Fear and Loving in Seattle

Gray shorts with an elastic waistband. Stylish enough, tossed casually on the bed. I glare at them intently, wondering if the added stretch indicates a new West Coast comfort trend for men, or something far more sobering.

“Is this what it has come to…already?” I ask myself, dismayed.

I have anticipated a moment like this for the past six years, since I just said yes and jumped into bed — and life — with my improbable best friend.

Our relationship was anything but conventional. He is twenty-five years older than me. We met because I was friendly-stalking someone else. He had been recently widowed following twenty years of marriage, and I was moving in three months from Seattle to San Francisco. But we couldn’t help ourselves. Our time together was easy. It was fun. What more did we need to know?

I was wise enough — or maybe scared enough — to limit our relationship to a platonic friendship. Everyone has heard horror stories of friends who become lovers with calamitous consequences and I didn’t want to take that chance. But that didn’t keep me from falling in love with him. He was warm, thoughtful, creative and intelligent, and he could make me laugh harder than anyone. But I was moving and he was mourning.

Over the next year, we exchanged a volume of emails. We sent mail and packages and homemade mix CDs (this was pre-Spotify) between our respective cities. We visited one another several times, always maintaining a polite physical distance but falling deeper in love, nonetheless. We had the makings of a perfect union, if I could just get past one stinking thought: “Sex with an old dude. Weird?”

He wasn’t that old, really, just fifty-five at the time. But that was at least ten years older than anyone I’d ever been with. And what is worse, I really loved him. It mattered. What if it ruined our friendship?

My next action seemed sensible enough at the time. I found an older guy — I never got his age — and had sex with him once. It was not weird; it was good. So, I reasoned that sex with the man I loved would be at least that good. Green light.

When I saw my man over the holidays that year and allowed things to take their natural course, we fell right into bed. It was idyllic. And seemed so obvious now; we were perfect together. We were officially a couple. But he lived here and I lived there. And he was still twenty-five — that’s TWO-FIVE — years older than me.

Geographical distance was easily surmountable. The age difference, not so much. There would be no negotiating with that, no rewinding, no going back. He would never be younger than fifty-five. While sex now was great, how long would that last? What if he couldn’t…what if things stopped working? When did that usually happen? The next thirty or forty years of my life flashed before me and I imagined every dismal possibility, each one terminating in the same scene: his incapacity and dependence, my obligation and paralyzed sex life.

Before I could just be happy at having found my truest love, I had to consider these things. What, exactly, was I committing to?

Another question was children. He said he was open to considering it. I said it was not negotiable: I was going to have kids, one way or another.

That New Year’s Day we sat at his kitchen table in Seattle, hammering out the details of our uncertain future as a couple. I was due to fly home to San Francisco the following afternoon and thought that we better find some answers to these uncertainties before I left. As if we could resolve these issues once and for all right then and there, sipping our coffee at the kitchen table.

To be all in, I needed detailed contingency plans. What if he decided he really didn’t want children? What if he stopped wanting sex? What if he developed erectile dysfunction? I told myself I was just being pragmatic. But in truth, I was scared.

This has been my default setting for my whole life: what if, what if, what if. When I was a kid, every night at bedtime I would ask my mom “what if” questions for as long as she would tolerate them. “What if I have a nightmare?” “What if there’s a fire?” “What if a bearded man wearing glasses and a flannel shirt comes flying through my window with an axe in his hands?”

Never mind that I had a cozy bed in a secure home with loving parents. Scary stuff lurked beyond the covers.

Never mind that I had fallen in love with the most exceptional man I’d ever known, and, he with me. Scary stuff lurked under the covers. Not now, but it might someday.

If my memory serves me, we finished the conversation at the kitchen table that day by agreeing that, if some day when he was eighty and I was fifty-five he could no longer get it up, I might seek relations elsewhere. It’s possible this was our agreement. Or perhaps it’s simply what I tell myself, in case this should happen nineteen years from now. I don’t know how to reconcile it, otherwise.

With our uneasy agreement in place, we proceeded to do every inadvisable thing, barring a shotgun wedding. I went back to San Francisco the following day to quit my job. He broke off a casual relationship at work. One month later, he and I drove the moving truck back to Seattle, where we moved in together immediately. And we were ecstatically happy. Not even a surprise pregnancy could dampen our giddiness. Though his reaction was initially reluctant, he came around within days, perhaps encouraged by the number of people who insisted he would be a brilliant father.

Several months later, seeing him holding our son to his bare chest moments after he was born, it was simply impossible that this man ever considered not having children. He is a natural, and I love him even more for it. A year or so after our second son was born, we decided to get married.

Now I am all in. And when I allow it, I am astounded by our relationship. It is joyful and harmonious. It’s absurdly easy. I suspect this is largely due to his maturity and the number of things that he lets slide. Low blood sugar is my excuse but I can be a bit surly, I admit.

And I must also admit that sometimes, perhaps frequently, it is not low blood sugar causing my ill temper. It is fear. In all likelihood, one day my husband will be too old for me. We lovers will become cohabitants. Our mutual care for one another will gradually — or perhaps suddenly — become a caregiving relationship. I imagine it could exhaust me. How will I care for my beloved when I don’t have the same quality of his love and friendship to fill me up after a challenging day? How will my love for him change when he is my challenge, if this should come to pass?

I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but this fear often drives me. When I notice a change in his body, I’m on alert level five. A new freckle appears. “Maybe you should get that checked,” I suggest, suspicious. If he seems a little stiff one morning, “Are you taking your glucosamine?” My nagging is as much about keeping him in good health as it is about defending myself against the certain uncertainty of our future.

The truth is, this life of ours is all a big what if. Of course it does me no good to fret over these things, which may never come to pass. I have lived long enough to have had the experience of fearing one thing, only to have something far more dire occur. For example, when I was first pregnant, I worried about everything, from stretch marks to not having enough milk to feed my son. As it turns out, his umbilical cord was knotted. He was stillborn at thirty-six weeks.

For many couples, losing a child is the death knell for their relationship. I am grateful to say that we only grew closer as a result of our loss. We are happier now together than I ever was on my own. Our living son is healthy and vibrant and, if I’m being brazenly honest, he is rather exceptional. Until I gave in and said yes, I could only imagine this was possible. Now my life is exceeding my wildest dreams.

And yet a simple pair of shorts tossed on the bed sends a shiver down my spine. Observing these shorts, which were acquired without my knowledge, I note the elastic waistband and can only think of an expanding stomach and arthritic fingers, a body in decline. Alternately, a helpless child who hasn’t yet mastered the fine motor skills required to pull a zipper or fasten a button. I certainly do not picture my elegant mate, whose good looks and charm — when I’m paying attention — still make me swoon.

I pick up the shorts and walk them outside to a neighbor’s garbage can. I look around coolly, pull them from under my sweater, and drop them in.

Perhaps they got lost in the wash.

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