By Leslie Hill
I lie awake in the darkness and laugh out loud. The sound wakens Stewart from a shallow sleep.
“I’m happy,” I say and he murmurs something and sleeps again.
I don’t tell him I am laughing with delight because he’s here, in my bed, because almost ten years ago I lay beside him in northern Scotland and wondered whether I’d ever have another lover. That was the night before I was due to leave Scotland to return permanently to Canada. I haven’t sought or found another man since then but tonight Stewart is here, in Vancouver, lying asleep in my bed after a marathon twenty-two hours of travel, and tomorrow morning or tomorrow night we will make love. I thought I was dead from the waist down but shivers of anticipation are travelling up and down my thighs and I seem to be melting in the heat radiating from his naked body. Somehow my brain has shed ten years and turned 53. It’s so ridiculous I can’t stop grinning.
We met years ago. I had made the unlikely move to the Findhorn Foundation, a New Age community in Scotland, because my life in Toronto had imploded in the seven years following my husband’s death. Sustained grief drove me to seek a place where I could start over. Find out who I was other than a widow. Stewart arrived six months after me and it was almost Christmas before I got to know him. I’d come home one afternoon after a snowy walk up from town to find him hemming his jeans in front of the fire in the lounge, his brown eyes peering intently through reading glasses. Large stitches in white thread showed up clearly against the blue denim. I watched, amused, as three different women offered to hem the jeans for him. He refused politely each time. Eventually he looked over at me.
“Does no one believe a man can hem his own trousers? You’d never know this place was a hotbed of feminism.”
“Perhaps they just want to see the job well done.”
“Are you going to offer too?”
“No. I’d be worse than you, even.”
“Mocked in me own home,” he said ruefully. “Do you want to have dinner in the dining room with me tonight?”
We became friends that night over steamed vegetables and baked potatoes with cheese sauce. From the start he made me laugh. I’d almost stopped laughing since my husband’s death. Over the months we shared cups of tea, beers, dinners and late night conversations until he was the most important person in my life.
But he was married. His wife had stayed living in Glasgow, unimpressed with the New Age. He travelled “down the road” to visit her every seven or eight weeks. Meanwhile he felt no particular need to be faithful to her and from time to time determined women who didn’t mind sharing hit on him. I minded – both the wife and the women. I cycled through anger, frustration and grief but I never stopped loving him. For most of the five years that we both lived in the community, we were best friends, not a couple. It was only the last four months before my visa ran out, only when he’d disentangled himself from his marriage and from another woman that we became lovers.
In the weeks before he arrived in Vancouver, I worried. Second-time-around love affairs between seniors aren’t the stuff of books and films. What if he recoiled from a body he hadn’t seen naked in ten years? What if I lost my balance, either felt crowded by his presence in my apartment or, worse, fell in love with him like before and got angry all over again because he wouldn’t commit ten years ago and still refused? I wanted to be able to love him and stay grounded in my present life, not get swept back into the vortex of longing for him and the New Age world where he lived. But I was nervous; it’s hard for me to let go of the past.
The day he was due, I washed the sheets and cleaned the apartment, put the picture of my husband away in a drawer and resurrected one of Stewart and me at a wedding, just about the time we became lovers. We’re standing under an apple tree, the fruit reddening above us. Stewart’s wearing his kilt and smiling at me. I’m in a black silk chiffon dress with a trail of embroidered flowers curving from one shoulder to waist, to mid-thigh. It makes me dream of romance, true love, passion. Madness. I can’t even get into that dress anymore but one glance at an old photo and I’m a starry-eyed nitwit in a Harlequin Romance. Why do women do this? Or is it just me?
Stewart arrives dead tired from covering two jobs due to a staff illness, which means I have time to keep up with my graduate studies. In the mornings I work on assignments with half my mind and listen to him sing as he makes breakfast. After breakfast he drinks coffee and works on the cryptic crossword and the Sudoku from The Globe and Mail. Free mornings are a luxury for him.
In the afternoons and evenings we see Measure for Measure, Hamlet and 12th Night at Bard on the Beach, the Vancouver Shakespeare summer festival. I’ve never met anyone else who enjoys Shakespeare as much as I do. Stewart watches productions as an actor and a director and appreciates all the nuances. He’s used to the BBC and Stratford-on-Avon, and he’s surprised and impressed by the quality of the plays here. He’s also a sports fan, and hints broadly that we might see a hockey game or a football game but I’m not interested.
Eventually he discovers there’s a baseball final at Riley Park Stadium, walking distance from my apartment, and buys two tickets the morning of the playoff game. I don’t mind baseball though I never go. Our seats are high up in this small, open-air stadium. To the west the trees of Queen Elizabeth Park are silhouetted against the sunset gold. As the sky darkens and the floodlights blaze we drink beer and listen to the raucous talk and laughter of the twenty-something crowd around us. Stewart is fascinated; he’s never seen baseball live and imagined teams racking up hits all night. He can’t believe so little happens.
Other days we visit the usual tourist places. Most nights I sip wine while he cooks. He makes a meal of salmon and another of scallops so exquisite I could weep for my own pedestrian cooking skills. Friends come in for wine and cheese and family for dinner. We talk about friends in Scotland and changes in the community and my writing, and every so often I look at him and think, why didn’t it work? Why didn’t you see how effortlessly we get along, what a magnificent friendship we have, how much love underlies and sustains our connection? For me marriage depends on friendship as much as love and sex, but Stewart’s never seen it that way. His marriages rocked with argument and struggle, anathema to me. I know this so I say nothing of the sadness that flickers in me almost every day. But it’s more remembered heartache than real grief. Scar tissue.
