“Here’s to the fucking joys of being 50,” Kate says, raising a glass to her husband’s best friend. Everyone, including her husband Andrew, is staring at her—or so it seems to her. Fleeing to the only bathroom in the house, she locks the door. She only means to pee, splash some water on her face and regroup, but once in the bathroom, it is clear that her tampon and pad have overflowed, again. Her skirt is spared but her panties are ruined, her legs bloody. She spots a big jar of lavender salt and a white fluffy towel folded on the side of the claw foot tub, and hardly thinking, turns on the faucet. Stepping into the bath, she murmurs, “Calgon, take me away.” Whenever anyone knocks on the door, and there are many knocks, she just slips her head under the water, her long red hair floating around her. Normally she’d be the one organizing the party, not hiding in the bathtub. Her own thoughts are loud, even under the water: Pull it together. You’re stronger than this. Damn, this bath feels good.
Andrew waits a week after the party to reference the bath incident. Kate admires his restraint and his wisdom in making sure her hormonal wave has passed.
“Kate,” Andrew begins tentatively. “I really need you to get help.” His large frame looks awkward in the chair among Kate’s plants. He drinks his coffee, the fig tree towering over him.
She leans forward and picks a dead leaf off the tree. “I know. I promise, I will. I’ll make an appointment with Dr. Bennett.”
* * *
Kate feels herself folding into fetal position, her shoulders slump forward, her knees against her chest. She and Andrew are in the middle of a seven-hour drive from Bellingham to Revelstoke on their annual ski vacation. For the last hour they have traveled in silence.
“You know what my fear is?” she says, not pausing for a response. “That one day I’ll get sick, like seriously sick, like cancer, and you won’t be there for me.”
Andrew keeps his eyes on the road and his voice steady. “That’s the meanest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
Kate stares straight ahead, barely noticing the snowcapped mountains in the distance, the fields of sage, the old barbed wire fences running along the side of the road. Tears begin to travel down her cheek. Here it comes, she thinks. She has been anxious all day. Her hands shaking, the feeling of ants running up and down her arms. Soon she’ll get relief. At Andrew’s expense. At her own expense. But the anxiety will be gone. She hugs her knees and gently begins to rock. The part of her that cares about consequences steps aside. “I wish one of us would just die,” she says. “I really don’t care if it’s you or me.” She looks into the backseat at her dog. “Preferably not Maple.”
Andrew doesn’t move a muscle that he doesn’t need to keep the car on the road. Even Maple stays curled in a ball. Kate’s slow tears turn into a flood. She hugs her knees tighter and feels the strangest sense of power. She could say whatever she wants. She is as profoundly sad and as profoundly strong as she has ever been in her life. Smiling broadly, the tears travel into her mouth. She licks her lips, savoring the salty taste. This must be how it feels to be insane, she thinks. Leaning her seat back, her last thought before she falls asleep is, it feels kinda good.
She wakes up to Andrew pumping gas. Feeling back in control, she leashes Maple and takes her for a pee. Maple pulls on the leash. Kate corrects, they walk, Maple pulls again. She does the math. If Maple lives for 15 years, Kate will be 65 when she passes. If she gets another dog right away, that dog could get her to 80. Eighty is when Kate believes she will officially be old. As Maple pulls her towards a squirrel, she starts to laugh. She imagines the future dog, chasing a squirrel, pulling her off the cliff of being 80. But first this dog has to get her through menopause. She returns to Andrew printing out the receipt from the pump. Reaching around him from behind, Andrew stiffens. She kisses his neck and says, “I really do love you.”
Later, on the drive home from their otherwise peaceful ski trip, Andrew asks again when she will be seeing Dr. Bennett.
* * *
“Let me get this straight,” Dr. Laura Bennett says to Kate. “You’ve been bleeding almost constantly for a year. You’re probably anemic. You’re having episodes that have alienated most of your family and friends. And you’re just now coming to see me? What the hell have you been thinking, Kate?” Kate has known Laura since they were both in honors calculus in high school. They served on city council together in their early forties, navigating the city out of financial crisis. Kate knew Laura would talk to her straight.
