kin turns reptilian in middle age. Auden-like wrinkles collect around drainpipe elbows. Once-lusted after nooks hang memories out to dry. Eyes conspire separate proof, filmy pox settling over the whole of what’s left to see. Age’s visitation, you now know, is no longer casual. Then, the intellectual matches the physical. Youthful sources offer tidbits you strain to understand, though you know the shortfall is little more than a manifestation of the distance between your age and theirs.
My friend — call her Lillian — writes to say she’s going through “a phase.” She’s seeing many men at once. She’s left her husband. She’s in Brazil. I’m working harder than she ever would, she says. “These days it’s all easy money and luxurious travel.” Why? I ask her. “Because it comes naturally,” she replies. “I’m really a snake in the grass,” she says. “And I’m still young.”
Fair enough. She’s in the smooth before of things, as we all are only once. “Sweet bird of youth,” my mother would mutter from time to time, acknowledging Tennessee Williams’ sense of the ephemeral.
I didn’t listen to her then, since the restless young assume the reptilian form belongs to an alien species from which they’ll always keep their distance.
Lillian is 28, not an alien in sight. And Brazil seems to suit her.
There’s also Ophelia, another women in my incidental passion play, part of a chorus line of loose legs that kick up occasionally, at my invitation or theirs. Ophelia is a self-styled “sugar baby,” who tries casting spells on men who like being spellbound, and can pay for her hydraulics. She’s also a wonderful writer, and a cynic.
I write to her, doffing my cap (a lost expression) to an online profile that includes references to Steinbeck and Steinways, skimmed milk and Sausalito. “My intellect and eye candy for your tacit appreciation,” she coaxes, peddling her brand, which is the self’s newest and most vital adjunct.
It’s a clever piece of the fanciful in a venue that doesn’t contain much of it. It’s worth appreciating, which I do, once called flattery, a preamble to nothing certain but always necessary. Swiftly, I receive a terse reply that suits the times. “I prefer financial appreciation.”
There’s a casual hardness even in the flighty, perhaps because so much text and so many images are in constant flight, most destined for one look before deletion. There’s a brawl lurking in the frustrated heart of loose communication that pays little heed to where punches might land, and that heart muscles and similar membranes possess their own sensitivity. Incandescent, aggressive narcissism impersonates candor, causing bruises.
Walt Whitman hungered for “barbaric yawp” before it was commonplace, his verbal anatomy physical, loud and self-centered. He’d only be one of many now, gender no barrier, with discreet gentility, insincere, replaced by quicksilver harshness, true and rude. Pick the poison.
I make all and nothing from these chance exchanges. Instead, I filter them through my mid-20th-century mental operating system, trying to find my bearings while my lizard tail grows longer, my fingers turn craggier, and my face inexorably reshapes itself forward into an intimately attached beak.
Six-decade-old creatures can’t fathom their replacements any more than those hustling for luxurious travel and immediate financial appreciation can know of the brittleness ahead, or that their footfalls will match those long vanished, all indentations ultimately undistinguishable, wrinkles in vain rehearsing their lines to inform those still at the front of the bus that the back awaits, after which comes the stop.