Remedial RomanceD.A. Thompson
I'm trying to figure out this “moving on” thing. Which direction is “on”? They say that when widowed people begin dating they revert to the maturity level of their last date as a single person. For me, that age was 26. But dating in middle age is far more complicated. On top of the awkwardness of integrating sciatica and arthritis into our bedroom fumblings is the uncontestable truth that all of us who find ourselves single in middle age come with baggage.
So I found someone new. My boyfriend now is not the love of my life. He’s the one after that. In truth, I can’t exactly call him my boyfriend. A 51-year-old, never married, inveterate bachelor, he’s far from a boy, more than a friend, less than a “boyfriend.” In the past few years we’ve broken up almost as many times as we’ve drifted back together. We’re love-stuck.
He dramatizes realism’s triumph over romance. Check out his version of gallantry: We’re at a specialty food store in the mall, where we’ve both accepted a free sample of coffee. I am a caffeine fiend. He is not. I drink my sample in one shot and think of asking for a second, but since he’s only taken one sip of his shot and then carries it untouched through the store, I assume he’s saving it for me.
When we get out of the store, he drops his cup into the trashcan.
“Hey,” I say, “I would have drunk that. I need more caffeine.”
“Oops,” he giggles, covering his mouth with his hand. He reaches into the hole of the mall garbage can and pulls out the still-upright espresso shot. He inspects it quickly, blows on it, declares the three-second rule, and hands it to me.
I drink it.
To be fair for just a moment, I should point out that he’s a chronically overworked oncologist, who gives his all to his patients, and doesn’t have a whole lot left for me. After treating the terminally ill all day, he may find my needs less than urgent. I understand, but sometimes only cognitively. It would be nice to know what he was thinking once in a while.
At a bookstore I saw on display the title “If Men Could Talk.” I asked him, “If I buy that book for you, would you read it?” He shrugged.
His favorite word is “okay.” The worst thing he’s ever said about anyone is “Bless her heart.” Praise from him is “You know, that’s actually not too bad.” He resists manipulation. When I tell him I’m feeling insecure about, say, my writing, he says, “You’ll get better.” When I beg him for a compliment, he offers, “You look good.” If he’s trying to seduce me, he says, “You wanna go upstairs?”
Here’s what happens upstairs. My geriatric dogs bark at the door, too deaf to hear me shouting at them to stop. They don’t like to be separated from me, especially Chappy, my 14-year old mutt, who looks like a miniature golden retriever. I’m so used to their barking I barely notice it, but my not-exactly-boyfriend sometimes wants to afterglow in peace.
“Oh, just let Chappy in,” he said one night. Springing off arthritic hips, Chappy plopped in bed between us. Not-exactly pushed him away. Chappy circled once, then plopped down beside me and settled in to sleep.
Not-exactly rolled to his side to spoon me. Chappy got up to investigate, sniffed his face, circled, plopped back at my side.
Not-exactly, who can’t lie still for long, started drumming a tune on my back. Called by movement, Chappy got up, tried to nudge between us, got pushed back, and stood over us.
Chappy stood. Chappy stood. His head slowly drooped as his eyes closed, but he stood.
“What’s wrong with your dog?”
“He’s old. It’s such an effort to get up that, with your ADD, it’s easier for him to just stay standing.”
Chappy bent in to our voices, tried to step between us, got pushed back again.
“I guess I can’t get a new boyfriend until after Chappy goes,” I said.
“HA!” My not-exactly laughed in his high-pitched squeal, which I find endearing as few women would. Then he tried to comfort me in his way. But effeminate as he is, he doesn’t have a clue what women want. “Don’t worry,” he consoled me. “Chappy’s not looking so good these days. You won’t be stuck with me forever. Chappy’s not long for this world.”
The temptation is to compare him to my late husband. No good could come of such a comparison. He was the index finger to my opposable thumb. After years together, two people coordinate. My Exactly would have comforted and hugged me unbidden. That “would have” would be called my baggage. Once upon I had it all. Now I have “that’s actually not too bad.” How do you know when to accept not too bad as good enough?
Like my 14- and 16-year-old dogs, I’ve bypassed maturity in my aging process. One evening I called my not-exactly-boyfriend from my university office (before we lost our phones to budget cuts). He was reading an article for his Urology Club.
“What’s up? How was your day?”
“Well, I finished teaching at 5:15, and then I came up to my office to do email, and I hadn’t eaten all day so I ate my lunch, and I was going to go work out, but then I swallowed funny and started coughing and I went and peed myself. So now I’m stuck in my office till I dry off.”
“HA!” He boomed, then tapered off into giggles.
“Yeah, it’s funny.” But I smiled, as much at his goofy giggles as at my predicament.
“It is funny.”
“I’m feeling a tad demoralized.”
“Don’t worry. We can fix your bladder. There’s surgery for your condition.”
“I’m glad I called you. I feel so much better.”
“Oh. I guess I didn’t say the right thing, did I? What should I say?”
