I had a bad feeling about it all along, and yet I let it happen.
The minute the man flirted with me online, I should have shot it down. He was, after all, in New Mexico, and I in New York. But I didn’t.
We had corresponded and talked on the telephone for two months before we met for the first time in Washington, DC. That first encounter was lovely though even then there were warning signs, but it was fun to be a tourist by day, holding hands, eating out, escaping the heat. Our downtown suite had adjoining rooms so we were able to give one another a good night kiss and retire to familiar aloneness. Thus the warning signs that were faintly appearing on the walls were easy to ignore.
One salient sign was that the man did not listen. He had been struck deaf by a childhood illness, and he had a well-tuned habit of allowing the batteries in his hearing aid to die, at which point he would just talk on without acknowledging the malfunction, appearing to listen when he was tuned out. It was impossible for me to know what he actually heard and what he chose to ignore. He would often nod in agreement as though we were on the same page, but I would realize later he had no idea what the conversation had been about.
Nevertheless, the Washington sojourn was successful enough that when he requested a second meeting, I suggested that he join me for the fiftieth year reunion of my small town high school in upstate New York. He was thrilled. After all, he had graduated the same year; he could not wait to share whatever he had in common with my classmates. I disregarded the blaring red flags. As the co-emcee at the main event banquet, I thought I needed an escort. Besides, I still believed in happily ever after. Even at 68.
However, knowing I would have a lot of prep work and would be meeting people I had not seen in fifty years, people who saw me every day of my life for the better part of my childhood, I strongly urged him to fly into Albany or Burlington on Saturday so he could arrive just in time to be with me at the banquet. “I’m not very nice when I’m stressed,” I said honestly. “I’m likely to be unaffectionate, downright prickly.”
“Don’t worry,” he laughed. “I totally understand.
But he didn’t. Not really.
He confided that he felt intimidated by the east and asked me to guide him into the mountains. “I’ll just be a fly on the wall while you take care of business. You won’t even know I am there.” Furthermore, flights were cheapest into Newark, and besides, Newark was closer to Pennsylvania.
He had his own agenda. Based on our time in DC, he had booked a car rental and appointments to look at houses in the Wilkes-Barre, PA, area, halfway, he said, between his daughter and grandchildren in Ohio and me in NYC.
I met him Thursday morning at his motel in Newark, and as we drove north, he told me he was ready to make a purchase. I said, “I really hate PA.” Did he hear me? I couldn’t tell, as he went on telling me what a great house it was with a room that would be a perfect writer’s office.
Finally, I shook my head vigorously. “Listen,” I said. “I have family all over the desert states and California. Grandchildren in Westchester, a daughter in Hong Kong and cousins in Europe I will want to visit. Any meager travel time and money I have is theirs. I won’t be getting to Pennsylvania.” He nodded, saying he understood.
But he didn’t. Not really.
We arrived in my home town and checked into the only motel that had had a room for us. We should have had separate rooms, but our reunion, a huge canoe race and the sixtieth reunion of the class that graduated a decade ahead of us had caused a shortage of available space. We had to share a bed, and it was not a great bed to begin with.
Though larger than king size, the mattress was lumpy, with springs that poked my sides, and from sitting in the car for over six hours, my arthritis areas were raw, and I hurt. There was no position in which to lie where something didn’t ache. I did not want to be touched.
Which, to be fair, had been part of our agreement. I had said categorically that while we were in this motel, an old one with flimsy sheetrock walls, I would likely be physically distant. Every sound we made – and he is a noisy man, as is the wont of most who are hard of hearing – would be audible to our neighbors on both sides of our room, men with whom I had gone to school from fourth grade through high school graduation, men with whom I would not be inclined to share my private moments. He said he was fine with that, that he understood.
But he didn’t. Not at all.
In truth, he was incapable of real arousal, so what he craved was touch. Holding hands seemed reasonable except that he insisted on kneading mine long after I asked him to stop. I suggested we cuddle, something I usually love to do, but his cpap, whining and wheezing to maintain continuous positive air pressure, blew percussively on the back of my neck and nipped any tendency toward relaxation in the bud. To complicate matters, he insisted on talking at me all night, but I could not reply without screaming because his hearing aids were on a table by the window.
By morning, as my exhaustion exacerbated my foul mood, things worsened. At every turn, I did something to infuriate him, and he retaliated by promising me a night of more lecturing, less sleep than I had had the night before.
He, too, was tired, and that augmented the pervasive tension about him, the jealousy. Every time I hugged another classmate, every time I got on my computer or telephone to make another arrangement, he sulked or, worse, he paced. My fly on the wall had become the oversized, nasty aggressive kind, biting and buzzing, growing ever needier and more persistent.
