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I Plan to Indulge My Vanity for as Long as Possible

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

By Julie Metz

I am in complete denial about aging. My boyfriend (I love having a “boyfriend”—it sounds so delightfully immature for my age) tells me that I can keep turning 39 forever. The fact that we met when I was 44 does complicate this math game just a bit. Fortunately, I stink at math.

I joke about my denial with friends, but deep down, the existential facts of my life are not in question. I know how old I am. I know I will die, with any luck, of old age and with most of my faculties intact. I know I’m not fooling anyone else, but it still feels important to fool the self I see in the mirror every morning. In a culture that treats aging women with snarky derision and outright cruelty, I plan to indulge my vanity for as long as possible.

My denial started after the sudden death of my husband, and no, I’m not going to tell you how long ago that was, but those of you who don’t stink at math will figure it out. Six months after his death, a sordid small-town tale of infidelity unfolded—daytime soap plotline, minus a long-lost evil twin, set to maudlin soundtrack. One of my husband’s lovers lived in my town. She and I had been friends, or so I’d thought on the many afternoons when I’d supervised playdates for our two young children while she and my husband were screwing on her couch. In the aftermath of this discovery I was humiliated, devastated, and mired in a dark and bottomless rage. I drove around town with my broken heart and tangled guts marinating in bile, listening to the wisdom of Patti Griffin’s “Forgiveness” on repeat: “We are swimming with the snakes / At the bottom of the well…and if we stay swimming here forever we will / never be free.” Since the script of this very bad soap opera also did not include a case of amnesia, it took me a while to crawl out of the snake pit.

I know I’m not fooling anyone else, but it still feels important to fool the self I see in the mirror every morning. In a culture that treats aging women with snarky derision and outright cruelty, I plan to indulge my vanity for as long as possible.

Most wretched of all, I felt like a complete idiot, as naïve as a teenager. I had never been a fan of marriage as an institution. Down with the patriarchy! Now I understood that the rather traditional marriage I’d entered with an open heart (rings from Tiffany’s, white dress, crushed glass under a chuppah) had been an exercise in magical thinking. It was too late for a divorce. What I wanted was a do-over.

I fell fast for a much younger man who’d been a longtime friend. Our affair was soul-restoring, but not sustainable. I knew that I had to start dating men my own age, many of whom wanted to date women who were twenty years younger. I ventured online tentatively, choosing a profile photo where I stood embraced by my 20-something lover, because I’d been so happy that day for the first time in too long and I was actually smiling for real. Noting the irony, I cropped out his handsome face and comforting arm, and gently Photoshopped out a few of my 40-something wrinkles. The slippery slope.

After many mishaps, I met my boyfriend and no, I’m not going to tell you how many years have passed since then. But soon after we connected, grays started peeking through my chestnut hair and I was not amused. I sincerely admired all my women friends who had gone gray and looked elegant and powerful, but I was still doing my do-over and I wasn’t ready to age gracefully. When I finally decided to let nature have her way with me, I chickened out after three months. I told my stylist that until further notice I was in complete denial. I wanted a plausible shade of honey brown that I’d never had. And blond highlights. Take fifteen years off, please. Okay, how about ten. She layered my curls into a bouncy shag with Stevie Knicks circa Rumors vibes and the bangs hid the forehead wrinkles that had even defeated Botox. It was like that scene in Moonstruck where Cher casts off her self-imposed gray widowhood for brunette hair, a ruby red dress, and high heels that I no longer wear, because acute foot pain is a reality I cannot deny with any amount of magical thinking.

Fortunately, I have at least one ally friend who still maintains the auburn hair that has long been her trademark look. A “correction,” she calls it. We have decided that 70 is the new 60, and that’s when we will finally give up hair dye. Maybe.

Instagram knows that there is almost no anti-wrinkle product I won’t consider trying, especially if recommended by my 26-year-old super-cool non-binary kid, who is an expert in caring for their unlined skin. They even persuaded my boyfriend to adopt a skincare routine. He has a shaved head and a dashing short gray beard, and now he doesn’t look a day older than when we met. Time stands still. Or so we tell ourselves.

