Maybe two weeks into the relationship, Emily said to me, “You know this is just an affair, right? I want to make sure we’re on the same page.”
“I know,” you said. “We may not be on the same heel, but we’re on the same page.”
She seemed content, although my heel was already much more passionate than hers. No wonder, since I was much older and hadn’t felt anything so intensely in decades.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had met in the wild, not online. I was trudging home from the supermarket and she was standing in front of a cheese shop, peering in the window.
“They have the best baguettes in town,” I said as I walked past her at dusk, thinking that would be it. But she turned around and said, “I just moved here. Is it a good place?”
She wore a crisp blue mask, but her dark eyes split into an unmistakable smile as she came to stand next to me. “What’s good for takeout here?”
“The place I’m going next,” I said.
Trust me, it’s not often (guess never) that I get that kind of attention, let alone from someone so young – 34, it turns out – so beautiful, and in this case, of Japanese descent. She had fled her tiny New York apartment for an Airbnb in Santa Monica, and over the coming months a warm friendship developed: we walked her French bulldog puppy, bought ice cream around the corner. Although I was in love with her—a high-profile lawyer, she’d forgotten a career as a concert violinist—I held out no hopes for anything romantic until one night it happened.
She invited me to a movie night and of all things we chose The Dead, the movie based on a story from James Joyce’s The Dubliners. But we barely made it past the opening credits before – and I still don’t know how that happened – we were hugging on the sofa. She claims I initiated that first passionate kiss. I say she did, but it would be like unraveling the big bang. No matter how far back in time we go, there is no telling what actually happened in that very first nanosecond of the implosion.
And although I’m someone who’s been chastised in the past for not being able to say the magic words “I love you,” it didn’t take me more than a week or two to say them, and once they were out, I could shut it up The floodgates had opened, and decades of denial were being swept aside almost as fast as my T-shirts (which I discovered younger men don’t wear as often as we older guys do).
As for the younger guys who doggedly pursued them, they might have gummy bears in their pockets instead of Eliquis, and they might be up for anything—polyamory, skydiving, Burning Man—but they weren’t ready for commitment and dedication, which happens to mean Strengthen.
What I also had that they could never offer was the appeal of the impossible. Given our age difference, Emily was able to jump into our affair without having to think about any serious future plans. She didn’t have to worry about where things were going (nowhere, to be honest) because she planned to return to New York at the end of her lease to start seriously looking for a viable husband. And you got it.
Or thought I did. The head accepts what the heart ignores. I knew intellectually that she was right, but my heart ignored it, weaving elaborate fantasies that even included a mythical daughter named Veronica, a precocious child who played the violin like her mother. For a divorced man who never had or wanted children, I was suddenly shaken by the alarm of a biological clock I didn’t even know I had. But did I get one last chance?
There were moments when I thought it was me, times when even Emily seemed willing to indulge in that fantasy. “I love you,” she told me many times, and I flatter myself that she meant it. I even proposed on the morning of New Year’s Day. But Emily laughed and said, “So where’s the ring?”
could it please As luck would have it, I to hate a ring – one my ex-wife had missed – hidden in the nightstand drawer.
I put it on her finger and we both studied it there, saying nothing but feeling what it would be like if this were true, before tears welled up in her eyes.
“You know I can’t do this,” she murmured.
And by the way, I knew I couldn’t either. I loved this woman with all my heart and as a result, possibly for the first time for me, I really and truly wanted what was best for her – and the best thing was not me. It was a selfless feeling I’d heard about often – caring for someone else’s well-being above one’s own – and I still wasn’t sure what to make of it; I felt a lot like Humphrey Bogart sacrificing Ingrid Bergman in the farewell scene from Casablanca. Despite all the lofty fantasies, Emily obviously needed someone much younger, someone to raise this family with. In fact, her tiger mom had already chosen an age-appropriate bank in Hong Kong for her.
“I know you can’t,” I said, before adding, “and let’s face it – if your mother ever found out about us, she’d hire a yakuza to put a bullet in the back of my head.”
Emily wiped back her tears and said, “No, she wouldn’t.”
“It’s way too cheap for that. Besides, she’d like to shoot you herself.”
Here mother can rest. The last time I saw Emily, she was waving at me from the United Airlines terminal on the way back to New York. I miss her terribly every day, but as Bogie might have said, we’ll always have Santa Monica.
The author is a novelist living (alone) in Santa Monica. His website is: robertmasello.com.
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