An excerpt from Edwina’s memoir-in-progress 49 is a Dangerous Age.
‘I’m just going to kiss you on the cheek,’ Alex said, leaning over in the dark of the car as I dropped her off at the bus stop.
Then she opened the door and jumped out with a wave.
All that night, beside my sleeping husband, I lay awake, tossing and turning. What had she meant… just? Where else would she kiss me. On my lips? On the mouth? I couldn’t sleep for thinking of all the different places she could kiss me.
Alex was a fellow writer I’d met at a festival. We’d discovered we were at the same university, that we knew many people in common. She told me she was gay, and I shrugged—so what? I told her that despite being married to a man for almost twenty years, I’d spent most of my life hanging out in the gay community. No worries.
But after that just it made all the difference. That flame, so elusive, had started up in my belly. Not a spark, not a small blue flicker– but a bushfire that was going to burn everything down.
The second time Alex and I went out, we went to a community writers’ centre Christmas party. The moment she knocked on my door that night, I felt it—a tug like the world’s most powerful magnet, drawing me to her. Inescapable. Through the evening, as we stood in the crowd listening to interminable speeches, though I tried not to, I found myself leaning towards her. Edging as close as I could to her. The smell of her skin was intoxicating. I fed her rich sticky brownie from my fingers and let them linger on her lips.
This tall beautiful dark-eyed woman had put some kind of spell on me. After the party we walked by the river and sat on the grassy bank watching the city lights reflecting on the water. We talked about the earth and the heart and the human condition. We laughed, and when she laughed the world looked brighter. When she laughed in the moonlight she looked like Julia Roberts. A smile that wide.
And she said things. Things my husband had never said. ‘I’ve been looking for you for such a long time.’ And, ‘You’re so beautiful, so very beautiful.’ And, ‘I’d love to make you scream.’
She also said, ‘I’m not a good person.’ But I didn’t believe her.
That night when we sat down by the river, she told me her relationship with her girlfriend was over, that they hadn’t really been together for five years. She was going to leave her, as soon as she got a job.
Alex said she was looking for a soul mate. She thought I was the one.
I didn’t know what to say.
On the way to drop her off at the bus stop again—she didn’t drive and lived far away in the outer suburbs—I gathered courage. ‘I like you too. I really like you.’ I didn’t tell her that it hurt to say goodbye, that I had to be near her. Be with her. We’d only been out a couple of times. All I knew was I wanted her to touch me, to hold my hand, to lean closer so I could feel the warmth of her. I wanted her to kiss me. More than anything. But she didn’t.
At the bus station, she hugged me. I didn’t even get a peck on the cheek. After all she’d said.
I couldn’t sleep.
What the fuck was going on? I was married with two children almost grown. I had a husband who still loved me, I thought. It was hard to tell.
For many years I’d felt as if I was struggling to keep my marriage alive alone. All of the conversations I had with my husband about our relationship consisted of me talking, mainly to myself. I’d ask a question, but he’d only respond with a facial expression—a raised eyebrow, a half-smile or a frown or a grimace. I’d interpret it however I could. I have an active imagination, I’m a writer after all; I could interpret those expressions in a myriad of ways. Some expressions gave me hope. Others filled me with grief. It was the grimace in bed that killed our marriage, the night I’d given us one last chance. He hadn’t known it was our last chance, then. But it was.
By that stage, I’d known something life-changing was happening with Alex. I hadn’t told her about my feelings yet, only that I enjoyed her company, that I loved spending time with her and hanging out. Nothing had happened between us sexually, though kissing her, fucking her, was all I could think about. But I was married, and I wasn’t going to cheat on my husband if he still loved me. If there was any hope of reviving our relationship.
After that second outing with Alex, it was my wedding anniversary—twenty years. To celebrate, I went to dinner with my husband but trying to prise conversation from him was like pulling weeds from a bone-dry clay bed. So different from the effervescent conversations I had with Alex that I never wanted to end. Then, that night in bed, he grimaced.
That grimace was the final clod of earth on the coffin of our love. I only really realised then that our romantic and intimate connection had been dead and buried a long time. For many years I’d tried to revive the corpse but had never succeeded. All that time I’d fought and cried and begged, but all I ever got back was a shrug or a half-smile.
Earlier that year, about six months before Alex turned up, I’d gone back to school-teaching: an effort to appease my husband’s anger at my lack of financial success as a writer. Unfortunately, I was landed with a class of wild young refugee kids who broke my heart and made me roar at them like an angry goddess. They pushed me to the very edge. I had come home from a day of this teaching horror story and was writing in my journal, exhausted, completely emotionally drained after the failure of my latest novel manuscript to sell, pulverized by my students. I cried.
My husband came over to where I was writing and crying over my journal. ‘I’ve been meaning to say you should stop writing,’ he said.
Suddenly I felt as awful as I did as a suicidal teenager. Writing was the only thing holding me together, yet my partner couldn’t understand that—after all our years together, he didn’t seem to know me at all. That may have been when I stopped bending over backwards trying to keep our marriage alive. Consciously, all I knew was that I couldn’t go on like that.
After that second time out with Alex, I started writing her emails, telling her how much I enjoyed her company, finding things to share I thought she’d like. I started sharing my works in progress with her. She sent back pieces she’d written. I loved her writing and for me that was important. She was a dream I hadn’t even known I’d had come true—a best friend and lover all in one sexy package. I felt like I was falling in love for the first time, though I’d fallen in love with my husband and thought I’d loved my previous lovers too.
