First Time For Everything: A May-December Romance

We met when I delivered his mail, a task performed by all the interns. But I liked to think I was different: I was an eager little NYU journalism student, desperate for attention, and I chatted with all the editors as I passed their cubicles. Many magazine editors on the top of the masthead are a bit standoffish and see interns, especially ones who want to talk while they’re busy, as an annoyance. But the Older Man was actually inquisitive and kind; we’d chitchat a little bit, a welcome reprieve from the other editors who could be cold and snappish.

I saw him as a little bit broken, a little bit messed-up, and I believe that I soothed and cared for him, and he had been enormously supportive of my career, my interests, and my sanity. Why wouldn’t we want to spend our lives together? I certainly felt strongly enough for him that this seemed plausible.

The Older Man and I kept in touch when I moved on to other internships, mostly, I think, because I wanted to use him as a reference. My life was pretty normal for a 21-year-old: I fell in love with a boy my own age, graduated from college, and moved back in with my parents in Connecticut when I took a reporter position at a newspaper. Over time, “how’s it going?” emails gave way to exchanging IM screen names and more regular chatting, usually in a mentorship capacity. He seemed to quite enjoy the tales of a cub reporter! And of course, it thrilled me that this big magazine editor thought I was cool enough to IM with. I was even more thrilled when Older Guy and his girlfriend wanted to have brunch with me and my boyfriend, and when they showed up together at my 22nd birthday party. He read and helped me craft many of the freelance articles I pitched and wrote during that time.

Then one summer, after years of disagreements about whether to marry and have kids, his long-term girlfriend broke up with him. He was despondent and heartbroken and seemingly needed a friend to lean on. I didn’t know what was happening at the time, but that’s when the real trouble started for me.

There are a couple ways I could tell this story and all of them could be true. One is “The Older Man Who Has 15 Years More Life Experience Should Have Known Better Than To Let The 22-Year-Old Fall In Love With Him” version. That’s the version of the story my friends believed; they liked the Older Man as a human being, but thought he was exploiting my feelings for him. However, I thought that version of the tale was patronizing and sexist, as it treated me like some dumb young girl. What, I need an older man to “protect” me from getting hurt? Still, there’s some truth in there.

Then there’s “The Young Career Woman As Whore” version, which paints me as an opportunistic young woman who used her sexuality to try to get ahead. Obviously, I’m a feminist and I’m well-schooled on how sleeping with a man who could help me professionally—if he wanted to—is wrong. But he was my mentor for a long time before we had a sexual relationship; besides, I truly did fall in love with the Older Man over time and I never once felt like I was (mis-)leading him on. Yet, as much as I’m humiliated to admit this, there’s probably some truth in this version of the story, too.

Personally, I think, the truest version of my story with the Older Man is that we were two sad people who met each other at a vulnerable time in our respective lives. Older Man had thought he’d marry his ex-girlfriend and have her children; he hadn’t expected to be 37 years old and single. (As he put it to me once, he thought most unmarried people at that age were the “leftovers.”) Me, I felt like a major loser in life. I had moved from college in Manhattan to my Republican parents’ house in suburban Connecticut, been cruelly dumped by a hotshot boyfriend, drove a piece of crap car, worked my ass off at my reporting job and only earned $21,000 a year. Several months before my jerky ex had dumped me, I’d stopped taking medication for depression. Clearly, I wasn’t thinking straight. Hanging out more and more frequently with a man 15 years my senior didn’t ring any serious alarm bells—he became the #1 joy in my life during that time.

Honestly, I can’t say our attraction to each other was a sexual thing. The Older Man is not particularly good-looking, and I’m a little cute, I guess, but really, our personalities just clicked. We were both mellow, low-key, down-to-earth, nice people who hated all the bitches and a**holes we came across in New York City. We were introspective, shy, un-flashy writers who loved reporting, but hated the self-promotional part of the field that spawns pseudo-journalist “personalities” like Julia Allison. We both liked to read Serious Books, have Deep Conversations and had a domestic streak. He graduated from mentor to friend, and then to best friend, seamlessly. And thank God we’d become so close, because my friends scattered all over the country after we graduated from NYU .