Kate tries to laugh. “I’ve been thinking that two years ago I was voted Manager of the Year and today I called my two best staff members fucking dimwits.”
“Your strategy of Thai herbs from the health store clearly isn’t working.”
“I’m almost 51 years old, Laura. This has to end soon, right?”
“Look, I wish I could tell you when this would end. I had a woman in here yesterday who was 60 years old…”
“Don’t finish that fucking sentence,” Kate says taking a deep breath in and out of her nose, sounding like a raging bull. “Andrew wants to know what you recommend.”
“Yes, I promised him I’d come to see you. After all I’ve put him through, well, I owe him this at least.”
Laura presses her fingers together, resting the tip of her nose on her index fingers. “First, I suggest we run a few tests to see if anything unusual is going on. Then we can come up with a plan. We can look into hormone replacement, an IUD, all sorts of options. OK?”
Kate looks down at her shaking hands. Trying to calm herself, she says, “I was on the pill in college. Gained fifteen pounds, had migraines, was moodier than ever. I promised myself that I’d never mess with my hormones again. I even convinced Andrew to get a vasectomy. Why would I risk it now?”
“Because Andrew can’t treat your perimenopausal symptoms for you.”
On the drive home, Kate thinks about her college roommate who keeps emailing her about the magic of Hormone Replacement Therapy, along with its miserable side effects and new studies detailing the health risks. Kate’s test results will not be ready for two weeks. She decides she needs a Plan B. Once home, she opens a bottle of Merlot and a jar of olives and starts searching on her computer. Googling Menopause support, she finds online support groups that affirm her rage, confirm her beauty, and recommend more supplements than would fit in her cupboards. She learns that World Menopause Day is October 18. There is extended information about the role cannabis should play in her life.
Andrew arrives after she’s had two glasses of wine and is deep into researching women’s retreats.
Kate senses him walk into the room. She is lying on the sofa, the laptop balanced on her bent legs. The cocktail napkin she is using to pile the pits is not sufficient for the task. It’s February, but she has on the flannel Santa pajamas her niece bought her three Christmases ago and her green fuzzy slippers. She has claimed to hate both, but tonight they are perfect.
Maple usually greets Andrew at the door, but today she stays curled on the rug beside Kate. Kate takes a gulp of wine and scratches Maple’s head before looking up to Andrew and saying, “Hi.”
“Tough day?” Andrew asks.
Kate slowly eats an olive and says nothing.
He sits down at the end of the sofa and places Kate’s feet in his large lap. “Want to talk about it?”
“I saw Laura today. She’s going to run some tests and I have some new ideas.”
“Oh honey, that’s great!” Andrew says. “What type of ideas?”
“Right now I’m thinking of a retreat in Thailand or maybe just Mexico.”
“A retreat? Was that Dr. Bennett’s idea?”
“Nope,” Kate says with an edge in her voice that makes Andrew stop massaging her feet.
“What about the Hawaii vacation we were planning?”
“We weren’t exactly planning it. You just said you wanted to go.” I’m a bitch, Kate thinks. But she can’t will herself to soften and show her vulnerability.
“I do want to go. I want us to go. You said it would be nice.”
“It would be nice,” Kate says, popping another olive into her mouth. “But we can’t do it all.” She wants to add and maybe this retreat could help me—and us! But says nothing.
“I’m going to watch the news,” Andrew says as he places her fuzzy slippers back on her feet. “We don’t have to decide now.”
* * *
The Cancun retreat is exactly what Kate should have expected. While the ad never mentioned menopause, only “a soul-nourishing retreat to enable you to transition to being the woman of your dreams,” Hanne, the group leader, opens with an icebreaker where each woman says one line about menopause.
The oldest woman, who looks like Julia Childs in the tropics says, “I was told that once I was through menopause, I’d get my nouns back. It’s a lie.”
She is followed by a younger woman who says, “Working out, staying fit can minimize your symptoms. You just need to be in control of your body.”
“I’m trying to figure out how to get my period to restart,” the next woman says. “I don’t want to be done.”
She is clearly losing her mind, Kate thinks, trying to remember what she hoped coming here would do for her. When it’s her turn, Kate says, “I’m just trying to survive.”
