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Antidote - Essays

More Than Half a Life
November 15, 2004

Seventy-one going on fifty

by Lucille Bellucci

Three years after Renato's death, I review lessons I did not ever think I needed to relearn. We were together forty-two years. We met in Italy, lived in Brazil fifteen years, traveled to over a dozen cities in seven countries, met hundreds of people in his work for an engineering company, and in mine at the American School of Rio de Janeiro.

During the first year after Renatoís death I struggled to recover my perspective. My doctor told me the time would come when I would look outward, and people, meaning men, would be attracted to me. I did not believe him, nor did the idea appeal; I had yet to spend an hour free of memories of the progression of his illness and the moment of his dying. The doctor dosed me with hypertension- and cholesterol-lowering medications.

Eventually, I worked to enliven my social life. It was the thing to do, friends said. They all seemed to worry that I would become a recluse, which in their Text Biteminds was an unhealthy way to live. Renato also had worried that I kept too much to myself. He encouraged me to see my few women friends and insisted that I get out more, without him. I heard him say so in a telephone conversation with his brother. And yet, the way we were living our lives precluded the bustle of socializing. That was behind us in frenetic Rio de Janeiro, where work and social obligations were the same thing. We had returned to California with Renato vowing never to attend another cocktail party.

We were well suited to retirement. Had we had children, they would have been grown. With the quiet I needed, I worked on writing my books and short stories; Renato focused on his beloved math. He was capable of sitting for half the day wrestling with his abstract problems. He frequented antique shows and brought home ivories and rare porcelains and carriage clocks. He found used-book stores and added to our bulging book shelves at home. Occasionally, we went on fishing trips to Vancouver with another couple. We did more traveling.

Then he went away.

And here was my doctor assuring me that I, a woman who had just qualified for Medicare, would attract men. I donít want other men, I thought; itís too soon.

To widen my circle of friends and meet people with kindred interests, I joined a writerís club. A man who attended one of the luncheon meetings sat near me and began a conversation which quickly Text Bitebecame a monologue. Having said I was attractive, he unreeled this litany: He had been a male model, CEO of a large company, had turned down offers for the same position in other companies, had been divorced but remained loved and respected by his children, had made and lost millions of dollars several times, had worked as a host on a cruise ship—during which time various women bid for his services in bed—, had written several fascinating articles, was working on a bestseller and had the best literary agent in the United States.

I mused about this man as he talked. I have never been able to make the calm, pointed remark that would have disposed of harmless boors. I could have said, And who else besides yourself thinks you are Mr. Wonderful? An odd pity had taken me over. He appeared a bit older than I, and I realized that he could not help himself.

Over lunch he remarked that except for us two all the others transferred forks after cutting their food. Oh, I said. Does this make us exclusive? Very much so, he replied. He asked me to meet him for coffee some time. We exchanged e-mail addresses.

I wondered how many years and how many miles had caused this man to become so neurotic. I myself probably had acquired some baggage as I grew up and grew old; if so, did it show as obviously as his did?

I thought, I donít have to meet him for coffee, but when he e-mailed and mentioned a place and an hour, I agreed to go. Perhaps he would improve, once he finished fanning all his tail feathers. If I brushed everyone off after the very first meeting I would never make progress in the quest to open up, meet people and avoid depression—in other words, ďnormalcyĒ per my friendsí standards.

This man, Roland, and I met at a coffee shop—it was apparent that neither of us was yet willing to give out home addresses. Roland started where he had left off: he said he was the best-looking male in his family, that his daughter was going to be a Text Biteprima ballerina one day, that when he was thirteen and his father beat his younger brother he put a knife to his fatherís neck and told him if he laid a finger on his brother again he would kill him. Whenever I attempted to make conversation, Roland turned it back to himself.

An hour passed, and I said it was time for me to go. He asked for the check and I confronted, suavely, I hoped, the matter of who was to pay it. Two women out by themselves would automatically split the check, but this was new territory for me. I had my billfold out, Roland had his. Iíll leave the tip, I said, and laid money on the table. Iím an independent woman now, I thought wryly. Sometimes Renato had paid the check, sometimes I did; the money was ours.

Outside, on the sidewalk, Roland asked, Where is your Mercedes?

Mercedes?

Oh, Iím sure you drive one, he said. A woman of your style naturally would own a Mercedes. I have that model over there, the XYZ911. (I am oblivious to grades of luxury automobiles.) My patience gone, I longed for him to shut up. I told him I owned a rusty fifteen-year-old Honda (although Iíd recently bought a new Civic).

He said he hoped to meet again and would e-mail me. I said only goodbye and walked away. When next he e-mailed me I did not reply. To my great relief, I did not see him again at my branch of the writerís club. He needed a therapist, not a girlfriend to validate his sense of superiority over all things. No doubt, had we proceeded to a second meeting, he would have claimed to be the worldís best lover.

A few months later, at a friendís home, I met a man who asked if he might call me. Mel had been city planner of a major metropolis, spoke French, and had sailed around the world with a woman. He had been retired a couple of years and was divorced. His looks were pleasant. I thought it best to let him know I was very good company but that was all I planned to be. He said that was up to me.

