LUST, REVISITED

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[By the time you read this, I shall have spent the afternoon just past in Manhattan, attending a cello concert in his other grandmother’s apartment by my now-eight-year-old grandson. (She has a piano for the accompanist; that’s why it takes place there.)  Those of you who’ve been hanging around TGOB for a while, say ten months or so, may recall I did the same thing last year, when he was seven. The concert last year was to commemorate his having finished the pieces in Book One of the Suzuki Method and being able to play them all by heart. Now he has mastered the pieces in Book Two.  Given the amount of money his loving parents have poured into this lengthy learning process, I anticipate at least better finger skills and perhaps more interesting “music.”  Anyway, what are grandmas for, if not to fill seats at Sunday afternoon musicales by their progeny?

Not being one who is able to tap out posts on an i-Phone while riding New Jersey Transit into Penn Station, I thought it might therefore not be inappropriate to keep the blog going tonight by re-running the piece that appeared here last March after his first concert, which was not really about the concert at all.  Nothing much has changed.  Same crappy weather; same black down coat; same handbag and water bottle; same glasses on a chain. (Different book and different scarf, but those are mere details.)  Most important: the same feelings. Now if only the rest of the ride home were unchanged!  Well, we can’t have everything, can we?] 

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LUST

Last Sunday, I went in to New York by train to attend a cello concert given by my seven-year old grandson for his parents, grandparents and a few young friends from school who are also studying an instrument. He had finished Book One of the Suzuki method of instruction, and part of the Suzuki method is the requirement that the student play all of the pieces in the book from memory for an informal gathering of family or friends.The concert was a happy event, carried off with aplomb by its sole performer (who loves applause) — with plenty of tasty refreshments afterwards.

The trip in and out of the city, however, was a less happy event, as it always is, something realtors invariably neglect to mention when you are looking to buy in Princeton. Except for the politicos among us, Princetonians generally try to forget that Princeton is in New Jersey. When someone asked me over the post-concert refreshments if I was from New Jersey, I instinctively answered, “Well, yes, but not really. I live in Princeton.” To which he replied, “Ah yes. That is a separate place.”

The train to New York City from Princeton is the New Jersey Transit Northeast Line. It should come as no surprise to anyone who rides it to hear me call it a third-world train. It is slow, with antiquated cars, and passes through some of the most run-down parts of a state generally acknowledged to be blighted (despite the proud claims of its portly and vindictive governor). When it finally arrives, it pulls into the belly of hideously overcrowded Penn Station, itself located beneath Madison Square Garden in an unpleasant, highly commercial part of the city packed with human bodies pushing every which way against you as you try to fight your way out of the exits.

That said, the Northeast Line does boast a few — very few — newer cars, designed to carry more passengers per car length by being double decker (with one station-level section at each end of each car), and colored blue (in contrast to the dingy turd-brown color of the older cars). So it was my good fortune that the 4:34 to Trenton last Sunday afternoon (passing Secaucus, Newark Airport, Newark Penn Station, Metropark, Linden, Edison, New Brunswick and Princeton Junction on its way) was one of the so-called “new” ones. And it wasn’t even crowded.

In fact, by the time I had phoned Bill to alert him to when I’d be home, reviewed the photos and two videos of the concert on my i-Phone, taken a swig of water from the water bottle I carry in my purse on trips, nodded off for three or four stops, and then pulled myself back into consciousness to check where we were on the itinerary, I found I was due to get off at the next stop and there were just two other people left in the lower level of the car I was sitting in. One of them was across the aisle from me and in the row ahead, so I had only a partial view of his profile from the rear, but something about it attracted my attention.

Was it the line of his jaw? The muscle outlining the side of his mouth? The slightly olive complexion? The contrast between his bookish eyeglasses and the knit cap with a hole in the back that nearly covered his dark brown hair? Except for the knit cap, he strongly resembled — in one-third rear profile — my first serious boyfriend as he had been in 1948 and 1949. But he looked taller. And the hands were larger — more like my first husband’s, only with less pronounced knuckles. They were deftly manipulating photos on a smartphone over which he leaned — with what? Interest? Longing?

The leaning posture showed me the shape of his muscular shoulders, tapered back and narrow waist beneath a short jacket of some thinsulate material that clung. Safe from his view, I further examined with growing interest the lean strong thighs pressing against his narrow jeans. I even noted his footwear: tan laced-up ankle boots collared in dark brown leather. He was what? Twenty-eight? Thirty at most?

You could say I gobbled him up with my eyes. Then I was stripping him naked in my mind and sliding my hands against his skin. Yes, I was aware of who I was and what I looked like (had anyone been looking, but no one was): an eighty-two year old grandma in a black down full length coat, with a wavy grey wool scarf around her neck and glasses hanging on a chain over them, with a book by Louis Begley and a water bottle sticking out of her dark red leather handbag. But I was nevertheless flooded with what had rapidly transformed itself into unabashed and ravenous lust — for a man easily young enough to be my grandson (had I begun reproducing somewhat earlier than I did) and with whom I almost certainly had absolutely nothing in common. And yet, in some other fantasy world where he was blind (and therefore willing) — I might have dropped to my knees between his legs and reached for the zipper, right there on the New Jersey Transit between New Brunswick and Princeton Junction. Not that I’ve ever actually done anything like that in my real life. But the older you get, the freer the thoughts.

Just then he leaped to his feet, snatched up his khaki backpack and moved fast to the stairs leading up to the station-level part of the car. This section had a few fold-up seats lining the sides, where passengers are supposed to park their heavy baggage, strollers, carriages and bikes. Without a second thought as to what I was doing, I too stood and followed him down the aisle and up the stairs, where I sat down again on one side. Against the other, he was re-assembling a large green racing bicycle, his back to me. When he was done, he turned to hold the bike steady just as the train pulled in to Princeton Junction, and then rolled it out towards the door. Full face, he looked somewhat different than I would have thought, but not unattractive. The eyes were dark, the nose was strong, the mouth….(Believe it or not, I’ve run out of affirmative adjectives.) As he passed me, the only other passenger in that part of the car, our eyes met. Just for a moment he saw me. But he didn’t see me. What he saw was of no interest to him, and I hadn’t thought it would be, nor would I have wanted it to be. (Whatever I am, I’m no fool.) I had no time to be embarrassed. He looked away, was out of the car, on his bike and into the cold drizzle, pedaling towards his real life, whatever it was, before I stepped onto the platform.

