from How Abbie Goldman Got Kissed in Venice.
A Love Story for Baby Boomers, by Mark Axelrod.
DON’T BE ASHAMED OF YOUR AGE.
DON’T LET THE YEARS GET YOU DOWN.
THAT OLD GANG YOU KNEW, THEY STILL THINK OF YOU,
AS A ROUNDER IN YOUR OLD HOME TOWN.
DON’T MIND THE GREY IN YOUR HAIR.
JUST THINK OF ALL THE FUN YOU HAD PUTTIN’ IT THERE.
AND AS FOR THAT OLD BOOK OF TIME, BOY,
YOU NEVER SKIPPED A PAGE,
SO DON’T BE ASHAMED OF YOUR AGE.
BROTHER, DON’T BE ASHAMED OF YOUR AGE.
Sung by Willie Nelson – Lyrics by Cindy Walker and Bob Wills.
For my children, Camila and Matías.
OBLADI OBLADA LIFE GOES ON
Music and Lyrics by John Lennon (born 1940) and Paul McCartney (born 1942). Technically, not a Baby Boomer, but close enough.
MY SON, GERALD, TELLS ME, POP, YOU GOTTA’ MEET SOME WOMEN—SOMETHING ABOUT MY DECEASED WIFE, ELENA SOKOLOW—SOMETHING ABOUT ME, ABBIE GOLDMAN—A BIT ABOUT MY RETIREMENT—I EXPLORE THE WORLD OF ONLINE DATING
"Pop, you gotta’ meet some women. Have you tried one of those online dating sites?"
That was the sage advice from my thirty-something son, Gerald, Stanford grad and plastic surgeon living in the San Francisco Bay area, from whom I heard dutifully almost every Sunday evening. At about seven. He would call from Sausalito, always concerned about my health and the fact I was living alone since my wife, his mother, Elena, passed away three years ago. After the usual talk about how I was doing and how I was enjoying retirement, he’d say, "Pop, you gotta’ meet some women. Have you tried one of those online dating sites?" It was like a mantra for him. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the fact he did that, I appreciated that he was concerned enough about his old man that he’d encourage him to get into the "dating scene." But I had been married for over thirty years to a woman of such elegance and grace that she denied duplication.
I met Elena Sokolow while in graduate school. She was a freshman at the University of Minnesota whose family had moved from New York to the Twin Cities. I was just beginning my MBA. We accidentally met each other in a café in Dinkytown, the social and cultural Mecca of the University of Minnesota, when her right hand bumped my left hand and our coffees collided in the most mercurial of ways. In retrospect, it was love, not coffee, that was good to the last drop. It was my senior year of college and dated throughout her undergraduate years and married shortly after her graduation. She was 22, I was 26. She studied Theatre Arts and gave up what would probably have been a marvelous acting career in New York to marry me. It was only one of many sacrifices she would make.
Born in Kiev, she lived in Romania, Portugal and France and moved to New York when she was twelve. It was a cosmopolitan life that accounted for her extraordinary tastes. She was fluent in several languages, eccentric, eclectic, an avid reader, a loving wife, a devoted mother and a remarkable lover who had the looks of Anouk Aimée and the whimsicality of Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim. Who could fill that void?
After her death, the problem for me had become an excess of "free time." I’ll get to that soon, but first something about me. I don’t suffer fools gladly. It is a cliché I know, but when one creates a business that was on the balls of bankruptcy, there’s no alternative. Some have suggested my bluntness is a product of insolence or arrogance, but that is not the case. In business, one learns that "getting to the point" is a virtue and an obligation. My brother, Leo, and I were born in Brooklyn and moved to the Twin Cities when I was only eight so I still have some Brooklyn edges. Just why my father did that, moved that is, God only knows, since the Twin Cities was about as far away from New York as one could possibly imagine. Though time and distance alter one’s perceptions and though I grew to enjoy the Minnesota life and what it had to offer, one can take the boy out New York, but not acerbity out of the boy.
Even as a punk kid I always thought that "being straight with someone" was better than ignoring the elephant in the room or waltzing around the obvious even though in social situations that often did not work. Elena was quick to point that out, but she accepted the fact I always spoke my mind and accepted our differences as gracefully as any woman could. Nor am I the stereotypical "businessman." I studied economics at university, but minored in Italian. Shoot me. I became fascinated with Dante and DaVinci long before his friggin code and have read Italian literature ever since. Elena and I had traveled to Rome and Florence, Milan and Genoa. Venice, for some reason, escaped us.
