Two summers ago, I dated Connor, a big, blonde, Golden Retriever of a guy. I was twenty-nine. He was twenty. After our first date he asked, "So, Rach, what exactly are you doing dating a twenty-year old?"
I didn't have a good answer, so I said, "Well, what are you doing dating a twenty-nine-year old?"
He nodded — touché — and we left it at that.
"I told my sister about you," Connor soon reported.
"And?" I prodded.
He gave me a look, then said, "She thinks you're a cougar."
Technically, I don't think I'm old enough to be a cougar. The consensus seems to be that cougars are "mature" women — in their forties or older — who date and dote on men who are significantly younger, as in a decade or more. Confirmation of the cougar as cultural phenomenon comes online at Gocougar.com, a dating site for older women and younger men, and at Urbancougar.com, a resource guide that every week features a profile of a particularly hot cougar, usually accompanied by somewhat disturbing shots of her in lingerie. There's even an article on the AARP website with a photo of a seventy-something redhead in a tight dress, brandishing a Cosmo, entitled "Cougars and Their Cubs."
Perhaps a woman in her late thirties who dates a guy in his early twenties we could consider a precocious cougar, but I think that we're casting the net a bit too wide when I could be emblazoned with the scarlet C at the tender age of twenty-nine. I prefer to think of myself as "having range."
At twenty-nine, it seemed to me equally appropriate and acceptable to date men either in their forties or their twenties, but when I met Connor, way too young was the thought that came to mind, a mantra I practiced as a college English teacher. Despite the gravitational pull I felt toward him, I discounted Connor immediately as a potential beau — he was not just twenty, but downright boyish in his flip-flops and designer hoodies.
I saw Connor, and I thought Why not?
In spite of this, we always made a point to say hello when we ran into each other, after which we wrapped each other in a full-contact hug. He addressed me as sweetheart. I told him that he looked cute in yellow.
Our innocent fascination with each other continued for months until one day in February, after another dreary Valentine's Day, when something changed. I saw Connor, and I thought Why not? Enough of the weekday academia and weekend loneliness. After all, he wasn't one of my students, and I was moving in a matter of months anyway. What would it hurt to date the kid? I experienced what New Agers would call an "energetic shift," and Connor took the cue.
"I'm taking you out, Rach!" he blurted one night when we were with a group of friends at the local diner. It came out sounding kind of like a question, as if Connor were as surprised as I that he had the nerve to say this. As he recorded my number in his cell phone, he crooned "Yoooo-der," my last name.
Our evident and effortless attraction to each other was not logical. A dating service would not have paired us with one another; mutual friends would not have thought to set us up. I had a master's degree, taught college writing classes, liked foreign film, and ate organic food. Connor had a GED, worked as a wilderness guide, watched cage fighting, and chain-smoked. And, of course, there was the omnipresent matter of our ages.
But it was, bottom line, fun being with Connor. He'd say, "Let's do something," and I'd ask, "Like what?" and he'd say, "I don't know, just get in the car and drive." We'd go to the grocery store and volley beach balls in the seasonal aisle. We'd drop in on friends later than was polite. We'd drive up to Thumb Butte, Connor barreling through the potholes, and find a place to camp. He took to calling me The Professor and texted me song lyrics. He insisted on trying to bench press me, then swung me around upside-down and finally pinned me to the wall. Honestly, it was a very wholesome, pure romance in the beginning.
"But you know what people are thinking," Connor sometimes worried. Yes, I did. They were thinking that our bond was purely about sex — kinky, sweaty, marathon sex — lots of it. Fair enough, but that came much later, and was only part of the attraction.
This is how I think cougars are most often misrepresented, as one-dimensional creatures, predatory women on the prowl for supple young men with whom to engage in carnal, animal sex. But it wasn't the sexual stigma that I worried about when Connor's sister labeled me a cougar; at this point, "cougar" seems more tabloid than taboo. What bothered me was the way that older-woman-dating-younger-man often turned into a lampoon. I didn't want to be laughed at, or pitied. I didn't want conclusions to be drawn by others.
But in the beginning, even I couldn't bring myself to fully legitimize this relationship. When I told my friend Sarah about Connor, I felt the need to call him "The Twenty-Year Old." With my sister, it was simply "The Boy." And with my friend Megan, Connor was known as "The Beef," so dubbed because of his Midwestern, corn-fed heft and my proclivity for late-night hamburgers. I had a hard time taking myself, or our thing, seriously. I was self-conscious: Exactly what kind of twenty-nine-year old woman dates a twenty-year old guy? I tried not to overanalyze, or even analyze at all. I didn't want to know what my attraction to Connor — the fact that I was really happy with him, that I not only put up with but enjoyed his adolescent antics — meant about me and my own psychological make-up or maturity.
Instead of grading papers, I went over to Connor's house in the middle of the afternoon, squeezed beside him on the couch, and watched hours of Planet Earth or Family Guy. I could've been reading, or writing, furthering my career, but instead I was with Connor — at the carnival riding the Hang Glider until we were nearly sick, two-stepping to a cover band's rendition of Free Bird in a strip-mall parking lot, jumping off tall rocks into the cool, magical water of Fossil Creek that snaked unbelievably through a hot desert valley. We ate steaks as big as our heads at Cattleman's Bar and Grill, and afterward Connor smoked a cigarette in the dusty parking lot. I kicked pebbles with my high heels, and he squinted at me, illuminated in the yellow streetlight.
