I was at this cozy cafe, working as usual. The sun just set, a dark shade of crimson tangerine outlined the horizon. A cool breeze visited the patio of the cafe once in a while, the snuggly, cozy kind.
Yeap, a great setting to snuggle, and true to my word, at the corner of my eye, I saw an elderly couple walking in, holding each other tightly. They appeared to be in their early sixties, physically. The uncle is wearing a handsome polo shirt, smartly tugged into his slacks with a darker tone belt, that went down to his shiny, polished Hush Puppies. The aunty, wore simple khaki pants, floral blouse and an Egyptian silk scarf around her long, slender neck. Both of them wore specs, but what the glass failed to hide, was the adoration in their eyes.
Seriously, they looked like a much, much younger couple on a date; probably, and barely the 3rd date in. They held hands as they ordered a cup of latte to share, and aunty cheekily asked if it’s ok if they shared that last slice of sinful chocolate cake on display. Uncle gave her forehand a light peck, and smile “Anything for you, baby”.
At this point, I remembered my mom telling me how eavesdropping and stealing glances were, well, stealing (because in essence, no permission was given). But it’s just the way they talked, the connection they shared, the constant touching and caressing that, frankly, I only ever saw among couples of that age. I noticed the rings on their fingers, faded against the test of time, and just wondered what was their secret to long, lasting, committed love.
Communicate everything, every time, anytime.
Never go to bed angry.
Practice low emotional tolerance, and voice out instead of boxing in.
Nah, those were too common. Those were the table of contents taken off a bestselling relationship book, written by some professor somewhere halfway across the world. I want to know the practical shit, the real one, and the uncle and aunty obviously had a few that would put those bestselling books to shame.
As I was lost in my thoughts, I must have caught their attention, because they looked over, nodded and smiled. Snapped out of my gaze, stumped a little too, I smiled back. I tried to refocus on the work at hand, my latest changes to my WordPress site that I have yet to save, but I’ll be frank, my thoughts were still with the elderly couple, and it took me a while to realise I was staring at a blank screen.
With a thud, I shut the lid of my Mac, got out of my seat and walked over to them. Politely, I introduced myself, and with full admiration and awe, I asked them:
“Uncle, aunty. I saw you from across the cafe, and I’m just amazed at the connection that both of you shared. No offense on your age and all, but if you can share with me any words of wisdom to the secrets of your long-lasting, loving marriage, you’ll make me an enlightened, hopefully promising, slightly younger man.”
Maybe I expected a blush from the aunty, or modest shrug from the uncle, but the blankness on their faces kinda caught me by surprise. It was quiet for a why, and I was like “oh fuck, I just ruin their moment.”
I saw them letting go of each other’s hands, and quick to respond, I stood up and apologized for my intrusion.
The aunty reached out to me and held my lower arm, as she looked over at her companion. He was the first to break the silence.
“Actually, we’re having an affair, son.”
There I was, stunned, half expecting a burst of laughter to follow after that punchline. Ten seconds in, no laughter, no punchline. I sensed my mouth parting, searching for some words, but that I failed. Not many incidents in life ever gave me that level of shock. Talk about a totally wrong assumption that made an ass out of me! Note to self: Again, Mav, never ever fucking assume! Ass-U-Me, got it?
Aunty tugged at my arm, asking me to take a seat next to her, which I did.
“We’re both married, actually, but not to each other. John here has 3 grown sons and one granddaughter, and while my only daughter is expecting her first one real soon.”
She looked over at Uncle John, expecting him to say something, which he did.
“I met Emily at a mutual friend’s dinner party, and found that we have lots of interest in common. We chatted a lot that night, and the days after, and the day after too. My wife usually stays at my eldest son’s house, taking care of my little Alisha. Emily’s husband is always working, so I guess we both were two lonely old souls, you can say.
“We started having meals together, grocery shopping together, watching movies (God bless senior discounts), and before you know it, I guess we fell in love.”
I pretty much was still shocked, frankly, and just stared at them rather blankly. I may have nodded here and there, but silence replaced that words I couldn’t form. Mindfuck moment? Totally. I thought my best attempt to say anything only resulted in a soft “Wow…”
Over the next half an hour, they talked more, narrated their story – history, love story and anything in betweem. I was mostly quiet, and I used my introvert-ness as an excuse. I found out that they had been dating for almost a year, sneaking around behind their partner’s back, going on short trips together whenever they can. They knew each other’s families, and even on a few occasions had meals and outings together. They cheekily told me stories of how they would sneak glances at each other, secretly touching even in the presence of family members.
They would buy gifts for each other’s loved ones – Alisha’s rainbow unicorn, a crib for Emily’s “coming-soon” granddaughter, graduation tie for John youngest son – and basically anything a young, loving couple would do.
“And yes, Maverick, sex too.”
I blushed, while trying to force a smile. That was a fuckup too. I was literally stoned without weed.
Finally, at the end of their tale, I bit my lower lip as I asked,
“Not to spoil the fun, Emily and John, and I say this with the utmost respect. You can even call me naive, but isn’t cheating… wrong?”
