“Dwayne says I’m the most compatible woman he’s ever been with,” my twin sister says with the assurance of an experienced fifty-five-year old. She’s been a widow for nearly ten years. “He brought me flowers on the first date. How about that for a keeper?” She twists the gold chain around her neck and crosses her legs. She’s wearing new shorts, which show off her calves and distract from the folds of her mid-section. Her chin-length auburn hair is faded, but shows no gray. “Next week he’s coming down in his BMW convertible and taking me to the Chumash Casino.”
“But you don’t even like gambling,” I say. “And you said he smokes.” I wrinkle my nose. “That’s two strikes.”
“I know. I know,” she says. “In a perfect world that’s true. But this is a new era. Time to move on.” She gives me a look. My husband has been dead over two years now. “Toleration is in. There are ten of us women to every man on these dating sites.”
“What about ED?” I say, referring to what she’d informed me is rampant among men over sixty.
“That was the problem with those older guys,” she says, waving her hand dismissively, “but Dwayne’s forty-nine. I’m officially a cougar.” She giggles. “He washed my car for me naked, and I took a video of it. Wanna see?” Before I can demur she reaches for her cell phone and holds it in front of my face.
Dwayne is leaning over her car displaying an erect penis in one hand, a garden hose in the other. I look away. “What guy would do this on a date with a woman he hardly knows?”
“Naked dating is the new thing according to Ellen DeGeneres,” Sis says. “Anyway, don’t you think he’s cute?”
“I think he’s disturbed.” I try to imagine my sister in her Humpty-Dumpty, middle-aged body cavorting about with Dwayne. It’s not a stretch to imagine me in similar circumstances. The scene is decidedly not titillating.
It’s not the sex I miss. And it’s not really companionship either. Lately I’ve been watching older couples. Leaning in close to catch snatches of conversation. Secretly examining every glance, every touch. Trying to guess how long they’ve been together. The mundane comments that make up a long life together. The subtext that comprises the additional entity the two of them create. The air around the couples is heavy and ripe. I miss what they have. The kinetic energy that forms stars can only happen between two poles. Alone, I’m just an imploded planet. Dead and sterile.
That night I find myself browsing a “seniors” dating site. I don’t know how I got here. My hands seemed driven to the keyboard and my fingers forcibly pressed on the keys like my piano teacher did to me when I was seven. A hundred pictures of men purported to live in my area aged fifty to sixty eight pop up: men by cars, men on boats, men straddling motorcycles, men holding fish. “Fish?” Are they looking for someone to clean them? So many men. By the fiftieth photo they all start looking the same: baseball caps to cover bald spots, Cheshire Cat grins or expressionless, their features eclipsed by the sag of age. And the discovery that most are looking for younger women, sometimes ten years younger than me. By the time I eliminate all the fifty to sixty year-olds not looking for a woman under forty-five, I’ve winnowed the results down to ten who live nearby. The dating site sends me a message that I might consider expanding my parameters. I decide I’ll go up to sixty-nine, but not a year older.
While I’m browsing and mostly discarding the new selections of older men, the monitor begins flashing. Someone named Marty from the dating site wants to chat online. His photo shows a slim, sixtyish man with sensitive eyes. After a short exchange, I find that he adores his two children and is expecting his first grandchild. Tonight he made shrimp scampi for his pregnant daughter and her husband. After an hour I give him my cell number and prepare for what comes next.
My phone rings with an unfamiliar number and I answer it. Suddenly I’m transformed from married to single and my throat tightens. I try to sound natural, but I don’t sound like me. I revert immediately to my childhood shyness. My parents told me to bring people out by asking questions about themselves. I ask a question, Marty answers, then I ask another. He mentions he’s been married and divorced three times. I ask about his exes.
“My last wife was a mess,” he says. She got drunk at my daughter’s wedding and made a scene.”
“Where do you find these women?” I say.
“Everywhere,” he laughs. “My brother says I just like to bring home stray cats.”
Two hours later I’m exhausted. My earlobe throbs from the pressure of the phone. I know everything about Marty and he knows nothing about me. Now he’s talking about his depressed second ex-wife and how she killed herself. Seeing an in, I blurt out, “My husband committed suicide too. He shot himself.”
