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Over the Hill and Between the Sheets
Sex, Love, and Lust in Middle Age
Edited by Gail Belsky
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Copyright © 2007 by Gail Belsky
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: September 2009
Springboard Press is an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. The Springboard name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group USA.
SEX AND THE YOUNGER MAN
by Jacquelyn Mitchard
I loved my husband Dan. We were married when I was in my early twenties and he a bit older. At forty-three, he was diagnosed with end-stage cancer. But I continued to crave the touch of him—this strong, comic, stand-up Italian guy from the west side of Chicago—as he waned to a shade. Each time we made love, there was a special poignancy and power, because we both knew the last time would have to come soon. A month before Dan died, his pain overcame our love.
What followed Dan's death was nearly three years of monastic motherhood, interrupted only by a few rabbity encounters (including one in a lifeboat on the Queen Elizabeth, and I'm not making that up). A year of desultory dating followed as I looked for Mr. Better-Than-Nothing. I felt as though my womanhood, if not my attractiveness, was utterly extinguished. The man who'd lit up my board was gone, and the board went dark. It looked like forever.
Given what came before it, the story of my meeting with an absolutely brilliant-looking young man in his thirties who unaccountably found the idea of marrying a woman in her forties (and all her children) deeply erotic is all the more remarkable. He called what he hoped to have with me "a dynasty," and his point of view was so exhilarating in a commitment-fearful world, well… I couldn't help but fall in love too.
As the poet said, everyone who couldn't hear the music thought the dancers were mad.
Our friends literally laid bets on whether it would last six weeks or six months.
But this is what really happened.
I met him just as I walked into my house from a run. Sweaty and bedraggled in my Texas Rangers ball cap and baggy bike shorts, I was dressed to impress no one, especially not the carpenter who was helping remodel a bedroom into an office.
Did I notice his eyes, the translucent blue of a good sapphire, his natural grace, his ripped shoulders under a paint-smeared T-shirt?
Of course I did; I was human.
But our handshake was businesslike, not electric.
And that was just how I wanted it.
Months before, I'd informed all my friends that I was finished. Through. The blind dates, long-distance e-romances, rendezvous with recycled past beaux, and all other passionate connection with life-forms bearing the Y chromosome—excepting, of course, my three young sons—were over and done with. I'd learned some not-very-surprising news from my dull dates. A widow who'd crossed the critical age meridian (forty), was neither genetically engineered nor artificially tweaked to look like Susan Sarandon, and who had children under twelve exuded a sort of reverse pheromonal allure.
But that critical age bridge had rendered me balky, too. I was unable to look dewy-eyed while listening to a monologue on the subject of one man's entire existence from eighth grade forward. Not even for the sake of being adored would I put up with self-centered recitations about the glory days of college sports, amazing business achievements, a hard-won par at that day's golf match; stinginess; passive aggression; a compulsion to discuss the shortcomings of the crazy third wife—or worst of all, the sad tale of the young lovely who (sob) didn't return his affections. The few who weren't leery or narcissistic simply didn't do it for me.
My life as a person and mother would endure. My life as a woman below the neck was over. I was a woman alone and at her sexual peak, but I could have appetizer affairs that would not involve my three sons—who were lonely, too, for another kind of male attention. The fathers of their friends, who could at least throw a ball overhand, were gracious. It would have to do. There would be no new papa in the offing. My children were too precious to me to settle for less. I was too precious to me to settle for less. Longing for the experience of new love (and to thumb my nose at the men who didn't consider my children value added), I went far out onto the end of a limb and adopted a baby daughter.
Now the man who crossed the moat would have to be a man of parts indeed! He had a specific description: He had to be robust, emotionally and physically, enough for the long haul. He had to have a degree, a tool belt, a sense of adventure, the desire for a big family, and something to talk about other than himself. And yes, he would have to make me weak in the knees. Absolutely sick with passion. Nothing less.
Wistfully, I'd made up just such a man for my second novel, The Most Wanted. All my girlfriends who read about Charley Wilder fell in love with him. All of them were rueful about the fact that such a man didn't exist in nature.