When Mel took me to dinner the following week it was in the huge community dining room of his apartment building. A bulletin board announced it was ďCajunĒ night, ten dollars per person. For a moment, as he appeared to be waiting for change for his twenty dollar bill, I wondered whether I was expected to pay for myself. I pretended to be looking elsewhere.

We sat with five others, all of whom shared the single carafe of wine. The meal consisted of a few shrimp per serving, tomato rice, and a slab of cornbread. From earlier impressions, Mel had given me to understand he was a man of the world; was this a date at all, then? Was he short of money? But he drove a new Buick, and had mentioned a recent trip to France on the Concorde.

Text BiteMel said he had rented a film, and suggested we watch it in his apartment. I agreed to go, but said, Youíd better not jump my bones. He laughed and again said it was up to me.

Once in his apartment, a studio, he began kissing my hand, which I withdrew. I rose from the couch and made a tour of the framed pictures in his tiny place. There was his sailboat, his grown children (ďThey donít write or phoneĒ—in a tone of self-pity), his class picture at college. I held my breath against the odors emanating from his open closet. He seemed oblivious of the smell.

He said, Letís make love.

Love? Who was this man? We had hardly exchanged six words at dinner, and he had certainly not expended much energy courting me. No quantity of female hormones in my body or brain—especially my brain—could have produced an iota of interest in what he wanted to do. I couldnít wait to get home to wash that closet out of my hair.

He said my coquettishness belied my reluctance. That term for my personality was new to me. I didnít know I was sending mixed signals. It was a truth about myself I suddenly understood. At all social events, my husbandís presence had given me immunity from the consequences of my behavior. Now I had to make another adjustment.

Melís final argument was that I was living only half a life without sex. Sex was good, sex was healthy.

I never doubted it was. But I doubted I was living only half a life without it. It had been naÔve of me to think Iíd laid down the law, making it safe to go up to his apartment.

That is a manís viewpoint, I replied. I hope it makes you feel better about being turned down.

Mel made me realize I didnít really want sex, not with him, at any rate. If I were a young woman, the idea of dating leading to sex might have—certainly would have—been a normal pursuit.

Renatoís brother urges from Italy that I should remarry, for in his opinion two can face life easier than one. He says it as if suitable mates lay around like Text Bitepebbles to be picked up. Mario is of the old school and believes a woman without a man in her life is a pitiable object. I cannot begin to explain to him that many single American women manage careers and travel extensively—not that I do the latter now—and are admired for their enterprise. I had, however, begun to comprehend that meeting men was not really important for my well-being. If it didnít suit me, I didnít have to do it. Rather than upset Mario, I keep this to myself.

I have had as friend for a year a man who lives in another state. He is twelve years younger than I, and more mannerly about his interest in me than some men who are older. Whenever he visits, he stays next door with our mutual friends, my neighbors. I prepare Brazilian meals that he deems exotic and it was, in the beginning, entertaining to entertain him. But I have realized that he is boring. There is not much more behind what I have already seen. It is a relief that he lives out of state.

Am I behaving like the princess with never enough mattresses?

I am behaving as I need to behave. I surmount easily, with a push and a quip, my seventy-seven-year-old neighborís furtive embraces. I care for his wife; he comes with the package. Shortly after Renato died, this neighbor grabbed me for the first time, blurting that here I was, (relatively) young and attractive, living alone. I suppose he meant I was being wasted, with no one to put me to use.

Iím still relearning this business of interaction with men, but with a difference, from my youth: the change lies in not encouraging physical pursuit. I am not done yet with taking pains with my appearance and do not look post-menopausal, which I am. That chemical change, plus the libido-suppressing hypertensive drugs I take, result in an honest indifference to sex. At seventy-one, I am often taken for fifty. The odd compliment cannot help but be good for my morale.

I do yearn for the odd caress, the loving comment, the nearness of my best friend, an arm curled around a neck and a kiss on my husbandís bald pate. Perhaps these gestures of love and friendship are the same comforts that the older man is really after, although through habit and nature he begins with the pursuit of sex. How much older before he gives up on the idea? I donít know. Roland and Mel were still only in their sixties. One was a troubled man, the other had forgotten how to court a woman. I am not in the mood to continue to try my luck.

In the years since Renato died, I have learned much about myself. I am more introverted than I am gregarious; this was a trait he was able to indulge in our life together, for he shared it. When called on for vivacious conviviality, I participate as well as anyone else, and enjoy the moment; the minute quiet and solitude descend I feel relief. It is good to get home, my sanctuary where I do as I please and speak not a word. My cats give me sweetness and warmth and yes, even humor, for they often make me laugh with their startlingly human traits. I have my stories and one more novel to write. The quest was an attempt to escape my sorrow. It was inevitable that I would survive it on my own one day.

If a man with all the characteristics I admire should appear on my horizon, I might seek him as a friend. And perhaps he might not care for sex, either! I met a male friend of a woman friend who had been a fighter pilot, was funny and found me funny. I enjoyed the hours the three of us spent together. Furthermore, I learned from her that, owing to health problems, he could no longer have sex. Perfect! But he was her friend, not mine.

There is much to do, if I wish it. Theater with my friends, movies, special events for the writerís club. I have no regrets, having lived my life to the full. I am me, not according to anyone elseís expectations, but my own. And one day I shall find Renato again. I am at peace.

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