By Lise Funderburg
I recently made friends with a twenty-five-year-old man. Funny, smart, anchored to the earth in a way most people I know will never be. Acerbic, but from such a gentle background that he exclaims, “Oh, my,” and I sniff no pretense underneath.
As often happens with new friends, I developed a crush on him. One night, after dinner and wine and our first truly personal conversation about respective dating histories, I had an urge to confess that infatuation, felt it rising up in my throat, unstoppable. With a preface about how I was only going to mention this once and we’d never have to speak of it again, I said, “You know, if you were ten years older, I’d want very much to date you.” Beat beat beat. His reply: “If you were ten years younger, I’d want to date you, too”
Oh, my. Perhaps I’m too close to the situation, but it seems to me what I said was flattering and generous, a calorie-free sweet to savor at the end of a delightful repast. What he said: not so much. Generous, maybe, but in a winter-coat-drive sort of way. I Immediately thought–and, I fear, whined out loud-“What?! Am I wrinkly?”
On reflection (and there was some), I determined that the problem is not merely that men my own age would take his same position. Instead, it’s this: here I am, by all standards and measures coming into my own with a vengeance, at or very near my intellectual, professional, and sexual prime, and I don’t know how to look at men.
Here I am at forty, a year or so out of an eight-year marriage, and the last time I looked at romantic prospects, they were all roughly my young friend’s age. Now I look at him and his peers, and aesthetically they still strike a chord (maybe dewy skin and supple physiques always will), but they speak a different language than I do. They are digital: their rhythm of communication has a different syncopation. They were born knowing how to multitask, how to view life as a series of pixels and swift cuts. They are also, appropriate to their age, still callow and fresh, impractically idealistic. They are still largely shielded from the discovery that life’s sorrows and joys are not merely bundled together, but essential proof of one another. Here I am, learning how to speak about cancer and death and breakdowns, how to weave those things into lunch conversations and E-mails without weeping or putting my head down or having to remind myself to breathe. That’s the multitasking I’ve come to know.
When I was twenty-five, narrowing the pool was never an issue, never a concern. I felt so beyond (and above) the experience of college that I’d never consider looking there. And much older men held no appeal (less dewy, less supple, more married). But none of this filtering was conscious, probably because there seemed to be endless peer possibilities–at least it seems that way looking back–all around me.
Now I see the space between myself and young men like my friend, and suddenly I have a sense of belonging to an age. It has to do with where I am in life, the way I sort through pleasure and despair, my feelings about having family, homeownership, the state and progress of my career, what I own and what I’ve given away. I’m just as interested in romance as I was back then, but more excited about sex–more relaxed, more forgiving, more demanding, less worried. I make plans for my garden in three-year increments, take extraordinary pleasure in home repair.
For the first time, I am defined by these things, by the consequence of choices I made when I was twenty and thirty, by the reaping of all that I’ve sowed.
Where once, like my young friend, all I could do was look ahead, now I feel the pull of both future and past. Maybe I’ve started wearing my trousers rolled, but I haven’t fully shed a sense of the world’s bright promise laid out before me. And I have come around to myself. So when I’m looking at men I pass on streets, meet at parties, banter with in checkout lines, my measurement of them, their suitability, turns out to be a measurement of where I am. And I am surprised, but not completely unhappy, to find myself here.