The May – December Phenomenon
(which is Internet-speak for way beyond PG
and maybe even R if sexually explicit isn’t your thing)
All teasing aside (please), I am most curious about this phenomenon that’s shown up in my life. First things first. No, I am not a “Cougar.” I find the term – while it engenders laughter – too simplistic, sexist, belittling, predatory-sounding and well … just not accurate.
I don’t seek young men out. Really I don’t. I swear I don’t (The lady doth protest too much – ? No, no, no, really!) And yet they keep showing up. Here I am trying to approach this topic with some seriousness and yet it still evokes shyness and the defense of playfulness in me. Yeah, there’s a way I’ve succumbed to the cultural taboo that’s turned into internalized shame of being with much younger men. All the more reason to take it on, reflect and write about it, yes?!
Before I go right into that, an aside that maybe isn’t an aside at all:
I swore in my younger days that when I heard about older women feeling invisible, I didn’t believe it. Can’t be, I thought. I’m not going to disappear. But I’ve learned that those women weren’t making anything up or making it happen to themselves. In our youth-centric, youth-focused, youth-obsessed culture, we menopausal and post-menopausal women really do go off the cultural radar. I’ve spoken with men my age, too, and some of them report the same thing. I’ve actually watched it happen on this trip. More than once, I’ve been waiting for transport and been standing next to or near a much younger woman. A man comes by and starts talking to her, completely unaware of my presence. It’s like my being there doesn’t even register for him. He literally doesn’t see me. I experienced it on my Southeast Asia trip, too. I walked through city or village or countryside and as happens just as commonly to me back in Hawaii, I am invisible. Like that man at the bus station, people don’t see me; or if they do see me, they don’t pay much mind or dismiss me as an older woman. Hhmmm, similar to how I’ve been trying to dismiss these young men? No, I don’t think so. Differently than that. But dismissive nonetheless.
And yet … and yet, there are some young men who are not so eager to dismiss me, even when I still try to dismiss them. Who are any of us to dismiss any other of us? How can we do so without diminishing ourselves in the process? How can we not at least give one another a chance at discovering who might be within that body, who might be living that life worth knowing about?
I’ve had more than my share of judgments about older men and young women (just ask my friend Jim) which were way triggered when I witnessed all the sex tourism in Southeast Asia. Rampant it was there and it was hard – really hard – for me to look with other than disdain at the aged, bald, big-bellied Western men walking around with young Asian teenagers on their arms. It’s not that I’m proud of the judgments nor do I believe that old, bald, big-bellied men don’t also deserve love and pleasure in their lives – we all do. It’s just that, it’s just that … yeah, well, what is it, exactly? Bringing up the Asia sex industry complexes the issue. While I do not subscribe to the notion that all sex workers are exploited nor do I believe they’re all doing sex work against their will, the issues in Asia are different. Truth is, many young teen women there are forced into those roles, often by their poor parents who need their help to support the family or need them to be gone because they can’t afford to support them. That’s a serious cultural issue and not one that I’m trying to get at right now. So let’s put that aside for this conversation.
Even if we bring it back to our own culture, still my judgments abound about the older man and younger woman syndrome. Or at least they have in the past. Now that this <ahem> circumstance seems to be showing up in my life, I’m learning to look those judgments square in the face and soften my hardened stance around them. No matter what comes of it in my life, I’m grateful to have the chance to challenge yet one more judgment I’m holding towards other people. Because while I may have many qualities within me, some of which are not on the sunniest side of life, hypocrisy is not one of them.
What I’ve found, surprisingly, shockingly, is that maybe, just maybe, what appeals to those older men in young women just may be some of the same qualities that I find so appealing in these young men who pursue me. Hhmmm, interesting indeed. Oh, I don’t know that I’m ‘sold’ on this thing; and of course, the wisdom, life experience and shared world views with my contemporaries are the very things that have always interested me in people my age and older. As the last born of my siblings (who are seven, nine and twelve years older than me), I’ve spent many years of my life surrounded with older people, first in my family, and then amongst my circle of chosen family.
But then something happened. Without realizing it, there was suddenly one and then – ohmigod – two generations of adults behind me in age, coming of age in a culture and at a time so very different from my own. Mostly I’ve stayed clear of them or haven’t had much opportunity for interaction. But then when paths would unexpectedly intersect, I often found myself delighted with their very different perspectives, their ease and agility in navigating this brave new world and their seemingly unquenchable curiosity.
