At the end of my day, I was ready to hear his voice, and try to be sensible about my reactions. After all, as Kimsky had pointed out, he had eyeballs in his head; he undoubtedly knew I was older than he was. Age had not been an issue with him, and maybe it didn't have to be one with me. But I wasn't sure.
"Augusta, how are you feeling?" He asked that night, when I answered the phone. In only his five words, my baser self was considering taking Kimsky's advice, and seducing him, regardless of age. If he later objected to an older woman, too bad, too late, I'd have already had the satisfaction. But it seemed dishonest to me. Echoes of the 'hearts of half-tamed jackals' line whispered in my ear.
"I'm fine, honestly. At least physically. Mentally or emotionally, a little shaky."(I am like the wind that cannot be caught...)
Silence for a second. "As in us?"
My stomach wrenched. Be honest, I told myself, as honest as you can. "Yes. I'm feeling a major spook coming on, Valentine, I'm so sorry. I need to back off and think for a while." Something was tearing in the vicinity of my lungs, and it really, really hurt. (Pururavas, go home again!)
"Oh. Did I do something that scared you, or say something insulting, or what?" His voice was perplexed, with the overtones of shock and hurt and anger echoing around it. God, no wonder. I'd been so close to making him part of me, and he had to know that, and now I was throwing up a barbed wire fence, and he knew that, too, without knowing why.
"No, Valentine. I'm just thinking that an exclusive relationship isn't a good idea for us just now. I need time. Maybe more time than is acceptable to you." If he slams the book shut on this romance and turns his back, it will hurt, but I'll get over it, I thought.
"You want to keep seeing that bald guy with the bow ties. Is that what this is about?"
"Radigan? I surely think not! No, this is about me and my fade into the forest issues, nothing more than that." I took another big swallow of the glass of wine I'd had handy, knowing the phone would ring.
"Why don't I believe that? Augusta, does this mean I never get to see you again?"
"No, I would hope that -- if I can't -- if it doesn't work out -- we could still be friends. I'd miss talking to you."
"Well, Doc, let me tell you something. That one hurt a hell of a lot more than getting a roundhouse across the face. Thanks. I'll talk to you when I stop bleeding." Click.
A rush of shame flew over me, like a wave that sweeps up the beach in a wide band. How could I do this to him? How could I not? Pururavas laments, "Oh, my love, with mind so cruel, -- stay, let us talk together ... " I walked to the glass doors and leaned my forehead against them, looking out at the fog shrouding the ocean from view.
I opened the doors and padded out onto the damp patio, where the cherry leaves were already turning yellow and beginning to fall. Listening to the roar of the distant surf, I looked back at my living room and kitchen, the rich colors of the oriental rug, the order and harmony of the furniture, the comforting glow of the low lights. I sipped my wine. A gust of wind blew fog inland, and lifted my hair to make an aura-like mane in my faint reflection in the doors.
I bought this house, I thought. I furnished this house, I keep a good job in order to keep this house, and I do a damned good job at keeping the good job. So I fell for a handsome street musician and then had second thoughts. So what? What does that change about the essential Me, except to teach me a sharp lesson about checking driver's licenses? (Inanely, a vision whipped through my head, of me requesting ID and asking, "Are you old enough for sex?")
If I decided that I wasn't ready to boink the violinist, why should I feel guilty? Why was he hurt and angry? Hell, I know plenty of psychology for that one -- it was because he was primed and ready to boink the anthropology professor, and whoops, maybe it wasn't going to happen. He was out the price of a pair of nice gloves. Gods damn it.
All I had done was back the bedding down to a "well, maybe" status. A breathing space and time for reflection wasn't a friggin' crime. Good old grief with its tinkertoy components again. Sadness, disbelief, bargaining, anger, acceptance. I suppose that pretty soon I'll start looking in the mirror and wondering if plastic surgery would help, I thought, but in the meantime, Anger was straightening my shoulders, and I planned on hanging on to it as long as possible. I finished my wine and contemplated throwing the glass as hard as I could in the direction of the sound of the waves. I hefted the glass in my hand, and then felt a sad snicker play around my face. With the luck I had been having, if I threw it, I'd probably knock a late night jogger off the cliffs.
The phone was ringing when I returned indoors, but I chose to ignore it, and turned off the ringer. Screw you, I thought. We never talked about "love" at all. If being friends isn't enough, find a damn whore.
And I remembered Urvashi's piquant explanation for leaving Pururavas: "...I dwelt in disguise in the land of mortals...and now I have had quite enough!..."