Emily breathed a deep sigh, while John looked away. I did sense the guilt in the air, an assurance that they both were aware of what they were committing. It was that awkward silence again, although I felt lesser of a dick to state the obvious. I mean, it’s a universal truth, isn’t it, that having a relationship outside of the ones you’re committed to, religion or not, is perceived as wrong? There are laws around these things, right?
Before I could apologize and excuse myself, John spoke up.
“Yes, Emily and I know what we’re doing is wrong, but what we have right now, what we shared, it just feels so right. And after such a long life – and I’m not trying to imply I’m the experienced one here – to feel this kind of connection and love, you just don’t want to break something this precious, you know?”
I didn’t know what stirred within me, or how the defensiveness of me just came out, but I do remember myself shivering slightly as I made an effort to say the next few words.
Ok, it was a fucking short speech, and it went like this:
“Uncle John. I came from a semi-broken family, because my dad cheated on my Ma. Sure, he may have asked my mom for forgiveness, but wounds like that, they don’t heal as easily, you know. I mean, I was a young adult when my mom first told me over the phone, and I can still remember the rage I feel towards my dad for the hurt he caused my mom, and the betrayal in her voice when she told me, and the utter disappointment in herself. Yes, despite all that, my mom still had time to look at herself and pinpointed her mistakes as a wife, which was totally unfounded. Ask any of her friends and loved ones, and you’ll know she has done right all her life – a staunch Buddhist with a profound understanding of the teaching of the Buddha. Even with all those good deeds she has done, she still blamed herself, and as a son, I felt that pain. I know it’s a result of her feeling of betrayal, multiplied by the scattering of her deepest beliefs. She totally didn’t deserve that deep, deep cut, and like it or not, as much as I can’t prove it, that deep cut may have caused her cancer to relapse, which ultimately took her life a few years later.
“So yes, what I’m saying is I do feel the pain being on the other side of your love story, Uncle John and Aunty Emily. I’m not bitching here like a victim, but I thought maybe you should know.”
Not really sure if it was the tears rolling down my face, or the tight grip of my fists, but somehow, they got the message, and the intention behind it. I looked up at the spinning fan hanging above us, realizing that the crimson horizon was long gone, replaced only with darkness longing for the weak glimmer of the moon.
I breathed out a few long, deep breaths – five or even fifteen by my count, looking away from the couple. By now, they weren’t holding hands anymore, and a wedge slowly formed between them. So the rage subsided, replaced by guilt, as I looked at them.
Fucked. What the fuck is wrong with you, Mav?
“I’m sorry. You both clearly are my elders, and I think I had tarnished the memory of my good Ma for the words I should have just held back. I’m in no position to judge, and my beliefs are mine alone. Maybe your family is ok when they found out, maybe they can respond better than me. Maybe they would be ok to just not know, and both of you can enjoy the love that others would give a lifetime to have. I mean, what do I know about love and commitment, right? I’m a divorcee, a single-dad. I should be asking you both of guidance, so I can better myself in my current relationship. I’m… I’m sorry.”
Blur as I was, it was only then that I realized Emily was crying, and I just felt the worst. Man, what a totally 180 turn of events! Half an hour ago, I was so eager to learn the secret of long lasting relationship, and now, shit, I didn’t know what I was supposed to take from the experience. I’d ruined a perfect moment for them, and that’s a fact.
John was the first to speak up.
“Son, I hear what you’re saying, and while both of us have never experienced that kind of betrayal and bitter disappointment that you mom had to go through, trust me when I say I acknowledge your feelings.
“And your opinions. It’s no lie that we both struggle internally about this decision of ours, and we had had arguments over this before.
“But sometimes, as you are approaching the last stretch of your journey – I’m 69 this year, and Emily’s 67 – sometimes you just want to cherish what you have at the moment, and look for the beauty amongst the scars, rust and dust. This thing we have, is wrong, we know. But it just feels so right, so precious, that we just can’t bear to think of the days we don’t have it anymore.”
Fuck, what have I gotten myself into?
I closed my eyes for the longest time, thoughts racing through my mind, as I just stood up, apologised again, and excused myself. I quickly threw my Mac into my backpack, settled our bills (yes, naively I thought paying for their coffee and cake is supposed to be like the reset button), and head for the exit.
As I passed by John and Emily’s table, our eyes locked in a gaze. Of all the quip and wit that I’m notoriously known for, I just couldn’t think of something funny to say. I was snapped back into reality when I felt Emily coming close and giving me a tight hug. She was still sobbing, and I hugged her back, whispering my apologies again and again, while she just shook her head. I looked up at John as he tried to force a smile, but that, sadly, he failed.
The moment Emily let go of me, I turned around and left, in a hurried pace.
I walked around for what felt like a few kilometers that night (4 hours plus, yo!), before I finally decided to crawl back to my home.
I remembered something my Ma had said, about how the world is not always black and white, and we sometimes have to operate in the gray. Yeah, I thought that was a good thought to end the long night, and this post, with.
It’s just navigating and cherishing the gray, consciously, carefully avoiding the banks of black and white.