And isn’t that, after all, just how we break down stereotypes and judgments? Isn’t that how we let go of cultural biases and unlearn the racism, sexism and homophobia? Don’t we learn the most when we directly expose ourselves to the very people we don’t know, rather than tacitly accept the cultural pabulum we’ve been fed? Isn’t that what’s been so effective in the gay rights movement, with certifiable homophobes suddenly transformed by finding out that all along, they had gay people in their midst – in their families and friendship circles and work communities – and that these gay people were just like any other people and they didn’t live up to any of those biases that had before remained unquestioned? Isn’t that some of the very reason I travel, to learn first hand about who people are, what their cultures are, separate from what I’ve been taught and read about in the media?
(Total aside – like here, right here in Honduras, the supposed Murder Capital of the World. Well, yes, it might be on the top of that list, but you wouldn’t know it by the people going about their lives just like we’re all going about our lives. I could no more tell you that it’s any different here than anywhere else I’ve ever traveled. Because it isn’t. And yet, I could have let that headline scare me or worse, let stop it from visiting. And wouldn’t that have been a shame.)
Okay, okay, back to this May – December thing. I was listening to some music on my long day of travel yesterday and one of the songs on my Iphone is “Sway,” performed by the Honoka’a Jazz Band. I first discovered them on a visit to Honoka’a as I walked by the theater and ventured in to their end-of-the-school-year concert. I was blown away with the talent, passion and incredible commitment of these young adults. Led by their extraordinary director, Gary Washburn (an accomplished musician in his own right and obviously gifted teacher), this group has received many top honors for their work and they’ve even performed on NPR’s, “At the Top,” amongst other achievements.
I remember well the young, local man featured as the singer of this song. He sashayed onto the stage decked out in a tuxedo, complete with fedora. The audience made up mostly of his peers went wild. He proceeded to sing, dance and yes, sway as he sang with a quality of presence that stunned me. And then, I had to admit, I was more than stunned, I was captivated by his energy, his youth, his vitality. Ohmigod, I was even attracted to him, I realized. A thought came through – How can he possibly sing of an experience he can hardly have yet had in his life? But I could think those thoughts all day and night; it didn’t stop him one bit from being able to sing with heartfelt expression. Not only him, but also the young, tantalizing woman who sang “Respect” and the entire band and other singers who belted out all their other phenomenal songs. It just shows you what inspiration, encouragement, belief in them and their own dedication can do to create gifted artists. I walked away from that performance impressed and yet also confounded by the attraction I felt toward this young man. But I didn’t give it much more of my reflection or attention at the time.
And then along came Pomai. Pomai answered an ad I placed on the internet four years ago, soon after Rainer and I had split. I was 51. He was 21. When he told me his age, I tried to summarily dismiss him. He wouldn’t stand for it. Adamant, he was: “Just give me a chance. Just meet me, that’s all I’m asking.” And so I did. Pomai was a psychology major at UH, Hilo. He is also Hawaiian, his family going back generations on the Big Island. He regaled me with story telling of ancient Hawaiian myths as I laid my head in his lap. I was smitten. We engaged in stimulating conversation about psychology and culture and women and men and politics and well … everything. For my 52nd birthday, he gave me the gift of a sexual ritual/fantasy (complete with friends!) that I’d had for decades. He was smart, he was hilarious and he was, in his big, big body, enormously sexy. We had a sexual connection that was off-the-charts. This wasn’t a one-way, teacher-student relationship, mind you. Oh sure, he learned some things from me that he hadn’t yet experienced. But truth be told, so did I, so did I; and in a way I never would have imagined, such the experienced woman that I am. Yeah, right.
Pomai didn’t have an issue with our age difference, but I did. When we were out in public and he reached for my hand, I held back. Much as I tried to resist, he persisted. He wouldn’t let me hide. He called me out on my boldness, he demanded that I challenge the places of shame inside of me. He expected me to walk my talk. Yep, I was embarrassed to be seen with such a young man. I was embarrassed about what I imagined were the inevitable judgments about me preying on this young man; the judgments that were clearly my own.
I tried not to accept his determined invitation to his ‘Ohana’s Thanksgiving celebration, hosted by his mother who was younger than me. He wouldn’t have it. I had to come. I can’t remember a time when I was so nervous in anticipation of a holiday event. I felt her eyes lasering through me most of the evening and yet I wondered how much of that was her and how much of it was my own projection.
Pomai gave me so much love, so much attention and so much sexual satisfaction. And yet it was me who couldn’t maintain the relationship. It was me who couldn’t imagine how we could create a long-term partnership, the kind he wanted to create with me. We’re still friends, Pomai and me; but no, I just couldn’t manage the partnership thing.
