The first time I saw him naked, I panicked and stood frozen at the bathroom door. We’d been necking on his bed, touching over our clothes. I went to use the bathroom. When I returned, there he was, lying on top of the blanket ― not underneath it ― and fully nude with a huge smile on his face.
“Come back to bed. I miss you,” he said.
Embarrassed, I could barely look in his direction. His chest was hairless and he had the body of a much younger man than that of someone in his early 70s. What did I get myself into? Was I ready for this?
Several months earlier, my heart had been broken and my life was completely changed. Steve, my husband of 45 years and my soulmate, died after fighting several illnesses for many years. Cassie, my beloved cocker spaniel who had been my companion and provided me with love and support when Steve was sick, unexpectedly died too.
Suddenly everything was different and I wasn’t sure how to pick up the pieces and keep going.
Bill has lived one floor above me in a pre-war apartment building on New York City’s Upper West Side for 25 years. He’s over 6 feet tall with a deep and strong voice to die for and a laugh I’d never noticed until recently.
His wife for decades was a close friend who died four years ago. As she lay ill at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, I brought her my NYC Marathon training shirt with “Imagine a World Without Cancer” written on the back. A few days later, she passed away while still wearing the shirt. Bill said she refused to take it off.
To show our support, Steve and I invited Bill to dinner a few times. Then, with Steve in the hospital, I was the one who needed support. It started with Bill texting me, “Want to take a walk?”
It was spring and the cherry blossoms in Central Park were in bloom. Walking with Bill felt comforting. Soon, Steve took a turn for the worse. His pneumonia was out of control, and by April, his doctors advised hospice. Steve had been sick for years and though I had more time than many people to try to prepare myself to lose him, it was completely unbearable.
A month after Steve’s death, Bill texted, “Come to Fire Island. I’ve rented a house. My daughter, her husband and baby are here. You’ll have your own bedroom and bathroom. I sincerely hope you’ll accept my invitation.”
I figured I could stay alone in my apartment ― constantly in tears and unable to sleep ― or be among people in a beautiful setting. The word “sincerely” cemented my decision. It sounded genuine.
My time with Bill and his family on Fire Island included long walks on the beach, a bicycle ride, meals together and, unexpectedly, tons of laughs. The first time Bill kissed me, I was getting ready for bed after discussing the details of Steve’s medical journey and death with Bill and his daughter. Surprised, I pulled away.
The next morning, I led him outside the house so we could have a little privacy and told him, “It’s not that I didn’t want you to kiss me ― it was the timing.”
He apologized. “I could’ve kicked myself. Only meant to be a goodnight kiss.”
As I was getting ready to board the ferry for home, he kissed me again. This time I pressed my lips into his. There was no doubt I was attracted to him. The kiss took my breath away.
By late June, I had a new dog. Even though Steve had been in the hospital, he is the one who found the puppy we’d been searching for after Cassie died. He picked out Romeo from a litter of mini goldendoodles.“The one with the white heart on his forehead. That’s the one for us,” he wrote, unable to speak during his hospitalization.
Sadly, “for us” was not meant to be. Steve died in April and I saw my new puppy for the first time on my birthday in May. I picked up Romeo a month later on our wedding anniversary. He was indeed a special puppy. Now I had Romeo, my new companion and life partner, and the joys and challenges that came along with raising him.
In July, Bill texted, “I’m staying on Fire Island an extra week. Come join me. Bring Romeo.”
I accepted and secretly hoped we’d become romantically involved. For over a decade, Steve’s illnesses ― first throat cancer and then an aorta valve replacement ― had consumed our lives, and sex had been the last thing on our minds. At some point during that time, we had a very candid and loving discussion and we gave each other permission to be with someone else when the first of us died. “Just promise you’ll be buried next to me,” Steve said. “Yes,” I told him.
I found myself thinking about my mother and her second husband, Gene. They had married after my father and Gene’s wife died. Their spouses had been ill for years and they built a brand new life together. Maybe the same could happen for Bill and me. Still, I wondered if people would judge me for getting involved so soon.
Bill, who is Russian Orthodox, said he’d been concerned too and researched how long a Jewish woman should wait before dating. He asked a group of Chabad Jewish men who had been standing behind a table on the sidewalk not far from our apartment building and inviting passersby to engage with them about Judaism. One of the men wearing a large black hat said, “Shloshim ― that’s the official period of mourning for a spouse. A woman can date after 30 days.”
I asked a cousin, who is a few years older than me and had recently lost her husband, what she thought. “At our age? A person over 70 should wait a day,” she encouraged me. “Life is short.”
When I arrived on Fire Island the second time, way more than 30 days had passed since Steve’s death and, more than adhering to some arbitrary time frame, I knew in my heart that Steve wouldn’t be upset about this. He wouldn’t want me to be lonely. He’d want only happiness for me.
