No Space Between Us

{Originally published in the beautifully designed Fall 2020 issue of Rathalla Review}

We feel nineteen, I think, kissing, leaning into him as he rests his rear on the island in his light-flooded farmhouse kitchen. Only thing: when he was nineteen, I wasn’t born yet. Wasn’t a sparkle in my mother’s eye until he reached a full-grown twenty-seven. This, the sprawling chasm between our ages, almost took him out of the running. Not that there was much of a running, so reluctant was I to love.

As I started to consider it, he and I bonded over common experiences (20-something conversions to Quakerism; identifying as writers; animal and garden love; academics). Many weeks before we turned to romance, I turned to research, trolling Wikipedia for couples with age differences approaching ours. Most notably, those involving women I admired: Georgia O’Keefe, Jane Kenyon, Frida Kahlo, Ann Patchett. None stretched to our 28-year mark (when our relationship started, I was 49; my farmer, 77). Yet it provided context, placed us within a tradition. I found myself calculating numbers in my head: when he is 95, I will be 67when he was 50, I was 22. I assuaged myself, noting that widowed men commonly betrothed much younger women in former eras—those women being unmarried and spry enough for chores and child-rearing. Modern stereotypes of older men seeking “trophy wives”; younger women “sugar daddies,” turned me desperate for alternate narratives. Alas we clash with the stereotypes: me with my too-real non-silicone breasts; he, a retired academic and small-scale farmer.

Since he was respectful of me as a new friend and much younger woman, it fell to me to make a move. Thanks to memory-searing hormones coursing at the time, I remember standing in a parking lot on a spring-radiant afternoon, the two of us bathed in attraction and shape-shifting doubts, crackling nervous energy. I wanted to kiss him. And chickened out. My plan was to venture the kiss after he pecked me on the cheek, his usual goodbye. But he asked a question just before leaning in, leaving me talking over what was to be my opportunity. Suddenly he’d stepped back, leaving us three feet apart and approaching farewell. Three feet a too-steep canyon for my enervating shyness to breach.

Instead, I teasingly called him a hypocrite for using words like “magic” and “prayer” in his poems while expressing untethered skepticism at others’ spirituality and we laughed at the feigned reproach. Smiling, we met each other’s eyes, then looked down at our feet. His eyes blue—clear as a marble and dancing. Oh, we liked one another—no question. But who was I kidding? To think I could breach the distance, the impossibility, the social strictures. I stepped into my car that day defeated, feeling hopeless in love. My cheeks burned.

Hours later, though, writer that I am, I found my way, referencing the fantasy kiss in an email and our love took flight with so many unexpected, unexplainable elements—not least being my desire for him. How my physiology hums in the presence of this man I would have thought “too old” until he went and redefined “old.” He is not unmarred by age, mind you. Not someone miraculously youthful of appearance. What I am learning is how little it matters. When I’m kissing him, I mostly forget how our age gap gapes.

But there are times I notice, times when a generation gap—or perhaps experience gap—seems more pronounced. Like when he mopes about having to retire at 75. We sit at the table where we’ve shared a hundred meals now—surrounded by the ephemera of his life on the farm: vintage Quaker brand ads and antique kitchen utensils. (Lori McKenna croons in the background: “You live long enough, people get old….”)

My farmer is a recently-retired literature professor of 47 years; his face falls as we approach the subject: “Visiting campus today, it was hard to accept I won’t be teaching,” he says. “It makes me sad—being outside of the excitement—the new year.”

He is again the man unmoored by change, untethered from identifiers that secured his ego since becoming a young professor at 27. I hold his hand and listen but I don’t feel terribly sympathetic. My farmer lived a remarkably privileged life of career stability, as I see it; got to do a job for which he was well-compensated, undeniably gifted and, in tenure, protected from gusts of administrative conflict; then retired with social security, a solid retirement account, and an honorific title of Emeritus Professor (that he eschews as a has-been title for “old farts”). It was time to make way for younger academics. To me, his resistance to change seems almost selfish. Or, at the very least, unaware.

