He says this as his finger slides down your calf, drops of water from the bath dotting your leg, he eases past the straggly gray hairs, the coffee-colored liver spots, tracing the veins, creeping tributaries, a mix of sun, age and the endless miles run, always one step ahead of death.
How should you answer that?
The easy answer is that you were lost in your thoughts, wrapped-up in some mix of memory, regret and time passed, so much time, so many steps taken and not.
The harder answer is that you haven’t been touched in so long and the shock of his finger on your skin sets off a small explosion in your brain.
You don’t respond, instead focusing on the sun, which is now slicing across the sky, oranges merging with purples, a hazy mist coating the proceedings.
Being alone doesn’t happen all at once, nor is it accompanied by some kind of announcement. You make incremental decisions, which seem small in the moment, inconsequential, but they accumulate, piles of leaves in the backyard of your life, first floating free on the wind, dancing and playfully dodging one another, before hitting the ground, where they transform from something vibrant and verdant, to something else, fragile, crushed and ultimately abandoned.
For some time, when you were young and beautiful and happy to sleep with all the boys and girls because they were happy to sleep with you, you prided yourself on having fucked your way through all of the continents and found it funny to turn people away for any reasons that struck you as questionable decisionmaking.
You root for Michigan football?
You wear black ironically?
You think it’s more authentic to butcher your own meat?
Fuck that, no sex with you.
It all seems so ridiculous now.
You voted for Trump?
Well, that was different, and it remains an acceptable truth, how could anyone fuck someone who voted for Trump? You couldn’t, can’t and who cares that he now spends his afternoons alone at Mar-A-Lago, Tweeting his nonsense to an empty void of his own creation.
There have to be some standards.
You committed to those choices with a smile, but somewhere along the way you hardened, no one worked for you anymore, and nothing made sense, and then soon enough, and worst of all, the universe stopped caring about you. You were no longer young and pretty. You were replaced. Ignored. No one wants to be around the aged. Age is death, and as much as pop culture likes to equate sex and death, no one wants that in their bed, or staring them in the face.
He was lying there, a slight sheen of sweat on his shoulder, his hair mussed, knotty, post-sex, post-bars, and all the beauty and feels and positive, kinetic energy contained therein.
This was a relationship saturated in alcohol and you never thought it would be your last.
Was the drinking the problem?
You could always manage the ups and downs of the drinking, the laughs that were too hard, unhinged, and the tears, the sheets awash in past slights and imperfections, distant parents, lost friends, loss of direction, even the occasional violence, it was all wrapped-up in the drinks and need.
That wasn’t you, it was him, and how judgy is it to find problems in others that could be, but are not your own?
You drank as much as he did, you had the same anger and passions, but you controlled it, managed it.
Was that the problem? Your disdain for this lack of control? How raw and messy it all was and not something that would stay cute, if it even ever was so in the first place?
It was a problem, but not the problem.
He didn’t want to have a baby.
It was his choice, preference, he considered it a burden, not a goal or a potential source of joy, just an action some people took that for him would at some point prove both irresponsible and irreversible.
That was not you though, you believed a child was possible, important, and so this was an end, but you didn’t want to rush it, or move it along, and while you wanted nothing more than to run your finger through the sheen of sweat still lingering right there in front of you, you worried that if you touched him, he would turn to dust, rise to the heavens and slowly evaporate, disappeared and no longer one with the universe you’d created together.
“Are you saying that it all ties back to my father?”
You said this to the therapist with the neat little beard and skinny ties.
He didn’t respond, and why would he, you had merely unlocked the least mysterious part of why we do what we do even when we don’t think we know why we’re doing it.
It’s the old story, it all traces back to your parents, the waves of confusion and fucked-upedness coursing through the years and generations, taken root in your brain and DNA.
But does that make it incorrect?
Your father wanted to disappear.
Your father was a rock, but he didn’t want to be, not like this. He could make dinner, read stories long into the night and if he had lived long enough, and if then given the chance, he wouldn’t have fucked anyone who voted for Trump either.
He felt trapped though and he hated it, his loyalty to you and your mother, family. He wanted to soar, roam the universe and taste everything that could be tasted.
But I knew what.
“Can you believe that shit,” my father had said standing there in the living room and starting out of the window, his expression a mixture of jealousy, pride and shock.
It was our neighbor, my father’s drinking buddy, fellow low-stakes gambler, occasional wing-man and man of letters, a writer of big books and big ideas, someone who did roam the universe and taste everything he could, gone again, to chase the next story. He hadn’t even bothered to tell his family or my father that he was leaving, he was just gone, his backpack, wallet and car vanished, and this is what killed my father the most, not that his friend hadn’t told him or his family that some idea beckoned and that he must explore it, now, but that he didn’t think he needed to.
“Fantastic,” my father said, now wistful and sitting down.
He wanted that so badly, that kind of untethered freedom, but it wasn’t in the cards for him.
“Be a better version of him,” my mother said.
“Maple doughnuts,” I had said, “when did that happen?”
Maple doughnuts having been your father’s thing, and now yours.
Were you becoming him?
Your mother’s long pitch black witch hair was now short, grayer, nearly white, but she retained the intensity and curiosity of someone who knows who they are, each day, every day, and the eagerness to know things, probe them, that hadn’t changed.
And you were of course becoming your father, it’s what we do, become our parents, and she was loyal to him, loved him, but was grounded, for you, for her, and she wanted you to be less tortured, better.
