Love in the final innings
The romance of sex over 70; the romance of solitude over 70it's all good as long as we have the choice
“…he dared to explore her withered neck w/his fingertips…her hips w/their decaying bones, her thighs with their aging veins."
–Gabriel García Márquez, Love In The Time Of Cholera
I was 25 when the English translation of Love In The Time of Cholera came out. I swallowed it in one rapturous gulp, drunk on the language, the magic, the parrot, the drama, the jungle, the woman who hated eggplants, the man who waited and waited. When I read it again at 50, having loved and lost and loved and lost and loved in my own life in the meantime, I was riveted anew by the love story at its heart. If you’ve read it, surely you remember this:
With her Florentino Ariza learned what he had already experienced many times without realizing it: that one can be in love with several people at the same time, feel the same sorrow with each, and not betray any of them. Alone in the midst of the crowd on the pier, he said to himself in a flash of anger: “My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse."
Teenagers tend to think they have a monopoly on passion. I know I did. When you’re 17, everyone over 30 seems faintly ridiculous. Only we smooth-limbed grandiose hormone-ridden narcissists understood romance—the oldies were too desiccated. What idiots we were.
True, there’s no love like 17-year-old love. Luckily, 52-year-old love is also pretty damn fabulous, I’m pleased to report. And, just to see what might be waiting down the line, I talked to a couple of people who no longer get asked for their ID cards in clubs—if they go to clubs.
Blanche Perkins is 73. She runs her own therapy practice in New Jersey. She was married at 18, and had her first child at 19. Now she has two children in their 50s, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. She has been married twice, and was divorced for the second time when she was in her late 40s. A year later, she met a man 15 years younger than her at a play, and was with him for three years. “We both knew it was temporary," she told me.
“He wanted to get married and I did not. It was nice enough but wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to live with him, share my life, and everything that marriage implied."
After that, she put a personal ad in the local paper, and met her next boyfriend, whom she was with for a year. When Internet dating arrived, she became a regular on Match.com, and has never looked back.
She has had four major relationships through Match.com, and describes all the men as “lovely, interesting and accomplished. Almost by definition, over-50 people have had a life—interests and passions and careers. You bring a lot to a relationship, including people—your children and your grandchildren and friends".
In her experience, men have far fewer friends than women. “I have a huge network. Men are delighted to be swept up in my social life. In every one of the cases, it ended when the man wanted to get married, and I didn’t. I had thought I would want to get married at first. But marriage is huge—it has to be someone you want to talk to more than anybody else. Also, the money has to work properly. I need enough money and enough insurance that I won’t be a burden on my children. You need to have taken care of business in terms of long-term security and care. Most of these men haven’t. It’s dangerous. They get sick before you do. You have to take care of you! The feeling you get is that they want to be swept up in your life, and you to take care of them. They’re looking for someone younger. I’m not alone in my stance of being very cautious about making a legal commitment.
“It is completely clear to me," she continued, “that at any age a woman can go on this site and find men who are decent, perfectly fine people, and want to get married. Anybody can get married—that’s not hard!
“All these people have been in marriages and they know how it goes—the women do more of the housework, managing, social life—the women don’t want it, and the men want more of it. If I were deeply in love now, I would marry with no problem. All these men, I liked them, sex was great, but I wasn’t madly in love."
Ah yes, sex. Perkins said, “In my experience, many men on Match.com who are in their 60s and 70s aren’t interested any more. Their testosterone is low. But many are! And the same goes for women. There’s a group of us who are alive and vital and interested and want to have sex."
The weird cultural stereotype that only the young have sex has meant that sex among older people hasn’t received much attention. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. HIV and other STD rates among geriatric nursing-home patients have soared lately (I don’t know about you, but I plan to get frisky until I’m 103. Okay, okay, let’s be realistic—102).
Perkins said she enjoys sex and wants it to be part of her life, even if she’s not necessarily madly in love with the man. Dating in your 70s can be as fraught with peril as in your 20s. “It’s wonderful not to worry about birth control!" she said, “But you still have to have The Talk, after three or four dates. We each need to be medically tested for HIV, that’s routine. They also test for other STDs. If anyone is hesitant, you would not see them again. After the results, you go ahead."
Then there’s the other Talk, the one you don’t necessarily have in your 20s if everything is in working order. This is the reveal of the physical problems: “Nobody is 75 without some minor or major physical issues," said Perkins. Do you mention your mastectomy on the second or third date? Does it hurt to get into certain positions because you had an accident or surgery or a disease or just because your body has gone through this world for a long time and has the scars to prove it? Men tend to worry about performance, despite the wonders of Viagra.
“That’s how it goes at this age," philosophized Perkins.
What’s the incentive to get married? I asked. Not much, she said. “I don’t need a man to take care of me. It creates certain obligations. But it would be different if I were in love. I would want to show the world that I want to be connected to this person until we die. The urge doesn’t go away to say to the world, ‘This is my husband’, just because you’re old. It doesn’t go away. It also means you’re brave enough to commit everything you’ve got to this person. It just seems so brave!"
Happily for her (and for this column), Perkins recently met a man who might make her rethink her determination to remain single. “He just seems lovely. All the major boxes are checked off. He’s nice to his children and grandchildren. He has enough money to take care of himself. He has friends. He’s smart and interesting and funny. I’m very thrilled!"
Perkins is fun to talk with. She is sensible and fun and willing to take a chance: on men, on life, on Match.com. And she personifies the best part of growing up: choice.
I talked to another sensible, fun and adventurous woman in her mid-70s. She is Indian. She was married at 20, and had a fantastic marriage. Her husband died a few years ago, and the thought of a new lover or another marriage completely revolts her. “The thought of sex with anyone else is too boring!" she told me. “And marriage to anyone else would be frightful." For her, the big adventure, her choice for an exciting old age, is actually having the chance to be alone for the first time in her life. “I’m relishing it!" she said.
The romance of sex over 70; the romance of solitude over 70. Too many people, hobbled by circumstance, society or ill health, don’t have the luxury of either. May we all have the choice. The heart, after all, has more rooms than a whorehouse.
Sohaila Abdulali has been madly in love with the same person for 18 years, much to her shock and wonder.