfilled. Your life, should you wish to call it that, has dwindled down and flattened out to one basic all-purpose color: olive drab. So here are two Washington moderns, not slouching toward the millennium, but waltzing toward it, saying convincingly that all that is -- bunk. Although their definitions of the word "romance" would be fairly different, they are not closed off to the idea of romance per se. What they believe is that the word doesn't necessarily have to be connected to such totems as a ring on the finger or a procession down a church aisle to the crashing of "Here Comes the Bride."

Trudy Todd leans close. She is seated at a table in a coffee bar at the Fresh Fields supermarket on Wisconsin Avenue. She has just been complimented on the silky colored scarf that seems so smartly to offset her checked sports coat. "I actually found it walking my dog," she says. And then hoots. "You find many things walking a dog early in the morning in this neighborhood." She has blond hair, not perfectly in place. Her glasses have thin little tortoise-shell rims. The lipstick, pale pink, is perfectly applied. Many years ago she married her high school sweetheart. He took her to their senior prom. After the prom, after high school, both went different ways. Todd, an Air Force brat, finished college and worked for the Peace Corps in Asia. She and the sweetheart refound one another and thought theirs was the union made in heaven. Wrong. The marriage lasted about four years. "I think I exhibited my rebellion in the most superficial ways," she says. "Drinking and partying around." She says she still answers singles ads every once in a while in Washingtonian magazine. "Well, the most recent one I answered didn't get an answer. The guy didn't get back to me. I think I was too glib." She's not going to lose any sleep over it.

She works for the Fairfax County school system as a consultant in educational programs for English as a second language. This past weekend, she went on an Owl Prowl (she's long been an avid birder), led a writing workshop (she's long been involved in journal-writing groups), visited her aging mother, went to lunch to celebrate a female friend's birthday. That's not all of what she did. Some might conclude -- wrongly -- that there's more than the usual human loneliness here. "No. Not really," she answers. "And I don't get bored. But I will say that maybe I avoid loneliness by keeping busy." She hesitates. "I think in my thirties I would have really wanted to have children. Then in my forties I began to give that up."

On her 40th birthday, she went to a retreat. "On my 50th I went to a spa!" They pampered her mercilessly. There are two things "about missing a child, never having had a child," she says. "One is being able to bond with an infant. And the other is not being able to send a daughter off to college." And yet in a way she's had some of this with friends, with the children of friends. Recently she had a minor surgical procedure and thought: Well, here I am alone with this. But in fact she wasn't alone. What was gratifying was the amount of support from her network of male and female friends alike. In four years, when she reaches 55, she'll be able to take early retirement from teaching. Maybe she'll fly herself to the moon, maybe (more realistically) she'll work in a bookstore in the Utah desert, where her family roots are. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe it's a little bit romanticized -- but people make a life out of that. So I really feel the world is filled with possibility." Then: "I'm not sure I believe in Mr. Right anymore. I think Pleasant Guy, maybe. But I'm open. I said the world is filled with possibilities. And that could be one of the possibilities. If not, okay."

'Perfect' Natasha Reatig is a little different. She has NATASHA! in caps on her Adams-Morgan front door. The last thing she's looking for, she says, is a relationship with a man (or a woman, for that matter). "I just love it this way. I don't have to share my life with anybody, I don't have to share my space with anybody. It's just me. Natasha." She got divorced in 1970, following five years of marriage. Women's-consciousness groups and feminism were strongly on the rise. "I learned to do sex without love, and then love without sex." She stages a well-known annual Washington film festival and competition known as the Rosebud Awards. For many years now, she has hosted a salon on Wednesday nights for friends and acquaintances. Really, the scene is for anybody who wants to pull up a seat. It's been a movable feast. These days the Natasha salon, known among the denizens of the Adams-Morgan night, is from 8:30 to 11 p.m. at Chief Ike's Mambo Room on Columbia Road.

Natasha Reatig is right out there with her sense of self. She sort of has a PhD in self. "I'm an Aries, and an Aries is very involved in the self, very curious about the self. I'm everything you could read about an Aries in a 25-cent magazine." On the front of her personal card is a picture of herself in front of a Las Vegas hotel billboard. It says: "Self-Indulgent. Decadent. Perfect." There's a picture of her pointing at the sign, laughing, in a big hat. She seems to get the joke. She's retired now from the government. For three decades she worked in the field of mental illness, with the National Institute of Mental Health. She's always been interested in the "fine line between genius and madness."

There was somebody she loved deeply once. He was a gifted Israeli sculptor. She met him when she was a young traveler. They were on a boat together, crossing the Mediterranean from Marseilles to Haifa. "There he was. Wow! Love at first sight. He hardly spoke English. The communication was mostly on a biological level." For a year they lived in Jerusalem. They slept on a straw mat, they cooked on a kerosene stove. She left him, she says, although both were breaking each other's heart. There were other heartbreaks. Eventually she came to the realization that the real bliss was singleness. Now she fills her time exactly as she wishes. Now she doesn't have to be on anybody's arm. Now she's free to gad about in the company of males and females, radiating her absolute sexual and/or romantic disinterest to the former as well as the latter.

"It is all so wonderful. Don't you see? I am completely free of those "Oh, I love romance in the movies," she says. "It's lovely to look at. They're young. They're beautiful. But that isn't me. It's them. They're up there. I'm somebody else."

PHOTOS (not posted here) Cutline: Alone again, happily: Natasha Reatig, left, and Trudy Todd are quite content without a man in the picture, thank you. "It's just me": Natasha Reatig in her Adams-Morgan apartment.