"Actually, no," he says, smiling. I look at him, stunned that he could forget such a big part of 1973. People were siphoning fuel from their neighbors' cars in the dead of night! Then it hits me: He was born in 1971. I was born in 1958. Riiiight.
We've been together for seven years now, and I'm so used to considering Bronson my peer that I often forget about our 13½-year age difference. This wasn't always the case. In the beginning, if I wasn't thinking, Is he too young for me? Am I too old for him? someone else was thinking it for me—and blurting out, "Hey, have you seen How Stella Got Her Groove Back? You'd really dig it." Or "Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins! She's older than he is, you know."
Does our culture's collective discomfort with a reversal of the usual younger woman–older man dynamic come, as scientists suggest, from a deep-rooted evolutionary instinct that drives women to choose the wiser, older, more powerful alpha male over the untested young buck? Or could it be caused by something as shallow and immediate as a woman's not wanting anyone to think her date is her younger brother or, God help us, her son? Maybe women feel that because girls have a head start on maturity back in the seventh grade, our emotional and spiritual equals must forever be at least five years older than we are. Whatever part of the conventional wisdom they buy into, American women find it easy to summarily reject younger men. Too bad. They could be denying themselves the most wonderful relationship of their lives.
I was married once before, to a man five years my senior. After 12 increasingly dreary years capped by a wrenching divorce, I couldn't imagine why women in my situation (childless divorcées) complained about the prospect of reentering single life. Wasn't that the good news? Wasn't finally having some laughs, romance, and excitement the way to take the "crisis" out of "midlife"? Parties, rock concerts, nightclubs—I dated the way I should have when I was younger: for fun, without an eye toward marriage.
Next: The first benefit...
As much as we're loath to admit it, we base most of our expectations about a relationship on the one we observed, for better or worse, growing up at home. A man who came of age in the 1960s, before the women's movement exploded, when his (more likely than not) stay-at-home mom did the cooking and cleaning, might have to work hard at accepting the fact that his life won't be just like his dad's. A man who came of age in the 1970s or '80s doesn't think twice about being married to a woman with her own career, or splitting the household chores with her. He probably grew up having to pitch in and help with dinner (if only to defrost it); he knows his way around a washing machine, and maybe even had to change a diaper or two. When it comes to gender roles and the division of labor, you're better off with a man whose mother has already fought the big battles for you.
The fact that a younger man's very busy mom probably didn't have time to whip up many culinary delights for the family can also work to your advantage. Anything you serve, however clumsily, is going to be greeted with unbelievable enthusiasm. Home cooking was something Bronson always hoped to experience, not The Way Things Used to Be. He'd walk a mile for my chocolate Kahlúa cheesecake, and he immediately bragged about my spaghetti sauce to his friends, who were envious of anything that didn't arrive by delivery boy. Staying over at a younger man's place may mean a breakfast of cold pizza and Mountain Dew, but at least you won't be offered Mylanta and Metamucil with your OJ. The reason for this is that he's Scarily Healthy. Open up a younger man's medicine cabinet, and you will see shaving gear, hair gel, a toothbrush, perhaps a squeezed-out tube of pimple cream, and, if he's something of a sophisticate, moisturizer. Of course, he probably won't have any first-aid supplies such as aspirin or Band-Aids, but before you curse his lack of preparedness, consider what else you won't see in his medicine cabinet: Di-Gel, minoxidil, Preparation H, Grecian Formula, Sominex, or Doan's pills for back pain. An empty medicine cabinet can actually be a beautiful thing.
An older man, you may point out, has learned much from life and benefited from years of accumulated experience. What he may also have accumulated is an ex-wife (or two), and perhaps a child (or two), which means you get to be Daddy's New Friend. Or perhaps he never married but has in his past a nightmare of a long-term girlfriend who cheated on him with his former best friend. While years of relationships may teach a man to be a better partner, there's also the danger that he's learned to view women as gold-digging, untrustworthy sluts, parasitic leeches, or nagging harpies.
Next: A man without baggage!
