We are not spooners, he and I. Sometimes when I watch couples on television falling asleep in each other's arms, I think: Now that's how it's done. That's true passion, right there. We should entwine more, I say. And so we try it, his arm over my chest, my thigh between his. But his beard scratches my shoulder, my breathing annoys him, we grow hot and sweaty in all the wrong ways, and eventually we admit defeat and retire to our own sides.
Lately he has been away a lot. Before he left this last time, for reasons as dull as conflicting schedules, menstrual cycles, simmering resentments, we were sleeping even further apart than usual. And while he was gone I experienced my usual mixed bags of feelings - relief, loneliness, a sense of being untethered. I also developed a crick in my neck. Possibly from hauling down and sorting through the dusty boxes that have accumulated over the past decade in our ceiling cavity; a job I have tasked myself with knocking off by summer's start.
Last week I randomly upended a carton and out tumbled a pile of youthful intensity: cards from old boyfriends, flowers pressed between their surfaces, notes scrawled on the back of menus, love letters I never sent. The ardour floored me. Was I ever that feverish? That carnal? Had I really been capable of triggering such excitation in someone? There were photos, too. From my first OE. There I was on the beach in Thailand, plump from months of travel in Europe, all that fondue and all that strudel, scorched crimson, scabby with insect bites. There was my best friend, miraculously still fresh, still pretty. And there was the resort manager, a strapping Australian, who I'd fancied something silly, but who couldn't take his eyes off her. And I can remember watching him watching my friend, burning for his touch, while an elderly Thai woman pummelled me under a canopy of palm leaves, her hands on my body both fulfilling a need and underscoring an emptiness.
Inspired, nostalgic, I booked a Thai massage. Sadly it was no beach in Phuket, but a suburban salon, dimly lit, a water feature oozing dank fluid in the corner. Manoeuvring myself into position on the bed, I tried not to think about how many other faces had smooshed up against the vinyl. Any misgivings dissolved, though, as soon as I felt the masseuse's vigorous caress; the crick, I saw in a flash of insight, was merely a manifestation of my husband's absence, my forlornness vanquished by her touch. Lying blissfully in that unpleasant little room, I was filled with compassion for those who live out their days in relentless isolation, skin never grazing another's.
While visiting a relative in a rest home for those with dementia recently, one of the elderly residents began sobbing. I know the staff to be kind and attentive, and when none of them immediately went to her I guessed this was a regular occurrence. I understood her grief was not necessarily attached to reason, but, her gaunt body wracked with the force of her tears, it was terrible to witness all the same. I was paralysed by what was appropriate and what was not. My daughter looked askance at me. Go to her, I urged. So she did, putting her small arms around the old woman's hunched back. And, as if by magic, she was quieted.
Two themes to emerge among responses to last week's column on my daughter's vegetarianism took me by surprise. I have to say a correlation between the elimination of meat and its by-products from one's diet and either abortion or anorexia had never occurred to me, but there you go. Sue: "Why is it, in a time when animal welfare/rights or, more generally, women's rights, minority rights, concerns about elder abuse and so on, are very effectively and persistently foregrounded, have the rights of unborn children shrivelled to virtual nothingness?"
Judith: "Many years ago my very intelligent daughter decided she was going to be a vegetarian ... Her tension and passion about food then spiralled down into anorexia... The Eating Disorders Clinic told me we would know she was getting better when she started eating meat."