Or, more specifically, it's not only the dude. I'm no longer a depressed mess for a myriad of reasons, not simply that I'm dating what my adviser and bestie called "a hot young stud with a big dick." Actually, the big dick part may be my words. Serafice and I were half-joking anyway, because objectifying M is not something I do, or want to do. (Unless it's part of a sex game.) He's a good guy. At least I'm trying to believe he's a good guy.
I've learned you come out of a toxic relationship damaged in ways you only really discover when you dip your toes into another relationship. So, trust is an ability I'm still trying to resurrect within myself, along with even the most basic communication skills. Sometimes I listen to myself talking to M and think, "Why did my I.Q. just plunge 50 points? Why am I yammering??" Sometimes I think, "I can't do this. I'll take a lifetime of one night stands over having to be even the least bit vulnerable with anyone ever again."
And that includes M, with whom I seem to have a pretty awesome thing going. Dating - Christ, I hate that word. What does it even mean? - him is fun. He doesn't make me feel badly about myself. He doesn't make me feel badly about anything, actually. This whole thing has been really easy so far, with no angst or drama or craziness, which might make me run far, far away. Like, Antarctica far away. Hey, I've been meaning to get there. Some days a gig swabbing floors in a station at the South Pole dedicated to researching penguins or whatever sounds absolutely perfect.
But less so lately. And that's not just because of M. Brain chemistry probably has something to do with it - after all, they tell me I'm bipolar. I guess something in my head finally jigged after jagging for the past six months or so, and blamo, I'm feeling a lot more chipper. Aconcagua figures into all this, too - coming down from that mountain changed me. It made me face myself, just like those two days alone in Mendoza did. There's nothing that brings you closer to the elemental truth of who you are like traveling solo. Fact it, I think I like myself best when I'm tucked up alone in some far-flung place. The voices in my head quiet and I stop believing that I have to prove I'm worthy of...everything. Love, success. Joy. I can just be me.
So, it's not just M. I worked too hard at carving out some small bit of peace for myself to just hand over my happiness to the next guy who comes along, no matter how swell I think he is, or how goonily I grin when we so much as talk on the phone, like we just did. Prior to my breakup with T, I had spent my entire life - and I mean my whole, entire life, from about age 16 until a few weeks before I turned 50 - coupled. I went from one relationship to another pretty much without pause, absolutely terrified to be alone.
That's part of Borderline Personality Disorder, with which I've also been diagnosed. That's the heart of it, actually. I don't know if I thought I'd spontaneously combust if I weren't partnered - it sounds like the joke it's meant to be, but honestly, the fear felt that primal. Maybe I was just afraid I wouldn't be able to take care of myself. That I couldn't be trusted, that I'd end up homeless, or in an institution. Maybe it was because I was certain that without the distraction a relationship brings I'd drown in pain, that relentless pain I've been feeling since I was a teenager.
Of course, if you're a woman you don't have to have a mood or personality disorder to believe that you damn well better be with a man if you're going to have any worth at all, to yourself and society, too. It wasn't until 1974 that women were allowed to apply for credit in this country - and it wasn't until 1993 that marital rape became criminalized in all 50 states. 1993. Let that sink in. Of course, North Carolina still has a law on the books that allows men to continue having sex with (raping) a woman who has given consent EVEN IF SHE TELLS HIM TO STOP LATER. Basically, in the Tar Heel State a woman cannot change her mind about having sex. Because apparently men getting off is a lot more important there than a woman's right to say, "You know what? I don't like this. Stop."
How is it possible that women aren't rioting in the streets this minute? Let's take a moment to remember the song John Lennon wrote about women's place in society. If you don't know it, look it up. I think he nails it.
I suppose I should make it clear now that although I've learned the invaluable lesson that I can survive alone it doesn't mean that this is something I actually want to do. I've had a lot of women reach out to me since I started this blog to tell that they've been without a man for X amount of time and have "never felt happier." Good on you, guys. For real. You're far more evolved than me. Because I don't ever, ever want to go another year without sex (or cuddling, or kissing, or getting a phone call that makes me goonily grin) again. Hell, I don't even want to go a month without that stuff, although I will, all but the phone call, because I'm going to be traveling for 5 or so weeks beginning next month.
And by the way, when I hesitantly told M about how long I'd be away, do you know there was no guilt trip, no recriminations, no irritation, nothing but giggling? Because I said I felt like I was going away to war or something, the way I was being all dramatic, and he said, "Yes, Jill, I will wait for you." And then we laughed. That could not be more different than the absolute bullshit I went through with T. And that goes an awful long way toward building trust. And communication skills. And maybe even unwrapping another layer of bandage from my still-bruised-but-almost-healed heart.
