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I’m no fool. I knew the graying years wouldn’t be some blissful drive in the autumn sunshine, the leaves golden and the road ahead wide open. I’d been through life’s sharp turns, potholes, blizzards, and dead ends. And long, dark tunnels.
But I wasn’t ready when Frank died.
Ready? Not even remotely.
It was cancer. So ordinary. Yet not. At least, not to me. He went fast. Pancreatic cancer. A quick killer.
It’s been two years.
Yes, I still grieve, but I no longer cry. At first, I grieved about him and about us, but then it became about me. The selfishness of grief is inevitable, I think.
As soon as the first anniversary of his death passed, my friends – bridge friends, tennis friends, lunch friends – nudged me to start dating. Said I was still young. Still vibrant. Still a beauty. Still a catch.
I said I didn’t feel like a trout. Besides, most men prefer catch and release.
Eventually they prevailed. At least, Rebecca did.
Madeline and I go way back. We’d worked together after college at a local bank. I switched to real estate when I got my license, but I still worked at the bank when she landed Frank. She was just a teller then but smart, with beautiful green eyes and a smile customers noticed. Customers like Frank. When he brought in the deposits from his dry-cleaning business, he always got in her line. When he asked her out, of course she said, yes. She’d been expecting it. They were married within a year, bought a house, and started a family. The whole enchilada of normalcy. Frank’s business took off too. Eventually he had a chain of dry cleaners.
Madeline nailed the wife role with ease. Her almost effortless touch showed in her homemaking skills, how she raised her three kids, her sharply decorated home, her beautiful clothes. She and Frank were invited to parties, threw parties too. And they sure had a good time on the dance floor.
But there were cracks. She talked about them – to me – when she’d had a few extra glasses of whatever she was drinking at the time. She said she’d composed her story and written her fate too soon. Said she could only be half herself. Said she was reconciled to it. But she wasn’t really.
I consoled her. And more.
It would be a lie to call Rebecca my best friend, although at one time we were close, intimate friends. But we’ve seen a lot of each other over three decades. She was a natural at real estate, and was married to another realtor, Bob, for a long time. She became the one who landed the clients and made the big bucks. Some marriages can handle that competitive difference. Theirs didn’t.
Back when they were still married, our families did things together, like family weekends at the lake. Couples things too, like bridge, dinners out, occasionally dancing.
Madeline’s husband, Frank, was ridiculously handsome until the end. He oozed charm and charisma. Tall but not too tall, with broad shoulders, dark hair that turned peppery gray, a dimpled chin, and a smile that invited a rebound smile. He flirted effortlessly with women, even in Madeline’s presence, and women flirted back, sometimes despite themselves. Madeline wasn’t stupid or naïve, but she trusted him. At least, I think she did.
A few weeks ago, Rebecca invited me to a social function at Saint Paul’s, her church. I hadn’t been to church for a while – not since hats and high heels were the norm – but I put on a nice dress for the occasion. Nothing new, but a dress that conveyed a certain je ne sais quois.
That’s where she introduced me to Phillip.
Rebecca told me about Madeline. Said I would like her right away. That proved true.
I was sipping a glass of chardonnay at this charity event at Saint Paul’s when Madeline walked in. She was poised, had perfect posture. But she looked a smidgen nervous. Then she smiled when she saw someone she knew, and her face lit up. She wore a light blue dress that fit her pleasant shape perfectly.
When Rebecca introduced us, I told her how much I liked her dress. Said it looked like it was made for her. She smiled, said, yes, it was.
After Rebecca introduced us, Phillip and I made small talk. The usual get-to-know-you pleasantries. Careers. Kids. Grandkids. He showed pictures of his grandkids. They made him laugh, he said. A good sign.
I liked his warm smile, his unpretentiousness. But what stood out were his eyes. They were Frank’s eyes. They were brown, with soft eyelids and gentle wrinkles at the corners. Eyes that laughed, I thought. Eyes I liked looking into.
He was older than Frank would have been, maybe five years older. He’d been a widower for three years or so. He wasn’t going to turn the heads of young women, but I could still see the outlines and shadows of his fading handsomeness.
I don’t remember much else of what we talked about. But he flirted, and I flirted back. My flirting skills were rusty but, fortunately, not rusted shut. A pleasant surprise.
When he asked me out to dinner, I hesitated.
He said, yes is the most powerful word in the English language.