I knew I liked shooting the breeze about life with the Older Man. For a few months the Older Man and I hung out platonically more often. We saw movies and plays and a taping of “The Colbert Report.” I went on job interviews all the time (he, of course, was one of my references) and we usually met up at Starbucks for a bit, or for dinner, before I caught my Metro North train back to Connecticut. But then one night after we dined together after a job interview, it hit me that I had an enormous crush on him. I can still remember exactly where I was standing on a particular NYC avenue when I realized this.

Then, after we idled away one Saturday away together, it suddenly felt, to me, like we were dating.

Operative words here: “to me.” But what was I supposed to think? That day, the Older Man and I saw a Fringe Festival play together. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge for pizza and ice cream. We walked all the way back to his apartment in Manhattan and watched “Mean Girls” and “Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Too Afraid To Ask.” Sitting on his couch after the movies, we kissed. Kissing led to the bedroom and the bedroom led to sleeping together. If it was a “date,” it was a perfect date. I can still remember him telling me, with the utmost earnestness, “You are very, very beautiful, by any estimation.” I felt absolutely over the moon!

But two things happened in the next few weeks which derailed the most intense romance of my life. First, though I came to his apartment more frequently and we slept with each other more often, he didn’t introduce me to anyone as his girlfriend. Meanwhile, I absolutely considered him my lover, if not my boyfriend. Second, my mom, whom I was living with in Connecticut at the time, figured out where I spent my increasingly frequent overnight visits in NYC. It wasn’t rocket science for her to deduce it was the Older Man, whom I had spoken about often when he was just my mentor. Mom voiced her motherly criticism of her 22-year-old daughter hooking up with a 37-year-old and I, stupidly, told him that she disapproved. That freaked him out. Then, the magazine he worked for offered me a job at their website—and I took it.

He had nothing to do with my being offered the job—I promise you that. He told me he said nothing to convince them to hire me and I believed him. I had been an intern at the mag, remember, and I’d kept in touch with people there, so when there was an opening at this other wing, I hustled into an interview. To my great delight, I got offered the job, which finally meant I could leave my dinky $21K-a-year newspaper reporter job and move out of my parents’ place and back to New York City.

However, working in the same building (though not the same office) just underscored for the Older Man how a relationship with a much younger woman was not sustainable. I’d sleep over at his apartment and we’d fool around and then we’d both be at the office as if we were two strangers. He’d be in a meeting with the editor-in-chief and I’d be a copy machine monkey—it was very awkward. And the fact that he didn’t acknowledge me at work began to make me feel like crap. It took me longer than him to figure this out, but, little by little, I saw the ways in which our relationship was inappropriate—not just because of our age difference and the fact that we now worked together, but because he didn’t treat me like the lover/girlfriend that I considered myself to be. He didn’t introduce me to his friends; he didn’t introduce me to his parents. That is what made me feel like a “Young Career Woman As Whore” (no thanks to my mother, or my friends, who were getting hysterical over how deeply in love I professed to be with Older Man). In my mind, we should be openly dating as boyfriend and girlfriend, and we’d marry and have children together.

I saw him as a little bit broken, a little bit messed-up, and I believe that I soothed and cared for him, and he had been enormously supportive of my career, my interests, and my sanity. Why wouldn’t we want to spend our lives together? I certainly felt strongly enough for him that this seemed plausible.

But you know where this story is headed. And it got worse before it got better, of course.

It ended, abruptly, when I told him on the phone that I was in love with him. Sure, I’d shown for months now that I was in love, but I had never verbalized it before. But he had the worst of all possible responses: He wasn’t in love with me, he said, and, in fact, he had gone on a few dates with a woman his own age and was falling in love with her. That news—a surprise to me—punched me in the gut with the worst rejection sadness my life. He did care about me as a friend, he said, and he cared about supporting my career, but that was it. In fact, we had to end all of this, tout suite. Wait, what? I told someone I loved him and he told me he didn’t feel the same way, he was seeing someone else, and he didn’t want to see me anymore? I sobbed for hours and hours, into the early morning. I can completely, completely understand how some people go a little bit crazy when they get dumped. The inside of my head was absolute lunacy for several days.

