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The Twilight Zone: The Sexual Politics of a Retirement Community

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The Twilight Zone

Slow dancing with old women is not something I’ve ever longed to do. No offense to my grandmother, but it feels a little unnatural. That’s a fact I’ve had to confront ever since I started attending the weekly dance of the Singles Club of West Palm Beach. I’ve been attending these dances regularly, every Friday night in fact, since I moved to Century Village in South Florida.

I moved down here, into a retirement community, almost half a year ago, as a twenty-eight year old. It had something to do with wanting to check out what it was going to be like when I got older. Confront my crippling fear of aging, that sort of thing. It was an intriguing writing project. All of those things. I don’t know. I’ve been here way longer than I expected to. I can’t remember why I came, much less why I’m staying so long. Maybe it’s just inertia. Or honestly, I might just be having a senior moment.

For years, the dance club has been a life preserver for South Florida senior singles. I thought it would be interesting to visit and see for myself how senior citizens romance each other. It didn’t occur to me that being the only man present under the age of seventy would be like walking around with a sign that says “Yes, I will dance with you.” I am automatically a novelty, like a dangerous greaser who shows up at an ISO dance. I am dragged to the dance floor, over and over again. The women clutch me to their party dresses and, as we sway, they hum along to the swing music. They’re wearing perfume that smells like tea rose. It is the first time in my life I find myself wishing somebody would start the Electric Slide.

When I first see Vivian, she is standing across the room and staring directly at me. It’s jarring when you catch someone staring and she doesn’t look away like most people do when they’re busted. Then, Vivian is beside me. She says nothing, simply stands and waits for me to acknowledge her presence. I don’t know her at all yet, but immediately sense we are in some kind of battle and decide not to give her the pleasure of an immediate greeting. I continue the boring conversation I am in and appraise her from the corner of my eye. She looks different from the rest of the older single women here. As women age, they tend to start to look less distinctive. Their facial features soften and fill out, their hair becomes thinner and is coiffed into the ubiquitous old-woman Afro. Vivian, though, has somehow escaped that. Though Vivian must be in her early seventies, her hair is jet black, thick, and long. She has amazing posture. Her skin is tan and dark, her face is slim, and her features are sharp. She is the first old woman I have ever seen that I would describe as “sultry.” She is possibly the sultriest older woman in South Florida.

“Aren’t you going to ask me to dance?” she says. I’ve been the slow-dance slut of the singles club, but my heart starts beating fast and I feel that saying no would be the smartest thing I could do.

“I’m bad at dancing,” I say, by way of an excuse.

“Yes, you are,” Vivian says. “I’ve watched you; you don’t know what you’re doing.”

She pulls me onto the dance floor and folds herself into my arms. Her posture is formal and bizarre-feeling. Her back is arched to an extreme. It’s as if she has electricity running through her spine. As big-band music blasts from the hall’s ancient speakers, I try to lead her around the dance floor, but really, she is leading. Periodically, she barks something like “Evolve! Evolve!” at me, and I have no idea what it means.

At some point, I become aware that I have an erection. The only explanation I can come up with is that I am turned on by how inappropriate it is to have an erection while dancing with an elderly woman. But that is circular logic. I have to angle my hips away from her so that she can’t tell.

“I hear you are a writer,” she says. “You should hear my life story. It will blow you away.”

Vivian has an indeterminate Mediterranean accent that falls somewhere between Inigo Montoya and a discount electronics salesman. She is Romanian by birth.

“I am looking for somebody to write my life story,” she says. “A writer like you. You are a good writer?”

“Yeah, I’m good,” I say, more defensive than I want to sound.

“Just wait till you hear my life story,” Vivian says. “It will blow your mind away. It has sex and love and passion. And murder. It is better than a movie!”

Vivian hands me a business card. “This is my number,” she says.

“Okay,” I say.

“Good,” she says. “I am looking forward to it. Maybe if you’re lucky, I will give you a dance lesson when you come visit me.”

“Okay,” I say.

She walks back into the crowd, and then I see the pairs of seniors all around, staring at me and whispering. I feel odd and embarrassed and leave at once. Vivian is very happy to see me, and guides me into her condo. It’s on a high floor of a prominent Palm Beach building. Her furniture is expensive-looking and large — the kind of stuff you see in luxury showrooms and wonder who actually purchases it. For instance, Vivian owns what I would call the most tasteful, most upscale leopard-skin chair I have ever seen.

“This place is really nice,” I say.

“Thank you,” says Vivian. “Yet it is the least impressive place I have ever lived.”

She’s wearing tight black slacks and open-toed shoes with bright red nail polish. Her blouse is unbuttoned several buttons.

“I’m sorry it’s so hot in here,” she says. Vivian tells me she married for the first time at nineteen, to a man who promised to take her to America. But he took her to live in rural Delaware, which is technically America, but not the place she had in mind at all. Before long she had two children.