I was eager to see Bill, and when I got to the house, I found presents waiting for me ― a pillow with the inscription, “You & me, and the dog,” and a pink T-shirt that read “Puppy love on Fire Island.” Later that night, sipping cocktails at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the bay, I asked the waitress for a straw. After 10 minutes, Bill got up and returned with one for me. He was so thoughtful and caring in so many ways. I was touched.
Then, suddenly, he was lying naked in front of me.
“Bill, to be honest, I thought we would slowly take off our clothes,” I told him. “I wasn’t anticipating seeing you like this so soon.”
“I can put some clothes on ― we can start all over,” he said.
“No, that’s silly,” I said. Hesitantly, I undressed, knowing this was the first time in decades a man other than my husband was seeing my body. Even though I’d run marathons and completed triathlons, I was 72 and I obviously didn’t look the way I did when I was younger.
Bill didn’t seem to notice my uncertainty. “You’re beautiful,” he told me.
His strong yet tender hands exploring my body made me believe his words. I felt a desire I hadn’t experienced for years ― not since my husband became chronically ill. Not since he passed away. Not since I thought I would never have sex again.
“Bill, you’re killing me,” I said more than once as I experienced multiple orgasms.
He reawakened me sexually ― while Romeo was in the other room eating Bill’s good leather slippers and peeing wherever there wasn’t a wee-wee pad.
Senior sex is different from the sex I’d had with Steve all those years ago, so there were some adjustments that had to be made. Bill had ideas: He would take medicine for erectile dysfunction and I’d take Estrace to ease vaginal dryness. He also had another present for me: a vibrator. “You’ll enjoy it,” he promised, and we both laughed.
It wasn’t my first vibrator. When I was 30, I bought one but Steve was reluctant to try it as part of our lovemaking. Instead, I used it in the dark alone while Steve watched television in another room. It was my hidden pleasure.
But Bill manipulated it while touching me and also enjoyed watching me use it. It was liberating.
The drawer in my bedside table now has sex toys for us to try including Ben Wa balls and an assortment of lubricants. I even tried oral sex, something I shied away from after a negative experience a long time ago.
When I was 18, I was invited to an acquaintance’s apartment for grilled cheese sandwiches. After we finished eating and I was washing the dishes, he started fondling me. “What are you doing?” I asked. “We hardly know each other.”
That’s when he smacked me hard across the face.
“You tease,” he said, pulling down his pants. “Suck,” he demanded.
After a few minutes of my begging to leave, sobbing and reluctantly attempting to do what he wanted, he said, “You’re sick. Get out of here.”
I grabbed my things and left but the terror and disgust I felt stayed with me and even clouded making love with my husband. After many years of therapy and now with Bill, whom I fully trusted, the voice in my head said, Try it. If not now, when? I listened and, to my surprise, I enjoyed giving him pleasure in this way.
Making love is different for both of us than when we were younger. During our marriages, we were consumed with our careers and, for Bill and his wife, being parents. Bill told me he used to be able to have an erection and orgasm regularly. Now it’s more difficult. But it doesn’t matter. We’re more relaxed and we have more time to savor the kisses, the touching and the intimacy.
At first, I felt like a virgin ― just like Madonna sang about ― and I was nervous, afraid and bewildered by this new relationship. But now I enjoy making love more than any other time in my life. I’ve also discovered my friends and I have become more open with each other in talking about our sex lives. They tell me they’re inspired by my experience and are exploring their own sexuality too.
Films and network television still focus on youthful people with beautiful bodies, but seniors are creeping into the picture and the more we talk about our lives, the harder it is to erase or ignore us. I’m not a Pollyanna ― I watched my Steven deteriorate through years of illness and, in many ways, my life deteriorated at the same time. I want to spend the rest of my life experiencing all the pleasure and happiness I can get my hands on. As my cousin said: Life is short!
These days, back in our NYC apartments, just one flight apart, I’ll text Bill and say, “Come down for coffee” or “Let’s neck.” Sometimes we’ll take a walk with Romeo, go out for dinner or travel somewhere for the weekend. Anything is possible. Like teenagers, we call each other “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” and can’t keep our hands off each other.
Often Bill stays overnight and we sleep together on a pullout bed in my den. The bedroom I shared with Steve is off-limits ― it’s sacred to me. And yet, when Bill wraps his arms around me, I feel like I’m home. His laugh is contagious and I find him irresistible. And, we tell each other, “I love you.” So, the situation is complicated. When I feel guilty about my new relationship, my therapist says, “Being with Bill doesn’t negate your feelings for Steve. There’s room in your heart for both.” And I know he’s right. After spending most of my life with Steve ― in sickness and in health ― I’m sure he’s smiling down on me.
No matter what the future holds, the universe has given Bill and me another chance to experience more love (and, yes, sex too) and, since I can’t imagine that could ever be a bad thing, I’m going to embrace it.
Ann Gorewitz, a lifelong New Yorker, completed her doctorate at Columbia University. Her personal essays have been published in HuffPost, USA Today, Next Tribe and the NY Daily News. She is currently writing a memoir, “You, Me and the Dog: A love story in sickness and in health.” Find her on Instagram and Twitter at @gorewitzann.