They say the truth shall set you free… here goes…..I haven’t been on a proper first date in 38 years.  Suddenly I feel more embarrassed than free….. oh well, wouldn’t be the first time.  So let me explain.  I married my first serious boyfriend, we met when I was 17, he was 22…he took me to my junior and senior prom.  Yes….I know what you’re thinking…young and stupid right?   Yes, you would be correct.

But at the time it seemed like the right thing to do, BECAUSE I WAS IN LOVE!!!!!  You know the feeling…..the kind of teenage love, obsessive and all consuming in nature,  the type that prevents you from thinking about anyone else, the kind that blinds you to everything that was plain to see by everyone else.  Fueled by teenage hormones, and the brazen confidence that comes with youth.   I was convinced that I had to be  the luckiest girl in the world,  to have won over the affections of this suitor ( uh…that eye roll just made me really dizzy).   Yes, If i do say so myself,  I was pretty  sure that  I had  the world by the balls.    But in fairness, everyone really liked him, he was lots of fun, friendly, the life of the party, and always the first to start the conga line at a wedding.    We were introduced by an acquaintance and we had a common group of mutual friends, who were all getting engaged around the same time, and I, unknowingly, was swallowed up by the hype.  I made it a point of finishing college in three and a half years, so I could get a leg up on the job market, start working and planning to  have the wedding of the century as soon as possible. On a warm November day in 1987 my mission was accomplished.

Best laid plans of mice and men….right…. and then  life takes you on a ride that you could never have predicted, and the things you were so certain of, bite you in the ass……and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

So after almost 30 years of this coupling, I found myself unattached.  And although I may have been emotionally unattached far earlier, The Bronx County Clerk’s office officially proclaimed it so several years ago.   It is funny how my life has been defined by documents….the first a marraige certificate issued by The City of New Rochelle in 1987, and the other, one I  would never have anticipated, issued some three decades later.  Since the diagnosis of my daughter’s autism in 1999, my life has been mostly on cruise control….. technically still at the wheel, but  not a real active participant.  I was definitely present, but my priorities, or should I say my responsibilities, took me where I needed to be, and that was always with the girls.   If I look back now, I am able to identify the roots of my uncoupling, but at the time, I was oblivious.   However,  the end result is the same.  I find myself a 55 year old, with no idea how to date, no idea if I even want to date.  So here is the predicament….how does a woman of a particular age meet a man of a particular age.

It’s funny, but the quarantine time during the pandemic gave me an opportunity to reflect.  Not that I am not an introspective person, because I truly am.  But when it comes to thinking about myself, and my lack of a partner, I really never allowed myself to wander into that territory.  Mostly  because I felt that in the scheme of things, and what was going on in my and my daughter’s lives, it just didn’t seem that important. However, three plus months of quarantine does make a girl’s mind wander.  Another thing that makes a girl’s mind wander…..daily covid19 updates by one handsome Governor Andrew Cuomo, let’s call him AC.   You see, the quarantine also allowed me to acquire an imaginary boyfried, AC was just what the doctor ordered.  After all, who could resist his kind and intelligent persona….his loving stories about his mother and his daughters…..his large, strong hands, that he used when he spoke ( a prerequisite for any articulate Italian), his continued assurances that everything was going to be fine, despite the fact that at the time, it did not seem so.  His  New York lingo, his Italian background that made him familiar and relatable, his intelligent and slightly sarcastic sense of humor……. did I mention his large hands…..oh yes, of course I did.  Yup, he was definitely my type.

 Ok  fine, so I was successful in the acquisition of an imaginary boyfriend, but what about the real thing.  That seems far more complicated, and slighty intimidating.  In my younger years, I suffered from social anxiety, I had a slight stutter that reared it’s head at the most embarrassing times.  Lots of public speaking in college and multiple business presentations on the job helped me get over my fears.  I eventually became the loudmouth I am today.     And although I really hate confrontation, it is not often that I am intimidated by something, or someone.  You see, life has forced me to become persistent, strong, and slighty abrasive,  when it was for a noble cause…. my girls.  But for myslef, and something as insignificat as dating, not happening.  But of late, I find my mind wandering into forbidden territory, it might be nice to have a companion at this point in my life.   I need to devise a plan,  but where to start?

 I suppose a blind date is a possibility…….not that there is anything wrong with that.  The only problem here is that it would not be my first time at that rodeo.

