Monday, December 27, 2004

A Midlife New Year's Eve Love Story

A short story by Zinta Aistars

This was that most dangerous of nights — New Year's Eve.

The end of one road, the beginning of another. It was, in truth, a pause in the road that for some time now they had shared. Both of them had long walked separate paths, or paths alongside others. There had been adventures and misadventures, passing loves and broken hearts, soul mates, real or imagined. Ex-husbands and wives, pretend partners, borrowed lovers, perhaps even the occasional buddy with benefits. Yes, by now they had reached midlife. Or something a bit beyond.

Still, they had love between them. The sort that one walks, not falls, into. Cautious step followed by cautious step, at times taking one backwards, at other times to one side or the other. Not "in" love, he lectured, but oh, this will do. If not quite settling, then a heart-cozy settling in, leaving old bruises fading behind, slow smoothing of rough and broken edges in their passing, a comfortable shimmying into common place of common ground and shared memories.

By now, see, everyone else had left. Or had been left behind. Paths had circled, zagged, split, and gone on in opposite directions. At those places where all others had gone, where they had found themselves standing (again) alone, they had finally turned — and found each other.

So he was a little banged up.

So she was a little baggy around the hips.

So they were a bit prickly around the edges, lost a degree or two (or several more) of youthful fire, no longer blissfully naïve. But in exchange, here, now, had entered a kind of weathered wisdom born of age/experience/trial and error/accumulation of blatant mistakes. It took a moment to recognize.

When she first looked at him, and admittedly she had to look twice for her eye to learn to linger, she saw the silver gleam of his hair. Beckoning touch. She saw the off-center plump and almost delicate curve of his upper lip. Beckoning nibble. She saw the reading glasses slip to the tip of his thin nose, pale green eyes squinting above their rim to study her, and suddenly, at last, there it was, that weakness just behind the knees. She saw the swagger, first rate Duke, of his gait. She would follow then, shrugging lightly, giving in.

What he saw, who could tell? It could be difficult even for him to say. She was nothing like those who had gone before her. She was not the one he would notice upon entering a smoky bar, maybe the second, maybe not at all. She would be deep in conversation with someone else. She would be wearing suede clogs instead of stilettos. Instead of blonde Farrah wisps in a prearranged tangle, her chestnut hair would be braided to fall loose down her back, an untangling rope. Gray would already be showing at her temples. Her curves were too time-softened for his appreciation for perfection, her breasts that had suckled children decades ago too heavy for one palm to cup. A jagged scar, he would later find, marked her shoulder as testimony of her life before him.

How perfectly imperfect they were. And so, a good fit.

He was a wordsmith; she strung words like pearls. They understood each other, better than either let on. They understood even more as the years logged on.

Marking yet another New Year's Eve side by side, they uncorked champagne before midnight, lit matching cigars, popped buttered popcorn, and dropped a rented movie disc into the player's extended shelf. Another evening home.

It was the warmth of her thigh pressed alongside his when couch-tatering (as she called it) that woke something sleepy and fast warming in him. He watched the opening scenes of the movie, eyes ahead, but the warmth seared him, his leg. He shimmied a little closer, dropped a casual arm around her. Her shoulder settled into the curve beneath his. The soft side of her breast, warm too, pressed into his ribcage. He glanced over, down, to see her drop a popped kernel into her open mouth. Her buttered fingertips, still pressed together into a rosette, gleamed in the flickering movie light. A tongue tip forgot itself in the corner of her mouth, pink, moist, sweet. A momentary innocence of the once-child, a borrowed memory that moved him unexpectedly: this gray-templed woman once a girl he never knew. He tightened the circle of his arm. Something tickled in his groin.

The next kernel popped from her fingers into his mouth, the very tips brushing across his lips. Butter scented.

He watched the movie, she watched it, every so often glancing up at him. Her occasional smile, that crinkling at the corners of her eyes, quick gleam of teeth between opened lips, made his heart swim, gone loose from its tether. She was his Home. After all these winding paths, full of pitfalls, her being here under his arm, knowing too many of his secrets, so many he could sometimes hate her, but couldn't, wouldn't, because still she stayed. He thought, yes, Home.

His cigar had gone out, neglected too long, mind distracted, even while the smoky flavor still lingered in his mouth. Her hand had wandered under the blanket covering both their laps and began tracing lazy circles on his leg. He couldn't remember anyone before her.

Champagne fizzed in two glasses. It was not yet midnight. Scenes on the screen blurred like lives speeding up and approaching the final cut, the one that mattered and made all else make sense.

Circles skittered across his lap. Rows of them. Dancing pirouettes. Smooth, long glides. He was on low simmer, heat rising. She pulled the blanket higher. Pressed into him, head falling to his chest. They were so often more talk than play, two wordsmiths honing their mutual craft, discussing, debating, splitting the hairs of their wordy passions.

But it was New Year's Eve, with too many gone before them, too many champagned eves that no one remembered anymore. This one was becoming a pleasing pattern, sneaking in under the door the way it had, and it had a different flavor.

This was play.

Her shoulder leaned into him. Her breast. That ample softness like no other. His mind saw her breasts behind closed lids, familiar shapes, darkened pink into wine of a taut nipple, a hard button in his palm. His tongue remembered.

Her fingers stroked. Outlining that same memory on him. Stroked, the growing length of him, stroked achingly slow. The movie flickered across the screen. Scent of cigar wafted in the air. His bones felt liquid in his chest. He flicked a plump popped corn from his lap with a snap, watching it roll across the floor. She took no notice. Her eyes were closed. Her own palm smoothed, kneaded, warmed the seam of his jeans where it crossed with another seam, at his very center. Behind her closed eyes, she saw him — the seam of him, the straightened and the curve of him, the strength and the most vulnerable of him. His need. That want. The part of him that was now hers and hers alone.

She softly spoke his name. His eyes fluttered open. As if from dreams. Only this was real. Real as in past the middling of life, real as the sheen of butter on her cheek, real as the silvering of his hair, real as the up and the down, the rollercoaster of this heart-bruising love they had backed into, momentarily caught off guard.

She loved him. He could see it in the crinkling of her smiling eyes, suddenly swimming in tears. It wasn't the happy ever after of a rented movie. It was theirs, their ending and beginning again, their slipping from the couch cushions to the blanket on the floor, hand molding to breast, mouth pressing to mouth, bone of his hip settling into the curve of her pelvic bone in a practiced move, just so, and his body knew how to move against and into hers like a thousand times before. He swallowed hard at the knotted secret he held so tightly inside. That he loved her too, and loved her well, like the mother sister wife daughter friend he'd never had, never known how to keep. His very own. His last. It was a protest of raw need in him, pelting him into her, to join in their dance, one more time, once more, ever more, without end. One. Hot. January. As the morning of the brand new year washed over them, gasping old secrets into each other's arms.

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