Photo by Josh Felise
We got married.
I never meant to get involved with him in the first place, and I never dreamed I’d marry him. I would have laughed at the idea. I did laugh at the idea. Until I didn’t.
At 33, I was getting a divorce. I had two children, a demanding job, and bills I had to figure out how to pay without my estranged husband’s income. The last thing on my mind was romance and the last person I would have imagined as a lover was a then 19-year-old boy.
Will* was just a kid who had become a fishing and hunting buddy to my ex. I never paid much attention to him.
Somehow, it seemed after my husband and I separated that I’d won custody of young Will. I was mildly annoyed that he kept showing up. I couldn’t get rid of him. But he made himself useful to a stretched-too-thin single mother; and soon enough I developed both an increasingly friendliness toward him and a dependence on his help. He mowed my yard, watched my kids if I had to go out unexpectedly, ran errands for me, and even sometimes cooked for us.
He was vocal about how he’d hated what my ex had done to cause the divorce. He consoled me, listened to me, and proved to be a good and reliable friend despite our age difference. On one or two occasions I sensed that Will was developing a crush on me, and I reminded him I was too old for him and said he ought to go chase women his own age.
But eventually he told me in a long, sweet, and sincere letter how he’d secretly been in love with me since we’d first met. He wrote that he had settled for becoming my friend after I’d warned him that’s all we could be.
Well, damn. I knew I’d let it go too far and now he would be hurt.
He was 19 years-old, for crying out loud, and closer in age to my 9-year old daughter than to me! I was already getting teased a bit about “cradle-robbing” by some of my friends and I was embarrassed by it. I knew rumors were starting. Gently as I possibly could, I ran him off.
But he would not stay banished. He simply would not give up. And I resisted his flirting and my own growing temptation for as long as I could.
But did I mention that while my girlfriends teased me, they also thought Will looked like a young Elvis Presley? Or that he had a reliably sweet, sunny disposition, a quick and contagious laugh, incredibly smooth unblemished skin and a superbly muscular body? Well, he did.
We lived in a resort community and he could water ski with incredible form and ease. Friends joked that they wanted to pull him skiing because he made their boats look good. He was a scuba diver and a part-time lifeguard, too.
Plenty of girls wanted to date him, and early on, when I still honestly wanted to discourage him, I tried to fix him up with someone nearer his age. But he only had eyes for me; and eventually he wore down my misgivings and resistance.
It was probably inevitable that I fell reluctantly but hopelessly in love the same night I learned could sing. He sounded like Bob Seger. By then I was 34 and he was 20.
Photo by Becca Tapert
He…took my breath away
At first it was incredible. I felt like the most beloved woman in the world and we were oh-so-happy. In those days he seemed to outright cherish me — and I’d never known how that felt. Cliche or not, he literally took my breath away.
Back when I was 18 or 19 I’d had boyfriends around his age, but they’d never been like him. Every guy I’d ever liked or loved disappeared from my consciousness except him. When he finally got me — he got me.
Only occasionally would I hear of catty comments like “how’d she get him?”
I was well aware he was a trophy man. But at 33, I was no dog and had my fair share of admirers, too. I do remember, though, sometimes thinking, “let’s see, when I’m 50, he’ll be 36,” or telling myself that when we were both old, it wouldn’t matter. Of course, I then thought 60 was ancient, but 46 seemed pretty old, too. Wow.
Most of my friends accepted, if not fully approved. If it’s ok for men to have younger women then it should be ok the other way around, too. They were won over when on a hot summer night at our girls only party, he unexpectedly showed up with fresh strawberries, ice, and rum and used our hostess’ blender to make us a huge supply of frozen strawberry daiquiris — and then disappeared.
Our families weren’t initially thrilled; in fact my mom was horrified and his was angry. But our happiness eventually won their approval.
“…come along, sonny,”
But there started to be little signs it was not forever. I well remember when the first dark cloud crossed under the sun. You’re out on a fine sunny day and suddenly find yourself in shadow and slightly chilled as a stray cloud passes under the sun. It’s brief; but unsettling. That’s how it was the first time I was frightened about our future.
We went to get haircuts. I wasn’t a fan of how he was having his hair cut, and the hairdresser said, “yeah, my son never listens to me either.”
By this time, we’d been married a couple of years. I seldom thought about our ages and I’d forgotten the difference was obvious.
Stricken, I looked at him in the mirror and he rolled his eyes and let his tongue loll out. Then he shrugged, winked at me and gave me one of his thousand-watt smiles. As we left, I joked, “come along, sonny,” and we hurried out the door before busting out laughing.
…something dark and slithering
But that comment set loose in my mind something dark and slithering. Although I pretended to laugh it off, I was deeply wounded. I‘d never considered that I’d be mistaken for his mother. The thought of being old stirred in me for the first time in my life; and for the first time I feared for our marriage.