But I think that was why Elena and I were so well-matched. She was brilliant, artistic, romantic, imaginative; I was pragmatic, resourceful, financially savvy. As I said, I inherited a foundering printing and publishing business in Minneapolis and turned it into a multi-million dollar enterprise only to sell it to an even larger multi-million dollar enterprise before my 55th birthday. Shortly thereafter, Elena was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and for the next two years my life was absorbed with caring for her and watching the slow disintegration of a vital and effervescent woman. At her death, she weighed 85 pounds and the high cheek bones that held such lustre and charm when she was alive became the engravings of a skeletal mask at her death. No one should suffer those indignations and I donated a million dollars in her name to a Minnesota business dedicated to finding a cure through stem cell research.
I sold my house on Lake Minnetonka and moved to St. Paul. I purchased a condominium in a community called the Bridges of St. Paul that overlooked the Mississippi because the complex reminded me of an Italian villa we once stayed at in Bellagio. Besides, I no longer needed a mansion since each of the rooms reminded me too much of Elena. The remnants of her handiwork spoke to me and the scent of Jean Patou was everywhere. She was everywhere and nowhere and her absence was a vision I could not tolerate. There are no words to express that kind of loss no matter what writer writes them.
One might think that an early retirement would be the goal of every hardworking American. At least that is the propaganda that has been foisted on every Baby Boomer. Those Golden Years. Bullshit. It is the mother of all lies, especially if one lives alone, especially if one had lived with someone for thirty years and whose presence had markedly affected one’s daily life. Because of Elena, I learned French and read a lot of French novels, journals, newspapers. Because of Elena, my day began with brewing Caffé del Doge (the coffee we spilled on each other) and sitting on the terrace. We did that even in the winter. In the snow and the silence of the frozen lake and the barren trees we’d hold hands, her right, my left, and drink coffee. But one eventually learns, albeit reluctantly, to live alone. And though I continued to take my coffee and drink it on the terrace, the coffee never tasted the same.
Sometimes, I would read the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal, Forbes or Barron’s. Sometimes Le Monde, sometimes Corriere della Sera. I subscribed to dozens of magazines, journals and newspapers anything to keep my loneliness at bay. Then I’d take a walk. Even in the bitterest of Minnesota winters, I’d walk along the river which inevitably reminded me of the walks with Elena around the lake. Once, one early October dusk, as I walked alone, I felt her hand caressing mine and her hands were the most beautiful hands I ever held. It was the same hand I held when she died, the same hand that spilled coffee at that Dinkytown café. Her hand. It was an experience I shall never forget since it was as real as the ripples on the river. I searched for things to occupy my time. I attended high holiday services only on Yom Kippur to recite the Kaddish. I bought seats to concerts, but only when the symphony played Mahler. I went to Minnesota football games, but rarely kept score. Friends wanted to "fix me up," but I politely declined. A year of that turned into two. Two turned into three.
I tried taking up hobbies, though few interested me. I read a journal called Latin American Art and became interested in purchasing art from Latin America. I began buying original works by Latin American painters such as the Chileans, Ambrosio, Balmes and Matta; the Argentines, Muslera and Boim; the Cubans, Omar and Carreño. But after all the walls were filled, I found myself searching for something else to do. Something else to occupy my time. I started collecting Italian wines like Gaja, Barbaresco, 1978; Macarini, Barolo LaSerra, 1978; and Brunello di Montalcino Biondi Santi, 1978.
But when there was no more room for wines I started collecting first editions of French novels since French novels were Elena’s favorites. I even purchased Flaubert’s original manuscript of Bouvard and Pechuchet from a store on the Left Bank just around the corner from Deux Magots. I even flew to Phoenix to take Grand Prix Road Racing lessons from Bill Bondurant.But all those things were just that: things.
I considered taking up tango again. On our trips to Buenos Aires, Elena and I would take tango lessons and we continued them when we returned. I became rather accomplished at tango, as did Elena, but after she died I danced infrequently, then not at all. I took an occasional lesson just to stay in shape, but if one knows anything about tango then one knows there is nothing more intimate in dancing than the close embrace, in which the lead and follow connect chest-to-chest. For some reason, I just lost interest.
With neither financial burdens nor family concerns, my time was obviously my own, but my time was also expendable. Time may be timeless, but aging is not. And then there was always the Sunday night phone call and the mantra, "Pop, you gotta’ meet some women. Have you tried one of those online dating sites?"
"Just what online dating site would you suggest?" I asked, as I entered my third year of widowerhood.
"I don’t know. I’ve never been on one," Gerald said.
"Then your suggestion isn’t much of one, is it, son?"
"Listen, you’ve got a laptop computer. You’re hooked up to the internet. You ran a multi-million dollar business. You think you could figure that out for yourself?"
"You know, you were always a mouthy kid."
"And sometimes you’re insufferable. Pop, just do it."