Young people don’t know this stuff about old people. They feel it all belongs to them, because their bodies are gorgeous (even if they think they aren’t), and their skin is taut, and they move so easily, so quickly, so gracefully. But it doesn’t belong just to them, and they’ll find out, if they live long enough. Some older women may claim I’m wrong, and good riddance, but that’s sour grapes, I think. (What do you suppose hormone replacement therapy is for?) And I bet there isn’t an older man alive who believes desire is only for the young.

I could have just written about the cello concert and kept all the rest of it to myself, but the cello concert was only one part of my Sunday. And if I had to choose between the two parts, I ‘m not sure which I’d pick. It doesn’t matter that the object of my desire will never know, or want to reciprocate. It may be sad that I’m old, but it’s great that I feel.

I’m still alive! And who wouldn’t choose that?

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STUPID ME

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I admit to many flaws; stupidity usually isn’t one of them. However, there’s always a first time. And here it is: a slender book called Monogamy which has left me feeling really dumb.

Not that Adam Phillips, the author, isn’t a terrific writer.  He is, he is!  But I’ve had to reread each page of his book at least twice to figure out (most of) what he’s getting at.  What seems evident to him is so much less evident to me that it’s hard for me to follow.  On the first go-round anyway.

Phillips also leaves me dumbfounded because what he seems to be saying here does appear to be the way things are, or one of the ways things are.  And my life might have been quite a bit different if I had been able to think about these things in the way he does.

Examples:

19.  In private life the word we is a pretension, an exaggeration of the word I.  We is the wished-for I, the I as a gang, the I as somebody else as well.  Coupledom can be so dismaying because the other person never really joins in. Or rather, they want exactly the same thing, but from a quite different point of view.

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27.  At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with; at its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.

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39.  If sex brought us in to the family, it is also what breaks us out of the family.  In other words, people leave home when what they have got to hide — their sexuality — either has to be hidden somewhere else, or when it is best shown somewhere else.

If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nowhere to go. Which is one of the reasons why couples sometimes want to be totally honest with each other.

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40. Every marriage is a blind date that makes you wonder what the alternatives are to a blind date.

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45.  Rules are ways of imagining what to do.  Our personal infidelity rituals — the choreography of our affairs — are the parallel texts of our ‘marriages.’  Guilt, by reminding us what we mustn’t do, shows us what we may want; it shows us our moral sense, the difference between what we want, and what we want to want.  Without the possibility of a double life there is no morality.

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Is all this is making you cross and headachy? It shouldn’t.  Monogamy is not prescriptive.  It’s not expository.  As you may already have noticed, it’s a collection of short — sometimes one-sentence — observations on its subject.  What the French call apercus.  There are only 121 of them.  Lots of white space on each page.  Lots of time to roll each around in your mind. No need to hurry on to the next.  (Except perhaps out of curiosity.)  You can open the book anywhere.  Put it down anywhere.  Go back and read some of it again before you’ve got to the end.

But let’s back up.  Who is Adam Phillips?  If you’re not British or in the shrinkage business, you may not have heard of him.  Not being in either of those two categories, I hadn’t heard of him either. Then he was interviewed about a recent book of his in The Paris Review.  (The book? Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.) What I read there whetted my appetite to learn more.

Phillips is not only an author but a prominent British psychoanalyst.  He studied English literature at Oxford before becoming interested in psychoanalysis. (His particular interest was in children.)  After finishing his analytic training, he worked in the National Health Service for seventeen years, and from 1990 until 1997 was principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London.  But when he found the Health Service’s tightening bureaucratic demands growing too restrictive, he left to open a private practice in Notting Hill.  He now treats adult patients four days a week and writes every Wednesday.

As a psychoanalyst, he has been a maverick, so that he’s been called “ludic and elusive and intellectually slippery.”  He also declines to defend psychoanalysis as a science or field of academic study, preferring to think of it as “a set of stories that will sustain …. our appetite for life.”  He has also said that for him, “psychoanalysis has always been of a piece with the various languages of literature — a kind of practical poetry.”

As a writer, his thinking has clearly been informed by his psychoanalytic practice with children. In addition, he’s  been described by The (London) Times as “the Martin Amis of British psychoanalysis” for his “brilliantly amusing and often profoundly unsettling” work; and by John Banville as “one of the finest prose stylists in the language, an Emerson of our time.”

[He’s also, as shrinks go, photogenic — if that cuts any ice with you.]

It may be that I made a mistake in beginning with Monogamy.  I picked it because it was short and sounded easy.  (Ha!) Here are some of the other Phillips books I might have chosen instead. [And this isn’t the whole list.  There’s even a new one on Freud’s life coming out this month.  His Wednesdays are apparently quite productive!]

  • On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored:  Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life
  • On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life
  • Houdini’s Box: On the Arts of Escape
  • The Beast In the Nursery: On Curiosity and Other Appetites
  • On Kindness
  • On Balance
  • Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature

On second thought, Monogamy was not a mistake.  Perhaps it’s the masochist still lingering in my depths even after twenty-four years of (non-consecutive) shrinkage. But stupid or no, I do find the book a keeper.  Here’s some more.  Maybe you too will develop a taste for it.

28.  There is always the taken-for-granted relationship and the precarious relationship, the comforting routine and the exciting risk.  The language won’t let us mix them up.  We have safety and danger, habit and passion, love and lust, attachment and desire, marriage and affairs.  We are not mixed up enough.  In other words, we still have bodies and souls.

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58.   The point about trust is that it is impossible to establish.  It is a risk masquerading as a promise.  The question is not do you trust your partner? But do you know what they think trust is? And how would you go about finding out? And what might make you believe them? And what would make you trust your belief?

Trust is a word we have to put too much trust in.