And so I meditated. Exercised. Went to therapy. Kept hoping that yearning would be extinguished simply by time and lack of oxygen. "How long will it be," I asked my pal Mark one day, "before I stop wanting to howl at the moon?"
He sized me up with a sad smile. "That would be never, I think," he said.
I was working in my bedroom one late afternoon when I saw Chris the carpenter leaning in the door frame. My breath quickened. Oh, he was a doll. I could see why the interior decorator who'd referred Chris to me had set her cap firmly to snare him. By then, I'd realized he was too cute and alluring to be pals with me, so I was brief in asking him what he needed.
He shrugged those chiseled shoulders.
"Just to talk," he said. I sighed. He looked like an athlete, so I waited for him to recount, in numbing detail, that championship season when the Avengers beat the Huskies in double overtime. But he wanted to talk about landscaping. And Thomas Jefferson. About astronomy and the grammatical oddities of English as compared with Spanish. We talked about pyramids and computer programming, symphonies and swing dance, the "Marseilles" scene in Casablanca and Chris's biological clock: He was (and remains) the only man I ever met who was worried he wouldn't marry soon enough to have as many children as he wanted. We talked for two hours.
By the end of the following day, I was weak in the knees. Sick with desire. Unable to eat.
I gave Chris an early copy of my not yet published novel to read. I was secretly hoping that he couldn't read and was for this reason doing remodeling instead of putting his degree in studio arts to a more profound use. However, he read the book overnight and told me the next day that the character named Charley reminded him of… him. Our chats grew longer. We ate lunch together and took rides after work, driving around in his crummy yellow van, singing old Tom Petty songs at the tops of our lungs, sitting on the hood and drinking champagne from paper cups, playing connect-the-dots with the stars. Chris's voice on the answering machine gave me goose bumps. I made up excuses (urgent remodeling issues) to call him back. One day as we sat talking on the porch, he took my hand. "I'm not making a pass," he said. "I just wanted to see how your hand felt in mine." I almost crawled up onto the roof. I felt as though I were sixteen again, cruising with the cutest boy in class.
It was great and time-limited. I told myself that was part of the allure. So I let Chris play basketball with the boys, and, in my faded jeans and my flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, I joined in, feeling as sexy as someone cavorting on the cover of a magazine. Nothing about it was serious, so nothing about it could hurt me.
Soon, Chris would be gone. He had a white-collar job lined up in New Mexico and was keen on relocating. My remodeling work would be his last job. Not once during all those three-hour lunch breaks did we even kiss.
"I think he's flirting with you," my assistant told me one night. "I think you should date him."
"I think I should adopt him," I said. "We're just friends. He's a child."
But he wasn't a child. Though he looked younger, he was thirty-two, little more than a decade younger than I. He was smart and capable. He was a carpenter because he liked it and didn't care what anyone thought of that. He'd had a couple of enduring relationships but never lived with a woman. In one sense, that was good. A bond had never failed him. In another sense, it was awful: He'd expect every day (probably with the interior decorator) to be Valentine's Day. I had children. I couldn't be a doting bride. Bride? I was a nun! When I began thinking this way about Chris, I scolded myself. Everything about him and me as more than friends was ridiculous. Altogether. Especially the age difference, which might seem fairly trivial in this narrow moment of time but would yawn widely later on.
But I was so smitten that I finally rationalized I could risk… an appetizer.
So I asked him out for coffee. And when I dropped him off, I leaned over and kissed him well and truly. And it was he who pulled away.
"What's wrong?" I cried, sure he was thinking, Here's a middle-aged crazy who's mistaken a little friendship for attraction.
"I just don't like things that end," he told me. My eyes filled with tears. I wanted to grab him and hold on tight. I wanted to push him off an overpass. I'd taken an emotional protractor and drawn a careful circle around my heart. Did I want it breached?
"Go to New Mexico," I told him, "I'll find someone else to finish the job."
"Let's have dinner instead and talk about it, because I don't think you know what I mean," he suggested. "You do eat, don't you?"
Not so much anymore, I thought, having dropped a size in two weeks. But we had dinner that night, a Friday.
Afterward, we went to Chris's tiny apartment. He'd locked himself out, and so he leaped up, grabbed the balcony rail with one arm, swung himself over, and opened the patio slider. I was positively woozy with lust. He came downstairs and opened the door. Everything was scrupulously neat and spare, except that he—like Charley Wilder in my novel—had strung across his living room an eighteen-foot hammock from the Yucatan. In a gesture both touching and telling, he showed me his photo album: his parents, including his mother who had married and given birth to him and his brother before she was twenty; his sister, from his father's second marriage, who was, at the time, five years old; and all the girls he'd loved before. Each of them looked as though she'd just finished her shift at Hooters. (Much later, a friend, commenting on one of those pictures, remarked what a beauty one of them was, adding kindly that she was probably as dumb as a post. She was a pediatrician, I admitted with a sigh. My friend asked, in honest befuddlement, "What was he looking for?")
He was looking, evidently, for me.
I thought we'd tumble into the hammock for a cheerful hour or so, but Chris wanted to sit on the terrace and smoke a cigar his stepfather had given him. An addiction! I thought gratefully. A way out! But he told me that he smoked perhaps one a year. After smoking it and brushing his teeth, he came back outside. We sat together in the dark against the wall that had been baked warm by the day's sun.
"You're a man of few words," I told him. "You tend not to speak in whole sentences."
"I'm in love with you," he said. "That's a sentence."
I was dumbstruck.
Then I said, "Come on. You're a kid. You have all these Robert Palmer girls in your photo album. Don't play silly games. Or better yet, do play silly games. But not for keeps."
"I always play for keeps," Chris said.
We undressed carefully. I took a long time folding my clothes and modestly putting on the long T-shirt he'd given me.
Chris, who's never told a lie, later revealed that he was as worried as I was. I'd told him I had a cesarean scar as big as the Rio Grande, and he was honestly concerned that sex with an older woman might not "work out," that he might miss the effortless bounce of younger flesh. I was worried, terribly worried, about the same thing. Gravity and childbirth had not been pals to my breasts or my behind, though I was as fit as I reasonably could be given the demands of being an around-the-clock parent and wage earner. Still, when we finally fell into each other's bodies (after exchanging results of our HIV tests), Chris said aloud he hoped that I would get pregnant, because it would solve a whole slew of other things. I didn't know what he meant, and I don't know if the earth moved. But the hammock nearly came out of the wall. And the board I thought would never light up again blew all its fuses. People say of sex that it's the most fun they've ever had lying down. This was the most fun I'd ever had horizontal or vertical.
"You're like a poem that gets up and walks around," I told him.
"You have the softest skin," he said.
"But am I beautiful to you? Is it like it was with younger women?"
"The truth?" he asked.
"The truth," I told him, biting my lip. "How do you feel?"
"Relieved," he said. "Relieved because yes, it was different, but it was different in a good way. I like that you're experienced. I like that your body shows that. I like feeling that there's a mind inside the body. You're a woman of endless possibility," he said, "in bed and out."
We spent the night in bouts of talk and urgent replays of the original act. I knew that I'd have trouble walking in the morning, but I told myself I was front-loading this pleasure, since it might be a long time before I felt such heat again. But when it was nearly morning, Chris said suddenly, "I thought…"
"I thought you might…"
"Might what?" I prompted him.
"Do me the honor of marrying me," he said, and swallowed hard.
I thought, He's hallucinating.
But I shouted, "Yes!" without thinking.
And then, when I'd recovered and begun thinking, I wanted to recant. I asked, "What about the age difference? What about when I'm sixty and you're only pushing fifty? What about New Mexico? What about the children? What about the fact that I don't even know you?"
"As long as we talk all of it out, every step of the way, it'll be okay," Chris said, with a Zen calm that was deep but, I was to learn, only occasional. "And I always thought I'd marry an older woman with children and then have more."
"More?" I squeaked.
"And so this wedding…" he said.
"Everyone will try to talk us out of it," I told him. "My father. Your father. My brother. Your brother. My friends. Your friends. We'd have to fight people off. People will be laying bets on whether it will last six weeks or six months."
"What day is it?" Chris asked.
"It's… well, it's Sunday now."
"Okay. Do they do weddings on Monday?" he asked. "I've never done this before."
"I thought you didn't rush into things," I said.
"Who's rushing?" he asked. "I found the woman I want to marry. I'm not going to wait until you talk yourself out of it."
We ended up waiting.
I would love to tell you that Chris and I have spent the past seven years in a beatific recapitulation of that first night.
In fact, we almost didn't make our first anniversary. We'd married in the middle, unlike most newlyweds, and never had the luxury of long, delectable days to explore each other's bodies and hearts. When someone mistook Chris for my younger brother, I refused to speak to Chris for three days. When an old boyfriend and I spent an hour on the phone, Chris sulked away a Sunday. I was a veteran parent, used to steering the ship. Single for nearly five years, I'd forgotten how much sheer breath a man took up in a house. Chris was a raw rookie, accustomed to the footloose schedule of a long bachelorhood. My insecurities and his inexperience nearly overwhelmed us. Those fine-boned Danish good looks drew stares from other women. Chris wondered why I spent time e-mailing other authors who were men.
Time, however, sealed us.
Eight months after we married, Chris adopted my children.
Nine months and two miscarriages later, we adopted our daughter, Mia.
Three years after that, through marvels of modern technology, we had a baby son.
Once, in the heat of battle, Chris told me, "You might want to leave me, but you can't. I'm a reformed narcissist, and you're responsible for that!"
Gradually, it became clear that my sons accepted Chris. In fact, my youngest boy, just three when his father died, knew no other Dad but this one, though my eldest son, already thirteen when we married, gave Chris the run of his life before grudgingly giving in to the power of his gentle presence.
It began to annoy me when strangers, learning I had a much younger husband, assumed he'd married me for power or because I knew some arcane European tricks of sensuality. "You go, girl!" they marveled when they met Chris, and I fumed. His family gave him some grief for opting to be a dad at home whose wife "wore the pants."
Still, as years passed, Chris looked less like a boy model and more like a young father; and I, by dint of a little Botox and a lot of walking mingled with the tonic of joy, looked younger than I had when we met. We blended into a comfortable middle ground; the age issue melted, and we were able to tell the kids, when in doubt, stick it out. In our hardest times, I have never felt less than graced by having practically stumbled across a man with a gift for fatherhood.
And passion? Well, passion sometimes has to give way to exhaustion, midnight colic and early-morning spelling drills, nights at the emergency room and days in the grocery aisle. After a few months, we settled into the routine so common among parents: hiring a sitter and having a Saturday-night date in our bedroom.
But when we get the chance to be away together, even for a day, things between us are combustible. And the lights on my board that went dark so many years ago gleam again—sometimes filling the whole sky with sparks.
TILL FAITH DO US PART
by Ann Hood
When I met my husband-to-be Lorne I used to walk every Saturday morning from my apartment in the West Village in New York City up Hudson Street to St. Luke's Church, where I helped cook meals for people with AIDS. This was in 1992, and my neighborhood, near Christopher Street, with its condom shops and gay bars with blackened windows, was especially ravaged by the disease. It was common to see young men whose faces had splotches of red and purple leaning heavily on canes or walkers as they made their slow way down the block.
I never actually set foot in that church. Instead, I walked through a gate, past a garden that bloomed bright in warm weather, and into the kitchen. I am Italian American, raised with the philosophy that feeding people nourishes their souls as well as their stomachs. Someone else plated the potatoes au gratin and crème brûlées; someone else sliced the leg of lamb marinated in yogurt and spices; someone else set the tables and served the food and cleaned up afterward. Me, I cooked. And by cooking those few hours, I nourished my own soul as well.
By this time in my life, I had dabbled in and explored just about everything spiritual. When I ruptured my Achilles tendon hiking when I was twenty-two, I wrote Buddhist on the emergency room form under RELIGION. I puzzled over the silence and simplicity of Quaker meetings in the Berkshires one long lonely winter there. I lit seder candles and ate challah bread on Friday nights during a relationship with a Jewish man and visited the Ethical Culture Society down the street from my apartment in Brooklyn. I read everyone from Saint Augustine to Lao-tzu to the Bhagwan Rashneesh, and finally, when I reached the age of thirty-five, newly divorced, moderately successful, my spirituality felt rich and large and comfortable.
In many ways, by the time I met Lorne, I had come full circle. My family's spirituality came from other people—helping them, sharing with them, talking to them, and, yes, feeding them. I grew up sitting around a kitchen table with a platter of spaghetti and meatballs in the center, a pot of coffee bubbling on the stove, and various generations of aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends filling every chair and corner of the room. At that table, I learned about love and loss, faraway places and broken hearts, strange diseases and miracle cures. As one of the youngest, I didn't say very much. I ate wine biscuits twisted into pretzel shapes and hard bread dipped into tomato sauce, tight batons of prosciutto and crunchy stalks of fennel dripping with olive oil. I ate and I listened and my soul and heart grew and expanded in that kitchen.
Ostensibly we were Catholic. But on snowy Sundays, or busy Sundays, or sometimes on any old Sunday, my grandmother climbed onto our kitchen table, threw holy water at us, and gave us special dispensation to stay home from church. Instead, I helped her mix the meat and spices for meatballs and got to eat them hot from the frying pan. In summer, we abandoned church altogether and spent Sundays from sunrise until dusk at a lake an hour from home. There, in the cold early morning, my father fried bacon and eggs in a cast-iron skillet over an open fire. When it got dark, we huddled together at campfires after dinners of barbecued chicken and marinated London broil, and desserts of marshmallows toasted on the long branches we had collected during the late afternoon.
When I was twelve, I abandoned Catholicism and churchgoing after the priest told me during confession that my entire family was going to hell because we spent summer Sundays together at the lake instead of attending Mass. Even then I understood that my spirituality came more from those long days swimming, hiking, and eating together than it did from sitting bored in an overheated church.
Although mutual lapsed Catholicism was one of the things we shared, Lorne had in fact been a more serious Catholic than I ever was. Various family members sang in the choir, and the kids all joined the youth group, playing guitars and taking ski trips and camping trips. While my parents looked relieved when I announced I was finished with church, Lorne continued attending Mass all the way through college and into adulthood.
I realized right away that Lorne was more religious than I. He had joined a Protestant church, and when his marriage was falling apart, he had gone to talk to his minister; when mine was on the rocks, I sought solace with friends and family. I didn't have a minister, of course. But Lorne did. He attended a big ornate Congregational church in Providence, where he joined various committees and ate at potluck suppers. When he drove, he got inspiration from tapes of famous sermons by renowned preachers. One summer, years earlier, when he was in graduate school, he worked for Church World Service, and he still counted the various ministers and Riverside Church administrators among his best friends. It seemed to me that church and spirituality were linked in Lorne's world, and separated in mine.
But when we fell in love that spring, it was fast and furious. The power and passion of that love made me believe that we could overcome everything: ex-spouses, political differences, the two hundred miles that lay between us. Spirituality—a private thing—and religious alliances and alienations seemed easier to work with than all of the other obstacles in our path. Besides, when kissing someone makes you swoon, makes your mind go blank, makes your stomach tumble, it feels at that moment like nothing else really matters.
That was why, in what felt like a minute, I left my beloved New York City behind to be with Lorne in Providence. Pregnant with our first child, Sam, I became a recalcitrant, though not entirely unhappy, member of that Congregational church. By the time I had our second baby, Grace, I was almost enjoying the social aspects the church offered. At the coffee hours and auctions and sing-alongs, I would spot another mom from Sam's preschool or the parents of a baby Grace's age. Taken out of my familiar single, childless world of Manhattan, I had to find new friends, new places to meet people, a new way of life. Church became one more way to navigate this new territory of wife and mother, one more connection in a marriage already solidly passionate and intimate.
- On Sale
- Sep 26, 2009
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Life & Style