MUSED
BellaOnline Literary Review
Stairs by Albert Rollins

Fiction


Release

Janet Amalia Weinberg & Margaret Karmazin

When I turned sixty, I found myself up against a cruel irony. I was in good shape and more confident and relaxed than ever, so sex might have been really hot, but I was too old for anyone to want me. Men may see women my age in many ways but “sexy” is hardly one of them. In fact, most men don’t put “sex” and “old woman” in the same sentence — unless they’re making a joke.

At least that’s what I believed the night I spent trapped in a building with a man who looked like Omar Sharif in “Dr. Zhivago.” It was Thanksgiving. The place was deserted and there was no way out, not even by phone. It could have been a classic set-up for seduction, only he was in his mid 40’s, young enough to be my son.

I run a local newspaper and earlier that day I was at work in my office – it was better than sitting home alone on Thanksgiving. Through the window, I saw Jai from the real estate agency next door, kicking his car in the parking lot. I went out to see what was wrong.

It turns out he had to submit a progress report on a factory being turned into up-scale lofts but had been too busy to write it yet or to even inspect the building, and the report had to be done the next day or he’d lose his job. And now his car wouldn’t start.

“And it’s all my own fault,” he moaned and kicked the car again.

I gave him a ride - all the way to the industrial side of town. I had nothing better to do.

***

Jai had finished inspecting the construction work and we were on the fourth floor about to leave when a roar like an avalanche shook the building. Alarms went off inside me that were almost as loud. I thought the whole place was collapsing. Actually, it was only the elevator door - one of those industrial jobs that rolls up and down - and it had fallen shut by itself.

He gave me a manly, I’ll-handle-it look and pulled at the door. Nothing. He pulled harder, grunted and strained. Still nothing. So I joined him. We must have looked like silent movie characters, the way we carried on, yanking and shaking that door, but neither of us was laughing. It was stuck solid. And it was the only way out. The second elevator and old staircases had been torn down and replacements had yet to be built. Jai tried his cell phone. No signal.

“Damn it!” he said. “We’re trapped.”

I glanced out a grimy window at the empty streets four floors below. It was a ghost town out there; everything was shut for the holiday.

“I’m so sorry to do this to you,” Jai said, as if he’d ruined my life. “And on Thanksgiving of all days; I’ve probably wrecked all your plans.”

I figured he felt bad enough so I admitted I didn’t have any plans.

He went on and on about how sorry he was, till I said, “All right, already. Let’s make the best of it.” That stopped him.

We started exploring. Thank god there was a working toilet. Kitchen appliances weren´t installed yet, but we found a mini-fridge that probably belonged to the workmen. It held half a hoagie, which lifted my mood, and a forest of beer cans, which lifted his. Then Jai discovered a bag of corn chips stashed on a shelf and displayed it with a flourish.

I was starting to think I might enjoy our adventure when he had a relapse of guilt. “Hell of a meal for Thanksgiving,” he said. “I am so sorry I dragged you into this mess.”

Oh well.

The floor was littered with sawdust and construction stuff, but we found a drop-cloth and spread it in a corner. Jai neatly arranged some beer, the hoagie and chips on a short two by four “table,” and the two of us stood there admiring the set-up. As an after-thought, Jai dramatically drew a tootsie roll from his pocket and declared, "Dessert!" Then he bowed and said, "Care to dine, madam?"

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to spending a whole night with his guilt so I was relieved to see he had a fun side.

We did our best to make ourselves comfortable, sitting kitty-corner on the floor. Good thing I was wearing my beat-up old jeans — they were perfect for the occasion. Then we popped our beers and toasted:

“To release!”

It wasn’t an iced martini, but like my outfit, it worked.

Four sips into my beer, Jai was apologizing again for ruining my holiday. “But I had no plans,” I reminded him. Not that I had no invitations but my own family lives too far and I didn’t feel like being the lone guest at someone else’s family dinner.

I asked about his plans. With his looks, I figured Jai would have no trouble finding someone to be with. I was surprised to hear he was only going to his sister’s.

“I managed to get out of dinner,” he said, “but had to promise to come for dessert. Sandy is cool, but her husband, Frank, gets loud and likes to argue. Last year, he went after me about abortion. This year, he’d probably -”

Suddenly, my inner alarms clanged: It wasn’t just a holiday, it was a holiday weekend! “Are we stuck here till Monday?” I asked.

