Have you ever been at a party where the host comes up with some cutesy questions to kick things off? You know, like, Who would you choose to be shipwrecked on a desert island with? or If you were a dog, what breed would you be? or my personal favorite, If you could turn back the clock, what age would you go back to? I never even had to think about that one. I always said, “I wouldn’t … I love the age I am.”
Well, fuck that. Ask me now.
When you’re twenty or thirty or even forty you can’t imagine being fifty. But all of a sudden there it is, smacking you in the face, and all you can think is, How the hell did that happen? It’s better, as they say, than the alternative. But really …
I thought if I ignored my fiftieth birthday it would go away, but Michael, my significant other, called on his way home from work, bursting my balloon of denial.
“Happy birthday, babe,” he said. “So how does it feel to be fifty?”
“Well, you ought to know,” I said.
“I ought to but it’s too damn long ago. From where I’m sitting, fifty looks like high school.” One of the good things about being with someone older.
“It hardly feels like high school from where I’m sitting,” I said. “Well, actually it doesn’t feel that different, but then I go and do something stupid like look in the mirror.”
“Oh, Libby, you look fine,” Michael said.
“See?” I said. “That’s what I mean. You used to think I looked hot. Now you think I look fine.”
“Bad choice of word,” Michael said. “I still think you’re hot, you know that.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. “Hey,” he said, “why don’t we go to that new sushi restaurant for dinner tonight?”
“We don’t have to go out tonight,” I said, thinking that crawling into bed and pulling the covers over my head would be the preferred alternative. “We’re celebrating at my folks’ tomorrow.”
“I know, but it’s not every day you turn fifty.”
“Thank god,” I said, examining myself in the mirror, face-lifting sagging skin with my free hand.
Michael and I had been together nearly two years. We weren’t married; we didn’t even live together. Some people thought it was an odd arrangement—that if we’d been together for that long we should just get married. But our deal—staying at each other’s houses several times a week—worked for us. It wasn’t just a toothbrush-in-the-bathroom trade-off. We had keys to each other’s houses and clothes in each other’s closets. I had makeup and hair products at his house; he had deodorant and nose-hair trimmers at mine. (You have to love a well-groomed man.) It was perfect for us, and many of my married friends sighed wistfully—actually sighed—when I talked about it. Anyway, Michael and I had a sweet, comfortable relationship, far more peaceful than any I’d been in before, including my two marriages.
I thought we’d spend the evening quietly at home with a nice bottle of Pinot Noir and my favorite Szechuan takeout, but Michael sounded so pleased with his sushi idea that I agreed. It was just dinner out, after all, not a party with big signs reading FIFTY IS THE NEW THIRTY. Because that’s bullshit. It definitely is not.
I finished hemming one of the bridesmaid dresses I was working on for my best friend Sophie’s daughter’s wedding. Four duplicates hung on a rack like a chorus line at the Grand Ole Opry. I was eager to finish and get the purple extravaganzas out of sight. They clashed with the more subdued décor of the workroom, which was bright and crisp, but cozy and snug with soft pale yellow walls and nubby navy blue carpet. A large padded table filled the center space with my sewing machine at the end. One corner of the room was filled with a comfy two-person chair and ottoman and next to them were my desk, computer and some bookshelves. I loved the look of it, but I especially loved what it represented: my independence from the corporate world.
Now, while I waited for Michael to return phone calls and take a shower, I turned on my computer and double-clicked the AOL icon: “Welcome!” it said. “You’ve got mail!” I loved that. It was like winning a little prize, even if the prize was an e-mail from my mother.
Happy birthday, Libby. I can’t believe you’re 50! It makes me feel so old.
Tell me about it, I thought.
I’m making some of your favorite things for dinner tomorrow. Come over about 6.
By the way, I saw this article and thought you might be interested.
She’d attached a link: Retirement Planning for the Single Woman. Jeez, AARP was already sending their damn magazine, wasn’t that enough? Did I need this from my mother, too?
My mother couldn’t grasp why I’d quit my job as a graphic designer and gone into business for myself. She never appreciated what I had done, how hard I’d worked at getting the word out: going to networking events, sending mailings to large apartment buildings in high-end neighborhoods, creating eBlasts. I suppose she worried my clients would dry up and I’d end up living in a cardboard box under an expressway. Or worse, at their house. But here I was, six years later, and business was thriving. I had a nice client list that helped me keep my hairstylist in business, stocked my cupboards with smoked oysters and good wine, and paid for vacations where I could drink foamy concoctions with tiny parasols and bendy straws. I was even putting money into a retirement fund, which I guess I needed to tell her.
I answered e-mails, checked an eBay auction, looked at some fashion sites and then just browsed, checking out the AOL welcome box with news briefs and weather forecasts and “Best Cities to Retire In.” God, retirement was everywhere.
At the top of the page was a hyperlink for a website called SearchForSchoolmates.com and a picture of a girl who could have graduated in my high school class. She wore a dark turtleneck sweater with a locket on a small gold chain, and her long straight hair was parted down the middle. It was vintage seventies, exactly like my own senior picture. I smiled, thinking of my high school days of crowded halls, slamming lockers, the green shorts and white shirts we had to wear for gym class, and Mr. Pendergast, my French teacher, who I was sure would propose as soon as I had that diploma in hand. Me and every other girl in the class.
Of course I had to check out the website.
First I selected my state, then city, then high school and the year I graduated, and finally I entered my name, Elizabeth Carson. And voilà! Up came a list of 104 alumni from my graduating class. I laughed, looking at the familiar names: Mary Blevins, Susan Caldwell, Danny Schultz. I could picture Danny’s blond hair and dazzling smile. Was he still cute, I wondered, or was he sporting a comb-over and forty extra pounds?
