Darkness on the Edge of Cougartown

Photo: Francesca Dagrada/Getty Images/EyeEm

One day in the winter of 2013, I was walking down the main street of the small town I live in when someone tapped me on the back. I was in a bad mood, days overdue on my health-insurance payment and months overdue on breaking up with someone. Reasons why my life was a mess kept coming at me, like the flying saucers in Asteroids, the only video game I’ve ever played. I was 43 and a half, and I was panicking about my life as if I were stoned. I wasn’t.

I hadn’t heard anyone coming because in addition to freaking out, I was listening to “Erotic City” at full volume. I whirled around. I was looking at one of the handsomest men I’d ever seen, certainly the handsomest man who’d ever gone out of his way to get my attention.

“I’m sorry,” the extremely handsome man said. “I kept shouting your name, but you didn’t hear me, so I ran to catch up with you!”

His name was Tor. I had met him briefly years before, and when I had recently been introduced to his cousin, I told her, “Oh, yeah, I know your cousin. He’s hot.” This had obviously made its way back to him, as I must have intended. We stood in the street and talked. Then we stood on the steps of the coffee place I was about to enter and talked, then we went inside and talked in the vestibule. Later, he told me that I seemed like I felt cornered, which is proof that you can’t always tell whether someone is interested in you. What I was actually thinking was, “WOW,” but also, “So young.” I thought, This would be perfect, but it will never happen.

But it did happen. Tor wrote me an instant message on Facebook, and a few minutes into our chat, I called the other guy and broke up with him. “I met someone else,” I said, even though I had done literally nothing more.

He was 33. I almost died of happiness every time I saw him. I couldn’t believe a person this attractive and this smart and this nice existed and that we actually liked each other. I realized that I had never really liked 95 percent of the people I had dated. Though I didn’t believe in soul mates and still don’t, I finally understood what people meant when they talked about really loving someone and feeling close to them. I had always thought of men as these sort of things that, if you were straight and wanted to have sex, you just sort of had to contend with. Tor was like an actual person.

But also an actual young person. People say age is just a number, yet this truth glosses over the fact that number refers, rather crucially, to the number of years one has been alive. I became hyperaware that I was, whether I liked it or not, a cougar, and I began to see other cougars everywhere: an acquaintance whose boyfriend was 14 years younger, a writer I knew slightly whose husband was 18 years younger … My mother told me that one of her grandmothers had been 15 years older than her grandfather. Then there were (at the time) my famous sisters in cougarhood and their cubs: Sam Taylor-Johnson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (24 years apart); J.Lo and Casper Smart (17 years); Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade (ten years); Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon (ten years). A month into our relationship, Tor turned 34, and it actually seemed significant to me that for six months, we’d be less than a decade apart. Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore’s (15 years) divorce became final after we’d been together for six months or so, and when I read the announcement on “Page Six,” I felt physically ill. It seemed like scientific proof we would break up too.

It’s considered an older man’s right to date younger women and also just an inevitable result of biology. No one gives a shit about a man going out with a woman who is ten years younger. But a woman who goes out with a man ten years younger would be described as having “scored” or “gotten her hands on him.” It’s odd, because there’s admiration in people’s reactions to a woman dating young: The cougar is courageous; it takes the best of what’s available, which of course means young flesh. There’s something inherently feminist about being a cougar in America, where feminism is just agreeing on whatever the patriarchy sees as valuable and then simply making those things the property of women rather than of men.

The cougar is also sad, because to get what it wants, it must hunt. No one hunts the cougar.

While not everyone commented on our age difference, most people did. “Robbing the cradle!” they liked to say, or “Bagged yourself a young stud there.” Excuse me, I wanted to say, who tapped whom on the shoulder? I was supposed to laugh, but zero percent of me felt like “You know it, bitch, high five” about this situation, so I would just stare at people or make a noise that I hoped sounded like laughter and not a welp. They would not have wanted to hear my potential responses, which included: “You know, I’m sure this is all hilarious to you insofar as you even care, but, FYI, I have never before in my life felt so loved or loved another person who deserved it so much, and I am so afraid of losing it I feel like I am going to be sick all the time,” or “Thank you for your clever observations regarding the number of years between the birthdates of me and the man I love,” or “As much as this is a joyful relationship, there is a corresponding misery, because while everything about us tells me we should be together, the pressure of social norms makes it extremely unlikely, and if you looked into my eyes right now instead of at your phone, you’d see how desperately sad I am.”

Obviously there was the matter of children. When people weren’t commenting on me, a fucking old hag, being so lucky to go out with a smooth-skinned erection machine, they were making assumptions about my reproductive capabilities. “So he doesn’t want kids?” people said to my face, which — who can blame them, since I said it to my own face a lot.

