After the Wink
July 1, 2001
After forty, cheating is about visibility
by Carolyn Steele Agosta
t starts out so harmlessly.
I don't really mean anything by it, I'm just in one of those moods. I mean, when you're forty-two years old and have three kids and a husband and responsibilities, who figures on finding excitement, too? Other than bad excitement, like when you have to hit the brakes hard and all your blood vessels get a quick yee-ha.
It's true, I've been noticing men a lot lately. Their arms, in particular. Don't ask me why, but I've become fascinated with men's arms. Forearms, both sleek and furred, with those lines of tendons and the swell of muscle below the elbow that women just don't have. And men's hands, square and capable. I see them everywhere. In restaurants, at gas stations, in the middle of the aisle at the freakin' K-Mart, for God's sake. It's embarrassing to know I'm lusting in Lawn & Garden.
It's not just the young men either, mind you. I've been noticing older men, too. Men in their forties and fifties, men who maybe think no woman is looking at them that way any more. Mostly I like the ones who still have plenty of hair and rugged looking faces, who look like they still get some, you know? Ponytails too, on older men, catch my attention. Here's a guy who thinks young, I figure. I could be wrong. Maybe he's just a guy who hates going to the barber.
Anyway, I'm sitting there at the coffee shop, I'm reading a book by Robin Hemley and it makes me laugh out loud. I look around to see if anyone notices and there's a man smiling at me. He's a good-looking man, sitting there reading a magazine, and it's not just any magazine, not about motorcycles or computers or entertainers, it's the New Yorker. The guy's literate, for crying in the sink.
I give him a little smile. Going back to my reading, I shift in my seat, cross my legs, straighten my back a little. Knockers up, my aunt used to say. I rest my chin on my hand, arching my neck a little. That's body language for 'I'm interested.' Or something like that. A customer near the front makes a huge mess by dropping her coffee, the tray clattering to the floor. I take a quick glance at Mr. Attractive and he's looking at me. So I smile. And then, God help me, I wink.
Now, it's just a little wink, just an acknowledgement that he's there and I'm there and we see the humor of the situation and that, perhaps, we're somehow both a little more in the know than the average joker and already have this little connection - and that's all it is. I swear.
But it's enough.
Because next thing I know, he's picking up his coffee and his New Yorker and he's coming over to me, doing that little raised eyebrow thing to ask if he can join me and I'm nodding, nodding, thinking I don't quite believe this. He asks me about my book and I ask him about his magazine and I mention, modestly, that I'm a writer and he mentions, modestly, that he's a musician, and even though we're really a bookkeeper and a systems analyst, we understand that we're not defined by our paying jobs. I tell him my name and he tells me his and it's one of those names I always admired. He has a little bit of curly black-gray-white hair coming out of the collar of his shirt. His eyes crinkle at the corners and his forearms flex as he leans forward on his elbows to talk to me in low tones that require that I lean forward too. I smile to show my dimples and hope that I don't have coffee breath and we keep talking. About books and music and the theatre. About the way that parking is getting impossible in this town and how traffic is ridiculous. He mentions that he lives near South Park and I mention that I'm over by the University and pretty soon our coffee is cold and it's somehow gotten to be an hour later.
It's really time for me to leave and he walks me to my car, which thank heavens is decently clean, with no McDonald's Happy Meal figures on the front seat. He mentions that he's going to the poetry slam next Friday because his friend is playing flute for some poet and I mention that I've never been to a poetry slam and he says I should try it. So I say maybe I will and I drive away with my hands perspiring on the steering wheel.
I have no complaints about my husband, that has to be understood. He's loving and thoughtful and sexy and he picks up his socks and puts down the toilet seat. But on Friday night I'm at the damn poetry slam, trying to look like I'm enjoying it though really keeping an eye out for Mr. Handsome only I don't see him and feel like a fool and I'm just getting ready to leave (I mean it, I'm only giving it five more minutes) when he walks in. And he winks at me.