“Imagine me,” says Vivian, “in the middle of nowhere with two young children!”

Vivian forced her husband to move to Hollywood, despite the fact that neither had ever been there. Desperate to keep her, he agreed. Vivian soon found herself courted by several wealthy Los Angelenos. She admits that she led them on and enjoyed doing it. She and her husband grew apart. When it seemed doomed, her husband flew out a close business friend to help broker a reunion between them. They all went to dinner. That man took a liking to Vivian and stroked her leg under the table. She had a small fling with him.

“I am a femme fatale,” she says, with the sort of accent that allows you to pull off a statement like that. “I probably hurt some men in my day. I know I have. I like the chase. I am like a man that way.”

Vivian takes a deep breath, and I know in that instant that she would be smoking a cigarette right now if some doctor hadn’t told her to stop smoking.

“It is interesting, no?” says Vivian. “Do you think I’m interesting?”

“It all sounds like a Jackie Collins book,” I say. “Or maybe Danielle Steel.”

“Why do you think I’m interesting?” she says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “You’re not really like anyone I’ve ever met before.”

Vivian smiles and leans back. I guess I said the perfect thing.

“I like talking to you,” she says. “I like having a biographer. Ask me another question.”

“How many times have you been married?”

“Six times.”

“Did you end all your marriages?”

“All but the last,” she says. “I met him aboard Papa Doc’s yacht in Haiti. And he wanted me back the next day. Too bad I changed the locks.”

Vivian takes a photo out and shows me, against all probability, an image of herself as a young, beautiful, comically tan woman, aboard the lavish yacht of notorious Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Her future husband stands next to her, his arm around her, dressed in white and looking like a studly Colonel Sanders.

I had assumed she was making this stuff up.

“He was a wonderful writer, like you,” says Vivian. She’s never read a thing I’ve written.

“What happened to him?” I ask her.

“He went to jail for murder,” says Vivian, “and he died ten years later.”

“Oh jeez,” I say.

“He loved me until the day he died,” says Vivian. Senior citizens should have no problem falling in love, when you think about it. You are eighty. You’ve completed your career, raised families, and done the whole “for richer or poorer till death do us part” thing, for better or worse. The hard part is done. It’s all muffin tops from here on out.

So why is that not the case? On one hand, I get shit from my fellow retirees about my pickiness in choosing a girlfriend. But the truth is, now that they’re single, they’re pretty picky themselves. Everybody is still trying to date up: date someone younger, date someone richer, date someone better looking.

Amy Ballinger, my ninety-three-year-old friend, says it’s the men’s fault. “Single male seniors are animals,” she says. “Whatever stage of arrested development they were in forty years ago when some woman grabbed them up, I now have to deal with that unfinished business. They haven’t changed; they’ve just been married for forty years.”

I’ve spent a lot of time down here talking to single elderly men, and I have found that Amy is understating things. Single elderly men may be the most immature population on the planet. I’ve heard them say the kinds of things that in a football locker room might be considered “going too far.” I’ve been to a strip club with old men. Strippers always think it’s great when a cute old man comes to a strip club. But that’s only until the cute old man begins to flagrantly ignore the club’s “no hands” policy. Then the strippers give you the skunk eye because they think you brought the pervert, when it’s the other way around entirely.

The truth is that older men can get away with acting like this because there are so many more old women than old men in Florida. The women live longer. Men are scarce. There are countless stories in these communities of men whose wives pass away, and within hours, a line of heavily-made-up single women paying a “condolence call” show up at their door clutching containers full of meatloaf. And if you are a single old man who can still drive, who has his own car, then forget it. You are the king. You are going to get it on. It really is just like high school in reverse. Every morning a bunch of guys who call themselves the Bullshit Club meet in the clubhouse social area of Century Village. Rumor has it that the Bullshit Club is just a cover for the men’s shared passion for illegal sports betting.

That may be true, but they still spend two or three hours each morning telling one another sex tales. Men have a genetic disposition to blab every time they get laid. It’s funny: women get the bad rap for always wanting to talk after sex, but at least they want to talk to their partner, not all their betting buddies.

The pattern is that one guy tells his sex story while the other guys try to prove he is lying.

“I’ve had seven broads in five weeks!” Frank will say. “You should have seen the last one. Tits, ass! She got a figure like a movie star! She had all the goodies!”

“Your nose is growing,” says Mo, a retired policeman.

“She put out?” says Ed. “She wasn’t one of those dinner ho’s?” A “dinner ho” is an elderly woman who dates men only to get them to take her out to a nice dinner.

“She made dinner!” says Frank. “Fuckin’ baby lamb chops!”

“That’s bullshit!” says Mo.