Yet I had to drag my carcass to work in the weeks that followed, easily avoiding him. Sometimes when I was alone at the office, I cried, and wanted to run and find him, but I knew it would be beyond unprofessional. So I did the only thing I could do. I left for another job within a few months—thanks to Older Man who was still on my resume (oops!) and charitably provided me an excellent reference. Maybe he thought he was getting rid of me? Well, it worked. That fall and winter, I moved on with my life like a normal 22-year-old woman in New York City would: I fooled around with guys my own age, worked crazy hours at my new job, and hung out with my friends who were, thank God, just platonic. After all we’d gone through together, the Older Man and I hardly talked and scarcely saw each other in person for many, many months. But one time we saw each other, he gave me a small gift of a religious icon to put in my apartment to watch over me. Despite the fact I’m not religious at all, I’ve always hung that icon on the wall over my bed to keep an eye on me in my home.

Then, one year after the end of our friendship and our little love affair, over July 4th weekend, I logged onto Facebook and saw the Older Man’s status update. He was engaged to the women he’d left me for. What the heck?!?! I emailed him in surprise and he wrote back to say he’d meant to tell me in person. Ah, well, you didn’t. A couple of days later, we met for lunch and he told me they were in love and they wanted to marry and have kids. Well, OK then.

I have not spoken to him since that lunch; he hasn’t responded to emails, which is probably smart on his part. The friendship has long been dead and anything resume-wise that he wants to know about me, he could see on Facebook or Google. The Older Man, his wife and their child (children?) live in the same building as one of my friends, so I hear tidbits here and there about what his life is like. And perhaps foolishly, I still have, and cherish, that small gift he gave me.

I wish I still had the Older Man in my life somehow, though. I wish he were still my mentor and my friend. I wish I were in his kid’s life. I wish I could introduce him to my boyfriend, who is the best friend and lover that I have always deserved and that I’m going to marry. I wish the Older Man could see how I worked extremely hard — how at 25 many of the dreams for my journalism career that I had when I graduated from college at 21, I have actually made happen. I know he would be proud of me and happy that I’m finally happy.

But despite all those wishes, with 20/20 hindsight and a lot more maturity, I can see what he did to me was wrong. He should not have rebounded after his long-term relationship collapsed with someone who looked up to him and whom he had a bit of power over, period. Beginning to date that other woman when we were sleeping together and then telling me about it when I finally verbalized that I was in love with him was just cruel. He knew he was a treasured best friend to me, and he could clearly see that I loved him. Clearly, the Older Man could have handled it better! Nevertheless, as his former friend, I realize why the flawed person that he is just didn’t do that. Maybe he couldn’t do that.

I’m not innocent here, of course. Sometimes I ask myself, What were you thinking? You really thought a 37-year-old man was going to marry his former intern? But I’ve come around on the version of the story where “The Older Man Who Has 15 Years More Life Experience Should Have Known Better Than To Let The 22-Year-Old Fall In Love With Him.” When my heart was raw and hurt, I used to listen to this Alanis Morrisette song, somewhat maniacally on repeat, called “Hands Clean.” The song is supposedly about a statutory rape situation Alanis had as a teenager with a man who was supposed to be her guardian, but some of the verses are absolutely applicable to the (totally legal) relationship the Older Man had with me:

“If it weren’t for your maturity none of this would have happened
If you weren’t so wise beyond your years I would’ve been able to control myself
If it weren’t for my attention you wouldn’t have been successful and
If it weren’t for me you would never have amounted to very much

You’re essentially an employee and I like you having to depend on me
You’re kind of my protégé and one day you’ll say you learned all you know from me
I know you depend on me like a young thing would to a guardian
I know you sexualize me like a young thing would and I think I like it

Ooh this could get messy
But you don’t seem to mind
Ooh don’t go telling everybody
And overlook this supposed crime

We’ll fast forward to a few years later
And no one knows except the both of us
And I have honored your request for silence
And you’ve washed your hands clean of this “

That’s the best way to put it: Older Man just washed his hands clean of me when he was done using me for what he wanted. That stung for years, I promise you.

But as I’ve grown older, I can see all the very obvious signs I should have heeded, such as, oh, not dating someone who is clearly on the rebound and not dating someone who keeps you a secret from his family/friends/coworkers. I’d like to go back and shake my naive and eager 22-year-old self, sparing her all this drama. But I try to honor everything that happened to me and use the fact that I know what a May-December romance feels like and behave with compassion towards other young women in the same situation. Because it is hard.

These days, I’m proud to say, I’ve washed my hands clean of him, too.

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