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Authors: Laura Castoro

A New Lu

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a New Lu

Laura Castoro

a New Lu

Copyright © 2005, 2011 by Laura Castoro. All rights reserved.

To the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow
in Eureka Springs, AR.
Thanks for the food, shelter and,
most importantly, the uninterrupted creative work time.
What more could a writer ask for?

February

The stupid crazies are those moments in your life when you go for broke.
Sometimes you win.
Sometimes you lose.
But you just
hadda
do it!

—“The Midlife Crazies”
CUE LU!

Prologue

Sex for the very last time. That's what I was thinking.

It's not unusual, for a single woman of fifty, to contemplate life without sex. Notice how even Oprah's sassy smile grows a bit rickety when she boasts about the big Five-O? That because she ain't talking about Hawaii.

For the year Jacob and I have been separated I've had lots of time to think about just how long a no-sex ever after could be. I'm not proud of what I've just done. I'm not even defensive. Chalk it up to the stupid crazies.

The weekend was to be about closure. Understand, this word was not in Jacob's vocabulary until he started counseling fifteen months ago. Neither were formal separation nor divorce. He didn't even tell me there was a counselor until the second sentence in the paragraph that burned down the roof of my life. The paragraph began, “I think we need to separate.”

Thankfully, the pathetic excuse of another woman wasn't written into the script of my modern life. Yet, after a year of talk and tears, I can't say that I understand Jacob's
reasoning much better than I did when he completed that fateful paragraph. Maybe a few key factors got cut in the dress rehearsal with his counselor.

What stuck in my mind was the part in the middle of his goodbye speech about his “need to be needed,” which I was no longer supplying. I didn't have a comeback for that. Still don't. It's hard to recoup from a first blow that stakes out the best emotional ground.

Every other base we had already covered, twice. Drift, too many business trips, insomnia, the dead bore of routine, desertion of college-bound children…and, of course, aging. Jacob is against aging.

He thought his three-days-a-week trips to the gym and swimming laps the other two weekdays would be enough to stave off time. Then a couple of years ago a golfing buddy teased him about how the sun had bleached his temples white. The very next day he came home with a box of Just For Men. Said he needed the color for a psychological edge in the marketplace.

I, on the other hand, promised myself that when the time came, I would allow nature to take her course. No lifts, tucks, lipo or dyes. Many friends began pulling out silver hairs in their early thirties. I was forty before the first one caught my attention, forty-five before the word
graying
could be attached to me. Even then I developed streaks, one above my right brow, another over my left temple.
Striking,
my hairdresser called the changes.
And you have such a young-looking face.
So, why deny that I have lived long enough to earn my “stripes,” as Jacob once affectionately called them?

Jacob. It has been a while since I could attach the term
affection
to Jacob's attitude toward me. Despite my bravado, I'm not finding one good thing about the half-century mark that looms in the middle of this year. When I look in the mirror, what my age looks like on me no longer makes me smug. I suspect Jacob noticed, too, and disapproved.

Yet there he was last Wednesday, appearing suddenly at his ex-door of his ex-house, a nervous smile on his face. Once his crooked grin was enough to ignite a frisson of affection at thirty paces. Now it makes me feel guilty. Furious at him, sure, but guilty because I can no longer be what he needs. He said he'd been thinking, and he thought we needed to be sure we're doing the right thing. Divorcing. I said I had already signed the papers. He said he had, too, but wouldn't it be a mistake not to be certain? He said he thought maybe we should go away for the weekend, just to talk things over one more time. How about somewhere in the Caribbean? I said I couldn't afford an island getaway. He said he'd pay. I thought, boy, that's generous of him. But I'm not crazy. I said, separate rooms. He said, fine.

Okay, I needed a vacation. But that's not why I said yes. Guilt still works as my motivation. The truth is Jacob's leaving hurt, but it didn't shatter me. I had drifted out of range.

There's got to be more.
Those words echo in my mind with the familiarity of a self-evolved mantra.