I smiled, said, yes, even though I knew no was equally powerful.
I was nervous, but phoned Madeline the next day to arrange our date. I suggested a very nice restaurant, one quiet enough to talk.
It has a small dance floor, I said. Maybe we can dance.
She said, oh, I love to dance.
I hung up in a cold sweat. What was I thinking!
Dancing! I’m not much of a dancer. Yeah, I grew up in the rock-and-roll era, but I was never a fan of the dance floor. Dancing felt like torture, like self-inflicted embarrassment. Maybe I could claim I had a bad leg or plantar fasciitis in my feet. Or at least hold her off until there was a slow dance.
I hadn’t worn a new dress to the church event where I met Phillip. Why bother? But a date was different.
I can afford a new dress, any one I want, but when I was a young woman, if I wanted a new dress, I had to sew it myself. My mother taught me to sew, and by the time I was eighteen I sewed better than she did. Beautiful clothes were still treasured back then. I saved my meager dollars from a part-time job at Marks & Spencer to buy fabric and spent uncountable hours at my Singer. Sewing slacks, blouses, skirts. But especially dresses – summer dresses, long dresses, silk dresses.
During my twenty-eight years with Frank, I kept sewing. Sometimes I sewed clothes for the kids, but it made more sense to buy them store-bought clothes, they outgrew things so fast. But I sewed nice clothes for myself. Over time, I had a fabric stash from the best fabric stores in London, San Francisco, New York. Even fabric from Paris. (I still have a closet full of stunning fabrics ready for special occasions; some days it seems like a textile museum, or a mausoleum. I suspect I’ll donate most of it to a charity’s second-hand store, and some young woman with little money and her mom’s hand-me-down Singer will think Santa has come.)
Frank never complained about my hoard of fabric. He was proud of my sewing talent. My artistic eye. My attention to detail. And my body I kept in good shape to show off my couture creations. He especially liked taking the dresses off me, his wicked smile one of my rewards.
I hadn’t sewed a new dress in over three years, not since before Frank started chemo. The last one was made with pale blue silk brocade, with a scooped neck to show off a pearl necklace he’d given me for our twenty-fifth. Its hem came down to just above my knees. I had nice legs then. Do I still?
The date with Phillip was two weeks out, and I passed the first two days studying my fabric collection. Silly, right? But that’s what I’d done dozens of times before. Exploring, dreaming, holding the fabrics across my unclothed body, imagining me wrapped in each one. Wanting my creation to be perfect. To show off me.
I passed on anything frilly and the showier silks – the tie-dyes, paisleys, and exotic Japanese silks. In the end, I settled on a lovely teal blue silk knit that would work well with a v-neck wrap pattern that crisscrossed my breasts. Simple, elegant, appealing.
Two days later, I’d finished carefully cutting out the pieces. Measure twice, cut once, the saying goes. For both carpenters and dressmakers. Maybe for people too.
I smiled the moment I removed the cover off my Bernina – an expensive but worth-every-quid upgrade over my Singer. But I was nervous. Fabric can be unforgiving. Take your eyes off the needle for a second, and you can lose control. Then you’ll be ripping out errant stitches and starting over, hoping you haven’t destroyed your precious fabric.
The Bernina responded to my touch with ease. Some skills you never lose.
Dinner went well. We ate at Rudolph’s Steak House. White table cloths, good service, soft lighting, the works. There was a small dance floor, but it wasn’t until a jazz combo started playing that I began to worry.
Madeline looked beautiful. Simply beautiful. Everything about her was just right. Her hair. Her makeup. And a stunning teal blue dress – silk, she said – that fitted her exquisitely. I’d been out with a few other women over the past year, but Madeline tripped some wires inside me in unexpected ways.
We hit it off, I know she would agree. We both told stories, smiled, laughed a lot. We talked while the combo played, but when they started a slow tune – a sultry version of Cole Porter’s Night and Day – Madeline’s smile brightened. That was my cue.
Would you like to dance, I asked. She, of course, said, yes.
Sometimes small surprises can lead to bigger surprises. When Phillip and I started to dance, I knew quickly he wasn’t in his element. He held me cautiously, politely, his body inches from mine. But I could still feel the heat coming off him, and he smelled good. A smell I’d missed. After a while, I looked up at him and asked, would you like me to lead. He grinned, said, sure.
