Men of a Certain Age
A rebound-date with an older guy turns into the perfect disaster of a relationship.
After my first “real” relationship ended, I craved an out-of-body experience. Not in the sense of flatlining on the operating table and floating above everyone in the room like Casper or flying through dream worlds like some passage in a New Age book. I could not stop time, so I wanted to simply stop being me. The stable life I’d known for the past four years was no longer healthy. By the end, the apartment we shared was too small and oppressive for two people who had fallen in love despite our clashing differences. Our last night together ended with a horrible fight, our worst to date. We said things and actually hoped they would not just maim but kill the other. Even so, I didn’t want to move out so abruptly, disregarding respect and simple courtesy, as careless as Daisy loves Gatsby. I loved someone that suddenly I couldn’t stand. I felt that there was no other solution, that I no longer belonged there and he knew this, and the apartment knew this, sending out invisible death rays of negative energy, hovering too close like a drug-sniffing dog. My ex was not only an ex-boyfriend, but now, by default, my ex-best friend. I was alone and the minute I screeched out of his driveway, I doubted my decision, even my sanity. Had I ruined the best committed relationship I would ever have, throwing it away for a seven-year-itch and my own immaturity?
I wanted a miles-long closet of personalities that I could slip off and on like well-worn custom denim. I rationalized that the only way to find some kind of peace, even if fleeting, would be in other people, other men who were nothing like my ex. I would play different parts on these dates, become so engaged with my characters that I was no longer acting but drowning in the psyche of a fictional woman, seducing both myself and my flavor of the moment in the process. I would attempt to fix, or at least distract myself from the pain of the breakup by clinging to self-prescribed theatrics.
When I met him, I was pretending to be someone as plastic and elastic as The Cool Girl, or maybe the cousin of Capote’s Holly Golightly: protecting oneself with the belief that nothing was shocking or exciting anymore, everything was so sanitized, disappointment calcifying into flattened complacency. If I pretended to be numb, then maybe I would finally feel numb.
On our first date, Bud Fox arrived early. Bud was tall, professional basketball player tall, a foot or more taller than my ex. Standing next to him at five-foot-one in my stocking feet, I felt like a child. His shock of white-blond hair, carefully sculpted with product, seemed to suggest he took styling tips from Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. His outfit was The Preppy Handbook material, the manifestation of a casting call for New England WASP: a crisp set of khakis held up by a belt adorned with whales, a Brooks Brothers pink button-down shirt, and slightly-scuffed boat shoes. He was adamant about his nightly skincare routine, always supplied with anti-aging retinol creams. Bud was proud of the fact that a handful of people he’d encountered didn’t think he was any older than twenty-eight. He craved youth like the Queen in Snow White begs validation from her mirror.
We had lunch at a hamburger place, one of those seasonal food stands that tourists are sure to populate, convinced it makes their vacation that much more “authentic.” I played aloof and he confessed that he was worried that he’d end up being late for our date because he was nervous. He said that I was pretty and I pretended to brush it off, the unfazed and slightly annoyed. Truthfully, my heart couldn’t stay frozen at that hollow compliment, because it was something I rarely heard from men that weren’t my father or brother. I have never been a great beauty, not the right kind of beauty for my All-American hometown. I had many crushes, none reciprocated. My friends had multiple admirers and relationships and flings and the skin-tingling electricity of making out with a boy in the back of his car in some empty parking lot, like in the back of the Catholic church. I’d foolishly believed that college would lift this seemingly rootless curse, but I never dated anyone in college because men never asked. Until I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I believed that my lack of dates was the result of a combination of my worthlessness and lack of beauty.