Maybe if I just lie low for a few years, until I reach the big Six-O, the urge for something more will go away.
So said a letter to the editor at
Five-O
magazine last year. Okay, I wrote the letter.

We needed an intro to an issue devoted to the restless years of midlife. Being the lifestyle editor as well as monthly columnist of CUE LU! for
Five-O
magazine, it fell to me to set the tone. Putting into words the vague dread that has plagued me on the journey from forty-five toward fifty now seems prophetic. Sleepwalking is exactly what I was doing until Jacob walked out.

Second reason: our children. Dallas and Davin haven't given up on the possibility that their parents will one day wake up and be over it, whatever “it” is. So I feel I should give “it” every opportunity. I don't want to be held accountable for not trying hard enough.

A free trip to the Caribbean in February came in third.

Our three-day idyll began as a measured reflection of our accomplishments. Married in 1977. Two great children: Dallas Patrice Nichols (25) and Davin Jacob Nichols (20). One's a graduate of the University of Chicago's business school. The other struggles at Carnegie Mellon. Jacob and I have two decent careers and, after the first sixteen years, a nicer-than-decent house in northern New Jersey.

But I digress.

Sex for the very last time.

This evening, the last night, began innocently enough. Two Bahama Mamas each—heavy on the rum—and no dinner. Looking at the end of the road while it's still in front of you can be hard to swallow. The cues of familiarity kick in. A lift of his right eyebrow; always an invitation. The sudden warmth of my own sexual response. Maybe he is only flirting with the thought. Maybe I am only intoxicated with the possibility of something soon to be taboo. This makes the possibility of “we” more interesting. After all, this could be, for me, sex for the very last time.

He suggests a nightcap.

I suggest, in my room.

Married sex is about comfort and routine. The comfort of knowing what is coming next. It's like Twister played again and again with the same partner. After a while one anticipates, compensates, knows where the body parts can and can't go. If the kisses are fewer, the duration shorter, the move to the main event quicker, you give a mental shrug and lay the complaint on the altar of married sex. There is the comfort, the ritual of routine. That should count for something.

I tell myself this as Jacob is groping my right breast as if it's an overripe mango he's thinking about purchasing. He doesn't like very ripe fruit. Says it reminds him of aging flesh.
Hmm.

Somewhere between the second tweak of my left nipple and the fingers invading my body, sensations revive that have been absent for thirteen months. No, to be honest, it's been more like eighteen, nineteen months. The end that came with a whimper, not a bang.

We don't exactly go at it like minks but we do a credible job. There is a lot of bed shaking and creaking and the giggles that come with the realization that the guests next door might hear you. And then it's over. The last quick butt wriggle that is Jacob's trademark, and it's ever-after time.

So here I lie in the bed, which he vacated with surprising speed, and stare at the not-quite-painted-over water spots on the ceiling. He didn't really spend much money on this closure weekend, after all. I'll bet he got one of those
travel.com
quickies. You don't know until the last minute what your five hundred dollars will get you.

“Let's be spontaneous,” he'd said, not wanting to tell me where we were going. That out-of-character romantic intrigue now looks like his way of keeping his options open on the cheapest availability.

Okay, so that's Jacob all over. Cheap, and selective about his fruit.

This reminder of two of his annoying flaws inspires other thoughts. This could be the rekindling of the rest of our lives together. Or just a big fat mistake. Despite the sexual flush I'm trying hard to hold on to, I don't know what I'd do if he changed his mind about the divorce.

There's got to be more.

One thing is certain. I am alone in the afterglow. Of sex for the very last time?

April

I'm fifty years old, recently divorced.
Now I'm about to be an unwed mother.
And you thought you had issues….

—“Knocked-Up But Not Out”
CUE LU!

1

The offices of
Five-O
—the magazine for the mature woman—are sandwiched between a ground-floor bagel emporium and a third-level hard-body gym in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. Five days a week, employees are prisoners to the energetic soundtrack for lissome flesh competing with the mother-comfort aroma of fresh bread. In other words, we play dodge ball with the driving forces of life: pursuit and happiness.

