By Eileen Bordy
I worry about how my feet look to the young Thai woman giving me a pedicure. I don’t have any bunions, but my nails have this whitish tinge that I’m ashamed of. The woman sands my weathered heels with a porous, pistachio-colored block.
Across the room, I can see Jennifer Lopez’s face glowing on the cover of InStyle magazine. Her skin is golden and shiny like a flan. I Google her on my phone. She is eight years younger than I am. I take comfort in the fact that, even eight years ago, I never looked that good. I pick up the People magazine on the chair next to me but recognize none of the starlets in the pages. The one actress I do know—Melanie Griffith—I barely recognize. She is no shiny dessert. Something has gone wrong on her face. Her lips are bulbous, cheeks lumpy, eyes startled and buggy. She is building a wall of fillers and neurotoxins to hold back the tide of aging and it isn’t working. I Google her on my phone. She is eight years older than me. I am exactly between Jennifer and Melanie. I wonder if eight more years will do to me what they’ve done to Melanie. I realize that her extensive plastic surgery and too much time in the Hollywood sun may have aged her prematurely, but I also have first-hand experience of how the aging curve isn’t so much a slope, but a cliff. Three years ago I had perfect eyesight, and now I can’t read a book, let alone an aspirin bottle, without my glasses.
My body is beginning to soften and wear out. The skin on my neck is what I heard a woman describe as withering. It’s beginning to look like my mother’s neck, a fine, wrinkly mesh of powder-soft skin. When I see it up close in my magnifying mirror, it startles me. I think there is a stranger in the bathroom. Melanie must know the feeling. My knees hurt after I run, and I understand why Anne Lamott calls her thighs her “aunties.” When I look at mine they seem like relatives. They are dimpled and jiggle when I pat them, like my cat’s belly.
While my physical shell becomes more foreign, there are other changes going on that are all too familiar. I’m increasingly anxious, emotional, and squirrelly, and this woman is no stranger. It’s me at fourteen. Now fifty-one, I’m embarking on my second great hormonal shift. My body is betraying me at the most inopportune times—meetings and crowded trains—but instead of bleeding, I sweat. Hot flashes are disruptive and a total bitch and I have sworn off turtlenecks, wool, and pullover sweaters. Luckily, the hot flashes strike only five to eight times a day—whereas the mood swings go 24/7. I have no control over my emotions.
They are mercury—fluid and slippery—vacillating between anger, worry, and indecision. Like the teenager I was thirty-five years ago, I’ve lost my confidence and not just about my looks. I used to feel strongly about things—the color of a wall, the wording of a headline—and now I second-guess everything. I’ve started buying the same food at the grocery store every week. I thought confidence was supposed to increase with age and experience, but mine seems to be dwindling away along with my muscle tone and eyebrows.
It’s too soon for me to be able to label my fifth decade, but if the first year is going to set any precedent, this decade seems as if it’s going to be one of change. I hate change. My friend calls this transition the second “tweener” stage.
For most of my life, I had a clear purpose. In my twenties, I was focused on my career, dating potential mate material, and drinking as fast as I could. In my thirties, I had two children; that was enough. In my forties, I was busy raising those kids, getting sober, getting divorced, and trying to jumpstart my dead career.
What does a woman do in her fifties? I’m too young for retirement. I’m too tired to harbor exhausting illusions of setting the literary world on fire. I’m no longer eye candy for letches at the gym. I’m done procreating and almost done parenting; my children need my financial, and occasional, moral support, but I could disappear for a few days and they wouldn’t notice. (Really. Last Sunday I returned home from a well-planned girlfriend’s weekend. When I popped my head into my son’s room to say hello, he pulled off his headphones and asked where I’d been.)
When I was younger—like forty-two—I imagined that in my fifties I’d be coming into some Gloria Steinem–style glory, my feet solidly planted, full of knowledge about myself, and secure in my place in the world. I did not expect to feel like a shivery sixteen-year-old girl with wrinkles. Before my divorce, this was going to be a time of my life when I enjoyed a lot of butter, not when I still worried about what I looked like naked.
It’s not that I wasn’t prepared for any of this—people age and get divorced, children grow up—but it still surprised me. Even though the path I’m on is worn from the footsteps of generations of women who have gone before me, I feel lost.
I thought I was a hip mom, the kind who stayed abreast of fashion, trends, and technology. I may not know who Leighton Meester is, but I listen to The Shins. And yet, there are things about my kids I don’t understand. I wouldn’t call it a generation gap, maybe a generation crack. The day I turned sixteen, I ran out and got my driver’s license. It was a rite of passage for me. But my children, now sixteen and eighteen, have no interest in driving. When I prodded, my oldest said, “Why would I want to contribute to the demise of the Earth, which you’ve already destroyed?”
This same son has a friend who is a girl. The first time I walked into his room and found the two of them passed out—one sprawled horizontally on the bed, the other vertically, a “T” for teenagers—I gasped and backed out of the room quietly. Although I had purchased a large tin of condoms for my son—hip mom!—I was shocked. A part of me felt that this was wrong. Should I worry about the young girl’s honor? I definitely felt I should notify her mother and did. She knew. She reassured me that our children were just friends. “All the kids have co-ed sleepovers now. It’s great,” she said, clearly the hippest mom of all.
When I ask my boys how to take video with my iPhone or what SnapChat is and why Facebook would pay millions for it, they give me the look I gave my father when I found out he didn’t know how to use an ATM—that he was a cantankerous footnote in the path of progress. This was not going to be me, and yet this is me.
My anxiety has always been kept in the wings by the grace of youth, knowing there was time to fix things. I miss that grace. People I know and love (some of them my contemporaries) are dying, and I forgot to save for retirement and college and my days are long with work and commute and gym and cooking and cleaning and weed pulling and worry. Now that I’m awash in hormones, my anxiety is center stage, delivering a soliloquy. It’s titled, “You don’t know what you’re doing and your life is almost over.”
I’m standing at my kitchen sink, fanning myself, when outside my window I see my neighbor, Leta, in her yard. She’s two months from turning 102, yet still drives her brown Chevrolet sedan to the market and plays bridge several times a week. Leta’s struggling with an umbrella the wind has blown over. I run over to help. We both decide the umbrella is done for and I close it up and set it on her patio. We sit around her table and she tells me who she’s lost since the last time we spoke: her brother; her friend, Claire; her friend, Nita. She is grateful that she feels good and doesn’t have to rely on a live-in caregiver who might steal from her like Nita’s did, cleaning out her jewelry box and driving off in Nita’s car.
Leta is twice my age. She has been through the tweener and second tweener stages. And yet, she doesn’t really have any wisdom for me. “Life just is,” she says. “You make the best of it.”
A friend invited me to house sit for a week in Mendocino, and my older son said he wanted to go with me. I told him that I’d be reading and writing and walking a lot, that I wasn’t planning on doing a lot of talking. He said that suited him just fine. He was leaving for college in the fall. This would be our last “normal” summer.
At dinner our first night, I expected to sit in silence, but he asked questions: how was my book going, what was my friend’s book about, what did I like to read? He told me he liked abstraction. He liked the fried calamari that he recently had in Berkeley. He liked the book he was reading, The Woman in the Dunes. He was on the other side of his first tweener stage and enjoying his new confidence. All these opinions! “This is who I am,” he was telling me. For now, it is who he is. And this is who I am: a moist, sweaty woman in the middle of a change. It will be okay.
EILEEN BORDY lives and writes in Northern California. She’s almost down to one kid, but she’s up to three cats. She has her fingers, toes, and everything else crossed that her first novel will be published soon.