Making Sense of a Lifetime of Love, Companionship, and Sex
53 Valentine's days in, Mike Sager sees a renaissance in his sex life, stemming from wisdom and experience, gains and losses.
I have loved and I have lost.
And I have loved and lost some more.
This year I turned 65. It’s weird to write that. But I’m not retiring. I’m not even close to being done. Not with work. Not with love. Turns out you get better at stuff, especially if it doesn’t involve dunking.
Leaving apart my mother — the first woman in my life, looming over me with her smiling hazel eyes, wielding a glass bottle of formula while smoking a menthol cigarette, in the style of the late fifties — you could say my romantic life began when I was in third grade.
I was ten. I had a mutual crush-thingy with a classmate. Two heads taller, the fastest girl (runner) in the class, BAM + MAS. When I told my mother we were going steady, she asked, “So where are you going?”
Since then, I’ve spent approximately 37 years in what we might call serious monogamous relationships. (During some of this time, I might have been the only one who was monogamous.) During the other 18 years, I was . . . how shall we say? Playing the field.
Or wait. Strike the two years following the wife’s ham-handed exit. It took a little while to pull the pieces back together.
So make it fifty-three years of Valentine’s Days. A trip down the rabbit hole, by the way, reveals St. Valentine to have been a clergyman martyred by the Romans for ministering to persecuted Christians. Somehow this evolved, during the 14th Century — highlighted by the Black Death, the Great Famine, pogroms against Jews in Spain and Portugal, and the arrest and trial of the Knights Templar — into a day celebrating courtly romance.
Looking back on a lifetime of love, my memories feel more ephemeral than documentary. Like a Zoom meeting nobody remembered to record.
I’m not sure how to draw the connection here, but I feel it rather strongly. So many years of flowers, candy, dinner, jewelry, and thoughtful little acts (the complex pre-planning, the involving of others in the ruse, the homemade coupon books promising backrubs and other thoughtful supplications) — all of it in the pursuit of love, companionship, and, yes, a little nookie.
Yet here I am, unexpectedly solo.
Like game of musical chairs, the music has stopped and there’s nowhere for me to sit down.
Love and loss.
And, yes, gain.
Wisdom. Experience. Fleeting ecstasies. An acquired knowledge of the workings of the female parts, some of which, before the late 20th century, went around pretty much incognito. (As to the female mind, a probe launched on a fact-gathering mission some decades ago is still hurtling through the far reaches of the space/time continuum.)
Hugging. Kissing. The cozy feeling of belonging to something, someone, fingers and limbs — entire lives — intertwined. Purposes enjoined. Families created. History written: some joyous and some painful, some fair and some not so fair, some twisted in the telling. Most of it unquantifiable.
Except, of course, the product of love. An infant asleep on my chest, now a six-foot man, looking down at me with eyes and lips that resemble my fathers’. And mine.
Looking back on a lifetime of love, my memories feel more ephemeral than documentary. Like a Zoom meeting nobody remembered to record. Only screen shots remain. Vivid bits and pieces, looks of love, stroke fodder, ghosts of pain and pleasure.
None of which seem anything at all like the photos on the screen of my cell phone. If you took a picture of me, in my favorite chair in the darkened living room, you would probably see them reflected in my bifocals:
“NO HOOKUPS. NO SCAMMERS. I’M NOT GIVING YOU MONEY.”
“I have ALL my teeth; I expect the same from you.”
This one says she’s “sapiosexual.” I need look that up.
This one lives in Thailand. (Didn’t I specify a radius of 60 miles?)
All these live across the border in Mexico. (It’s only 29 miles.)
This one lives in a town called Corona. So does this one. And this one. I’ve never even heard of the place. What the hell is going on there?
This one is a “creator, community builder, philosopher, and champion of sustainability.”
This one features photos of butterflies, nymphs, and flowers, but none of her actual self.
Same but anime.
Same but cleavage. In six different outfits.
My elbow hurts. I think it’s the swiping.
My parents met when my father was pressed into service as my mother’s escort to her junior prom — two Jews from small towns in Virginia, sixty miles apart, arranged, as would be expected, by their mothers. They dated throughout high school, college, and his medical school (interrupted by his service in the Korean War) before they wed.
They were married 56 years, until my father’s death, eleven years ago at 81. My mom will be 90 on March 15. The Ides of March, as she loves to point out. For the record, she disdains Valentine’s Day. I am sure, when I mention I have this piece running, she will play her worn little tape about Valentine’s Day being a “Hallmark holiday.”