Urvashi, you and me both.
When the phone rang Sunday morning, I answered it. "Do you hate me? Have you forgotten who I am? When can I talk to you again?" Valentine's voice chanted in a kind of sing-song. Trying to be funny and diffuse the tension, wasn't he? I have to admit, he's good, I thought, my heart doing a flip. He must have been practicing. "No. No. Soon," I answered him, and then kept silent. I could feel myself sliding, utterly losing the resolve to end this, praying for the crumbs of continued friendship, wishing with all my heart that he and I could openly and acceptingly become lovers.
"But you're not going to tell me when, is that it?" he said edgily.
"Would you be interested in going for a walk?" I asked.
"Sure. When, Augusta?"
"As soon as you can get here, I suppose. The fog is far out to sea and the Baycrest Trail is fantastic today."
There was a moment's hesitation, and then he said, "Okay. I'll be there in a few minutes."
What do you think, I asked my reflection in the mirror as I checked my mascara, is this going to be some kind of progress or a fight?
Would you settle for seduction of a stiffie on a Sunday afternoon? the reflection asked.
No, I told the horny old girl in the mirror, quit it. Don't even think that.
The reflection looked me in the eyes. You're still hoping for some Happy Ever After. Don't you think that you should settle for what pleasure you can get instead?
I'm Augusta Renoir, I told her. I don't settle for anything.
In sneakers, blue jeans, t-shirt, and an out-of-shape sweat jacket, Valentine did look youthful, like a hungry college student. He had circles under his eyes again. Last week I would have reached up to touch his moustache and play with his curly hair by way of saying hello, and would have watched with gratification the rise of sexual hunger in his eyes. Today I waited for him on the front porch, in my own Reeboks, jeans, and baggy sweatshirt, sitting on the wall like a cougar watching joggers. I had sunglasses on so that he could not see my soul. As he got out of his car parked in my driveway, I padded down the steps to greet him.
He put on his own sunglasses, and then we could anonymously take stock of one another. He stretched his arms out to the sides and said, "Look, Doc, no blood."
"Thank you," I told him. "I'm sure I felt that one hit home." I walked past him to the sidewalk of Baycrest Drive. He followed me and the expression of his mouth told me nearly as much as his eyes would have. Neither one of us seemed to have any smiles in our repertoires that morning, and our arms didn't even bump together as we walked. What was I supposed to say here? My stomach was beginning to knot up with anxiety, and I couldn't imagine why I had thought talking to him was a good idea. Last week we would have been looking at the seabirds in the sun and holding hands, easy with each other's company. Today all I could see was my feet and the concrete in front of them; there was an eighteen-year gulf between us like a chasm. One wrong move, one wrong sentence, and I would suddenly fall, hearing the words too old how old too old echoing after me.
When he found out that I was so much older than he was, he would try to be open-minded, try to pretend it didn't matter, at least for the afternoon. His speech would be tinged with fakery as he strove to reassure me that forty-four and twenty-six were not problematic, and I realized I couldn't bear to hear those overtones in his voice. Better to back this fiasco off to a cooler relationship first; if we managed to stay friends, just friends, I reasoned, his finding out my age later on wouldn't be an issue. So forget trying to say too old so old too old and just focus on a little backpedaling on the passions. "What," I asked him, "is wrong with me not wanting to rush into an intimate relationship?"
We marched together to the local trail head, and turned onto the wide gravel path along the cliffs. "Did I say there was something wrong?" Valentine countered, talking in the direction of the seagulls sailing overhead. "Seems to me I wasn't the one who bagged Sunday and then turned into Ms. Icy Snow Queen Monday."
I pressed my lips together to keep from letting any hurt little sound escape and considered what he had said. "That's true. I cannot see you as the Snow Queen, not even on a Monday."
"It's not funny, Augusta!" he nearly shouted. "God damn it, I don't understand what happened. One minute we were happy and I was buying you a pair of gloves, and then all of a sudden, you're upset to the point of feeling sick without giving me a single clue as to why!"
Too old that old too old receded before "we were happy." We were happy, weren't we? Together we were happy, separate we were not. The sadness and anger in his voice was not directed at me, but was rather an indication of how much he hated us being distant. He cares about me, I thought to myself, not about my age or how tall I am. The fears and prejudice were all in my head, not his. "Clues," I said, about to mislead him, so that he would not know that I was such a fool for ever having worried about this at all. I squared off on the path before him, ready with a half-assed idea of defusing the destructive feelings between us. "Here's a clue. I felt uncomfortable. I'm old fashioned. According to what my mother taught me, accepting an expensive gift from a man is no go unless there's a formalized relationship. No jewelry, no clothing items, no stock certificates -- gloves are okay, but not gloves as expensive as the ones you picked up the tab for."