Never will I forget how kind and caring he was when I returned to the island after my mother died. We ran into each other in Hilo. He took one look at me and said, “I think you need me to come over.” I could only smile at that sassy energy of his; that sureness of self I can’t quite figure out how’s he accomplished in his young years; that almost-arrogant, earnestness that really, I couldn’t resist. So I didn’t. He came over. I told him I was in no place to be any kind of lover this night. “No need,” he said. “Tonight I’m here just for you.” And so he was. My erotic energy was so remote, so shut down in the midst of my grief and recovery from the often agonizing process of caring for my mother. It was the furthest thing from my mind. He was gentle and slow and stayed clear of genital focus or touch. For hours. He caressed me. He kissed my tear-drenched face. He held me as I sobbed. He was soft and he was present. And then, with no intention of mine or his, quietly, slowly, my body began to respond and to open. As my erotic energy awoke, it was me who asked him to take me in that direction. And so he did.
As we lay cuddled together in the midst of my post-orgasmic bliss, I whispered, “But, Pomai, it’s hard for me to accept all this attention and energy from you and not give to you in return.”
“Are you still talking? Why are you still talking? I thought you’d be asleep by now. Go to sleep, Christina. Everything’s fine.”
My heart melted with these words and with the release my body had experienced. With the comfort of his love and his body, my tears slowed. Then yes, finally, I stopped talking and fell asleep in his arms.
Truth is, before Pomai showed up, there was another young man. I had almost forgotten. Many, many years ago. And even then, when I wasn’t so old (!), he was still really young. It happened as my marriage with David was crumbling, while my erotic energy was bursting out of my body like a rocket. Yes, like a rocket. It was a time of great tumult and utter confusion. Here I was in a marriage that worked in many, many ways. Ohyeah, we had our issues, but we loved each other and had created a life together that we loved, too. If only for that sexual dimension in which our compatibility floundered. I wrote it off, decided it was the price I paid for everything else and did what I could to keep Eros at bay. Until it would be kept away no longer. And in succumbing to its power, the marriage simply couldn’t survive.
In the midst of sexual exploration that had little grounded-ness, context or clarity, I met Baron. This was back in the day of chat rooms and it was there that we ‘met.’ He was in his twenties then and that, along with being a married woman, was taboo enough to make our connection so powerfully compelling. I was in Petaluma, he was in San Jose and without a car. We wanted to go to a sex club together in San Francisco. Ohmigod, as I write this, my breath catches as I viscerally recall the allure of this forbidden tryst. And the shame of it. Yes, I remember the shame, too. And while the shame was about being married and going to a sex club, it was also about being with a younger man. Yes, it was.
And it was that I loved my husband, too. I was not this kind of woman, who went around doing these kinds of things. And yet there I was, doing it. Granted, our marital problems were well underway by this time. Granted, he knew I wanted to explore, needed to explore, but he wanted no part of it, didn’t want to know anything about it, he said. We were of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy at the time. So he didn’t ask and I didn’t tell. Except for MK. I told her, in the midst of both my shame and excitement, I told her. And without judgment, she was right there, helping me to get dressed as I drove to San Jose (hardly on the way, mind you!) to go off to The Power Exchange in San Francisco with a 20-something year-old man! (My god, what our friendship has seen!).
Could I have had this experience with an older man? Maybe. But I didn’t. It was a young man. A young man who had been there before and was familiar with this world. He introduced me, taught me and showed me ways I knew nothing about. He wasn’t ashamed, he wasn’t worried. He was as excited to teach me as I was to learn, so thirsty I was to experience something, anything of the unknown dimensions in which I could learn about my erotic self, if only I had the chance to explore it. And so he gave me that chance and I took it. And the marriage, well, the marriage didn’t last. It couldn’t. Eros was simply too big for it.
Since Pomai, other young men have responded to my ads, but generally, I have still summarily dismissed them. They’re too young, they’re too young. I can’t have a long-term partnership with someone in the morning of their lives when I’m in the afternoon/evening of mine. I’ve felt sure of this. So I’ve stuck with men my own age or older and yet still, that inner turmoil and shame lives on.
Now, here I am in Central America on The 9½ Week Trip. When I realized that was the length of it, I recalled the film and smiled. Ohhhh, if only that kind of luscious sensual/sexual energy could punctuate this trip, that would be grand! Yes, let that be the theme of this journey – 9½ weeks – woo hoo!
While that hasn’t quite been borne out, what has happened is the young man thing once again. There’s no getting away from addressing this issue, it seems.