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60.     Self-betrayal is a sentimental melodrama; a deification of our own better judgement, an adoration of shame.  I am always true to myself, that is the problem.  Who else could I be true to?

When I say that I have let myself down, I am boasting.  I am the only person I cannot avoid being faithful to. My sexual relationship with myself, in other words, is a study in monogamy.

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64.     It is always flattering when a married person wants to have an affair with us; though we cannot help wondering exactly what will be compared with what. In fact, we become merely a comparison, just a good or bad imitation.

To resent this would be to believe that we could ever be anything else.

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65.  No one gets the relationship they deserve.  For some people this is a cause of unending resentment, for some people it is the source of unending desire. And for some people the most important thing is that they have found something that doesn’t end.

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69.   There is always someone else who would love me more, understand me better, make me feel more sexually alive.  This is the best justification we have for monogamy — and infidelity.

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121.   Monogamy and infidelity: the difference between making a promise and being promising.

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51.   Serial monogamy is a question not so much of quantity as of quality; a question not of how many but of the order; of how the plot hangs together. Of what kind of person seems to be telling the story.

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53.   The outlaw, the femme fatale, the heretic, the double agent, the pun — infidelity gets all the action. It has the glamour of the bad secret and the good lie. It travels because it has to, because it believes in elsewhere.

So what would we have to do to make monogamy glamorous? Or rather, what would we have to stop doing?

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And how do I stop quoting?  [Monogamy, you see, becomes addictive.]  By reminding myself you can always get your own copy.  Me, I’m going on to Promises, Promises (see above).  That one is essays.  Essays I can do.  Apercus?   I’m still working on my French.

 

HOTEL DU LAC: SHOULD EDITH HAVE MARRIED PHILIP?

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Edith Hope is the main character (I hesitate to call her the heroine) of Anita Brookner’s “Hotel du Lac,” a book which one of my book groups decided to read during the time I was sick last month.  I was unable to attend the discussion, so don’t know what the other group members thought of it.  I will therefore put it to you!

But let’s start with Brookner.  Now in her mid-eighties, she was an international authority on eighteenth and nineteenth century painting, in 1968 became the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge University, and then for twenty-five years taught at the Courtauld Institute of Arts in London.  She is reported by her students as having been a superlative and dedicated teacher.  In one of her rare interviews, she herself declared that she loved art and loved teaching students how to look at it.

However, at some point in her early fifties, she began to write a short novel during each of her summer breaks from teaching, and after retirement continued with the novel writing.  She has now written, I believe, close to thirty of these shortish novels, although none for the past couple of years.  “Hotel du Lac” was the third, and probably the most successful in sales; there was also a movie, starring Anna Massey, based on the book.

For quite a few years, I used to read Brookner’s books as they came out, but eventually stopped because after “Hotel du Lac,”  they began with very few exceptions to seem essentially more or less the same, except that the protagonists grew older as the years went by. They were almost always about a lonely woman (although sometimes a man), living in London on somewhat limited but not uncomfortably limited means, often with ties to an elderly and dreary European relative (or relatives) still alive or recently dead. This protagonist took long solitary walks in all weathers in London’s parks while considering her (or his) situation, which never seemed to resolve in any way that seemed to me satisfactory, much less happy. The books were certainly instructive about how to pass time if you were lonely, which I often was when I first began to read them. But after a while, enough was enough for me.  I also used to wonder what Brookner’s own life must have been like for her to focus so exclusively on short fiction about lonely single people growing older from book to book.

However, since I had to read “Hotel du Lac” again last month at the behest of the reading group, afterwards I went online — a resource not available to me back in the days when it won the 1984 Booker Prize and I first read it. That is how I found the most recent of her rare interviews, given when she was eighty — in which, among other topics, she considers the ending of “Hotel du Lac,” written so many years before, when she was considerably younger.

Here is the book’s plot, in brief.  Edith Hope, a thirty-nine year old unmarried writer of very romantic novels with names like “Beneath the Visiting Moon” and “The Sun at Midnight,”  has come to spend two weeks out of season at an out-of-the-way old-fashioned hotel in Switzerland, just before it closes for winter, because she is in disgrace for having decided not to show up at the church for her wedding to Geoffrey, a dullish sort of bachelor recently bereft of his mother. She had been “fixed up” with Geoffrey by her one female friend, Penelope — a flirtatious sort who doesn’t marry but has plenty of fun.  Edith has not had plenty of fun.  Instead, she has a secret:  David, a married lover who has been the delight of her life during twice-a-month visits for the past five years.  David has children and will not divorce.  For all Edith knows, he may be unfaithful to his wife elsewhere than with her.  But it is apparently glorious to be in bed with him when he is there, and he adores her cooking of fattening comfort foods denied to him by his wife.  She gives him up for social standing as the wife of Geoffrey — “Are you sure?” David sobs into her neck during his final visit — but then cannot go through with the wedding.  She is sent off to exile in Switzerland while the oprobrium dies down.  (Even her cleaning lady leaves her because of the scandal!)

At the Hotel du Lac, there are very few other guests:  an old French lady parked there by her son and daughter-in-law to get her out of the way; a very slender and beautiful Englishwoman with a little dog and an eating problem who has been sent there by her husband to get in shape to have children (or he will divorce her); a lovely older woman (who turns out to be 79) and plump pretty daughter (who turns out to be 39) with plenty of money; they apparently come to Switzerland once a year to shop extravagantly and eat pastries.  There is also an immaculately dressed and somewhat mysterious Englishman in his fifties named Philip Neville who arrives for a few days.  Edith spends her time observing the others, trying to engage them in polite conversation, going for long walks around the lake and to the village, trying to finish writing “Beneath the Visiting Moon” for her publisher, and composing long, coyly amusing letters to “darling David,” who never once during the time she is there writes back.