"Hell no," he said. “The workmen will be here tomorrow morning.” The way he rolled his eyes told me what he thought about being stuck with someone who, to him, must seem like an old hag.

It was four P.M.; we had the rest of the day and the night to get through. If I were thirty years younger, he might have been excited, hoping he´d score. I might have been excited too. But I wasn’t thirty years younger.

Which isn’t to say that I no longer get turned on. I’ve have had my share of adventures with men — after all, I was a young woman during the post-Pill, free love era. But when I turned sixty, I didn’t know what to do with my sexuality anymore. Women over sixty aren’t supposed to have any and if they do, they better hide it or risk being seen as ridiculous.

I wondered what he’d do if I came onto him? Laugh? Back off like I’m crazy? I didn’t want to think about it. So why was I thinking about it? I only knew Jai casually - we’d run into each other at work or have coffee sometimes - but every now and then he’d give me a look that burned through all my layers, figurative as well as literal. It made my insides sizzle, but I couldn´t — or wouldn’t - let myself believe he was flirting. His name sounds Indian and he has those dark, liquid eyes that many people from India have; I figured his way of looking at me was just the way people from India look. But I wasn’t sure.

***

The day dimmed and soon the floor-to-ceiling windows turned black. It was as if the world outside had disappeared and our drop-cloth was a haven in an eerie, cavernous space. I heard creaks somewhere in the building and the sudden splatter of rain against the windows.

We had a long night ahead of us as we started eating. I tasted the hoagie - stale American cheese. Delicious.

“Are you Indian?” I asked.

“My father was from India but mother was Scotch-Irish,” he said. “What are you?”

What a question. I could have said I was a grandmother, hiker, bridge player, lapsed Catholic, but that wasn’t what he meant. I told him, “Dad was Russian-Jewish and Mom was Polish, Welsh and Native American. Do I look Russian-Jewish-Polish-Welsh-Native American?”

He considered me. "You look European,” he said. “Or maybe country club-ish, like mother’s tennis club ladies."

Ouch! Like his mother’s tennis club ladies? I forced a smile.

"I didn’t mean you look old or anything.”

Like hell, he didn’t.

"I meant you look well cared for."

Well preserved was what he was trying not to say.

Suddenly his hand came toward me. I thought he was reaching for me, but he was only going for another beer. He offered me one too.

“Thanks. I’m not much of a beer-drinker.”

He lit up like a kid with a secret. “Guess what I’ve got?”

Chocolate? Peanut butter? No. He drew a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black from his briefcase.

“No thanks,” I said, “I´m already buzzed; I´m a cheap date.” I cringed when I said that; now he was going to think I saw myself as his date.

Turned out he was embarrassed too; he didn’t want me thinking he was a lush. “It’s for my sister’s husband,” Jai explained. “He doesn’t argue when he’s drunk, he just gets depressed and sentimental and sings ‘Danny Boy.’"

Liquor makes me mushy too, but the next time Jai offered the bottle, I took it. "Thanks,” I said. “Hope I don’t start crying on your shoulder.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I wished I could take them back.

“Go right ahead,” he said with a wink. “Just don’t sing ‘Danny Boy.’”

Were we flirting? I felt as nervous and confused as a teenager and got up to seek refuge in the john. Once alone, I gave myself a talking to. I could be his mother, I reminded myself. I may look good for my age but to him, I just look old. That put things in perspective and I went back out feeling calmer.

***

It was now after seven. The only light came from the bathroom down the hall and the enveloping dark seemed to draw us closer.

I asked Jai if he was married.

“I’m separated. She left me after thirteen years and took the kids with her,” he said. “It was my own fault ...” He stared at the floor, generating a cloud of misery around him. After a while, he gave me a quick glance and went on. “What happened with my first wife was even worse - horribly worse. I can’t even talk about it.”

Obviously he wanted to talk about it so I asked what happened.

Jai took his time ... had another swig of scotch ... then dropped a bomb on me: “I killed her.”

KILLED HER?! My inner alarm screamed full blast - but only for a moment. I couldn’t believe Jai was a killer. “What really happened?” I asked.

“Sherry got leukemia,” he began, “and when we were both worn out from doctors and hospitals, I surprised her with tickets to Maui. She didn’t want to go. She was afraid ... but I thought it would be good for her, for both of us ... and she gave in and ...”

I waited.

“She was fine for most of the flight. Then all of a sudden she couldn’t breathe and turned blue and ... and then she was dead. Before anybody could do anything for her ... it was horrible.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“They said there was a blood clot in her lungs. Having cancer had something to do with it.” His whole body sagged as if he could not hold it up. “The doctor told us she could fly but ...”

