I love AMAGANSETT. I can walk in any of the bars there and see a host of familiar faces. All the bartenders know my name and my drink. But sometimes you seek solace in anonymity. So last week I fled to Montauk in the hope I would find no one I knew where I could tell a joke, tell a story, accept an insight that didn’t involve me or offer an insight in the hope I could reinvent my sense of self in the eyes of a stranger.
I went to a resort and asked directions to the beach bar.
“Yes, but it is crowded with young people, you might prefer the lobby bar.”
He pointed to the empty lobby bar.
“But there is no one there.”
The concierge shrugged.
“The beach bar is full of youngsters you would not want to know even if you were young.
I went anyway. There were dozens of women in short skirts my daughter’s age and boys with bad hats. This was a mistake and I knew it. I remembered when what I was looking at would be heaven. What had happened? Their bantering was a girlish buzz intermingled with male grunts and the bar’s Jimi Hendrix was playing. I ordered a martini.
I told the kid I had seen Hendrix play.
“That’s pretty cool,” the kid said. “I dig Hendrix and I wasn’t even born when he died,” he responded.
I found myself inadvertently looking at a girl in her twenties. She stared back, non-plussed and not remotely threatened. I was invisible. She was not looking at me, but through me. I was another piece of furniture, a tattered couch in the background.
“Anywhere can I meet a woman my age,” I asked him.
“Maybe on-line,” he said. “You look so sad.”
“I feel old.”
“Oh no, you look even younger than my dad. Really.”
“He looks really old.”
I went to the spa at the resort, yearning for balding heads, pot bellies, and sprouts of hairs emerging from the ears and noses of bloated men. The fact they were richer than me did not matter.
As I undressed I became obsessed with my weight. My pulse became too rapid to count. I wrapped my towel high over my waist, like Charles Laughton in Spartacus—an elephantine moron tottering toward the shower.
I emerged and got a razor. There were mirrors In front and on either side stretching down a row of sinks. I did not look at the men on either side of me. I glanced sideways and spotted what looked like an axe mark in the side of the man next to me. Then I got it. It simply delineated where his patch sagged over his waist. I tried not to look, but I sensed a kindred spirit. I tried not to look again, but as I shaved I inevitably snatched glimpses of the pale, mole ridden belly caught in all its unguarded exhaustedness. The back had swaths of hair—not the omnipresent fur of the Italian or Jew—but the haphazard sprouting of a body whose testosterone clogged portals had lost the ability to push it out of my head. I froze when I caught an unexpected expanse of flesh that stretched from below the ear to what used to constitute the neck. I then confronted the man and realized I was alone. I fled back to the beach bar, like a criminal on the dodge, refusing to admit to anyone let alone me that I knew what I looked like. The longer I spent trying to recapture myself that more I realized I was no longer who I thought I would always be.
I returned to the beach bar, ordered another martini and sat in a lounge chair. I debated getting up and going in the water. I reminded myself I didn’t care about other people who had aged and gained weight. But then, after all, this WAS me, not them. I leaned forward to rise from my lounge chair but my belly sagged into my legs. When did this slow descent into decrepitude progress so much? At 30 I knew I wasn’t 20 and at 40 I wasn’t 30, but I was 61, an age that seemed out of a whole other reality.
Three women in their early thirties sat in some nearby chairs, lifting off their shirts to reveal a sliver of a bikini over what seemed like the most beautiful breasts in the world. I yearned for sunglasses. I tried to find a point on the horizon where I could pretend to be looking while a portion of my vision could fix on them. But then I realized why I was afraid to see people I hadn’t seen in awhile.
I knew people didn’t care—not really—if you were a failure or success whatever that meant, rich or poor, happily married or cruelly divorced. Even if they cared how you fared in the game, it didn’t define you in the eyes of an old acquaintance, let alone a real friend. But everyone noticed how you looked and everyone knew it. I fantasized living in a fat colony where I was the thinnest person and safe. I would benevolently assure all, especially the women, they were beautiful and they would love me for it. Ah, their concern: “He may look gorgeous, but he’s too thin. It’s bordering on unhealthy.”
I felt wobbly. The water was desirable, but impossible. I felt there were thin people watching me. I rose, tottering. Falling would be the nail in the coffin.
As I contemplated employment in an assisted living facility where I could flirt with former Ziegfeld (or were they already dead) I found myself staring back at those girls only now they were glaring back at me. I looked away, reddening. At what point was it not ok to look at them? But where were your visuals constrained at sixty one? Were you entitled to thirty five? When had he evolved into this other? When did the butterfly awake to being a slug? Oh, if only to be feeling as I once had
I plodded back toward the lobby bar, a white whale, gaining weight by the minute, a reddened walrus, everything beyond my comprehension, increasingly disoriented. I saw my funeral, my plump corpse alongside all those younger photos of myself. I needed to stay alive long enough to go on a crash diet that would make my cadaver passable.
I reached the bar. Unbelievably there was a beautiful woman in her mid 30s sitting there alone..
I found a seat three stools away, smiled briefly, and ordered a martini from a male bartender in his early 30s. I paid, left a large tip. It had the desired effect—the kid asked where I was from. Over the next several minutes—during which I spoke just loud enough for her to hear him—I told him everything I could that might engender a question I could answer by saying something flattering about himself. I ran a famous nightclub, had written a book, was widely travelled, and helped little old ladies across the street almost daily. I could see in the reflection in the mirror behind the bar that she was listening.
“Please join me,” she offered.
She patted the seat next to her.
“Can I buy you a drink. I mean, I’m not coming on to you. I’m just alone and it’s my birthday”
“How old are you?”
“I don’t believe it. You look so young.”
“You just made my year”
She laughed. A beautiful laugh.
“How do you do it?”
“I run every day and I watch how much I drink, though not too closely.”
Again the laugh.
“Age doesn’t matter.”
I started to protest, then shifted course. “It is so true. When I was your age I fell in love with a woman in her mid-fifties.
“I’m past bothering.”
“It could be true.”
“Women are more forgiving than men” incredibly I had found my stride.
“In some things,” she said.
She had definitively moved closer.
“Where is she now—your former lover. Oh, sorry, is she still alive?”
I shrugged, absorbing the setback, buoyed by her thigh lightly touching his. Where was this sudden hope going, pulling him he knew not where.
“What do you remember most about her?”
Then her hand dropped, clutched mine, squeezed and lingered an agonizing few seconds before returning to her drink.
“Why her laugh?,” she asked.
“It never changed.”