The Struggle And Joy Of Finding Love Again Later In Life
Fifty-four Valentine’s Days in, Mike Sager thinks maybe he has found the person to grow old with. Can you really save the best for last?
After the deluge, the sun returns to Southern California.
The wet sage and cayote brush in the canyon, the dark besotted ground, the delicate colorful florets of the lantana, the camphoraceous leaves of the mighty eucalyptus — from which issues most evenings the spooky hoot hoot hooting of an owl — all of it simmers in the strong, late-morning light, giving off a delicate potpourri of earthy scents.
It is the time of the day I like to leave my desk and sit for a few minutes outside my office, in the splintery embrace of a weathered old Adirondack chair, the tilt of which comforts my hinky neck and aims my eyes upward.
After two weeks of torrential rains, the big sky is again bright blue, with high wispy clouds stretching to the horizon. In the middle distance, a hawk glides into view. It is close enough I can see the dappled coloring on its belly and tail, the finger-like feathers on either end of its wings. In the majestic way hawks do, it traces lazy parabolas in the air, riding the currents of the ocean breeze.
Sometimes, I know, this type of activity indicates hunting behavior. (The mice and lizards and other small creatures in the canyon are likely not so enraptured by the beauty and miracle of flight; they are about to become lunch.) Other times, it seems as if hawks are just flying around for the f*ck of it, joyriding, because it feels so good to be knifing through the air, spiraling higher and higher, pulling dives and loops and tricks like an old school bi-plane in a barnstorming air show.
As I watch, a second hawk glides into view. It settles into the same general air space as the first. Like a pair of ice dancers, they mirror each other’s movements, swooping together and then drifting apart, an airborne pas de deux.
All around me, a symphony of birdsong supplies a musical accompaniment. There are hummingbirds, doves, mockingbirds, and other small birds I can’t call by name, all of them in pairs — perching, cavorting, canoodling, flying wing to wing, playing chase.
Though it is only just turned February, it occurs to me that spring is already on the way. Valentine’s Day is coming, too. Love is in the air.
When last we met on these pages, I was 65, two years into my COVID hermitage, facing down my 53rd Valentine’s Day as an active player in the ecstatic, brutal, game of love.
After a lifetime of relationships, I’d become found myself unexpectedly solo. Like a game of musical chairs, the music had stopped, and I had nowhere to sit down.
As time passed, I reached the conclusion that nobody would magically appear unsolicited at my front door and ring the bell. With no other choices on the horizon, I descended into the Dante-esque world of electronic dating.
And so it became my nightly ritual. I’d spend a solitary happy hour sipping tequila on the rocks and shopping through the offerings on the platform I was patronizing. (Like most people, I tried several over time.)
Swipe, swipe, swipe.
When someone appeared promising, I’d spend 15 or 20 minutes crafting a greeting/appeal I considered witty, sensitive, intelligent, and well written; admittedly the descriptor “off the wall” could have also been applied at times (depending upon how deep into happy hour I’d gotten), but I was trying to put my best self forward. It should have been a snap. After all, I’m a decorated professional writer. At today’s top rates of $2 a word, I figure I was sending each of these strangers at least $100 worth of free writing. Not mention the bundles of good faith and hope I was spending: Maybe this will be the one to free me from this solitary sentence in purgatory.
And yet... And yet...
In no small way, my lack of success on these aps triggered some of my deepest lifelong issues. Never a good student, a bit on the chubby side, an “atrocious” speller, the smallest guy on the intercollegiate soccer team, neither worldly nor connected with the ivy-credentialed fraternity of literary endeavor I’d eventually choose, I’d hustled hard to find my path as a writer, to pull myself up by my own bootstraps, to excel.
Over time, I made it. I wrote important stories, and some pretty weird ones, too. The work I did commanded money and respect. I was somebody. No Stephen King or David Remnick, maybe, but somebody who, after 45 years of working in the field, managed to make a mark, to help other writers, to earn a modicum of approval from those who knew.
Reduced to my meta data, however — 5-foot-5, 65 years old — I was nobody special. The dearth of responses I received — one of every 50? — played into all the insecurities I’d worked so hard to overcome.
So I took whoever matched me. What the hell? Give it a try, right? You never know.