I can’t let myself think that my true love would have known exactly what to say. I certainly can’t let myself say it out loud.
“My true love would have known exactly what to say,” I said out loud. “He would have known what I’m really upset about.”
“But what is my bladder serving as a metonym for?”
“Your urinary tract?”
“But what’s really bothering me?”
“That you wore black?”
Okay, I laughed—carefully, doing a Kegel squeeze.
“You’re upset that you’re getting older? That you’re middle-aged?” he tried again.
“Close enough. So comfort me.”
“Oh. You want to be comforted. Why didn’t you say so? Okay, wait. I know this one: You’re wonderful? You’re pretty? I love you? I told you that last week. Nothing’s changed since then.”
“It’s not I love you? What else could it be? I’ve offered up all my lines. I’m fresh out.” He’s like my border collie, running through the whole repertoire of tricks to get the treat.
“It would be nice to be told that I’m still desirable. That you’ll stand by me as I amass the indignities of age."
“I said I love you. Doesn’t that cover it? Why don’t you just wrap a sweater around your butt and go home?”
When I got home, all four dogs sniffed at the pee spot on my new, expensive, black (he’d guessed right), dry-clean-only skirt, which I took off at the door, bundled up, and threw into the washing machine. Then I plopped onto the Lay-Z-Boy and settled into middle age, ensconced in a pile of old dogs not long for this world.
I was supposed to have someone at my side when my body failed, in sickness as well as health. Someone who would still love me after I peed my pants. Someone actually human (though my dogs are looking better and better).
We broke up.
We “just called to check on” each other.
We fell together again.
Before I had my oral surgery, an apioctemy, I gave him very specific instructions. He was to call me during the day to check on me, and then again in the evening. At a minimum. But when you date an oncologist, your problems will always seem unworthy. Oral surgery, set off against oral radiation burns on esophageal cancer patients, will always look petty.
“Oh, okay, I can do that,” he said. “Do I have to come over too?”
The first injection of anesthesia made my leg donkey-kick, and the second brought tears. They told me to turn on my side, and a bit of anesthesia trickled down my throat, so I was fighting nausea as the assistant started talking about the barbeque festival she’d been to that weekend.
I didn’t think the drill would bother me. I’ve had teeth drilled before. But the drilling of my upper left bone was so much more intimate. I could feel the vibrations in my eyeball.
I drove home already angry at my not-boyfriend. But when I got home I found a dozen yellow roses in the sink. He had improvised a vase out of a Fat Free Milk carton waiting to be rinsed and recycled. I called him to leave a message thanking him. He picked up the phone. "I can’t talk now,” he whispered. “Are you okay?”
“Oh good. Then I’m off the hook?”
I might have laughed, but my face was frozen, and only drool came out.
As my present for my last birthday, he gave me permission to write about us. “It would be nice if you didn’t have to use my name. If you write it word for word, no one will believe you anyway.”
We broke up.
We called “just to check on” each other.
At the dog park, my border collie, Olive, ran the fence, back and forth, back and forth, while I went over my recurrent questions. Why does he keep playing all these emotional games with me while claiming that I’m the one playing games? Why will he never answer my questions? Or tell me what he’s thinking? Why was he always holding something back? Why does he claim to love me, but then when I say “I love you,” he replies suspiciously, “Why? What did I do?”
Back and forth Olive ran, never making any progress, stricken as she was with the border collie’s interminable OCD. “Stereotypes” is animal ethologists’ term for those repetitive behaviors, indicating psychological distress, exhibited by animals in captivity that are unable to adapt to restricted circumstances. They pace their enclosures, grind their teeth, maybe chew on the bars of their cages until their gums bleed, and then chew some more. Dogs will pace a fence, or run in circles chasing their own tails, or lick a wound until it festers. Olive was tied to a tree for the first two years of her life before I adopted her, and was never properly socialized or exercised. Now she’s full of neuroses. She doesn’t even greet me at the door with wagging tail when I come home, a validation I depend on from dogs. Instead she runs to the back door and paces till I let her out so she can pace the fence. Even though she’s no longer tied up, she doesn’t seem to be able to stop.
Let her run, I say. Tormenting as her fence-running is, she seems to be getting something out of it, and anyway she’s too old to change.
He shows up at my doorstep one day, fresh from the flea market, holding a gaudy, 1970s-style glass lamp shaped like a pineapple, with plastic green leaves splaying out the top. I forget if we’ve broken up or unbroken.
“Here,” he says. “Do you want this?
I do, actually. I’m surprised at just how much I want it.
I let him in.
When it’s time to leave, he says, at the door, “Good to see you,” and pats my back like I’m one of his patients. I burst into what turns out to be laughter.
“What? What?” he asks, looking around for the missing piece.
I take his hand from my shoulder and put it around my back, then wrap his other arm around the other side. “Squeeze,” I instruct.
“Oh,” he says, emits a falsetto giggle, and hugs me.
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