In the silence that follows I’m shaking. Why in the hell did I reveal that? Then Marty responds, “Oh my God. I’m so sorry,” and soon says good-bye. Did I really expect to have a conversation about our mutual experiences with suicide? I can’t believe it’s still lurking in my subconscious, ready to assert itself like a seizure. I sit in the darkness feeling empty and more alone than ever. Outside my window, the crescent moon leers like a joker.
Maybe I expected a natural bond to occur. Many of the men said in their profile that they were looking for a spark. What is that spark? Physical attraction? I wasn’t sexually attracted to my husband when we first met; it was more of a friendship. But before him the men in my social circle considered me weird. Because I couldn’t talk to them I decided to become a kook. I said and did strange things thinking it would make me more interesting. I claimed that I was a white witch. The men I had relationships with were intelligent but not headed to college and career. They were rebels and musicians, vagabonds and draft-dodgers. The F.B.I. contacted me about one of them.
I had a romantic and naïve idea that I could trust anyone who wanted me. I mistook lust on their part for love. I took risks in pursuit of a fantasy romance. One time I was nearly raped when I went home with a stranger I’d met on the street. I thought he just wanted to talk about politics, and I wanted to prove I wasn’t a racist. When he put his hands around my neck and forced me into his bedroom I looked him in the eyes and asked about his mother. Would she be ashamed of what he was doing? He had me pinned to the bedroom wall, his mouth clamped shut, his jaw muscle twitching. I babbled on about a mother’s love for her son while trying to maintain eye contact. He slowly released his grip on my throat, and I had to support myself so I wouldn’t crumple. I was lucky. I had caught him in a transitional period. Maybe this was his first time trying this out? In another year he would have struck me to shut me up.
My husband understood about my past and still wanted to take on the burden of my care. “You need someone to look after you,” he said. I was safe for the next thirty-five years. Then he was gone. I should have learned something about myself, but instead I feel transported with startling clarity back to the default mode of my youth.
I think of those men before my husband. How people are categorized when they’re young. Names like: “college drop-out,” “druggie,” “greaser,” “hippie,” “surfer,” “thug,” “gang-banger,” “yuppie,” “nerd,” and “slut.” You had to be something. I wonder how we would be categorized now, in middle age, other than a former something? Aside from the men I knew who were clearly headed for prison or an early death; did the others assume the roles society expected of them? The only types clearly identifiable to me in my age range are motorcycle misfits with Santa Claus beards and bellies to match and the occasional “old hippie,” with his ubiquitous gray ponytail, perpetually attired in flip-flops, drab T-shirt and shorts. A full-bearded man in his sixties wearing a flannel shirt and too-short pants would not be labeled a “hipster.” He would more likely be described as seedy.
I fantasize about going back in time to when we lived in tribal communities. There were levels of social status: leaders, priests and awesome hunters. Some were outcasts. But, from what we know, there were no Neanderthal equivalents of “skaters,” and “goths.” Evolutionary psychologists theorize that family units that have been found suggest that women selected mates based on a man’s prowess as a hunter. Beauty in women was associated with health—clear skin and long, shiny hair meant an absence of disease. An hour-glass figure predicted successful child bearing. But I know there was also a nonverbal connection gleaned by observation. A mysterious connection that may start with desire, but end in devotion.
I’m back online again later that night, drawn to the photos of men on motorcycles. There’s something dazzling about the black-leathered forms astride their gleaming, chrome machines like knights on armored stallions. One guy has multicolored tattoos squiggling down his arms to his wrists. The lines intertwine down his muscular biceps and thick forearms like mating boa constrictors. His facial features are obscured by the black helmet he’s wearing. His written profile is short, and barely intelligible:
“Hey u and me get 2 see how it works. I like to touch. Here’s my number.” He’s making some kind of sign with his fingers. It could be a gang sign. Maybe something else. I like the coarse communication. Its primitive call strikes me as poetry. I imagine myself with this faceless man on the back of his motorcycle as we challenge the wind, my arms around his waist, molded to his back, with my fists squeezing tightly into his belly.
Jill Stegman is a retired teacher from the central coast of California. She’s published short stories and essays in various literary journals such as Isotope, Eclectica, and South Dakota Review. Her as yet unpublished novel, The Time of Leaving, presents themes and characters evolving from the U.S. Mexico border. More can be found about Jill and her current projects at jillstegman.com.