It happened today. It happened because of a flat tire. It happened in the rest room of Nu Tire Town. The toilet seat was cracked, and as I arose it pinched me. I reached back and in the encounter of hand with flesh, I discovered age.
The flesh was wrinkled and flabby, but it wasn’t the flabby flesh of a fat person – although I am fat, nor was it the wrinkled flesh that came from smoking or baking in the sun, neither of which had been habits of mine. It was that indefinable feeling of fine wrinkles with no where to go, soft as baby’s skin yet strangely empty, as if more substance was needed. In an instant, in less time than it took me to stand upright, my brain received the breaking news: It was age.
Was it old age? At sixty, which hadn’t previously seemed so very old, was I actually old? When I turned fifty, I was jubilant. Wisdom! Maybe people would listen to what I had to say and think I was gaining wisdom! Wasn’t getting older marvelous? I didn’t have to worry so much about appearance – it was being replaced by wisdom.
But at fifty-five, an image flitted across my consciousness like a shadow, ephemeral yet real: I was climbing a mountain. The ascent had begun at fifty, and now I was at the peak. If one can no longer ascend…hmmm. Fifty-five was a bit worrisome. But not to worry, friends told me, age is a state of mind. It’s true that I still feel like I am in high school. It’s just that my body and reflection in the mirror won’t cooperate.
The signs have been coming for some time now, and while I have recognized them, I’ve placed them in the category of something interesting yet distant. A few years ago, I took a young friend to Altered States, an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
In one stunning installation, an entire room comprised of pin pricks of light, it became clear that this was best viewed lying on the floor. My friend, William, immediately plunked down on his back. I hesitated and explained that before getting down, I had to assess the ease of getting back up. My movements had become guarded. But I did lie down and got up unassisted, thinking no more about it. Until the next time.
Another sign – the hair. I’ve long since noticed that without hair color, I would be grey. Should I be grey? Isn’t coloring my hair deceiving my mind into thinking I’m something I’m not? I’ve colored my hair almost my entire life, and when high school friends visited recently, one of them asked what color my hair was. I said it was this color, pointing to my head. As an unconcealed look of astonishment grew upon her face, I quickly explained. No – if my hair weren’t grey, this is the color it would be; in fact, this would have been my real color had I not undergone permutations of blond, red, and shades of brunette for most of my life. And clearly, with a flicker of that fifty-year-old wisdom, I realized that dying my hair was no deception, it was following a lifelong pattern. Justifucation – my good friends justification and obfustication. I mean, at least I still had hair, although it was getting much thinner.
But the neck. Can it be my neck that, reflected in the morning light of the bathroom mirror, has become a turtle neck? Yes, well, that can be fixed. A simple cosmetic procedure, a neck lift, and I can again deceive myself that age isn’t catching up with me. To paraphrase Nora Ephron, I felt bad about my neck. But unlike Nora Ephron, I couldn’t hide it with turtlenecks. Nora is tall and slim, elegant in a turtleneck. I’m short and not slim, so in a turtleneck I look like, well, a turtle. Before this epiphany, I hadn’t made the connection. The garment was a hideous abomination named a turtleneck not for what it was but for what it concealed.
The guarded movement, the hair, the neck, and now – the wrinkles. Those fine lines above my upper lip aren’t going away. In fact, I never noticed them until maybe six months ago when they shouted to me, “Look at us! We’re here, out of hiding. Haha, fooled you.” Undeterred, I purchased Lancome face cream with fibrelastine, whatever that is. For $ 70 and twice a day use, I can make those lines disappear after just four weeks. So haha, fooled you back. And really, a jar lasts a long time so it isn’t so very expensive.
The guarded movement, the hair, the neck, the wrinkles, and to further insult me, the realization that I can’t wear short sleeves anymore. Talk about a problem – I live in Bakersfield. It’s a desert and it’s hot. But those upper arms – my upper arms – they used to be fat, yes, still are, but worse: as I wrote on the white board at school a couple of weeks ago, I noticed them shaking. Flab. That’s what it is. But it’s not ordinary flab, the flab of fat, it’s transmogrified into age flab. No matter what I did, it would never fully firm up. This, in no uncertain terms, was a crisis of huge proportions. I can’t stand to wear shoes even, or tuck in a shirt, or restrict my movement in any way, so to encase myself in long sleeves, in the heat yet…weariness set in as it hit me: yes, it was age. Every manifestation would require desperate measures.
As if to confirm my worst fears, I noticed – no, really noticed – my husband’s legs and thought, where did he get so many bug bites? Did we have mosquitos? Was it West Nile Virus? I remembered reading that bedbugs were making a comeback. But my brain tickled suppressed knowledge and I took a long look at those freckles on my arm. Since when did I have freckles? My God, they were age spots. That’s what my husband had – age spots! The very name confirmed what I suspected. Age. There’s a cream, I know someone told me about one that could fade age spots, I thought frantically.
It’s a trap. I could have a neck lift, liposuction, an eye lift, the bags removed, a face lift even, buy the wrinkle cream, find the age-spot fading cream, and continue the hair dye, but where would it end? The years would inexorably add up. And I would have to confront the question of why it mattered. I could tone and tan and surrender to the knife, but the texture of my skin wouldn’t change. It would still be what I felt this morning at Bruce’s Nu Tire Town. Baby-soft aged, wrinkled skin that would continue its downward spiral until it really was the skin of old age – thin, transparent, subject to injury. The breaking down of the body’s largest organ and first layer of defense – skin. My skin.
I have to get used to this – the idea that, yes, I am getting older and no, I can’t do anything about it. That my friends will continue to be my friends, my kids will continue to love me, and that everyone around me is aging proportionately, so maybe it won’t be so bad. There may even be some symmetry in the fact that the skin feels baby-soft, back to where it began.
I guess I must confront this with dignity after all. Make peace with my body, my appearance. Maybe it won’t be so tragic. I can transform the vigor of youth to the wisdom of age, the turbulence of youth to the peace of knowing where I belong in the universe. I can remember to breathe, laugh, love, and not look in mirrors. I can meet the world with assurance and grace, secure in who I am.
I am going to work on how to do that tomorrow, if only I can remember.
Susan Reep is a retired seventh-grade language arts teacher who writes from personal experience. One of her short stories will air on KVPR’s Valley Writer’s Read in 2010. You can learn more on her website and blog, http://susanreep.com or http://susanreep.com/blog