When Hanne interviewed Kate upon arrival, she had asked her “What are you scared of?” and then told her, “This retreat is about letting go and finding the true inner you.”
Kate worried that if she let go maybe she wouldn’t be able to come back to who she used to be. What if she completely lost her tether—to her job, her marriage, her life? What if she never felt in control again? Hanne had replied that no one could ever be who she was yesterday, that Kate needed to trust the process of the retreat. “Sometimes you need to get more lost to find yourself.” Kate had smirked at the self-help cliché but promised she would try, which was proving difficult.
It is their second evening and they are gathered around a bonfire on the beach where Hanne is instructing them to create a circle holding hands around the roaring fire. They are eleven, not enough to make the circle big enough to distance themselves from the fire’s flames. Kate’s roommate, Sandra, seems to be the only grounded one here. Kate is wearing a $225 white two-piece bathing suit and a sheer tunic. The gift store sales lady convinced her she was young and fit enough to wear them, instead of the sensible Speedo she had forgotten at home. Sandra is wearing the white terry cloth robe from their room, which was free and looks warm.
Dancing, chanting, almost catching herself on fire, Kate looks towards the water, wishing she could lose herself with a margarita and a swim.
On the last morning, Hanne announces, “After lunch we’ll have an hour to reflect over the last few days and contemplate the change we want to see in ourselves. Remember to write in your journal. We’ll gather in the secret garden afterwards to share.”
Kate looks down at the journal she was given at the start of the retreat. All she has written in it is, “Why?” and “When will this end?” She walks over to the lunch buffet, which is the same as the last four days: green smoothies, vegan salad, the tiniest little cups of chopped chicken for those who insisted on needing extra protein (Hanne’s emphasis), and fruit for dessert. Kate takes a chicken cup and consumes it like it’s a shot of tequila. Then she grabs a banana that was meant to be decorative beside the elaborately cut fruit salad.
In her room she puts on her white two-piece, grabs her terry cloth robe, and writes, “Gone Swimming” in her journal and props it on her bed.
Walking to the beach, the warm sand envelopes her toes. Four days at a Cancun resort and she has not had one day to lay in the sun, swim, and truly relax. The presentations were indoors, the sharing sessions were in the “secret garden,” which should have been called the “shadow garden.” It was full of ferns and perpetual shade. All the women kept saying how relieved they were to stay out of the direct sunlight, how bad the sun was for their skin. With Kate’s pale freckled complexion, she should have embraced the lack of sun exposure, but who comes to Mexico for shade?
But now it is midday, the sun hot and full, and the sand warm. Kate sits on her robe a few feet from the water, lays back and stretches out so that she can feel the sun on her belly. Widening her legs, she allows the warmth to reach her inner thighs. She closes her eyes, wiggles her fingers in the sand, falls asleep and only wakes when the tide pulls the water up to her toes. Her lips crack as she yawns. She is thirsty and has no water with her. Idiot, she thinks as she rolls to her side and the sand scrapes her sunburned skin. The logical thing to do is to go inside, put on lotion, and have a long drink of water.
Instead, she gets up and dives into the cool ocean. Although her sunburn stings, especially on her upper thighs, it feels good to be swimming. They had been warned not to swim in the ocean. “Riptides,” Hanne said, the flyer in the room said, the sign on the beach said. But Kate considers herself an experienced swimmer, even if she rarely swims anymore. She knows riptides aren’t a constant and she can see a smooth stretch of ocean. Taking long slow strokes, the current carries her. She feels calmer than she has been in months. Maybe this experience is working. Maybe she is sliding down the other side into an enlightened world, as Hanne keeps predicting. Kate puts her head down and moves from her breaststroke into a more committed crawl. She hasn’t felt this strong in years. She is flying. Finally, she tires, lifts her head and looks around. After treading water for three full rotations, she orients to just how far from the beach she is. And going further still.