“She’s very orgasmic,” says Frank.

“These older women,” Ed tells me, “they’re very sexually oriented. You can play with ‘em, they still come. They love oral sex!”

“Yeah?” I say.

“Oh yeah.”

“And you can, like, still perform?” I say, which shuts the Bullshit Club right up.

“I can perform,” says Ed.

“Bullshit!” says Mo. “Every night?”

“Every night?” says Ed. “Well . . . not every night.”

“They always try to get you to their place,” says another woman I’ve met down here, Lee Ravine. “They say they want to show you their apartment. And not just to try and sleep with you. These men have an inordinate amount of pride in their little apartments. They want to show off their rental furniture.”

When a man gets too frisky, Lee says that she gives him a pamphlet on AIDS. She tells them that senior citizens are one of the fastest-growing populations of HIV carriers in the United States. They tend to leave soon afterward; nothing douses arousal like an AIDS pamphlet, she says.

“Men are idiots,” she says. “Nothing personal.”

Vivian’s apartment overlooks the Intercoastal Waterway, a sliver of water that winds down the eastern side of South Florida. We watch it as we talk; it is burnished orange by sunset.

“After I left my first husband I supported myself,” Vivan says. “In the day I taught. At night, I worked in sex.”

“You did what?” I say. I’m shocked, yet not surprised. Why wouldn’t all that sultry sexiness have a dark side? I consider that, and then I begin to wonder whether I am going to end up sleeping with Vivian. Horrified, I stuff that thought away, then it comes raging back full force.

“I worked in sex,” she repeats. “Why is that strange?”

“It’s . . . it’s not,” I say.

“It’s a nice store, Sex Fifth Avenue.”

“Saks Fifth Avenue,” I correct her.

“Yes, Sex Fifth Avenue. That’s what I said. I worked in Sex for two years.”

I start to laugh. “Why is that funny?” she asks. “Have you ever been in love?”

We have moved to the living room. We are sitting on leopard skin now.

“I don’t know.”

“You would know.”

Vivian says she has been in love only twice in her life, and she married neither of those men. The last time she fell in love was when she lived in Las Vegas. She fell for an ad executive. She was married at the time. In the beginning, she and the executive would play chess together, and she’d beat him every time.

Eventually, he invited her over to his place. She began conducting an affair. She could see her lover’s apartment from the regular table she and her husband sat at in their favorite restaurant. Her lover would flick his lights on and off when he knew she was eating there. Her lover was possessive and angry, convinced that Vivian was cheating on him with a third man. One time he came over and threatened her with a broken bottle.

“That turned me on,” says Vivian. “I don’t know why. I had the best sex with him.”

“Why was it the best sex?” I ask, stammering over every word in the question. Vivian just arches her eyebrows, as if to say: If you don’t know, then I feel sorry for you.

Al is a retired eighty-three year old. His body is bony and slight, but he has a lot of energy. He lost his wife three years ago, and since then he has gotten heavily into Internet dating. He maintains a profile on an assortment of dating sites, and spends up to four hours a day writing and reading emails from women all around the world.

“Do you get responses?” I ask.

“Oh yeah,” says Al. “I get lotsa responses. There’s so many lonely women out there, you don’t realize it. I got women from Russia, Bulgaria; I guess they want to marry an American. I had this woman, she was gonna come stay with me a couple weeks from Russia.”

“Al,” I say, “I think that’s a different kind of thing.”

“Yeah,” he says. “I saw she looked more like a man than a woman. I broke it off with her.”

The rest of Al’s online correspondence appears to be legitimate. The women seem to like Al; they write him as much as he writes them. He enjoys sending them lighthearted, lascivioius emails. He’ll ask them if they want to see a picture of him on the beach. Then he sends a phony photo of a bodybuilder naked on a beach with a sombrero over his groin area. Al keeps all the letters and digital photographs in a stack, and he lets me go through them. As I once again learn the extent to which old men get more action than me, I’m depressed.

Al walks over to his bed and points to the bedspread. He’s the sort of older Italian guy who wears a lot of hand jewelry. “I have had sex with eight women on this bed,” he says. Other than his wife, he has never slept with a woman that he didn’t meet through Internet dating. Judging from the photographs, he is not a picky lover. He loves all women.

“Do you believe in soul mates? I ask Al.

“I already found my soul mate,” says Al, gesturing to a framed old black-and-white photo of himself with his wife. “She’s not here anymore. Now I’m just havin’ fun.”

Most of the books I’ve been reading on health and aging make it clear that it’s not just possible to enjoy an active sex life into your eighties and nineties, it’s even recommended, as long as you’re cautious.

A Duke University study found “a strong tie between the frequency and enjoyment of sexual intercourse and longevity.” Another British study had the same result, noting lower overall rates of mortality among men who have sex more frequently than the once-a-week average. The bottom line is: People who have “frequent, loving sex tend to live longer than those who don’t.”

