It struck me rather abruptly one day late in autumn when Michael called to tell me he wouldn’t be coming by as he usually did after work on Fridays because he’d thrown his back out.
“I can come out to your place if you want,” I’d volunteered bravely. It was nearly a two-hour train ride out to his house in the suburbs.
“Thanks, but that’s okay, Kate,” he’d assured me, a trace of his customary good humor shining through his sullenness. “I can’t really do much anyway. Just lie around all day…” he grumbled, in a tone that suggested that he found his infirmity personally insulting.
I knew how he felt. Every year, it seemed, some new aspect of my body threatened to fail. Often I found myself longing for the days when the only effects of aging that I fretted over were my graying hair and wrinkling skin. You don’t worry so much about little things like your appearance when you’re hobbling because some vital body part has stopped working again.
It was unfortunate I’d found him so late, I reflected the following week as I tidied up the tiny studio in which I lived and worked, crammed tight with a queen-sized bed and a king-sized desk and not much else. The apartment of a person who didn’t often entertain visitors; who until recently had expected to spend her middle age alone. A woman who, at forty-five, nonetheless caught herself giggling like a schoolgirl knowing that he would soon be there. Who, anticipating his pending presence, for a multitude of marvelous moments, still felt young.
I smiled. The frenzied desperation of our lovemaking rivaled that of any teenager. We always hurried into it, as if aware that our youth was failing, that soon we might lose either the desire or the ability to make it happen. As if it were the most important thing in the world to get done before we were incapable of doing it anymore.
A rough thumping noise leaked in from the hallway and I leapt clumsily across the room, landing precariously at my doorstep on one trembling foot like an uncoordinated kid on a hopscotch board. Breathlessly I yanked at the door and threw it open as wide as the arms with which I intended to greet him. He entered cautiously, holding his body stiffly upright. I’d been prepared to spring as soon as he knocked, but seeing him still hunched painfully over, I caught myself; patted him gently on the shoulder instead.
“Hmph!” he grunted irritably. “You don’t have to treat me like an old man!”
“Then you should stop acting like one!” I joked, kissing him wetly on the cheek.
“Says Miss, ehhhh! My knee! And ehhhh! My hip!” he retorted pointedly.
That was the noise I made when my joints hurt. I was making it pretty often these days. On bad days I wondered how old people ever even did it. Sometimes walking seemed like too much effort, let alone all the aerobicized contortionism that went with sex.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said sarcastically. “I’ll still never be as old as you, so there!” He had me beat by six months, a fact I delightedly refused to ever let him forget. Playfully I stuck my tongue out at him. He stuck his out back, so I licked it and we both laughed.
“Can I get you a beer?” I offered.
“Oh, god, yes.”
I went into the kitchenette, fetched a bottle from the fridge, and divided it between two glasses, humming some stupid romantic ditty softly to myself and grinning at my own cheerful idiocy. Broken or not, I was happy to see him.
He had sat down on the edge of the bed. I handed him his beer and he took it, downing half of it in one draught. He still seemed to be in pain. I fondled the back of his neck sympathetically, my fingers tingling over the swath of razor-trimmed bristles lining the base of his skull.
“When did you buy the sofa?” he inquired abruptly, taking in the contents of my small apartment with half a glance. I had by undaunted effort and ruthless rearrangement carved out space for a loveseat off in one corner of the main room.
“Someone who was moving out left it behind, so I grabbed it,” I responded, perhaps a little too quickly. It was only partially a lie. I had only paid fifty dollars for it, and the man who was vacating had helped me angle it awkwardly up the stairs.
“And the new bed? Did someone leave that behind, too?” he queried suspiciously, his brow creasing into a multi-layered frown as he sampled the cushiness of our new sleeping arrangement with his one free hand.
“No, I bought that,” I confessed, blanching slightly under his piercing gaze.
“How come?” he demanded, shooting the question at me as if I were a suspect under police interrogation and causing me to glance guiltily away.
“Oh, I just thought it was time we lived like grownups,” I answered vaguely. “The futon was so low to the ground, you know? Made it hard to sit and get dressed.” I’d noticed him having trouble with shoes sometimes. I wasn’t sure if it was due to stiffness in his spine, the effort required to bend around his growing gut, or the combination of both.
