Essays / Features

Sex and Widowhood

by Tally R. Reynolds

The three of us, two unnatural brunettes and one thinking about letting her gray be the new blonde, stroll into a local suburban café. Soft jazz warms the air. Conversation fills the room, yet the collective sound of all those voices seems to hum more than speak. The clicks of our heels echo off the dark slate floor and telegraph our arrival. Surrounded by rich cherry paneling and eager servers, all dressed in black with white aprons, we do not fit in with the suited clientele, men and women, enjoying small-plate meals and drinks. The occasional tinkling of glass rims rings above tables and signals a deal or a sealed alliance.

We’re the odd trio, meeting for a pre-theater lunch. Our closets ransacked; our indecisiveness tossed onto the floors. We dug out dressy clothes shoved into the back or hidden behind everyday jeans and casual tops—blouses with a line of dust from more hanging than wearing, Sunday best slacks had to be either cinched to the last belt hole or tossed aside for an elastic waist band skirt. All three of us, retirees, were excited to enjoy a leisurely mid-day meal.

On the glass top table sits a hummus and pita appetizer, and each of us has ordered a different salad so we can taste from each other’s plates: arugula with feta, tortellini and fresh mozzarella, and spinach with roasted almond slivers. Besides the need to be out in new surroundings, besides our delight that someone else has purchased, prepared, and will clean up our meal, and besides our hunger for comedy providing anything from a chuckle to laughter rising from our toes, we share something else: all three of us lost our husbands while we were in our fifties.

Molly, whose feet just skim the floor when seated, lost Thomas seven years ago; for Mary Lou and I, it’s been less than three. Mary Lou is taller than me, but arthritis has curved her back. She gained weight after Gary’s death, while Molly and I lost. The three of us met at a weekly support group, where teary stories of loss are disclosed and bonds created. After lunch, we are seeing the musical, “First Date,” an irony that does not go unnoticed.

Reynolds Sex and Widowhood Pic 1“You know what they never talk about at the meetings?” Molly peeks up from her salad to see if she has our attention, then diverts her eyes, poking at a cherry tomato. Both Mary Lou’s fork and mine stop mid-air. We know precisely what she is thinking, as if the answer looms in a comic strip cloud over Molly’s head. That topic is not the “How Do You” questions, like handling adult children’s grief, the reconstruction of holiday rituals, or the heart-wrenching removal of the deceased’s clothing and possessions from the home. Nor is it the proverbial Stages of Grief. And of course, a month doesn’t go by without discussing day-to-day feelings, “How do you deal with your anger? Sadness? Finding simple joy in the day?”

Mary Lou and I restrain ourselves from appearing like we are on a TV game show, jumping from our chairs and shouting the winning answer for our team; but the enthusiasm is evident as we blurt out in unison, “Sex!” In her emcee role, Molly smirks, and, with her fork and its speared tomato pointed at us, punctuates: “How. Right. You. Are.”

We sidestep around that glaring yet muted topic in the meetings, avoiding the embarrassment and arching eyebrows, the clipped “Tsk! And at your age.” It reminds me of those tampon TV ads coming into the family room of my adolescence. It didn’t matter who was present—brothers, Dads, even my own girlfriends—attention channeled away from the TV to the chip-and-dips, beverage refills, and bathroom runs. No one acknowledged the obvious.

The same goes for sex and widows.

During meetings, the topic is sanitized and stuffed with innuendos: “I still sleep on my side of the bed,” or “I miss holding hands.” I once heard a woman’s painful comment vibrating with a sexual energy that silenced the whole room: “I wear his cologne to smell him on me.” Many a woman wears her man’s shirt for that connection. Men complain that they wish they could, too, but compensate by laying her clothes under the covers or on the pillow on her side of the bed. All of us have stepped into closets, hugged their clothes, inhaled the memories of our loves ones, and collapsed onto the floor in tears.

“How do you handle the loneliness?” comes nearest to a discussion about intimacy, but no one says, “I miss getting laid.” No one wants to be reminded that they might still crave an orgasm, that whole body shiver from deep inside. Pheromones float in and out between the chairs and across the tables in the room, calling us back to our bodies, to remember the heat rising from our groins, the excitement of hands gliding down to pull hips to hips, and the smell of day-old sex. I haven’t forgotten. I enjoyed lovemaking with Jack and missed the good sex before cancer and its treatment ruined it.

But no one says anything aloud. Not in that room.

Perhaps some of my peers had negative experiences and were actually relieved that, with death, they no longer faked enjoyment or lying still as a willing spouse. Death was a release from an obligation. But that, too, needs to be said aloud.

Reynolds Sex and Widowhood Pic 2When the ratio is eight women to one man, mentioning the need to be sexual risks the appearance of waving a red flag at the eligible widowers: “Yoohoo! Over here! Pick me!” Widowers can pick from a variety of sizes and ages, be choosey, be coy, while we women are like the wallflowers at high school dances, waiting for someone to notice us. Back in those days, we were trying to breathe in our constricting strapless bras, hoping our dress stayed up over our flat chests. Now, breasts are less of a problem than liver spots, wrinkles, and need for glasses to see what is right in front of us.

I can only speak for myself, but I think my tablemates would agree: I don’t want to appear desperate or lascivious—let’s be honest here and use the word “horny”— still wanting sex at my age. But I do. As a young adult, I was aghast at the thought of my parents having sex; but now, after five decades of life, I see the immaturity of my thinking. Sex, the need and the want, is ageless.

