(Elle.com) -- I was fighting off the flu, but I'd wrapped myself in a dress, cinched the waist tight, and now sat, flushed and underfed, sipping down a hot toddy (my cold medicine) in a hotel bar. At 34, I'd agreed to meet for drinks with a man 24 years my senior. A painter, he was dressed as he'd been when we met -- at a literary party in TriBeCa, to which he was accompanied by one of his nude models -- in a fleckless Savile Row suit. He wore it effortlessly, in the way only men over 50 can. He had the solemn good looks of a Roman senator and brushed his dark hair, thick as a horse's mane, straight back from his temples. Realizing where we'd sat, he laughed: Leering down at us from the wall was an early work of his, something from the '80s. "They actually hung that up in here?" He then presented me with two gifts: a book about his "old friends on the New York scene back in the day" and a small wooden frog on a stick, a Japanese toy. The first established the access he offered; the second seemed to comment on my place in our burgeoning relationship. The tone had been set, and I was prepared to play my part.
Every time we write about our romances, we're recounting the private coming-together of two individuals, drawing on conversations no neutral party was present to overhear. In other words, there's a limit to the perspective a person can have about herself -- but there are patterns. My own began to emerge at the age of 8, with a glimpse at the VHS cover of "Last Tango in Paris." There he was, a thoroughly weathered, silver-haired Marlon Brando, awash in that oversaturated amber light so redolent of the '70s. Sitting on the floor with a much younger woman -- both hunch shouldered and naked as apes, their legs intertwined, her arms tugging at his neck -- he kept his head back, chin tilted up at a slightly aloof angle. His domineering posture, and that amber glow, spelled out something complex and unmistakably adult.
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Growing up in Manhattan, I was an obsessive girl with a dog-hungry appetite for books beyond my years. (I read "The Sun Also Rises" without understanding that impotence was the nasty catch in the love story.) On lonely afternoons, I'd pay what I liked (25 cents) and pass the time wandering the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a near-constant state of emotional upheaval (the rush of hormones?), I felt like an alien, and since I was also pretty and composed for my age, I was in the perfect position to be swept up by someone who had the life experience to "understand" me. Because boys my age certainly did not. Looking back, I frankly have no idea how I survived ungroped: Even as a preteen, part of me was hoping for an older guru to discover me. By the time I was 12 and starring in my school's production of "Romeo and Juliet," I'd developed a confusing fascination with the 40ish drama teacher. I appreciated our close talks about theater and the stark distance he had from the sloppy boys -- including my sad-sack Romeo. In college, I dated almost exclusively grad students, including an aspiring theater director my mother laughingly called my "Svengali."
As I reached my late 20s, however, a shift occurred: My fetish suddenly seemed to fit the cultural moment -- one defined by 30-something man-boys and a generational deferral of activities such as marriage and procreation. So much was made (justifiably) of this extended adolescence that giving my attention to men 10, 15, even 20 years older seemed like the logical recourse. To date older was simply to date grown men.
At the height of this phase, I became involved with an established Brooklyn writer. His past was so checkered that I couldn't help but remark, during our first dinner, on his "bad reputation." (A Google Images search of the fellow literally made me smack my forehead.) But now older, he was in the flush of later-career financial success, and signs pointed to the possibility of a new calm, and the now-I've-got-my-act-together relationship that might come with that. I was moved by this thought, that someone could take his experience and wrap it around himself -- pull in his horizon like a great fishnet, as Zora Neale Hurston put it. He could live a sort of downtown elder statesman's existence, built on the wilder days but now distinctly separate, mellower.
The reality, however, proved different. He'd rented the same cluttered, top-floor brownstone apartment for 12 years, and the only lifestyle change his good fortune had brought was the occasional visit from a desperately needed housekeeper. The writer's life plus the perennial bachelor's life equaled scant room for a partner. I was reminded of the man who'd followed my collegiate Svengali: a brusque, if uncommonly talented, filmmaker a decade and many professional light-years ahead of me. He taught me that work would always come first for creative types -- and, oh, how unamused he was, in the middle of a grueling week, to find me ringing his buzzer at 2 a.m., being "spontaneous." The pressure of his film premiering at Cannes was too much, and I was not invited along to the Riviera. "Maybe if we were married I'd invite you," he said. "Married with two kids." Being in on the work required an intimacy that the work itself prevented.
If you take blatant gold digging out of the equation, dating someone older is a symptom of...what? Stunted growth, passivity, self-loathing? Despite my girlhood outsider identity, I've always had a strong sense of self and a large store of ambition and focus. A daddy complex, then? But if by daddy (a word whose nonliteral use always repulses me) we mean someone classically masculine, a man of substantial clout, then what's so strange about that attraction? A man with enough personal authority to persuade you to slow down, to put aside the quest for public recognition -- and maybe, on some level, to act as a mentor. (The feminist in me just burst out laughing.) While it's true that Kurt Cobain was thrashing around on TV in a dress during my formative years, my tastes in the masculine -- and what the greatest hits of '90s theory would call "the performance of the masculine" -- have remained decidedly old-world.
