Alex Mar finds that with her own generation stuck in extended adolescence, she much prefers the company of older men. Until she doesn't…
By Alex Mar
I was fighting off the flu, but I’d wrapped myself in a dress, cinched the waist tight, and now sat, flushed and underfed, sipping down a hot toddy (my cold medicine) in a hotel bar. At 34, I’d agreed to meet for drinks with a man 24 years my senior. A painter, he was dressed as he’d been when we met—at a literary party in TriBeCa, to which he was accompanied by one of his nude models—in a fleckless Savile Row suit. He wore it effortlessly, in the way only men over 50 can. He had the solemn good looks of a Roman senator and brushed his dark hair, thick as a horse’s mane, straight back from his temples. Realizing where we’d sat, he laughed: Leering down at us from the wall was an early work of his, something from the ’80s. “They actually hung that up in here?” He then presented me with two gifts: a book about his “old friends on the New York scene back in the day” and a small wooden frog on a stick, a Japanese toy. The first established the access he offered; the second seemed to comment on my place in our burgeoning relationship. The tone had been set, and I was prepared to play my part.
Every time we write about our romances, we’re recounting the private coming-together of two individuals, drawing on conversations no neutral party was present to overhear. In other words, there’s a limit to the perspective a person can have about herself—but there are patterns. My own began to emerge at the age of eight, with a glimpse at the VHS cover of Last Tango in Paris. There he was, a thoroughly weathered, silver-haired Marlon Brando, awash in that oversaturated amber light so redolent of the ’70s. Sitting on the floor with a much younger woman—both hunch shouldered and naked as apes, their legs intertwined, her arms tugging at his neck—he kept his head back, chin tilted up at a slightly aloof angle. His domineering posture, and that amber glow, spelled out something complex and unmistakably adult.
Growing up in Manhattan, I was an obsessive girl with a dog-hungry appetite for books beyond my years. (I read The Sun Also Rises without understanding that impotence was the nasty catch in the love story.) On lonely afternoons, I’d pay what I liked (25 cents) and pass the time wandering the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a near-constant state of emotional upheaval (the rush of hormones?), I felt like an alien, and since I was also pretty and composed for my age, I was in the perfect position to be swept up by someone who had the life experience to “understand” me. Because boys my age certainly did not. Looking back, I frankly have no idea how I survived ungroped: Even as a preteen, part of me was hoping for an older guru to discover me. By the time I was 12 and starring in my school’s production of Romeo and Juliet, I’d developed a confusing fascination with the fortyish drama teacher. I appreciated our close talks about theater and the stark distance he had from the sloppy boys—including my sad-sack Romeo. In college, I dated almost exclusively grad students, including an aspiring theater director my mother laughingly called my “Svengali.”
As I reached my late twenties, however, a shift occurred: My fetish suddenly seemed to fit the cultural moment—one defined by thirtysomething man-boys and a generational deferral of activities such as marriage and procreation. So much was made (justifiably) of this extended adolescence that giving my attention to men 10, 15, even 20 years older seemed like the logical recourse. To date older was simply to date grown men.
At the height of this phase, I became involved with an established Brooklyn writer. His past was so checkered that I couldn’t help but remark, during our first dinner, on his “bad reputation.” (A Google Images search of the fellow literally made me smack my forehead.) But now older, he was in the flush of later-career financial success, and signs pointed to the possibility of a new calm, and the now-I’ve-got-my-act-together relationship that might come with that. I was moved by this thought, that someone could take his experience and wrap it around himself—pull in his horizon like a great fishnet, as Zora Neale Hurston put it. He could live a sort of downtown elder statesman’s existence, built on the wilder days but now distinctly separate, mellower.