So here I am, holed up in this funky little hotel in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, right outside of Pittsburgh. I'm here to meet my new lover, or paramour as he likes to be called. M lives in Pittsburgh; I'm in State College. He came to see me last weekend, this weekend I'm here to see him. Because we're both caregivers, living with our parents, if we want to fuck, we need to get a hotel room. That's okay - I think that excites us both.
The place I picked to meet is perfect. Once respectable, maybe even upscale, this inn has grown weary around the edges - the carpet a bit stained, the walls marred here and there by past visitors, careless with their bags, hurrying on their way to somewhere else. It's like a faded celebrity. Not quite sad, but no longer vibrant, vital. I love it.
Because the hotel doesn't entice prospective guests the way it once did, the rooms are cheap and I was able to book us a suite. It's like the public spaces, charming and frayed and maybe a little mysterious, too. The wood of the dining room table has been worn to white in spots, but there's a massive whirlpool tub backed by mirrors in the bathroom and a working gas fireplace I'm sitting in front of right now. The heater is waging a losing battle against the chill of the rooms, probably thanks to the big arched windows overlooking the highway that I believe M plans to fuck me against at some point over the next two days.
M. He's exactly what I need now, as if he were dropped out of heaven by the dating gods. Young, at least much younger than I am, taller than me by half a foot (a rarity for a woman 5'9") and spectacularly hung - enough so that he hurt me our first time together, a little. I actually saw my gynecologist today to make sure everything is in working order. She told me that I'm in good shape, red and plump and juicy with no signs of vaginal atrophy, a terrible affliction which hits more than 60 percent of women in postmenopause and can cause dryness, painful sex and all kinds of other evil bullshit like incontinence and clitoral shrinkage. I plan to absolutely not ever have vaginal atrophy. The best defense against it, by the way, is lots and lots of sex.
Which is actually what I need in order to stretch everything out and end my newfound pseudo-virginity, according to my doc. Lots and lots of sex. M is happy with this prescription and I am, too. We both are of a mind to push each other's limits sexually; there's much we can teach each other and learn together, too. I told him this time to leave deeper bruises with his mouth, purple, black. He agreed. I feel set free, and I guess I have been - my ex kept me caged in more ways than one. I don't know what exactly I like yet or how much of it I want. But to be able to discover what pleases me, safely, with someone I very much enjoy, who arouses me with merely the sound of his voice on the phone - I know how lucky I am.
My life feels absolutely new. I came off of Aconcagua, it turns out, with exactly what I needed. Somehow the mountain taught me that don't need to ever be anyone other that who I am. I will never again apologize for being too boisterous, too sexy, too needy, too loud, too angry, too flashy, too prideful, too adventurous, too strong, too weak, too emotional. I'm 51 years old. I've got red curls and long legs and a big mouth. I laugh loud, I love sex. There isn't a country I wouldn't visit. I want to climb mountains. Still. I'm writing a book and I'll sell my soul to make it great.
I will not ever, ever seek, or find comfort or strength in invisibility. That's a big thing now - older women, in their 60s, maybe even my age? - embracing how little they appeal, or matter, or are simply seen in every way, but especially sexually. Frances McDormand talked about it positively in a New York Times interview, which disappointed me. With age comes a fuck-it-all freedom in which I revel, but it is the freedom of someone who has finally, after a lifetime of pain, learned to love herself. Or at least like herself. I will be loud and proud, wearing short skirts and shiny lips for as long as I wish, which will probably be forever. As a sometime lover and longtime friend recently told me, "Jill, you'll be talking about orgasms when you're 90."
Accepting invisibility of any type in this fucked-up patriarchal society feels like capitulation, at least to me. But then I've always seen all the world as a stage. And if we're merely actors, we can be anyone we want. Why not be women in our 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond, who teach the world that sexuality doesn't end with fertility, or firm breasts or even with the onset of the dreaded vaginal atrophy - which, if this weren't a patriarchy, we'd all know a lot more about. (Like, for example, that it can be reversed with estrogen cream or pills.)
I spent a year disconnected from my sexuality while I tried to believe I was a person worthy of love and lust and success and satisfaction and the other good things life can bring. I don't know if anyone looked at me twice in all that time. Since coming back from Argentina more happy than I've been in years, since beginning to date M, I see men give me appraising glances all the time, which I return with a grin. The only invisibility I want to know about is Wonder Woman's plane.
Jill Gleeson is a journalist based in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She is a current contributor to The Pioneer Woman, Country Living, Group Travel Leader, Select Traveler, Going on Faith, Wander With Wonder, Enchanted Living and State College Magazine, where her column, Rebooted, is featured monthly. Other clients have included