Our best friends were a guy he knew from work and his wife. They were only a few years younger than me, but I began to feel old in our frequent foursome. I was different from the others, and began to imagine I was being left out, or late chef at, or whatever. I inwardly criticized myself. My hair was out of style, I’d think, or my clothes were dowdy. I became super self-conscious. If I wore loafers and the other woman wore sneakers, I’d feel embarrassed and think I wore the “wrong” shoes and now looked even older.
I compared myself unfavorably to other women. Jealousy and lack of confidence is unattractive on anyone. And feeling less than is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But still, most of the problem at that point was just in my head, I thought. For Will’s part, he seemed happy and I was sure he still loved me. It was only me who was responsible for my low self esteem and distorted self image.
When I was 40 and he was still in his 20’s, something happened that hurt me deeply and shattered my already damaged self image. It was so much worse than the hairdresser incident. And it was not all in my head anymore.
“See how she looked…”
Will developed what appeared to be a need to justify marrying me when new people came into our lives. If they visited at our home, he’d drag out old photos and say, “see how good she looked when I married her,” or “look how hot she was when we got married.”
My self-esteem naturally took an even deeper dive. Depression, my previously beaten old nemesis, crowded out rational thought and all but crippled me. I couldn’t help it that I was getting older.
I am not one of those women whose beauty is enhanced by age. I’d worked most of my life outside, and it was showing. But I’d never worried about it. I’d never felt ugly until then.
But until he started his picture show-and-tell, it had never seriously entered my mind that Will was unhappy with or — oh my God — ashamed of my appearance. Every time he showed someone old pictures of me, my mind heard him saying, “See, she used to be pretty or I wouldn’t have married her.” I was mortified, and often our visitors were hard-pressed as to how to react. I saw pity, sometimes, in the women’s eyes. Now my feeling old and ugly wasn’t just in my own mind. My biggest fear had been that Will would start seeing me the way I saw myself; then it had happened.
I don’t think he realized how hurtful it was for him to do his, “look how good she used to look” thing.
The reason I don’t think he ever realized it is because I finally realized that for all his wonderful attributes, Will lacked one thing: Brains.
He wasn’t stupid, but he wasn’t bright, either. He didn’t read for pleasure, which I found disturbing. How could he not? He didn’t care much about current events, history, culture, etc.
It only got worse. As he started to notice I was aging and not as hot as I’d been at 33, I started noticing he was not only kind of dumb, but he drank too much. Way too much.
By the time I was 44 and he was 30, we were just going through the motions and he eventually — and predictably — left me for a younger woman. I felt tired, used up, and abandoned.
I was 44, not 80! And within a few months of our divorce I lost weight, got counseling, regained my confidence, and started feeling like myself again. Good times were not over after all; but the mind plays it tricks. Unhappiness and low self-esteem can make a woman feel her life is behind her even when the best is yet to come.
Was it worth it?
Was it worth it considering I ended up feeling older than dirt?
Surprisingly, yeah. What a rush it was to be that sweet young man’s first love! How much fun we had laughing, playing and discovering things about each other. He was uninhibited and delightfully impulsive. He once stopped suddenly on the side of the road, jumped out, and picked daffodils for me. We enthusiastically sang to the radio anytime we took a road trip in his old truck. Windows down, radio up, singing like fools in between kisses… that’s good times. He secretly saved money when he didn’t have much to buy me jewelry. He gave great and lengthy back massages. We went out in the rain and stomped puddles and we once played out in deep snow late at night before coming inside and making homemade hot chocolate. We roared all over the lake in the powerful boat we bought, and then made love onboard it in secluded coves. I taught him how to plant a garden. He taught me how to fish and tried to teach me how to ski. We told each other secrets we’d never told anyone. I still keep his.
He was young, yet man enough to take on a wife and two children (one who was still in diapers!). And it was him who took over the care of sick children. Once, after we’d argued, he mowed “LOVE U” in the grass in our backyard.
Love is always worth it
He must have asked me to marry him 10 times before I gave up and said yes. And then he was first like an over-excited puppy before crying for joy as he held me. If there had only been that, it was worth it.
The things he said to me because he had not learned to protect his heart were the most honest things any man has ever told me. His innocence, awe, and joy when we first made love is a memory I’ll carry all my life. And he remained faithful to me, although we’d become unhappy, right up until the end. When he fell for someone new, he told me the truth almost immediately. He was honest with me; and his wonder and appreciation of womanhood was amazing and I hope he’s kept it.
Yes, it was worth it.
It hurt like a mutha’ when it began to unravel. But even that heartache was nothing compared to the joy in the beginning. Were I given the chance to repeat my life, that part I’d do again — even knowing how it would end.
I’m pretty sure — though love found me again and today I’ve been happily married for many years — that I’ll never be loved quite like that or that much again.
Love is always worth it, all by itself, no matter what may come of it.
*Not his real name
Photo by Carlos Quintero