I'm part-time. Monday and two other days of my choice.

“So? How was your weekend, Lu?” Babs is
Five-O
's receptionist and Kmart-style greeter.

“Brilliant!” I tend to adopt phrases from favorite TV shows, movies and books. Just now I'm hooked on BBC America and
Changing Rooms,
the British version of neighbor-to-neighbor interior design. Of course,
Absolute Sh-t
would work, as well.

I'm bloated and dehydrated after a weekend of too much fun and drama in Atlantic City with my buddy Andrea. Well, she had fun. I had the drama—a case of indigestion
that kept me far from the gaming tables because I couldn't stray from the loo. Don't know what I ate but I'm convinced it had battery acid in it.

Babs hands me a sheaf of memos. I fan them out and grimace. Two from my darling daughter, Dallas. It seems she no longer trusts e-mail and phone messaging. She's resorted to third party intervention.

“You should do something about her encroachment on your time.” A stern look meets mine over the tops of Babs's glasses. “You don't look so good.”

I smile. “If Dallas calls again before noon, tell her I'm in an editorial meeting.”

“You should be so lucky you are in a meeting for the next month.”

I don't call Babs on this impertinence because at
Five-O
we venerate our elders as an affirmation of our own futures. And, because she is old enough to be my mother. And, because she is right.

Six months ago Babs Kern was rusting out in a retirement village when our recently deposed editor-in-chief, Sarah Mann, decided we needed to act on our mission statement: “To seed our futures by our present acts.” Sarah hired a receptionist from the riper side of sixty-five. (There's no correlation between the hiring of Babs and firing of Sarah, since Babs is still with us.)

For the
Five-O
woman, there's no such thing as retirement. We simply adjust to rising circumstance. In other words, we will work until all options evaporate, mind and body.

Don't be fooled by Babs's penchant for dangling earrings, blue eye shadow and upsweep of impossibly red hair with an inch of white roots showing at her nape. “The Radish” is an affectionate nickname. Truly. Once a private secretary for a Manhattan banker, Babs retains a mind that can keep tabs on everyone's production schedule, as well as recall without prompting the birthday, anniversary
or upcoming celebratory event for each of our fifteen employees. She's even learned the menstrual cycles of the women in the office, and can predict who'll call in sick when.

The fact that Babs uses a motorized wheelchair to get about hasn't slowed her in any meaningful way I can think of. Right now I'd trade my body for Babs's mind.

I flip through Dallas's messages and realize I've forgotten who her caterer is, where the wedding consultant's office is and what the Lorrie Kabala creation she's chosen looks like. The cost is, blessedly, not my problem.

My brilliant firstborn is getting married in five months. The plans have been in the works for more than a year. She and Stephen hoped to marry sooner, but the perfect location for the reception was booked eighteen months in advance. Now, I know I'm from another generation, yet the short attention span of the young would seem proof of my thinking. Any marriage that can wait eighteen months on the booking demands of a reception doesn't seem to have much oomph!

They don't even live together anymore. She's moved in with two girlfriends in the city, while Stephen has moved back to his teenage bedroom in his parents' home. I assumed saving money was at the bottom of this development. Wrong. Dallas says that since their engagement she and Stephen have adopted “celibacy as a psychophysical state” in order to strengthen the more spiritual aspects of their union before marriage. The mom in me is proud. The woman in me is wondering,
“What?”

I've never wanted to know the particulars of my children's sex lives. Somehow it's as icky a thought as what Mom and Pop were doing upstairs on those quiet Sunday afternoons.

Not that my children need wonder any longer. In my briefcase are the final papers from my divorce. One needn't even show up for the legal coup against the
eternal sovereignty of love anymore. Notice comes via the post from one's attorney. In this instance, six weeks to the day after Jacob and I headed for that closure weekend.

Jacob seemed so proud of himself as we waited for our respective flights back to the States—I was right about the cheap fares! He even managed to pat my sunburned shoulder as he said how much he appreciated my support of his needs during the weekend. I'd given him the closure he needed. He was leaving. “Free. Able to move on, to put what we had behind us.”