About halfway through her intended stay, Edith accepts an invitation to lunch across the lake from Mr. Neville (Philip), during which he proposes to her. He has been watching her during his time at the hotel, and it is an extraordinary and (I think) intriguing proposal.  [I’ve shortened it somewhat, in the interests of blog-post length.]  He makes it on the boat that takes them back from the lunch:

Tilted back in his chair, Mr Neville watched her face. ‘Let me see,’ he said mildly. ‘Let me see if I can imagine what your life is like.  You live in London.  You have a comfortable income. You go to drinks parties and dinner parties and publishers’ parties. You do not really enjoy any of this. Although people are glad to see you, you lack companions of first resort. You come home alone.  You are fussy about your house.You have had lovers, but not half as many as your friends have had; they, of course, credit you with none at all and worry about you rather ostentatiously. You are aware of this.  And yet you have a secret life, Edith.  Although only too obviously incorruptible, you are not what you seem.’

Edith sat very still.

…’Of course you would say that this is none of my business. I would say, simply, that it does not concern me. Any more than my diversions need concern you. Whatever arrangements we may come to must leave these considerations scrupulously unexamined.’

‘Arrangements?’ echoed Edith.

…’I think you should marry me, Edith,’ he said….’I am not a romantic youth.  I am in fact extremely discriminating.  I have a small estate and a very fine house, Regency Gothic, a really beautiful example….I have a lot of business overseas,’ he went on…’And I like to entertain.  I am away a certain amount of the time.  But I dislike having to come back to a house only occupied by the couple who live in it when I am not there.  You would fit perfectly into that setting.’

A terrible silence installed itself between them. ‘You make it sound like a job specification,’ she said. ‘And I have not applied for the job.’

‘Edith, what else will you do?  Will you too go back to an empty house?…You see,’ he went on, ‘I cannot afford another scandal.  My wife’s adventure made me look a laughing stock.  I thought I could sit it out with dignity, but dignity doesn’t help. Rather the opposite.  People seem to want you to break down.  However, that’s all in the past.  I need a wife, and I need a wife whom I can trust. It has not been easy for me.’

‘And you are not making it easy for me,’ she said.

‘I am making it easier for you.  I have watched you, trying to talk to those women.  You are desolate.  And without the sort of self-love which I have been urging on you, you are never going to learn the rules, or you are going to learn them too late and become bitter.  And when you think you are alone, your expression is full of sorrow.  You face a life of exile of one sort or another.’

‘But why should you think me such a hopeless case?’

‘You are a lady, Edith.  They are rather out of fashion these days, as you may have noticed.  As my wife, you will do very well.  Unmarried, I’m afraid you will soon look a bit of a fool.’

‘And what will I do in your fine house, when you are away?’ she asked.  And when you are not away, she thought, but kept the thought to herself.

‘Whatever you do now, only better. You may write, if you want to.  In fact, you may begin to write rather better than you ever thought you could.  Edith Neville is a fine name for an author.  You will have a social position, which you need. You will gain confidence, sophistication. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing me credit….’

‘Again you are paying me the tremendous compliment of assuming that no one else will want me, ever.’

‘I am paying you the compliment of assuming that you know the difference between flirtation and fidelity.  I am paying you the compliment of assuming that you will never indulge in the sort of gossipy indiscretions that so discredit a man.  I am paying you the compliment of believing that you will not shame me, will not ridicule me, will not hurt my feelings.  Do you realize how hard it is for a man to own up to being hurt in that way?…. I am not asking you to lose all for love.  I am asking you to recognize your own true self-interest.  I am simply telling you what you may already have begun to suspect: that modesty and merit are very poor cards to hold.  I am proposing a partnership of the most enlightened kind.  A partnership based on esteem, if you like.  Also out of fashion, by the way.  If you wish to take a lover, that is your concern, so long as you arrange it in a civilized manner.’

‘And if you…’

‘The same applies, of course. For me, now, that would always be a trivial matter. You would not hear of it nor need you care about it. The union between us would be one of shared interests, of truthful discourse.  Of companionship. To me, now, those are the important things. And for you they should be important. Think, Edith.  Have you not, at some time in your well-behaved life, desired vindication?  Are you not tired of being polite to rude people?’

Edith bowed her head.

‘You will be able to entertain your friends, of course.  And you will find that they treat you quite differently.  This comes back to what I was saying before.  You will find that you can behave as badly as you like.  As badly as everybody else likes, too.  That is the way of the world.  And you will be respected for it. People will at last feel comfortable with you. You are lonely, Edith.’…..

‘I don’t love you.  Does that bother you?’

‘No, it reassures me. I do not want the burden of your feelings.  All this can be managed without romantic expectations.”….

‘And you don’t love me?’

He smiled, this time sadly and without ambiguity. ‘No, I don’t love you.  But you have got under my guard.  You have moved and touched me, in a way in which I no longer care to be moved and touched.  You are like a nerve that I had managed to deaden, and I am annoyed to find it coming to life….

‘I may have to think about this,’ she said eventually.

‘Not too long, I hope.  I do not intend to make a habit of proposing to you.  You will have to get your skates on, if we are to leave by the weekend.’..

‘May I ask one more question?’ she said.

‘Of course.’

‘Why me?’

This time his smile was ambiguous again, ironic, courteous.

‘Perhaps because you are harder to catch than the others,’ he replied.

Edith gets back to her room, has her bath, thinks, sits, thinks some more, then writes a letter to “dearest David,” telling him she is going to marry Philip Neville, a man she met at the hotel, and does not think she will ever see him (David) again.  She tells him (David) he is the breath of life to her, that she doesn’t love Mr. Neville nor he her, but that he has made her see what she will become if she persists in loving him (David) as she does. She says there is no point in giving him her new address.  She recognizes she was always more willing than he was, and sends him her love, always.

She awakens in the middle of the night after a bad dream and decides to go down to the desk to get a stamp for her letter.  As she opens her door, she sees Philip Neville making a discreet exit, in his dressing gown, from the room of the plump rich thirty-nine year old daughter of the rich seventy-nine year old lovely mother.  She then retreats to her room again, tears her letter in half, drops it in the wastebasket, goes downstairs, tells the night porter to get her a ticket on the next plane to London and sends a telegram to London.  First, she writes, “Coming home.”  Then she realizes that is not entirely accurate.  She crosses out “Coming home” and writes simply, “Returning.”