I pulled him closer, his chest against my breasts. I put my head on his shoulder, but I took control of our hands and guided him as we danced. He caught on quickly, seemed to relax, to enjoy himself. More than he or I expected, as it turned out.
Dancing with Madeline took me to another place in my head. A much younger place. I let her lead, her chest against mine, her light perfume filling my nostrils, scrambling my brain. When the song ended, we stayed on the dance floor for the next song and then the next one, but I couldn’t name the songs if my life depended on it. Her body, her movement intoxicated me. That’s when I started to get an erection, the kind of good old hard-on of a much rawer me. Oh crap! I knew she’d notice. I tried to ease my body away a little, but she pulled me closer, looked at me, and winked.
Life is made for firsts, right? Even though it was a first date, we ended up in bed at my place. It was out of character for both of us, I’m sure, but Phillip quickly said yes when I invited him for a nightcap. I wanted him and didn’t see any reason to deny myself. Why should I? It sounds promiscuous when I tell it, but promiscuous is just a word. Desire doesn’t need words.
It was the first time after Frank I’d had another man in my bed, and things went well. He pulled my dress over my head, admired my body with hungry eyes. Hungry for me. We quickly ripped off and tossed aside the rest of our clothes like used-up gift wrapping. And when our unclothed bodies connected, he let me take the lead again, which I liked.
When the action subsided, and we lay side by side in repose, I turned to him and smiled, said, it’s time for you to go home.
Madeline is the epitome of poise, but she likes being in charge. That includes in bed. I know.
I went home distracted and more than a little dazed. Madeline had been amazing in bed, her lips inviting, her breathing hard, her touch confident, her legs swirling around me.
Before I left her house, we set a date for lunch two days later. She picked a small Italian restaurant that was rather romantic for a Monday lunch. She entered wearing blue jeans and a forest-green blouse that complemented her eyes. Silk again? I asked. She smiled. Yes, she said.
I’d lost sleep trying to imagine what I was going to say to this extraordinary woman who had so boldly shared her body with me. Yet there she sat, smiling calmly, the embodiment of composure. I only knew I wanted more.
We ordered. But before our meals had even arrived, she floored me with a direct question.
Did you ever cheat on your wife, she asked.
I’m sure I blushed. But somehow lying to this woman seemed wrong. Impossible.
Yes, I said. I started to say it was a long time ago, but before I could, she said, my husband Frank did too.
Our food arrived, and when the waiter left the table, she asked if my wife knew.
I don’t think so, I said.
I did, she said. Her eyes softened, and she took a bite of her roll.
What was I going to say? Saying nothing didn’t seem like an option. She seemed to invite intimacy. Confessional intimacy.
Did you know her, I asked.
Yes, she said. Oh, yes.
Then she went back to her meal. As did I. She changed the topic, and we had a delightful lunch.
I decided not to ask her if she’d ever cheated.
By the time you’re my age, you will have abandoned many of your delusions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s not without pain. Some delusions become good friends, buffering reality’s harsher edges. Losing a delusion is a different kind of petit mort, a little death that lessens you, at least for a while.
I’d grown into my delusions. As life progressed and became easier, I’d wrapped my growing happiness in simple beliefs: That I’d earned my ease. Raised healthy and competent children, who now had their own broods. Turned into a stellar grandma. Remained a good friend to many. And loved an imperfect but loving husband.
Only weeks before Frank’s diagnosis, he and I were planning all the ways we’d enjoy our later years doing things we’d enjoyed for decades. Travel, hold family reunions, play bridge, watch the Broncos, go dancing.
Definitely, we’d go dancing. We made a sharp couple on the dance floor, everyone said. Whoever wrote that dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire – they got it right. Frank and I loved sex after a night dancing. One seemed to flow into the next.
Desire, passion, intimacy – they’re not easy to corral. One day you believe your sex life is all about love and companionship and commitment. And then you discover secrets. Sometimes the secrets are yours to keep. But sometimes, like an old dress, no longer worth holding onto.
When Phillip rose from the bed after our first night together, I studied his aging body. Could be worse, could be better, I calculated. As he dressed, I pulled on a robe and escorted him to the door. We kissed good night, of course.
After he left, I poured myself a glass of ice-cold Coke – my longstanding treat after sex. It tasted wonderful. Then I headed back to bed.
My beautiful new teal blue dress that had wrapped my body so perfectly lay in a crumpled pile on the floor. I picked it up and examined it. There was a stain on it, still moist.