Is this when Alicia is at her most beautiful?
You’re hot for him, he’s hot for you, but how will he feel three gravity-heavy decades from now? Hotter still! says this husband.
She had just emerged from the shower wearing her trademark terrycloth ensemble – one towel wrapped, if barely, around her torso, another turbaned on her head. Sacked out on the bed, I pretended to watch the Mets game, but my attention was, as always, galvanized by her body. With the play-by-play burbling, I peeked at my partner of 33 years as she bent and stretched, rubbing herself dry in the half light. I dug the come-hither of her curves, the plain beauty of this body that had been the engine of my longing from about the time I had first learned to yearn.
As I lay there, struggling to restrain myself – she’d had a long day – I considered the changed her body had gone through over our years together. In defiance of conventional wisdom, the tick-tock of time and the stress of two pregnancies have only enhanced her. Parts that were merely pert are now graceful and inviting. Though she isn’t happy with what she calls “gravitational effects,” she has, if you ask me, only gotten better with age.
And so I decided to tell her. I waited as she dressed for bed, shimmying into black panties, snapping on some pajama pants and finally slipping on a T-shirt that lingered over her head – showcasing her breasts just a beat longer than she would have if she’d had no audience. When her face popped into view, she took a sort of bow – blowing me a kiss – and scooted toward me on the bed. Maybe she hadn’t had such a long day.
“Your body is more beautiful today than the day I met you,” I said, as she cuddled with purpose next to me.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean,” she barked, bolting upright and, in a flash, out of the mood. “You are comparing my body now with my body then? Why?”
I suddenly realized that I’d stumbled down a rabbit hole, into the land where women assume that when it comes to beauty, younger is always better. More precisely, women assume that men think younger is better. It’s the ground zero of female insecurity, where too many women spend too much time. From where I sit, it looks like one scary place.
That night, we had a long discussion – well, my wife did most of the discussing – that bounced all over the place. She wouldn’t even entertain the possibility that what I had said could be true. Could a middle aged woman be beautiful? Of course, but it was scientifically impossible, she cliamed, for a woman of her age to be sexier than when she was 20 years prior. She could live with what happened to her figure, she said, but she’d be damned if she’d be pitied. When I said something deeply brilliant about how beauty “doesn’t even exist until it’s perceived,” she threw a slipper at me.
It was hard to blame her for not understanding. After all, what could she know about the form she inhabited? She was too close to it to see it clearly. Does the dancer see the dance? I, on the other hand, was the world’s leading expert on her body. I’d had a front row seat for its whole story.
Slinky, stong, and mysterious.
The first time I saw her, she was 18 years old and wearing a miniskirt that the Sisters of the Divine Compassion, from whose high school care I’d just graduated, whould have called an “occasion of sin.” It was made of buckskin, more a wide belt that a skirt really, and it barely covered her assets. My first goal that had nothing to do with baseball was to touch that skirt. No, to grab it. OK, to toss it inot the corner. At first, her body was purely and aspiration to me; it taught me how to dream.
Dateline: Arches National Park, Utah. It was the first trip for two Eastern sea boarders to the vastness of the American west. Throughout a morning hiking up trails, the seat of her shorts was my north star. I ignored the epic vistas, enjoying her geography instead, wondering if a high noon quickie in a national park was a crime and whether I cared. But by the afternoon, lust morphed into an engineer’s admiration. The backs of her legs, her hamstrings, and calves, by then rusted with red-rock dust, seemed less luscious than they did powerful. It was the first time I appreciated her plain physical strength, a strength on which I would depend for years to come, to lug groceries, to lift children, to stay up all night in the emergency room with a croup-stricken four year old so she wouldn’t miss the pediatrician when he made his rounds. I’ve felt grateful for her body. It has lightened my load.
By our wedding day, after a decade together, her style had evolved from Joni Mitchell to Katharine Hepburn, and our marriage was our own Philadelphia story. I remember two things about her body from that celebration; how her dress, blue with a black pattern and a kicky thirties cut, whispered, silky and promising around her southern hemisphere as she turned to kiss and talk with the members of our tribe; and the energy of her face. As we danced, she beamed at everybody she loved, working her most critical muscles – the ones that help her smile.