When I first read this book, I thought the ending felt warm and brave.  Now I think Edith was a damn fool.  Perhaps she need not have married Neville — although the older I get, the less objectionable his proposition begins to appear — but she certainly should not have “returned” to the life she had had.

This is what Anita Brookner had to say at eighty when asked by an interviewer about marriage and the ending of “Hotel du Lac.”  First she observed that she herself had never married not because there had been no opportunity, but because she had always been interested in the wrong sort of man and the wrong sort of man had been interested in her. She then remarked that her books had always seemed to write themselves, and that this book had been no different:  at the time she wrote it, the ending simply came out of her.  But after it had been published (when she was well into her fifties, and not thirty-nine as Edith Hope had been), she began to think she had been wrong.  And now, living alone at eighty, she was certain that if she were to do it again, Edith would have married Neville.

It isn’t good to be alone, she said, when you grow old.

So I ask you, friends:  What do you think?  If you were in my book group, what would you have said?

WHY I DON’T CHECK A BOX

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People sometimes ask me — or ask us, but usually it’s some other woman asking just me — why Bill and I don’t get married.  We’ve lived under the same roof and shared all expenses for the past thirteen years.  So what’s holding us back?

There are several answers to this question.

  • Rude:  “None of your damn business.”
  • Smartass:  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
  • Legal:  Since neither of us will leave an estate substantial enough to benefit from the tax code if we were married when the first of us dies, marriage offers no financial advantage over not being married.
  • Religious:  Bill considers himself a Secular Humanist.  I consider myself a-religious, although if it makes anyone more comfortable to classify people ethnically or religiously, I suppose you could call me a white Caucasian woman of Jewish parentage with no particular sense of obligation to be married before living with a man.
  • Societal:  We are too old to have children together, and therefore the legitimacy or illegitimacy of offspring — if anyone cares about that anymore — is a non-issue.
  • Truthful:  Having both been married twice before, with notable lack of success, we are probably each somewhat gun-shy.  Of what?  We live like man and wife.  We say we’re married.  We register at hospitals and doctors’ offices as husband and wife.  As far as other people are concerned, only our lawyer, accountant, children, grandchildren and a few close friends know for sure to the contrary.  Although we will in all likelihood be together when the first of us dies, not being married gives me, at least, a sense that I could fly the coop if I ever wanted to, that I am not a “wife” in all the unpleasant senses I have experienced in my two previous marriages, that I still have free choice, every day — even if I never exercise it.

Of course, that is all quite foolish.  Every other year or so, one or the other of us raises the issue again.  The one who might possibly be leaning in favor, of course.  Which is always the time when the other would prefer not to.  And so we are never, even hypothetically, in sync.

Nonetheless, Bill did once give me a Valentine’s Day card that asked, in French, if I would marry him.  It had the two boxes you see above, one of which the recipient was to check.  If I tell you the French word for “no” is “non,” you can see that the card didn’t offer much choice.  I keep the card — unchecked — on our mantel, though.  Because it’s nice to know you’re wanted.  And also to remind him the question’s still out there, and not yet answered, and that there’s only one way to answer it, short of throwing the card away — just in case he were to change his mind.

Equally pertinent to this loopy discourse is a copy of a statuette from The Art Institute of Chicago  which is also on our mantel. We gave it to ourselves as a present one Christmas. (Even though we’re both “Jewish.”)  It looks good from every angle, no matter which way you turn it, which may suggest to you what I’m getting at.

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I happen to like best the top and bottom versions (which are similar), perhaps because I think the female figure shows best from that angle and you can best see the alignment of the bodies.  But it doesn’t really matter how they stand on the mantel.  As long as we feel like that about each other, at least most of the time — and can also make each other laugh — who cares whether or not I check a box on the card?

COULDA, SHOULDA

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It was a single session yesterday.  Often the Pilates studio can pair me up with someone, which lowers the price by ten dollars. But sometimes, they can’t.  Despite the ten dollars, I like having Peggy to myself.  We get to do some girlfriend talk while she puts me through the various routines I can manage. Also, near the end of the hour she often gives a delicious back massage while I’m stretching forward on a fearful-looking apparatus called The Tower.

Peggy is sixty, and looks wonderful in her exercise clothes from Lululemon, Athleta and (sometimes) the sales racks at Marshall’s.  (But you really have to look hard to find something at Marshall’s, she cautions.) She is rounded and shapely (“Great legs and ass,” says Bill), but also firm and strong, with highlighted blondish brown hair she’s growing out into a longish pixie cut, and nicely made up blue eyes. Her face is cherubic although her chin is softening, but just a little.  She has two beautiful blonde daughters in college (the older finishing in May) and — after spending nearly all her life in or around the Princeton-Lawrenceville-Pennington-Flemington area of New Jersey — a wonderful sense of adventure.

Peggy had a relatively long career in fashion marketing and merchandising until her marriage to a divorced man who shared custody of his three small children with his ex-wife.  After the marriage, fairly late in her thirties, she became a full-time wife and mother both to her own two daughters and — for half the week — his three children as well.  She moved out about a year and a half ago,  when the youngest daughter had gone off to school, after four or more years of increasing unhappiness in her marriage.

During that time, she discovered Pilates, became a certified Pilates instructor, and has been working fifteen to twenty hours a week ever since.  Now that the divorce is finalized, she is waiting for her older girl to graduate before moving on. At the end of June, she’s taking herself off to the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, near the beach.  She knows no one there, but she loves Charleston, loves the southern climate, loves the beach.  “When I was shoveling snow off the driveway for the umpteenth time this winter,” she said, “I told myself never again!”

She’s worked it all out with her accountant.  She knows how long she can afford to look around for work, what she can spend per month, when she needs to start earning again, when she’ll be able to replace her car. [2016. She hopes it lasts that long.]  She thought she’d begin with Pilates again, because a certified Pilates instructor can always find work in an upscale community, but she really wants to become an interior decorator now.  She loves resort/beach style.  She’s friendly, outgoing, energetic. Unlike Jasmine, the eponymous heroine of Woody Allen’s last movie, who also said interior design was her career goal, Peggy will do just fine.

