“How’s your love life?”
“Not as exciting as yours, Grandma.”
My grandmother is 86 years old and she has a long distance boyfriend. She’s just been telling me about how every night at 8 pm her time and 10 pm his time (she lives in New Mexico, he lives in New Jersey), he calls her and asks, “Ready to pour?”
They drink one gin and tonic and talk for an hour before bed. This happens every night. She tells me that he’s started calling in the mornings too, “Just to say Good Morning.” I ask how they constantly find things to talk about.
“I don’t know, honey, we just do. We talk about politics and the people we used to know. We tell each other about what we did that day.”
I remember that feeling of wanting to tell a partner everything—purposefully remembering things from your day just so you could tell them about it later, every mundane little detail. I had that with Mr. Intimidated, which is how I knew I actually really liked him. Grandma tells me that her boyfriend admitted to making notes throughout his day so he wouldn't forget to tell her things.
“He makes me feel like a girl,” she tells me earnestly. “I never thought I’d feel that way again.”
My grandmother and her boyfriend, Bob, grew up together in the same tiny New Jersey town where he still lives. They knew all the same people, most of whom are now dead. Bob remembers more than she does about their high school days together—he remembers things about my grandmother that she doesn’t remember herself. Like about that time they were playing tennis in gym class and she got a cramp in her leg and had to sit down and the gym teacher came over and asked Bob, “What did you do to her?” Or when she fainted outside the school and knocked down a professor.
Bob remembers these details because he’s been in love with my grandmother for 60 years. My grandfather died three years ago and this man—a widower himself—waited a respectable two years before swooping in on the long lost love of his life. She wasn’t sure at first and she resisted him for several months—I think she felt some moral obligation about being faithful to the memory of my grandfather. But Bob just kept on coming, undeterred by her reticence.
“I feel silly now about resisting him,” she admits.
When Bob came to visit her in Santa Fe several months ago, my grandmother laid down the ground rules: “Hopper seat down” (she calls the toilet a hopper), “you have to help with the cooking, and... NO SEX.” Her boyfriend joked: “If you wanted to have sex, I’d have to bring someone in.” At first I interpreted this to mean a prostitute and I was momentarily shocked. Then my grandmother laughed, apparently charmed by his little joke. I guess he meant a doctor or something. Someone to administer the Viagra? I don’t know.
One of her favorite things about Bob is the fact that he can keep the names of her three daughters straight. The fact that he remembers that her granddaughter lives in Los Angeles.
“He has a good memory and he obviously cares about you,” I say.
I consider telling her about the guy I had been chatting with on OKCupid for a couple weeks who then, a year later when I got back on the site, opened with the same pick up line he’d used on me the first time around. I remembered the line and I remembered him. We had gone so far as to exchange numbers and had texted on a daily basis—we were pretty close to actually meeting in person before it fizzled out. He’d apparently forgotten all these details and was starting from zero with me. I wondered if he still had my number in his phone. I consider telling her about the chef I was chatting with recently and was really excited to meet. We had made a date, he had to cancel at the last minute, he wanted to reschedule. I said okay and then never heard from him again.
When my grandmother asks about my love life, I’m tempted to mention the fact that I recently deleted all my dating apps after reading a particularly depressing article about Tinder in Vanity Fair. Midway through the article, I grabbed my phone and promptly deleted ALL the apps: Tinder, OKC, Hinge, Happn, even Bumble. I decided I didn’t want to feed into this culture that was turning men into sociopathic pussy-monsters and women into simpering attention whores. I decided I would meet someone the old fashioned way: IRL.
I can’t explain any of this to my grandmother because it simply wouldn’t make sense to her. On a fundamental level, her generation doesn’t understand having a game on your phone where you swipe through millions of human faces trying to find someone to have sex with. Her boyfriend has been in love with her for 60 goddamn years! They talk on the phone every night. She’s living in some nostalgic Nora Ephron romance flick from the 90s. Every time she tells me about Bob, I get off the phone and quickly jot down some notes.
“I have to write this story!” I tell myself. It’s too good to be true. This isn’t real life. It’s some relic from a sweet unattainable past.
I remember my grandmother watching this short film I made in which the three young women gather in the kitchen explicitly talking about sex and masturbation. I had been nervous to show it to her, but her reaction was amazing.
“Do you girls really talk like that?” She asked, intrigued.
“Yeah, we do,” I told her.
“That’s really great,” she said to my surprise, “In my day you simply didn’t talk about that stuff.”
I think about the fact that my grandmother has only had sex with one man her entire life. The fact that she got married right out of high school, didn’t go to college, and had three daughters. I think about how she was the star of all her school plays, a real beauty, but didn’t have enough belief in herself or encouragement from her parents to pursue a career in acting. The fact that she is also a poet and a painter, and considers these talents to be just hobbies. And that she never really liked to cook—my grandfather was the one who loved being in the kitchen. My grandmother grew up in a generation where women were expected to stay home and bare children. And that’s it. And I think if my grandmother had been born of my generation, she wouldn’t have chosen that path. She probably would have been an artist. Maybe an actress. She would have had a choice.
When I ask my grandmother if she has any plans to visit Bob in New Jersey, she says she doesn’t have any desire to, that she really doesn’t want to stay with him. She insinuates it’s because she doesn’t want to have sex.
“If I were your age maybe I’d want to visit him…. You can guess what I mean.” She laughs. I laugh too. Last time I saw my grandmother she declared that she’d never have sex again. I just stared at her, mouth dropped open, like ‘how could you ever say that?’ Especially after having had sex with the same man for my entire life, I feel like I’d be chomping at the bit to see what else was out there.
“I just don’t want to anymore,” she said at the time, resigned. I guess it makes sense. Biologically speaking it makes no sense at all for a woman to still want sex at age 86. Still, I can’t imagine myself ever saying the words, I’ll never have sex again. Maybe on my deathbed.
Considering the generation my grandmother grew up in, it’s not totally inconceivable that she never actually enjoyed sex in the first place. It’s even possible she’s never had an orgasm. When I sent her a DVD of the first season of Masters of Sex for her birthday, her response was that she found it “silly to even study these things.” I explained to her that before the studies of Masters and Johnson, female sexuality was cloaked in shame and misunderstanding and that, although imperfect, even just the fact of their study was a step in the right direction. Despite finding it silly, she still said, “I’ll probably watch the rest of the seasons.”
Although I don’t idealize my grandmother’s generation and I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to a time when women had no sexual freedom to speak of, I think something has been lost in this age of endless choice. I’m nostalgic for a time when, if you wanted to talk to the person you had a crush on, you had to call them on the phone or drive to their house. You couldn’t just send them a text or stalk them on Facebook. There was more risk involved, and therefore more investment. You couldn’t swipe through a hundred potential dates a night. You had to talk to one person at a time and risk actually liking that person. Is romance dead? No. But it’s definitely old and potentially dying.