Page two was more of the same. Vague memories swam through my brain, of walking the locker-lined halls and sitting in classes passing notes to my friends. And homecoming and prom and the gymnastics competition. It had been thirty-two years since I’d seen any of these kids. The thought that these kids were fifty now was unimaginable.
I was on page three when it hit me. A name that made me sit back in my chair. Patrick Harrison.
Patrick had been my first love. He was the bad boy with leather and long hair—the one my parents didn’t like, the one I thought I couldn’t live without. I could see us walking the tiled halls hand in hand, him dropping me at my classroom and kissing my eager lips before walking off to his own class. My heart would just about beat out of my chest. I thought I’d never survive until the hour passed and I could see him again. I clearly recalled that sweet terror, the heart palpitations, the blush that started at my chest and infused my whole body when I saw him walking toward me.
“Libby,” Michael called now, “you about ready?”
“Be right there,” I said and saved the SearchForSchoolmates.com website to my Favorite Places.
* * *
Michael seized a piece of sushi with chopsticks and popped it into his mouth.
“Raw fish good,” he said in his best caveman voice.
While we waited for our dessert, Michael told me about his new listings and a high-maintenance client he’d just started working with.
“Honestly, Lib, this guy would ask me to tie his shoelaces if he didn’t wear loafers.” Michael was one of the top real estate agents in the city. “So I show him three places; one’s a short sale, one’s a total gut-job and one’s a straight foreclosure.…”
I admired his dedication, I really did, but he always gave me more details than my attention span had room for. So now I nodded and smiled and thought about Patrick Harrison, wondering what he was doing now. I couldn’t imagine him as an attorney or an accountant. Definitely not a real-estate agent. I could see him as a forest ranger or maybe something in the nonprofit sector. Or maybe he was a fifty-year-old bike messenger pouring himself into spandex and still wearing a ponytail.
I knew I was going to send him an e-mail. But what would I say? Hi, remember me? Remember when we slept together on New Year’s Eve when we were seventeen?
I was in the middle of doing the depressing math on that one when the waitress brought two tulip-shaped glass dishes, each containing a perfect scoop of green-tea ice cream. Mine had a sparkler twinkling in the middle.
“Happy birthday,” she and Michael said in unison. I braced myself for them to break into an off-key rendition of the song and let out a relieved breath when they didn’t. I pulled out the sparkler and we both dug in, remarking how yummy it was—how cold and creamy. Then Michael put down his spoon, reached into his pocket and placed a small velvet box in front of me. I blinked.
“Open it,” he said, pushing it closer.
I stared. I had a bad feeling. It was surely a ring but hopefully it was a cocktail ring or even a mood ring. Trepidation swirled around my throat.
The waitress and two busboys stood watching from a respectful distance, grinning like kids with a new Game Boy. “Go on,” Michael said.
What could I do? Refuse? So while everyone watched I gingerly lifted the little lid. There, like a searchlight, sat an enormous diamond ring. My mouth fell open. The waitress clapped her hands together.
“Will you marry me, Libby?”
Marry him? Really? I studied his face hoping he was kidding, but he watched me eagerly.
What was he thinking? Fifty percent of all marriages fail. Not to mention one hundred percent of mine. “My god, Michael, it’s huge,” I said. What I wanted to say was, What the fuck, Michael? If you wanted to get married, couldn’t we have talked about it privately instead of turning it into a spectacle? “How could I wear this? It’s bigger than my fist,” I said. He laughed. “You shouldn’t have bought this. I’m too old for an engagement ring.”
And I don’t want to marry you.
“You’re never too old for diamonds,” he said.
Well, of course I knew that, but still.…
I noticed then that the only sound in the restaurant was the faint clanking of dishes from the kitchen; I looked around to find five or six tables of patrons watching me. A plump, gray-haired woman in a flower-print blouse smiled encouragingly. A small blond girl with a pink feather in her hair sat on her knees, arms crossed on the back of the chair. It was like a stage play, and Michael was enjoying his role as the romantic male lead. What was I supposed to do now? How could I say anything other than yes with all these people watching?
“Put it on,” he said. I hesitated. “Go ahead.” I took it out of the box. I made a show of it being too heavy to lift and Michael and our little audience laughed. When I slid it on my finger his eyes sparkled and he leaned forward.
“Well?” he said. “Will you?”
I held up my hand and made another show of being blinded by the glitter. When in doubt, play to the crowd. I was just stalling, of course, trying to think what to do. Trying to think of how to kill Michael in front of all these witnesses. I had a quick vision of taking off the ring, putting it safely in Michael’s hand, then running like hell out of the restaurant and maybe going into witness protection. But I took the coward’s way out.
“How could I not want to marry a man who would buy a ring like this?” I said. Not a yes, I reasoned. An answer I could explain away later when I told him what I really meant was no.
The waitress let out a little squeak and there was a smattering of applause.
“Did you pay these people?” I asked.
Michael’s smile illuminated his face like a sunrise. He came around to my side of the table and put his arms around me, pulled me close. “I love you, Libby,” he said and kissed me.
I kissed him back and waited for the tingle—the blush, the thrill I’d felt with Patrick Harrison so many years ago. It didn’t come. What I felt instead was like a solid mass of cement sitting on my chest.
“You’ve made me a very happy man,” Michael said, his eyes crinkling with pleasure. “We’ll have a great life together.” He laughed. “Well, we already do, but somehow it feels different now. Don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I said. “It definitely feels different.”
Copyright © 2012 by Samantha Hoffman