“What’s wrong with your arm?” Ben asked, squinting and pointing at my upper arm.
We were sitting on the couch in his home office talking over our plans for the day. I was somewhat awkwardly arranged over our pit bull, Alexander the Great, with my butt on the edge of the couch and posted up on my hand, which reached over the curled dog to the cushion behind him. Slightly awkward postures that incorporate the dog are the norm in our household: Alex is a heat-seaking missile for attention, and you ignore him at your peril. I’ve never seen a dog so completely obsessed with affection. Gently lay a hand on his head and his face relaxes, his eyes partially closing and rolling back in his head. Stick your cold feet under his warm belly while he curls on the ground and he slumps over on his back, paws aloft, hoping for more. Pull a hand (or foot) away, however, and he’ll do anything to get it back. He’ll nudge his head under your hand, paw at your leg, shove other dogs out of the way, stand in front of you doing every trick he knows, and generally make a complete annoying nuisance of himself until you touch him again. And then he’s instantly calmed — it’s like he’s a heroin addict finally getting his fix. If we want to have an uninterrupted conversation, we’ve learned to just take the easy route and have some body part in contact with the dog at all times. Alex (the Great)’s big square head was resting on my right thigh and wedged up into my liver as I faced my husband on the couch. The dog wheezed gently because his face and throat were squished into my body.
I followed the line of Ben’s scrutiny and looked at my arm, picking it up off the couch cushion as I turned to it and frowned. “Nothing’s wrong with my arm.” I said, and glanced back up quizzically at Ben.
“Oh”, he said while something shifted in his face, softening as if he’d just seen something private or slightly embarrassing that he’d accidentally walked in on and realized he’d misunderstood. “Um. Nothing. The… shadows just made your arm look funny.” He reached over and scratched the dog’s back leg, looking away from me. The dog responded by stretching out his leg and pressing his foot against Ben’s thigh, hoping for more. When I had Alex in the park and people asked me what he was, because he didn’t fit whatever preconceived notion they had about pit bulls, I would answer, “He’s a Large-Headed North American Clown Dog. Purebred. Very rare.” That always shut them up for a minute. He was a typical junk yard pit who had been confiscated by police from the prior owner in the part of California where hobbies like manufacturing meth are popular, and was left in a rural shelter to rot. He charmed the shelter staff into calling a rescue group who took him in and then placed him with us to foster. We hadn’t intended to keep him, but three years later here we were, with him snuggled up between us serving as a kind of warm furry tether while he found a way to touch us both at the same time.
I flexed my arm and watched it while I leaned back over and put my hand back down on the cushion, curious at what Ben had seen. Afternoon light slanted in through the half-drawn blinds in the office, casting alternating shards of brightness and shade across us all. Ah, I see. If I twist my shoulder just a bit, there it is: the skin on my arm puckers and the dimples are set off by the slanting light. That’s what Ben had seen.
My age, 44, billows up between us like a cloud of gas (like a fart maybe: one you laugh at and blame the dog for, though you’re pretty sure it wasn’t the dog). I reposition my arm, suddenly conscious of every sag on my middle-aged body, the thin skin on my neck that gathers just a bit when I try on a choker or my favorite high-necked sweater, the little wrinkles in front of my ears, the way my eyelids droop against my eyelashes when I stand in front of the bathroom mirror blinking in the morning.
My hands aged first, and I was proud of them when I first noticed it, they showed my hard work: rough thick fingers, calloused from working as a professional cook, veiny strong hands scarred from burns and cuts. Now as I look at them I see more, and I’m embarrassed: creeping light brown age spots, knuckles slightly enlarged from arthritis, short ridged brittle nails that are beginning to twist. I stretch out my fingers and feel the joints creak, rotate my wrist and note the white scars from surgeries precipitated by overuse.
Ben watches me, saying nothing, while I watch my hands. I’ve always been worried about what he’ll think when I get old, and now I know that he’s noticed. He’s younger than I — I say 12 years, he says 11 1/2 — and I assumed that distance would become less noticeable as we aged; after all, can you tell the difference between a 64 year old and a 76 year old? Maybe sometimes? When we met, I was 37 and he barely 25: he thought I was 30, I thought he was 30. The biggest difference then seemed to be music: he had never heard of Adam and the Ants (much less Adam Ant) and I couldn’t name a Blink-182 song if my life depended on it. That’s the band with the drummer who has all the tattoos and survived a plane crash, right?
Ben keeps a picture of me from my high school prom on his desk at home. In it, I have gigantic teased bleach blond hair, a deep tan which I now claim was fake so I don’t get lectured about skin cancer but which was really from a tanning bed, braces, and a huge smile, because I thought I looked fan-fucking-tastic. I was 16. Ben loves this photo, and he’s always fascinated by photos of me from before he knew me. I think he likes to imagine what I looked like when I was the same age as him.
Five more years and he’ll be the same age as I was when we met, ten more to my age when we married. I imagine what he’ll look like as he gets older: he’s tall and thin, wiry but muscular. His face will become more angular, his nose more pronounced and his lips thinner. He has broad shoulders and narrow hips, and his legs will get spindly while his chest and stomach soften. I imagine him as an old man at the beach, twiggy legs sticking out of beach shorts covering a small saggy butt, while a disproportionally large torso sticks out the top. He’ll sprout some back hair, which I’ll remove with tweezers, and we’ll need to keep his fair skin covered with high SPF sunblock, which will leave streaks in the places he can’t quite reach. It’s a sad, comical caricature of an old man. I can’t envision the old lady next to him.
I wonder what he sees when he thinks of me? 16, 37, 76? I know right now he’s seeing me for what I am: 44. He looks politely away, embarrassed that the light illuminated the truth.