I think a lot, in retrospect, on the value I have always placed on toughness. Why has it mattered so much that I come across, at all times, as resilient, tireless, unfazed, game? One of my closest friends from college was called “Fiercy” as a child: When I met her, she was walking around the frozen midwestern tundra without a coat. We bonded over our similar biographies — younger brothers and a father with high expectations — but really we were allies in indomitability. Competent, independent, intrepid, we were in some sense untouchable even in our adventures with men. The men were compelling, but they threatened us, too. Our yearning for them tempted us to lower our dukes, and that kind of vulnerability wouldn’t do.
The toughness was an asset in so many ways. I had a boss once who said there were two kinds of people: those who ran away from fires and those who ran toward them. He liked to hire the second kind — that was me. I could withstand any kind of unpleasantness, and did: boredom, humiliation (both the gendered kind and the more straight-up hazing of newsrooms back then), crushing hours, snaky office politics, and the full-body torture of closing an article that might have consequences in the world. It all felt like a brass ring to me, and I ran directly at everything, saying “Yes” — buttonholing unwilling subjects in airports; hijacking Wi-Fi in parking lots; parrying with publicists and lawyers and editors; and finally, on deadline, nearly choking on my own adrenaline.
Why didn’t I desire more ease, more repose? Why didn’t I ever say “No”? It felt good to win; it was an accepted fact that I would take almost any dare, the consequence of a childhood where giving up (or in) was not an acceptable course. When I was 12, my father and I climbed over a mountain pass while the others in our group took the easy way down; the camping cook stove clattered in my backpack with every step during that long, miserable day, but when we reached the summit, and the fairy-tale Alpine landscape unfolded below me, the correlation between discomfort and gratification was codified. At work, I always invited more weight. “Put another rock in my backpack, boss,” I said to a friend and laughed.
Romantically speaking, then, I was at odds with myself. There was what I said I wanted — “a boyfriend,” someone with “long-term potential” — and what I wanted in fact, which was total autonomy so as to keep hurtling through space and not have to worry about anyone else. In my experience, men — especially professional men — needed so much hand-holding from women, so much boosting up. It felt to me that they sapped my strength. Why did I need to pretend interest in subjects I was not interested in (someone’s record collection or problematic mom) or chat up his bro-ish friends at a bar when I could book a plane ticket to chase a story, or watch TV alone in my own apartment, or sit with my beloved friends on my bed and talk about the boyfriends we didn’t have.
Throughout my 30s, I honed my body like a blade. It shone with my perseverance, the outward manifestation of my single-minded devotion to what was difficult. I worked out religiously, hiring a trainer who targeted my various muscle groups. We met at the gym in the dark before work; sometimes, while doing pull-ups, I saw stars. It seemed to me then — and I was not wrong — that the two sides of my life fulfilled one another. I needed physical stamina to work as hard as I did; to focus on my body gave my mind a rest. So I trained for marathons, and took tennis lessons at night, and swam miles in the pool next door to my office. When my mother mentioned that I’d grown “hard” (she meant “jaded”), I cut her off: Women succeed by building their worlds, not by fitting into worlds built for them.
There were men — dates — but they mostly wound up as stories at dinner. I had never consciously set out to attain complete self-sufficiency, but there it was. I was financially secure, felt physically invincible, and was surrounded by friends. I remember clearly the moment it struck me: riding my bike over the Brooklyn Bridge one sunny fall afternoon with a bouquet of flowers I’d bought at a Greenmarket in my backpack. I have made the life I want, I thought to myself, exhilarated. It was also true that I didn’t quite have everything. After a disastrous or merely ludicrous date with another man whose “long-term potential” registered in the negative numbers, I would go to sleep crying and wake up the next morning with mascara all over my pillowcase.
What broke my state? A few things, really. I passed 35 and wanted a baby. I fell in love and was mercilessly dumped. I took a new job, and in the new context, my toughness — my superpower — ceased to have its usual effect. It neither protected nor motivated me, and I became unhappy. Work felt like drudgery, the markers of success more obscure. Achieving was no longer a matter of hurling myself forward but maneuvering within a hierarchy, a task about which I felt ambivalent. Like a professional soldier, I had been girding myself for so many years that it had become a habit, but now going through those motions failed to arouse my drive. Having acquired all the markers of a grown-up life, I saw that I lived in an armored egg, optimized and defended. What does it mean to be a person responsible only for herself?
To coincide with my 38th birthday, I signed up for an ice-camping trip: two solid weeks, living outdoors, in the Tetons, in February, skiing from campsite to campsite, hauling our belongings around on sleds and digging out shelters in the snow. My idea was to see if I could dislodge my existential dissatisfaction through a physical endurance test. Like Superman regrouping in his Fortress of Solitude, I hoped the alchemy of the sparkling ice together with the sweat of my own body would illuminate a path forward. Could I attain a next, fuller chapter of my life through strength or will? I understood that coupledom wasn’t every person’s destiny. Did I want it to be mine?
The trip was grueling. The trip leaders gave out Snickers bars for jobs well done — the first one to build a fire with numb fingers or to dig a snow trench — and I hoarded them in my backpack, so fearful was I that I would run out of food. We put our sleeping mats right on the snow. We ate spoonfuls of peanut butter before bed, “fuel” to burn as we slept, and then tucked our frozen socks and gloves between our naked bellies and our long underwear to dry them out enough to put on again in the morning. The men in our group were able to pee from their sleeping bags, using water bottles they stashed in the corners of the shelter, but we, the two women, had to rouse ourselves out of bed and put on boots and skis to pee, or else risk falling thigh deep into snow. The other woman in the group was also 38, in many ways my opposite. She had married in her 20s, shelved a professional life, and now had kids who were teenagers. But our dilemma was the same: Approaching 40, we were entering unmarked territory, and we bonded over this. How would we define the next decades of our lives?
Feats of endurance had always been reliably exhilarating, but this one gave me little joy. We spent one afternoon, into dusk, skiing on snow so blank I felt like a conqueror regarding the singular swooshes of my skis. But most days just felt like work. The wet cold, the endless snow, the digging, the hauling, the slogging uphill. The petty calculus of who was pulling their weight, being a “team player,” and who was not. On our final morning, we held our cups of hot grain beverage and went around in a circle to reflect on what the trip had taught us. And I found myself saying to this group of new intimates that while I imagined it would introduce me to stores of strength and resilience I didn’t know I had, the trip had in fact shown me something else: that I wouldn’t mind relaxing, even cuddling, once in a while.
It wasn’t an accident, probably, that I had just started seeing Charlie, a man as tough and autonomous as I was but who wanted to make me comfortable. Not “comfortable” in the euphemistic materialistic sense, but really, physically and emotionally comfortable. On our first date, Charlie encouraged me to order dessert. He was the kind of man who put an extra pillow behind my head, who warmed up the milk when he made coffee in his ancient espresso pot. It was about Charlie that I found myself fantasizing in the Tetons: his warm, steady physical presence, his cozy, neat apartment. I understood then that having achieved an almost perfect independence, I was now ready to sacrifice it for something far less controlled.
The revelation of the ice wasn’t what I expected: My toughness was real, intrinsic to me. I didn’t need to protect it with my body, forced solitude, or my life. Having grasped that, I could begin to disarm myself. On the last day of the trip, a van picked us up and drove us out of the wilderness, back to the lodge where we started, and as it pulled into the driveway, a phone inside was ringing. It was Charlie, who said he couldn’t wait for me to come home.