Tim Sackton CC
Seduction is contagious. Walking up the snowy road at midnight, our arms linked, my best friend and I giggled together, having just savored an amazing evening with a charming neighbor, adorned with champagne and caviar, and sweet and sweating enthusiasm.
We’d planned it well ahead of time. When I’d given notice on my marriage—telling my husband, the father of my children, that I would no longer share a home with him, since he refused to alter his latest pattern of daily explosions and shouting and smashing dishes and more—the prospect of a sex-limited life ahead depressed me. And it had been a dry year already. Marital friction wasn’t my kind of aphrodisiac.
The ten-year loving friendship we two women nurtured meant that Annie knew and understood how I felt. Impulsively, we’d approached the notorious free-love example of the neighborhood and asked him whether he’d bed us, provided we honeyed the proposition with both of us at once. “Certainly!”
From the far side of seventy now, I marvel at how humble we felt about the deal we offered: two mothers in their thirties, stretch marks and all. We felt so ordinary and worn. So we gave our best that evening, including to each other, assuming that such sights and sounds would add to the gentleman’s pleasure, too. It had, indeed.
The country road gleamed with moonlight. No need for flashlights, though we carried them. We clung together, giggling, our footsteps synchronized; when she slipped on an icy patch, so did I. We tumbled together, embraced merrily, then struggled to our feet.
“Ow!” Annie winced and leaned against me. “My ankle! I’ve sprained it.”
In my bulky down jacket, I curled both arms supportively to hold her upright. She turned her face toward mine. Moon bright, her skin; smudged, the ruby lipstick she’d worn to the house of seduction; she snuggled closer and waited expectantly. I bent to kiss her, and her tongue flicked mine, with a small moan of hunger, hers, mine, who could tell?
“Not now,” I reminded her. “We’re going back to our children, yours and mine. We have to be calm, and quiet. We are their mothers.” I smiled, tender, and she mirrored it, pulling back a moment, then grabbing my arm again. She couldn’t put weight on that ankle.
So I half carried her as I walked, and she drifted in a heady mix of discomfort and delight. I should have known her as well as she knew me. But she hadn’t been honest, so I—well, I hadn’t known her deepest truth. Nor did I for another long month.
But the freedom of our evening reopened my own hungers, for liberty, joy, adventure. And I didn’t know quite where to aim this new eagerness. Certainly not at the man about to be my ex. Nor at my young children, who already received abundant creative parenting from sun-up to bedtime.
Instead, each evening, after the children fell asleep, I left their father “in charge” and pulled on my walking shoes. Jacket, scarf, hat, mittens, flashlight: I went walking down the country road, in the silent darkness. Past the rental house where in four weeks the kids and I would reside. Past woods and other houses, where living rooms shed lamplight and blue television glow. Toward the quiet of the closed general store, then the long loop around the ice-bound lake.
I went walking out.
Childbirth and the persistent tasks of mothering had transformed me from the eager confidence of twenty, to what felt like midlife: always on call, while scrambling to build a freelance editing career, and fueling the days with home-cooked meals heavy on carbs and cheddar.
Yet my softened waistline firmed up under the influence of four miles or more in winter darkness each evening. Despite the November snowscape, the country roads wore ample sandy grit from town trucks. On clear-sky nights, I kept my flashlight off, exulting in the bright stars, rediscovering constellations. I replayed how Annie and I had known how to touch each other, and the soft secrets of her breasts, her thighs. How we paired our attention to the man beneath us, triumphant when we drew his surrender to our lips and fingers.
Aging and its perils of wrinkles and fractures couldn’t catch me as long as I kept walking. Nor would I become a forsaken woman, like my grandmother, my Nana. Divorced (as I was about to be), writing in her cramped Germanic hand to her grown sons, renting her spare rooms to teachers—for her seventy-fifth birthday, ten months earlier, my father had flown her to New England to visit me for a week.
Despite her advanced age, she climbed the log cabin’s steep stairs to the sleeping loft, slow and steady. The scent of her European soap and lotions tickled my nostrils. She began to unpack her clothes. I hurried downstairs to check on the toddler and the five-year-old, and to start a chicken roasting.
Nana returned to the ground floor, surveyed the mess of crayons and building blocks with a half smile, then took over peeling carrots. Tasks went much faster with two sets of hands. My husband (before my ultimatum, of course) turned charming for company.
Thank goodness, becoming so old and frail looked almost impossible to me then.