When I was in my 20s, my first husband and I went to three weddings in ten years. The vast majority of couples we knew simply lived together. The serially cohabiting older man sees dodging the bullet of matrimony as a badge of honor. His condemnation of marriage as a bourgeois convention makes him more of a tired, sad cliché than the ones he's using to describe matrimony. Since I've been with Bronson, we've averaged three weddings a year. This rush to the altar in the under-30 set has been denigrated (mostly by the over-30 set) as a spate of "starter marriages." Ultimately, I think the divorce rate will probably be the same as the break-up rate of the "just living together" generation, but I must say that it's infinitely more pleasant to listen to men who don't consider commitment to be a dirty word.
As creepy as the done-it-all, Warren Beatty type of older man is the one who hasn't done anything. This is the guy who's missed so much in his years on the planet that being with him makes you feel embalmed. I stopped dating a 48-year-old television executive when he labeled me a "maniac" because I said I sunbathed topless. (In France.) Another guy old enough to have danced naked at Woodstock stared incredulously at my alternative rock CD collection ("I've never even heard of any of these guys," he said, waving around a Pearl Jam CD) and asked if I had any Kenny G or Jimmy Buffet. A guy who has spent the past 20 years in a well-insulated rut will make you tell his astounded buddies about the time you were in "a whaddya call it? A mosh pit?" You may have the feeling that your relationship now qualifies as his official Walk on the Wild Side. A younger man finds you fun rather than wild, interesting rather than threatening. He surprises you by showing up with a copy of that CD you liked at his place ("Queens of the Stone Age! Thanks!"), and he likes listening to your old Charlie Parker records. He offers to reorganize your computer's hard drive while you go out and get the wine. Sure, there are older men who can pull this off, but a 30-year-old guy was fooling around on a home computer (and programming the VCR and watching MTV) while he was still in grade school. The fact that you have three holes in one earlobe isn't even worth a comment from a younger man, whose last girlfriend may have had a pierced tongue.
Next: "If you've ever said you'd rather have fun than dinner, dating a younger man offers you the chance to go have it."
There are some women who can't get past the fact that a younger man probably doesn't earn enough to take them to fancy restaurants on a regular basis. To that I say, you're missing the point. These same women are invariably the ones complaining about unimaginative guys for whom romance begins and ends with going out to dinner yet again. Where, they cry, are the afternoons spent eating bread and fruit and drinking a bottle of wine at the beach? Where's the touching, hand-presented little bouquet of daisies, rather than the predictable dozen roses delivered by the florist?
If you've ever said you'd rather have fun than dinner, dating a younger man offers you the chance to go have it. (And if you're in a corner office while he's still in a cubicle, you'll have the opportunity to put your feminist beliefs into action by picking up the tab the next time you crave a lovely dinner out.) But meanwhile, hike together through the woods. (Younger men can do this without complaining about their knees or their bad back.) Have him teach you how to surf. Spend all day making out at the beach. Stay in bed and order in Chinese. Thankfully, these are still extremely low-cost activities. A bonus: A younger man won't bore you with what an older guy might imagine is scintillating chat about his investments, his IRA funds, and his latest tax shelter.
And finally, yes, there's the sex. Some women—and nearly every older man—scoff at the idea that when it comes to sex, youth beats experience. Well, it does. First of all, the techniques necessary to please a woman are things that can be taught, and, more important, learned and mastered fairly quickly if one has a willing and interested partner—and a younger man is the very definition of willing and interested. Second, all the so-called experience in the world isn't going to help an older guy if after a meal and half a bottle of wine he's "too tired" to be able to show off these presumably stunning techniques. And consider this: If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try, and try again. In the same evening, if you like.
Next: What's really important in any relationship
Perhaps the most stunning thing I've learned is that, eventually, any age difference ceases to matter. What I ultimately found in Bronson is someone who shares not only my interests but my values, none of which, ironically enough, have anything to do with age: friendship, fidelity, faith, a love of family, shared beliefs and priorities. It's a side benefit that he's made me proud of the fact that I remember watching the live broadcast of the first man walking on the moon, that he laughs when he hears how I kept murmuring "Shut up, Walter!" because Walter Cronkite had an uncanny habit of speaking at the precise moment an astronaut (on the moon!) made a comment. His interest in my stories and the way he values my perspective makes me feel sorry for the women I know who keep quiet when certain historic events come up, as if owning up to "being there" devalues them, and so is something they hide or lie about.
And for that, I say youth is not always wasted on the young.
More about sex, love, and getting older: