Lorna Terry, on the morning of her birthday, wonders whether she is as immune as she thought to the aging process.
Who would’ve thought? That forty-six would be so much harder than forty-five?
Lorna leaned into the mirror, getting as close as the barrier of the sink would allow, and plucked the latest offending gray from her temple. She was still able to get rid of them by plucking, so that was something at least. Nevertheless, it was still a shock to realize she cared. Always believing herself to be the kind of woman who shunned the ridiculous notion that women lost their luster with age, she was both annoyed and embarrassed to find that she cared about aging. She cared a great deal.
The man in her bed should be proof enough that she was still attractive, that she could have a lover if she chose, whenever she chose. Her inner thighs had begun to ache though, from all the energetic activity the previous evening. She couldn’t even remember how many places and how often they did it. But she remembered well enough both of them eventually collapsing into her bed, still tipsy and giggly like the undergrads they both taught.
Taking him home with her had been partly out of desire and partly some pathetic need to prove to herself that she still could. Evidence enough that even she wasn’t immune from the vanities that most women possessed. And also, Lorna liked that his name was Malcolm. She couldn’t help but think the letter X whenever she heard that name spoken. But this Malcolm was Professor Malcolm T. Mitchell. Thirty-seven and a full professor in the English Department, he was Cambridge educated and had been stolen from Yale who had been courting him ever since he wrote a book that was almost uniformly labeled “brilliant” by the intelligentsia and large contingent of literary snobs that hung around colleges and universities.
Lorna had first heard of him when his book was reviewed by The Times. It was about a young Black man from an underprivileged background with athletic talent who is courted and pursued by scouts from a young age and goes to college on a basketball scholarship. When he arrives at the school of his choice—the thinly disguised Duke University—he stuns his coaches and faculty when they discover he is a math genius. Basketball is to him no more than an amusement and he all along wanted to be a mathematician, but knew that in that aspiration he would not have been taken seriously. Lorna found the premise of the book amusing, but didn’t believe that it was honest. Today, young Black men were as likely to be taken seriously as mathematicians as anyone else if their grades proved their talent.
Of course, last night at the faculty mixer, she hadn’t said anything of the sort to Malcolm T. Mitchell. Instead, she’d nursed her glass of cheap red wine and watched him from across the room. He was surrounded by the English Department Maidens. Lorna called them that in her head, the female professors who were the cornerstones of the English Department, Professors Scott and Green, and then Professor Rogers who was definitely no maiden though Lorna lumped her in with them anyway.
Scott was Black, and so much was made of the fact that her specialty was the Classics—Shakespeare, Chaucer and the like. She had a long, single braid that she wore down the middle of her back, every strand of hair very severely restrained. Lorna knew that Professor Scott disapproved of her because of the way her lips tightened whenever they spoke, and because she couldn’t seem to keep her eyes off the little flower tattoo on Lorna’s ankle that she’d gotten in a fit of poor judgment several years ago. Scott was divorced, and there was never any hint that she dated anyone. Lorna’s gay-dar told her that Scott was likely a very repressed lesbian who would live a life of celibacy unless she met some woman who was bold enough to overcome her defenses and turn her out.
Green was a slender woman, maybe about forty or so. She had reddish-brown hair and pretty amber eyes, and tended to blink excitedly when she spoke. She wore long skirts and poufy blouses, and was also divorced, but with three small children in tow. Lorna and Green had clashed often because Green fancied herself a feminist as well, and seemed to need to prove to Lorna, the feminist theoretician that she was more feminist than even she. It was tiresome speaking to Green and having endless debates about what Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ really meant. Something told Lorna that Green would throw it all over and become a housewife if the right man came along who didn’t mind taking her on with her three snot-nosed kids.
And then there was Rogers. When they’d first met, Lorna had made the mistake of thinking she and Rogers could be friends. About thirty-five or so, the woman was quite stunning. A long neck, Venus de Milo proportions and with the subtle, graceful movements of a dancer. She had jet-black hair and a dark olive complexion, wearing very little make-up, just enough to accentuate her large, dark brown eyes. Her mouth was full, sexy. She seemed completely comfortable with herself. Rogers’ focus was on Modern Literature and her classes were wildly popular because the boys thought she was hot and all the girls had girl-crushes on her and tried to adopt her mannerisms. And it didn’t hurt that she had an entire lecture series that studied the works of popular fiction authors like Candace Bushnell, who wrote the ‘Sex and the City’ books. Lorna thought it might be interesting to study the womanist perspective in those works but Rogers had rebuffed every overture.
Later, as she observed her, Lorna figured out why. Rogers, quite simply, hated other women. She viewed every other woman as an annoyance and only managed to tolerate Scott and Green because she had to for the sake of her career. When men were around, particularly men with power, Rogers blossomed like a midnight rose, exerting the full extent of her charms in their direction. Lorna had watched her on many occasions with a dispassionate, academic interest, thinking, Wow, she is really good at this. There was probably not a man alive that Rogers could not get into bed if she set her mind to it.
So Lorna had been watching the English Department Maidens surrounding Malcolm T. Mitchell, thinking that they had found their fourth cornerstone. Rogers was practically hanging on his arm, obviously attracted to him, or wanting him to be attracted to her. From the back, Malcolm T. Mitchell was impressive—broad shoulders, square back, and impeccable posture. Wearing washed out blue jeans and loafers, he seemed to have pulled on the sport coat as an afterthought, or a nod to the fact that he was in the hallowed halls of Gilchrist College. Lorna liked the sight of his ass in those jeans, and the hint of strong thighs. His hair was cut low, and he wore eye glasses. She wondered whether he needed them. Even from behind, she could sense that the English Department Maidens were just barely managing to hold his interest.