I’d misread Nana: The next day, she hefted a ski pole she’d found on the front porch and announced she’d go walking. “I’ll go with you,” I replied, wondering whether the January cold—a few degrees below zero—would make the children on their sled fuss too much.
“I walk alone,” she answered. She patted my arm, tucked the ends of her scarf into her coat collar, pulled on gloves.
Anxious, I stared out the front window. Would she fall? Break her hip or leg? What should I do?
She walked. Just fine. Alone.
And she repeated that, every afternoon.
After that, I focused on kitchen and kids, and making sure picturebooks sat by her armchair each evening, so her teaching skills could benefit the little ones. Perhaps the early thirties are not so insightful after all: Although I worried, I never asked her what it felt like to tramp the snowy road in seriously cold temperatures. I fixed hot tea and planned more meals.
She too had secrets. A decade later, after her death, my distant uncle began to spill them. “Didn’t you know? She skied in the Alps. And she walked children out of Germany during the roundups of the Jews.” I didn’t know.
What does a snowy road underfoot feel like, when you’ve climbed high mountains and walked with responsibility for the lives of other people’s children?
The house I rented for the children and me sat in a hollow, just a mile from their father’s home – the log cabin that also used to be mine. When no sharp winds blew, I could walk them up the hill for “Daddy time.”
Annie lived in the other direction. On moving day, she arrived to help unload coats, diapers, books, boots, some dishes. She brought five overloaded bags of groceries. “To get you started.” She kissed me. I embraced her. “To new beginnings!” She’d brought wine, too.
One night of seduction, that, yes, we could arrange. More? Not so easy, now that I lived without a spouse on call, and Annie’s worked out-of-state. Still, we sat at the tiny kitchen table one afternoon soon after the move, sipping cocoa dosed with Tia Maria.
Annie leaned close. “I love you.”
I answered, as I had during our phone chats for a decade, “Love you too.”
“No,” she persisted. “I love you. Love. Like when we did, you know …”
I stared. “You always talked about men with me. All the ones you liked the look of.”
“Nobody else knows.” She began to weep. “I’ve hidden it from everyone. I used to go to Central Park to pick up women. You know? I love you!”
I rose from the table. “You lied to me. All these years of cooing over my marriage and then playing around with men’s photos in the evenings. Of teasing me about your own husband. You pretended we had the same lives. You never told me the truth!”
“But—I love you!”
When I asked for time to think, the tears kept cascading down her cheeks. The ones I’d kissed a month earlier, as part of the game, the fun, the teasing. I watched the red taillights of her car vanish toward the village. There is such a thing as feeling too angry to sob.
I knew who I was: On a spectrum of sexuality, ninety-five percent of me pulled toward the scent and texture of men. The five percent that appreciated Annie wasn’t enough for the love she wanted.
The worst part of feeling hopeless, of feeling Annie’s hurt, was that the children needed me to stay home in the evenings. I’d have to wait for the next “Daddy visit” (and hope it was a long one) to make time to walk it off. I put Annie’s bottle of wine into the back of the fridge.
Seduction is persistent. But what do you do with a dance partner after you’ve bedded him and breakfasted together? On the ridge where I live now, at seventy, there are bobcats. They hunt and leave tracks; I’m glad not to meet them when I go out walking in the woods. Nor do I want to meet face to face the Canada lynx that some of the devoted woodsfolk swear passes through here each winter. Their predation, the wildness in them. Their growling possessiveness.
Ask me during each seduction that followed—the two fiddlers, the guitar player, the pianist, the farmer—I would have said each opened possibilities for lasting love. But some had secrets bigger than I could embrace, and perhaps some found a single parent too strange. One liked to walk, but much more rapidly than I did: always in a hurry for a destination.
I lowered my hopes. Parenting the children through the challenges of high school required resilience and energy and, yes, earning more in my freelance labors. Teens appreciate having the house to themselves for an hour or so, until it’s time for more cooking. I walked quiet night roads around a long lake, and sometimes through a nearby village, a new one I’d moved close to after one especially long relationship. It hurt to see lamplit windows where “happy families” lived. Secrets? Pain? I’d forgotten.
When the Internet came to life, my sorrow led me to looking up Annie. We’d never healed the breach in our friendship, though I still pictured the curl behind her ear, the full tenderness of her breasts, her devastation on that last day, when truth broke open. Now I saw: She lived about forty miles away and had married. A man. Shutting down the search, I pulled on my short boots and went out to walk through the discovery, confused by a mix of grief and guilt and bewilderment.