Faithful readers of this blog may surmise what has been on my mind the past few days, and will therefore not find it odd that I took advantage of my single session to ask Peggy a particular question I otherwise might not have asked while I did leg warmups on The Reformer.  It had nothing to do with her prospective move.  At least, neither of us thought it did.  At first.

“Do you remember your first serious boyfriend?”

She looked surprised at this turn in the conversation.

“Serious,” I said.  “Not just idle flirting.”

“Oh, yes,” she said.  “Very serious.  We met as freshmen in college, and it lasted four years.  Why do you ask?”

I told her about finding the online obituary of my first serious boyfriend, and filled her in a bit about our slight subsequent history together and how upset I was to learn he was gone.  “Is yours still alive?” I asked.  (Foolish question.  He’d be only 60, or 61.)

“Oh, yes.  Very much so.”  Her face took on a wistful look.

“What happened?  After the four years, I mean?”

“Well, he was going back to Colorado, where he came from. I was intent on a career in fashion in New York City!”

“And you broke up over that?”

She smiled sadly.  “We argued about it for two months.  But I thought, ‘Colorado?  There’s nothing there for me.'” She brought over a purple block and put it between my raised knees for the detested “tabletops.”

“He was handsome, and we were crazy about each other. He had some family money, and then became very very rich.  He’s a millionaire and more today. But I was 22 — and stubborn.”

“Did you ever see him again?”

“Oh yes.  About five years ago he was in New York for business, and we had a three-hour dinner together.  He looked great.  It was great.  We talked about our time together, and what might have been.”

“And?”

“He’s married now.  Has four lovely children. The youngest is still just sixteen.  I said, ‘If your wife ever kicks you out, call me!’  He laughed. But she won’t.  And he wouldn’t leave. I think they’re very happy. Actually,” she added, “he did come to New York once before, about three years after we broke up.  It was to tell me he was getting married.  That was an earlier marriage, one that didn’t work.  He didn’t want me to hear it from anyone from him.”

“He flew to New York from Colorado just to tell you he was getting married?”

She nodded.

“He must have cared about you very much,” I said, trying to achieve twenty angel wings with my knees still raised in tabletop. (The language of Pilates sometimes reaches throw-up levels of cuteness.)  “Maybe he married the first time on the rebound from you.”

She shrugged.  “Too late to think about that now. Career in fashion!  Hahaha.  I went on the road, marketing Ship ‘n Shore blouses.  Within a few years of college, he had a chain of sporting apparel stores all through Colorado.  I could have styled and managed them! And he was tall and gorgeous and we really did love each other.   And now he owns ski resorts, and a beautiful home where I could have done his entertaining!  And look where I am!  Off to Charleston at 60 to live in a rental while I figure out the lay of the land.”

“It’s going to be a great adventure,” I said, sitting up to get a drink of water before doing the arm work.  “You know it will!”

“Yes, it will!” she declared.

“Bill has a saying,” I added.  ” ‘We get too soon old, and too late smart.’ ”

“I’ll have to remember that one,” said Peggy.

Then we both agreed that “coulda, shoulda” never helped anyone, and we all do the best we can with what we have in the way of wisdom and knowledge of life at any particular time, and that there’s no point in beating yourself up about what you did or didn’t do when you were young.

“Tell Bill to get himself out and start walking,” she said, as I finished up for the day.

I shall miss her when she leaves.

NINA’S FOLLY

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What is it?  Well may you ask.  Its proud manufacturer calls it, alternately, a seat, a stool, even a “revolution!”  (You might want to know it also comes in black.)

I don’t usually fall for advertisements.  That’s Bill’s department.  Boy, is he ever gullible!  I have to hide the sales catalogues addressed to him that choke our mailbox daily, or he could spend hours perusing them in wonder and delight, and then, alas, acquiring too many of whatever is in them, almost never consulting me first. Need I add that nearly all his catalogue acquisitions turn out to be disappointing, if not blatant failures? But me — I wrote far too many ads in my pre-law days not to resist any efforts to extract money from me for items I never knew I needed until some clever ad person set out to persuade me I did.  

But everyone has an Achilles heel.  After we moved to Princeton, we bought two sofas from a New York-based furniture company called Room and Board  — one for the family room and another, somewhat later, for the living room.  That lodged me firmly on Room and Board’s email list. I often delete. But a few weeks ago came an announcement of a Room and Board blog.  Still a relatively new blogger, this I had to see.  The first Room and Board blog post began, somewhat defiantly:

You’ve probably heard the disturbing news.  Sitting for extended periods of time — like a lot of us do at work — has been linked to increases in heart disease, obesity and diabetes.  And NPR [National Public Radio] recently reported on a new study that links sedentary behavior with a  greater likelihood of being disabled after age 60. Unfortunately, working out regularly doesn’t decrease your risk for these conditions. Great.  So what are we supposed to do? Thankfully, the answer is pretty simple.  Stand up and get moving.

Pretty simple for Room and Board, that is.  They have two new ergonomic workspace options for us all to “try.”  The first is an adjustable “Float” desk from a company called Humanscale — an adjustable standing desk that lets you quickly alternate between standing and sitting while you work — at what I consider an outrageous price for a desk.  My workspace is not a paid workspace. So the “Float” is not for me, thank you very much.  Besides, I already have a perfectly good desk I’m not about to junk.  Not sure I could type standing up anyway.

However, the Room and Board blog post then continued its recommendations for a healthier life. These good people also want me to have:

…an active seat — anything that lets you wiggle and wobble around while you’re sitting, which strengthens your core and burns calories.  Many of us…have a fitness ball, but we don’t love (a) how dingy they become; (b) their tendency to roll off when we’re not looking; and (c) their space-hogging ways.  Enter the ErgoErgo stool.  Part sculpture, part spring and all fun.

You may be surprised to learn I do have a fitness ball. Unfortunately, mine is the medium size, not the large one that might put my arms at typing level.  However, it’s not dingy at all, since it’s hardly ever been used.  Nor is it rolling off anywhere or hogging space; it’s stored in our basement behind a closed door.  So that much of the pitch didn’t really reach me.