In Panama, on a boat trip out to Cayo Zapatilla, the captain was a 20-something local man who took a liking to me immediately. I noticed but didn’t encourage him. As soon as we arrived on the island, I took off for a walk. The other tourists did the same. As I made my way back around to where we had landed, I saw the boat coming toward me and there he was. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Looking for you,” he smiled. And that was the beginning of the afternoon we spent together, laughing and splashing and swimming and ummm, yes, kissing and playing in the water together.
“I like you. I wanted to kiss you as soon as I saw you!”
“But I’m old,” I said, “probably older than your mother.”
“It doesn’t matter. I like you.”
He was 26. Gorgeous, chiseled body. And crazy about me. He wanted to meet later and again tomorrow, show me around, he said. Uh-huh. But I planned to leave Bocas the next day and so I did. Our afternoon delight was enough. I thanked him and went on my way, grateful for the fun, but not able to go any further.
Then it was Isla Ometepe in Nicaragua. Freddy at Monkey Island Hostal, one of the family members who ran the place. We found the words to express ourselves across the language barrier and somehow, we made ourselves understood. When I went off for a day of exploring, he said he’d miss me, he asked what would he do all day without me there to talk with. I tried to ignore his flirtatiousness, but later that evening, our eyes kept meeting, our looking at one another lasting just that little bit longer than it ‘should.’
I had arranged to take a few-hour kayak trip with his brother the next day. I was secretly disappointed that I wouldn’t be going with Freddy, but figured that was probably for the best. When it came time to leave, though, it was Freddy hauling the kayak down to the lake. He would be the one to go with me after all, he said, with a twinkle in his eye. Our morning began paddling out onto the lake with him telling me how excited he was to have this day together, how he’s wanted to kiss me for days. And then he reached over and did just that. He kissed me. I got all shy and giggly and resisted a bit. He moved away and apologized. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to do anything you don’t want to do. But I think you want to kiss me, too, don’t you?” He was right.
What is it with these young men and their self-assuredness? Is it simply young bravado? I don’t think so. I think that’s still my judgment talking. I think it’s the boldness of this green time – the ‘salad days” of our lives. Why shouldn’t they be bold? What do they possibly have to lose in the face of so much to gain? This quality, this willingness to go after what they want, to risk exposure, to say yes to life – this is how we all once were, how I still want to be. This is how life comes and greets us, when we go out and greet it.
What a day in the kayak we had! The trip that was to be a few hours turned into all day. We kayaked over the lake and into Rio Istian, into a private place that no one could see or hear us. We swam and we played and we frolicked. And there I surrendered to way more than his kisses. Gee, I’ve never had sex in a kayak before – I guess this old woman can be taught new things!
That evening, after the rest of the family were tucked into their beds, he came to my room, let himself in with his key and we cuddled and played some more. He practically begged me not to leave as I had planned to the next morning.
“Please, please, please stay. I don’t care how old you are. My heart, my heart, you’re in my heart now.”
“Oh, Freddy, I can’t, I can’t. I’ve got to go.”
“Then come back, come back to visit. Tell me you’ll come back to visit.”
Early morning came and in the pre-dawn hours, I took my leave, feeling almost like a thief sneaking off in the night. Sneaking off before he could talk me into staying.
Freddy is 23. His mother is younger than me, too. When I told him how crazy this was, how I was too old for him; he only smiled and said, “I don’t care how old you are. Yes, your body is old (gee, thanks a lot there, Freddy!), but your heart, your heart is young. That’s what matters.”
Freddy writes to me on Facebook almost every day. “Don’t forget me,” he says.“Please don’t forget me. My heart, my heart, he says, misses you.” Ohhhhh, Freddy.
After my sadness dispelled over Miguel’s disappearance – determined as I am – I posted yet another ad on Bay Area CL. Many, many responded. (I know how to write a great ad, even if none have yet to manifest that one I’m looking for, whoever he may be.) I’m currently corresponding with a handful of them who offer some interesting prospects for my return.
Nick is amongst them. He’s playful, he’s smart, he’s funny, he’s engaging and he’s an awesome writer. (He had me with his writing alone from the very first email, seduced as I am by someone who knows how to play with words.) He’s inquisitive and flirtatious and respectful. He’s erudite and he’s sexy. He loves hiking and music and theater. (Yeah, I know, it’s a list not so dissimilar to ones I’ve described others with before. And yet, it’s true again.) And, he’s 24. Yep, his mother is younger than me, too.
Email exchanges have flurried across the waves daily. While I know better than to feed the fantasies of expectation before the actual meeting happens; I can’t quite help it, I’m excited. He’s only too eager to tell me how terribly excited he is for my return, too. And the age thing? “Oh, that doesn’t matter,” he says, “just makes our ability to bridge the gap all the more exciting! Susan Sarandon is dating someone thirty years her junior. If she can do it …” He would have to bring her up.
