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The Age of Ambivalence

Just in Time for Valentines Day: A Cautionary Tale of Dating While Aging

(An essay written by Debbie Brosten, originally published in Unmasked, Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty, from Weeping Willow Books, 2017.)

A friend I haven’t spoken with in months calls to catch up. She gushes about her new grandson. We talk about her trip to Portugal, mine to Japan. She brings me up to date on the women in the book club I helped form years ago when I lived in their town. I hear about the new quilt she is working on. She asks how my writing groups are going. Then, she mentions the charming new man in her life. She is a good friend, a good person, and I wish I could report that my initial reaction was joy, but alas, I’m not that altruistic. I throw a silent self-pity party before mirroring her enthusiasm for the new turn in her life. After disconnecting, I reflect on my own life. I am painfully aware no man, charming or otherwise, is ringing my bell. Realizing it is up to me, I join a dating site.

I put myself out there even though I am no longer young or supple. My silver hair, even though it is long and silky, allows for no pretense. Nor does my increasingly crêpey skin. I compose an online profile highlighting my love of travel and my sense of humor. I scan my photos for ones that don’t make me cringe, and submit it all. Before I’m even approved I type in the parameters of the man I am seeking and scroll through dozens of pictures. Instinctively I sort them in my head; maybes, no-ways and occasional ahhhs. The no-ways make up the biggest category: bearded men who could be replacements on “Duck Dynasty”, the shirtless who mistakenly think that exposing their aging skin is a good idea, the tragic spellers, the seriously young searching for a sugar mama, and the ones whose profiles contain not a hint of humor or personality. The maybes are those who sparked a second look due to travel or cute dog photos, an interesting resume, or something which comes through as real. Most important, these men use words well and seduce me with clever or funny lines. The ahhhs are the too handsome, too rich, and probably too self-absorbed, but nonetheless cause wild fantasies to bloom.

Soon my computer dings, alerting me to incoming messages. I log onto the site. Loverboy likes my photo. I don’t like his scraggly beard almost as much as I disdain his screenname. I delete that email. I’mYourDreamGuy is an admirable wordsmith despite his penchant for cheesy screen names. He is also a professor at the local university, so I respond to him. We exchange flirty quips and decide to meet for dinner. He is better looking than his photo. Or maybe it’s the tweed jacket he’s wearing with his comfortable jeans; a look I’ve always found alluring. We decide on sushi. Our conversation covers his love of music and my enthusiastic reaction to Bellingham, where I resettled a year ago. He doesn’t suggest another meeting and neither do I, although to be honest, I wouldn’t have minded investing a bit more time and energy into a possible relationship. I thanked him for dinner and moved on, feeling discouraged.

Back to the site. I email someone who seems interesting based on what he has posted. I tell him his dog is a winner. We meet for coffee. At least he’s drinking a latte, while I sip my Earl Grey tea. He tells me he enjoys cooking and suggests we do it together sometime. I would prefer to know him better before inviting him to my apartment or showing up at his house, so we arrange a couple more dates, a dinner, a movie. 

He offers to bring the ingredients for a menu of my choice. On a pre-arranged evening, we self-consciously bump around my small kitchen as he dices garlic, onions and ginger, and I stir broth into the brewing risotto. The bottle of Pinot Noir he uncorked quickly empties as dinner and conversation progress. A reach around into drawers or cabinets provides the opportunity for a hand to linger on a waist or shoulder, until finally an embrace refuses to back off. We settle into a kiss. Insistent risotto bubbles us apart. Smiles linger.

“Are you having fun?” he asks. I smile my response as we return to the chopping and stirring. Yet as the shrimp sears, the asparagus roasts golden, I worry. “Too much? Too soon?” We transfer the creamy mushroom risotto to our earthenware plates, add the shrimp and asparagus and sit together at the round table. Appreciative sighs of contentment rise unbidden as we congratulate ourselves on our joint effort. 

Dinner complete, I rise to clear the plates. “I can help,” he offers. “No need,” I answer. “Are you kicking me out or can I stay the evening?” he asks as he rises. I catch the hitch in my step before he notices, although he might have seen my shoulders sag. “No,” I respond, wondering how the options have so quickly whittled down to unacceptable alternatives. “Too soon” plays through my head. “I’m not sure I like you that much,” I think, but don’t say.

Aren’t we too old for indiscriminate sex with body parts that no longer always comply with our desires? With bodies we are no longer anxious to share in the light? “How about if we get to know each other first?” I counter. The next day he sends an email, asks if we can do it again. Life interrupts that next date as his daughter and her family come for a visit. While they are here, I leave for a visit with my mother back East. A friend comes for the weekend when I return. I have heard nothing from my cooking partner since his family arrived. After my friend leaves, I text, suggesting we get together. I quickly receive a response. Seems he enjoyed meeting me, I’m a great woman, BUT he met someone else. Good luck with my search, he says. It’s a toss-up whether I’m disappointed or relieved. Being dumped, even if you aren’t all that interested, still stings.