But the part about my “core?”  As someone who still hasn’t done her postpartum exercises in the nearly forty-five years since the birth of her last baby, I am extremely sensitive about suggestions that my “core” needs strengthening. In truth, I doubt I have one, if I ever did. [When did the word “stomach” fall out of use?]   I tell my Pilates instructor the “core” stuff is the part of Pilates I dislike most, which makes her laugh because Pilates is all about building the “core.” The Pilates people try to make it sound like fun, by calling their “core” exercises cutesy names like “froggies” and “tabletop” and “hundreds.”  [“Did we do our hundreds today?”]  But they don’t fool me. It’s no fun at all, and I go once a week, despite the expense, because one must do something. Could the ErgoErgo be another kind of something?  The Room and Board blog assured me it could:

This clever little stool stays put, takes up minimal space and doesn’t require inflating.  The accordion design allows you to rock and bounce, but the semi-pliable plastic feels more supportive than a fitness ball.  We’re all loving this new addition to our office.  In fact some of us are so smitten we’re ditching our desk chairs all together.

I’ve already confessed in at least one prior post how much time I spend on my butt producing a daily post for this blog.  Add in reading time, Netflix-watching time, just-sitting-around-pondering-the-meaning-of-life time and you might say (if Room and Board is to be believed) that I’m hurtling towards heart disease, obesity and diabetes as fast as I can.

I summoned Bill.  Big mistake.  Bill l-o-v-e-d the ErgoErgo at first sight, especially in orange.  Bill loves the color orange.  Still cautious, I consulted ErgoErgo’s own web page, which describes sitting on it as “Active Sitting,” and then immediately declared:

There’s so much to say about the benefits of Active Sitting that it has its own page!….The more you sit on it, the more you work your body, and the stronger your core muscles will be.  And you’ll improve your sense of balance.  But you’ll also benefit if you use ErgoErgo for l5 minutes, an hour each day, or just every now and then….ErgoErgo allows the body to move freely in any direction, and because there is no back rest, you engage your core and back muscles to build strength and flexibility.

With each repetition of the magic word “core” — my heart said, “Yes!”

“What have you got to lose?” said devil Bill.  “You can always send it back.”

$100 later, ErgoErgo was mine!

It arrived yesterday.  Bill happily unpacked it and brought it up the stairs to my office. “Not heavy at all,” he declared.  We stood it next to the printer while we decided where to put my desk chair.

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The desk chair looked terrible blocking the printer and the two nested white tables on which I often put things I’m working on.  Also it made that part of the room too crowded.  I like space.

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I hadn’t realized how big and heavy that desk chair is. It does roll, but not over the edges of throw rugs. Since I knew right away it  wouldn’t look good on the other side of my office against the closet doors, we didn’t even bother to try putting it there.

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In the end, we just left it temporarily by the window, while I sat down on the ErgoErgo in front of the computer to answer email while enjoying its healthful and core-strengthening benefits.

IMG_0483You know what?  First it felt funny, and then my back began to hurt.  Yes, I rocked back and forth a lot while thinking about the next sentence I was going to type.  And yes, I was sucking in my stomach more than I would usually do when I’m all by myself in a room. (I had to — in order to stay upright.)  But surely my back was not supposed to hurt while I was doing those two beneficial things.  I know what my Pilates instructor would say, as nicely as possible.  She would tell me my back hurt while I was strengthening my core on the ErgoErgo because my core was weak in the first place.  Still, that’s sort of a vicious cycle, isn’t it?

After fifteen minutes, I replaced the ErgoErgo with the desk chair, sat down with great relief, and summoned Bill again.

“Maybe you’ll get used to it,” he said.  I looked at him.  He’s the wimp of the two of us.  What’s with this getting used to pain?

He conceded the point without actually saying so.  “You could sell it to me,” was his second gambit.  Don’t think he would ever sit on it.  He wants to look at it.  He says it’s great design.  Also it’s orange.

“Where would you put it?” I asked.

“Anywhere!” he said gaily.

I’m stubborn.  I don’t like to give up.  Or admit I’ve been wrong.  Or send things back.  I considered leaving the ErgoErgo by the window, as you see at the top of this post (thereby blocking access to the printer and the stack tables), because it would be near my desk lamp, and I could maybe read when sitting on it.  While bouncing? Or working that goddamn core?  Well, maybe not.

How about the empty corner on the landing between the first and second floor of the condo?

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Not exactly awful, but a placement that asks the question, “Why?” Who would ever stop to sit or bounce on it — halfway up or down?

The corridor just outside my office door?  Under the wisdom of Rabbi Hillel, who cared not a whit for the core?

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As you can’t really see what Rabbi Hillel has to say from the angle of the photo, I thought I’d show it to you again:

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[“If I am not for myself, who is for me?  If am only for myself, what am I?  If not now, when?”]

Probably not the best place for the ErgoErgo and its self-referential focus on the core.

What about under the Brooklyn Bridge?

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I don’t think so.  It’s really just clogging the hall there.

Maybe I should give in and let Bill have it for his office?

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The problem with that is  — there isn’t any room.  Bill has already yielded to too many impulses!  See?

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That leaves the laundry room:

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Am I really going to sit in there bouncing while I watch the laundry spin?  Absolutely not!

Which means it’s back to the office for ErgoErgo — and trying again.

So I did.  I sat on it while writing this post.  I reached the part where I was about to upload the photo of ErgoErgo in front of the computer before I had to give up.  But that was forty-five minutes into the post.  So I’m doing better than my first time.  Who knows?  By spring, I may be able to lie on the floor and invite someone to jump up and down on my core.  Not someone really heavy, of course.  Maybe one of the cats.

This is not to be construed as an endorsement of, or an advertisement for, or a publicity message on behalf of ErgoErgo. I hope you can see that the post is definitely not any of those things. If anything, what it demonstrates is how two old people are spending their later precious years together — dragging a nutsy-looking, absolutely non-essential orange toy from room to room like young fools, so as not to concede one made a mistake that the other encouraged.  I suppose you might say it keeps us young at heart.

