How to Age Gracefully: Five Shorts
My date tells me she was in prison for check fraud. It’s not as uncommon as it sounds, she says. I still can’t vote. Twenty minutes ago, we were at a small gathering at a record shop, where an open buffet sent the stink of cheese and onions through the oncoming summer air. She left me with her friends to climb on top of her red Mustang outside, where people took photos of her stretched out on the rooftop, hair swinging, legs splayed, her nose ring glinting in the sun.
Now, we sit across from each other in a Thai restaurant down the street. It is pre-COVID in Florida and there are no barriers between the booths. Music tinkles in the background, barely audible. I chew on a spring roll, unbothered. In my mind, this still could be something, regardless of her leaving me with her friends earlier. We have a spark. A connection. This is how I approach all dates at this age: with endless possibility.
You should be able to vote, I tell her. That’s messed up.
Our sushi comes out. I eat two full rolls without worrying if the sodium in the soy sauce will make me bloat in the morning or if something in the fish might make me sick later that evening. I’m not scared of her breaking my heart or saying something that will shake me so deeply I start questioning if people even care for one another anymore.
I am twenty-seven. She is thirty-five.
I really like you, she says. Where do you want to go after this?
My date in Massachusetts is a dark-haired version of Laura Dern in Jurassic Park. She wears cargo pants and tucks her hair back in a clip, small strands of grey weaving along her hairline. We drive to a park where the pines and oaks are draped with multicolored lights, a carousel bobbing over a coat of snow. There are no palm trees, no sunlight. She drives us around in an old Jeep that’s black and crusted white at the bottom from snow and salt.
This is a strange place to live, she admits.
It’s like everyone is testing me, I tell her. Because I’m not from here.
It took ten years for me to fit in, she replies.
We stop at the carousel, and she cajoles me into climbing on. It’s cold enough that I shiver under my winter coat, my throat tight with nausea. It’s been pushing at the base of my throat since I met her, under the lamplight of my small house, the driveway still unplowed and tinted with dirty snow. It’s not the snow I was seeking when I moved here, the soft powered kind that shimmers in the light. This snow is hard and crusted and sharp.
See? she asks. It’s fun.
It is fun, but it’s hard to enjoy that fun when you’re nauseous. I’m nauseous because certain foods make me sick now, even though they never used to. I’m nauseous because I’m getting age spots on my shins and wrinkles around my eyes. Because it’s my seventh month in Massachusetts and things are still not settling well. My novel hasn’t sold. My coworkers are openly hostile. The cold is hard and unfriendly; it keeps me inside, curled up on my couch, trying to stay warm. Each night I go to bed with this terrible feeling that things are closer to the end now than they are to the beginning.
Let’s go salsa dancing next time, the Laura Dern date says when she drops me off.
I am thirty-two. She is forty-nine.
We never do go dancing.
After our food, I ask red Mustang girl to take me home. Are you sure? she asks. We could go downtown and get tea.
I consider. The light is still up outside, cresting over the Gulf. In minutes, the sunset colors will take the sky. Heat hovers over the pavement. It’s that part of summer where it’s just plain hot but not yet unbearably so, the type of Florida heat that is wet and thick as water. Tough to live with, but so beautiful.
What kind of tea? I ask.
Any kind you want, baby.
I am curious, my attention piqued. We might go for tea and discover we both have a passion for traveling. We might accidentally catch the tail end of a jazz band – the jazz bar is right down the corner. We might bump into a new or old friend, or stumble upon a hundred dollars lying in the street, or some other wonderful thing I haven’t yet dreamed up.
Nothing caffeinated, I say. It’s getting late.
She tells me she knows a place, and then we climb into her car and engine growl down Central Ave, palm trees waving in an early summer breeze around us, windows down, the smell of the Florida sun on our lips, laughing to reggaeton music like we are much younger than we are.
At the start of my first Massachusetts spring, I go on a friend-date with a coworker six inches shorter than me. She wears a purple shirt and vest, her hair pulled back in a claw, spilling around the sides.
The weather is almost in the seventies – unusual for this area and time – the sun shining undeterred and the wet, cold humidity that plagued the air throughout the winter is gone. Things feel positive for the first time in many, many months as we stroll around Northampton before tucking into a dark booth for dinner. Halfway through, I get a call with a new job offer. Everything is working out, my friend tells me. See?
The next week, we cruise around thrift stores and then run errands together. We trade gifts, sit in the sunshine, laugh at dumb jokes from the front seat of her car. We make plans to do more things – go to her lake house, meet her sister, spend time with her son.
I’m scared I grew up to be ordinary, I tell her one afternoon, perched on my couch with the television on.
You’re far from it, she replies.
I write a novella about people doing awful things to one another, partially inspired by the horrible things we witnessed at work that winter. She reads each chapter one by one as I finish them. I liked this, she texts. Or: this one was really good. The cold continues to ebb. We both move into better jobs. I am hopeful, but not like I used to be.
She is fifty-three. I am thirty-three.
By summer, our friendship fades: I never get to meet her sister or go to her lake house.
In the summer, tired and dateless, I go on long walks around the reservoir near my house in Western Massachusetts, stroll down the streets of my neighborhood saying hi to fenced in dogs, taking pictures of the tree blooms as they grow bigger and bigger. I break up with my writing agent, pluck weeds from the cool, wet earth in my yard. At night, I cry in my living room because time is moving so fast and it feels like I’m stuck here, not doing the things I always wanted to do, not being the person I always hoped I could be.
There’s so much I’m not sure I can accomplish anymore, I tell a friend.
I finish the novella and send it to publishers, trying to figure out who to dedicate it to. For the state of Massachusetts, I write as a test on my computer, just to see how it looks. You haven’t killed me yet, you fuck. But as much as I want to blame this all on the move, it’s not the state’s fault.
My date with the red Mustang would be forty now. The last time I saw her on Instagram, she was in a committed relationship, pictures of their child propped on her lap, her nose ring gone, and I thought: What happened to her? Does she still have the Mustang? Does she still model from the rooftop of cars? Does she remember the date when we drove down Central with the windows wide and the engine roaring like everything was good and free and possible?
Chelsea Catherine has lived and worked all over the country. They won the Mary C Mohr award for nonfiction through the Southern Indiana Review and their second book, Summer of the Cicadas, won the Quill Prose Award from Red Hen Press. In 2022, they spent a month in Alaska at the Alderworks Artists Retreat and their story, The Not-Deer, was recently published in an anthology out of London. Their work can be found in Hobart, Passengers Journal, The Florida Review, and others.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.