I just came back from a book signing event at the Kinzua State Park. I loved it. It was so great meeting people that also loved the Kinzua Bridge and those who were also saddened to see it fall. I found myself talking to people more about Tom than I did Nicole. As I have posted before, Nicole was loosely based on my own life. Tom was someone I made up, but with that said, I found many men relating to his character.
Writing about Tom reminded me of many men that I met in life, middle-aged, content in their lives and marriages yet longing for something more.
Tom was not looking to have an affair. He loved his wife, Rose, and the life that they shared together for 23 years. When Tom meets Nicole, something very deep stirs within him. As he becomes friends with Nicole, he realizes how he is falling in love with her. Like most men, Tom keeps his feelings bottled up. He retreats to the woods and his camp to find clarity. Alone, he tries to fight his feelings for Nicole yet, he feels helpless as he has never felt happier. He can talk with Nicole in ways that he can’t with Rose. Married men have often commented to me that Tom is experiencing that same internal dialogue and struggle that they have experienced when they meet a woman who they share so much in common with emotionally and intellectually.
Playing underneath all of this, Tom is middle-aged, and while he is content in his marriage, he feels less attractive then he once was. He is starting to gray, his hair is thinning, and while he is tall, he is pudgy in the middle, yet all that changes with Nicole. He has a hard time believing that she even finds him attractive. After being married for so long, like many people, he stopped feeling attractive and sexy. It is easy for men and women to get into their roles of husbands, wives, and parents. It is easy to forget what it is like to be attractive to someone after all those years together with one person, especially as we age and our bodies shift. Tom doesn’t realize how much he misses those feelings until Nicole.
Tom also represents what it is like to fall in love at an older age. A pivotal moment in the novel comes when Tom says “falling in love at this age is much deeper”. I believe it is fairly easy to fall in love when we are in our 20s with our lives ahead of us. It is a different experience in our 40s or 50s (or beyond). After our looks have faded and our expectations for relationships have evolved, falling in love takes on an entirely different meaning.
I am reminded of the quote from The Velveteen Rabit about becoming REAL. It goes something like this…
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
I believe the older we become, the more real we become, so as Tom points out, this means that falling in love with Nicole at 44 is much deeper than compared to how he felt when he first fell in love with Rose at 21, as more of his hair has been loved off.