I HAVE THE PROPERTY to myself this summer, my tenants in the front apartment having gone out of state for two months. Behind hedges and high fences, I can putter around the garden in skimpy clothes.
There is a pleasure in being unseen; clothes and the body have no currency when no one’s watching. It prolongs that rare moment of incredulity when you look in the mirror and realize it’s not you, not even close. In solitude, unbusy and content, the mind looks in upon itself.
It is satisfying to clear the gutters, hefting the ladder along every few feet. To snip flowers for my altars. Offering fragrant flowers to the Buddha purifies negative karmic imprints, they say. Rosebuds, Peruvian lilies, and Queen Anne’s lace. I’m amazed this vibrancy will grow for me. Sweet peas sown in October, roses straining for sun. The yard is too shaded now that the trees have leafed out. Yet the flowers, bouquet after bouquet, are pristine. Their opulence, their scent startle me.
As I open the faucet, the sun-warmed hose rises into my hand, pulsing with the urgency of flesh. Desire sidles up and flanks me like bailiffs.
While trimming the hedge, I blow the power out with a frayed extension cord. The house was built in the forties, and the wiring is probably faulty. I fiddle with the fuse box for an hour before I call an electrician.
Jamaal is young, black, and gorgeous. Baggy clothes hang on his lithe body. “People think if you put in a fuse with more amps, you’ll draw more power. It doesn’t work that way,” he says gently. I check him out while he explains the currents and channels. I pretend to understand.
He sits down on the couch to write up the bill, but he’s not writing. He hints that he’s hungry and thirsty, “running on fumes,” but I’m too distracted to offer him anything.
“Electrician’s a good job,” I tell him.
My praise makes him honest. He was in juvenile hall for just one day, he says, then continuation school, where he sat in the front because he had a crush on the teacher. He’s twenty-eight and likes older women. “Me and my buddy, we saw this older woman jogging,” he says. “She must have been in her sixties. She was hot.”
He looks at me, waiting. “Ask me anything,” he says. When I hesitate, he repeats: “Anything.”
I ask: Are you married? Would you like an older woman in your life? He answers: No, and yes. Now he’s sitting on the edge of the couch, expansive and glowing.
“Shall I come sit with you?” I ask him.
It’s an aging woman’s dream to reach for his chest and feel him turn, his lips immeasurably full, the kisses light. He kisses my nose and puts my hand where he likes.
“You better keep your pants on,” I hear myself whispering. He nods, the obedient student. I pull his shirt loose and kiss his beautiful belly. “Hog Palace” is tattooed across it. It would be “Hog Palace.” His nipples are chocolate brown; he arches and sighs when I touch them.
PIANO IS ANOTHER private pleasure — the zest of arpeggios; the hand muscles’ slow, steady strengthening. It usually keeps me out of trouble. I’ve been playing three hours most days since I got the new Yamaha. “Each note for you,” I promise the Buddha statue who overlooks the keyboard.
I mark my place in the Hanon exercise book with a postcard of a Rodin sculpture: Le Secret. The fused marble hands hearten me. Accomplishment is possible. The arpeggios in octaves have lost their awkwardness; harmonic- and melodic-minor scales both delight and repel. Though I’ve mastered them, I fear the fast, four-octave major scales. I use a trick of thought: I listen to the metronome tick instead of following the rush of fingers, each register a new complication.
THERE’S AN ARTICLE in the paper about day laborers being solicited for sex, and not just by gay men: “One worker smiled when he remembered the woman who’d said she needed gardening done,” the article says. “ ‘An older woman asked me to come to her house to plant flowers,’ he said. ‘It was a lie. She wanted me for the other thing.’ ”
Maybe she’d been unmoored for years, needed to run aground on someone’s body. I admire her moxie: she went, chose, took, and paid.
She’d drive home lightheaded, knowing it wouldn’t last. Maybe she’d stop for milk, pause in the grocery aisle, cloaked in grim glee. She’d always had to take care of herself; she knew how to do that. But there’s the wail of dissatisfaction welling and twisting in her gut. At home she thinks of his thick forearms, his odor still on her. He’d enjoyed it some; the light had been dim enough.
