More Than Half a Life
edited: Sunday, June 05, 2011
By Lucille Bellucci
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2008
Become a Fan
Wending my way back into singlehood
MORE THAN HALF A LIFE Three years after Renato died, I review lessons I did not ever think I needed to relearn. We had been together 42 years, had lived in Brazil 15 years, traveled to many cities in many countries, met hundreds of people in his work for an engineering company and mine at the American School of Rio de Janeiro. Our lives had converged in Rome, Italy, where I lived after being exiled from Shanghai, China, with my Italian father and Chinese mother. The first year was spent struggling 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. He dosed me with hormones and monitored my hypertension- and cholesterol-lowering medications. Eventually, I worked to enliven my social life. It was the thing to do, friends said. Of course I knew they were right, even if the effort cost more energy than I was willing to find in myself. Renato and I had been content to keep mostly to ourselves. He encouraged me to see my few women friends and worried that I was not getting out enough. 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 returned to California with Renato vowing never to attend another cocktail party. We were well suited in 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 settled to his beloved math. He was capable of sitting, his head wreathed in cigarette smoke, for half the day over 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. I received my allotment of editorial rejections; in a period of 10 years I acquired four literary agents who failed to perform the miracle of a book sale. Renato took each rejection slip as a personal insult, though he, too, became hardened. We went on fishing trips to Vancouver with another couple. We did more traveling. Then he went away. And here was my doctor assuring that I, a woman who had just qualified for Medicare, would attract men. Why would I need men in the context of companions, strangers with no history in common with me? In a social sense, men were people I met and spoke to and rarely saw again. I joined a writer’s club. A man who attended one of the luncheon meetings sat near me and began a conversation which quickly became 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 even worked on a cruise ship as a host during which various women bid for his services in bed, had written several fascinating articles and was writing 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. I wondered how many years and how many miles had caused this man to become this way. I myself probably had acquired some baggage as I grew up and grew old; if so, did it show as obviously as his did? He asked me to meet him for coffee some time. We exchanged e-mail addresses. Over lunch at the writer’s club 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. I thought, I don’t 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 my quest. I was not sure what my quest was; only that it was supposed to be healthy for me to be more outgoing. This man, Roland, and I met at a coffee shop/restaurant; it was apparent that neither of us was yet willing to give out home addresses. He ordered coffee; I asked for tea and a scoop of ice cream. Roland then 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 prima ballerina one day, that when he was 13 and his father beat his younger brother he put a knife to his father’s neck and told him if he laid a finger on his brother again he would kill him. Roland said he had grown up in Brooklyn, and he told me of a meeting he’d had with a Mafia don. I am not sure what the topic of their discussion was, but it was certainly fraught. Roland said he opened his switchblade and laid it on the table, point turned away from the don. The don pondered this, then reached into his pocket and placed his own knife, a thin-bladed number, on the table, its point turned politely away from Roland. This, Roland said, set the rules by which they would negotiate. His rendition of the don’s hoarse speech was very funny. Well, I thought, at least he can tell a story. 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. Women automatically split the check, but this was new territory for me. I had my billfold out, Roland had his. I’ll leave the tip, I said, and laid a dollar on the table. He did not know it, but I had entered a new era. 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, I’m 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). I told him I owned a rusty 15-year-old Honda. A small act of rebellion, somewhat late. Actually, I’d recently bought a new Honda Civic. In parting, he told me he owned two Great Danes, champions with impressive pedigrees, for which he needed his luxury large model Mercedes. 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. I did not see him again at my branch of the writer’s club. A few months later, at a friend’s home, I met a man who asked if he might call me. Mel had been city planner of a major city, spoke French, and had sailed around the world in a boat with a companion. 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 next week it was in the huge community dining room of his apartment building. A bulletin board announced it was “Cajun” night. We shared our table with five others. The Cajun dinner consisted of rice, beans, a few shrimp, and a slab of cornbread. He’d said he had rented a film, and suggested we watch it in his apartment. I agreed to go, but said, You’d 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 (“They don’t write or phone”), his class picture at college. I held my breath against the odors emanating from his open closet. He said, Let’s make love. Love? Who was this man? We had hardly exchanged six words at dinner. 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. A mature woman requires a prolonged courtship. At least I would. I couldn’t 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 didn’t know I was sending mixed signals. It was a truth that nudged my insight. At all social events, my husband’s presence had given me immunity from the consequences of my behavior. Now I had to make another adjustment. Mel’s 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. That is a man’s viewpoint, I replied. I hope it makes you feel better about being turned down. He did drive me home. It had been naïve of me to think I’d laid down the law, then to go up to his apartment. The message is clear; it is all about sex, and always will be about sex. I could see that my hopes of friendship before sex—if not companionship- -were foolishly unrealistic. I am lonely, but would rather stay home and read a good book. Two of my women friends say the same thing. Renato’s brother urges from Italy that I should remarry, for in his opinion two can face life easier than one, as if suitable mates lie around like pebbles to be picked up. At the moment, I see a new husband as a complication rather than a partner to face life with me. I have had as friend for a year a man who lives in another state. He is 12 years younger than I, and more mannerly about his sexual 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 know what is important and what is not. I surmount easily, with a push and a quip, my 77-year-old neighbor’s furtive embraces because I am deeply fond of 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. Recently I hired a yardman to prune trees. He asked why I wasn’t at work and I told him I was retired. Was my husband also retired? I told him my husband was dead. Do you have any sons? No, I said, and suddenly realizing he was being too inquisitive, I thought to add, inventing, that I had a nephew who was a policeman and who visited me every day. I felt uneasy; he kept touching my hand or shoulder. As he said, I’ll be here Thursday, he lunged at me. I stopped him with a stiff arm and walked quickly into the house and shut the door. He came on Thursday. I did not make an appearance or open a window or door while he worked. When he finished he left his bill in my mailbox. I’m still learning, and I’m handling things, I guess. # Addendum: Recently I returned from a trip to a casino in Reno, whence I had an encounter with a Frenchman. Within a half hour of meeting him I found myself grappling with his octopus embrace in the cocktail lounge. Did I slap him? Of course not. That would have been taking him seriously; instead, hilarity overcame me. He delivered this deathless line in French: "Life is for living; when you are dead, all is finished!" I’ve learned the drill by now: I am not living life to the fullest, and I am living only half that life without sex. Skeptic that I am, I believed that these two tenets were meant to benefit him, not me. I asked if he liked to read, and he replied he didn't read at all. He said if he didn't take the 5:30 p.m. express bus back to San Francisco we could have a beautiful night together. I told him, “Take the bus. Do take the bus." When he excused himself for a minute, I made my getaway. I presume he took the bus. # PostAddendum: Women like myself ache for the odd caress, the loving comment, the nearness of our best friend, an arm curled around a neck and a kiss on the husband’s bald pate, the cuddle which to us older women and perhaps older men is more comforting than the intimate act. These are things we remember and yearn for and are unwilling to gamble on a new connection to find again. Perhaps these gestures of love and friendship are what the older man who pursues women is really after, though sex has to be gotten out of the way first. Perhaps he knows no other way to get to that point. # P.PostAddendum: Perhaps, further, a man believes he is not being a man unless he has sex.