"Where'd she learn that, from watching Flintstone cartoons?" He picked up a piece of gravel and flung it with all his might over the cliffs into the ocean. "Do you want me to drop to a knee and ask you to marry me right here so that you can feel good about that pair of goddamned gloves?"
"No!" I blurted loudly, appalled, taken by surprise and horror.
We stood there staring at each other behind sunglasses for an eternal thirty seconds or more, both stiff with shock, my face turning beet red with embarrassment, his pale as death.
Words true or not true embedded themselves silently in the air between us.
You would never even consider me as a partner. In fact even the thought of me as husband or lover makes you too sick to stand.
At first you were attracted to me, and I was in love with you. But then you heard/will hear something that made/will make me a loser in your eyes.
If you proposed to me, you'd find out I'm old, and then you'd ditch me faster than a moldy dish of leftovers and I would die from sorrow.
I could hear the panic in your voice. I inspire panic and loathing, not love.
I put my hand over my mouth, far too late to catch that one ill-toned word. "That wasn't meant to sound so ... emphatic."
His shoulders sagged, and he looked at his fingernails for a few seconds, using that as an exercise in movement, perhaps to see if he still was alive. "That's okay, Augusta." His voice was cramped with pain. "Listen, I'm the one who's feeling pretty sick this week. I'm going to head for home."
"Valentine, please ... I'm sorry," I entreated lamely, following him a few steps. What else could I say that could mend the rip in our hearts? Valentine, come back, propose to me and I'll say yes? Except that's not what today was supposed to be for, not what this walk was supposed to be for, not what any vision of the future was going to be for. He kept walking, sunken in on himself.
It was fully dark before my selfish, clumsy brain registered that he had given up a perfect sunny day of playing the violin for passers-by to be with me. Knowing how important that was to him -- brought home to me how important I had been to him.
I did the stupidest thing I could do in that situation: I got in my car and drove to his apartment.
I rapped lightly on his apartment door with my knuckles. His voice said, "Yeah, who is it?"
"Go away. Leave me alone." The light that shone a stripe under the door went out.
Reasoning is not going to work, I judged. With my fist, I hit the door three times.
No answer. Three more times I pounded the door. A neighboring apartment door opened and a pudgy man with an ugly roll of hair over his ears and the face of a carp barked, "Hey! Knock it off!" Still no response from Valentine. I swallowed, took a breath, and thumped the door as hard as I could. The pudgy fishfaced man stuck his head out and shouted, "You want me to call the fuckin' cops?"
Valentine opened the door, reached out and took my arm and pulled me through the doorway, shutting the door behind me. His apartment was pitch dark, not a single light. "Why are you here?" his voice grated.
"To try to repair the wreck I made of everything this afternoon," I half-whispered.
His voice was low and tense. "I don't think you can."
"I have to tell you ... that I care about you ..." my voice shook because I had begun to tremble uncontrollably. "Valentine, I care about you so much -- that I'm terrified of the feelings -- of how strong they are, of what they're doing to me..."
He moved from leaning against the deadbolt to facing me, my back to the door. I started to step back, but the door was right there. He put his hands on either side of my head against the door, then slowly leaned forward until his weight rested on his forearms, not touching me, but close enough that I could feel his heat.
"Why are you in the dark?" My voice barely a murmur.
"I don't want you to see what you've done to me," he said.
His silhouette was barely visible before me. I lifted my hand and touched his side, causing him to flinch in reaction, then I slid my hand up his chest, his neck, face, touching the soft cascading curls, face again, my thumb brushing his moustache, reaching for the nape of his neck to pull him down to kiss him as carefully as I could, lingering over the touch of his lips. "Valentine," I whispered, "I didn't understand how much I cared until you walked away and I thought I might never see you again." His nose was still touching mine.
"I guess I had a revelation like that, myself," he said against my cheek. "I can't take much more pain like that, Augusta, I just can't."
There was nothing I could say in reply. I put my forehead against his collarbone, ducking my head, my hands now on his shoulders.
He had a graceful way of moving that I would have described as sinuous, but he wasn't twiny. He brought his arms off the door and around me, and then, running his hands up my back, nestled them into my hair, gently, so gently cradling my head, and kissed me, as Pururavas must have kissed Urvashi in the ages beyond time when they were reunited once more.