Maybe two weeks into the relationship, Emily said to me, “You know this is just a fling, right? I want to make sure we’re on the same page.”
“I know,” I said. “We may not be in the same paragraph, but we’re on the same page.”
She seemed satisfied, even though my paragraph was already much more passionate than hers. Not surprising, considering he was much older and hadn’t felt anything this intense in decades.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had met in nature, not online. I was walking home from the supermarket, and she was standing in front of a cheese shop, looking out the window.
“They have the best baguettes in town,” I said as I walked past her at dusk, thinking this would be it. But she turned around and said, “I just moved here. Is it a good place?”
He wore a crisp blue mask, but his dark eyes crinkled into an unmistakable smile as he fell to my side. “What’s good for takeout around here?”
“The place I’m going next,” I said.
Believe me, it’s not often (think, ever) that you get that kind of attention, let alone from someone so young, 34 years old, it turned 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 next few months we developed a warm friendship: walking her French bulldog puppy, grabbing ice cream around the corner. Although he was in love with her – a high-powered lawyer, she had given up a career as a concert violinist – he had little hope that anything romantic would happen, until one night it did.
She invited me to a movie night, and we had chosen, of all others, to see “The Dead”, the film based on a story of “Dubliners” by James Joyce. But barely past the opening credits before – and I still don’t know how that happened – we were in each other’s arms on the couch. She says I initiated the first passionate kiss. I say he did, but that would be like unraveling the Big Bang. No matter how far back in time we go, there’s no telling what really happened in that first nanosecond of implosion.
And while I’m someone who has in the past been chastised for her inability to say the magic words “I love you,” it wasn’t more than a week or two before I had uttered them, and once out, I was able to t shut up. The floodgates had opened, and decades of denial were thrown aside almost as easily as my shirts (which, I discovered, younger men don’t wear as much as us older men).
As for the younger boys, who pursued her persistently, they might have gummies in their pockets instead of Eliquis, and they might have been ready for anything—polyamory, skydiving, Burning Man—but they weren’t ready for the commitment and the devotion, which are my strengths.
What he also had that they could never offer was the Appeal of the Impossible. Given our age difference, Emily could jump into our adventure without having to think about any serious future plans. She didn’t have to worry about where things were going (nowhere, to be blunt) because she planned to return to New York at the end of her lease, to begin her search for a viable husband in earnest. And I understood it.
Or I thought so. The head accepts what the heart ignores. I knew intellectually she was right, but my heart ignored me, weaving elaborate fantasies that even included a mythical daughter named Veronica, a precocious girl who played the violin like her mother. For a divorced man who never had or wanted children, I was suddenly struck by the alarm of a biological clock I didn’t even know I had. But was I being given one last chance?
There were times when I thought it was, times when even Emily seemed willing to entertain that fantasy. “I love you,” he told me many times, and I’m flattered that he meant it. I even proposed on New Year’s Day in the morning. But Emily, laughing, answered, “Then where is the ring?”
It could be? Luckily, I it had a ring – one my ex-wife had lost – was 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 real, before the tears welled up in her eyes.
“You know I can’t,” he mumbled.
And because of that, I didn’t know either. I loved this woman with all my heart and as a result, quite possibly the first time for me, I only wanted the best for her, and this was not the best. not me This was a selfless feeling he had often heard of – concern for another person’s well-being above your own – and he still wasn’t sure what to make of it; I felt a lot like Humphrey Bogart, sacrificing Ingrid Bergman, in the parting scene of “Casablanca.” For all the airy fantasies, Emily obviously needed someone much younger, someone to raise this family with. Her tiger mother had in fact already chosen an age-appropriate Hong Kong banker.
“I know you can’t,” I said, before adding, “and let’s face it, if your mom found out about us, she’d hire a yakuza to put a bullet in the back of my head.”
Emily, wiping away her tears, said, “No, I wouldn’t.”
“She’s too cheap for that. And anyway, she’d want to shoot you herself.”
His mother can rest easy. The last time I saw Emily, she was leaving the United Airlines terminal on her way back to New York. I miss her dearly, every day, but as Bogie might have said, we’ll always have Santa Monica.
The author is a novelist who lives (alone) in Santa Monica. His website is: robertmasello.com.
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