I Grow Old

Apologies to those who have already read this story. I realised today I had mistakenly put it in the Trash. It has been revived.

It started on a Tuesday in September. She was in the shower, lathering up, pondering the day to come, when she happened to look down at her hands as they moved up and down her arms, along her flanks, across and around her breasts, washing the sleep from her skin. She had looked at her hands countless times before, of course, but this time something caused her to stop short. She raised them until they were directly in front of her face.

They had changed. They were wrinkled, skin sagging and bunching at the knuckles, the textured latticework of noticeable skin suddenly announcing itself. When had her hands started aging? Why had she not noticed before how tired they looked, how second-hand?

Throughout that day, as she went to work, ate lunch, went to the gym, cooked dinner, did the dishes, she was hyper-aware of her hands. Every movement, every gesture, seemed to be magnified a hundred-fold. How could people not notice how ugly they were, how no longer youthful?

The next day, as she was applying blusher in front of the bathroom mirror, she noticed her neck. She batted it gently, and it wobbled. She looked up, then down, then up, then down again. With each movement the skin below her chin followed reluctantly, leaving half of itself behind. When she looked straight ahead it hung like jelly, or silly putty that has been stretched a few too many times and has no hope of springing back into shape.

She put on a scarf, even though it was spring. All day she tried not to nod too much, or twist her head. She felt personally insulted.

On Thursday she decided it was time to put her black pantyhose away and bring her skirts and summer sandals out of hibernation. It was warm and sunny and her legs had been hidden away for long enough. Usually she loved spring, relished the freshness and freedom of donning lighter clothing for the first time after the long imprisonment of winter.

As she stepped into a short blue skirt she paused. Noticed her knees. The kneecaps were framed by sags and creases, valleys that carved her skin and promised to grow deeper. She put the skirt back on its hanger and pulled on her jeans.

On Friday it was her feet. As she started to fasten the straps of pretty green sandals bought at the end of last summer, she saw them. Deep, divisive ravines in her heels. A glacial landscape. The surface of her skin was fractured, rent apart by forces of nature, the cracks declaring: We have been walked on for too long. We are fighting back.

It was an ambush. Her body had been lying in wait for her, and now it had pounced.

On Saturday, she noticed how much her small breasts – pert little numbers that had always stood to attention and looked straight ahead – had sagged. They had bowed down in submission, no doubt having decided that it wasn’t worth looking ahead anymore. Who would return their gaze now anyway?

On Sunday, she spent two hours pulling out every hair that even hinted at the possibility of turning grey. Then she dyed her hair Deep Mahogany (according to the packet).

On Monday she decided to keep her arms permanently bent in order to avoid the skin around the elbow joint bunching in offensive, crêpey waves, like ripples in a stagnant pool. She went to work in boots, jeans, a long-sleeved sweatshirt, gloves and a beanie. She kept her sunglasses on all day.

On Tuesday, she decided it would be best to no longer talk, as this may exacerbate the wrinkles around her mouth. The next day she ruled out smiling, frowning and squinting.

By now, her boyfriend had become concerned. On Wednesday he tried to talk to her about it. He asked her why she was covered from head to toe and why she would no longer talk to him, or even register his presence.

She considered answering him, but was afraid the conversation would make her anxious, and this would make everything worse. So she fetched a paper and pen from the study and wrote:

I think there is something wrong with me. I think I have a disease that means I’m getting old really, really quickly. Like the ageing process has been accelerated.

Then she stopped writing, because she was afraid that bending her fingers around the pen would bring on more wrinkles, or arthritis.

Her boyfriend didn’t know what to say, or do. He suggested she go to the doctor, but just that morning she had noticed two brown spots on her left hand that she was certain had not been there previously, and she was terrified of going out in the sun or outside at all, in case the UV rays sped up her degeneration even more.

For the next two weeks she stayed in their bedroom, only coming out to go to the toilet or make herself an occasional sandwich or refill her water bottle. She had pinned a dark blue sheet up to cover the window, blocking out all the natural light. She banned him from entering, in case he had germs that in her weakened, ageing state would leap gleefully from him to her and take hold, accelerating her descent towards twilight.

Her boyfriend called her parents, her sister, her best friend, her doctor, the local Relationship Services office and the Minister of the Presbyterian church down the road. She would talk to no-one, see no-one. She made just one request during this time. She asked him to go the library and get her a book of poems by T. S. Eliot. He heard her reading from it in the evenings, carefully placing the words into the silence.

I grow old … I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.  

On the third Thursday in October he was watching the 6 o’clock news, the french doors wide open to let in the sounds and smells of a spring evening in Grey Lynn, when the bedroom door opened and she emerged, armoured in her dark uniform. She moved to stand in front of him, blocking his view of the television.

“You men don’t get it,” she said in a voice that had been truant from regular conversation for far too long. “For you, getting older is a badge of honour. Look at George Clooney. Sean Connery. Rod Stewart. The world desires them, thinks their grey hair and wrinkles are distinguished, valuable, potent. They can get any woman they want, even a woman half their age, and it doesn’t matter that their penis is wrinkled and their stomach is starting to hang over their belt and they have hairs growing out their nostrils and ears and they have a bald spot. But for us women, grey hairs and wrinkles and facial hair and sagging skin make us invisible. We are torn down, subtracted from. Eyes slide over us and away where once they would have lingered. And then we can’t make babies anymore, and we are doubly worthless.” She took a breath. She had obviously had plenty of time to rehearse this.

“At least with this illness the whole fucking process is sped up and I’ll be old and dribbling and incontinent and forgotten before I can even register how soul destroying, how insulting the sad, slow decline is for women. I was beautiful once, you know.” The last statement was inscribed on the air between them like an epitaph.

She turned, went back into the bedroom and slammed the door.

Her boyfriend sat and thought for ten minutes. Then he got up, knocked on the bedroom door, and kept knocking until at last she barked, exasperated: “WHAT?

“Open the door please. I have something to say.”

He heard nothing for a long minute, then the door opened a crack. Sunglasses stared out at him.

“If you insist on continuing with this farcical, ridiculous pantomime, I will leave you. I mean it. You’re 36. You’re still young. Yes, you’ll grow older, but so will everyone. To me, you have always been beautiful, and you always will be, even with wrinkles and sagging boobs and whatever else. Get a grip and get over it. And while you’re at it, give me back my sunglasses.”

She stared at him with her mouth open. She took the sunglasses off and silently handed them to him. Then she shut the door.

The next morning, she came out of the bedroom and had breakfast with him, albeit silently, and still in her black fatigues.

On Saturday she took the dark sheet down from the bedroom window. On Sunday she came out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. On Monday she went to work.

By Thursday she had shed the gloves, beanie and scarf, and on Friday she agreed to go to dinner, and to see a therapist.

On Saturday he was allowed to move back into the bedroom, and on Sunday they had sex (with the light off). Afterwards she told him that she loved him and would try to believe that he loved her, just as she was.

As soon as she had fallen asleep her boyfriend got up and took his mobile phone out onto the deck. He lit a post-coital cigarette, breathed deeply. The Sky Tower blinked, and he could hear the distant roar of a 767 skimming the stars. He thought about the last four and a half weeks and everything she had said about growing old. He looked at his own hands, shifting them back and forth to better catch the reflection from the city lights. Was he imagining it, or were there more wrinkles than yesterday?

He flexed his fingers into a fist, and the wrinkles disappeared.

This is ridiculous, he thought. I know just the remedy for this bullshit. He dialled, and a very young woman answered. “Darling,” he breathed. “It’s been a month. Feels like a lifetime. When can I see you?”

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