Maybe two weeks into the relationship, Emily said to me, “You know this is just an affair, right? I want to make sure we’re on the same page.”
“I know,” I said. “We might not be on the same paragraph, but we are on the same page.”
She seemed satisfied, even though my paragraph was a lot more passionate already than hers. Not surprising, given that I was significantly older and hadn’t felt anything this intense for decades.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had met in the wild, not online. I was trudging home from the supermarket, and she was standing outside a cheese shop, peering into the window.
“They’ve got the best baguettes in town,” I said as I moved past her in the dusk, thinking that would be that. But she turned and said, “I just moved here. It’s a good place?”
She was wearing a crisp blue mask, but her dark eyes crinkled into an unmistakable smile as she fell into step beside me. “What’s good for takeout dinner around here?”
“The place I’m going next,” I said.
Trust me, it isn’t often (think, never) that I attract this kind of attention, much less from someone so young — 34, it turned out — so beautiful and, in this instance, of Japanese descent. She had fled her tiny New York apartment for an Airbnb in Santa Monica, and over the coming months, we developed a warm friendship: walking her French bulldog puppy, getting ice cream around the corner. Although I was smitten with her — a high-powered attorney, she had forgone a career as a concert violinist — I harbored no hopes of anything romantic occurring, until one night it did.
She invited me over for a movie night, and we had chosen, of all things, to watch “The Dead,” the movie based on a story from James Joyce’s “Dubliners.” But we barely made it past the opening credits before — and I still don’t know how this happened — we were in each other’s arms on the sofa. She claims I initiated that first passionate kiss. I say she did, but it would be like unraveling the Big Bang. No matter how far back in time we go, there is no telling what actually occurred at that very first nanosecond of implosion.
And although I am someone who’s been chastised in the past for his inability to utter the magic words “I love you,” it wasn’t more than a week or two before I had uttered them, and once they were out, I couldn’t shut up. The floodgates had opened, and decades of denial were flung aside almost as readily as my T-shirts (which, I discovered, younger men don’t wear as much as us older guys do).
As for those younger guys, who persistently pursued her, they might have carried gummies in their pockets instead of Eliquis, and they might have been up for anything — polyamory, skydiving, Burning Man — but they were not up for commitment and devotion, which happen to be my strong suits.
What I also had that they could never offer was the Appeal of the Impossible. Given our age discrepancy, Emily could throw herself into our affair without having to think about any serious future plans. She didn’t have to worry about where things were going (nowhere, to be blunt) because she was planning to move back to New York at the end of her lease, to start the search for a viable husband in earnest. And I understood.
Or thought I did. The head accepts what the heart ignores. I knew intellectually that she was right, but my heart paid no attention, weaving elaborate fantasies that even included a mythical daughter named Veronica, a precocious child who played violin like her mother. For a divorced man who never had or wanted children, I was suddenly jarred by the alarm on a biological clock I didn’t even know I owned. But was I being given one last chance?
There were moments when I thought that I was, times when even Emily seemed to be willing to entertain that fantasy. “I do love you,” she told me many times, and I flatter myself that she meant it. I even proposed on the morning of New Year’s Day. But Emily, laughing, countered with, “So where’s the ring?”
Could it be? As luck would have it, I had a ring — one that my ex-wife had missed — nestled in the drawer of the bedside table.
I slipped it onto her finger, and we both studied it there, saying nothing but feeling what it would be like if this were to be real, before the tears welled up in her eyes.
“You know I can’t,” she murmured.
And for that matter, neither, I knew, could I. I loved this woman with all my heart, and as a result, in quite possibly a first for me, I really and truly wanted only the best for her — and that best wasn’t me. This was a selfless sensation I had heard about often — concern for someone else’s welfare above your own — and I still wasn’t sure what to make of it; I felt a lot like Humphrey Bogart, sacrificing Ingrid Bergman, in the parting scene of “Casablanca.” Despite all the airy fantasies, Emily obviously needed someone much younger, someone with whom to raise that family. Her tiger mom, in fact, had already picked out an age-appropriate Hong Kong banker for her.
“I know you can’t,” I said, before adding, “and let’s face it — if your mother ever found out about us, she’d hire a yakuza to put a bullet in the back of my head.”
Brushing back her tears, Emily said, “No, she wouldn’t.”
“She’s much too cheap for that. And anyway, she’d want to shoot you herself.”
Her mother can rest easy. The last time I saw Emily, she was waving goodbye from the United Airlines terminal on her way back to New York. I miss her terribly, every day, but as Bogie might have said, we’ll always have Santa Monica.
The author is a novelist living (alone) in Santa Monica. His website is: robertmasello.com.
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