Tom Petty sang about all the ways there are to be wicked and concluded that whoever the singer is belting to "don't know one little thing about love." Well, as many ways as there are to be wicked there are ways to be in love. Anyone who's lived a little while knows just how many ways there are to feel for someone, and that fact alone leaves you acutely aware of how little you really know about whatever we think love is. After all, Natalie Merchant sings on "Jezebel" that she mistook love "for one of thousands of words." What's been somewhat less cataloged than wickedness or lovin', however, is just how many ways there are to be single.
Oh sure, there are plenty of breakup songs out there. But it's not often that we tease out the nuances of the single state as carefully as we chart the highs and lows of lust and crushes and wedding vows and obsession and everything else that Lester Bangs summed up in "Almost Famous" as "sex disguised as love and love disguised as sex." I haven't experienced all the ways there are to be single—no one person could. But here are a few of them—you might have been there, too. I think it's worth writing them down because it's only by cataloging what we do know that we can expose what we don't know, and maybe even learn something new.
The most obvious kind of single might be the type where you're actively looking for someone. You're hitting the bars, signing up for online dating sites and always putting on decent clothes to leave the house. You anticipate that anyone who walks into a place where you are physically present could reasonably turn out to be your future spouse. This is the kind of single that has led me to see a hot guy at a coffee shop and plan our lives together over the next three hours. When he walked in with a stack of books and some adorable faux tortoise shell-glasses, I knew we were destined for one another.
The cute guy said "Bless you" after I sneezed, but really he was proposing to me by the Seine with my grandmother's art deco engagement ring. When we chatted briefly about my job and his engineering program, we were getting married in a charmingly dilapidated barn in New England during the peak of autumn. When he dropped a napkin on the ground, clearly that meant we would name our twins Joan and Kurt because we loved the same bands. Eventually, when the cute guy packed his things up and left the coffee shop without saying goodbye, I was shocked. I just don't know how you could end such a beautiful life, so many years, so many memories, on such cold terms. I'll always remember our time together fondly. Like Sarah Connor narrates in "The Terminator" of her 48-hour romance with a time-traveling, predestined lover, "We loved a lifetime's worth."
Then there's the singledom that comes after a particularly devastating breakup, perhaps the kind worthy of a lyric like Petty's "I can watch your little eyes light up/When you're walking me through hell." You rebound briefly with your comfort food and cocktail of choice, but that dalliance ends when Ben and Jerry find you cheating on them with a nonstop string of movies starring Meg Ryan. You come to realize that the reason this particular phase of your life has lasted so long may have something to do with a ripe body odor developed from never getting out of bed or from the awkward grow-out stage of your dramatic breakup haircut. Eventually, after listening to that one Jewel song on repeat for weeks, you realize that you too can make pancakes and pick the towels up off your floor, even if you are bereft of love. You give it a try and slowly return to the land of the living, one chorus of "You Were Meant for Me" at a time.
Then there is the variety of single that I am right now. It is strange and unfamiliar. It's the kind that feels like a lifestyle, not a temporary layover. I find this more alarming than I would like to admit. This kind of being single happens when you stop living your life as if someone might be about to show up but instead find yourself getting comfortable. As if you were on a layover, waiting for a delayed flight to arrive, you now realize you aren't leaving the airport anytime soon. You are the Edward Snowden of romance. You allow yourself to really settle into your ways. This place is your home now.
If you're like me, you might have arrived there slowly over time, one ill-timed, overcrowded flight at a time. You may have discovered just how many ways there are for men and women and both metaphoric and literal airlines to be wicked. This kind of being single is as different from the others as marriage vows are to a high school crush. I'd even go so far as to say that the first two kinds of being single and all their many myriad siblings aren't true singledom.
With so many kinds of being single, there's always someone else in the picture there, either the person you want to meet or the person you just said goodbye to. When you're really and truly single, you can't quite hear the sound of his or her footsteps in the distance. The only sounds you hear are those of solitary burps and farts (one of the especial privileges bestowed upon the single). It's interesting being here, in new territory. It's interesting being here in my late 20s, when I expected to be looking at well-worn wedding photos, perhaps while waiting on a pie to cool. The best part, however, is that there's no one here to be wicked but me, no emotions to misidentify, no one to wait on. There's just me, finally living life, truly on my own.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 10:56 a.m. on 9/9/13 to correct a typographical error.