Sarah Caouette met a guy six years her junior. Like him, she kept anticipating the worst.
That look came from somewhere, I thought instantly the first time he stepped into my bar—whether it was his candor about the college classes he was taking, the smallish talk about the standard of living he didn’t feel he had a grasp on, or the things he had yet to experience. The look he had when we were first introduced was one of uncertain anticipation.
He didn’t know how to begin. He was young, or at least younger than I thought he was. Six years younger to be exact. An old soul resting inside a fledgling man with unobstructed olive eyes. If I did the math right, he was finishing high school at the same time I had a condo in Boston and was working my way up the industry ladder.
I was sure I was too old for him, too jaded, too skittish about falling in love with a boy like him with beautiful features, and a look I couldn’t quite decipher—a look I kept confusing for naivety. I’d been hurt by an older philandering musician, the kind you don’t trust your daughters’ hearts to, the kind that makes you suspicious of every man that follows.
I asked around. From what people could tell, this young man was nice. I didn’t know enough nice people, and wanted to know more of them. I knew plenty of interesting people, passionate people, driven people, and all the other types who I kept away from—the toxic kind, the negatively sarcastic ones, the cruel assailants who trespassed unapologetically. I felt I had a pretty good handle on my judgment of character, a built in bullshit-meter. That was what working in a bar was good for—other than the quick income and un-office-like hours—one learned quickly to navigate waters with sharks. Feeding time was typically at night, and there was plenty of chum to go around.
The truth was I needed something fresh on my radar. I had been treading for a bit, and was starting to feel a bit cold and callused. A bit stale. Working in the environment I did, wiping spilled beer off of pock-marked pool tables as guys gawked and commented on my breasts, was getting intolerable. Sure the money was good, but that never truly correlated with my happiness as far as I could tell.
I’d once been told as an anthropology student that some of the poorest places in the world were some of the most contented. Like Bhutan. I wondered if this was because they knew nothing else, or because material wealth just made people miserable. Either way, the message stuck during that earlier time and I quit my corporate job in Boston with better pay, to sling drinks part-time and be a dirt broke writer and graduate student on the mid-coast of Maine. It was a choice and I didn’t regret my decision, I just saw my circumstances as stepping stones to something better.
I desired other alternatives that I couldn’t quite express or share with my belligerent bar patrons, my bored co-workers, and even the people I had been recently calling my friends. They didn’t “get it”. I had made a habit out of not belonging by moving every year or every other year, but when I looked into this young man’s eyes I saw another spirit with an appetite for new adventures, and an accomplice in the sudden inevitability of changing scenes. He’d been raised in a small town, had experienced racism (being of half-Mexican heritage in a predominately white place), and could see himself living elsewhere. Sustainable and off-the-beaten-path geographies were in our peripherals. Running away together sounded romantic.
When I implored my confidante mother for her opinion on the scenario, admitting my school-girl crush on this young man, she told me she was friends with a couple from Vermont who also had six years between them, with the woman being the elder of the two. It wasn’t all that uncommon. If you take society’s conventional attitudes about the roles of the sexes out of the picture, you end up with just plain natural attraction and the basis of all things. That couple my mother spoke of, followed their hearts thirty years ago, bought a plot of land, and began building a house and life together.
Through those years they raised two smart, lovely daughters and hundreds of sheep on their dream farm, and passed a piece of advice on to me: that age rarely matters when you can look back and say, Hey, we’re still doing this. And hey, we’re still happy doing this. They harvest beets every fall, stuffing freezer bags full of artery-like hearts with blood-colored juice. Their aging hands reaching down into the soil they till every planting season, to the fruits of their labor—like a testament—they work side-by-side, as partners.
When he began taking a course called Economics and Happiness at the state university, I laughed. But as I got to know him more, I learned he worked two jobs he found as ambivalent as I was about getting involved with someone my junior, and through conversing over the sticky surface of the bar as he politely said please and thank you to the bourbon drinks I poured him, I realized we had more in common than I initially suspected. And that it wasn’t the age gap I really feared, so much as getting to know someone again and possibly developing a lasting intimacy with them.
At 30, I went on my first date. I’d never before spent time with someone I didn’t know in this format, prefaced as a customary arrangement over food and the influence of alcohol, which had an expected conduct and appropriateness. The etiquette, like which forks to use, was lost on me. I’d never really been single for that matter, and didn’t know the first thing about going out with a stranger— how I was supposed to behave, what I should wear. Do we kiss or not kiss? Flirt or play hard to get? I was nervous. I was an utter mess. I was worried it was all in vain.
We began slow. He didn’t push. I didn’t push. He told me about the day he saw a small Cessna airplane spiral to the ground and crash into a cluster of old Maine pines. He must have been five or six, sitting on a swing at dusk, dragging his feet back and forth over the gravel beneath the playground set. He was there with his single mother, always just the two of them. A boy raised by his mother, to me, was like finding out the mythical phoenix bird was real.
And I noticed again that look, the look of impending doom I had recognized from the start. Not that the two of us getting involved was ultimately destined to end with some terrible demise, like an Edith Wharton story. His hesitation about things outside his control was palpable—written all over his face—because looks like that don’t ever fade, but move into the features of the body over time. I was attracted to his skepticism. I knew it well.
The word: LOVE, came after I swore I would never profess such things to anyone again. After I stopped noticing the difference in age between him and me. And after he had let me cry on his shoulder one night under a vantage of freckled stars, and then we made love in the cold mountain rain, with the wipers still going back and forth on his car windshield, and the wet earth from the dirt road clinging to my bare feet. It was as if something was unlocked for me in the whispering branches of those naked trees. And Dylan’s song, It Takes A lot to Laugh, made more sense than it ever did.
I was alive and open to the world in that moment. Everything that came before had only led me to a more realized belief about trusting one’s instinct. That’s when we both stopped anticipating the worst, and started living for the experience and discovery of a true connection. That’s when we began making plans for a future together.
Photo: Poldavo / flickr