Then she remembers—riptides create the illusion of calm. She has willingly entered the most dangerous part of the ocean. She tries to remember what to do next. Fight the riptide and try to swim directly to shore? Four strokes tell her that will just tire her more, with no progress to show for it. Swim parallel to the shore? There was a direction where riptides would take you back in and another that would take you out to sea. Was that right? Kate licks her lips, thirsty. She starts to go to the right with a full crawl, but is quickly exhausted. She tries a gentle breaststroke, feeling her panic grow. She thinks of her last beach vacation with Andrew. They had challenged each other who could do the dead man’s float the longest. I want to see him again. I have to see him again. She knows she isn’t strong enough to swim back against the riptide. The float could buy her time, until hopefully a lifeguard or boat sees her. She lowers her face into the water, stretching her arms forward and her legs backwards. She lifts her head, takes a deep breath and checks if she is closer to land. Then resumes her position. She loses count how many times she repeats this cycle until she stops moving. The current has changed. She’s still far out, but waves have returned and are pushing her toward the beach. She forces herself to start swimming. Her arms are tired; when she tries to sweep them in an arc, only her knuckles break the surface. Her legs feel draped in seaweed, too heavy to kick, they drag behind. Slowly, she is headed in the right direction. The waves will help. You’re going to make it. Her feet scrape the sandy bottom while the waves now crest over her head. She stands and stumbles to shore.
There are few folks on this stretch of beach. She asks the first person she sees for directions to the hotel. He points, telling her it’s only a kilometer down the beach. When Kate visibly sags, he offers her his bottle of water, which Kate gratefully accepts.
As Kate finally approaches the beach entrance to the hotel, Sandra is coming towards her. “Are you okay? I was worried when I saw your note and you didn’t return.”
“I had a bit of an adventure,” Kate says, her voice wavering.
Sandra helps Kate to their room, runs her a bath and brings her an extra large Gatorade. When Kate emerges from the bathroom a half hour later she says she must be doing better because she’s hungry. Sandra claps and suggests they head downstairs and grab some dinner.
“You should probably keep to a virgin margarita, with extra salt on the rim,” Sandra says as Kate orders her drink. “You’re still pretty dehydrated.”
Kate changes her order and digs at the table with her spoon.
“I am sure you can have the real thing by tomorrow,” Sandra offers.
“It’s not the drink,” Kate says, looking at the worn piñatas and Mexican hats hanging on the wall behind Sandra. “I almost died and I am not sure how I feel about that.” Sandra nods. “It’s not that I am suicidal or anything,” Kate adds quickly. “I’m just not that excited about my life.”
“Show me a middle-aged woman who is,” Sandra says.
Kate laughs quietly. “Well, I was middle-aged two years ago and I was a Senior Property Manager, happily married, with good friends, and good health. Now I seem to be trying my best to screw it all up. And I keep embarrassing myself in front of the maximum number of people.”
“You’re in the thick of perimenopause, right? Hormone swings, the whole bit?” Sandra asks.
“Sure. Why are you here?” Kate says.
“I’m here more as a cleansing. I’m thinking, hoping, praying that I am ending this chapter. I think I’m done with the madness. The photos of women draped in white by a fire, near the sea. It seemed a fitting end. You, my new friend, seem to be sitting in the middle of the bonfire on a pedestal.”
Kate laughs at the image. It’s amazingly on target. “Can we arrange the pedestal to be a wee bit higher? I seem to keep getting scorched.”
She tells Sandra the story of seeing Dr. Bennett and deciding to spend her and Andrew’s vacation money to come to this placebo camp instead of waiting for the test results. Sandra confesses she used a small inheritance from her aunt for this trip, when she should have used the money to help her daughter put a down payment on a house.
“Does your daughter know that was ever a choice?” Kate asks.
“Well you have that going for you then,” Kate says.
Their drinks come and they clink glasses and spend the next two hours sharing stories. Kate focuses on her madness, her resistance to hormone therapies, IUDs and anything else intrusive as well as her attempt to finding an alternative path by coming to this retreat. Sandra tells stories of a friend who had an affair with her nanny’s boyfriend, one who drank red wine from a water bottle starting just after her 6:30 a.m. yoga, and another who quit her well-paying accounting job, convinced she could make a living cooking organic cat food. Everyone landed on their feet after medical or psychological help, or just time. Sandra’s point isn’t subtle, but Kate is too tired to fight the obvious intervention. And she is still embarrassed and humbled by almost drowning. She nurses her third virgin margarita, licking the rim of salt and listening to Sandra explain the necessity of routine and self-love.