"You're a full-grown woman," he said, amazed. I threw back my head and laughed.
"I guess I am," I said, but didn't exactly feel that way. I still felt young, like I hadn't figured things out, especially relationship things. Brokenhearted had been the default disposition of my twenties. I'd been trying so hard for so long to find someone, The One. And then that spring I'd finally given up, and opted instead for just having some fun. And while I was having that fun — not trying so hard, not looking for something big — I eased into unlikely love with Connor, the twenty-year old.
This wasn't what was supposed to happen. If I were indeed a cougar, this would be all about fun, games, sex, about me being in control, not only in bed, but also of my emotions. There would be no love stuff, no earnest, heartfelt whispers late at night. It would be a whimsical "My Summer Vacation with Connor" story with which to entertain thirty-somethings at cocktail parties.
But there were complications, even beyond love, lots of them: our shared histories of addiction, my perennially broken heart, his dead parents. He had a roving eye, indiscretions with a cute nineteen-year old. There was a month during which we didn't speak. I had my own insecurities, as a woman nearing thirty with submerged desires to delay adulthood, needs for control and safety. I could see the therapists salivating; the possible psychological investigations were endless.
What it came down to for me, though, was basic: I loved Connor, fundamentally. He was still a clumsy boy, but he wanted to know how to be a good man. "Pure of heart" is how my friend Sarah described him, and he was. At thirty, he'd be amazing. At twenty, he was still trying to get it together.
"If you were, say, twenty-eight, that would be perfect," I theorized. "Why can't you just be older?"
I could see the therapists salivating.
"Sometimes it's a tough paper route," Connor said with a shrug.
"Grow up," I commanded. We considered each other seriously, then cracked up.
And as for how we felt about each other, we weren't really sure what to do about this. Love, really?
"It's not like I can get married at twenty," Connor explained. "That's just weird."
"Yeah," I agreed.
"I mean, this is probably just a mid-life crisis for you," he said.
"I'm too young to be having a mid-life crisis!" I yelled, punching him. He looked at me dubiously; we made out.
In the days leading up to my move, we spent a lot of time together, Connor driving me around town with bass-heavy rap music blaring from his speakers. We ate waffles and ice cream for breakfast and watched bad movies like The Girl Next Door after dinner. On a full-moon night behind my house we climbed the boulders, then crouched together under shaggy-barked pine trees, Thumb Butte purple in the distance. Connor asked if I wanted to sing a song, and we started with "Amazing Grace" and ended with "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," the white moonlight splashed over us as we sat there on top of the warm, dark world.
I was dreamy-eyed and sad during those last weeks together, but Connor was suspiciously composed, even aloof.
"I'm really going to miss you," I'd say, wrapping my arms around him in bed.
"Uh huh," he'd grunt before promptly falling sleep.
Once I got to Iowa, however, the phone calls started. They were normal enough at first — I miss you, I love you, how's the sweet corn? — but Connor's tone soon metamorphosed.
"Rach, I couldn't sleep all night. I feel like I'm going nuts," Connor blurted, pausing between words to drag on a cigarette. "I mean, I met this girl and brought her home but I wound up leaving her in my room and crashing on the couch because I couldn't even deal with her. I just kept thinking about you and wanting to be with you and…"
"Okay, stop," I said, cringing into the phone.
Days later, he had a plan. "I'm thinking about moving to Iowa," he said. "It could work. Really. I mean, I miss you."
It was then that COUGAR! dinned in my head. This was a boy I was dealing with here, impulsive and rudderless, trying to figure out how to allay loneliness and minimize pain; of course at twenty, grand blunders and gestures alike were not only inevitable but obligatory. I felt old, sitting there with the phone pressed to my face. I listened calmly. I sighed.
Even though I missed Connor, loved him, fantasized about him coming to Iowa, the small bit of hard-won wisdom I'd acquired during my last decade of dating led me to suggest that we cut back on the phone calls, stop saying I love you, begin to move on.
"Doesn't trying to keep this going seem like we're forcing something?" I asked.
Eventually Connor called, said that he "got it," felt that going our separate ways was best. I correctly theorized that this meant he was meeting cute girls. He said, "Keep in touch, Rach," and we laughed at his formality.
In retrospect, it would be too easy to try and neatly sum this all up, crack a "cougar-cub romance" joke, simplify it down to a seasonal affair, an era of my life in which I was unsure of my next move, in a post-grad-school holding pattern, hovering between a conception of myself as student or teacher, girl or woman. All this seems reductive. What can you really write though, in the end, about falling in love with a twenty-year old?
"I'm a tough nut to crack, Rach," Connor texted me. "I'm like a legendary mystery of lust and love."
Maybe that's all that really needs to be said. n°
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Rachel Yoder has written for The New York Times, The Sun Magazine, and Opium Magazine. Her writing also appears online at Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, and, this fall, Kenyon Review Online. She's an Iowa Arts Fellow in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.|