aging

"it walked out of the light"

There are advantages to aging, my friends tell me. Think of all the stupid little things you no longer worry about. I nod and laugh, but I wonder if this is true. It doesn’t seem to me as though I have let anything go.

I meet my friend at the bar I haven’t been to in some time. The menu has changed. The bartender. I ask this new one about his predecessor. “Gone,” he says. “I’m the only guy here.” I explain to him that the old bartender – we’ll call him Ken – would see me through the glass door on my way in and start mixing my cocktail. He nods slowly. “But what if you wanted something else, you know, for a change?” I have no way to answer this so I just laugh out loud instead.

It’s not really true, what I say about Ken. He’d always ask as I sat down. Why would I lie?

It’s still a few minutes before E. arrives. When she gets there, we hug. We talk about writing projects. Things we are reading. We talk about aging. I tell her of my resistance. My childish insistence on denying its realities.

“I don’t know why I am fighting this,” I tell her. “I think I should embrace it.”

“You are supposed to learn to love it,” she says. “Love your pain, love your struggle.” She spreads her arms out wide to demonstrate.

“I feel like I am just angry all the time,” I say.

“Maybe you can learn to love that, too?”

My mother was forty-two when she married. Forty-five by the time I arrived, a pre-packaged, fully-formed toddler. Had she given birth to me, it would have been at forty-two, the age I will turn this fall. It is difficult to imagine having a child now. Not only the physical demands pregnancy and childbirth would make on the body, but that sense of starting again. Of such intense attention and care. Of being completely consumed by the endless tasks of early parenting, the constant vigilance, the sleeplessness. Those early months of being beholden to the needs of this small creature with whom there is no reasoning, for whom there are no real boundaries of time or between bodies. I am very aware of infants when I see them – out walking or traveling. In restaurants and parks. I am drawn to their smallness, the stab of nostalgia for a particular kind of fantasy of motherhood, but I also feel such relief. Not me, I think. Not me.

And yet the fact of it – that I might no longer be able to choose not to have a child, that my body will in fact render such questions irrelevant – is a bit of a blow. Like the early waking, like the constant irritation, like the heaviness I feel in myself, it is an undeniable reminder that my body is changing, has in fact always been changing. That from the moment of my birth has been marching me toward its inevitable conclusion. I am not yet ready to love this.

The year I turned forty, I found myself pulsing white hot. I was alive to my body, attuned to its desires in ways that were startling, unsettling. I was a raw animal, an exposed nerve. Fierce hungers. I explained this to a friend of mine who laughed and said, “Oh that is just your body’s last gasp before menopause.” I was unable to speak to her for days.

I tell my friend that I am going to try to embrace the struggle. Love it, as E. suggests. “Why would you do that,” she asks. “I have always known you to be a fighter. Why give up now?”

I suppose it might be a fair question, but also not an uncomplicated one. “Maybe I’m tired?”

“No. You are the most tireless woman I know,” she says. This strikes me as the kindest thing she could have said. Something I did not know I needed to hear.

The year before I turned forty, I met a writer – an older man who had recently retired from decades of high school teaching – and we maintained a sporadic correspondence for a few months after the seminar we had been in together ended. I expressed to him some of my earliest anxieties about turning forty. Some weeks later, a book arrived from him. It was called Forty: The Age and the Symbol, written by an anthropologist about the cultural invention of the so-called midlife crisis. It traced the traditional and mythological meanings of the number forty, and scanned literary and historical texts for the appearance of the number, the symbol. Assembled the references and evidence to conclude that our understanding of it – the number, the age – has changed over time and will continue to. Intended, I think, to provide some relief to the middle-aged. To suggest that maybe these years of mid life are not so limiting as we might think.

I thanked this friend for sending it, pointed out all that I found interesting and notable in it. I did not tell him that the book did nothing to explain the madness I felt living in my own skin.

In Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” the speaker is struggling through the end of a love affair. She visits her mother and her ailing father and reads Emily Bronte. She describes a series of visions that come to her while she attempts to make meaning of this time. There are thirteen visions in all. The piece concludes with the last of these. I read it as a kind of passing from the fierce clutch of a thing to perhaps what might be an embrace:

I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air.

It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,
But as I came closer
I saw it was a human body

trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off
the bones.
And there was no pain.
The wind

was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.

we keep each other company

In the morning, it is just the boy and me and I wake to his silhouette, standing in the middle of the bed. A tuft of his hair sticks straight up. We are both very still, listen to the trucks speeding by on the highway, the unmistakable sound of the weight of them, hurtling past in the dark.