And then he hung up. I’m not sure why I was so reluctant to do that. Do the online dating thing. Probably because of guilt. Jewish guilt. Feeling guilty about betraying Elena, about somehow staining three decades of enduring love. Guilt.So, one night I poured myself a glass of Chilean Carmenére (I had moved on from Italian wines), sat down in front of the computer and for starters typed in the phrase, "dating sites." The results were instant and astonishing. I immediately called Gerald.
"I took your suggestion about dating sites."
"And there are about 49,700,000 possible ones. So, Mister Plastic Surgeon, where do you suggest I begin?"
"Okay, just think about a specific target audience."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"A target audience. Jesus, you ran a business. Think marketing. Is there a particular group of women you’d like to meet."
"What? Like virgins?"
"Pop, stop it. You know, Latin women, French women, Italian women, Ukrainian women."
"No more Ukrainian women. But how in the hell do I know what I want. I’m looking for a woman. What do I type in: svelte Italian woman with a foot fetish?"
"If that’s what you want."
"You know that’s not what I want."
"Then type in what you do want."
"I don’t know what I want!!!!!!!!!"
"Don’t yell. I’m right here and I’m not one of your ex-employees."
"Yeah, well, don’t forget who put you through med school."
"And don’t forget who graduated from med school. Listen, Pop, think about it and call me when you have an idea."
Call him when I have an idea. I had no friggin idea. Who was I going to ask for help? Certainly not my brother, Leo, who had been happily married for almost as long as I was and who must have thought online dating was something out of a Hollywood movie. So, not really knowing where to begin I asked Raoul, the concierge at the condominium, several questions which he politely answered. Raoul was Argentine. Mid-20s, good-looking kid working on a law degree at William Mitchell. I figured if anyone would know anything about online dating, Raoul would. And he did. As a matter of fact, he knew too much and started rattling off a list of websites: Jdate.com; Match.com; Yahoo Personals; Millionaire.com, AnastasiaWeb.com. Baby Boomer.com, Date.com, Widowed.com ad nauseum. There must have been two dozen of them, but I still had no idea where to begin. Like multiple orgasms, there were multiple dating sites. Unlike multiple orgasms, there wasn’t much satisfaction in surfing them. Lost as I was in that veritable sea of estrogen, I called Gerald.
"Pop, don’t be too picky. Just pick one of the sites and, well, look. No one is going to replace mom so don’t do that to yourself," the echo of Gerald’s voice clanged in my ears.
Probably right, since no one can replace the perfect partner, what am I looking for? Not only was she my best friend, but she was the greatest of lovers. Can I say that? From the time we first made love to the time we last made love our sex life was extraordinary. I had gone to bed with a number of women, but no one was as sexually liberated at Elena. No one. Of course, I never really shared that with Gerald, since there was no reason to. What was I going to tell him anyway? What would a parent tell a son or daughter about his or her sex life? And would they want to hear about it? Not really. Okay, so maybe I was picky, but what were the choices? After you’ve made love to the best, what’s next? Or, as Paul Newman once said about having affairs, "When you have steak at home, why look for hamburger." Not sure I would relegate Joanne Woodward to a choice piece of meat, but I understood what Newman meant. I was monogamous for three decades. Never strayed. Often lured, never bit. Was offered multiple times with multiple choices, but always declined.
"Listen, you’ve got a lot going for you, Pop. You’re fit, you’ve got a great sense of humor, you’re financially secure and you’re good looking," was Gerald’s segway. "Why, you could be a centerfold for AARP."
"I could always count on you to say the right thing. So, what age range do you think I should look for? And where should she live?"
Did I really want to go out with someone older than I was? Or the same age? Or did I want to start a relationship with a woman who lived on the other side of the country? Or in another country altogether? The choices were endless. I was approaching sixty and though I didn’t feel or look sixty, was I supposed to lie about my age?
"I mean, I don’t look sixty, do I?"
"And I can still whip your ass in handball, can’t I?"
"Yes, Pop, you can still whip my ass in handball."
"But if I don’t look sixty and don’t feel sixty, if I put down sixty, then women will discriminate against me because I’m sixty and I won’t get another look, right?"
"If you put it that way, then right."
"Okay, then you answered my question."
The answer to the question was a profound "yes, I’ll fudge my age" since everyone else seemed to be lying about his or her age anyway. And wasn’t the whole concept of online dating built on a fabric of lies of one sort or another. Like how many of the "blondes" out there were really blondes. Or brunettes, for that matter. It wasn’t as if I were telling a major lie. So, I cheated a few years on the Grim Reaper. Fuck him, he cheated me. So, do I look for someone who is 38? 42? 45? 50? 55? And what do I write about myself. And what if I’m not into toe rings and big breasts?
"It was a rhetorical question, Gerald. Listen, I jotted down some of the things these online women are looking for. Listen to these. I wrote some of them down."
A dutiful son, Gerald reluctantly listened.