Also, their assumptions were right. Right before I met Tor, my gynecologist was like, “Hey, it’s a good time in life to see where your hormones are at,” and he ran a test and then showed me a whole bunch of numbers. One of those numbers was really low. “What’s that?” I asked the doctor. “Oh, that basically shows how fertile you are,” he said breezily. My number was like one. “What’s normal?” I asked. Normal seemed to be somewhere around 40. I had never wanted children. Intellectually, I knew that children drive men and women apart as much as they keep them together. But knowing this actual number, knowing I was officially unable to have children, I felt a panicked need to be able to provide them.

I fantasized that the next time someone said, “Doesn’t he want kids?,” I would say, “No, I guess not.” Then I would pause and add, “Your partner seems to not want to be with someone interesting or intelligent, and no one asks them about that.”

But sarcasm and quick wit has never spared anyone from constant anxiety about having their heart broken. Actually saying these things would not have made me happy. Every day I thought, You need to talk about this, but we almost never did. It just seemed like a surefire way to blow up the relationship, to say to him, “You know I’m old, right?”

“You’re fucking 45,” my best friend said about all of this, blowing out smoke in annoyance. “If he doesn’t know you can’t get pregnant, well, he’s so stupid that if you ever break up because he suddenly wants a baby, you’ll be glad to get rid of him.” I laughed, but I knew I would never be glad to get rid of him.

I am embarrassed to tell you the number of times I would close my eyes and wish, “When I open my eyes, Tor and I will be the same age.” I mean, I did it at least five times a day. Tor didn’t seem super into kids, but every time he played with one and enjoyed it, I would think, Okay, this is it. He is going to come to me and say “I love you, but,” and then I will have to spend the rest of my life living in this tiny town watching his life grow while mine retracts. Just like Demi Moore, except without that new young guy she got after Ashton — the Australian pearl heir, who had a real pearl embedded in his penis.

Worse than wishing that Tor was 50 was wishing that I was 35. I wanted to be 35 so badly that the mere thought of it would make me sob. Once, when I was 36, I cried in a dressing room because I noticed how fast my muscle tone was going. At the time, I thought I was so old, so ugly, so almost dead already. Now, 35-year-old women seemed like children to me. Tor had several women friends this age, all with young kids. I wanted to be friends with them, but they all terrified me. I felt they were all looking at me weird. When greeting us, grazing their children’s heads with their soft lips and saying, “Say hi to Tor and Sarah,” I felt they were all thinking, How can our wonderful friend in the prime of his life throw it all away for this crazy bitch whose Instagram is just her talking to an old dog? Of course, this was all entirely projection.

For all the annoyance I felt at being called a “cradle robber,” my own views on the subject were as harsh and judgmental as anyone’s. I was a lifelong feminist who had always kept up with the reading, but it all seemed pretty useless to me in this situation. There were probably other representations of femininity around me at the time, but the only ones I ever saw were young moms, and I thought, I can’t be either of those things.

A couple of years ago, just as we were about to move in together, Tor said he wasn’t sure it was what he wanted. Here it is, I thought, the end I feared, and even worse than I imagined. But it didn’t end, because there are 140,000 therapists in Nevada City, California, and we couldn’t break up until we tried all of them. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that I had wasted five years thinking that we would break up over our age difference when in fact we were about to break up over something else entirely, which was that Tor felt like in some weird way we weren’t actually all that close.

In the end, some lady who didn’t actually seem all that impressive on first meeting had us do this weird thing where we held hands and told each other nice things. The other therapists had just whipped us up into frenzied fighting, and we would break up in the car on the way home and agree to get back together, if only for dinner, and then, okay, fine, until the next session. But this holding hands–calm discussion thing did the trick. It’s called attachment therapy, and I’m not going to say that it works and I am definitely not going to get into an argument about it, but it worked for us and we only went like eight times.

I just have one more thing to say: You don’t have to love yourself before someone else can. That’s bullshit. But you do probably have to be able to admit what you really feel at your core, because otherwise, the person you’re with won’t really feel free to do the same. I had thought that telling Tor how I really felt — not just about my aging body, but my aging mind, the extent to which I felt defeated and sad about life, the disappointment I had that felt permanent — he would go in search of sunnier skies. But he didn’t. I guess this was actually just all so interesting he just wanted to hear more.

Now he is 40 and I am almost 50. We have been together for almost seven years, and we are happy, and anxieties I had about our being years apart seem like a distant and, given the times, quaint dream. It used to be when I woke up in the morning, I would think, Poor me, I have met this perfect person, but he is just too young, how much time do we have? Now I think, How much time do we have, all of us?! I used to think that there was nothing more emotionally painful than longing to be younger. Now that I long for young people to be able to grow old, I realize I’m only beginning to understand what longing really is.

Darkness on the Edge of Cougartown