What would it be like to sleep with an old woman? The books all write about “diminished lubrication” and a “thinning of the vaginal tissue.” They warn that “some of the sexual positions you enjoyed at age thirty can be difficult and even painful at the age of seventy.” So I guess the wheelbarrow position is out.

Sometimes I ask Vivian questions about sex. It’s easy, because it’s all under the guise that I am her biographer and interviewer.

“Oh, I don’t have any of those problems,” she says, waving her hand to dismiss the question. “I have better sex now than ever. I didn’t know how to have sex until I was older,” she says.

One of the women I meet, Barbara, is having trouble finding a man. That’s surprising to me because she’s a trim, pretty older woman with curvy features and a good head of hair. One day Barbara asks me to set her up on some dates. “You’re meeting so many men for your interviews,” she says, “you might as well get me some phone numbers.”

Once I begin looking for dates for Barbara, I see how few suitable men there are. I find one elderly gentleman for her down in Ft. Lauderdale, but Barbara only wants to date Jews. My hunch is that this man is not a Jew, as he is named Fritz. So I build Barbara some online profiles on several Jewish dating sites. I ask her the questionnaire items while we sit by the pool and enter them into the computer later.

“How old should I say you are?” I ask her.

“I want to say I’m in my sixties,” she says.

“How tall?”

“Five foot three. I think I’m shrinking. But don’t put that.”

“What kind of man are you looking for?”

“I’m not fussy,” she says. “Just a man who is smarter than me and taller than me. And prettier than me.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t want to sound vain,” she says. “Of course I am vain, but they don’t want to know that.”

“Okay.”

“He has to drive! I’m not going on the bus with him! No more of that.”

“Check.”

“Tall dark and handsome. He has to be sweet and gentle. Into good health. A walker. Nonsmoker. I don’t even want to be near a smoker. And he has to be single. Not married.”

“Okay.”

“But he doesn’t have to show me his wife’s death certificate; some of these men have done this to me. That’s poor taste.”

“Okay.”

“He should want to go shopping with me. And he should be a good dancer. And I don’t want fat. No fatties! Slim! I once had a fatty! Friends set me up! We had dinner out on the Island, thank God. I was hiding!”

“Anything else?”

“He should be wealthy. And wise!”

“Okay.”

“I’m not fussy. Anyone will do, really.”

How do any of us end up finding anyone? It’s a miracle if it happens. Everyone throws up their own dopey roadblocks. And then there is the tyranny of freedom, as evidenced by Barbara: we have so many options that we become incapable of settling on any of them, and become too picky. We run the risk of never finding anyone. In the old days, it seems like it was easier.

“When I was a kid,” my friend Norm told me, “you married the best-looking girl in your neighborhood who would sleep with you right after the ceremony.”

The next time I see Vivian, she has moved into a new apartment. She no longer wanted to live in the space she shared with her fourth husband. She wanted to start fresh. Her new condo is nice, but much smaller.

We sit down on the same couch. I ask Vivian how her love life is going. Her latest boyfriend is Italian, which is very Vivian, but he is the Italian-American blue-collar variety, not the Milanese one.

“I hate him,” she says. “He’s so ignorant. I need a smart man.”

Vivian acknowledges that there’s something nice about the simplicity of her new relationship. “I’m still in a world of dreams,” she says. “But maybe I am stupid, because you can’t have perfection. Maybe that’s why my marriages didn’t succeed. I didn’t look for the good, I looked for the glamour, you know?” Recently she brought her new boyfriend to her daughter’s for dinner, and Vivian was paranoid that everyone would be stunned by how far she’d fallen. But they loved him. “My daughter said, ‘Isn’t it time you overcame superficial things and went for something real?’”

“That sounds like good advice,” I say.

“Yes, but ‘something real,’ it gets on my fucking nerves,” she says. “I belong with younger men now that I am older. I am like a man that way.”

When we finish talking, Vivian asks me if I want another glass of wine, but I decline and tell her I need to go. We stand and say good-bye at the door. I’m feeling nervous and can’t make eye contact. Do I shake her hand? A kiss on the cheek? But where on the cheek? I decide to give her a quick kiss squarely in the middle of the cheek. I do, but my aim is off, and maybe it lands a quarter-inch closer to her mouth than I expect. Maybe I linger there a bit longer than a biographer should. Vivian doesn’t seem surprised. The skin is wrinkled, but softer than I expected. Then I walk out, and Vivian does look surprised.

In the elevator, on the way down, I wonder to myself: Did Vivian look surprised because of my unexpected intimacy? Or did she look surprised because she wanted more? Or did she look surprised only because it was such an unfamiliar sight, a man walking away from her?

This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.