In my career as a graphic designer and writer, I spend a lot of time alone. I don’t love crowds and I’ve always been self-conscious at large parties, especially after I quit smoking half a lifetime ago, when I realized that continuing to inhale burning tobacco would kill me and make me age faster. The bedroom-kitchen-desk commute has worked out well for me. No one sees me if I don’t want to show myself, but I still see myself. After the pandemic began in March 2020, I continued coloring my hair at home, but as soon as my stylist allowed me to return, I race-walked back to her salon. She has a knack for creating the illusion that my unnaturally lovely honey brown remains plausible. Years after the tragedy that upended my life, I am no longer angry, but I am still doing my do-over.

My magical thinking is not absolute. I have, like most of us who self-identify as Oldster readers, confronted numerous reminders of my age, the undeniable fallibility of my human body. There are the generalized aches and pains that I tackle with potions and Pilates. Because my knees will complain bitterly, I don’t run anywhere, except to jaywalk. I have arthritis in my big toes, exacerbated by the bunions I ignored during the years when I pounded the pavements of New York City in three-inch heels. When pain flares, I definitely don’t feel 39.

I fell fast for a much younger man who’d been a longtime friend. Our affair was soul-restoring, but not sustainable. I knew that I had to start dating men my own age, many of whom wanted to date women who were twenty years younger.

But I so love to dance, and when the music overtakes me I wanna party like it’s 1989. I have chronic tinnitus in my left ear, which means no more Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young arena shows without earplugs. When I take throwback music breaks in my office, I do my lame-ass Freddie Mercury or Janis Joplin imitations with speakers on low blast. I dance in sensible flats and I wrap up my weak links in layers of colorful kinesiology tape. Also, I eat tons of kale and drink my boyfriend’s smoothies packed with antioxidants. I tell myself I am “The Bionic Woman,” starring Lindsay Wagner, who wears glasses now, but still has blond hair.

When I reached peri-menopause, I developed frozen shoulder. Ask around, and you’ll discover that this excruciating affliction is a common scourge of women in mid-life. I became a reluctant expert and if you’d like more information, you can find some here in an essay I wrote about my ordeal. After I recovered use of my right arm, I went right back to my do-over denial.

Speaking of menopause, I am a poster child for hormone replacement therapy. My doctor tells me that this, plus daily supplements and more Pilates, will help my small frame maintain bone and muscle mass. I like it because on a good day I still feel sexy. I have energy for love and work and mad dancing and the thing with feathers.

When I published my second book in the spring of 2021, all promotion events went online. On Zoom, I looked stressed and just a bit haggard, which of course made sense given the isolation of the previous year. Successful Zooming turned out to be all about vanity and denial and magical thinking. Pay no attention to the killer virus and the terrifying collapse of American democracy unfolding just outside your door, I told the woman in my bathroom mirror. With enough concealer and mascara and just a smidge of blurring, she could get through anything, looking, well, if not 39, then at least not a day over 50.

My mother died of cancer when she was 78, not a long life by today’s standards. If this happens to me, I don’t have much time left. I’ve already lost friends and family and icons of my adolescence, like David Bowie, who once seemed immortal. When I spend time with my 97-year-old father, I still feel like his kid, just more thoughtful and self-aware than when I was young. And I surely hope I inherited his longevity gene, because as a writer, I am a late-bloomer. I want to feed the joyful illusion that I still have lots of time. That I am, if not 39, then not a day over 59. I want to let the wind ruffle my colored curls just a bit longer.


Julie Metz is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Perfection and her recent memoir Eva and Eve: A Search for My Mother’s Lost Childhood and What a War Left Behind. She has written for publications including the New York Times, Tablet, Salon, Dame, Glamour, and Catapult. She is a fellow of MacDowell, Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the winner of a Literary Death Match (she brought a sword). You can find out more about her writing life at: juliemetz.com and on Instagram @juliemetzwriter. She lives with her boyfriend and two cats of above-average intelligence in New York’s Hudson Valley.

This essay was originally published in Oldster Magazine.