Spring 2019, Volume 26

Nonfiction by Melanie Chartoff

The Side Trip

I like me so much more on the road.  Curiosity shuts down my cowardice; distaste for discomfort fades as I leave the land of errands and brand names, same old foods and rooms. I  stop my mad dance away from the horrors of the mundane, I backburner my monotony, my meaninglessness. I see the world and me from a different vantage point than from inside my better-late-than-never, sixty-five-year old, first-time-bride life.

“Are you bringing toothpaste?” handsome asks, throwing things together last minute, while I’ve voted on each of my items for weeks.

“Yes.” I remove the redundant jumbo tube from his pile.

I see him differently, too, when we travel. Having arranged our trip—airlines, hotels, dinners—he feels heroic. This will lead to medicinally assisted, hot hotel sex, as we break in foreign beds like dangerous strangers strewing clothes around the room. I look forward to waking up not knowing where we are, who he is, who I am, what the hell happened to my underpants.

I’ll thrill at his manhandling of my luggage, his computing of exchange rates, his negotiating at markets, his chatting up the cabbies, his tact with the tour guides. He gets teenaged. He doubles my exaltation at the monuments that dwarf us, the natural wonders that exhilarate us, the cuisines that amaze us, the pantomimed conversations that tickle foreign hearts with humors just like ours.

I snap out of my reverie. We’ve made it to the airport in ample time, we’re passing through Lufthansa check–in, pleased with our compact packing, our sleek wheeling luggage, our lightweight coats. And as he bends over to put a tag on his bag, I see it.

My face has a hot flash, forced into a new point of view. I’ve not seen him at this angle before, or at least lately.  Maybe it’s just an illusion born of gravity and the forelock at the crown of his head.

For a moment, I think I’m looking at the wrong man, but, no, that’s the sweater I gave him for his birthday hugging his neck. I stare in shock. I feel the urge to cry out, to run away. I can’t let on, it might shake his confidence. This must stay a secret between me and me. I’ll take a deep breath, get grounded.  I will look again to verify.

My husband has a bald spot.

A patch of pink scalp at the top of his head, where a shock of two–tone gray explodes energetically out of his scalp, where it divides in all directions, running lustily for the sides of his head, is widening. Being inches shorter than he is, rarely higher up than he is, it’s the first evidence of his aging I’ve registered. It looks shy, naked, new. I shrink, shake inside myself and look away. It’s not the spot per se that makes me want to run and hide. It’s not that he’s any less adorable.  It’s what it signifies.  The map has changed. A gorge has emerged with this new life sized landmark.  No WAZE, no Siri will show us any way around it. Google has not charted this locale yet.

I didn’t factor in this development, that things that finally felt so fixed in my life could erupt in flux, that things that seemed under control inside the security of our sweetness could get so swiftly unsettled.  This is how it starts.  I’m tensing up in resistance.

I’ve seen aging in myself, certainly. I’ve lost an inch in height. The skins of my thighs, that used to be taut, are not. My face, which used to be my calling card, is a falling card.  Certain signs of decay no longer go away with a good night’s sleep, acupuncture, exercise, or the care of my savior hairdresser. Certain evidence is irreversible.  We are growing older.

Sure, I continue to cling to my image in my home bathroom mirror in which I’m lit in a flattering way. But, in fluorescent lit mirrors, in others’ selfies, in car windows, or the cruelest of distortions in my car’s side mirror, I’ve caught a glimpse of myself and gotten disoriented. Who is this aging person? This crone in progress? This once confident woman who feels young and supple and sure–footed and fast witted looks a lot like my ninety–year–old mother.

Then, with urgency, I reconfigure how harsh my judgments can be, factoring in bad lighting, and that no one sees me as skewed as I do. “You’re too hard on yourself!” they would say, and I’d be calmed. I stop home periodically, not just for supplies, but to see myself in that flattering mirror, to reassure myself that I still exist as I imagine myself. This delusion gives me faith to face my days.

I focus on the affections of my husband to confirm I’m not as bad as all that, knowing I’ll have to face the truth one day, but, please, not yet. I’m not ready. No matter how much inner work I do, how much virtue I manifest from inside myself, vain and vapid bitch that I am, I may never be ready. I’ll be readier for death before I’m ready to look other than I did in my heyday when men said “hey!”

Wait. Maybe he’s already absorbed my many signs of erosion and is protecting me in the glow of his unconditional eyes as I now plan to shield him in my white lies of love.  But we always see the light in each other so it’s not really deceit. It’s virtual surgery. It’s a reconstructive visioning.  We believe what we re–see. That’s what love does.

He straightens up and smiles, gravity restored to his hair and head, and all returns to normal. Whew. And as we trudge along, I overly adore the back of him. I admire the socks I bought him as we de–shoe for the TSA. I enjoy my public pat down as he watches—it’s erotic. It’s probably the closest thing I’ll ever get to lesbianism and he’ll get to a three–way beyond buying light bulbs.

