After dating Karl for two months, I finally decided to call my parents and tell them I was seeing someone new.
“How old is he?” was my mother’s first question.
There was a moment of silence before she said, “Be prepared for disappointment.”
At the time, I was a 39-year-old divorcée, living in Washington, D.C., and until Karl had entered the scene, I was fooling around with my Argentine co-worker, a supremely handsome jackass with graceful hands and a wandering dick. At a party one night, Karl, a peripheral friend at the time, listened to my sob stories about Mr. Argentina and then quietly reached for my hand and told me I deserved better.
As it turned out, Karl was a lot better. Square-jawed and forthright, goofy yet tough, I was so happy that sometimes, especially when I was riding on the back of his motorcycle, I would spontaneously burst into tears. He was, as my mother would finally admit, not my disappointment but my bashert, my destiny.
My friends saw Karl as something else. “Good for you,” they’d say, when they learned of Karl’s age. The subtext was bedroom related, of course. That Karl had youth and vitality translated to marathon sex, possibly including swinging from chandeliers. And then there was the coworker who met Karl at a company Christmas party. She called me a lucky bitch and asked me how I managed to land someone like him. “With a stun gun and a steady dose of tranquilizers,” I had replied. (This was the era, don’t forget, of the Cougar.)
When we were married 12 years ago, our age difference didn’t feel so worrisome. Other than the occasional “Is he legal?” from a bartender when I ordered Jack and Gingers for us, Karl and I existed as we always had — sleeping late, smoking cigarettes, riding around town in our leathers. My mother was still alive back then, running her boutique and doling out all the stylish jeans and LBDs my closet could handle. Her predictions of a letdown were quashed the first time she met Karl. Back then, Karl also owned a boutique and the two bonded over ready-to-wear. Karl, I used to joke, was the daughter my mother never had.
Yet over the years, especially now that I’m on the other side of 50 and now that we have Leo, our 6-year-old boy (kudos to everyone out there for asking if Leo is my grandson), our age gap feels more like a gorge — an Evel Knievel’s jump over the Grand Canyon. And even though Karl makes it abundantly clear that he still thinks I’m sexy, me and my soft and worn-out grandma body don’t always agree.
Things are slipping, rapidly. I’m talking about the region between me and the lower part of my face. A wattle, according to a friend. My mother is no longer alive to witness the fall, but her words of warning, of disappointment ahead, revisit me on days when my lower back is in spasm or my under-eye circles make me look like I’ve been punched in the face. Ever since giving birth, my bladder has felt simultaneously full and numb. I worry that I’ll soon become the butt of my favorite joke: What do old people smell like? Depends.
Sometimes, ten years doesn’t seem significant. But then I think about the accumulation of ten years, not only on my face but in the mileage that I’ve accrued simply by living. Think about something, anything, from your life that spanned ten years. Like the stretch from when you were 11 to when you had your first legal drink. How much life did you live in between those goal posts? In between, you got your first period, got your driver’s license, got your college diploma, and, most monumentally, probably lost your virginity. Maybe even fell in love a few times. That’s the persistent difference between Karl and me. Sometimes he’ll ask me if I remember watching a particular cartoon and I’ll do the math and tell him, “I was sleeping off a hangover while you were in front of the television eating Fruit Loops.”
For his part, Karl could care less. “Fuck ‘em,” has always been his motto. I’m his best friend, he tells me, the love of his life. I make him feel feelings, he likes to say. I’m his soft place to land. And I provide stability, something he didn’t have when he was growing up.
But is it horrible for me to admit that Karl’s increasing hair loss has been a real boon for my well-being? Or that the days of him eating (and burning off) whatever he wants are finally numbered? “Do you have a baby in there?” Leo asked him the other morning as Karl sat drinking coffee in his boxers. And then there’s his recent diagnosis of gout, disease of emperors and kings and the Asian side of Karl’s family tree.
Whenever I get too preoccupied with my looks, Karl likes to ask, “Will you still love me when I look like Yoda?” His theory is that one day, poof, he’ll wake up speaking in koans with wispy white hairs sprouting out of his ears. “That’s how Chinese people age,” he says.
Until that happens, I honestly have no idea how I’ll reckon with this uneasy self-image. Other than to admit that aging, especially for women, is really really difficult. It’s why, after the age of 40, my mother refused to look in the mirror unless she was in full makeup. It’s why we all know the finer points of Drunk Elephant’s product line and in which aisle to find the retinol at Target. And it’s why the recent Ten-Year Challenge, whether an exercise in inherent narcissism or Facebook ploy to improve its facial recognition software, still offered the perfect platform for us to apologize: for not losing the baby weight, for not eating clean, for not aging backward.
Oh, I was tempted to post my own pair of photos, one of Karl next to a photo of myself. For me, it would be the most honest and unfiltered way to take the challenge. But then I thought better. After all, Karl, and not Facebook, is the mirror in which I want to look. In it, I’d see that I’m doing the very best with what’s right in front of me.