If there’s one thing that retirement gives you, it’s Time -time to reflect on what you should have done, and of course, what you shouldn’t have. Experience is what you’re supposed to call it; I prefer to call it Wisdom, but then I would think of it like that –we all think we’re especially gifted in retrospective analysis but I figure for most people it just amounts to confirmation bias. Or rationalization.
Fine. But whatever happens, we’re still expected to learn from experience, right? I mean, if you get heartburn with spicy foods, well… But some people don’t learn. It’s like they start afresh each time and then are actually surprised that it occurs again. And again… Until it’s too late. Paramnesia might be the pathological diagnosis, but I suspect in Harry’s case it is not pathological, it’s just naïve hope, pure and simple -the triumph of hope over experience, as Samuel Johnson so aptly put it.
“Goz, we gotta talk,” the voice on the phone said, without so much as a ‘hello’, or a ‘how are you, it’s been a while’. It took me a moment to recognize Harry’s voice. It had been a while –several months, at least. Harry and I had been roommates in university and stayed close friends until he married a friend of mine. It was only after their eventual divorce that he decided he was able to talk to me again -needed to talk to me, actually. Harry was never a successful gardener of friends –more a sporadic weeder, I think. His harvest had been disappointing over the years, to say the least. But I had learned to tolerate his vagaries and vicissitudes, although he was still uncharitable with mine.
The last I had heard from him was when he was dating Deborah, a rather unattractive woman half his age. I remember her name because I had once inadvertently referred to her as Debbie. “Deborah,” he’d interjected -quite testily as I recall. “She prefers ‘Deborah!’”
“What, is she listening to us?” I’d asked, surprised at his vehemence.
“No,” he’d replied quickly –too quickly… As if he wasn’t really sure. “But I just thought I’d warn you.”
But this time, he called me ‘Goz’ and he knows I hate that, so he must have been really upset.
“Okay, Harry, but…”
“Pardon me…?” Sometimes I don’t know why I even bother using names with him.
“It’s Harold,” he continued. “Deborah likes the name Harold, so I’m trying to get used to it.”
I paused for a moment, hoping he wouldn’t read that as an endorsement. “So… talk to me then Harold,” I said, making sure he caught the italics.
“No, no,” he answered, obviously deaf to my typographical artistry. “I mean we need to get together and talk. Maybe we could go for a coffee…” He waited for a second. “Or a little walk or something,” he added when I didn’t respond immediately.
I thought about it for a moment. “Okay, how about the Seawall?”
It was his turn to pause. “Uhmm, the Seawall?” Another, more lengthy silence followed. “That’s a really long walk, Goz…”
I sighed into the phone so he could hear it. “There are benches all along the way, Har… I mean Harold.”
“But… I’m exhausted.”
I really don’t think he understands italics. I sighed again, but this time to myself –he obviously didn’t understand sighs, either. “Why are you exhausted?” I got the feeling he was trying to tell me something, without actually telling me.
There was another pause. I wondered if he felt he needed to practice these before any answer. “You know…”
“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.” In fact, I did, but I wasn’t going to make it easy for someone who kept calling me Goz.
“Deborah’s really…” He left it at that, presuming I’d help him out, I think.
“Young…?” I said, without really thinking about it.
“Age doesn’t matter when you’re in love, you know.”
I rolled my eyes, but I had no way of showing him that, so I just said “Deborah’s got a lot going for her…” But she didn’t, and he knew it. His attraction was solely her age. And anyway, no thirty-five year old woman this side of pretty would ever go out with Harry.
“But she’s into exercise, Goz…” He tried out his third pause. “Really, into exercise!”
There’s a price for everything and I couldn’t help chuckling.
I could hear him breathing irritably into the phone. “I don’t think you’re taking this very seriously, Goz.”
“Har… ahhld,” I corrected myself quickly, “You’re what, sixty-three now?”
I could almost see the phone blush. “Sixty-eight…” Pause. “Well, okay, early seventies… But she doesn’t care…”
“Then why do you?” That was unfair I know, but he was asking for it.
“I don’t…” He took a too-loud breath. “I mean, not really…”
“So… I just needed to talk about it, that’s all.”
I didn’t say anything. I thought my silence might encourage him to open up a bit more. But it didn’t.
“What do you think, Goz…?” he said after a pause so long I thought he’d hung up.
“I think you need to tell me what’s really bothering you.”
“Why do you think there’s something bothering me?” he said, too loudly. Too defensively.
“Harry, you phoned me, don’t forget.”
He ignored the name change. “Well, now I’m kind of sorry I did…”
I felt ashamed that he felt I wasn’t helping a friend.
“I just thought maybe you could help…” he added, his voice trailing off noticeably.
I took a deep and silent breath. “I’ll help if I can, Harry. Just tell me how.”
He waited to reply –too long, perhaps. “Well… We’re both the same age, remember, and you’ve always kept yourself in pretty good shape too. So, ahh, I was wondering how you cope… I mean, you know, with the… the fatigue and everything…”
He still couldn’t bring himself to admit why he’d really called.
I took another deep breath and shook my head sadly at his predicament. “The way I cope wouldn’t help you, I don’t think.”
“What do you mean?”
“I live a pretty solitary life, Harry. My… needs are probably a lot different.” I was going to say ‘duties’ but I decided not to at the last moment. “Maybe…” I didn’t know quite how to phrase this either- I wanted to say ‘Maybe you should grow up’ but I knew he was clinging to a mere gossamer thread of hope. “Maybe you should talk to your GP…” I settled for in the end.
“Yeah, that’s what Deborah said…”
“I thought there might be another way, that’s all,” he said in an embarrassed voice, and then hung up.
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra sprang to mind the moment the line went dead:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies. . . .