We’d mask up and meet. It was always pleasant enough, except for the ones who’d provided photos that were grossly out of date. That’s like lying, isn’t it? Either way, I was raised to be a gentleman. I bought the meals. I provided lively stories and good humor. And let’s face it: After being cooped up in the house for so long, we were both pretty horny.
But then reality would set in. The disconnects would become obvious. Sometimes I’d get ghosted. Sometimes I’d feel like Harry after he finally has sex for the first time with Sally — staring at the ceiling, eyes unblinking, a look of dread, one foot on the floor, plotting his escape.
I ended up putting more effort into getting out of prospective new relationships than I did getting into them. Even if they weren’t candidates for life partner, they still deserved decency. My daddy didn’t raise me to be any kind of cad. But when someone’s not right, you just know it.
In time, I became fed up. I even wasted 5 grand on a dating app that promised to provide a personal matchmaker who would do all the swiping for me and find me up to six choices of perfect mate. She even had an unmistakably Jewish name. How could I go wrong?
I should have known something was off when I told her blithely, during our first Zoom meeting, that I felt like a character in Fiddler on the Roof.
Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match/find me a find/catch me a catch.
She looked at me blankly.
(I am almost positive there is not one Jewish person on the planet who doesn’t know that song.)
While I waited for my fake Jewish matchmaker to make me a match — maybe all the matchmakers this company employed used the same name just used to seem legit to clients? — I continued shopping.
Swipe, swipe, swipe.
Two days before my membership in Match was due to expire (I’d already canceled when I plunked down the matchmaker’s fee), I saw a photo I really liked. She was attractive, professional, and shorter than me. Her profile noted she was into animal rights.
Immediately, I “liked her.”
This time I wrote only one sentence: I once went on a raid with the Animal Liberation Front and helped rescue 29 cats and seven miniature African piglets from a U.S. government research facility.
As it happened, she was browsing the app at the exact same time.
“You’re a match.”
My mother and father met when he was pressed into service as her escort to her junior prom. They dated throughout her high school and college and his medical school (interrupted by his service in the Korean War) before they wed. They were married for 56 years, until my father’s death. Eleven years later, the relationship still lives strongly within my mom. She keeps fresh flowers at his grave.
When I was young, this was my role model. Though I didn’t envision a big wedding, kids, or a picket fence, I did imagine that someday I’d partner for life. There’d be someone with whom I’d grow old. A relationship like my parents’.
Looking back over the five-plus decades of my dealings with the opposite sex — I can remember “having a girlfriend” as far back as the third grade, though dating in earnest didn’t begin until about 13 — my experience of love hasn’t been like my parents’ at all. Instead of one great romance, I’ve had a series of romances: 20 years, eight years, six years, two years, one year, not necessarily in that order. Two marriages, two divorces. One son. The peaks were high, the valleys low. Never a dull moment, I can say that.
What I’ve learned is you can love different people differently at different times of your life. And different people love you differently. As we age, hopefully, we learn to be better at being who we are. We learn how to listen more clearly. We learn what to look for. We learn how to ask for what we want. We learn to empathize instead of trying to fix things. We learn our way around the Disneyland of the erogenous zones. We learn how to avoid the sort of potholes that have swallowed us up in the past.
And, hopefully, one day, we find that person to grow old with — because really, who wants to be totally alone?
On this Valentine’s Day, my 54th as an active player in the ecstatic, brutal, game of love, I think maybe I have found that person. We just celebrated our 10th month together.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone more completely. And I don’t think anyone has ever loved me more, either. When she’s not around, I can’t wait to see her again. I miss her all the time. Hugging still her feels as ecstatic as my first slow dance at the sixth-grade dance. Sometimes, a song I wrote for my first girlfriend plays in my head. I am new again. And the sex? Forgetabout it. God bless Cialis.
Here I am, 66 years old. For the first time in my life I really understand why people like to sleep together. I wake up beside her four out of seven mornings a week, and I feel a kind of security, care, love, and joy I’ve never before felt in my life.
The best for last.
That’s what we say.
Meanwhile, I’m getting weekly shots for my allergy to her cats.
Mike Sager is a bestselling author and award-winning reporter. For more than 40 years he has worked as a writer for the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, GQ, and Esquire.