Why at the time you heard what she said as a need for you to have a child, of creating some kind of legacy through parenthood feels less clear now, but it was your father at his best, and you must have thought, okay then, let’s take that part of him and do it even better.
He says, smiling, sweaty, drunk.
You tell him you want to have children.
You stroke his shoulder.
He turns to dust.
And so it begins.
One day you have a presence in your life, real, substantive, an indentation on the other side of the bed, hair floating across the room, laughter, coffee in the morning, occasional sex in the shower, an actual being taking-up space in your space when you get home at night or breezing in on the entrails of your own arrival, the smell of whiskey saturating the room, a blur of freckles, the spectacular now that is life lived, skin to skin, breathing the same air, contact. And then suddenly, that person is spectre, a memory lingering in every corner and breath taken.
At first you don’t see the rituals you’ve fallen into, much less address them for what they are, a way to cope, to fill the time, to take control of the one thing you still have control over, your day and how you will execute it.
You awake at dawn, you always have. Your parents never woke you for school and you never learned how to sleep-in.
Still, you enjoy the rhythm of the morning, the world coming to life, the thump of the newspapers being delivered, the stop and start noises of the cars filling the streets, and the people walking their dogs, running, heading to yoga and work, rubbing their eyes, eating their breakfast, drinking their coffee, preparing to tackle the day.
But that’s the rest of the world, that’s not yours, not any more, not really.
You make your bed, folding and re-folding the top edge, seeking an even flap that will beckon you when it’s time to sleep again.
You gulp one full cup of water, the first of ten you drink each day.
You open the blinds on your floor to ceiling windows, all the way to the top, all four windows, a blast of daybreak, the sun dripping into the room, melting and alive.
You get the newspaper from the doorstep and lay it on the coffee table next to the couch.
You pour yourself a cup of ice coffee, prepared the morning before, brewed overnight and ready for you to start your day. You add eleven ice cubes, the perfect ice to liquid ratio for achieving the maximal cold snap required, while minimizing the watering down that inevitably follows.
You sit on the couch awash in light, legs up, feet resting on the arm of the chair across from you, sipping your coffee, reading the news, your brain slowly alighting with the day’s possibilities.
When you’re done, you do 50 push-ups, 50 sit-ups, you strap on your running shoes, and headphones, and you enter the world that awaits you.
The steps are not light, nor springy, and with the advancing years you’re never quite loose enough from the start.
At some point, your back will loosen though, and escape the morning tightness, because that’s an everyday thing now, same with your shoulders, constricted and requiring motion and morning air to feel at all normal and as you once did when you were young.
Your knees however, will never be right again. It’s all structural in the end, damaged, unfixable, and when you catch a toe on the uneven sidewalk or stumble off the curb, your knee jolted, and shifting laterally and unnaturally, the pain is jarring, surreal, blinding, though blessedly brief.
You run slow these days, this was by choice at one point, but no more, now it’s all you have and all you can bear. Still, it’s another day on the path, and another day where there may come that moment your father long sought, flight, the bonds and anxieties that beckon drifting away and allowing you to battle on another for another day, week, month.
When you’re home again you turn on the laptop and you get to work, emails, edits, ideas, wholly focused on the screen, and your coffee and water, until all that drifts away as well.
You stop at 5:00 PM every day and you walk to the bar down the hill by the beach.
This was a goal, salt air, a breeze, sun.
Drinks at the end of the day.
You are dreamily staring out of the window, awash in the sounds of the ocean, the botanicals from the Gin & Tonic coating the back of your tongue, meandering through your wired brain.
There is a young woman at the end of the bar sitting between you and the window. She is freckles and short hair, there is laughter.
Were you staring at her?
That doesn’t seem impossible to you, you still have needs and wants, you still appreciate beauty and want to be touched.
You just don’t remember.
She brushes past you and you turn to the bar and look at yourself in the mirror. The gray encroaching across your thinning hair, the crow’s feet etched into your face like arctic fissures, the patchy, weathered skin, mostly smooth, but saggy, where not stretched, too tight and wrinkled, ever more dotted with brown marks, weird skin things and patchy, coarse stubble that will not be removed.
You are all age now.
You’ve become an old man and you are alone to wallow in it, no buffer, and no alternative narrative to be told because there is no one to tell it for you.
Now you are home, and you wash the dishes, methodically, intentionally, piece by piece, nearly floating away on the air currents behind you.
Yet not, because there’s no journey to take, nowhere to go but in your own head.
As you turn to walk out to the porch for one more drink and a book before the light fully dies out, there is a knock.
He’s shaky, drunk, no, it’s something else.
His complexion is sallow, the veins purple, and popping, straining against taut skin.
His hair is unkempt, stringy, sparse.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” he says.
You draw him a bath and once submerged, he beckons you to join him.
You undress, quickly, turning away, because when is the last time anyone witnessed that?
You avoid looking at your arms or chins or backside in the mirror, lowering yourself into the water, the heat hitting your skin with a snap.
You are facing him in all his disrepair.
He runs his finger across your calf and worlds’ explode on contact.
He only says it once, in the light of morning, when you would normally be out of bed, opening the shades, pouring your coffee, reading your newspaper, doing your push-ups and getting ready to run.
But not today, or yesterday, or even tomorrow.
You stay in bed now until it’s time to work and sometimes longer.
He will be gone soon, dust to dust, all that, but he isn’t yet.
And neither are you.