Emily Flake | Longreads | April 2020 | 9 minutes (2185 words)
My parents took me to see The Last Unicorn in the theater when I was 5. The experience is seared into my mind for a number of reasons: Terrifying burning bull! Handsome prince says “damn!” Unicorn!!! But no scene hit me with quite the power of the one where the sad old bag Molly Grue meets the titular (last!) unicorn for the first time.
If you’re not familiar with this movie, allow me to express my condolences. It’s a batshit Rankin/Bass adaptation of the Peter S. Beagle novel of the same name, and it’s about a unicorn — but it’s not the magical creature that I’m interested in here. The character Molly Grue is a middle-aged woman, a scullery maid we meet as the unicorn is being led to safety by an inept wizard named Schmendrick (ha!) for reasons I won’t go into now (but really, stream it, you won’t be sorry). Her reaction to encountering an honest-to-goodness magical beast isn’t fear, or awe. It’s grief-stricken rage. “Where have you been?” she howls. “Where were you when I was new? How dare you come to me now, when I am this?” Even as a child I knew anguish and sorrow when I heard it — I’m pretty sure I didn’t know the word “melancholy,” but I understood that she was no longer the kind of woman to whom beautiful things happen, that to be a participant in a beautiful thing you had to be beautiful yourself. I felt that with every inch of my weirdo 5-year-old heart, and now, at 42, it resonates with a power that’s almost unbearable.
I am this, now. That feeling of loss, of being too old to be graced by magic — that’s no longer a hypothetical. My young maidenhood wasn’t spent sitting around under trees waiting for a unicorn to come to me, but I certainly looked for magic in places sacred and profane (mostly profane). I was blind to any beauty I might have possessed. I spent a lot of time apologizing for my body when I first started using it to have sex, a practice meant to head off any criticism my partner might have had, but which I now realize was insane and a perfect way to kill the mood. These days, I catch myself reflected in a window every now and again and feel uncomfortably sure that the tired-looking marshmallow with very dry hair squinting back at me no longer remotely qualifies as that kind of magic bait.
Mind you, youth doesn’t appeal to me, personally. Young men are sexual blanks to me — boring, unseasoned chicken breasts with nothing interesting to say. Give me your grizzled Gen Xers, your gray beards, your potbellies, your crinkled eyes. Give me your hearts heavy with regret, your gorgeous tattered men. I’ve always been more attracted to men at least a decade my senior, and once in my early 20s I slept with a man in his 40s because I wanted to see what that was like, to feel like I was giving my young body like a gift (for the record: it was lovely, bittersweet and poignant, yet deeply hot). Physically speaking, I no longer feel like a gift to anyone, not even to my own husband, a man contractually obliged to accept my body even if as a burden. In the increasingly rare instances where a comely stranger flirts with me, I hear Molly Grue’s voice: How dare you come to me now?