LUST

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Last Sunday, I went in to New York by train to attend a cello concert given by my seven-year old grandson for his parents,  grandparents and a few young friends from school who are also studying an instrument.  He had finished Book One of the Suzuki method of instruction, and part of the Suzuki method is the requirement that the student play all of the pieces in the book from memory for an informal gathering of family or friends.The concert was a happy event, carried off with aplomb by its sole performer (who loves applause) — with plenty of tasty refreshments afterwards.

The trip in and out of the city, however, was a less happy event, as it always is, something realtors invariably neglect to mention when you are looking to buy in Princeton. Except for the politicos among us, Princetonians generally try to forget that Princeton is in New Jersey.  When someone asked me over the post-concert refreshments if I was from New Jersey, I instinctively answered, “Well, yes, but not really.  I’m from Princeton.”  To which he replied, “Ah yes.  That is a separate place.”

The train to New York City from Princeton is the New Jersey Transit Northeast Line. It should come as no surprise to anyone who rides it to hear me call it a third-world train. It is slow, with antiquated cars, and passes through some of the most run-down parts of a state generally acknowledged to be blighted (despite the proud claims of its portly and vindictive governor).  When it finally arrives, it pulls into the belly of hideously overcrowded Penn Station, itself located beneath Madison Square Garden in an unattractive, highly commercial part of the city packed with human bodies pushing every which way against you as you try to fight your way out of the exits.

That said, the Northeast Line does boast a few — very few — newer cars, designed to carry more passengers per car length by being double decker (with one station-level section at each end of each car), and colored blue (in contrast to the dingy turd-brown color of the older cars).  So it was my good fortune that the 4:34 to Trenton last Sunday afternoon (passing Secaucus, Newark Airport, Newark Penn Station, Metropark, Linden, Edison, New Brunswick and Princeton Junction on its way) was one of the so-called “new” ones.  And it wasn’t even crowded.

In fact, by the time I had phoned Bill to alert him to when I’d be home, reviewed the photos and two videos of the concert on my iPhone, taken a swig of water from the water bottle I carry in my purse on trips, nodded off for three or four stops, and then pulled myself back into consciousness to check where we were on the itinerary, I found I was due to get off at the next stop and there were only two other people left in the lower level of the car I was sitting in. One of them was across the aisle from me and in the row ahead, so I had only a partial view of his profile from the rear, but something about it attracted my attention.

Was it the line of his jaw?  The lean muscle outlining the side of his mouth?  The slightly olive complexion? The contrast between his bookish eyeglasses and the knit cap with a hole in the back that nearly covered his dark brown hair?  Except for the knit cap, he strongly resembled — in one-third rear profile — my first serious boyfriend as he had been in 1948 and 1949. But he looked taller. And the hands were larger — more like my first husband’s, only with less pronounced knuckles. They were deftly manipulating photos on a smartphone over which he leaned — with what?  Interest?  Longing?

The leaning posture showed me the shape of his muscular shoulders, tapered back and narrow waist beneath a short jacket of some thinsulate material that clung. Safe from his view, I further examined with growing interest the lean strong thighs pressing against his narrow jeans.  I even noted his footwear:   tan laced-up ankle boots collared in dark brown leather.  He was what?  Twenty-eight?  Thirty at most?

You could say I gobbled him up with my eyes. Then I was stripping him naked in my mind and sliding my hands against his skin.  Yes, I was aware of who I was and what I looked like (had anyone been looking, but no one was):  an eighty-two year old grandma in a black down full length coat, with a wavy grey wool scarf around her neck and glasses hanging on a chain over them, with a book by Louis Begley and a water bottle sticking out of her dark red leather handbag.  But I was nevertheless flooded with what had rapidly transformed itself into unabashed and ravenous lust — for a man easily young enough to be my grandson (had I begun reproducing somewhat earlier than I did) and with whom I almost certainly had absolutely nothing in common.  And yet, in some other fantasy world where he was blind (and therefore willing) — I might have dropped to my knees between his legs and reached for the zipper, right there on the New Jersey Transit between New Brunswick and Princeton Junction.  Not that I’ve ever actually done anything like that in my real life. But the older you get, the freer the thoughts.

Just then he leaped to his feet, snatched up his khaki backpack and moved fast to the stairs leading up to the station-level part of the car. This section had a few fold-up seats lining the sides, where passengers are supposed to park their heavy baggage, strollers, carriages and bikes.  Without a second thought as to what I was doing, I too stood and followed him down the aisle and up the stairs, where I sat down again on one side.  Against the other, he was re-assembling a large green racing bicycle, his back to me.  When he was done, he turned to hold the bike steady just as the train pulled in to Princeton Junction, and then rolled it out towards the door.  Full face, he looked somewhat different than I would have thought, but not unattractive.  The eyes were dark, the nose was strong, the mouth….(Believe it or not, I’ve run out of affirmative adjectives.)  As he passed me, the only other passenger in that part of the car, our eyes met.  Just for a moment he saw me.  But he didn’t see me.  What he saw was of no interest, and I hadn’t thought it would be, nor would I have wanted it to be.  (Whatever I am, I’m no fool.)  I had no time to be embarrassed.  He looked away, was out of the car, on his bike and into the cold drizzle, pedaling towards his real life, whatever it was, before I stepped onto the platform.

Young people don’t know this stuff about old people.  They feel it all belongs to them, because their bodies are gorgeous (even if they think they aren’t), and their skin is taut, and they move so easily, so quickly, so gracefully.  But it doesn’t belong just to them, and they’ll find out, if they live long enough.  Some older women may claim I’m wrong, and good riddance, but that’s sour grapes, I think.  What do you suppose hormone replacement therapy is for?  And I bet there isn’t an older man alive who believes desire is only for the young.

Anyway, I could have just written about the cello concert and kept all the rest of it to myself, but the cello concert was only one part of my Sunday.  And if I had to choose between the two parts, I ‘m not sure which I’d pick.  It doesn’t matter that the object of my desire will never know, or want to reciprocate.  It may be sad that I’m old, but it’s great that I feel.

I’m still alive!  And who wouldn’t choose that?