I tell my friends that I have seen a car on fire. That on the highway, as I drove past in the pitch black night, I saw the steel frame of a car engulfed in flames. Later, I ask M., do you remember the night we saw that car on fire? He shakes his head, says only: “Wrong husband.”

Over the weekend, while M. is away, I drive down to the library to talk about books. The sky is gray – nearly white with clouds. There is a light, cold rain.

A song comes on that I have not heard in years, not since the early days of M. and me. Hearing it brings such heat to my cheeks so unexpectedly that I miss my exit. I take the next one and pull over into the parking lot of a boarded up restaurant, long abandoned. I retrace my steps, make my way back to the highway. By the time I merge into traffic, the song is done.

There are love stories and there are love stories. Here is one.

At the grocery store, I wander off. I come back to where M. is standing with the cart, smirking. “What,” I ask. He shakes his head. I press him. What?

He tells me that he saw me from the distance. Over near the greeting cards, from the side. Said he thought well well, who’s this here and was watching me with great interest.

“And then, you turned around, and it was you.”

I laugh. “It was just me.”

“That’s so sweet,” I say, taking his arm, “but also, a little sad.”

“Tell me about it,” he says, shaking his head. “Tell me about it.”

With a few hours to ourselves, we drive out to the beach that afternoon, a day we think will be one of our last, together. This is before we know that I will move back from New York. To stay. That he will watch me pack my car, and drive away, waving through the back window. That in the city, I will wander the long winding paths through the park with my headphones on and think only of him. That from my tiny apartment window on the eighth floor, I will watch the cars move up and down Third Avenue. That at night, when the rain streaks the glass, I will watch the headlights and taillights cross in slow motion as if watching the silent film of my life. Passing by. And that in the morning, I will know that I cannot stay a moment longer in this city, without him.

We do not yet know then that I will tell my family and my friends that I am giving up the apartment on Third Avenue. Giving up the bright airy studio down by Canal Street that the painter and I were going to share. That she will never forgive me for leaving her there, with the studio too expensive for her to keep on her own.

That day, we know only of the sun and the sand. It is too cold, too early in the season to swim, but we walk the beach, stay until it gets dark. We carry our shoes back to the car and the sand is cool underfoot.

We are the last car in the parking lot. There is not a single street lamp. I brush the damp sand from my feet in the dim light offered by the open car. I close the door.

As a joke, M. throws himself against my door, presses his face up against the window, his mouth open wide as if crying out. I scream, throw my hands up. He sees the panic in my face and comes around the other side, gets in the car, laughing. My heart is racing and I am gasping for breath.

“It was a joke,” he says, reaching for my hand. I call him names, I shout things at him that I cannot repeat here. My throat is sore from screaming. On the drive back, we are quiet. He holds my hand. “It was a joke,” he says, “just a stupid joke. I am sorry. I am so, so sorry.”

He spends the weekend with his parents, runs errands for them. Takes them out to dinner. “They are struggling,” he tells me over the phone. “They are frail.” I think of his mother, of when I saw her at Christmas, leaning on her walker, her head bowed in pain. Of his father, the way his broad hands shake as he reaches for a cup.

When he returns home, I am so relieved to see him that it frightens me. Impulses honed over decades make me want to recoil at such attachment. I pull back from his embrace, look at him, and see us suddenly, years from now, and am struck only by the things we will have lost.

I know there will be beauty. I know there will be love. I have wept at the stories of couples who have loved each other their whole lives, who have died one following the other because truly, their love is what sustained them. I know there will be this. I pray there will be this. But at this moment, all I can see is this: That a man who once during a show, leaped – leaped – on a makeshift wooden stage that collapsed beneath him and lying on the broken platform, kept playing – will one day struggle to move his legs across the kitchen we share. Whose hands – wide and pale – have held mine, have held me, have moved over my body in the night, have lifted our child up over his head and onto his shoulders – that one day these hands will tremble such that they cannot hold a cup, and that I will try to still them with my own trembling hands. That these bodies that we throw at each other will betray us. That we will watch each other struggle and be unable to do anything but bear witness. And that this, in fact, is the best thing that we can do.

At the bar, I tell J. who has been speaking of her mother, of how I am beginning to understand that the way we love each other – all of us who love – is no longer in the grand gestures that perhaps they once were, in youth. Showing up at the train station platform with flowers. The surprise weekend vacation to the beach. The ways we love now are quieter, simple. That we sit at the table over coffee for a few minutes before the crush of the day. Or for an hour in the evening with the phones turned off. A walk down the long tree-lined boulevard on a crisp bright afternoon.

My friend sends me a note to say thank you. For being there. For listening. I say of course, this is what we do. We show up. We listen. We share the little stories that we have. We keep each other company. The road is long, and we can’t know what lies ahead. So, we keep each other company.