But … but … but … are you nuts???
“Christina,” he writes:
“I fear that my diction and prose have betrayed the fact that I am a young chicken. I’m significantly younger than your stated age of 55 (old enough to drink, not old enough to remember the Challenger Disaster), which may or may not be a problem for you. It isn’t for me, because I feel an initial kinship towards you that renders a chronological age difference useless for me. Whether we get a friendship out of this, something more adult and meaningful, or something in-between, I’m open to all of it.
I’ve found that my greatest rewards in life have all been born from decisions that required a huge level of reckless abandon, and I knew sort of intrinsically that replying to you would be throwing caution to the wind again. I sincerely hope I didn’t offend you and I apologize if I’ve made you feel uncomfortable. Truthfully. Now the question is, is there any paint left in your easel to brush on our canvas?”
Oh. My. God. That’s something akin to what I would say. Could I simply and summarily dismiss this young man? I don’t think so.
“Make a list of all the fun things you want to do this summer and we’ll barrel through them together,” he continues. He wants to drink red wine and eat great food and go hiking and camping and to concerts and music festivals. “Let’s go see Bonnie if we click. Hell, even if we don’t.”
“Bonnie Raitt? You know who Bonnie Raitt is?” But it’s not only a question. There it is again, that not-so-subtle dismissive energy showing itself. I can hear it in my tone. Yep, I can learn something here, I can learn something here. I can learn about the way I dismiss people in a way similar to the very way I feel and don’t want to be dismissed.
Of course I want to do all those things. Of course I want to share them with someone who’s available and fun and open and fresh. Someone who is eager for new experiences, excited to learn new things, to challenge cultural suppositions, and who is fearless, far from jaded and not yet so learned in the face of love’s and life’s inevitable betrayals. Yes, yes and yes, says Mrs. Robinson (that how’s he come to playfully refer to me now!).
And too, I can learn about the ways that I’m dismissing myself in this process. What I try to pass off as a thinly disguised joke but which is really self-deprecation and a way of thinking that I don’t want any part of.
“Why would you want me? Why not someone your own age?”
“Why the fuck not?”
“I don’t have a 24-year old body, you know. I’ve got wrinkles and gravity, ohhh, what gravity has done … And no, I’m not going to the roller disco with you!”
“Bodies and faces change, it’s what’s in your soul that matters.”
Can I show up for this? Will I show up for this? Fool I would be to walk away from this lovely young man. Okay, Nick. Okay. I’ll “take you for a spin,” as you say.
And fuck that voice in my head saying: “He’s not a match for long term committed partnership, you know!”
“Oh, shut up! So what! Whatever happened to the ol’ Be Here Now business?!
And hold on, I’m not done yet.
Along comes Brandon. I board the ferry yesterday to head on out here to Utila. I sit alone at one of the tables and dog-tired from a 12+ hour day of travel, I’m practically in a daze. A young local man approaches me and asks if I need anything.
“Need anything? What could I need on this boat?”
“Well, I don’t know, but whatever you need, you just let me know,” he says, with his eyes twinkling.
“Well, what have you got?” I say. Oops, there I go, inadvertently (uh-huh) feeding this exchange.
“I’ve got whatever you need.”
Brandon then sits down and for the rest of the trip, tells me all about himself, all the while throwing in flirtatious, playful remarks.
“Are you flirting with me?” I ask.
“Well, yes I am. Is that okay with you?”
I don’t answer that, not directly anyway. But I keep talking with him, which is, I guess, an answer after all.
“Do you have any idea how old I am? I’m probably older than your mother!”
“I don’t care how old you are. I like older women. And I’d like to get to know you.”
And I realize then, that I’m going to have to retire the mother remark and come up with an entirely different approach. It’s just not working with these young men.
As I disembark, he’s right there helping people get off the boat. He takes my hand, gazes at me (yes, gazes at me with those deep dark chocolate brown eyes) and says, “I’ll look for you around town. I want to see you again.”
Brandon is 21 years old. His mother is 52.
Okay, Universe. You’ve got my attention now. You’re obviously up to something with all these shenanigans; and yes, I can see there’s plenty for me to learn here, thank you very much. Maybe, just maybe I’ll give this young man Nick in San Francisco a whirl. It could be a fun whirl, and that could even be enough. But it could be way more than that. I just might be able to let go of yet another layer of shame I don’t need to be lugging around any longer. And that is what this younger man just might be able to teach me.
Besides, he says, we’re hardly May – December. He reckons we’re May – mid- November.