It's not as if I expected or even wanted him to fall on his knees at the airport and ask me to marry him all over again. Still, I felt—feel—used. He didn't need to think it over. Was the sex that bad?

Depending on who you ask, divorce is just one of those “everybody has one” items or a frontal attack on American morality. I tend not to ask.

Slump-shouldered with fatigue, I slink away from Babs and pass wide expanses of spotless floor-to-ceiling windows that line the eastern corridor of our hallway. This design gives the illusion of air and space to the row of glass-walled but windowless offices opposite them. The architectural brilliance is meant to inspire. Safely on the eastern banks of the Garden State, we Jerseyites can still gaze out across the Hudson and dream Big Apple dreams. Too bad, I haven't had an inspired thought in months.

The power of persuasion has deserted me. The two CUE LU! columns I carry with me read like loser-compensation packages. Once I was proud to be a
Five-O
woman. Today I feel like I'm AWOL in my life.

I stop to gaze out toward Midtown backed by an April-blue sky. Jacob didn't approve of me taking this job. “Fashion and lipstick for women with whiskers,” he calls
Five-O.
Not that his own situation is safe from satire. Jacob is an executive for a fast-food chain, international division.

“You're going to hawk lousy nutrition to the world?” Davin responded when his dad announced his decision to take the position two years before.

I kept my thoughts to myself, for Jacob had been down-sized out of his last place of employment eight months before this opportunity came along. Luckily, I had just begun with
Five-O.
A man without a career—well, it might have been the beginning of the end.

Yet I remain stupefied by a perspective on the world that suggests the best way to bring equality and egalitarianism to nations beset by ceaseless civil strife is to offer them the possibility of answering that American-classic question, “Want fries with that?”

But what do I know?

Remorse is sometimes a difficult emotion to pin down. Swipe the last cookie and you know why you feel toad-high when the theft is discovered. But spend a weekend with your about-to-be ex and the self-reproach is more elusive. Six weeks later and I still feel as though I may just have escaped unscathed from…

“Oh, there you are. Tardiness is not a virtue.”

A stranger is standing in the middle of my office. Well, “middle” would be a generous description of the three feet between the door and the chair before my desk.

For one irrational second I think,
The unsuspected other woman!

This one would certainly fill the bill of middle-age female nightmare. She's impossibly tall and thin, both attributes accentuated by the yardage of legs exposed beneath her coral sweatshirt with hood and matching short shorts. And blond. Or rather, the pale gold thick bob scissored off at her nape still manages the volume of bimbo hair. Spiky cut, her heavy bangs nearly tangle in her eyelashes.

She extends a hand, lean and bronzed to perfection as the rest of her.

“Tai.”

“Lu.”

One syllable each and we've sized each other up. This is Tai Leigh. My new boss. Oh, joy!

“We weren't expecting you until midweek.” I know that's true because I read that memo.

She smiles but it doesn't quite evaporate the frost in her bottle-green gaze. “I was in the city for a 10K run and thought,
Why not pop over, get an early look-see?

Impossibly trendy Tai Leigh is known and loved as a marathon runner for causes, in her spare time. I once walked a 5K. Promised myself to lie down if the urge ever overtook me again. But she's speaking.

“—your columns.”

What
my columns? Nothing to do but play along. “I'm flattered.”

“Really?”

Damn!
She must have insulted me when I wasn't listening. That's what I get for letting my mind drift. But I'm accustomed to dealing with a disaffected reader. “It's an opinion column. I don't expect to win over everyone. But while reading me, that reader is at least giving thought to a different idea.”

“A different idea. Yes.” I swear she bats her lashes at me. One slow sweep of mascara spikes.

She's good. I'm on the defensive before I've had a chance to be really annoying or snide. I could ask the media-buzz question of the moment in the magazine world. Why did Tai Leigh leave
Bling,
the youth-thing magazine where she made her name?
Five-O
is “an age-conspicuous backwater,” if I correctly quote
Vanity Fair.
That is, we don't tout consumption over quality-of-life issues. Tai was thought to be bounding for Tina and Anna territory. Gazelles don't usually tread bayous. She must have ticked off the wrong person. I can see how that could happen.

