He had arrived at the age where more was no longer necessarily better. More food, more wine, even more sex.
Quality had became more important than quantity. He was distressed. Where once a movie simply had to, well, move, to interest him, he discovered to his dismay that he had become discriminating.
He found himself going out less and less, with more and more disappointment. Less food, less wine, less sex. Less, less, less.
He was torn between the experience of his senses – that understanding and shading had became major sources of pleasure – and the serious concern that that was all an excuse for being forced to desire and consume less. He didn’t want the therapy of acceptance as the means of coping.
He fought until his experience overwhelmed the residues of his past. He mourned the loss of the excitement of first times, of going to restaurants in France and trembling at ordering duck confit, an American at that, of the intense discussion with the waiter, a shrugging guide through a virginal trespass.
Now all the foie gras and truffles later, all the oysters à la neige or with white truffle coulis or with nuanced Japanese herbs, what he most appreciated was when something grabbed him, something new, but it was too rare to depend on; instead he had to take pleasure in subtlety, in tints and hues, in variations of the great but still familiar. He had come to believe that God’s greatest gift was surprise, but that the deity withheld it with age as a way towards accepting the final loss. He was faced, again and again, with either having to redefine the sources of his pleasure, or find displeasure.
Under such circumstances, men are most vulnerable to folly. The alternative was sadness.
Hamilton Knowles drooped on a hard vinyl barstool smoking a short stroke cigar eavesdroping on the conversations of women half his age. Too aware of the situation to be in the moment. He admired the energy with which they pursued their talk, and if they were marching down roads on which he had seen the endings, he still would have been happy to walk beside them, restrain providing answers, and join them in their questions. Except that he had no way to get to their side; any hesitation was fatal to the possibility.
What was he doing here anyway? He’d never liked eating alone, never had the bar pick-up line, even when he wasn’t at the edge of age-induced invisibility, when he was if not fearless as to consequences at least foolish regarding them, which led to the same actions. He got angry with himself. That was one of the few things he could still feel as if it were fresh; in a man’s life the sources of his anger don’t fundamentally change.
The smell of the cigar would linger on his clothes, on his hands, stalk him in the morning. Martha would insist he hang his cashmere jacket up outside the door, and he would. She went to bed before ten now, ensconced in two hundred-count cotton, and if he went around the corner to take down a stogie while she slept, she didn’t care. About what he thought when he sat on a high stool and listened to the energized talk of women half his age about issues long resolved, she didn’t care.
“Good luck,” she’d laugh, with a confidence that offended him.
He was grateful for the space, but wished he wasn’t. He cared. He wanted to give up, because he knew that that was when the best things happened, but it was hard to will oneself into acceptance when you wanted so much. When he couldn’t bring himself to any genuine spot, he stood, nearly knocking the bar stool over.
Bump and a spill – talk, a smile. She wore a short black dress, perfectly outlining her body, riffling constantly, and her dusky blonde hair was longer than the way it was worn by women of his age.
All youth was attractive; there discrimination had abandoned him. Invited to hang with the crowd. Drawn by her throaty and reckless laugh. To a packed bar which served only draft beers and single malts, then to a velvet-roped club where he had to overcome his hesitation, getting in because of her company.
Going to a club heartened him. For dancing had been his means of seduction, he was good at it, the movement, the contact, guiding through twirls, converting light-headedness to sensuality, engendering joy and laughter, good at dancing, better at loving, ready to prove it, not be a wasting asset. On the dance floor he had impact.
But they didn’t seem to dance here, just to form and reform circles and talk. She had her laugh, deep and daring, it seemed she spun as she talked, and he had to shout, and cup his ear to hear what was being said, battling the noise of overly loud beats and the rapidly alternating sharp light and darkness, while she spun to another group, bright and beaming.
All the others were adapting continuously, but he had no interest in more of these kids. She wasn’t toying with him, she just had more hours to play with, each hour less significant because she had so many of them left. Her profligacy strained him. Wanting simply to go back with her, to bed her, knowing that that was where it should end up, chafing to get there.
That’s why we become dirty old men, he realized, it’s impatience with the first two acts, we just want the finale, otherwise act three goes on past our bedtimes.
Need and irritation drove him, his conversation, his gestures, until he lost the rhythm. He remembered the anguish of waiting, hanging on with wan hope, and he’d rather leave then face that again, huddling in a distant corner waiting for a scrap of sex.
God it was awful to be considered less dangerous. It forced you into flamboyant foolishness; the stupid acts of youth are shameful but organic, those of age are as humiliating as they are unnatural.
He waved a distant goodbye through the red felt curtains, hesitating at the ropes because he knew that once he left he would not be allowed to return. On the cracked sidewalk he saw her face when he waved, a light upon it, quizzical, wondering, before it whirled away into his second guess.
He went to bed and composed himself, because he knew in the morning he could not tell his best friend the source of his anger. Martha waved away his breath, then took his arm and cradled her head upon it, and he left it there until it grew numb.
This short story was the cover story for Vol. XIX, 2010, of Downstate Story Magazine. DSM publisher Elaine Hopkins recently was quoted as saying that “No More, No Less” is “good enough to be in The New Yorker.”