I couldn't resist the headline: "Older Women, Younger Men: This Year's Hottest Trend!" I plucked the magazine from the stand near the checkout counter and flipped to the article. The photo inside featured a stylish woman of about 35 in a cherry-red power suit clasping hands across a restaurant table with her dinner date. He was a clean-cut, clearly muscular young man wearing a snug white shirt and a satisfied-looking smile. A half-finished bottle of wine and a slender vase holding a tropical flower rested on the tablecloth, still-life fashion, between the glowing pair.
There was nothing else in the photograph. No other diners sneaking glances, no waiters raising eyebrows, no former spouses or lovers storming into the restaurant to stage a jealous scene. A snapshot of my own life three years ago would have included all the above in the first take. And that would have left 23 more exposures on the roll, each documenting another reaction, another consequence, another sea change flowing from the choice I made.
I skimmed the article, looking for any parallels between the women I was reading about and me. "Fabulous sex!" the first woman, "Geri," announced. I could almost hear her contented purr. "Barbara," a 30-ish accountant who had dated a 22-year-old lifeguard confessed: "My affair with Steve worked wonders for my self-esteem!" "Revitalized my life!" a therapist called "Karina" exclaimed, who went on to describe scuba-diving and motorcycle adventures with her 20-something sugar. All this checked out with my own experience -- the sexy parts especially -- but it was still too tame for me.
Wait a minute: tame? Harleys, coral reefs, Olympian sex-a-thons? How much further can you go? I'll tell you how much: I broke a taboo none of these women spoke about. None of them mentioned, God forbid, love. None talked about a future. And none were so extravagant, so wild, so foolish as to marry the guy and then have a baby with him. I did.
The roar of social approval dies down awfully quickly when your "wild side" turns into a wedding -- and less than a year later, a brightly painted nursery. I was supposed to have had my fun and moved on. What woman in her right mind would choose a man not quite old enough to rent a car to be the father of her child? Or as my best friend put it: "How can you be serious about a guy who was just learning the alphabet when you started college?"
When I met D, I was 36 years old; he was 24. I had been married once before; he had lived with a girlfriend for two years after college. Our experiences were not comparable. Nothing in our backgrounds suggested our paths would ever cross, much less merge: D grew up in the South Bronx where life unfolded (and sometimes exploded) on the streets, the stoops and the asphalt lots. I grew up in a Southern California suburb where life was contained within beige-colored walls and plushly upholstered cars, and walking anywhere was considered as uncivilized as cleaning your teeth with a twig.
D won scholarships to Ivy League schools, studied economics and went to parties with the sons of senators. I went to a liberal women's college where I studied feminist literary theory and performance. At our parties, people drank wine and debated sexual symbolism in Victorian women's poetry. When we met, he was working at a bank and I was working on a novel. He knew how old I was (he looked up my statistics in the bank's database); I thought he was older, or at least old enough to have a cup of coffee with. When he told me, I almost spilled my latte in his lap. "Twenty-four! But you're a baby!" I thought.
He was, by definition, emotionally immature, reckless, unwise about women. How could he be otherwise? He probably thought dating meant splitting a pizza and rolling around on the couch, and kept nothing but beer and mustard in his fridge. I pictured evenings watching The Simpsons reruns with his roommates and crossed his name briskly off my list.
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