“What you mean to say,” he pronounced with an aura of mature dignity, “Is that you thought that after my back’s been out, I might not be able to get up and down off a short bed anymore, isn’t that right?”
“Huh,” I said, extremely impressed by his perceptiveness. I didn’t see any way I was going to win this argument. But I had to think for a second before rejoindering excitedly, “Wait until you see how I fixed the toilet!”
He looked horrified; began struggling to get up. “Kidding! Kidding!” I said, forcing him back down onto the bed with all of the strength it would have required to subdue a newborn kitten.
“You should be nicer to your elders,” he said, wincing.
“I am nice.” I took his glass from his hand and set it on the nightstand, then pushed him gently on the chest while supporting him by the shoulders until he was prone on his back on the bed. I lay down beside him and fondled his arm. It seemed the safest place to touch him.
“Listen, Kate,” he said. “All joking aside, I’m not really sure I’m up to – stuff – today.”
“Then why did you come over?” I kidded.
“Because it’s Friday, of course,” he answered smoothly.
“Just part of the routine, eh?”
“That’s right.” But his eyes twinkled when he said it, and I twinkled to see it.
“You’d better watch it, sweetie,” I teased, poking him playfully in the ribs. “I might start to think you actually like me.”
“I do like you.”
“Well, in case you’re interested, I like you, too,” I answered, nodding my head in affirmation.
“I think so.”
“Well, all right then.”
We smiled shyly at each other. I got up to get us another beer. When I returned he was still lying in the same position, as wretched as a sickly old dog and twice as pitiful.
I set our beers down and snuggled up beside him on the bed, placing my hand softly on his chest.
“It’s getting late... Would you like to just go to sleep now?” I said kindly, realizing with a start that this would be the first time we’d gone to bed together without having sex and that I wasn’t really all that bothered by it.
“I’m sorry... I guess I’m not very good company tonight.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” I reassured him. “Want me to help you undress?”
“I can do it!” he responded, seeming a little disgruntled.
“I know, but it’s all romantic and junk if I do it.”
So he let me help him out of his shoes and shirt and pants, and then I wiggled myself into the lacy pink chemise that delicately covered up my sagging this and drooping that while he scooted awkwardly up into the bed and under the covers. I ducked under the blankets, too, climbed astride him, and drew the comforter over us both. I gazed down at him fondly, this man who was aging as fast as I was and with no greater grace. But there was something appealing about him, too, this new, old, fragile Michael. Perhaps all ages have their own special beauty.
His pelvis was directly underneath mine, and I guess I must have made a telling motion because he said again, “I really don’t think I can . . .”
“I’ll be very gentle,” I promised. “I’ll do all the work. Just tell me if it hurts.”
And so I slid him into me, oh, so very slowly and gently, with no sudden or rapid movements, and then, with just the slightest of motions, I gradually let him out, and at length brought him back in again. This went on for a very long time. At long last, I finally felt him tense up, and finish, without hurting anything, and that pleased me immensely. And as we were lying down to sleep, I said to myself, This is how old people do it. Carefully. And I smiled.
“Careful” is an excerpt from my forthcoming novel My Life with Michael: A Story of Sex and Beer for the Middle-Aged. The piece has been heavily modified to make it self-contained, but the theme is essentially the same as that of my book: how aging changes our view of sex and romance and the people with whom we want to share them.
It’s a cute story, I think; one of my sweeter pieces. This is my favorite line:
“So he let me help him out of his shoes and shirt and pants, and then I wiggled myself into the lacy pink chemise that delicately covered up my sagging this and drooping that while he scooted awkwardly up into the bed and under the covers.”
Paints quite the romantic picture, doesn’t it?
“Careful” was originally published in e-Romance in May 2013.
Copyright © 2013 by Lori Schafer
My Life with Michael is scheduled for release in paperback, eBook, and audiobook on February 6th, 2015. It will be available for Kindle pre-order on November 7th, 2014. For more information, please visit the book's webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.
"Careful" is also available as a FREE eBook; you can find more short story excerpts from My Life with Michael at your favorite eBook retailer.