Back to the site. JustTHEOneForYou has messaged me, says he would like to get together for lunch. Lunch has morphed into happy hour by the time details are finalized. A glass of rich Syrah clones itself into a second as we trade stories, a commodity easily shared over drinks and a plate of pan-fried oysters. Soon not just his head and upper torso are leaning into the table, but his hand tests the waters too. He grasps my fingers, quickly releasing them while he searches my face for approval. My reaction is ambivalent. I am not particularly attracted to this man, but it feels wonderful to be touched again.

The need to be seen, to be appreciated, clouds my judgment. I neither encourage this contact, nor pull away. This need harkens back to the hole left in childhood when our mothers were too busy to respond to our desires the moment they arose. “Change me, feed me, hold me. I’m uncomfortable. Fix it!” That small gash deepens over time, accentuated by divorce and break–ups. These repeated experiences gouge out more of our self-worth. Regardless of intentions, we are left with an achy wound. 

So my fingers reach back as he pronounces me prettier than my photo. On their own they seek the warmth, the acceptance he is offering. He misreads my smile born of discomfort as something more than was intended. The goodbye kiss, a foregone conclusion given my acceptance of his overtures, is not entirely unwelcome. My reaction to it leaves me suspicious of my intentions as well. After all, I put myself out there, advertised on a dating site, proclaimed to the world that I was lacking.

That night he sends a text, informs me where he will be at brunch the next day. He tells me (tells, not asks) to meet him. I decline knowing we have nothing in common. He makes no further contact. This time I am relieved.

As I again scan profiles I question my need to connect. I wonder if I truly believe I am lacking or if I have merely fallen victim to society’s dictates. Everywhere there are couples, families. I watch “House Hunters International,” indulging my traveler’s lust. I sift the couples’ experiences into my single one. I am very familiar with foreign travel, and solo travel, yet relocating as a single inhibits the choices I find acceptable. The burdens, as well the opportunities, are greater. While I have many single friends, there is no mistaking that we are a minority. The Great American Dream is built around the happiness found in couple hood. Madison Avenue pastes this message on billboards, in magazines and it naturally spills out into TV and the movies. 

I think of my cousin who has been divorced for over twenty years. In all that time she has only involved herself in one short relationship. She busies herself with her children, her grandchildren, her friends, her work. She says she doesn’t have time or energy for more. I find myself pitying her. Unlike her, I am not ready to give up the companionship or the sex. I miss the intimacy, the physical release, feeling desirable.      

Occasionally I still attract men and it seems to catch me by surprise. Last year I was on Isla Mujeres in Mexico. I had gone by myself, but quickly met up with a couple of fun women. They had been on the island for weeks and knew a group of people. When one of their friends, a younger man, came on to me, I was oblivious until he maneuvered me into a lone walk back to my hotel. It wasn’t until his lips met mine that I caught on. Thinking what happens on the island, stays on the island, I indulged. Being pursued by a man I found intriguing and attractive was akin to a dip in the proverbial fountain of youth. 

A few months ago I was on a day trip with a friend in the local mountains where I met an attractive man around my age. We exchanged information. That evening I received a clever text, but I was leaving town the next day. When I returned, he was on the way to Oregon to attend to his ailing father. The weeks since we met have lengthened. Sporadically one or the other of us suggests a meet-up. Responses are quick in coming, yet memories of what we look like fade as our calendars conflict. Still the exhilaration of being noticed was, well, exhilarating.

My ex comes for a short visit. We indulge in the good parts of our relationship, the laughter, the affection, the sex, ignoring the jabs that caused hurt feelings when we were focused on making the other into our perfect mate. I know he will never take better care of himself or stop making sarcastic remarks. He knows I will never let him off the hook. Understanding there is no future frees us to enjoy each other as we did when we first met. We discuss our attempts at finding love, companionship. He tells me these other men don’t know what they are missing. I want to believe him. For now, I stop expecting my phone to ring or ding. I go about my life doing things that make me happy. I scan new situations for possibilities. I contemplate spending the rest of my life alone. Or as alone as my circle of friends allows me to be. I tell myself it is enough. Sometimes I choose to believe it.

(Debbie Brosten’s work has been published in Whatcom Writes Anthology; Memory into Memoir: A Red Wheelbarrow Writers Collection; and Give Yourself Permission Anthology.)

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