Let’s be clear where I stand: I still want it, the Big IT, which includes the Big O. I am a physical being and enjoy my body in motion, whether it is racing the wind, digging into the earth, or lovemaking. This is just who I am.

Before the cancer, Jack and I touched each other often: running a finger across the shoulders when passing by, a hand on the arm when watching TV side-by-side, a stop in the staircase for “two-step kiss,” with me on the upper step. We held hands when walking together and made love on a regular basis. Treatment took his libido, and, when there was interest, what remained of his stamina was a “quickie” at best. We were both frustrated sharing a bed with the side effects of cancer.

After Jack’s death, every time I rolled onto my left side, I was startled by the flattened sheets and quiet voice rising from his pillows, “I’m gone, I’m gone,” and “No more, no more.” The pillows carried Jack’s scent; many a-morning I found myself hugging one, finding that the more I squeezed, the less there was.

After months of tears, the deep grief began to wane. I began to want to remove the black veil off my body. If the support groups evaded any conversation with the word “sex” in it, imagine those meetings held in local church meeting halls and the possibility of discussing satisfying one’s needs on one’s own side of the bed. Nary a word.

I wanted the pleasure my body could give. I had stored memories to re-enact making love with my absent husband, feeling Jack inside me. I kept our sex life alive. But typically tears followed: opening my eyes after an orgasm, I saw the ceiling, not Jack. I withered inside, the post-orgasmic glow was extinguished. I was given the reminder that sex was another item on the long list of things I now had to do alone.

 

Reynolds Sex and Widowhood Pic 3Grabbing a roll from the breadbasket, Mary Lou corners Molly with, “Dating anyone, Moll?” Mary Lou and I both figure that we are too soon in our grief, still dealing with the empty bed, to put anyone else in it. For now.

Molly diverts her eyes to the tabletop, stirring circles into the salad dressing in one corner of her plate with her fork. A reddening tide has begun to rise from her neck. “Well,” she drawls out that four-letter word for three seconds, “I do have a ‘friend.’” Air quotes and a full-face blush.

“With benefits?” Mary Lou snorts, a laugh that comes more from the nose than the mouth. I snicker.

Returning to another long, “Well” Molly is mulling her words.

Mary Lou and I nudge her. “Who is he?” and “You’re getting some?”

I have to wonder what it would be like to have a new lover. After years of lovemaking with one person, the starting over, the exploratory and laborious stage of telling someone where those erogenous zones are, seems overwhelming: the side of right breast more than left, the soft tickle of pubic hair, and, if all done well at the end, the ensuing ringing of my ecstasy in my lover’s ears. Knowing men my age . . . well . . . what goes up doesn’t stay there as long, I imagine precious minutes wasted on, “Not there. Here,” and “More, more” and “What are you doing?” I see myself blurting out, during post-coitus chitchat, “At your age, you still don’t know what and where a clitoris is?”

Starting over also entails knowing about the lover’s other lovers. I shudder at the thought of sitting in a doctor’s examination room with my feet up in stirrups, being probed for a sample, and being told later—with the doctor’s arching eyebrows and an air of condescension—“Ms. Reynolds, are you sexually active? Because you have syphilis.” A little click of the tongue and a long sigh, then, “And you’re how old?” The shame, as if I was 14, starts radiating from my ovaries.

Those images have me backing away from whatever Molly is doing in her bedroom . . kitchen . . . or wherever. Nevertheless, I follow up Mary Lou’s question with my own. “Where did you meet him?” I want to know how she handled the-under-the-spotlight feeling of being watched and judged by others in a public setting, “What’s Granny doing in here? Shouldn’t she be home knitting something?”

I envision young daters at nearby tables chuckling as we senior lovebirds hold each other’s veiny, bumpy-jointed hands, gaze into dreamy eyes, and lean over the table to lay a kiss on wrinkly lips. They might snicker over what they think the oldsters are talking about: Best places for senior discount? Comparing grandkids? “Gotta cut back on my sugars,” or “Cholesterol is on the rise. Fish for me.” But what they are really anxious to know is, “Does he buy or do they split the cost of the Viagra?”

 

As for my friends and I, we are anxious for the day when we slip off our flannel nighties, let camisoles ripple over our breasts, the hardened nipples on a body waiting to be naked, waiting to be touched, again. When my silk slips off, it will be skin touching skin, his on mine, his in mine. The quilts will be tossed aside; shared body heat will radiate between the sheets. A single taper candle will scent the room and will provide light enough to hold the moment together.

 

Looking at my friends sharing a lunch and later a show with me, I raise and tilt my wine glass to their smiles, “To whatever the future holds for us.”

Raising her glass, Molly adds, “As long as he’s single and healthy.”

“Yeah, no man looking for a ‘nurse with a purse,’” Mary Lou smirks.

I smirk a little as well, but in my mind, I’m with Molly: Good enough for me.

Bloom Post End

Tally R. Reynolds is a retired teacher-school counselor from the Seattle area, and a writer without any MFA classes on her resumé. She attended numerous classes at a local writing center (Hugo House), writers’ conferences, and has a bookshelf full of  “How to Write” books; all started, none finished. “Sex and Widowhood” is her debut publication and a chapter from her forthcoming memoir, “Living On: One Widow’s Journey.”


Homepage image photo credit: Sobreviviendo via photopin (license)
Table photo credit: 089/365 B via photopin (license)
Leaf photo credit: DSC_0034 via photopin (license)
Roll photo credit: P8285406 via photopin (license)

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