Relearning 1920 1280 Cynthia Graae

It is well past midnight and Doctor Perfect and I, both widowed septuagenarians, are well past our youth. At the elevator, we stand far apart—his choice. Oh, the loneliness of him. The loneliness of me. We are in for another noli tangere goodbye.

I call him Doctor Perfect because he is flawed, and not by the stoop of his shoulders or the way he hangs around late—my newly acquired tastes, as attractive as his political insights and his phone calls to say he’s thinking of me. The mark against him is his tendency to be remote.

We met on an on-line dating website. His long emails about his family, his wife’s death, and being a child psychiatrist touched me. In person, we recognized pain in each other’s eyes. But at the theater and in my apartment, like tonight, he sits rigid and stares straight ahead, my flight-phobic seatmate on a hijacked plane.

Why isn’t he socialized to hug? These days even my mail carrier throws her arms around me.

“I enjoyed watching the Vice-Presidential debate with you,” I say.

“I haven’t kissed a woman in eight years,” he replies, paralyzing me with surprise.

Eight years? In that time I’ve been widowed, remarried, and widowed again.

Before I recover, he draws me close and kisses me. I caress his cheek. The elevator whisks him away.

The next week, at a magic show, objects vanish and return like Doctor P’s emotions. Words and gestures of amazement fly between us. Walking to my apartment I take his arm. He doesn’t flinch. After dinner we sit beside each other on the sofa. He wants to stream a movie. “Our relationship is progressing rapidly,” he says.

In five weeks we’ve had six dates. “Many people our age proceed more quickly,” I laugh.

“But not with such feeling.”

He means that kiss. “What was it like, kissing a woman after eight years?” I ask.

He kisses me again, letting years slip by.

He is right about the speed of our feelings. How can he kiss like that after a near decade of celibacy? Is it like coming home? Or riding a bicycle—you don’t forget?

“You need to be tested for HIV,” he says.

“I have been tested—,” I say, to show good faith. I don’t want to rush.

He will be tested—anonymously, he says. Our discussion implies agreement. I imagine we both savor the future when we will make love.

But he stuns me into paralysis again. “May I sleep here tonight?” he asks. His eyes are questioning as he waits for my reaction to abate.

“You mean—in my bed?”

“Yes.” He has forgotten the movie and transformed rapidly from fragile to too-in-charge. I should have sent him home. Why does he know about anonymous testing? If he truly has been alone for eight years, wouldn’t doctors cheer him—especially if he expects to be negative?

Truly? Do I suspect other women? Am I worried that his interest in me is primarily physical?

Primarily physical? There’s a vestigial fear for a woman of seventy-two. Doubt is poison masquerading as good judgment. I won’t give in to it.

I imagine lying beside him. “With our clothes off?” I ask. He couldn’t mean that. Undressed we would shatter our silent promise of soon-not-yet.


His eyes reassure my doubt.

In my bedroom, against the odds of an hour before, we remove our clothes.

“You have the body of a twenty-one-year old,” he says.

My body is fine for its age, maybe even sixty, but not twenty-one. How can I trust him?

No, I argue with myself. He doesn’t deserve my doubt.

In the morning I am radiant with trust.

He goes home, reserved again. Distance is his nature—I know he won’t contact me for a while. But my glow lasts all day—we’re growing closer.

In two days he emails. I haven’t minded the wait. I open his email eagerly.

This time my paralysis is filled with dread. He has unexpected feelings. “I need to step back. I’ll be in touch,” he writes.

I don’t fight doubt. Maybe our conversations bore him. Maybe his flattery masked revulsion—my body is old, unattractive. Maybe his chivalry demands dropping me slowly. Maybe he has a girlfriend or lied about his wife. “Bye-bye, creep”, I write in an email, to send later, not now. I’m curious about his next move.

Sooner than I expect, he writes. He wants to talk about his feelings. Would I join him Sunday at the Natural History Museum butterfly exhibit? Trepidation floats through his message, but not deceit.

I’m glad Sunday is far away and that he’s chosen a public place. Will the museum be too crowded for conversation? I ask.

He also wants to walk in Central Park.

On Sunday we wander through butterflies until a loudspeaker announces that the museum is closing. A hurricane named Sandy is coming.

The streets are deserted. It’s too cold for Central Park. We find an open restaurant, where we discuss politics and the exhibit. Not the conversation we’re aiming for, although perhaps butterflies are close. I’d forgotten his charm. I don’t notice our meal.

“It boils down to this,” he says at last. “It was too early. We need to get to know each other.” He describes a bout of what-am-I-getting-myself-into angst. I want to probe, but the hurricane closes the restaurant.

Talking has exhausted him. His shoulders sag with fatigue, but he accompanies me through stormy streets to the subway turnstile. I go down to the platform, where I’m alone.

Five minutes become fifteen.

A loudspeaker announces that service is canceled indefinitely. I live miles away.

Doctor Perfect waits at the turnstile. “I was about to search for you,” he says.

Outside, rain and wind whip detritus around like the battered feelings we don’t discuss. Doctor Perfect two-finger whistles—that boldness and chivalry again. A speeding taxi, closed windows, driver focused straight ahead, brakes and U-turns.

He hugs me lightly and helps me into the waiting cab. Doctor Perfect, I think, I will see you again. I cannot repair the damage death wrought when it tore through your life, nor can you repair death’s assault of emptiness through mine. You calm my doubts. Your retreats are as gentle as the reach of your heart.

Header photograph © Galduryndari D.

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1 Comment
  • devra c marcus 07/10/2021 at 3:14 pm

    Dear Cynthia,
    I liked your story very much. It was tender, insightful, wise, and open. I especially liked that you told it in short straight-forward sentences.
    Your friend ,

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