It was as a teen-ager that I first read The Great Gatsby and Nick Carraway’s oft-quoted, haunting line about middle age-the thinning list of friends, the thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair. How strange to go back and find that he was talking about turning thirty. When you’re thirty, that’s unsettling. At forty, it’s outrageous.
Middle age is one of those places, I guess, that look pretty good when you’re leaving; but the arrival can be rough. Age, we reassure ourselves, is a state of mind-while mass culture screams it’s a state of hairline (even Nick knew that), a state of waistline, a state of jowl.

Last year I joined the local Jewish Community Center. I’m not Jewish, but the JCC has a gym, where twice a week I go to support a stubborn basketball habit. At forty I play in what is gently called the "Veterans League," soldiering on in the mind-body war whose chief spoil is the delusion of grace. And it is a delusion. My friend Rich tells about watching a tape of one of our games. "There was a loose ball on the floor, and here were these stumpy guys who couldn’t bend, waving at it." That’s us all right, the wavers, the no-longer-bendables. After a couple of hours on the courts you’ll find me groaning away in the JCC whirlpool, jets of heated water blasting my distressed lower lumbars.

Age is a state of back.

The JCC is a family place. Mothers push strollers, grand-parents follow behind-all the generations together under one roof. One moment you feel young, the next...not so young. At the pool there’s an attendant, a college-aged girl I chat with-not flirtatious conversations, but also not entirely free of those anxious monitorings by which a man at forty tries to reassure himself he’s still on the radar, still registering. As I came in the other day she was sitting with Brian, a guy in his twenties I’ve played with in pickup hoop games. Brian had the beginnings of a beard, and I kidded him about it. I asked the girl what she thought. She made a face.

"See?" I said to him. "Why cover up those cherubic good looks?"

"Cherubic," Brian repeated, smiling. And it hit me, here was age bantering with youth, across a friendly divide. It was so fundamentally diplomatic. The nations of age, negotiating their way in the world.

In the locker room, that most intimate of places, the age nations stick close together. This is more than a matter of shared interests and conversation. There’s also a shared physical familiarity, a personal comfort zone. One tends to feel ill at ease, I’ve noticed, among bodies much older or younger than one’s own. Like the recent UConn basketball player who works out at the gym, and whose physique is that of a Greek god. A small dread rises in me whenever he takes a locker near mine, because that’s always when I catch a glimpse of myself in the big mirror across the room. Is that really me next to Achilles, sucking up my gut like William Shatner?

Then there are the older men. Their bodies are pear-shaped and slack, and scarred from surgeries; one man wears a colostomy bag. You’re aware of not looking. A subtle discomfort builds, which someone dispels with a gesture of humor-again, that diplomacy. One of the old men comes from the shower, hunched over, his back flaming red; clearly he’s been scalding his aches away. "You know, I saw a lobster that exact same color in a restaurant," a guy my age jokes to him. "Glad you’re not carrying a cup of melted butter, I might get hungry!" Everyone laughs, grateful.

It’s all about aging, this impulse not to look. We pass it off as granting privacy, but really it’s a reluctance to see oneself in those other bodies-the robust and the frail, those pitiless glimpses of past and future. I’m reminded of lines from a Philip Larkin poem:

Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant in our lives.
They link us to our losses....
Who doesn’t feel a shudder, confronting Time the Vandal? So we affect a rueful bravado. I’m the same weight I was ten years ago, guys my age joke-there’s just been a slight redistribution!

Levity takes aim against gravity, but let’s face it, we all know we’re being pulled down. That’s the rub, of course: facing it. We’re only human; and as Larkin’s poem reminds us, nothing is more human than looking away. The man with the colostomy bag walks by on his way from the showers, and a friend of mine leans over to me, wincing. "You gotta admire the guy," he whispers, "but do I really want to see that?"

One evening recently I entered the locker room to find it empty save for an elderly man in a wheelchair. In his bathing suit he sat, slumped over; his right hand, curled in at the wrist, tremored. A stroke? Parkinson’s? When I asked if he needed a push, he shook his head, slurring incomprehensible words, and peered out with resigned frustration.

A few other men drifted in. So too did a little boy-a tiny, scrawny boy, all of maybe four or five, in a wet bathing suit. He opened a locker, then another and another. He was so thin you could see every muscle and bone.

"Looking for your clothes?" I asked. "Where did you leave them?"

"Number one!" he said. "But now it’s not." He was still at that age where pieces of language float up in curious patterns. Shivering, he went from locker to locker, frowning broadly. A couple of us helped him, and finally we located his clothes-they’d been there all along, not in a locker but right there on a bench, a tiny sweatshirt and pair of nylon sweatpants. Now he put them on and ran happily off without a word.

Taking my towel, I went out to the pool and swam a few lazy laps, then climbed into the whirlpool nearby. Far overhead, skylights gave on the black of frigid winter, a scrim of frosty snow along the edges. It was obscurely thrilling to be this warm with that much cold so close by. I thought about the little boy, and tried to remember a world so big and strange that your clothes could get up and walk away from where you left them, and men loomed so huge that you would as likely thank them as you would a tree-less likely, even.

Off to my left, the locker room door opened, interrupting my thoughts, and the man in the wheelchair appeared, wheeled in by a JCC employee. He was joined by a half dozen others, a convoy of wheelchair riders, all in bathing suits. I’d noticed before that the adjustable floor of the training pool had been raised all the way to surface level, the water drained off. Now one by one the wheelchair people rolled their way out. At the control panel their teacher pushed a button, and I watched as they sank, inch by slow inch, water welling up around them.

Then came a marvelous reversal. At a depth of about three feet, the teacher pushed a button, stopping the floor.

And the old people rose from their wheelchairs.

It looked like a miracle, the way they simply floated free, drifting, paddling, standing. Even the man I had seen in the locker room was standing now, braced against one side of the pool.

Sitting there in the whirlpool, I felt myself moved almost to tears. It was as if, in the space of a few minutes, I’d had the whole of life laid out before me, from the scrawny little boy whose speech was just finding itself, to the scrawny old man speech had deserted. I thought about my parents, now in their early seventies, still hale but voyaging steadily into old age. I thought about the boy I myself had once been, and the YMCA I’d gone to for swim lessons, a dank dim place where a Mr. Hume sat behind the front desk, a Don Knotts character, eternally beleaguered, now certainly long dead.

Finally, I thought about the old man I would one day become-incredibly but surely, as sure as I sat here breathing. And for this one moment, the poem of Larkin’s seemed to offer too pessimistic a take on our capacity for seeing life whole. Here it was, after all, the long perspective opening before me-past, present, and future, time’s holy trinity; and I didn’t turn away. I felt linked not merely to losses, as Larkin writes, but to gains. Yes, it was outrageous to ponder all that would be taken; but wasn’t it at least as outrageous that it had been given in the first place?

I was, literally, middle-aged, half way, in all likelihood, from mystery to mystery. And for once, this much lamented, much joked-about, much dreaded passage seemed not a curse but a blessing.

Published in the 2000-05-05 issue: View Contents

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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