Fifty-three came and went without ceremony. I’d lost count of the number of times over the past few years I had to think on how old I was. The relishing of time passing had yellowed to a grim recitation of my age, a glass of expensive scotch, and an early bedtime.
Tiffany and Dara just celebrated twenty years together. I sent them some champagne with a note of congrats. They didn’t have much time for me anymore, what with their two teenagers sapping the life out of them outside their jobs. Their family is everything to them — not much time left for friends, old or new.
I comforted Jared after his divorce. I never really liked Janine anyway, but lord knows I tried to be civil. No matter how many chocolate croissants or baked goods I pulled out of an oven for their enjoyment, she never quite cottoned to me. I’m really hoping to never have to see her again.
When I was younger, life was immense. There was so much to do, explore, and see with friends, with lovers, on streets pregnant with crowds. Even as my thirties wound up, my motor kept humming. I was comforted by new friends, new possibilities, by existence itself.
There were the six years of being with Lissie. No, not just being, but truly enveloping ourselves in one another. I knew every crevice, crease, and mark. I could make her come in rippling, sinewy waves that ran like ecstatic rivulets through her body. All these years later I can still hear that aching cry that shuddered from her as she orgasmed. We would fight, but we would make up for it. We would make love, we would fuck, we would tear ourselves apart and put each other back together again. It was so much goddamn fun!
But the fighting overwhelmed the fucking. Eventually the love holding it together turned to this cold, black spite that crisscrossed through our passion and ripped it to tattered nothing. Then there was The Fight, the last one, the one that finally did it. Who said what and wherefore didn’t matter, only that it was over.
There were the awkward months of trying to siphon some emotional comfort from each other, but it was drained of all color. What we thought was eternal was a farce.
I never hated her for it, though I may have blamed her. And myself. And us.
Wistfulness is the serrated edge of nostalgia. “Oh how I long for this, how I wish for that, would though it were so.” It’s then you realize that you can never be happy like that again.
Friends began to wed, one by one. Those couples had already been spending fewer hours with our group, opting to hold themselves close together when they weren’t drowned in work. They — we all — made efforts, but efforts slow down as age takes our energy.
When children started coming into the world, our common time together ended. We didn’t blame them — children are a great deal of work. They ask so much and offer such pain. But the joys they bring seem hardier, denser, more important.
Not that I’d know. My next relationship was achingly close to forever, but fell into nothing after nearly a decade. By that time, I was entering my forties and the cap of missing hair on top of my head had retreated entirely, making me feel much older than I should. I wanted to shave it all off, but I’d miss running my hands through the thicket of auburn curls on the sides, so I gave up the ghost and let the shiny pate contrast with my friar’s crown.
Dating seemed impossible. I never wanted to father another man’s children, I was never even sure I desired my own. But the women left at that age are mostly divorcees and single moms that could never quite make it last with a man. They were eager, but their desperation reflected my own too much.
I threw myself into work instead. Textiles, imports, exports. I tried to write the great American something-or-other and ended up staring as the cursor judgmentally blinked on the blank page. The only words I ever put down were the first chapter title: “Rosie’s Basket.”
I was successful enough in the day job I hated that I retired two years ago. All the friends that had abandoned me for their families came to the party and scuttled out early to get back to the babysitter before 10. Gifts that used to be carefully considered were reduced to a moderately expensive bottle of booze and a tight, ineffective hug. My adopted family of friends was now as distant and thinned as my blood relatives.
I took each of these things in stride, I told myself. Perhaps I should find a divorcee and seek out love. Maybe I’d be okay with having a few toddlers running about, threatening to inflame my sciatic nerve as I chased them. It might not be unfair to have a man turn 70 when they’re about to graduate high school, or 80 when they enter their 30s. I wouldn’t hope to reach 90, that’s foolishness.
At the end of all this hemming and hawing, I was still a man past middle age, sloping downhill in an empty house. I hadn’t done what I wanted to do, hadn’t seen all I wanted to see, and hadn’t loved eternal. Maybe there isn’t such a thing as satisfaction after all.
A more permanent idea began to insinuate itself, starting at the back of my thoughts and growing louder every day. If I ended it, truly ended it, then that would be that.
I hear the cries — being fifty-three isn’t on the verge of death. You have money, time, and freedom. Go do, go see, go love if you want.
So I went. I traveled to far flung places and strange locales. Ancient cities and extraordinary natural wonders. I met and broke bread with the most fascinating people and heard the sweetest songs sung around campfires and hearths.
Eventually I was tired of the constant motion, of never having a home, so I went back. And then I was a fifty-five year old man who lived alone, but with more exotic crap littered about the house. On the rare occasion a friend or two would drop by, I would regale them with my stories and they’d go home a little before 9 because a couple glasses of wine tire them out now.
That time I slipped from the bus in India left this permanent ache that flared up every few days. It pinched and swelled on the fleshy outer part of my right thigh, making me wince and need to sit down to ice it and take painkillers.
Still why couldn’t I just let this be over? Whether now or by time’s greedy hands, I would stop and cease and no longer be. I would just be other people’s memories, and those too would fade and stop altogether. Eventually I’m a stranger in photographs — “Look how young he looks in this one” — kept only for some vague reason of family history. Not my own lineage, of course, but someone else’s. My sister’s kids, perhaps.
