A program about sex and ageing prompted Susan Wilson to be brave.
There comes a time when the kids are a little unbalanced by the idea that their now ‘old’ parents – in their eyes anyway – still have sex. But sex isn’t off the agenda at 70, 80 or 90. YourLifeChoices member Susan Wilson had just listened to a Radio National program about changing attitudes and perceptions of sex and ageing. She decided it was time to be brave and share an experience.
One day, the man who fixes things changed the light bulb in the hallway near her apartment. They said ‘Hi’ to each other as they often did.
“When do you think you will retire?” he asked. It was an innocuous question considering all occupants of the apartments in this leafy North Shore suburb were over 55. She figured he was asking her age.
She had officially retired the week before, though she planned to keep going part time for at least another decade, into her 80s. Everyone asked: “What are you going to do with yourself now?” as if she had no imagination for something new to do. From him, it sounded like a conversational gambit.
“I write,” she said. “I’ve had a couple of pieces published recently; one about my father.”
Usually, in response people say: “I have a great idea for a novel – when I have time,” or, accompanied by a silly laugh, “Anyone can write, you just put one word after the other.” Others offer an odd look before a quick change of subject.
He said: “Can I read it?”
She felt shy and a little vulnerable as he took it away.
When he returned, he surprised her by saying he found it powerful and that her words brought him near to tears. She was pleased. She had always wanted to write words to move people to laughter and tears.
Polite, nervous, she missed the moment. Later she wished she had asked him what had touched him. Did he, too, have a difficult father?
What she did manage to say was, “Do you write, too?”
“Mmm no, I read, all sorts. Even the newspaper.” His tone made it sound as if this was a last resort and they laughed.
She was a word perfectionist and had noticed he expressed himself more proficiently than many of the men her age and he always had a quick response to a quirky turn of phrase.
Sometime later, on her way to the letterbox, thinking about the next task to cross off the list, she bumped into him coming around the corner. Without hesitation, he kissed her, a soft but firm kiss full on the lips.
With a light laugh she kept walking. It was nice, but how would it stand up in this era of Harvey Weinstein? A decade ago, after her husband left, she had vowed to have nothing more to do with men. Yet here she was, coy and girlish.
Late for a poetry class one morning, she encountered him coming through the front door of the building and without a moment’s indecision, he enfolded her in his arms and kissed her again, twice. The impression of his beard and moustache were soft against her skin.
She knew men who were slick, smooth, subtle in their way of letting her know they were attracted to her. Either that or they followed a script that stopped just short of asking what her star sign was but that also included telling her she had beautiful eyes.
Styles vary from Hallmark greeting card to bull-in-a-china-shop. This man was direct, no frills. No ambiguity from him. But she was ambiguous. Could he secretly be weird? Like the man at a party once, who backed her up against the wall and offered to suck her toes. But she was 72. A grandmother. She was not used to being desired.
From the window she watched him work with his usual brisk energy as he cleared leaves from the deciduous trees that had finally let go in the cold wind and were strewn across the nature strip.
She rather liked strewn leaves but some neighbours could become overwrought at the sight of stray leaves. One who does ‘Grand Rounds’ each week misses no twig or a leaf.
She gave him a Crunchie bar.
“Something to raise your blood sugar,” she said.
He moved in with a bear hug, held her hand to warm it and snuggled into her neck wrapped warm with a soft-as-a-cloud, blue cashmere scarf.
Then he reached forward and put an arm around her waist under her thick black coat. His arm felt strong, a little bit rough. She pulled back as a hollow gut feeling spooked her. The feeling was so forceful she faltered.
She fumbled through an awkward escape behind the front hedge where she took several deep breaths and gave herself a quick lecture. “This is ridiculous. You are not a 14-year-old girl. He’s only flirting. Just enjoy it.” How she envied women who did this with ease.
She felt rattled by having pulled away from something as simple as a human touch.
Some weeks passed before they collided again. As always, when ruffled she had taken to her journal to work out how she thought and felt. Obviously, she was tempted but was it worth the risk? Or should she cling to old beliefs about love and sex? Officially, it should be forever with only one man.
