This evening, while I was getting my roots touched up, the stylist asked me the dreaded question:
"Are you married?"
Even after two-plus years, this one always throws me off my stride. My automatic impulse is to say yes, because I was married for most of my adult life to this point, and while I may not have an actual living breathing husband these days, I certainly don't think of myself as single. In fact, I doubt that it's possible ever to go back to being really, truly single in the way a never-married person is single, whether you're divorced or widowed or your spouse has packed a bag and left no forwarding address.
So when I'm asked this question, I have to bite down on the "yes" that wants to pop out of my mouth, and at the same time, I have to decide exactly how I'm going to explain my status. Sometimes I say "I'm widowed," and sometimes I say "My husband died." Sometimes, if I'm asked "What does your husband do?" rather than "Are you married?" I go subtle and say "When he was alive, he was a stay-at-home dad," and see if they work it out. Whatever I say, I have to say it quickly, or else there's an awkward pause, and that just makes it worse.
Tonight, what I chose to say was "My husband died a couple of years ago," and what I got back was possibly the strangest response I've ever received to that revelation. Without missing a beat, the stylist said "Yeah?" as if I had just told her that I liked cupcakes or that I had a golden retriever at home, and then she went on painting eye-watering chemical slop all over my hair. On the one hand, this was a relief because it meant we didn't have to have the I'm sorry/That's OK/I didn't know/You couldn't have/How old was he?/Thirty-six conversation that usually comes next. On the other hand, her total lack of surprise made me nervous because I wasn't sure she'd heard me right. Had I mumbled the "died" part? Had she heard "died" but mentally translated it into "divorced?" Was she going to ask a follow-up question that would make me have to repeat myself?
As it turns out, she must have heard, because she didn't utter another word on the topic. I was on edge for the rest of the hour I spent in her chair, though. Why do people insist on asking that question, anyway? I don't think I've ever asked anyone if they're married or not -- if they are, either they have a ring on, or they say something that makes it obvious, or both. But it seems to be a standard conversational gambit for the rest of the world, especially for hairstylists. They must teach them to ask about it at hairstylist school, somewhere between "Shampooing 101" and "Achieving Colors Not Found In Nature."