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Real lightning doesn't strike across that crowded room

Being suddenly single in one's mid-50s can be daunting. There is a point in mourning, at least for me, at which one gives in to friends and tries to view oneself as "free."

This is supposed to be a good thing; particularly good as one is no longer tempted or threatened by procreation. (Here's the part where I hum a few bars of "She'll have fun, fun, fun till her daddy takes her T-Bird away-ay.") It took a long time for me even to contemplate being "husband-free." It felt a lot like bereavement to me.

While visiting my mother in Arizona, an acquaintance talked me into going to a singles dance at a resort hotel in the complex where we were staying. She was newly divorced, new to town and enthusiastic. I had never attended one, though my husband and I used to stroll through the colonnade during the monthly singles dances, noting the people and their plumage (apparently designed to attract a mate or at least a partner for a dance).

I had never envisioned myself in such plumage or on such a quest. My acquaintance was sure we'd meet nice men in a safe setting, maybe even find mates who would watch over us in our declining years. I persuaded myself that I was there only to keep her company.

It was a strange experience: Women ages 45 to 65 trying to look 30-something. Men checking out the women, trying to look as if they'd just stopped in for a moment on their way to a hot date. All of them trying not to be obvious about their secret desire to have that "somewhere-across-a-crowded-room" experience.

The cheery organizers and some of the regulars knew each other and seemed at ease. With considerable trepidation, I walked up to a Jolly Lady who accepted my $5 for admission, and to a Less Jolly Lady who stamped my hand (shades of rock concerts past!) and then straight to the cash bar, the only worthwhile destination I could immediately identify.

Glass of wine in hand, standing along the wall, I scanned the crowd. How did I get into this enormously uncomfortable situation, I wondered. I hated this stuff when I was 13 and was forced to go to Junior Assembly, where the girls lined up against one wall and the boys, all shorter than I, clustered as far from the girls' wall as the room would allow. We were all supposed to learn ballroom dancing and rudimentary civilization, both of which generally failed to happen.

Across the crowded room, I saw a tall, distinguished-looking gent dressed in white, with a craggy smile and a full head of hair. He saw me. We began drifting toward each other while trying to appear that we weren't. Finally, we were side by side, commenting on the merits of the band.

We danced, laughed and had another glass of wine. He walked me home later, promising to call me the next day for a dinner date. As he strode away, I glimpsed him for the last time _ ever. So much for that "across-a-crowded-room" stuff.

That night, lightning struck a palm tree outside my window, hurling me from my bed to the floor, killing the TV and various other appliances. Reality check! Perhaps the quaint cedar-shake roof was ablaze. The former palm tree was clearly missing everything green that had been growing from its top a few hours before.

Life is short. I don't need to spend time staring across crowded rooms looking for salvation. The Singles Scene will have to struggle on without me. I'll be out there with my fire extinguisher, saving the house for posterity or watching the Weather Channel for possible hurricanes in Arizona.

_ You can write to Sheila Stoll c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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