On the Road to Morocco

Melanie Chartoff

Thrilled to be going to Morocco, our most foreign yet of trips, we've made it to the airport in ample time. We're pleased with our compact packing, our sleek wheeled luggage, and our lightweight coats, prepared for all sorts of adventures. And as he bends over to adjust the tag on his bag, I see it.

I’ve not seen him at this angle before, or at least lately. Maybe it’s just an illusion born of gravity and the forelock at the crown of his head. I look more closely.

My husband has a bald spot.

I stare in shock. I feel the urge to cry out, to run. Taking a deep breath, I get grounded and look once again to verify.

A patch of pink at the crest of his head, where hair divides in all directions, is widening. Shorter than he is, this is the first evidence of his aging I've registered. It's shy, naked, new. I shrink, shake, look away.

It’s not the spot per se that makes me want to run and hide. It’s what it signifies. The map has changed. There’s a new life-size landmark. No Waze will show us any way around it. Google has not yet charted this locale.

I didn't factor in this development that things that finally felt so fixed in my newlywed life could erupt in flux, that things that seemed under control inside the security of our sweetness could get so swiftly unsettled. This is how it starts—the beginning of the end.

I’ve seen aging in myself. I've lost an inch in height. The skin of my thighs, which used to be taut, is not. My face, which used to be my calling card, is a falling card. My signs of decay no longer go away with a good night's sleep or exercise. Certain evidence is irreversible. There’s no way to stop the onset of puberty or the commencement of decay. We are growing older.

I’ve continued to cling to my image in my bathroom mirror, which always flatters me. In it, I think I look okay for my age. But in fluorescent-lit mirrors, in other’s selfies, in store windows, or in my car’s side mirror, I’ve caught a glimpse of myself and gotten disoriented. Who is this? This once confident woman who feels young and supple and surefooted and fast-witted is looking a lot like my ninety-year-old mother.

I assure myself that no one sees me as skewed as I do. I stop home periodically, not just for supplies, but to see myself in that one kind mirror, to bluff to myself that I still exist as I imagine myself. I smile to lift it all up, like for posed photos, although I rarely look this way outside them. But this gives me the faith to face my days. In the hierarchy of biological needs, vanity vacillates between two and three.

I'll have to face the truth one day, but please, not yet. I'm not ready. No matter how much inner work I do, how much virtue I manifest, vain and vapid bitch that I am, I may never be ready. I’ll be ready for death before I’m ready to look other than I did in my youth.

Wait. Maybe he’s already absorbed all my signs of erosion and is protecting me in the glow of his unconditional eyes, as I now plan to shield him in my white lies of love. But we always see the light in each other, so it's not really deceit. It's virtual surgery. It's reconstructive visioning. We believe what we re-see. That's what love does.

He straightens up and smiles, gravity restored to his hair and head, and all returns to normal. And as we trudge along, I forcibly adore the back of him. I admire the socks I bought him as we de-shoe for the TSA. I enjoy my public pat-down as he watches—it’s erotic. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to lesbianism, and he’ll get to a three-way beyond buying lightbulbs.

Seated cozily in coach, I take hold of the hand that looks so sexy in that wedding ring with which I bound him to me, and we buckle each other in. Mmm. Bondage. I thrill at the miracle of flight from my window seat, in which I can watch the exact moment that the velocity of this monstrosity makes it lift off when the wheels retract, and we are, by some miracle, airborne and Peter Pan powerful.

Five hours in—wined, dined, and movied—we doze. I tuck him in and pull a blanket over my eyes. At home, my husband and I sleep with a fort of pillows pulled around our faces. Ostensibly, it’s to block out light and the sound of tweeting yard birds and phone alerts until dawn. But for me, it’s also to hide my drooping flesh. I’m always amused when he’s revealed by an accident of tossing or turning, as he is now, openmouthed, snoring gently by my side.

Without the energy of his presence, his face is funny, flaccid, his body like a marionette without a puppeteer, drooping, strings dangling, lifeless. But I give him a little kiss, and like magic, he reanimates with a world-changing grin that wipes away decades and restores him to his habitual handsome. I’m not sure he’s ever caught me in decomposing repose, or if he has, he’s never let out a peep about it. I still get up first and toss my hair into a casual-seeming messy style, balm my lips, freshen my breath, and get back into the sanctuary of our Egyptian cotton habitat for cuddles.