The place is crowded and noisy, people are talking to each other and completely ignoring the woman in purple tights and purple hair who is bellowing some ode to spaghetti, and when he takes my elbow and leads me away to a quieter corner, a little thrill runs right up my arm. He asks if I want to get out of there and I nod and suddenly my knees are way too loose and I'm afraid that if I walk they'll bend backwards, the wrong way, which would not be attractive at all.
I manage to pull myself together and we get in our cars and I follow him to a bar, which is quiet and low-lit and has a nice band playing oldies. We talk and dance and his arms go around my waist, which has mainly been used to apron strings and babies' monkey legs and my husband's arms. Which are also nice and hairy and brown and have those good corded muscles. Which I'm trying not to think about just like I'm trying not to mention that both Mr. Gorgeous and I are wearing wedding rings. Because we are, and we're not kidding ourselves that this is anything but an exercise in visibility.
You see, it seems to me that after forty you become invisible. Oh, you're still there and people see you, but they don't really see you. They see this person whose daughter is now an adult and whose mother is now a child and who's supposed to hold everything together. A person who couldn't possibly have desires and doubts and unfulfilled longings. A person who is still, improbably, perhaps imperceptibly, a person.
I sneak a look at Mr. Still-Has-It and I can see that he still loves rock'n'roll and would still look great behind the wheel of a Corvette and still has a bit of anxiety about how he looks to a younger woman. Which I am, to him. So I smile and flirt and he flirts back and it feels good. We dance and I think about how strange it is to be in the arms of someone else, another man, a man who is a bit taller and bulkier than my husband, with a different voice and different lips and different eyes. It feels so weird, and then it feels even weirder when he kisses me, which he does, right there in the middle of the dance floor. I haven't kissed another man on the lips in over twenty years and now his mouth is on mine, and it's different, a different touch and taste and style. More than that, it's real, I'm really here and I'm doing this thing.
I start to shake, start to vibrate like a goddamn tuning fork, until he probably thinks he's such a good kisser that I'm going into orgasm, but actually I'm about three counties away from an orgasm. I'm just shaking with fear because I realize that I'm thinking about a lot more than kissing and that scares the hell out of me.
He laughs a little, softly, in a pleased sort of way, and I blush all the way to my fingernails and we go back to the table. He's looking at me and I think, yes, look at me. I'm not ready to be old, to have all my fun behind me. I want to shimmy when I dance and wiggle when I walk. I want a man to look at me and get a little yee-ha of his own.
Then I begin to think that maybe this is why people cheat in the first place. To have this warm glow that comes from someone else's eyes. To remember who they are and to not be the person that everyone thinks they are and, a little bit, to not be the person they know they are.
I look at him too. I see a man who's just as scared as I am of becoming invisible. Or being seen as past it, on the far side of manhood, as being old. I reach across the table and take his hand (good hands, wide and blunt-fingered, the hands of a man who can fix things). I stroke his wrist, letting my fingers slide up that inner tendon and wonder whether it's his pulse that's thudding so hard under the skin, or mine. I think about all the things I've never done and all the things I'll never be, and I wonder if it's too late.
A rush goes through me, starting with my lips, making them feel warm and full, and I think, damn, what a hell of a time for my first hot flash. But it's not a hot flash. It's the realization that I'm not going to do a thing. Among all those things I wanted to do with my life, this wasn't on the list.
I give Mr. It-Might-Have-Been a quick kiss on the cheek. I'll have daydreams for a while about him, play with thoughts that should send me to confession, and keep the memory of his kiss for those days when I can't jump-start my own desires. I drive home and sit for a moment in the car, looking up at the light in the bedroom window.
You know, sometimes a wink is really just a nervous tic, a sudden twitch of muscles contracted in error by a misguided neuron, an accident of synapses gone awry. The muscles keep twitching until something clicks over and they smooth out, like a skip in an old 45 rpm record, and everything goes back to normal. The way it should be, I guess. The way it is. The way the music plays best.
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