“So it wasn’t your fault,” I said.

“But she took the trip to please me.”

“But you couldn’t have known.”

“But she might still be alive if I hadn’t ...” He clenched his eyes shut. “She was gasping and gasping and there was nothing I could do and ... if only I hadn’t ...”

“It’s almost as if you want to feel guilty,” I said. “And not just about what happened to Sherry.”

Jai squirmed and I thought he was going to be offended. Instead he asked what I meant.

He sounded like he really wanted to know, so I told him. “Like you were so set on blaming yourself for ruining my Thanksgiving, there was no way to convince you that you hadn’t. Mea culpa, mea culpa - I bet it’s the story of your life.”

He didn’t protest, just sat there with his eyes wide with recognition.

“And the story isn’t true,” I went on. “It’s just one way to tell what happened, but to you, it’s the only way.”

Something in Jai seemed to shift. He sat looking into himself for a long time. When he looked back out, he was smiling. “You’re right,” he said. “You can really see me ... maybe more than anyone.”

His gaze caressed my face. Suddenly, he moved closer. I thought he was going to kiss me and held my breath ...

He stopped three inches from my face and recoiled.

What the hell was that? I thought. He must have changed his mind when he saw me up close. Talk about humiliation! I picked myself up - carefully, so as not to surprise my old bones - and headed for sanctuary in the john.

He called after me. “I’m so sorry.”

I was in no mood for more of his guilt. “What?!” I snapped.

Again, he didn’t take offense. “I wasn’t sure you’d want me to,” he said in a scared, little-boy voice.

I plopped back down to digest this. “I thought you didn’t want me,” I said.

“What?” He looked at me like I was crazy.

“I thought you got turned off when you saw how old I looked.” I was surprised I told him. When he asked why I thought that, I confessed an even greater humiliation. “My ex left me ten years ago for a younger woman,” I began. “Since then, I’ve been with a few men; nice but nothing deep. The last one, though, could have been serious. We had fun and didn’t get into those emotional ups and downs that seem unavoidable when you’re young. Even sex was good — for me. I thought it was for him too - until he told me I was too old. It felt like a killer kick to the gut.”

“How old was he?” Jai asked.

“Sixty-ish.”

“At that age, he might have needed to change partners to keep his sexual motor running. If you were ten years younger, he might have had to find a different reason to leave.”

“Maybe," I said, “but that doesn’t make me feel any better. All those times I let myself go with him, he was probably thinking I was an ugly old cow. The thought of it still makes me cringe. Now I figure that’s how most men see me — and older women, in general - if they see us at all.”

Jai grinned and sidled up to me. “That’s a story,” he said.

Something in me woke up. “Huh?!”

“The idea that men see you as old and ugly is a story,” he repeated. “The trouble is, you think it’s true.”

“But it is true,” I insisted.

“As true as my story,” he said.

“What else can I think?” I asked.

He rubbed his chin playfully as if in deep deliberation. “You could think, ‘Some men find me really attractive.’ Wouldn’t that be a better story?” Before I could answer, he gave me one of his layer-penetrating looks and said, “In fact, I find you really attractive.”

Whew! A delicious wave went up my back and it felt just as luscious as it might have in my thirties. “Thanks,” I said, “you’re good for me.”

He came right back with, “And you for me.” He paused, then added, “And we have all night to be good to each other.”

Every cell in my body started humming.

He held my eyes with his and reached out his hand.

In my thirties I might have jumped at his invitation, but at my age I knew enough to consider it. Sure I longed to be touched and loved by a man. And Jai was so good looking. But he was also troubled — and married. I knew where his invitation might lead and didn’t want to go there. Besides, story or not, I still believed he’d be repelled by my old body and didn’t want to go through that again.

He must have felt me pull back because, in a half-coaxing and half-angry way he said, “Don’t you ever let yourself go with the flow?”

“Jai,” I said, “if the flow was taking me to you, I’d be riding it.”

He made an apologetic bow and said, “No pressure.”

Soon after, we said goodnight and stretched out on opposite sides of the drop cloth. I lay there in the deep dark, listening to Jai breathing. I could sense his male smell, his vigorous physical presence and radiating warmth. I considered laying my shoes as a boundary between us but decided to leave the space open - for the flow, in case it came.

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Spring Equinox 2011 Table of Contents