On Friday night, instead of going with me to the Moose Club for the opening night dance, where we could at least have had some couples fun, he threw a temper tantrum, and we missed the party. I reminded him that the following night was the banquet, that I would be a far nicer person, that if I could just get some sleep, we could start over. He nodded and said he understood.
But. . . .
“What do you mean, ‘start over?’” He asked as I was crawling into bed. “I don’t get it.”
“Let’s talk about it in the morning.” He sat on the chair next to the bed shaking his head.
“I don’t get it,” he said.
I began a reply, an angry one, asking him to respect my request to get some sleep, but before I could finish my sentence, he stood up, took out his hearing aids and threw them on the floor.
“Yayayayaya,” he sang in a toddler voice. “I’m not listening to you.”
He was quiet, then, till 4 a.m., when he insisted we had to talk, or rather, that I listen to a litany of my transgressions. I was neglecting him, would rather be with these people than with him. I was ruining this vacation. But for my neighbors, people who had been out drinking the night before, it was still the middle of the night, and we had their peace to consider.
“Let’s go for a drive,” I said. “ Get out of the motel.” I figured he could yell as much as he wanted to in the car on the highway. We found an open Dunkin Donuts with a safe parking lot and settled in for a real talk.
I listened long and attentively to his plaintive song of Poor Me, and I said when he was finished, “Let’s put this away, okay? Let’s get through the day. I cannot go back and fix any of the things you say I broke, so let’s just get past the banquet tonight, and then we can begin again.”
“What does that mean?”
“What does what mean?”
“Begin again. What are you saying?”
“We can start over.”
“What is that? What are you talking about?”
It seemed obvious to me, but I really wanted peace. Moreover, I really wanted to believe. . . .
“It was how I dealt with transgressions from my own kids or from my students. Whatever they did, would be dealt with and forgotten; to subvert all guilt and embarrassment, I would promise that we would begin the next day right back where we were before the drama. That way we could extinct all transgressions.”
“Oh,” he nodded. “That makes sense.”
“It really does,” I agreed, hoping this meant we were moving forward. “No one gets to say ‘I told you so,’ no one needs to stay angry. We just re-start.” He smiled. I was so sure he understood.
And we had a lovely day, which culminated in a glorious banquet, where he was ebullient, interacting with everyone there, helping with setup, and enjoying the meal I had ordered for him, a “delectable” salmon. The evening was a success, and everyone laughed, sang, frolicked and enjoyed being together. I was euphoric.
After striking our equipment and collecting our belongings, we headed to the Moose Club, where my classmates gathered around me and my co-emcee, congratulating us, telling us what a wonderful night it had been. I wanted to sit for a while, to bask, to smile effortlessly. To rest.
But he wanted to dance. The more I sat my ground, the more I could see anger gathering in his eyes. About a half-hour in, he came to me, looking like a cartoon bull with fury steaming from his ears, and said, “We are leaving. Now. I am tired. It’s time to go back to the room.”
What is it about me that succumbs to guilt even when guilt has less than zero legitimacy? I should have said “Good night; go back to the room by yourself.” But instead I left with him and drove in sullen silence back to the motel. By now it was well after 2 am, and coping skills were dead.
I threw myself into the bed, curled into a tight ball on the far side of our double king and told him to stay all the way over on his side. I ordered him to put the CPAP under the bed where some of the noise could be absorbed. I turned downright cruel when he propped himself up on his elbow and begun a new round of the familiar monologue that began with, “You could have. . . .” I put a pillow over his head and told him to shut up.
Before the sun came up again, he jumped out of bed and began to pack.
“I’m not putting up with this anymore,” he commanded. “Get ready to leave. Now.”
I tried to control the sound of relief in my voice. “Okay,” I said, getting up and beginning to put my own things into my suitcase. “But I’m not missing the farewell breakfast.”
We said our good byes and slinked off into the amber morning. I felt like a criminal, a usurper though I could not figure out why.
Then, on the muted drive back to Newark, I realized how much I had lost by taking this leap into old age romance. Maybe if I were a silly, sex-obsessed Betty White character, this would have worked out splendidly, where we both fulfilled one another’s fantasies; instead it robbed me of the only real vacation I would have had this year. I relinquished to him my one opportunity to visit places that make me feel peaceful, to stomp through my favorite season in my favorite landscape, to be home. I turned the fiftieth year reunion of my high school class into a drama about him.
Is this what late-in-life love affairs are really made of? Will I be willing to try again?
I don’t know the answers, but I do know one thing. Next time there’s a reunion, I’m going alone.