Too Good to be True

There had to be a catch –there’s no free lunch. We should have known that by now, don’t you think? By ‘we’, I mean ‘them’, by the way -I want no part of this.

Once upon a time, in a land only temporally removed, there was a fear of babies –a dread of babies. And so great was the terror, that myths sprang up around them: guardian myths. Progenitive myths. So pervasive were these, that they clung to us like cobwebs across a morning trail. But even when Science, that elusive Parent, absolved us of one guilt, it only whispered of the others that were there all along: cohabiters, co-conspirators –and we jumped, unknowing from the cooling kettle, into its roiling water, still thick with steam.

A generation mad with relief but thrown unwillingly into the ring like aging gladiators carrying their unexpected loss instead of clothes, they forgot what tricks had saved their lives when they were young. And they awoke to carnage, not laurel wreaths, disease, not the victories they half-remembered.

I knew it was coming; like Retirement, and false teeth, it was just a matter of time:

Jacob didn’t look happy when I passed him on the street. We used to hang out together in a different time and I thought I knew his moods. In fact, the last time I saw him he was bragging about the wealth of prospects out there with online dating. The victim of two divorces as he put it, he felt his time had finally come. The profiles, the pictures, the promises –he could hardly believe his luck. I was almost too good to be true. But he looked so unhappy that day on the street, we agreed to meet later that week for a coffee.

I arrived to find him huddled inconspicuously at a table and facing the wall in the furthest corner of a room bright with sun streaming through its two massive floor-to-ceiling windows. He had managed to find the only shadow and I had to search carefully to see his table.

I sat against the wall opposite him; he didn’t look up at my greeting.

“You hiding, Jacob?” I finally said when he only grunted hello.

That caused his eyes to jump to my face from my coffee where they’d roosted. “Why did you say that?” he asked suddenly, as if I had outed some secret he thought he’d concealed under the table.

I shrugged. “Because you were sitting facing the wall in a dark corner of the room?” I figured by phrasing it as a question he’d think I was only guessing.

“I was just thinking…” He sat up a little straighter in the unforgiving wooden chair, grabbed his own coffee aggressively, and then, as suddenly, put it down again with a splash. “It’s worse than it used to be, you know.”

I raised an eyebrow in response.

“I mean we should have learned something by the time we’ve made it to our age, eh? There was a time when we knew everything,” he flung an arm out either to indicate the world outside the window, or those of us trapped inside –he wasn’t specific. “And then we grew up and realized how naïve that was.”

I decided he wasn’t talking about those of us in the room, so I nodded.

“And then, when we got even older…” My god! The Three Phases of Man: the Sophoclean Riddle of the Sphinx. I perked up immediately; it was just like the old days at the pub after a hard day of classes. “When we got even older, we forgot everything we’d worked so hard to learn.”

Huh? That’s not how it went. I felt a little disappointed that he wasn’t going to celebrate our golden years. “What did we forget, Jacob?” I said, and immediately steeled myself for his pessimistic observation with a sip of my coffee.

“That you can’t trust anybody.”

I felt that was a little hyperbolic, so I continued sipping my coffee, as if I were sipping his words and tasting them. Digesting them. But I mean I trusted him. I trusted the barista…

He grabbed the now-empty cardboard cup and crushed it as if it were one of those anybodies he didn’t trust. Jacob is a large, albeit aging man, with a faded tattoo of a skull on his right forearm –you don’t want to get on the wrong side of guys like him.

I looked at him for a moment, studied his face, and waited until he’d put the remnants of the cup safely back on the table. “What happened?”

I shouldn’t have asked –not then. His face wrinkled into a glower, and I thought I could even hear his teeth grinding –but maybe his dentures were just loose, or something. He riveted me to the wall with searchlight eyes and somehow managed a deep, hissing breath through tightly closed lips.

“You remember how excited I was about the online women?” I nodded –but carefully. I didn’t really want to commit myself in case he thought I’d encouraged him. “I decided to switch to a senior site because nobody on the younger sites seemed to want a man my age unless he was rich.” He rolled his eyes, as if to comment on the opportunity they’d missed. “So, I put in my search parameters –like, I wanted a woman around fifty, thin, and with good skin. I hate it when it’s all greasy or pock-marked with liver spots, don’t you?”

I had no idea what liver spots were so I opened my mouth to ask, but he didn’t wait.

“So I opted for one that looked reasonable –you don’t have that much choice at that age, you know,” he added quickly. Actually, I didn’t, but he didn’t give me a chance to say anything. “Anyway, on the phone, she sounded interesting, so we agreed to meet for coffee…” He hesitated and checked over his shoulder then looked around for a moment. “Here, actually…”

I felt I had to apologize –I’d chosen the place- but he flicked his wrist at me to indicate that he meant me no harm.

“So…” Now he had me interested. I was going to ask him whether I should try the site.

“Well, she was no more fifty than I am,” he said in a disparaging whisper. He was my age: seventy.

I stared at him. “How old did you say you were in your profile?”

“At first I didn’t know what age to put down, but then I looked in the mirror and thought maybe I could pass for sixty. So I hunted around for an old photo and submitted that.”

“So, you said you were sixty, and submitted a fake picture?” I shook my head as if I were scolding him.

He somehow managed to over-crease his forehead to deny my accusation. “It was not a fake! It was a picture of me, but from about ten years ago…”

“Well at least the picture matched the age you entered.” I smiled to show I’d forgiven him the minor transgression.

He looked suddenly sheepish. “Well… Actually, I put down that I was fifty-five –just in case, you know.”

“And how old do you think she was?”

He shrugged. “Mid sixties, anyway, judging by the wrinkles and the spots.” His face brightened for a moment. “But she said she was on hormones… so everything worked, she assured me…” He shook his head sadly. “She seemed to be pretty sure about that.”

I didn’t want to ask what she’d meant. I just kept my eyes glued to the remains of his cup.

“Anyway, we both seemed eager… And besides, hormones are sort of like senior contraceptives, I figured.” His eyes suddenly opened wide and stared at me like I’d accused him of something. “I know she couldn’t get pregnant, but it felt better that she was on something, you know.”

I nodded as if to say I would have felt the same way. “Win-win,” was all I managed to comment before he pounded his fist onto the table.

Then he looked around the room again, this time embarrassed. “Win-lose…”

I chanced a brief glance at his face. “What do you…?”

“STI,” he interrupted with a whisper so soft I had to ask him to repeat it. He took a deep breath to compose himself. “It’s like VD,” he explained when I noticed my puzzled expression. “They changed the name for some reason.”

“Oh,” I whispered back. I thought about it for a moment. “But didn’t you…” I struggled for the words we used to use and then gave up -it was too long ago.

He shook his head slowly. “I mean, who would have thought I’d need one, eh?”

We both remained silent for a while –each of us a prisoner in our own head. And then curiosity won out –mine. “You gonna go back online dating again, Jacob?” It seemed important to ask.

He thought about it for a minute or two. “It was nice to have somebody to talk to again, you know. Discuss stuff. Trade ideas…” His eyes made the long, slow trip from table top, to crushed cup, over to my cup and then up to my face. “But I think I’ll join one of those chat-rooms people tell me about…” Then he nodded to himself and sighed. “Then at least I’ll know what I’m trading.”

He seemed pleased with his decision and was finally smiling, so I left it at that. Wisdom, if it comes at all, sometimes arrives late.



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