Had it not been the evening before her forty-sixth birthday, Lorna might not have decided to approach them. Had she not been feeling maudlin about the fact that she was getting older, and embarrassed that she was feeling maudlin, she would have finished her wine and gone home. But instead she’d emptied her glass and decided to go rescue the new wunderkind of the English Department, the new jewel in Gilchrist College’s crown. When she touched him on his shoulder, he turned right away, almost as though relieved. Rogers shot her a look of undisguised annoyance.
Professor Mitchell, Lorna said, extending a hand. I’ve been waiting with bated breath to meet you.
He smiled. He was handsome, in the manner of a man who was once not so handsome and now is quite perplexed that women seem to like him.
Good to meet you. You are . . ?
Professor Lorna Terry, she said. Women’s Studies.
His back straightened at that. Lorna was not without ego when it came to her professional reputation, and so it pleased her that he seemed to recognize the name.
Ah yes, he said. Your son-in-law is that rap star.
For a moment she thought he was serious and then from the twinkle in his eye and twitch around his mouth realized he was teasing her.
Yes, she said. Guilty as charged.
Well, Professor Mitchell said. He’s very . . .
Lorna held up a finger. Tread carefully, she warned. I’m very protective of him and if you say a single negative word, I’ll be forced to snub you from here on out.
I was only going to say that he’s very talented, Malcolm T. Mitchell assured her.
As are you, Lorna said. Or so I hear.
So you haven’t read my book? Malcolm T. Mitchell asked. He didn’t sound insulted, as many stuffy academic types might.
Not a single word, Lorna said.
Rogers was growing visibly restless. She recognized verbal foreplay when she heard it.
Malcolm T. Mitchell smiled again. And so it began . . .
“You plan on leaving me alone in here all morning, or is this a ploy to get me to leave?”
His voice calling from the next room interrupted her thoughts and Lorna put the tweezers back in its place in the medicine cabinet.
“Not at all. Can I interest you in breakfast?” she called back to him, reaching for her toothbrush and putting on toothpaste.
“Yes. You can.”
The door had opened and he was right behind her, shirtless and pant-less, underwear-less, and naked as a jaybird. Without his glasses he was sexy, like Clark Kent turned into Superman. His skin was smooth except for the stubble beginning on his jaw. Lorna finished brushing her teeth though she was distracted by him pressing against her, leaning over her shoulder, rinsing his mouth, grabbing the toothpaste, using his fingers as a toothbrush.
“Should we eat at the campus café?” he asked, his mouth full and frothy.
“Only if you’re not opposed to rumors,” Lorna said. “It is only nine a.m. on a Saturday morning after all.”
“Are you worried about your reputation?” he asked, grinning through the foam.
“No,” Lorna said seriously. “I’m worried about yours.” She did a final rinse and went back out into the bedroom.
She hadn’t planned for him to be here beyond dawn, but what the hell? She had no better ideas other than to mope about her impending old age.
“What does that mean?” he asked as he emerged from the bathroom.
“You know . . . another one bites the dust, that sort of thing,” Lorna said, beginning to strip the bed. They’d made quite a mess of it. In more ways than one.
“Ah. So you have lots of conquests do you?”
Malcolm smiled. “Wow. That many.”
Lorna looked at him, meeting his gaze evenly. “I enjoy men.”
“Is this where I’m supposed to run?” he asked. “Or make an excuse and skulk away because my masculinity is threatened by your superior experience?”
Lorna straightened her back. “Is it?”
Before he could answer, the phone rang. Lorna made no move to answer it but both she and Malcolm looked over at the phone next to her bed.
“Wait,” he said, “is that an actual, physical answering machine?”
Lorna smiled. The phone rang twice more and then she heard Riley’s voice.
Will you pick up? Pick up. I know you’re there. I know you’re there. Okay, maybe you’re in the shower. Shawn and I wondered whether you might want us to come up for dinner and you could see your grandson. Call us back. Happy birthday, old lady.
Malcolm T. Mitchell looked at her and smiled. He smiled a lot this one. “I got more information from that message than I might have learned from you in weeks. It’s your birthday and you have a grandson. What’s his name? And how old are you today?”
“His name is Cullen, and it’s impolite to ask a woman her age.”
“Cullen is a great name. And with any other woman perhaps it would be rude. But not you.”
“Why? Am I not deserving of the same . . ?”
“Let’s cut the shit, Lorna. You’re not like other women. How old are you?”
“Forty-six.” She hated that it was difficult to say it. And that she wondered whether he might consider that she may be too old for him. But even if she was, it didn’t matter.
“Happy birthday,” he said. “We should celebrate.”
“Yes. We should. Birthdays are important.”
“Maybe I’ll celebrate later with my daughter and her family,” Lorna shrugged. She turned back to her task of stripping the bed.
“Maybe you will,” Malcolm said, and he was right behind her. “But I thought we might celebrate right here and now. . .” Hands on her hips now, he was moving her back even closer to the bed “. . . and then we’ll take a long shower together, and go eat at the campus café so you can ruin my reputation.”
Lorna turned to face him, let her head fall back, and looked up into his warm, brown eyes. He’d been a good lover and would be good company for a while. He kissed her, his hands falling to her buttocks. Lorna smiled against his lips.
Forty-six, she thought, might not be so bad after all.