I’ve seen these women, standing before the deli case in the evenings, crumpled by the day’s weight, trying to make a life out of chores and errands. They have no appetite for what is offered.
My skin is not yet crepe, but a gorgeous young man on the edge of his seat is an anomaly in my life and short-lived. Neglecting to mate is like forgetting to push back your cuticles when they’re soft from the bath. You know the consequences you’ll face. The causes and conditions just never come together: lemon-butter cuticle cream, a person whose life could configure to yours. You try it later when the skin has cooled and set. Now there are ragged scraps of flesh across your fingertips.
I’m not young, but I still don’t want some old codger banging away at me. Take Gabe. We taught together in Monterey years ago. He’s an OK guy. Tall, Jewish, sweet, and smart enough, a jazz musician. He plays bass with a standards band called the Fogeys. I’d never thought of him as a sexual being, so I’m surprised when I run into him at the mall, and he’s suddenly all over me.
We’re chatting about the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, and then about how Gabe’s son just got arrested with a pound of pot. So Gabe is dealing with bail, lawyers, and Pennsylvania’s three-strikes law. I tell him how my father refused to bail me out the one time I was in jail. “Daddy didn’t want anything to do with someone with a ‘criminal mind.’ ”
Gabe and I have never spoken intimately of our lives, and I’m wondering if I’ve committed some irreparable etiquette blunder. Boundaries have shifted; there’s an awkward pause. Suddenly he is standing way too close. “Men never grow up,” he tells me confidentially. “All they think about is sex.” I wonder whether he means me to be reassured, charmed, or aroused.
I’ve forgotten how blithely men will ignore social conventions when they wish to speak of sex, but I manage to respond appropriately. “Dry-hearted sex just makes me sad,” I say.
“It’s fun,” he protests. “It’s what keeps you young.”
Gabe is fifty-eight, two years older than I. Married three times, he’s been celibate since his divorce six years ago. If it’s so much fun, I wonder, why hasn’t he been doing it?
One night he comes over after a gig. He tells me he can’t stay long because his teenage daughter is home alone. Then he launches into some tedious story.
“Maybe we should kiss instead,” I interrupt him, “if you can’t stay long.”
“We could try a kiss,” he says uncertainly.
It’s only a canoodle, though he does get a little carried away, shirt half untucked, tie askew. He has to wear a tie for the Fogeys. Somehow I end up naked (my clothes always come off easily), but I’m unmoved. He’s too skinny, there’s no chemistry, I don’t like the loose skin on his chest. We chat for a while, and I send him home with a basket of cherries from my tree. He’s way more enthusiastic about the cherries than about me. He’s a vegan. Once, an attractive man in a bookstore was trying to talk to me, but I wouldn’t because his sweat shirt said, “vegan.”
GABE TELEPHONES the day before he leaves for a month in Costa Rica. “Gabie here,” he says, laughing. I can hear the enormous neediness, the vulnerability in his joking tone. I know he wants to come by for more kisses (he’s “in the neighborhood,” he says), but I don’t invite him. Two weeks later he sends an e-mail. His most personal words: “See you soon.” I write back: “Let’s just be friends.”
The following month, I see him in the natural-foods store. He’s enthusiastic about the vegan lasagna. “Tastes just like real lasagna!” I help him find the right acidophilus tablets because he’s forgotten his glasses and can’t read the labels. He stands too close, his stale breath washing over me like a rogue wave. I’ve just taken a shower, my hair still wet. I feel besmirched.
The Buddhist antidote for desire is to meditate on ugliness, the body as a sac of foul fluids. The insight comes easily.
THERE WERE a couple of decades when, if I wanted great, custom-made, no-strings-attached, safe sex, I could always go see Peter. He lives just blocks away, and even now would have me back five minutes ago. A big, bad biker with nothing to say, he was all about poker, pot, and TV. I was one of very few women he’d had in his lifetime. He was mostly known for tuning up cars. He even did all the bodywork on my Honda when I smashed it up.
Peter rode his motorcycle a hundred miles an hour, but he could never tell me he wanted me, even when he was so hot he was practically prancing. Intimacy does let you take your lover’s pulse, and when I was with him, I began to wonder if he was even alive. I refuse to sleep with the dead.
