Past Compensation

The thrills of finding a new love at 50

I am Penelope. I am the one who waits.

Instead of re-weaving a mourning shroud every night, I pick at my cuticles with fingernails and teeth. Skin peels back, and scabs give way to blood.

In the days of instant access—texting, pinging, GPS, satellites—it is not enough to know he’s on his way. It is not enough, even, to talk through the twenty minutes in traffic it takes for him to arrive at my door. Here I am, standing in the doorway, looking left, looking right, waiting for him.

I want his kiss. I want to fit in the nook of his neck.

I want to hear myself gasp.

• • •

At eighteen, I thought I knew desire. I saw it in Jim Morrison’s leather or Frank-N-Furter’s garters. But that was their need, not mine.

In my twenties, I took control and hid my need for approval by calling it desire. If you love me, we’ll fuck. You’ll see how good I am. So worthy. You’ll stay. Ties on the brass headboard, black lace bras and garters from Victoria’s Secret, candles scented with ylang-ylang and patchouli, Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You” on repeat. Me, always on top.

In my thirties, keeping up became my desire. I wanted what everyone else had: a husband, a home, a dog, a baby. I found someone who made sense—someone newly divorced (road-tested) and earnest. A former estate attorney with blond hair, blue eyes, and an Ivy League education, he was the nice boy suburban mothers want their daughters to bring home.

But nice was not enough, and neither was seduction when nice was still in love with his ex-wife. It took four years for us to face that truth. After we split up, nice was back with his ex-wife and starting a family within a year. I spun out, returned to old habits—drinking too much, blacking out, and moving from bed to bed.

By my mid-forties, I was tired. I eased up on the drinking and stayed home.

• • •

Then, there was a rock show: a reunion for Hazel, one of a handful of bands that best represents my life more than two decades ago, when so many of us arrived in Portland ready to mark our adulthood with favors and friendship, creating access to music, food, and art.

I walked into the bar, got separated from my friends, and there he was.

I knew him; three years ago, we worked at partnering organizations—same meetings, same events, same hallways, where we passed one another quickly but slowly enough for a smile. Good to see you. Always a pleasure. And for me, a rush of warmth. Back then, I couldn’t—or chose not to—identify the location where that heat gathered.

But there in the bar: a surprise, a thrill, a hug.

“How are you?”

“You look good.”

“What’re you doing now?”

“I didn’t know you loved Hazel, too.”

Before the band took the stage, we shared stories, traced the places our paths crossed without knowing—at bars and shows and neighborhoods. Then the music started, and we pushed forward, my friends too far away to join. He stood behind me and sang in my ear; he knew all the songs. The lyrics returned me to my twenties, and we danced and jumped to the music, elated. I felt his hands on my shoulders, enveloping me.

At the end of the show, my friends re-emerged and ushered me away. One of them asked, “Who was that? What was going on there?”

Dumbstruck, dazed, all I could say was, “I don’t know.”

• • •

Less than two years later, a mutual friend died, and a piece from that earlier time in my life threatened to leave, too. My grief isolated me, and I needed connection—someone who would understand. I thought of him, of his hands on my shoulders at the show.

We served on the same panel for a poetry contest a few weeks after our friend’s passing. We arrived at the same time, and I walked right into him.

His arms around me, my head resting on his chest, I released a deep exhale.

• • •

I was on the verge of fifty. And on a first date.

The morning after, on the day of our friend’s memorial, I offered to make eggs (I am Molly Bloom), but he didn’t want them.

I said I’d soon need to leave for work. There was an ease between us as I got ready. He was the first man to spend the night in this bed, and I’ve lived here fourteen years.

It didn’t feel like a one-night stand.

• • •

Now, I am the one who washes: dots, spots, and smears on towels and sheets. But none from slain suitors.

Cum and blood mark time, the nights and mornings he’s been here. I pull back the fitted sheet and see a certain stain grow larger on the memory foam layer, larger on the down cover, larger on the mattress itself. I am overwhelmed by him, and my body’s solution is to bleed.

We joke that my hormones are in shock. All this sex, all this stimulus and pleasure. It has caused a disruption. I share our theory with my doctor, more proud of it than I want her to know, but she says, “It’s not the sex. It’s perimenopause.”

• • •

I am my own “Penelope” chapter.

In high school, my AP English teacher read us an excerpt, her brogue let loose by Joyce’s words. Rhythmic, undulating, the sentences spun. My classmates and I avoided one another’s gaze; were we supposed to be hearing this? Feeling this?

Starting with my first relationship in college, this chapter became my practice. I’d dutifully pull out my Joyce anthology and read parts of it aloud for a new lover, allowing Joyce to set the scene.

Perhaps the gift of aging is being past compensation. Even the most literary of props are no longer desired.

• • •

The blood won’t stop, but it isn’t a deterrent. It just is.

Penelope’s voice becomes my own as I stand and wait, stand and wait, thinking of his tongue, his voice.

And again we reach for each other. Claw, grab, hold tight like teens, as if this is all new. As if we’ve known nothing else. As the stain spreads, our pleasure and contentment deepen. We sleep.

About the Author

Amy Botula

Amy Botula is an advocate and teacher. Her work has been published in The Rumpus and The Manifest-Station, and she is a former columnist for PubliCola. She lives in Portland, Oregon, but holds tight to her Pittsburgh roots.

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