“You have to ask me.” I registered a degree of playfulness in her expression, but I knew Elmira was serious. “You can’t just assume we’re exclusive.” I stopped my head from shaking for fear of reprisal yet at the same time, an involuntary grin stretched across my face.
“Will you be my girlfriend?” Escaped my forty-two-year-old lips. My heart inflated and thumped the inner wall of my chest plate. I haven’t felt like this since my twenties. Isn’t there some sort of dispensation for anyone over a certain age to have to ask this question? Vulnerable to her response, I studied her movement. She took her time pouring herself a glass of red wine then brought it to her lips for a theatrical sip. Was this something she had to consider? Have I misread our relationship entirely? I’ve made a huge mistake.
“Of course,” Elmira smiled. Crisis averted?
When I met Elmira she was younger than the culturally permissible dating age stipulated by the half-my-age-plus-seven rule. I’m not sure what anthropological math genius developed this formula but it set the minimum age requirement for the honor of dating a catch like me to twenty-eight-years-old. The formula was the least of our worries, however. She was a newly single twenty-four-year-old student and me, a lonely forty-two-year-old entrepreneur with retirement on the mind. After enduring a heart-wrenching multi-year divorce I had sunk to one of the lowest rungs of despair, clubbing; alongside the other self-destructive inclinations that accompany it. A relationship was the last thing on either of our minds.
As a result of one of these club nights, we stumbled into bed together and quickly agreed that any further rendezvous were strictly void of any relationship potential. We didn’t go so far as to employ Seinfeldesque rules but we had an understanding. We connected again the following weekend and despite our best efforts (not really), our singles arrangement blossomed into something more.
A bevy of worries arose in my mind relating to dating someone two generations removed from my own, chief among them was what our friends and family will think. I heard indirectly, and sometimes directly, that I was taking advantage, acting immature, or robbing the cradle. Sentiments were no better for my new girlfriend as she was classified as a gold-digger, a leach or having daddy issues. The words stung and led me to second guess myself often. I was already embarrassed about my divorce which served as proof that I was a failure at marriage. Why should my instincts be trusted at all? What will people think when they see us together? Could I bring her to a family birthday? Could I take Elmira to a company function?
When I sought advice from Almighty Google, and after sifting through the judgemental fodder, I found numerous articles warning of the perils of older men dating younger women. However, I was delighted to read that I was in good company. Not that it’s any meter for comparison to us norms, but many celebrities manage to pull off their May-September romances successfully. Micheal Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Emilie Livingston, Jerry Seinfeld, Amy Yasbeck all enjoy a 20+ year age variance and are all still together.
When contemplating our “longterm” relationship potential I realized that many of the insecurities I had overcome in years prior had been replaced with new ones. Not unlike my anxiety about hair. I still worried about having it in the right places but the places have changed. Some of these worries dissipated as Elmira and I spent more time together, others quelled after a few waxing treatments.
Elmira was still a student when we assumed the label boyfriend-girlfriend thus raising another question: Could I fall victim to the dreaded post-grad breakup when Elmira earned her degree? or was I exempt? I presumed, as precedented in my mandatory exclusivity proposal, that I was not exempt.
A more obvious apprehension I held was physical. I feared that my body would deteriorate sooner thereby making me less desirable. She is very beautiful and I am… old. The concern brought up an old notion I once held about leagues. For instance, “She’s out of my league”. The idea that we’ve all been grouped into arbitrary hierarchical cohorts in or under which we are able to date and with whom we can have sex. I have since let go of the idea of leagues and now believe that character, charisma, and humor can overcome just about any perceived deficit. I had managed to make it this far but would I be able to keep it up? I’m still only talking about charisma here folks. My eyes are up here.
My future body now in ruin, I worried that I may not be able to maintain a physical pace with someone younger, and in better shape. If a younger partner wants to party until the wee hours of the morning it may become an impossible hurdle. I was fortunate in that we both agreed we no longer wanted a party life. I rejoiced in being set free from the club scene.
The difference in age between Elmira and me brought with it a technology gap, a separation I felt confident enough to bridge. I am young enough to operate all the features in the latest iPhone yet old enough to be proficient with a rotary dial phone. I am less adept at social media…ing(?) but I can share my love for the classics like the original Rocky movie or the joy found in going for a walk sans device in hand.
Within the trepidation and apprehension, I held about our relationship, lived an undercurrent of passion. Why else would I worry so much? I wanted to be with this woman for the rest of my life. Upon this realization, I made the decision to be the man that she, and I, could love and respect. I was all-in and thus vulnerable to whatever hurtful outcome may head my way. Decisions informed by insecurity cannot reconcile with self-respect. It’s also no way to live. Subsequently, any superfluous opinions, doubts, or concerns faded into the ether. My thoughts of “What will I do if…” became “We’ll figure it out if…”.
Raising the idea of asking Elmira to marry me was met with “That’s a terrible idea!” and “Can’t you just wait a year?” My friends were honest and well-meaning, if unsubtle. One friend simply shook his head and walked away.
Alas, I am my own man. To the very vocal dismay of my friends and unsaid but quite clear concern registered in others’ we flew to Las Vegas and eloped. Sort of. We included our parents and siblings, giving them less than two weeks notice. We were married at the Little Church of the West on a brisk and sunny Saturday afternoon. Am I a walking cliche?
As in any relationship, ours is not all roses and lollypops. We each suffer from occasional marital deafness, a voice may raise an octave or six, a dish may experience mild turbulence in flight. The ravenous daily sex anywhere anytime has become, well, far less often than that. Some of the challenges we’ve faced can be attributed to the difference in our age but also similar to any relationship, we choose to work through them. Ending a meaningful relationship solely because of age is if you’ll pardon the pun-cliche hybrid, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, we learn more about each other and ourselves. For example, after a few missteps, I no longer begin sentences with “When I was your age…” and my wife doesn’t turn to me to ask “Were you alive when…”. She can do the math.
Dispelling the notion that age equates to wisdom, Elmira nurtured newfound integrity within me. Integrity I am ashamed to not have held sooner. Although most of my exes stated to me quite clearly their preference when it came to candor, it turns out that honesty really is the best policy. After consistently catching me in an endless barrage of untruths, and subsequently forgiving me (I think), my wife diligently kept me honest until she no longer had to. Her fortitude is among many reasons why the integrity that Elmira fostered in me informs my daily actions and unwillingness to cross my personal moral line. It also didn’t hurt that I lack the mental bandwidth to remember what lie I told to whom. It’s exhausting and never worth it. Never.
On a long enough timeline we can eventually see our insecurities as they are, fear of not being enough. If I can find a way to reassure myself that I am indeed enough, the worries fade away. A practice I wish I knew about 20 (30?) years ago. Now in my late forties, shame seems to have freed itself from the wielding clutches of my inner critic. I was sincere in my interest in Elmira which meant age wasn’t a dealbreaker. The only way to tell if it’s going to work out is time.
After seven years together, we are focused on raising our toddler and having another baby soon. Challenges hit us in waves, just like most couples. Today I was told I have to put off the next memoir I’m dying to read so that I can read a book about potty training. Elmira has to give birth, breastfeed for a couple of years, and be a mother. It’s not a fair system but we make the best of it.
What does the future hold for my wife and me? I have no idea. We have today on our minds, not our age.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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