Despite my mother’s acerbic outlook — the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, eh? — I grew up with a storybook notion about my romantic future. I never envisioned a big wedding (I already had a bar mitzvah), kids (my books were to be my children), or a picket fence (Help, suburbia!), but I always envisioned having a partner for life. Someone with whom I’d grow old — you know, a relationship like my parents’.
And also like so many of my friends. It may be that half of all couples get divorced, but on my text chain of 9 homeboys, I’m the only one who’s single. Hell, I’m the only who didn’t marry their college or grad school sweetheart, or a woman they met soon after. Of course, there’s a recurrent theme — how the wives want them out from underfoot, or how the wives can barely tolerate their habits and general behavior, or how the wives are needed for financial support — but I know it’s all a bunch of lip flapping. (Except maybe M.A. I don’t know him as well. It seems his wife actually does prefer at times that he stay outside in their little Airstream.)
What I’ve learned is that love can be more like a television series than a movie. You can have different seasons. You can love different people differently.
In my case, at the same time I was envisioning my domestic future, I was also blundering toward my calling. I started as a copy boy at a newspaper. One night the editor asked me to phone a particular reporter at home. I looked in the Rolodex and poked out the number on the old-school multi-line telephone. A woman answered. I asked for the staffer.
“He doesn’t live here anymore,” she said flatly. “Don’t you know journalists can’t keep their wives?”
Writing is something you don’t do unless you have to. As a life’s pursuit, it is a jealous mistress to which I am hopelessly in thrall. And though I’ve never been the type to miss a birthday or an anniversary — hell, I was known all over town as Coach Mike; I paced the sidelines of many a weekend tournament with a Monday deadline looming — I’m sure it’s never forgotten by my partner that my first love might be something other than herself. As it stands, the only thing that comes before my work is my son.
Looking back over the 55 years of my love life, my experience hasn’t been at all like my parents’. I entered adulthood believing in the notion of One Great Love. Instead, for me, it’s been a series of romances: twenty years, eight years, six years, two years, one year, not necessarily in that order. What I’ve learned is that love can be more like a television series than a movie. You can have different seasons. You can love different people differently.
If anything, my fifties and sixties have seen a renaissance of my sex life. … The phoenix has indeed risen. And lemme tell ya, it’s been awesome
Many years ago, at the end of a relationship, we were playing that common scene where one partner leaves the house for the day so the other can move out. On the way to meet a friend, I stopped by my favorite bookstore to salve my feelings. The book I bought was Richard Ford’s newest at the time: The Sportswriter.
Waiting at a bar, I opened the novel. It starts with a short introduction. For life to be worth anything, Ford writes at the top of page two, “you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined.
“I believe I have done these two things,” he continues. “Faced down regret. Avoided ruin. And I am still here to tell about it.”
I have endeavored to do the same.
I have loved and I have lost.
Boy oh boy, how I have loved.
With every creative fiber of my being. (Loving is, after all, an art. It should be practiced as such, a return of the favor bestowed.)
If anything, my fifties and sixties have seen a renaissance of my sex life. Having been married for nearly two decades to someone who needed me a lot more than she wanted me, it had nowhere to go but up.
The phoenix has indeed risen. And lemme tell ya, it’s been awesome. Sprinkle in a low dose of father’s little helper and everyman is Johnny Wadd.
At the moment, there’s only one problem: love is a game that requires at least two.
For now, in this time of pandemic, as a member of the team that wears a mask — officially classified as Elderly — I’m back to swiping. I’ve been dating online in fits and starts for two years now. I tend to get discouraged. Then I start getting lonely and horny and I try again.
Reduced to my meta data, I’m 5 foot 5, trim, 65 years old — a divorced male Other, spiritual but not religious, looking for a likeminded and like-sized woman for an LTR.
Up to this point, I haven’t exactly been drowning in likes. Over the years I’ve gotten the idea I am the kind of guy you need to know to love. Based on my profile’s performance, that seems to be an accurate assessment.
Regardless, I tap the icon. The app opens. The glow of faces, one by one.
It’s like eating peanuts. Or playing slot machines. Or Wordle. I feel my blood pressure rise.
Hey! I have two likes.
This one’s from Mexico: “Buscando un hombre que sea. . .”
Shit! This one is too.
And she’s 74.
Yesterday I saw an ad on Instagram for a different kind of dating app. It looked kind of intriguing. You have to give them a pretty healthy sum of money, but there’s no swiping.
Instead, you’re assigned a Matchmaker.
Now I have an ear worm. That song from Fiddler on the Roof.
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.