Passion recalled isn't passion

The time I’ve lost in wooing,
In watching and pursuing
The light that lies
In woman’s eyes,
Has been my heart’s undoing. 

Tho’ Wisdom oft has sought me,
I scorn’d the lore she brought me,
My only books
Were women’s looks,
And folly’s all they taught me.       

—Thomas Moore, 1779-1852

I sometimes had sex with women I had only known for a few hours. There was the woman I met on a botanical field trip and snuck away with to make love in the woods; the woman I met at a convention dinner and screwed while my roommate pretended to sleep; the woman I met on a float trip and had sex with behind a log; and the woman I made love to on a sunken grave. I had sex with Peggy’s best friend, with the town librarian, with a visiting Austrian, and with women I met during the two years I spent visiting communes. All I needed was privacy, whether it was a bathroom floor, the backseat of a car, or a schoolyard in the darkness. I was forever on the hunt, forever studying women’s words and body language for hopeful signs, forever aware that no matter who I was with or what I was doing, I would have abandoned it for a beautiful stranger.

Women like being treated as goddesses by a man who means it, a man who gazes worshipfully into their eyes and listens enraptured to their every word, but I was also a good liar. If a woman asked if cigarette-tasting kisses bothered me, I would say no. When the Austrian asked if I cared that her unshaven legs were as hairy as my own, I said I preferred them that way. If a woman complained about some defect in her appearance, I would tell her that I considered it beautiful, and in the passion of the moment, I probably did.

Peggy, like most women, interprets philandering as indicative of a moral weakness that is prevalent among men. Yet for every philandering male, there are probably several philandering females, and I never had trouble picking up married women. I hated hurting Peggy, and I hated being unable to think about anything but women for more than an hour at a time, but giving up my need for them was no more feasible than giving up my need for air. I passed much of my adult life seriously wondering if castration wouldn’t have been preferable to living as I did, and I by no means attribute my current attitude to a gain in wisdom but to a loss in hormones.

I don’t like much about growing old, but there are a few things. For instance, I like having enough knowledge about enough things that I’m more likely to do something smart than something stupid. I also like remembering things that happened before most of the world’s population was born, but I especially like not being obsessed with women, a state that I never imagined possible back when it was a wonder to me that every dead soldier in Arlington didn’t rise from the grave whenever a pretty woman attended a funeral. Now on those rare occasions when I do more than glance at a woman, lust is less likely the reason than are thoughts that her nose ring would look better on a pig, that her tattoos look like smudges of dirty motor oil, and that the ready view of her butt crack is reminiscent of a fat plumber whose ass is sticking out from under a sink. If she sees me looking at her, and her expression says, “Don’t be lusting after me, old man,” I’ll think, “Don’t flatter yourself, honey.” So it is that I have come to adore my scorn for that of which I lived most of my life in adoration, that which I would have all but killed to possess.

Age enables me to evaluate female beauty in terms that have little to do with lust, and I’ve been surprised to find that so few women are really all that attractive, and that those who go out of their way to look sexy only succeed in looking slatternly. You will surely agree that such reflections are superior to falling in love with every fifth woman I pass on the sidewalk, women that I once imagined to be demigoddesses whose very cells were of a higher order than those of ordinary women.

But what kind of women do I now regard as beautiful? Julia Jackson, whose picture accompanies this post, was Virginia Wolfe’s mother. Her aunt—Julia Cameron—took many pictures of her around 1860, all of which feature an unadorned face and a pensive, direct, and intelligent gaze. I find a nudity in her face that arouses me more than most women’s entire bodies, and compared to which the use of makeup seems desperate and concealing. So, it is that my idea of a beautiful woman is more akin to that of the stereotypical librarian than the stereotypical pouty blonde that women imagine men to prefer and that, for all I know, most men do prefer. I prefer someone like Peggy who is fit, dresses modestly, speaks softly, takes minutes rather than hours to get ready to leave the house, and is uncluttered by paint, tattoos, and bold jewelry. Understatement is what makes a woman sexy, and since I always preferred older women, I have come to regard a few wrinkles as an asset.