I’m not convinced that he would have approached me in real life, without the smoke screen of the internet. I think that he was initially attracted to me because deep down, there was a perverse thrill in dating a woman of color. He wanted me because, like the majority of the white liberal men who have approached me in my adult life, want personal claim on an unspoken fetish. These white men use the same version of the same script. Bud was no different, perhaps a bit more smoother with the delivery, his ego hardly bruised. But like the others, he made it a point to say that he specifically did not date white girls, that he “wasn’t attracted to them,” and then started listing the nationalities of past paramours like it was roll-call at the United Nations. He remembered to tell me that his last girlfriend, the one he was with before returning back home, was black and even younger than me.
The idea of Bud, or rather the image he wore with such ironclad confidence, was always better than the actuality of him. On our first date (and many dates thereafter), he insisted that he pay for my meal only because he wanted to write it off on his taxes. At first, I thought he was joking, but he was quite serious. I didn’t question it too much. I was too intoxicated by his presence, the promise of attention. Any time that he mentioned his ex-wife, she was “crazy”; a woman only a vessel for her mercurial emotions, a thunderstorm that took out power lines and sometimes people, a woman who threw dishes and plates and was paranoid that each time he stepped out of the house, he was about to meet up with an anonymous mistress. I wanted to be the one who defied his expectations. I wanted to prove to him that not all women wanted more than he could give. To want someone in this way is dangerous. Hypnotized, you make excuses for the person building your shallow grave.
The women of Bud’s past were memorable because they seemed to have fallen off the edge upon breaking up with him. Here he was, thriving and “living in the moment,” and all these women were husks of their former selves, once bright stars about to be swallowed by a black hole. “Come to think of it, a lot of my ex-girlfriends have lately been getting into trouble,” he said. I think there was satisfaction in knowing that he had conquered these women, that he could leave a love without bleeding out, every part of him still in tact.
“I still believe in love and marriage,” he said. I was stunned. What guy would profess to still be an old-fashioned romantic after getting divorced from your college sweetheart? One night, after I had left his house, he called me up and told me to come back. He’d gotten into an argument with his parents and wanted to see me. Dutifully, I dropped everything and drove back to his house. I was the Velveteen Rabbit, only made real by his sadism.
“I’m going through withdrawal without you,” he moaned. If I had confessed something like this to Bud, I would have been met with a tight-lipped smile. The rules dictated that I hoard his compliments like rare diamonds. The rules dictated that I behave more like a kept woman, always aware of the conditional nature of our relationship.
He wanted to make women, especially young women, buy into the myth that he was an international playboy, James Bond softened around the edges. After all, he’d done the whole backpacking through Europe thing and this somehow blew his whole world apart, made him reach a higher level of enlightenment. He was the more charming version of the man addressed in “6’1,” the opening track of Welcome to Guyville by Liz Phair.
Bud insisted that he was an honest, open, no-bull guy but admitted that during his marriage, he’d signed up for Ashley Madison, a hook-up site for married people to have affairs. He denied meeting anyone from the site, laughed it off like it was as silly and inconsequential as a hangover on Spring Break. Red lights screamed in my head. A voice that I had been suppressing broke through the fog. How honest can he be if he uses online dating sites to cheat! Do you really think he would just sign up and never contact anyone? He was approaching thirty-five and still lived at home with his parents. Whenever Bud cleaned his room, his mother wrote thank you notes decorated with smiley faces and tape them to his bedroom door. He wouldn’t claim to be a Republican, but agreed that he was “socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” He seemed amused by the conviction infused in my voice when talking about issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Bud was firmly in the #notallcops choir. One night while cooking dinner, he turned on the TV to CNN. Another day, another shooting of an unarmed black man. I couldn’t stop the ache in my heart. I made the mistake of mentioning police brutality.
“They’re just doing their job. They don’t use their weapons if they don’t have to,” he insisted.