If I tell you that I a stopped talking to the person who set me up on that date ,  would that give you a hint on how it went ?   Stay with me here.  I was a mere child,  on a break from  Capital X  ( lowercase x just doesn’t cut it).  I was sociable , not too tough on the eyes,  but definitely  immature, kinda shallow,  but certainly light hearted and friendly.  I was nervous for this date, and I can remember sitting with my mother, waiting for him to pick me up.  She was glad that I was going on this date because she was not completely sold on  the man that I would eventually marry, although she was smart enough to keep that mostly to herself.  My father had already passed by then, he also was not a big fan of Capital X …he would tell me “Johanna, he’s not your speed.”  I was never entirely sure what that meant, but it was clear from his hand gestures that it was not a term of endearment.  Anyway, back to the date, we were going to dinner at Cooke’s Steakhouse in Hartsdale, and I dressed nicely because I wanted to make a good impression.  I was hoping he would be attractive, I was sure he would be…..after all, we had spoken a few times and,  he had the most attractive voice over the phone…….DANGER……DANGER WILL ROBINSON…… enough said.  He was prompt to pick me up, rang the bell, and when I answered the door, I immediately strapped on my poker face. 

Poker Face…how did I acqure that skill you ask, let me tell you.  During high school and college, I worked for a well renowned prosthetic dentist, who also did facial reconstruction work.  Individuals who had facial deformity  resulting from illnesses like facial cancer, as well as genetic conditions and traumatic injury to the facial area would occasionally come in for a consultation.   My job was to retrieve patients from the waiting room, seat them in a consultation room and engage in a little small talk.  Doctor S never warned us when a patient with facial deformity would be coming in, and this day was no different.  I opened the door to the waiting room  with my usual smiling welcome, and I immediately felt my mouth open wide with shock.  There was this  young girl, about 13 or 14 years old, wearing a pink shirt with flowers on it.  She had  neurofibromatosis ( elephant man disease).  I could not conceal the shock on my face, and  when I finally recovered my composure, it was too late.  I suspect life had taught this young lady to never make eye contact with strangers, so she may have been spared my ignorant and thoughtless reaction.  I wish I could have said the same for her mother.  I  saw the grief in her eyes, grief from a lifetime of stares, compounded by me that day.  My heart broke for her, and for the little girl in the pink flowered shirt.   I was so ashamed of myself,  some almost 40 years later, I can still feel the blood rush to my face in embarassement.  In that moment, who would have know that the same grief that mom felt, I would feel so many years later….grief at the piercing stares and unkindness my girls would suffer as a result of inappropriate  behaviors  they would exhibit, as a result of their autism diagnosis.  Coincidence much ? 

Anyway, back to the blind date.  With my poker face strapped on, I forced a pleasant smile, but it wasn’t easy.  At my mothers door stood this fella, at least I assumed he was standing ,  at a fast glance one might have mistaken him for kneeling, because of his diminutive stature.  He had to be at least 30, remember I was 18.  Balding,  because why wouldn’t he be.  But the most bizzare part of his appearance was his wardrobe.  Now, granted, it was January in New York, so it was cold, but this was too much.  I can still remember what he was wearing….a Colomboesque trench coat….with a lining, under it  a tweed blazer, sweater vest, scarf, leather gloves…….seriously, how fuckin cold can you be ?  He was very polite, he opened the car door for me, we made small talk, but all I could  think about was my former friend who thought his would be a good match, and  this terrible case of hypothermia that he surely had, and of course, how quickly I could end the date. We got to the restaurant and  he ordered linguini!!  First of all,  who orders linguini at a steakhouse, but wait, it gets better….. never in my life had I ever seen anyone eat linguini like that.  Instead of twirling the linguini on a spoon, she was sucking the pasta into his mouth, like i had seen snakes swallow their prey on National Geographic many times before .  I can still remember staring, but trying to not stare, but feeling compelled to.  It was like a car crash, I just could not look away. I tried to hide the disgust on the face, but I am not sure I did.   He asked me if I wanted dessert…..NO….came out a little too quickly.  I can remember him pulling up in front of my house…”can I walk you in”……”No thanks, it’s so cold, don’t bother “.   It was such a funny response, given his many layers of clothing, he could have walked to Siberia and still have been warm.    That was the shortest date in the history of short dates, and the end of my blind dating career. When I got home my mother was sitting in the living room waiting for me, with a huge smirk on her face. “Home so early ?”  We both laughed at what was to be the first and last time I got set up.