I’m not 53 and this is not a Harlequin Romance; I’m ten years older and fifteen pounds heavier but I am happy. We’re both heavier. I’d been working hard and fruitlessly to shed the extra pounds in the eight weeks before he came but as soon as I saw that he had also put on weight I stopped worrying. Maybe it doesn’t matter to anyone but me, that extra fifteen pounds. I still care about him, regardless of his weight gain. When I look at him I see the sexy, stocky Scot who cooks, paints, sings, and writes, acts and directs plays. I see the man I fell in love with sixteen years ago. He told me he loved me too, once, not long before I left the Findhorn Foundation. He had promised to visit me in Vancouver and I lived on that promise, but a few months after I left, he fell in love with a new woman. He never came. Now, both older, both battered, he by failed relationships, I by loneliness, he’s here at last.
He’s been married and divorced a second time in those ten years and stayed committed to the community, to living with a group of thirty to forty co-workers and the thousands of guests who visit every year. Committed to the life I wanted then but couldn’t have because my British visa was up.
I’ve had to come to terms with living alone, starting over again in my mid-fifties when most people my age already have the friends and connections they need. I didn’t want to return to Toronto and chose Vancouver because my aunt and cousins live here. They’ve spent time in the Findhorn community too and understood what I was missing. It helped. I wrote, about my husband and my healing journey in Scotland, and writing became the focus of my largely solitary days. I still miss the depth of connection that I had but over time I have made friends, published a memoir, joined a choir and entered graduate school.
I saw Stewart again last year when I visited Scotland to launch my memoir. No romance though he was single again; he had the cold that was plaguing the community at the time and I had it when I left. But he suggested coming for the visit he’d promised when I left. A September holiday. I said yes, not believing for a moment that he’d really come.
But he has. It’s not too late for us to reconnect, it might even be perfect timing in an odd way, but those ten years don’t disappear. No sexual marathons this time around. His approach has become tentative and humble and I’ve discovered that post-menopausal sex is more difficult than I expected. The first time is painful. I use a lubricant after that and enjoy our encounters. But I initiate most of them and every other night is enough. When we fall asleep though, we’re touching.
Ten days after his arrival we take the ferry to Vancouver Island and rent a beachfront cabin on the west coast. I leave my schoolwork behind. Early the next morning I wander along the beach. It’s cool and clear, a September morning, no warmth yet from the sun. Men walk their dogs or their babies, letting their partners sleep in. The water ripples toward my feet, sucking at the damp sand. Four hours till high tide. Inside our cabin Stewart will have made himself coffee with hot milk and be working on a Sudoku. In three days he’ll be gone.
We walk the beach daily, visit Tofino, go for a drink in the Wickaninnish Inn. At night I teach him cribbage and he slaughters me at dominoes. One afternoon we go whale watching in a zodiac with ten others. It’s a silver grey day and the sea is glassy calm away from the shore. The pilot takes us to a stellar sea lion haul-out where sea lions bask and bark on rocks and swim amid the waves, scanning us with round dark eyes. It’s impossible not to smile at them.
Then we head out to open sea, in search of a humpback whale another pilot has reported, some four miles out. The journey is smooth, only a slight swell. I’m alert for movement, fascinated by wild life, in love with the ocean. Eventually we slow as we approach another whale-watching boat, cut the engine, float silently on the ocean. Stewart spots it first: spume. He shouts, points. I half rise to look. Whale breath hangs in the air above a long grey back, small dorsal fin, curve of tail. A humpback. There’s a second breath, a third and then it dives, the arched white and black tail an exclamation mark that leaves a circular imprint on the water as it vanishes. Stewart laughs in triumph.
Over the next ninety minutes we see a cow and calf and another single humpback. Four in all. So much life just under the surface and we can only glimpse it. Around us the clouds gather and darken but I ignore them, entranced with the whales. The rain holds off; when the zodiac lands back in Tofino I’m still giddy with excitement.
As the tides on the beach flow in and ease out, dogs chase seagulls, small children dig holes in the sand and I ponder the ebb and flow of love. Perhaps at our age it doesn’t get better than this. A deep, caring connection, with acceptance, without anguish. No demands. Ten years ago I was miserable when I had to say goodbye to him. It took all of my first year in Vancouver to accept that he sees me as a best friend, that any romantic future with him was over along with my life in Scotland. If he’d visited then as he’d promised, I’d never have established myself in this life in Vancouver.
Now I know I wouldn’t give it up, any more than he would give up life in his New Age community. The timing of this visit is perfect. We warm ourselves at the coals of an old love, hold hands at night, deepen our friendship over beer and wine and meals and card games. I maintain my equilibrium, for the most part.
The night before he leaves I try hard to keep the conversation light.
“What’s the high point of the visit been for you?”
I imagine he’ll say the Shakespeare but he hesitates.
“The whale-watching, and the Shakespeare, meals out and the ball game were all great, but – really the best part has been reconnecting with you, living here, talking and cooking, being together and giving each other space.” He looks at me, as if waiting for confirmation. “I think we’ve done well.”
I blink back unexpected tears, and nod. Reach for his hand. “I’d almost forgotten how wonderful it is to live with someone you care about. That’s my high point too, just – sharing these days with you.”
Neither of us says the word love but I think it. Feel it. We talk about another visit but I have no idea whether he’s humouring me or he’s serious.
I go with him to the airport the next morning and together we sort out his boarding pass. We drink coffee, split a chocolate chip cookie and I buy him a Sudoku book for the journey. He’s got an hour or more before the plane loads but I know that for me it’s time to let go. I hug him, tell him I’m heading out. When I walk away I don’t let myself look back.
I’m fine really, except when I sit down for meals or pour a glass of wine, or go to bed. For four days I don’t write anything at all. Then I pick up my pen and the threads of my separate life and continue.
Copyright Hill 2016