To be honest, it was more like May/October. I was 29, he was 47. But that 18 year difference caused a hell of a lot of trouble for this harpy.
I met D. at the “singles” table of a friend’s wedding reception. The hot Brazilian guy to my right turned out be incoherently drunk, so I turned to the handsome older guy on my left instead. We bantered politely for about an hour and then he smiled and asked, “What do you think about relationships between older men and younger women?”
“I think those older men are just looking for arm candy.” I snapped, and drained my drink.
Yes, it was bitchy, but yes, I meant it. By my late 20s, I had developed a deep and abiding suspicion of middle-aged men. I enthusiastically dated guys my own age, but I had a rule. No one more than 10 years older than me need apply. My experiences with the middle-aged had been uniformly unpleasant. When I opened my first account at Charles Schwab–I was 22–the fortysomething branch manager, after noting my bare ring finger, told me way too much about his recent divorce and asked me to dinner. I scowled and told him all I wanted was a Roth IRA. When I was 23, a writer I had been working with–married, at least fifty–pounced on me in a taxi and tried to stick his tongue in my mouth. He got a fist in the nose (and I had to do a lot of explaining at the office the next day.) Overseas conferences were a minefield; European men positively pride themselves on their crusing skills–the older the man, the younger the woman he was trying to pick up. I’d concluded that older men were leches, all of them, desperately trying to recapture their fading youth or take advantage of someone less experienced.
So by the time I met D., I had a huge chip on my shoulder. To his credit, he didn’t get offended when I shut him down, just smiled and changed the subject. A week or so later, the bride asked me what I thought of him, saying “he was really taken with you.” Brave man. I waved her off, but she persisted. And he did too. I ran into him at a few other events–we worked in the same business, although in different fields–and eventually I accepted an invitation to lunch. And then one to drinks. D. never again made a pass at me, which was a relief, and he was thoughtful, witty and charming. Plus, he was extremely good-looking, with a thick head of hair and deep green eyes. Slowly, he grew on me.
About that time, my thirty-two year old boyfriend dumped me. One evening, I found myself on the phone with a trusted buddy–my gay boyfriend Dave–who told me to quit harping on the age difference and give D. a chance. Normally, I trust my friends’ instincts–especially if, like Dave, they are professional advice columnists–so I swallowed my pride and agreed to another dinner with D, this time a romantic Italian restaurant. Still a little conflicted, I decided to brazen it out. Over dessert, I blurted: “I know I said I didn’t date older men. But if you’re still interested, I’m willing to try it.” He looked stunned for a moment, and then laughed and said he’d think it over. On our next date, he kissed me.
Reader, it was hot. It damn near melted my fillings. From that first kiss, I was hooked. It wasn’t that D. was more confident or more experienced or any of the usual cliches about older men. It was just that we were a good fit. Despite the 18 year age difference, it turned out we were incredibly compatible. He had a sweet wistfulness that brought out my protective side. My sharp tongue delighted him. And we shared a raunchy and uninhibited sense of humor that went well with our raunchy, uninhibited sex life. I was in love, in lust, and the happiest I’d ever been in my life. So was he.
But I was unprepared for what came next. No more Ms. Big; on D’s arm I magically transformed into The Bimbo. What would you think if you saw a 47 year old man, recently divorced, walk into a party with a 29 year old new girlfriend? Did I mention that I’m blonde? And thin? And wear short skirts? Oh yeah, I know what you’re thinking. If I’d been a casual observer, I would have thought the same thing too.
I was a walking cliche, and it stung—most of all because of my own predjudices. In her wickedly entertaining memoir, Falling into Manholes, Wendy Merrill writes, “Whatever I have contempt for, I should set a place for it at my table, because it’s either already in my life or it’s coming.” Amen. My boyfriend and I now fit a stereotype I’d openly despised my entire life.
A few of D’s friends were welcoming, especially the ones who knew the icky details of his epic divorce. They were happy if he was happy. Those friends, though, were the minority. Most of D’s male friends wished us well, but in a wink-wink way that made me seethe. One of them, a doctor, slipped him some sample packs of Cialis; presumably every older man with a younger girlfriend needs boner pills to counteract her ravenous youthful vagina. (For the record, D. did just fine without the drugs, thanks.) His female friends downright shunned me. D’s best friend since childhood, a chilly woman who was a deacon at her local church, snubbed me outright at his birthday dinner, doling out one-word responses when I tried to chat with her. Another female friend–a self-described bohemian who’d written a memoir about her heroin addiction–told him flat out that I was too young for him and made it clear that when he came to her parties he was to come alone. They may have been middle-aged, but socially speaking, we were all back in junior high.
After one too many evenings of thinly veiled hostility, I had my first rage-y, weepy breakdown since, well, junior high. I was sick of being a cliché, I told D., I hated his friends’ passive-aggressive swipes about my age and their automatic assumption that he was in it for the sex and I was in it for the social climbing. D. looked pained as I ranted, but he had been watching me simmer for months, so he wasn’t shocked that I’d finally boiled over. He talked me down, reminding me how much he loved me and how happy we were. His friends, well, he freely admitted they were being assholes.
My fury was real, but ultimately impotent. The things that people were reacting to—my age, my looks, my relationship with D—couldn’t be changed. All I could do was hope that with time, D’s friends might focus instead on my decency and my genuine love for him. In fact, most of them eventually did (and D. cut ties with some of the ones who didn’t). But it was a sobering experience for me. After a lifetime of being told that hard work, confidence, and achievement trumped looks, age, and gender, here was definitive proof that they did not. I had smacked into a different kind of glass ceiling.
For all the success of today’s career woman, and despite all the advances we’ve made in breaking down the traditional barriers at school and at work, as a society, we’re still in a pretty deep hole when it comes to romance. The snarky stereotypes are alive and well. Even a convinced lifelong feminist–me–had been guilty of them. I had freely bashed older men who dated younger women, tarring them all with the same brush. Now my contempt had boomeranged back at me. I felt scorched by the sexist judgment of my fellow women, and at the same time, I realized that I’d been fairly scorching in my own judgments all those years–and had nearly missed out on a loving, fulfilling relationship because of it.
The relationship with D. eventually ended—another story for another time—and while I never regretted our relationship, I felt an distinct sense of relief when the next man I dated was my own age. Would I date an older man again? Perhaps. I’m 33 now, and the older I get, the less stigma there will be; you don’t hear tongues wag when a 60 year old man dates a 45 year old woman, for example. What I do know is that when I see a younger woman with an older man these days, I now cringe more out of sympathy than contempt. I ain’t saying she’s a golddigger. Well, she might be. But she might be just like me.