The phone call came at dinner time. My husband answered the phone. “It’s for you,” he said.
As soon as I heard the voice on the other end, I knew who it was: P, a former neighbor. She was calling to tell me her husband, M, had died.
The news made me feel sad and guilty.
P and M lived next door to me many years ago. They were old enough to be my parents. P worked in an office and M was retired. I met them when, in a fit of community-minded friendliness, I decided to have a block party at my house and invite everyone on the street even though they were strangers to me.
It was summer and in the late afternoon, storm clouds gathered. It never rained, but there were some distant rumblings. P came to the party by herself, explaining that her husband M was terrified of lightning and loud noises. He’d served in Korea, she told me, and he couldn’t handle storms. She’d brought ribs to the party, made by M, who was, she told me, a fabulous cook.
P, it turned out, was interesting too. While she looked like a typical overweight American woman in her 60s, I learned that she’d been a belly dancer well into her 50s. Who would have guessed? M, a retired utility worker, had worked as a jazz club singer on the weekends in his younger years.
I later learned that M, a tall heavy black man, was not African-American as I assumed. He was, in fact, half Italian. His father was an Italian man who married a black woman–a pretty unusual combination. All the children of that union were light-skinned and could “pass” for white, but M was quite dark with African-American hair. He was, he said, the black sheep in his family. I used to joke with him that despite appearances (I’m white), we might be related, as I’m Italian too.
I was friendly with P and M, but I would not say we were close. We didn’t have much in common and didn’t spend a lot of time together or socialize. We’d just occasionally chat when we were outside. I do remember M baking me a birthday cake one year–a Southern pound cake–when he learned it was my birthday. And it seems one time he and P invited me and my son, who was then a toddler, over for lunch when they saw us out in the yard. M wanted us to taste his legendary potato salad.
When M and P moved away, I didn’t expect to have a lot of contact with them. I was surprised when that turned out not to be the case. P wrote me letters, which I dutifully answered. Once in a while she’d call. It seemed they made more of an effort to stay in touch when they moved than when they lived next door. It was nice, but it also struck me as a bit odd.
Eventually, P and M became computer users and would occasionally read a blog I had at the time. That’s when M started communicating with me on his own. He’d send forwards or short notes. Sometimes the forwarded jokes were off-color. I wasn’t offended by them, but I wasn’t exactly comfortable with them either.
One day I received an e-mail from M about a blog post I’d written, and in the e-mail he confided to me that he found me very sexy and attractive and couldn’t stop thinking about me.
How to respond?
I tried using humor in my reply and send a message that would close the door on him taking that conversation any further.
My attempt to derail his confession with silliness wasn’t fully effective. Ugh.
Now I was in a real quandary. I’d already felt that P and M had latched onto me a bit more tightly than seemed warranted. Now I had to deal with the revelation that M was fantasizing about me.
So I tried to put space in the relationship. I wanted to fade out of the picture for them. I responded slowly, if at all, to e-mails. I didn’t initiate any contact. I kept what correspondence that did exist on a superficial level, short in length and short on details.
P was concerned about the change. She’d send letters/e-mails: “What’s going on? We haven’t heard from you? Did you change your e-mail address? Are you still blogging?”
I felt awful. She was lonely. What could I say? “Your husband is hitting on me, and I think we really don’t have anything to say to each other anyway.”
P faithfully kept in touch, despite my efforts to kill the relationship over the years. She even tracked me down when I moved and didn’t immediately give her my new address and phone number. She told me that M had developed some health problems. I expressed sympathy but never followed up to see how he was doing. I tried to limit contact to an annual holiday card, and I felt guilty for rebuffing P’s efforts to be my friend.
And then she called with her sad news. She was devastated by M’s death, which was a shock to her despite his failing health. I stayed on the phone with her for a long time.
And I thought about M, old enough to be my father but not immune to dreaming of being my lover and daring to tell me so. It’s easy to focus on how distasteful that is, how uncomfortable and upset it made me on so many levels, not the least of which was the betrayal of P.
And yet M’s confession overturned the notion I have long harbored: that I am not particularly attractive and have been de-sexualized by motherhood and middle age. His words, even if they made me squirm, were heartfelt and evidence that I am not invisible after all, that sex appeal is far more complicated an issue than popular culture would have us believe. His words reminded me not to dismiss myself as a woman. I will try to see them as the compliment he intended them to be and maybe at some point, M will rest more easily in my memory.