Ok, so blind dates are out…how else can you meet a man.  People use dating websites all the time……not that there is anything wrong with that……but I just don’t see myself using one.  When I wrote my book I set up an instagram account.   Some of the DMs I received were pretty strange, besides,  I have a basic level of distrust of what I read on social media.  It is so easy to hide behind a keyboard, be one thing and pretend to be something totally different.   Meeting someone through a dating website could be a dangerous proposition.  I was raised in a fairly strict Italian family, quite  conservative, with a general distrust of the unknown. In hindsight, not such a bad thing.  And also….. in case you have not noticed yet….. .my luck’s  not that fucking  good.   I just cannot see myself  setting up a in person meeting with someone I met online.  Anything could happen.    Besides, noone looks like their profile picture.   Those profile pics must be  carefully staged….with lots of airbrushing involved.  Professional makeup artist to do your face…..with shading to give the illusion of cheek bones…… hair done for maximum fullness….. shots taken  from the neck up,  at exactly the right angle to capture one’s best side…with the bomb lighting, (love me some Lizzo), maybe a little wind machine action….. and by using a promo code you can get a discount…. and a credit…. you can use toward your next photo shoot………not that I would know personally,  I am just guessing. Ok, so dating websites are out.

As luck would have it, I had to break up with A. C. towards the end of the quarantine.   I had some fundamental disagreements with the treatment of the Special Needs Community during the pandemic, and I felt he did not intervene to the best of his ability.  Sad commentary on my ability to maintain a relationship when you cannot even keep an  imaginary boyfriend.  Such a pity. 

The only consolation here is that I may be in good company regarding my dating problems.  My girlfriends, some widowed at an early age, others divorced, some career single ladies, they all express the same frustration at the inability to meet a nice guy.  I was talking with a friend of mine, commiserating on the topic.  How to find a man who checked all the boxes.  For me….Box number 1…my girls are, and always will be my priority.  Box number 2…please save the drama, been there, done that.  Box number 3…you need to have a good sence of humor, and since you cannot be funny without being smart,  you need to be intelligent and able to have a good conversation with me.  Box number 4 , don’t tell me what to do, and I’ll do the same.  Box number 5… please be kind, and kindness when noone is looking, that’s an automatic move to second base….maybe even third.   Box number 6…don’t forget your wallet, I hate that in a man, and as a sidenote, don’t spend my money and I won’t spend yours. All reasonable, wouldn’t you agree?   After all, I’m bringing alot to the table….you know, as much as a  55 plus, grey haired, slightly fluffy, opinionated, somewhat angry lady….who hasn’t been on a date for 38 years, could bring to aforementioned table.  

Recently, my friends and I were talking….and drinking,  but mostly talking.  Seems Mr. Right can be elusive.  A friend of mine, who had a way more superficial set of Boxes she needed checked, was  telling me about her perfect man. Handsome….wealthy….no kids of his own…..romantic, attentive…generous…..putting her first in his life….an orphan (mother in laws can be problematic, boy, do I have alot to say about that).  A good dresser, a full head of hair….  and as I listened…and listened, I realized  how we differed in terms of our aspirations in a companion.  I guess our boxes are determined by our past experiences,  her list being very much  the list of someone who had very different experiences than I.   Must be nice.

“Why is it so hard to meet a nice guy, when will I ever meet a man like that” she proclaimed, with exasperation that did not seem warranted for this situation.  “That’s the boyfriend I want”,  to which I responded, “Lovie, that’s not a boyfriend, that’s a vibrator……..not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Johanna Cascione is a mom of adult twin daughters with severe autism, and a first time author of an autobiography – “Worn Like A Badge, Published under the moniker J. L. Verita.

After a career in the financial services industry, and a 10-year journey to have children, Johanna received the news that her twin daughters had severe autism. She experienced profound depression and anxiety. The diagnosis of her girls, especially in light of her struggle to have them, was almost too much for her to bear.

Ultimately she decided that the only way she could advocate for her daughters, was to become a stronger person, stronger than the fear that gripped her , stronger than the depression that paralyzed her, stronger than the diagnosis.

Her decision to replace the fear with hope, weakness with strength and the anger with kindness, was not an easy one, but she found it to be her only option. Her resolve to focus on hope, kindness and humor, especially when they were in short supply, served her well.

Today Johanna continues to advocate for her girls, as well as provide support for other families of individuals with autism. She has many stories to tell, from a life that was not at all what she expected. She is finding that her voice is one of honesty, hope, and yes…humor. Laughter heals the soul, and don’t we all need some of that.

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