“You just need to tell Claude to shut up,” Sandra says.
“Claude?” Kate asks.
“Claude is the voice in my head—he’s nearly gone now—who tells me to do stupid things. Name your voice. And then crush it.”
“Anne-Marie,” Kate says definitively.
“I won’t even ask,” Sandra says. “But I know Anne-Marie doesn’t want you to go back to your doctor, or to find a supportive daily routine. She thinks your husband exaggerates and your friends are dorks. Your Anne-Marie is wrong.”
Sandra looks matter of fact, in her blue T-shirt, practical short haircut, no makeup, still nursing her first beer. Kate envies her self-assuredness and realizes that she has not revealed to any girlfriend how much she has struggled over these last few years. All of it has landed on Andrew. She asks Sandra if they can stay in touch and a week later, she calls her from Dr. Bennett’s parking lot.
“So you agreed to an IUD?” Sandra asks Kate.
“Well it seemed better than going on the pill or having an operation. I told her she can give my uterus hormones, just leave the rest of my body alone,” Kate forces a laugh, as her phone switches to her car’s Bluetooth. Driving home, she lists the options Laura Bennett had given her—what was a trial, what was supposed to help the awful bleeding, what would stabilize her moods. Kate describes how she is anemic and has menorrhagia.
“Laura said it’s no coincidence that menorrhagia sounds like rage in the middle.”
“Have you told Andrew yet?”
Kate pulls at her sunburned bottom lip with her top teeth. “No. I wanted to have a plan before I told him. I don’t want to yank him around—if I can help it…” Kate feels tears well up and her mouth has the puckered feeling she gets right before she cries. She takes a big gulp of water, happy that Sandra can’t see her.
* * *
As Kate walks up the path to her front door, she wonders if Andrew made his special pasta Bolognese. It’s her 53rd birthday and she told him that she wanted a quiet evening together, maybe order pizza and watch Netflix. Andrew had said, “perfect.” But she knew that at a minimum he would be making a nice dinner. Maybe he even splurged on a good bottle of Chianti.
She hears a loud “Surprise!” before someone turns on the lights and she sees Andrew and a dozen friends in her living room. Maple is standing on the sofa, where she is not allowed, barking, tail wagging. Kate clenches both fists, but her smile is genuine. She did want a quiet evening at home, but she has never had a surprise party before—every birthday party she has ever had she has organized herself.
Andrew puts his arm around her in a protective stance. Kate wonders if even now, two years later, he’s still worried she’ll unexpectedly lash out at him or her friends. Maybe he’ll always worry. Kate turns and hugs him, whispering in his ear, “Thank you. For everything.” She thinks of all the ways he’s supported her over the last few years. She pulls away, looks him in the eye and repeats, “Everything.”
An hour into the party she is exhausted from smiling, thanking, nodding. She slips into the bathroom, with Maple sneaking in behind her, as usual. Sitting on the toilet, she looks at their collage of annual vacation photos framed on the opposite wall. She thinks about who has had more restraint these past few years, Andrew for not reacting to her blow-ups, or her, for trying and sometimes almost managing to maintain an emotional equilibrium?
When she pulls her panties back up, she sees a small red stain. After an eight-month absence, her period has returned. She turns to Maple and quietly sings, “Happy Birthday to me…”
About the Author: Alexandra Loeb
I was born in Gainesville, Georgia and spent most of my adult life in Seattle, Washington working as an executive at Microsoft Corporation, where my writing experience centered on business emails. I now live in the small town of Rossland, BC, and I was recently published in Kootenay Living Magazine. I spend my time volunteering for environmental causes, as well as skiing, biking, hiking, and cooking large meals for friends. In my quieter moments, I refocus my nerdy brain onto writing fiction and nonfiction. I am devoted to my dog, Bosco, husband, Ethan Meginnes, and my potential readers.