Seated cozily in coach, I take hold of the hand that looks so sexy in that wedding ring with which I bound him to me, and we buckle each other in.  Mmm.  Bondage. I thrill at the miracle of flight from my window seat, in which I can watch the exact moment that the velocity of this monstrosity makes it lift off, wheels retract, and we are somehow airborne and Peter Pan powerful.

Five hours in, wined, dined, movied, we doze. I tuck him in and pull a blanket over my eyes. At home, my husband and I sleep with a hut of pillows pulled over our faces. Ostensibly, it’s to block out the light and sound of our tweeting yard birds and phone alerts come dawn.  But, for me, it’s also to hide my slackened countenance. I’m bemused when he’s revealed by an accident of tossing or turning, as he is now, open-mouthed, snoring gently by my side.

I sneak an extended peek, and, without the animation of his huge presence, his face is funny, flaccid, his body like a marionette without a puppeteer, drooping on a hook, strings dangling, lifeless.  But I give him a little kiss and, like magic, he reanimates with a grin that wipes away decades and restores him to his habitual handsomeness. I’m not sure he’s ever caught me in decomposing repose, or if he has, he’s never let out a peep about it. I still get up first and comb my hair, balm my lips, freshen my breath and get back into the sanctuary of our Egyptian cotton planet for morning kisses,

This is the deal. Marrying in our sixties, we signed up for it all. We looked in each other’s eyes, evaluated the attraction, the humor, the future, the extras, a few liabilities and so what’s, and knew this person was well worth the risk.

Since we met late in life, all the milestones of most married that might have taken place over many decades will be all squashed together into maybe two decades, tops. When we married, childfree me became an instant stepmom to his two incredible kids in their twenties who will soon make me a step grandmother.  I stalk my step daughter’s womb like a madwoman searching for signs.  I went to college graduations in our first year, and sang at my stepdaughter’s wedding soon after. I got a bonus three brothers, two with wives and more amazing kids, and all their concomitant milestones jam our holidays with happy family events.

But, all too soon, he and I will get old together, infirm together, and, if we are lucky, die together at the exact same second, which would save our heirs a lot of aggravation sorting through our stuff, the double dose of sorrow notwithstanding. We already have adjoining compartments for our ashes in an oaken box in hopes of simultaneous death, as compensation for our lack of simultaneous orgasms at this stage.

Or if fate plays it the hardest, most probable way for him and me, one of us will nurse and bury the other. One of us will grieve alone as the other abandons us and scorches the earth as s/he goes. One of us will be left keening, wrenched in half, relentlessly seeking comfort, when none will exist outside the other’s arms.

            There was no choice for me but to love him, so there is no escape. I never dated a guy this old before, this one only five years younger than me, partly to avoid awareness of the inevitability of my own mortality, but also because I never found any older or younger ones this boyish and joyous. I fell in love with this one for real.  I remind myself, that on a sane and sober day, I found forever in this face. I knew I’d want to look at him every day, even when angry. Of all the men in the world, I married only this one. I knew that the agonizing grief would be worth it. I knew that as the loop of our lives narrowed by age and loss of our near and dears, that sharing the center of it with him was the best fate I could imagine.

We’ve landed in the Czech Republic and pulled our ribbon festooned bags from the merry go round of blank black ones, already excited by foreign accents saying Excuse me. He bends over to get out his jacket, and I see it again. It is very real. Embarrassed, I look away. I’d almost forgotten it amidst our anticipation. I look again and linger, determined to get adjusted to it and what it means.

            Funny how the aging trip, with its sudden adventures into unknowns for which one only plans in generalities, with its new language which only medical professionals will translate for us, with the adaptations that will be demanded of us as time flies by, is so much less welcome than the other surprises I so treasure when we journey to new places. Where the hell is my embrace of spontaneity, my openness to growth, to coping with the unknowns along the way? Missing in action at this moment.

Could his hair maybe grow back? Maybe it just dried funny and tomorrow it will be fine. Maybe he scratched at it like a cat at a flea, and this is temporary. Maybe there’s a pill I can slip in his food to make it stop. I strenuously search for justification for denial. But, wait. Could hair loss be happening to me, too? No. I have a fleet of intimate workers with whom I consult expensively, who can negotiate work–arounds on my hair, at least for a little while longer.

I wouldn’t want him to work-around. I hate work–arounds on men—comb overs, plugs like a bristle brush, toupées, dye jobs—perish the thought. I like my man au naturel, courageously facing the unknown. He is my brave explorer. I know he will carry this emblem with grace.

On the spot, I fall deeply in love with the bald spot atop him and adopt it.  It’s a whole new thing about him to cherish.  It will be my new pet, a hidden child I didn’t know existed. It’s young, vulnerable, innocent and pink, like an infant’s derriere. Dear little spot.

He straightens up, hoisting his bag, and begins one of his world–illuminating grins, surprised to see me gazing so tenderly at him, tears cresting in my eyes.

“What is it?” he asks.

“Nothing,” I say. “I love you.”

“I love you, too” he says. “Here we go!”









BIO: Melanie Chartoff is an actor who hails from New Haven, lived in New York City, and now resides in Los Angeles.