This is the deal. Marrying in our sixties, we signed up for it all. We looked in each other’s eyes, evaluated the ongoing attraction, the future, the dialogue, the humor, the extras, the liabilities, and so-the-hell-whats, and knew this person was worth the risk.

Since we met so late in life, the milestones that most married hit decades earlier will be all squashed together into maybe two decades for us, tops. When we married, childfree me became an instant stepmom to his two incredible kids in their twenties. I met all my stepson’s sequential girlfriends. I went to college graduations in our first year and sang at my stepdaughter’s wedding soon after. Now I stalk her womb like a madwoman, seeking signs, hoping she might soon make me a step-grandma. It’s my latest biological need, just when I thought all needs were satisfied.

But all too soon, he and I will get old together, infirm together, and, if we are lucky, die together at the exact same second, which would save our heirs a lot of aggravation sorting through our stuff, the double dose of sorrow notwithstanding. We already have adjoining compartments for our ashes in an oaken box, in the hopes of simultaneous death, as compensation for our lack of simultaneous orgasms at this stage, as compensation for having waited for each other so damn long.

Or if fate plays it the hardest, most probable way for him and me, one of us will nurse and bury the other. One of us will grieve alone as the other abandons us and scorches the earth as s/he goes. One of us will be left keening, wrenched in half, relentlessly seeking comfort when no comfort will exist outside the other's arms.

There is no choice for me but to love him, so there is no escape. I fell all the way into love with him for real. On a sane and sober day, I found forever in his face. I knew I’d want to look at him every day, even when he pissed me off. Of all the men in the world, I married only this one. I knew that the agonizing grief of losing each other would be worth it for the joy we’d have. I knew that as the loop of our lives was narrowed by age and the loss of our near and dears, sharing the center of it with him was the best fate I could imagine. I know that loving more than we’ve ever loved will give us the courage to survive our lack of survival together.

We’ve landed and pulled our blue bags from the carriage, already excited by foreign accents saying excuse me. I love looking at their unfamiliar faces, the guilelessness of eyes that aren’t from America. He bends over to get out his jacket, and I see it again, far more real now. I’d almost forgotten it amid our anticipation. I look again and linger, determined to get adjusted to it and what it means.

Funny how the aging trip, with its sudden side roads into unknowns for which one only plans in generalities, with its new language, which only medical professionals will translate for us, with the adaptations that will be demanded of us as time flies by, is so much less welcome than the other surprises I so treasure when we journey to new places. Where the hell is my embrace of spontaneity, my openness to growth, to coping with the unknowns along the way?

Missing in action at this moment.

Could his hair maybe grow back and cover up the bald spot? Maybe it just dried funny, and tomorrow it will be fine. Maybe he scratched at it like a cat at a flea, and this is temporary. Maybe there’s a pill I can slip into his food to make it stop. I search for a justification for denial. But wait. Could hair loss be happening to me, too? No. I have a fleet of helpers who can negotiate workarounds on my hair, at least for a little while longer.

I wouldn’t want him to work around. I loathe workarounds on men—comb-overs, plugs like bristle brushes, toupees, dye jobs—though I admire the workarounds on women and the artists who accomplish them. Yeah, I have a big double standard there. I like my man au naturel, courageously facing the unknown, protecting me from my fears of the onslaught of aging. My husband is my brave explorer. I know he will carry this emblem with grace.

At that moment, I fall deeply in love with the bald spot atop him. I decide to adopt it. It’s a whole new thing about him to cherish. It will be my new pet, a hidden motherless child I didn’t know existed. It’s young, vulnerable, innocent, and pink, like an infant’s derriere. Cute little spot.

He straightens up, lifting his bag, and offers one of his gigantic grins, surprised to see me gazing so tenderly at him, tears cresting in my eyes.

“What is it?” he asks.

“Nothing,” I say. “I love you.

“I love you, too,” he says. “Here we go!”


About the Author

Melanie Chartoff (melaniechartoff.com) is a stage and screen actor and recent author of Odd Woman Out: Exposure in Essays and Stories, rated 5 stars on B&N and Amazon. She's been published in McSweeney's, Funny Times, The Jewish Journal, Entropy, Borrowed Solace, and five editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She's also a new wife and stepmother living in Los Angeles.