It was convenient sex, but it fell apart when I came upon him watching dinosaur cartoons. It embarrassed me to be sleeping with a man who watched children’s television.
Peter had always been kind to me, but when I told him I couldn’t do it anymore, his face darkened. We were sitting in the office of his motorcycle-repair shop. “Take a month off,” he bargained. When he realized that I wasn’t negotiating, he gave a sneer that shouted, You’ll be back, cunt! You need it. You can’t resist. How thin the veneer of civility.
NOT TO BRAG, but I’m a great catch for an old guy. Nice enough body, and the years of yoga have toned my breasts. My hair its original red, I like to wear it long, loose, and shaggy to indicate I’ve dropped out of the professional working world. I’m disciplined, mindful. Owning this house is a huge asset. I’m even a fully trained hospice worker, if he should take a mind to die.
The sex in itself should be a draw. Once, I asked a lover if he was overwhelmed by my sexuality. He said no, that he felt “graced” by it, which I thought was a pretty way to put it.
So if I’m to put up with some old codger, he should at least love me. I like sprouted, whole-grain toast with hot milk poured over it, but milquetoast in a man is not good. I tried to talk myself into Gabe. He’d have been easy and convenient, a hedge against the winter darkness. But when I’m with him, I feel about as winsome as my compost pile at its most fetid.
DARK-SKINNED MEN have always liked me. Maybe pale skin and red hair are exotic to them. Jamaal is standing up now. I guess praise didn’t make him completely honest: he’s “95 percent committed” to a girlfriend. I don’t want another woman’s man in my bed. I have made vows against adultery and have lots of sexual-misconduct karma to purify. I’d rather not reincarnate in the “Hog Palace.”
He’s leaving fully aroused and more than a little cranky. As he follows me out, his hands still sorting through my hair, I catch a glimpse of us in the full-length mirror on the door. It’s hard not to melt back into his arms for a few minutes of oblivion. I feel exquisitely desirable. I want to pour myself over this beautiful boy that the holy beings have tossed to me like a ball of light.
But I don’t. I won’t have his cheating heart pressed against my own.
I’m pleased. I thought such restraint was beyond me. I’m also disappointed and relieved. His virility would have been too much for my menopausal energies, I tell myself. I shop. I buy an abundance of pretty underthings, though there’s no one else I want to show them to. I imagine opening his pants a dozen times a day.
SPRING WAS SO LATE this year, I got disoriented and planted too much squash, crookneck and zucchini of every stripe. I pick bucketfuls when they’re small and tender and leave them at the curb for neighbors or passersby. I like to think of the tender yellow squash sliced and cooked, its seeds glistening in someone else’s kitchen.
I’m mindful to keep aside a zucchini of a certain size, a little curved. I decide not to feel ashamed of this coconut-oiled self-service. I like to use a mirror. It makes me wonder what a man sees and feels. Pleasure is beside the point. I need the inner calm that comes when the throbbing has ceased.
I hate feeling so lustful. Men notice my energy from a hundred yards away, and it scares me. Robina, my spiritual advisor, talks me down: “The attachment isn’t you, doesn’t define you.” I wish I had the ability to refine these rampant energies, attune them to a higher purpose. How coarsely we humans collide, oblivious, inexpert, our language not precise enough to name the processes that shape and change us.
PIANO SUSTAINS ME. I’m grateful I can play real music at all. If Mozart’s thirty-second notes come out clean, I rejoice. These are hours of self-visitation. I learn to lean through Andante amoroso triplets, laze with the grace notes, snatch the staccatos, land forte with restraint. The Prelude passages arise familiar as hearth fire. Bach’s cadences are like healing cheek kisses. It is a tentative moratorium, an opiate as good as sex. But still the hunger, the monumental neediness.
“Watch it like a hawk,” Robina says. “See that it is a lie. Don’t follow it.” Occasionally I glimpse the illusory nature of my mundane attachments. It shakes my core with the same force as desire, and bliss rises softly up my spine.
My body has been dormant, I told Jamaal. “I know,” he said. We were together thirty minutes. I offered myself to him. I awoke.