“But if you didn’t have to retire,” I say, “there wouldn’t be a job for another academic who deserves the chance.” Someone, like, my age, I think, projecting onto him my disaffection with Baby-Boomers for leaving Gen-Xers mostly scraps—such as a preponderance of adjunct positions that pay minimally, without benefits, as colleges shell out goods for a clutch of tenured, pensioned professors. But alas, he knows this. He even agitated at his university for better adjunct-faculty wages. I change the subject, shifting to an article on Greta Thurnberg, Trevor Noah’s monologue, the laughable follies of the day. No need to belabor our generational divide, though I do note the juncture where our experiences diverge. As a consequence of his privileged life, he often presumes success where I would presume failure.

Or, I might feel our age gap at day’s end when fatigue descends before my farmer’s obligatory post-dinner nap. At this hour, he moves differently, like Dorothy’s Tin Man needing oil at the joints. He becomes lumbering and stiff, placing his hands on his waist as he arches his back in a way that brings on a grimace. At this hour, I sometimes worry—worry I will lose him too quickly; worry he will not be around long enough.

In a relationship with a 28-year age gap in which one partner is 77, the importance of “cherishing each day” is more than a cliché. And so we do. We linger. At the table, in bed. We talk until hours get away from us and kiss the same way; we hold each other long, look into each other’s eyes like it’s almost the end of the world. Not that we won’t extend our time all we can. I send him off to the doctor with a list of screenings to request, to be safe: bone density test, comprehensive metabolic panel, Cologuard. Being a farmer, he stays active; but he has also cut down alcohol, added glucosamine, and started drinking vinegar for digestion in lieu of too many antacids. Every once in a while, usually at the Tin-Man hour, I lead him in a toe-touching stretch.

After dinner, I follow him to bed where we lie on our sides, facing one another and sharing a good stare. We never seem to tire of this. He looks closer to my age with his head on the pillow. We kiss and stroke one another— our bodies braided together, arms and legs.

“I love when nothing separates us,” I tell him. I assume we both think of our separations, things that stand between us as a couple—literal and metaphorical, the separations unique to our relationship that are nonetheless universal, like elements of disturbing dreams.

“I love you,” he says. We continue petting one another.

After a long pause, I add: “Thank you for loving me.”

“What was that?” he lifts his eyebrows. “I didn’t hear you.” Propping his head on his elbow, he exposes his other ear.

“I said, thank you for loving me.”

“Oh, darnit,” he says, pulling me into him. We kiss and purr. “Dirty darn,” he says with a smile on his voice, “no that’s not what I meant. …Doggone it, I mean.” We laugh. So often, we laugh. “Oh,” he says again, this time with a sigh, “I’m so glad you are this woman—so responsive, so fully loving of me. Thank you for loving me.” He brushes hair from my cheek and tucks it behind my ear before trailing his hand down my neck. His hands, so gifted at touch.

“How is it we keep getting closer?” I finally ask. “Isn’t it crazy?” Each day. How does the intimacy just deepen?

“I know—each day I want to gobble you up,” he says. “It is amazing. We are so lucky.”

A few minutes pass and I turn my back to him, spooning against him so he can finally nap. As usual, I will get up after a spell to take a hot tub soak or return emails while he sleeps. But this time he lifts himself onto his elbow, stretching his other arm all the way around me and settling his head on my shoulder. Again, appreciative, purring sounds escape our throats. Resting this way, he soon falls asleep—my shoulder, his pillow, as I inhale the familiar scent of his shaving lotion and hair.

There is no space between us; nowhere I need to go. I stay put a long while.

I can’t say the future doesn’t scare me at times, that I don’t envision the agony that will accompany losing him—unless I go first in defiance of statistical probabilities. Now that I am here in this love, it is hard to see life without it. It has become so close, a part of me.

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