Despite this cocktail of eyeroll worthy traits, I learned to ignore them, just in the way that fans of certain celebrities can overlook their favorite star’s messy trail of fuck-ups and overall crude and boorish behavior. He referred to me as his girlfriend before I had the chance to ask. Bud knew how to kiss, how to mesmerize, he listened (without necessarily hearing). He was fond of pet names and my perfume, called me baby girl and baby doll and honey and sweetheart and every variation of toothache-sweet name he could generate. My indifference mutated into attraction which grew into lust, a chemical reaction fueled by nights on the beach under the moon. We took a weekend trip into Manhattan and it was as though I’d never seen the city before, like my world had been painted in pastels and I had shed my skin. We wandered around the Village and the Lower East Side like formerly sheltered college kids turned party night owls, no longer able to identify excess, jumping from bar to bar with one of his girl-hungry friends. At one bar, the guy sitting next to me told my date that I was beautiful and had nice skin and eyes and that my date was lucky.
“I know,” he replied.
I felt like Bette Davis in Now, Voyager after she gets her makeover: some promising glint behind the eyes, shiny, new, improved, but unsure, grateful for the booze-soaked compliment.
In the morning, we grabbed a late breakfast at a nearby restaurant. We went to Central Park and watched people play baseball, the same players arguing every five minutes about the umpire’s call. We sat on the grass and I put my head on his lap and I wanted to give him a hickey, an island of mottled purple, to remind him that I could use affection to leave a mark. I wanted someone walking by to pass us and think that we’d been in love for years. I was drunk on the way he said my name. A part of me knew that it was all so precious and sweet because it wouldn’t last into the winter.
We ended almost soon as we began, one of those flings that suddenly decides to attach fragile roots. We burned out before I was even ready to admit that my dabbling in playacting had backfired. Bud ignored me for a week and then reappeared to deliver a rather emotionless version of the standard “it’s not you, it’s me” speech. I blubbered like a baby and begged him to take it back while he sighed into the phone, already bored, regretting that he’d answered. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
Although Bud declared that he was “done”, he continued to text me as if to tease me. He wouldn’t answer my questions about returning some of my belongings but he had no qualms about texting me to tell me to come over, only to send another text no more than five minutes later to say: nvm. just horny. I punished myself and didn’t block him, affection and attraction intertwined with humiliation and hurt and enough rage for a pack of hellhounds.
A month later, we met up in a parking lot. He had my things. The favorite sweater I’d left in his car reeked of cigarettes, like he’d gone to a biker bar and told all of the patrons to blow smoke into the fabric. He acted like he’d never sent any of the texts, that we’d ended on friendly terms, two business rivals who were now cordial, greeting one another with dry handshakes and small, knowing half-smiles. He made me feel like a parasite.
“C’mere. Give me a hug,” he said. He opened up his arms and stepped forward. I ducked and moved to the side. If he kissed me, it would have felt like a slap.
“Aw, don’t be like that,” he demanded. His voice gleaming with pride, on the brink of laughter.
I walked back to my car and got inside. I slammed the door and then sped off into the night, crying once I reached the first stop light. Part of me hoped that he’d get in his car and chase me down. The other part of me just wanted to crash my car into his dilapidated, silver Honda.
That weekend in New York could’ve fooled me into thinking I was in love with Bud, but that was only the magic of escapism. I liked how I’d begun to live in his eyes, the way he would sometimes baby me, the feeling of being in someone else’s care, the feeling of losing oneself in a role, wandering so far into the woods so that you cannot find your way out. There was the thrill of his sweetness and the benefits of his protection. He fulfilled the fantasy of an affair, scenes of naked desperation and bite marks and my tender, bruised thighs hiding beneath black stockings. He fulfilled the expected duties of a boyfriend, the rare kind of guy Liz Phair describes as one who “makes love cause he’s in it.”
I wanted the idea of him within my grasp again, wanted to be the person he’d been pleased to have doting at his side.
“The sweetest tongue has the sharpest tooth,” Chris Kraus wrote, and it could’ve been written about you, Bud.
Sometimes you mistake a man for an antidote for heartbreak, but you will still have to learn how to exist again.