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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.