It's amazing how little of three feet of space she takes
up, I note as I slip behind my desk. “CUE LU! is quite popular.” I casually reach for my top file cabinet. “Perhaps you'd like to see our recent poll results.”

Her gold mop swishes a quick left-right. Before I realize her plan, she picks up the portfolio I laid on my desk, flips it open and reads aloud the title of one of my columns. “‘The Joys of Solitude.'” She lifts the page. “Oh, dear. ‘The Middle-Age Tummy.'”

Good. She's entered my bailiwick. Research is my game. “Did you know that tummy tucks don't last? In fact, for women over fifty, the results can disappear faster than the profits of a day trader. Now, that's throwing good money after bad genes.”

She genuinely smiles, looking at me like Trinny and Susannah on “What Not To Wear” after they've pushed their latest victim before a 360-degree dressing-room mirror. I am immediately aware of every bulge, roll and wrinkle. And that's just my clothing. We're casual at
Five-O.
My oversize sweater, long skirt and mules usually pass as esprit bonhomie. In Tai's gaze I am reflected as bag lady.

“I read your last half-dozen columns coming in on the train this morning. All that old-school feminist ambition! It's just so—dreary, isn't it?” She replaces the portfolio. “To be frank, your views no longer fit the profile of our readership.”

“I
am
the profile.”

“Yes. And you do write your age.”

To my astonishment, she kicks off her sporty Ferragamo suede mules, lifts a brown leg as thin as my arm to anchor her heel over the back of the nearby chair and does a deep bend from the waist.

“I took a poll of my own via our online service. My numbers show that while women may say they accept fifty or even seventy as reality, they still want to pass for ten or fifteen, even twenty years younger.”

As she comes upright, pretzel-stick arms bowed over her
head, she says, “Our readership wants to make age irrelevant.”

Make age irrelevant!
I wrote that column, too. She knows that. She knows I know, so—Damn! She's pulling rank, and we both know I'm the subordinate clause.

Then it hits me. She's here to do some preemptive snipping. I could be
numero uno
on her hit list. By Wednesday, when she makes her triumphant entrance, I could be history. Unless I salute her flag.

But I've had a rough few weeks. I've gone beyond the pale, rushed in where angels do not tread, burned some bridges and—well, I've made my point, and I'm woozy with cliché. Now I stand to lose a job as well as a husband in the same week. I should back down. But I feel the pressure of rising stomach acid. It perfumes my words.

“If you think a thirty-year-old can dictate how a fifty-year-old should live, you're mistaken. We hate being told how to dress by our children.”

“That's cute.” She comes up again, drops her leg and lifts the other into place. Down she bends, so limber her knee hyper-extends as she touches her forehead to kneecap. On a great day I can do three-quarters of that stretch.

She turns her head, gazing at me from beneath an armpit. “I'm here to boost flat sales. Demographics indicate this should be easy. You Boomers are lemmings for trends! That's why I'm going to save your butt.”

She rises, drops her leg and slips back into her shoes before turning to me. “Perfect honesty? Readers will look at me and be reminded of the women they once were. You, on the other hand, are a known quantity, and obviously no threat.” She's noticed not all my bulges are puckered fabric. “Therefore I propose we unite.”

She's offering a merger. Albeit a sneaking, self-promoting, condescending merger. And here I was expecting the boot.

“A sort of ying and yang approach?” I ask.

She consults her watch. “I'm offering you the opportunity to be
Five-O
's poster child of change. You've let yourself go. But I see potential.” A small smile flickers. “You've got good genes. Of course, you'll need to start a genuine health regimen. With a little effort on your part, we can work miracles. You'll need a new byline. Something like ‘A New You.'” She looks up, eyes going so wide her green irises look like kiwi slices. “No, make that ‘A New Lu!'”

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