More secrets of my grandmother’s life arrived by mail after my father passed away. If I ever visit Switzerland, I’ll walk where she did. Where perhaps she danced and seduced? Who can say now?
The summer when my first son prepared for college, and the second began to make similar plans, my walking tasted increasingly regretful, more lonely. My closest friend, Ruth-Ellen, said she’d pray for me. We walked to a cut hayfield and lay on blankets side by side, watching the Perseid meteor shower. She whispered her secrets to me—from her parents’ lives and her own—and we grieved for a harsh breakup that one of her grown daughters faced. She rolled a bit closer on the blanket.
I held her hand, but edged my body away. Not another Annie. Five percent of love isn’t enough for any woman. Another meteor flashed across, brightest of the evening. We moaned at its beauty. We wept a bit.
Autumn came. The lake began to ice over. Walking along it each day made the changes more specific. Geese lingered much longer than I expected. They mate for life; how do they manage, when a mate is killed or vanishes? Does loneliness translate from walking, to winging?
Ruth-Ellen stopped her car next to me, at the far end of the lake. “Want a ride home?”
“Thanks, but no, I need the walking.”
Silence. Then, out the window: “You’re going to get married when you’re fifty.”
“When you’re fifty. I’m pretty sure.” She drove away, leaving unspoken her last secret: She was the kind of woman who received answers to prayers. In words.
I walked home, a little more lonely with each house that I passed, each dock, and holiday decoration.
At age forty-nine, with one son finished with college and the other about to be, each partnered for the moment and living well, I realized they’d never be coming back to my little lake house. And I owed for their college loans.
After painting some walls and ceilings, I put the house on the market. It sold quickly, so I paid off half the loans and rented an apartment in the nearest “shopping town” to think about where to go next. Approached for a date by a man who collected vintage photos, I walked him through an outdoor maze attraction after dark, teasing him with kissses in the dark turns of tall hedges, which worked well as seduction. Perhaps Ruth-Ellen’s “answer” really meant something, and I’d marry him? Maybe in the shabby diner where he ate his breakfasts. I laughed. And walked. He patronized another place for lunches, without me, and one day he abruptly told me he was marrying the waitress there.
But while walking away from the humiliation, I accepted a breakfast invitation, to a good restaurant, from a man I’d met casually. He didn’t walk much; handicapped, slow to move, he carried scars from a full life well spent. Wherever we traveled, other men who’d worked for or with him hurried to greet him and welcome us.
Seduction can undress your secrets. When we’d laid aside the clothing of each other’s dark places for a few months, we became inseparable. Old friends of his, concerned, came to check that I hadn’t simply seduced him into an engagement. I went out walking for half an hour while they grilled him gently. We married the next spring.
“Mom, he may die,” one of my sons commented. Handicaps can cripple and kill.
An ally of my late mother’s, hearing this when I phoned for her advice, gave a calm response: “More likely he will be ill for many years, and you will take care of him.”
Which did indeed happen, but not before the two of us amassed a feast of experiences and discoveries. We taught each other how to continue them from home, too, so when he could barely walk across the room, I could run down the hallway to him in exuberance, as we shared more ideas. Not secrets. By then, we believed all our secrets had been removed, placed neatly in closets on hangers.
His death approached. Ruth-Ellen ran some helpful errands. (I didn’t hear from Annie ever again.) Each morning, while he rested, I walked the ridge. My cellphone linked us; if he needed me, he could call me back. And I took photos to show him: tracks of deer, coyote, mourning doves who rose up into maples and poplars as I approached. No bobcats.
Every day, another walk. Shorter each time, cut by the urgency to return and support him. It was, as they say, a gentle passing; after his last few footsteps, walking to the bed with my help, a few hours later he stopped breathing. I asked the funeral director to come back the next day, after I would have a chance to rest a bit, but sleep wouldn’t stay with me. So I left our bed and pulled on boots, to walk up the hill, talking aloud to whoever had replied to Ruth-Ellen, alternating with talking to what remained of my beloved.
Three days later, Ruth-Ellen died, her heart failing. I hold her secrets still. I give her what love I can—five percent perhaps.
Each day now, at seventy, I walk. God willing, I’ll be doing this at seventy-five, just like Nana did. Her secrets have come a bit clearer over time. I wonder who will want to walk with mine.
Beth Kanell lives in northeastern Vermont. Her novels include This Ardent Flame and The Long Shadow (SPUR Award winner); her short fiction shows up in Lilith and elsewhere. Find her memoirs on Medium, her reviews at the New York Journal of Books, her poems in small well-lit places.
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