And then, just like that, I’m fifty-eight.
I met Angie, who’d lost her husband to cancer five years prior. She was nearly as old as I was, but her eyes were as bright as a child’s. She didn’t mind my balding head or wrinkled face. She was as well-traveled as I, and wanted to do more of it. She glowed beautiful in a way I hadn’t felt in so many years, and made me feel as fumbling and awkward as a teenager. How could someone with so much pain in her life be so sweet? How could she forgive my sadness and understand all I needed was warmth?
We fucked for the first time two weeks after we met — and I do mean fucked. I hadn’t pulled an orgasm out of a woman like that in so long, I had begun to wonder if I even could anymore. I didn’t mind her cellulite or sags. The slightly graying hair punctuating her bush was just fine.
I held her for hours in a way that reminded me of Lissie, and the weight of the intervening years made the love I felt that much more potent and special. We would lie in bed late into the night, stoned and satisfied with each other. She never compared me to her lost love, and I never asked if we were much alike.
Aside from once, when I found her crying. She said she found an old photo on her shared files online that she hadn’t seen in years. She and her departed husband, eating at some restaurant on the coast with the biggest, sloppiest smiles. She asked the waiter to take it so they could remember the moment they got engaged. It was, she said, the last time they could be happy without reserve, since the disease that ate through his lungs came following soon after.
In a moment of insecurity, I asked her if she was happier with him than with me. I remember exactly her words, and exactly the way she said them in her soft, gentle voice — I don’t know how to love you any differently than I love him.
I never compared myself to him again, that was always enough.
Time moved on swift wings, and soon I was sixty-two.
We traveled even more. There are so many pictures of her smiling in unguarded moments, snuck when she didn’t know I was taking them — and always one more after she realized.
What a beauty.
Now I’m seventy-six and feel it.
Travel is hard, aching, tiring. My parents are gone, within a few months of each other, and my sister lives so far away that I barely see her or her family. I’ve lost three of my friends — my adopted and forgotten family — to various ills. An accident, cancer, and sorrow, respectively. When Jared killed himself, I realized I hadn’t seen him in two years. Hadn’t spoken to him in nearly as long. I wished that he’d reached out, maybe I could have comforted him. Maybe I could have stopped him.
Flights of fancy no longer held my interest, so I put such thoughts in the cupboard and left them to desiccate. He was older than I was, maybe he was simply tired of living.
At the wake I had to introduce myself to his grandchildren, and even his ex-wife was there (presumably to make sure he was actually dead). His son told me that he was starting to suffer from dementia, and that’s why he checked out. It was a quiet affair, a batch of sleeping pills and oblivion one afternoon after the grandkids left from their visit. No fuss, no clean-up, just an old man looking like he fell asleep in his chair. Goodbye, my friend.
In the mirror I still expect to see the fresh face of my youth, eager and ready for adventure. I did manage to keep that glimmer in my eye, even after the cataracts were removed. I miss the smoothness of my skin, the sweet mop of hair on top of my head in fiery red-brown instead of silvery white, but behind this old man’s face is me.
Angie’s stroke happened one afternoon while she was gardening. I was reading in my favorite chair and saw her collapse, like a switch had been turned off. I rocked myself to a standing position and dawdled outside, hoping she’d just stepped into a gopher hole, willing her to not have a broken hip.
She couldn’t speak as she lay in the hospital bed, and half her face was numb and drooping, drool leaking from the corner of her mouth. I wiped at it constantly, but never minded doing it. I told her it wasn’t fair she would go first, it wasn’t fair because she was so much stronger than me and how would I get along without her.
I wish she could have said one of the sweet things she spoke a thousand times before, things that made me feel like the bright ball of light at the center of her existence, but she could barely open her eyes. After four days in that hospital bed, she willed herself to squeeze my hand one last time, and gave her best smile.
The funeral was on a Wednesday. I can’t remember a single word I said to anyone, and most of my friends couldn’t make it on account of declining health or difficulty traveling. They sent me missives and called me with choked tears, and that was enough.
What do I do? It’s me again in this empty house, alone. Except now it’s more than being alone, it’s an absence, a dent in the world. Something that filled the rooms here was replaced with a profound silence. I left her pillow unwashed because sometimes at night I would roll over and breathe the last of her scent in, hoping to trigger some memory that made me feel loved again.
After months of idleness, filling time with takeout and endless, streaming arrays of crap television, I sat down and started to write.
When you read this, you’ll know what I’ve done. I don’t do it out of grief, and I don’t do it in the hope I’ll see her again. I embrace the dark. I’m glad I waited to do this because I had so many joys given to me, and they were worth every painful moment in between.
At 5:30 PM today, I’ll be exactly seventy-seven years old, so many years removed from when my mother brought me into the world one rainy afternoon, thousands of miles away. I’ll watch my most beloved childhood film, and listen to my favorite song one last time. The last words I’ll say aloud are for me and Angie, even though she’ll never hear them.
I go without fear, and I leave my loves to you. Do something good with them, they’re better that way.