On the morning of her 49th birthday, Carol Jessop stood naked in front of her full-length mirror and took stock of the situation. As a devoted gym goer, she was generally pleased by what she saw. She’d never had children so her belly was flat and her breasts, though not as round as they once were, resisted hanging on her chest like sacks of sand. Through no effort of her own, her breasts were marvellous. She had won the boob lottery, plain and simple. From the time they began to swell when she was ten to now, they were two in a million. Just last month, after speaking at the city’s literary festival, she was asked by a bearded academic, that if it weren’t too much trouble, he’d like to bury his face in her cleavage for a few long seconds. She took him to her room that night, though it tickled, she let him have all the time he wanted there.
Carol turned and bent over. Definitely one of her best features. Hard to tell someone’s age from this angle. Then she straightened and evaluated her bum. The genes of her father meant her buttocks were a bit flat, and in the centre of her left cheek she sported an unflattering dimple. But squats and lunges meant she still had the cheeks most women her age envied and men admired.
What was beginning to get to Carol was the sag of her skin; around her knees, her elbows, her upper back. Particularly the knees. Why, she wondered, does everyone fixate on the boob lift or the lid lift or the chin lift? What she really needed was a knee lift. How her knee skin had become so saggy was a mystery. Too much time on all fours? She did quite like that position. Now she simply wanted the frowning flaps of knee skin to be gathered up and cut away, like the excess dough of an overhanging pie crust.
Her upper back was almost as bothersome. Despite the perfect fit of her bra, the press-ups, the fat-flush cranberry water, those places behind her armpits were as soft as marshmallows. When she was still in her 30’s and wearing spaghetti-strapped camisoles, her mother’s friend said, “Live it up, girl. Before you know it you’ll have back fat.”
Today, her Almost-50 birthday, Carol took the day off work as lecturer and chair of the university’s English Department, and walked to the city centre. She had no destination in mind, didn’t feel like shopping, didn’t need a new pair of shoes or a leather bag. Her closets were full.
The sidewalks were a bustle of people of all shapes and ages. Carol would normally be sizing up every man that triggered her dopamine receptors; slim, tailored, a touch of grey. But today all she could see were the women. Not women she envied – she didn’t envy other women much, she didn’t see the point – but women she would become. They were women in their 60’s and 70’s. Their faces lined, their necks loose and jiggly when they spoke. Their arms flared widely below their rounded shoulders. And nearly every one of them had rolls of post-menopausal fat hanging over their constricting waist bands. Carol felt a nauseating fear forming inside her gut, a fear that these changes were inevitable and couldn’t be held off by kettle bell classes.
Forty-nine. How long could she hold it? A couple of years? If she started Botox, maybe she’d get another five. But then what? Collagen injections? Ultrasonic liposuction? Cryogenic sculpting? When would it stop? Would she wake up one morning to look in the mirror and find an over-plasticized freak reflected back at her. A female Micky Roark?
Carol moved into the throng of market-goers, distracted, ruminating on things important to her: how many more years she might be able to enjoy her men without Astroglide lubricant; does Spanx made a full-body leotard; how effectively could bio-identical testosterone preserve her sex drive? Ricky, the twenty-something fishmonger, who often smiled at her as he sent fifteen-pound fish sailing through the air, said hello. She didn’t acknowledge him. Today, Carol couldn’t see Ricky. She only saw the pug-nosed grouper on display, its gaping mouth propped open with a stick. The image arrested her. What would they do to her own cold, dead body when she was on ice? Would someone unknown to her, a lab tech, a student learning autopsy techniques, put something into one of her orifices just for kicks?
Carol’s nausea intensified. Her palms felt clammy and her heart began to pound. She turned from the grouper and speed-dialled Dave, the man she referred t o as her gay husband. She met Dave at university, the night they both attempted to seduce the same man. She and Dave spend frequent evenings at her house sipping wine and howling over the week’s best pick-up lines they’ve received via their dating sites.
“Dave. Dave. Listen.”
“I’m listening, Sweetheart. You’re panting. What’s up?” A pitched electronic whir assaulted Carol through the cell phone. “Oh, sorry, just a sec.” Carol moved the phone away from her head and waited for the wailing to cease. “I’m just juicing carrots. Did you know you can use the leftover fibre to make muffins? Carol? You still there?”
“Yes, Dave. Great.”
“Are you excited about our date tonight? Please don’t wear those Frye boots. I don’t want you to be taller than me.”
“Dave. Stop. I think I’m having a panic attack. My pulse is racing.”
“Have you been running?”
“No, I’m not running!”
“What are you doing?” Carol could hear the rustle and click as Dave transitioned from holding his phone to inserting his ear buds.
Carol’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m looking at a dead fish.”
“Honey, just step away from the fish.”
“I can’t.” Carol groaned.
“Carol, close your eyes and listen to me. Blow all your breath out slowly and then breathe in. Slowly, ok?”