The fixing man never failed to make her laugh with his quick sense of the absurd. She told herself she was a ridiculous woman, embarked on a line of thought that could only lead to disaster. On the other hand, was he a new ‘friend, with benefits’?
When he appeared again, she did not expect it. The first thing he said was “I missed you”. And “I know you know I want you.”
There it was in plain English with not a frill or embroidery to embellish. She had not imagined it after all. “Would you like coffee?”
Of course he would. She made him a smoked trout and salad sandwich – a useful stalling device – and asked questions when his mouth was full. She wanted to know more about him. She asked him how old he was, and he took a big bite of the sandwich. She handed him a mug of black coffee.
“How long have you worked here?”
“About 20 years.”
“And before that?”
A thoughtful pause, then: “The public service.”
“What would you do if you had a choice?”
“I enjoy pottering,” was all he said, then added, “This is a gourmet sandwich.” Then he suddenly stood and came to sit close beside her. Between urgent kisses and sips of coffee, there was no room for questions.
She led him to the bedroom and wondered if she could remember. The fact that it was supposed to be like riding a bike was no comfort. She had not ridden one since before she was married.
It was too late to turn back. There was no time to worry about a body shape gone to seed, surgical scars and the other blemishes on her pale skin.
She had no idea how old he was. This didn’t appear to be the moment to ask.
She gave herself a quick speech about men’s expectations of female bodies. Once, she had listened to a long description of a colleague’s requirements for an ideal woman that included a tank top, tight-fitting jeans and high-heeled shoes.
“And what do you have to offer?” she’d asked him.
There was an extended pause before he gave a long, low laugh.
In the bedroom, he appeared anxious about the nosy neighbour who stood about smoking and was surprisingly well informed about the occupants of the apartments. Although her unit was at tree canopy level, she closed the window, pulled down the blind and asked about his type of music.
“As long as it has a recognisable tune.”
She turned up the volume.
On the bed, they were awkward and bumbling around with buttons and bra hooks. He talked now with no sandwich to hide behind. Lie him down and he lengthens his sentences with a good command of anatomical vocabulary. But now she was no longer interested in conversation.
She wished to appear at least halfway sophisticated, a woman of at least some part of the world, but her body was slow to respond while her brain whirred, louder than an old fridge on a quiet night.
One of God’s best creations is skin, the largest organ, sensitive to so many sensations. She could have basked in this feeling all day.
But he wanted everything at once and made it easier with gentle directions. Overloaded by sensation, she had a logjam and couldn’t coordinate. “I’ve lived on my own too long,”she thought. Arms and legs tangled but somehow, through his encouraging chatter, like a beginning ballroom dancer, she heard the once familiar music and went to follow, but hesitated and lost the rhythm.
He had obviously adopted a familiar style and she had the almost out-of-body feeling that on her back, she was locked in a Latin American number, a full-body Cha Cha.
She was more of a Rumba person with rounded hip action, languid arm movements, depths to sink into. Although it appears relaxed and gives the impression of moving through melted chocolate, to do it well requires skill and a lot of practice. There was no time to practice.
All synapses on full alert, she gave herself over to his kisses. She did love those kisses. Between caresses and escalated respirations, she saw that he had a scar on one leg and freckles on both. She felt half strangled by her shirt and found it difficult to manoeuvre around his Cha-Cha moves. But his exuberance worked like a tonic and her blood fizzed like alka seltzer.
She was aware that this was a lunch break encounter. As they struggled to get up, he tied at the ankles by his underpants, she held at the neck by her bra straps, she thought that if they did it again she would have to remember to set the alarm. It made her giggle.
When he said goodbye, he remarked with a grin that he had enjoyed their ‘gourmet grope’ and leaning in, breathed into her ear.
‘By the way, I’m 73.’
Apprehensive about the neighbours – apartment dwellers are notorious curtain twitchers – he walked silently down the stairs.
Smiling, she closed the door with a soft click. Lips still tingling, she opened the fridge and reached for the champagne. The golden liquid slipped slowly down the side of the crystal flute and columns of tiny bubbles gently rose to burst like a shiver of miniature kisses on the surface.
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