In the case of a prominent book critic, this was precisely the sort of performance that won my attention. A writerly mind in cowboy boots, always eager to play up his remove from the Establishment, he courted me long-distance with two-hour phone calls, eventually flying me to his ranch out west. He was brimming with bald-faced declarations about the meaning of literature in line with the rugged old-boys' school of Thomas McGuane -- a winning combination of unflinching artistic principles with macho trimmings. While I've long identified as an artist in my own right -- or at least an artist in formation -- I've been drawn to men who were champions of a belief system. I can sympathize, on a bizarre level, with the women who took up with David Koresh: He provided them with an answer to their doubts. Or, chicken versus egg, the man who added meaning to their lives naturally became their lover. While a little dysfunctional, it can be pretty damned satisfying to allow the person you're dating to become your answer, your philosophy. At its worst, however, this can turn self-isolating and miserable -- as when the critic started in with strangely premature entreaties for me to quit my well-paying job ("Let me take care of you") and join him in near isolation on the ranch. I imagined this was the way pioneers imported younger wives from eastern cities back in the day.
Part of what lends the older man his appeal is how he appears to have arrived from a distant and still exotic land, the kingdom of Adulthood. He's a prince in that realm, and he has all his s--t together -- unlike most of the talented men my own age. After all, what does Maria Schneider see in Brando in "Last Tango"? She has her fiancé, but he's too wrapped up in the beginnings of his career to pick up on the sexual boredom she practically exudes from her glowing pores. By contrast, the older man in the empty apartment, however damaged he may be, gives off the deep, low frequency of hard-earned experience. And since we live at a time when the physical differences between 30 and 50-year-olds can be negligible, this added dimension is often an advantage. I think of the writer and how I liked to lay my hand on his head; mostly bald, he had a finely shaped, elegant skull. His nose had a pronounced arc that to me looked patrician and out of step with the times, the combined effect being that of a patinated profile on a coin. I imagined I could feel the hard-bitten years of striving under my fingertips, and now here he was, safely on the other side.
But a man's choice to date much younger may also reveal a self-conscious impulse to remain relevant, to beat out the younger competitors waiting in line. While it's surely possible for one's true partner to be a cool decade or two her senior, you may discover you're merely the latest installment in a decades-long series, never seen wholly for who you are but rather as a representative of a type. You risk becoming, essentially, the romantic interest in a Philip Roth novel.
For all the hopes that these affairs drew on, I realized that I'm built with an escape hatch. Once I know, on some gut level, that I'm with someone who is not my match, my fight-or-flight instinct kicks in -- regardless of the man's means and social influence and tasteful vacation homes. For me, each relationship died its natural, for the most part relatively painless, death. The writer, for instance, became a close friend who takes an almost nostalgic pleasure in supporting my work. The blatant exception was the book critic, who broke off the affair with all the finesse of a teenage boy. I have a distinctly unpleasant memory of a walk he took me on along the side of a mountain. He talked incessantly, spilling yet more vitriol about his ex-wife (who, incidentally, he'd snatched up when she was barely legal), and soon led us to a section of terrain that had been leveled by a forest fire, leaving everything soot-covered and with a terrible stench. As he went on, his talk turned to other women who'd betrayed him -- and the noxious smell, to which he seemed immune, became a feeling in my gut. When it was over, I thought, At least he taught me how to shoot. On the ranch we'd used an old typewriter for target practice. I kept one of the keys as a souvenir.
That key is a clue to my mind-set then. I was out for experience, conjuring myself into a writer, and the gray "G" meant more to me, as a sort of talisman, than the affair did. Each of these men had surmounted what I was still wrestling with: to work as an artist, the strange outsider-rhythm of that, and the unconventional private life that can accompany that choice. I wanted to be them as much as I wanted to date them. And I was refusing to notice what lay between the reality of my own circumstances and theirs -- the reality I wanted to adopt.
Someone your own age isn't as likely to offer solutions or stability, financial or emotional. It's like staring at yourself at the edge of a cliff. Even if I hadn't chosen work this unpredictable, there would still be the existential cliff's edge of being in my mid-thirties, wondering what the accumulation of my life's decisions was adding up to. To be with someone my own age was to confront myself, which, if I'm honest, I'd been putting off.
I wish I could provide a neat resolution: a story of my rehabilitation with someone age-appropriate. A couple of months ago, this might have seemed the case: I'd become involved with a man who, at 40, was a mere five years older. A filmmaker, he still had a thrilling, almost monomaniacal approach to his work. He came with a certain amount of chaos: Sometimes he woke up at 3 a.m. to start his workday; sometimes he drank too much and then went for a three-mile run to sweat it out of his system. Wrapping our heads around a world more than a month or two away was asking too much. But I loved it. With him I'd been willing to put aside my concerns about financial stability; I'd been able to root for him the way you can root for someone who is not approaching lifetime-achievement-award status and might actually need you; and I'd been willing to live like a nomad, jumping between cities, throwing a string of dinner parties in a series of sublet apartments, both of us waking up early to work. Before, I'd been chasing after some fantasy of adulthood, a state of grace I thought I could step into easily, immediately, by association. With him -- and now without him -- I've been willing to struggle and improvise and imagine a future that hasn't already been plotted out. It's scarier, but I suppose that's the cost of becoming the protagonist of your own life.