Imagine bathing in a source of unwavering loyalty. That’s what it was like to date a younger guy who was desperately in need of love and stability. A guy who was sleeping on his friend’s couch and working the cash register at a corner market and the reception at some three-star hotel above San Francisco’s Chinatown. He was also a self-described “deadbeat dad.” At 23.
I was an overeducated black woman with good credit, no kids, who was 20 years his senior — I should have known better. But I was suffering through the disability I call “middle life” and needed comfort. Turning 42 brought on self-criticism and disappointment that flowered like a bruise. There was a gray hair invading my afro-pompadour, sneering, Girl, you’ll die before you do anything great, or pay off those student loans. I had a “survival job” in government communications where getting boss approval on anything was like facing the powerful final opponent in a martial-arts movie.
Worst of all: the age-appropriate men I had dated. “Senior”-titled Elon Musk admirers who wanted to be treated like heads of state. They wanted a full program of cock-centric sex, custody days with their soccer-loving kids, and Guitar Hero nights with their power-nerd friends who would not let me play the tortured Amy Winehouse songs.
I had started my 40s dating a 50-something white dad — that romance was so unequal, it was an endless episode of “White Boyfriend Knows Best,” and it upheld white-male privilege and the patriarchy at a time when Donald Trump was running on the exact same ticket. “Don’t ever tell me again how men oppress women,” this boyfriend lectured, “when you women couldn’t even get together for Hillary.”
“That was white women,” I lobbed back. By Valentine’s Day, the current of political resistance had pushed me to the edge. After that breakup, I vowed to never make a submissive deal for love again.
The forces of solitude were crushing me when the damp-sky summer began. I was haunting a corner market designed to look like a Gold Rush general store, buying the cheapest bottle of Pinot Noir and a sushi platter for one, when out of nowhere the bearded guy working the register asked me to dinner. He looked about 30, and if you’re into Jeffrey Wright or Drake, this man would have definitely caught your eye.
On our first date, I brought out the “36 Questions to Fall in Love With Anyone” app. Around the tenth question, when I asked him to describe his ideal day, thinking he might say “Bike through Golden Gate Park, then do a beer-and-painting-class,” this 23-year-old stranger said it would be waking up with me, making me breakfast, then watching movies all day. I’d like to say I jumped up to leave, said “That’s weird, dude,” and grabbed my purse. What I did was relax, letting myself simply be worshipped.
Then he told me that his worst day had been when his mother sexually abused him. She was an addict and pretty much my contemporary. So Oedipus had been introduced in Act One. What was even more revealing was when he shared his history with older women: his last serious girlfriend was almost my age. She had three strokes while carrying his child. He left her during a tense recovery, when the healthy baby and the infirm mother both needed someone to wipe their tushies. Hopelessness set in. Tempers flared. And when this stroke survivor lashed out and said he should just leave, he was too green to realize that she didn’t really mean it. Instead, he took the infant to live with an attractive rural woman he had met on Facebook, somehow got kicked out of there, lost custody of the kid to his half-sister, and six months later escorted me to a near-empty gastropub that charged $15 for Brussels sprouts.