But with Alex it felt different: proper, grown up love. I knew love was supposed to be like this—this meeting of minds and hearts, not just bodies.
We started seeing each other very day. I couldn’t get enough of her, couldn’t get close enough. We made excuses to our partners and made plans to see each other again and again and again. We still hadn’t kissed. A few weeks of this and I was beside myself. I couldn’t eat. Every night I lay awake beside my husband, my mind filled with Alex.
One afternoon I found myself sitting with her in my backyard, telling her in a low voice, so my children wouldn’t overhear me, ‘I think I’m falling for you… I can’t help it.’
Whatever it is that binds two hearts was at work, some otherworldly magic had brought me a person my soul drank in like nectar. I felt as if Alex understood exactly who I was without me having to explain it, we seemed to resonate at the same frequency. Whatever that magnet is that draws lovers together, it was a hundred-fold with her. If love with my husband when I was a young traveller in the 90s was a ripple, this was a wave. A tidal wave.
Suddenly everything seemed to make sense. I was a dyke! I knew it. But still, even after sleeping with girls in my teens and twenties, it felt strange to be so sexually attracted to another woman. It didn’t matter. Whoever Alex was, I would have fallen in love with her. But she was a woman, a beautiful woman, and I couldn’t wait to spend the rest of my life with her, kissing her, fucking her, sleeping in her arms.
Trouble was, she was leaving. She’d told me as we sat by the river that night that she was travelling with her girlfriend over to Europe to study for six months; it hadn’t seemed important then. As our love grew it became a horrible obstacle. Alex said she couldn’t get out of it, flights were booked, studies were enrolled in, accommodation was already paid for. They were leaving in only a few weeks. She had to go. It didn’t seem fair; we’d only just found each other. It made us even more desperate for time together. But still we hadn’t done anything more sexual than sit outside my local shopping centre holding hands, her long fingers gently stroking my inner wrist. I was going mad.
We didn’t have anywhere to go. I couldn’t take her to my place, not when all I wanted to do was kiss her. It wasn’t right.
‘We shouldn’t kiss,’ she said. ‘It will only make the missing worse.’
I didn’t care. I only knew I needed to sleep, and I couldn’t, because every night I lay awake thinking about her lips, her mouth on my breasts. Her tongue between my legs. ‘I’d like to make you scream,’ she’d said that night by the river. I wanted her to do just that.
Alex was struggling behind her wide smile. I knew she’d had a troubled life, but I believed our love could heal anything.
One day, I took her on a picnic to a mountain rainforest park not far from the city. It was cloudy and a little rainy, so after a walk we had the place to ourselves. We stretched out on a blanket and ate chocolate. We lay facing each other, and then moved closer. So close we were sharing the same pillow. We leaned our foreheads together and then, finally, finally, she kissed me. We lay on that rug until the sun set, pulling it under the cover of a giant fig tree when it started to rain, kissing, entwining like one great amorphous kissing creature. Our ‘one kiss’ we called it, because it never stopped. Except when I had to drive her back down the mountain to the bus stop.
The next day we went for another drive and found another secluded place where we could be alone—a small-town graveyard that backed onto a quiet lake. We kissed more. And more. For that whole day we kissed. Eight hours of kissing.
That was the day I told her.
‘Have I told you I love you yet?’ I asked.
‘I think you just did.’
I didn’t know if I had actually spoken out loud, because the words had been running constantly in my head for so long, I thought she could probably see them written across my forehead.
The kissing didn’t cure me though. I still couldn’t sleep. I felt as if I would never be able to rest properly again until I was in a bed with her, breathing the same breath. I felt certain I was going to spend the rest of my life in her arms. That in those beautiful long limbs I would find a new home and a truly exceptional relationship that was both best friend and lover. It felt as if our love was meant to be, that the stars had finally aligned. I couldn’t fight it.
I had to sleep with her.
‘We shouldn’t,’ she said. ‘It will only make it worse when I leave.’
‘I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.’ I slid my hands down the back of her pants. ‘You can’t go without it happening. I’ll go mad!’
That Christmas was surreal. In between secret passionate rendezvous with my lesbian lover I was shopping for family Christmas presents, preparing food and performing all the usual Christmas festivities with my extended family. All the while nursing the delicious secret. A friend was going away and needed someone to look after her pets. She offered me her place as a love nest for the last few days before Alex took off for Europe.
I invited Alex over to my friend’s place.
Finally, we were alone.
‘Take off your clothes and get into bed,’ she said. And we were on. She told me to ‘surrender to the moment’ with a wicked grin and did things to me that no one had ever done before.
I called out her name over and over.
As we slept together, I would have followed her anywhere, all over the world. Wherever she went I wanted to be with her, beside her, inside her. I wanted to marry her, make her my wife. I was ready to leave everything for her. My job, my husband, even my children. I would follow her to Europe, and we would live happily ever after.
When we paused in our marathon of lovemaking, exhausted and flooded with pleasure, she gazed into my eyes and said, ‘I love you deeply. I love you truly. I love you always.’
As if she meant it with all her heart.
I believed her.
Edwina Shaw is the author of A Guide Through Grief—First Aid for your Heart and Soul, Thrill Seekers, In the Dark of Night and over 40 short pieces that have appeared in literary journals and anthologies including Best Australian Stories. She is the contributing editor of Bjelke Blues and co-editor of Our Inside Voices. She holds a Masters in Creative Writing and has been teaching creative writing at UQ and in the community for over 10 years.