I came back from Florida with sand in my topsiders, a touch of sunburn, and a series of bug bites that formed geometric patterns on my arms, legs, and chest. It seemed that even on vacation, I was subject to “a series of unfortunate events,” such as getting rear-ended while driving my rental car through a depressed part of Tampa. The day after I returned to Boston I was at the dermatologist’s office, wondering what else I’d brought home with me from the Sunshine State as an unwanted souvenir.
Fortunately, the bug bites weren’t contagious or particularly serious; I’d simply had an allergic reaction to whatever insects had feasted on my narrow frame. According to the doctor, relief, in the form of antibiotic and steroid creams, was on the way. Several hours later I was back at home, ready to apply the ointment, when I decided to shave my chest. It would be easier to apply the medicine directly to the skin rather than through my thicket of gray-brown hair, and besides, I was morbidly curious to get a good look at what lay beneath.
Over the years I’ve prided myself on my trim physique; while many of my peers are losing the battle of the bulge I struggle to maintain my weight—to keep weight on. When I’m under stress, as I have been lately, I lose my appetite and several pounds along with it. Still, it beats the alternative, and comes in handy when I want to present myself as a “youthful fifty-something” in my Match.com profile.
So it came as a shock to shave away my protective covering and discover that I, like most middle-aged men, am not immune to the pull of gravity. Staring at my pale, hairless chest, I saw my pectoral muscles leaning, a slight downward tilt. In other words, I have incipient “moobs” or man-boobs.
Maybe this was my karma coming home to roost. I remember back in the late ‘90s when I was just past 40, and I dated a man I’ll call Sal. Sal possessed a sly smile, a kind heart, and a range of skills from home repair to cooking to financial savvy, which made him an ideal boyfriend. And he saw something in me, something I barely recognized in myself; in other words, Sal thought I was “hot,” sexy, a catch.
Though I was drawn to Sal, I wasn’t sure we had much in common. He was handy, domestic, and clearly wanted to settle down, after his previous relationship of 15 years had ended. I couldn’t cook or operate power tools, and my relationship experience was limited to unrequited romances and short-term dating. Sal was a man of action—positive—not introspective and sometimes morose like me. Still, I was honored by his attention, and my life seemed to be getting better, my long-term depression beginning to fade like the fog on Cape Cod.
On our first real date, Sal cooked me a romantic dinner at his place, and then we curled up in front of the fireplace. It was there that he asked me to stay over, when he said, “You act like you don’t deserve this”—“this” being the affection I wasn’t used to receiving. Sal was naturally affectionate, and seemed determined to convince me I was worthy of his attention.
But I questioned my attraction to him, saw the imperfections of his physical body magnified, as I magnified my own. Over the next month we had more romantic moments, some of which were marred (from my perspective) by his moobs. He had begun working out—recently but diligently—and his body was beginning to reshape itself, to tighten up and thicken. And yet when he were in certain positions, say him on top, his pectoral muscles loosened, the skin sagging toward my face.
This realization—that I was superficial, that one small thing could turn me off—made me squirm. I thought of myself as a sensitive, caring man with a certain amount of depth, and yet I was rejecting a potential partner for the most shallow of reasons. Eventually, it became obvious to Sal and to me, that despite my efforts, I couldn’t return his caring; shortly thereafter he found someone who could.
Now, all these years later, I look in the mirror and see my own flaws magnified once again. Today, my only hope is to learn to accept these inevitable changes, the losses that come with aging, both within my own body and among those I might date.
It has taken me 55 years to learn one of life’s small truths: Gravity always wins in the end.