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Short story: Old love, by Jan Pryor

"Until last night she’d reckoned that old people, really old people like her, don’t have sex": a short story by Jan Pryor.

Lisa looks at John’s body. His swimming togs cover what was once called his nether regions; the rest of him is up for inspection. His eyes are closed to the sun, hers are free to roam. The beach sprawls out from their feet, empty apart from a woman walking her dog at the other end, and their two lanky bodies spread beside each other on towels.

His toenails are milky, curved over the flesh beneath. His ankles are slim, joined to shin bones covered with rippled skin. His thighs are long, the muscles striated like braided rivers. A sag of tummy hangs over the waistband of his togs. He’s not fat; the elasticity has fled from his skin. White hairs form a pale nest on his chest. Lisa imagines them black and lush forty years ago. Lines of flab bunch under his chin, circle his neck. It’s how she remembers her father’s body before he died.

It is almost too painful to scrutinise her own. Lines around her neck, pouches below the sides of her mouth. She can feel her breasts resting downwards under her togs. Gentle bulges orbit her tummy. Her legs stretch out on the sand, pale and roughened.

Now though she’s feeling different about her body. For so long she has ignored it, let it get on with itself, not bothered it with examination. She has not felt a male gaze on it since Geordie died; now she wonders why she didn’t gaze on it herself. It’s as if body and woman had decided to disregard each other.

And it hasn’t mattered. Men, she found, don’t give middle-aged women that look, that flash in the eyes of appreciation, of invitation, of lust. She might as well have worn a sack. Instead she had relaxed her tummy muscles into smocks and loose pants.

She had taken a lover soon after Geordie died. A friend’s husband, whose eyes had signalled his hankering over numerous dinners the four of them had shared. Her eyes had laughed back at him, mocked his interest as she leaned into Geordie. She took him briefly into her bed, her widow’s bed, and accepted their sex as a grain of comfort, a sliver of reassurance that she was still desirable even in her grief.  

When she met Geordie forty five years ago, sex was their daily magnet. Their bodies joined as if there was nothing else in the world that mattered. Back then they gloried in their nakedness, flaunted their tautness, loved the lust in each other. They made love in the sand, in the bath, in front of the fire. Their bodies were glorious. Love was forever, an infinite tunnel with no ending. 

As they started to talk about the future there were other considerations. Did they both want children? Yes. Were they compatible politically? Sort of. Did they have shared interests? Well, yes. They both liked movies, Indian food, thrillers. It was enough. They were both healthy. They both had jobs. They were equals – independent, sexy, friends. They would live forever.

In those crazy years she and Geordie couldn’t keep their hands off each other. They rubbed their legs together under the table, kissed in the kitchen, they made love every night in the first year. 

If you had asked her, she might have said that as your kids grew up you didn’t do it as much. There would come a time when you just didn’t. And Lisa had never thought about her mother and father having sex. Her imagination could not embrace them holding each other in bed, stroking each other in intimate places, doing it.

They didn’t live forever, or at least Geordie didn’t. He came home from work early with a headache. He went to bed. Lisa kept the kids quiet so he could sleep. He didn’t wake up. An aneurism in his brain. Why didn’t Dad wake up from his nap the children asked. The town rallied around, Lisa’s Mum helped with the kids so she could go back to work.

And there’s no forever now. There’s an impassable wall ahead and it’s getting closer. It is wide and red and high, and has “The End” written on it. It has searchlights that shine back toward them. They show a path that is irreducibly finite. She and Geordie had joined up when there was no path. Light and free they had plaited their lives together into a cord that might have guided them through the last stretch, might have given them a rope to hold if they stumbled. 

When Geordie died Lisa had fashioned her own line into the future, thin and strong, that kept her balanced. She has become good at being alone. She has been comfortable taking the path by herself, picking her way toward the wall, leaning on friends and children.   

John had been the skinny boy at school. The girls ignored him and the boys jostled him when they lined up in front of the classroom. In the library Lisa liked to sit near him, to study his face as he read. Once he looked up, caught her eye. His smile lingered behind her eyes for days afterward. 

At university he saw her across the quad, hugged her. You, he said, were the person who seemed to get me at school.

They met in town again a few weeks ago. John’s skinniness has transformed into a gentle elegance; he moves as a man who accepts and likes his body. At dinner as they talked she saw again that smile she’d seen in the school library, in the face of an old man. As amused, as self-deprecating, as beguiling as it had been fifty five years ago.

The warmth of the sand pushes up through her back, pervades her old bones. John is still asleep, his face happy in the sun. As of last night, she and John are lovers. There’s a small throb of astonishment, of happiness in her chest, that last night their bodies had pleasured each other. Slow, gentle pleasure as if they were recalling what to do, discovering it with mutual ease. It was as if their bodies were smiling together, savouring the other’s delight. It was love making that drew on their wisdom, that had little to do with the urgency of the young.

Her children will not want to know.

Until last night she’d reckoned that old people, really old people like her, don’t have sex. Hormones have absconded, bodies are tired. How could anyone be aroused by wrinkled skin and saggy stomachs? Sex, she had thought, was not an issue when oldies considered getting together. Companionship is the key, not love making. 

Now there is the possibility of walking, stumbling, arm in arm with John toward the wall at the end. Last night he had turned on his side and stroked her upper arm, his fingers tracing the lines running from her shoulder to her elbow.

“Tracks of living, Lisa. Your body has the wisdom of a sage.” He was quiet for a moment. Her skin was shimmering under his touch.

“Would you consider – could you imagine – us getting together properly? For the years we have left? Might we get married or something?”

She had turned into his arms, had felt his breath on her shoulder. “Can I have some time to think about that?”  

What if they are going at different speeds? She might fall, bringing him down with her. He might need to be carried if his legs, his brain, fail him. Could she do that? 

Could she be bothered to do that?

She and John are dragging their histories with them. There are children and grandchildren for them both clinging to those histories. They don’t have years to ponder, to be careful, to forge a joint history. What if they trip over each other’s baggage? Maybe she has lived by herself too long to adapt to joined lives. She doesn’t have a lot of time to think about it. The searchlights are merciless; they illuminate the narrowing of the path. Best perhaps to go forward as friends, waving across to each other as they amble along their separate ways. 

And yet … their bodies, their cranky aching frames, had joined and given them joy.  Such joy. Lisa can feel the sun on her stomach, her soft pliant happy flesh. She looks at John’s hand, liver spots like pools of dampened gold, the lines of his face an atlas of his life. She could hold that hand along the path to the red wall, could hold it up and be held up by it. Or she could stay with the familiarity of her safe single line.

She strokes his face. He opens his eyes. His face lights up before he is properly awake. That is love in his eyes.

“Let’s go for a walk along the beach,” she says.

Next week's short story is "Leap", by Whangarei writer Michael Botur.

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