“OK.” Carol did what Dave asked. When she opened her eyes she was facing the Seabrook Farms Organic Produce stand. Her breathing slowed, though her eyes darted around in search of something that might steady her. They came to rest on the smooth flesh of a butternut squash. Its wide end rose like the buttocks of a gymnast, orbs of putty-coloured firmness bisected by a crease running along its back, transforming into the perfect gluteal cleft. Carol’s throat tightened again.
“Carol, honey. Are you ok?”
Across the aisle lay the peaches, each cradled in a trough of finely shredded paper. Sexier than the squash, the peaches taunted her with their exquisite ass-ness. Smooth. Dimple-free. Velvet.
The apples were a picture of radiant health. The tomatoes, still on the vine, were plump and firm. There were eggplants without pucker, celery sticks like rippled muscles. Even the mushrooms, at jaunty angles, looked like the solid deltoids of a power lifter.
“Carol? Talk to me. Are you breathing? What the hell are you looking at now?”
“Mushrooms.” She sighed.
“Is that a problem?” Dave sounded upbeat in a forced attempt to have Carol snap out of her edible reverie.
“Dave. They’re all so…”
“So what, Hon?”
“So. So. Young.” Carol hung up her phone and slid it back into her jacket pocket. It vibrated against her hip when Dave called back. She let it ring.
Carol walked to face the choir of glorious produce. A weathered man, desiccated but lovely, stepped from behind the stand and smiled at her.
“Mornin’. What can I get for you?”
Around the man’s eyes flared an explosion of creases. The deepest lines reached all the way down his cheeks and met up with the parentheses around his mouth. His skin was tanned and ruddy. His chin was square and his teeth were straight and white. His flannel shirt was rolled up to the elbows, showing off his sinewy, hairless forearms. Carol watched this sculpted extremity as he reached for a peach.
“Here, try this.” The man took a holstered knife from his belt and sliced a section away from the peach. It glistened. He handed it to her.
Carol took the fruit and felt an immediate calm. “Thank you,” she said quietly. He seemed amused, tucking his chin and flashing a closed-lipped grin. She put the peach slice to her lips, slid the slippery side against her tongue and bit. Juice gathered at the front of her bottom lip and she sucked in her breath, pushing the remaining half into her mouth. The man smiled. Carol smiled back. His eyes were like robin eggs.
“It’s the best crop I’ve had in years.” the man said.
“They’re outstanding.” Carol exhaled.
“Not the least bit mealy.”
“Not at all.” Carol said, still holding his gaze.
“Can I wrap a few up for you?” asked the man.
“Yes. Two.” said Carol who turned to look at them, laid out like sunbathers with their rumps in the air, heads buried in the sand.
The man placed two of the largest gently inside a paper bag and handed it to her.
Carol considered her options. A knobbly avocado? Sunken-skin satsumas? Lemons to complement her mood?
“I need to cook something.” Carol said.
“Did you have a dish in mind?” the man asked, tilting his head.
“Something, you know, bold.” Carol gestured with one hand in a circle while the other arm cradled the peaches. “Yes, something I can transform from one state to another. A sauce! An intense sauce. Very intense.” Carol raised her eyebrows and looked at the man as though she were piercing him. The man took a step backwards.
Carol picked up an heirloom tomato. It was the irregular, scarred sister of the blemish-free beefsteak. Its flesh resembled a fat lady in bondage gear. She held it up to the man’s face, eyes wide. “Like this, this wonderfully ugly tomato. I want to simmer it in garlic and olive oil, with the lid off.”
The man returned Carol’s gaze and matched her enthusiasm.
“Better yet,” he said as he reached across the baskets of onions. He snatched a wrinkled morel mushroom from the heap and challenged her tomato. “A morel sauce! That’s like consuming all the earth’s elements in one bite. Now, that’s intense.”
Carol rocked up on her toes and leaned in toward the mushroom. “The earth’s elixir!” she exclaimed. “A deep and magical potion. A tempest on the tongue!”
“Yes!” the man hunched briefly then thrust the mushroom into the air like the sword of a conquering soldier. “A morel sauce with sherry and shallots and a touch of cream.”
“That’s it!” Carol put the tomato back on its pile and opened her arms as if to say, ‘I’m so proud of you.’
The man chuckled and began to fill another paper bag with the chestnut-coloured morels. He did the same with the shallots and threw in a few sprigs of thyme for free. Carol paid and gathered the bags in the crook of her left arm, just below her bosom.
“I hope you have some company for this experience.” the man said, nodding at the bags of produce and letting his eyes venture north to her lovely melons.
“I may.” She said, suddenly wishing she were staying in tonight instead of clubbing with Dave. She imagined watching this man’s forearms stack wood in the fireplace, his muscles dancing as he wadded up newspaper for fire starter.
Carol felt daring, impulsive, sassy. She tingled.
The man allowed the awkward pause to float past him before he spoke. “By the way, don’t put those peaches in the fridge. They’ll wrinkle and not taste so good. Best to eat them soon.” Carol watched the man’s Adam’s apple slide up the front of his neck.
“No reason to wait.” she replied, raising her eyebrows and tucking her chin, leaning ever so slightly closer to him. “They can’t possibly get any better than this.