When my wife was pregnant, she was sick to her stomach virtually every day. And though my hands-on access to her body was limited by the fact that she was usually about to the throw up, she shared herself in a quiet new way, bu sitting on my lap. Before then, she hadn’t been much for cuddling, but when she was carrying the kids, she would nestle into me. I enjoyed the fullness of her shape as her breasts and belly swelled. During the actual ordeal of childbirth, I was a stand-up-by-her-head husband, avoiding to the best of my ability glimpses of actual blood and gore. I got the message nonetheless and understood the toughness at the heart of motherhood. Since then, her body, which had been a playground pre-kids, has seemed intriguing, as though it had a superhero secret to go with all the obvious bells and whistles. I knew what her body had been through and loved it the way a man loves a comrade who has taken a bullet on his behalf.
Last summer, my wife sunbathed while I went for a run down a New Jersey beach. Staying fit was my cover, but as I ran, huffing and puffing, I drank in women of every shape, every color, every age, and every taste in bathing suits. I actually thanked God for his work. When I got close to our spot on the beach, I saw a woman emerging from the surf. She tipped her had back, slicking her hair smooth with her hands, revealing her armpits and tilting her breasts upward into the setting sun, and I felt obliged to slow down to admire this stranger. It was only when she started to jog through the shallows that I recognized my wife’s unmistakable gait. I loved her body then as an object, the way a man loves anything beautiful.
It’s about character, not collagen.
Women are often critical of male lust. They resent that it’s undiscriminating, that a well-married guy can appreciate the new secretary in the office or even the third dancer from the left in the latest music video, that lust may have nothing too do with love. But when it comes to aging, that’s not bad news. We’re not subtle. We don’t even notice most of the incremental changes in you to which you’re so finely attuned. And the shape-shifting we do notice rarely throws us off our sexual game. You may think you’re less appealing because you’ve gained weight or a few wrinkles, but we don’t think that. We want you – in all shapes and sizes. Wanting is what we do best.
Sometimes I find myself giving my wife an appraising once-over, as though I’m examining a used car. She has sustained a couple of dings over the years: two small burn marks on her leg, plus a slightly bent pinkie thanks to an icy path her husband should have done a better job of clearing. And I know that as time goes by, I will have to love her body in a brand-new way. As her bones get more brittle and her balance a little less sure, I will have an ever growing obligation to watch over her body, to love it the way a curator cherishes a work of art.
I reflected on this all as she ripped into me that night for my failed attempt at flattery, and finally got fed up with listening to her. I felt as though somebody had to stand up for the body that had stood by me through it all. I gestured for silence and claimed the floor.
“My dear wife,” I began. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I do think you’re beautiful because of everything I know about you. Maybe it’s because when I look at you naked, I see your courage, not just your caboose. Maybe you’re actually an old hag and you just look beautiful to me because of the 10 million laughs we’ve shared. Maybe it’s because your body carried my dazzling DNA forward into the world. Maybe it’s just because I’m addicted to your scent, your lips, your hips. but guess what: I don’t care. We don’t have to agree. I’m entitled to think what I think. If you want to swallow the cultural propaganda that judges women by the collagen in their skin and not the content of their character, feel free. go right ahead. But I’ve got no interest in it. Zero. Zip. Nada.”
Normally, my “Zero. Zip. Nada” line is gasoline on any fire. But not this time. She just sat there, and the room got deeply quiet.
“If you want every time you look in the mirror to be a damage assessment, that’s your choice,” I said. “But I just don’t see what you see. If you ask me, life is too damn short, and I’ve got no time to be mourning, especially when a celebration is in order. My God, look at you.” The catch in my voice surprised even me.
She got up from the chair and crossed toward me, reaching down and slowly pulling her T-shirt back over head, dropping it to the floor. I marveled at the evolution of her body, its ascent over the years from naive to womanish, from brand-new to burnished by everything she knew, enriched by her ability to pay attention, to inhabit the moment with a lucky man. When she put her arms around me and kissed me, she felt like all a fella could handle, completely at home in the body in which we’d both been blessed.