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. 

 

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.

Commentarium (41 Comments)

Sep 23 09 - 12:39pm
J.M.

loved it! i think we've ALL had those daliances with 'the younger man', and this perfectly articulates just how difficult it is to entirely express the swooning confusion of such an experience.

Sep 23 09 - 1:06am
MM

I'm so disgusted at how every single thing women do romantically or sexually is turned against them. Why do you even have to justify this attraction? Fair enough you don't want to be as pathetic as a man (nudge nudge wink wink, look at THAT) etc but can we stop apologizing for being human for five minutes?

Sep 23 09 - 1:15am
aj

Really good article. I'm a 30 year old, almost exclusively interested in men younger than i and i've asked myself similar questions about my motives/wants, same as you. I'm wondering if i'll still only be attracted to 20-somethings when i'm 40. Considering i find the reverse distasteful in older men with young women, i have a lot of conflicted feelings about age and attraction.

Sep 23 09 - 5:07am
LMR

This felt true in a solid way -- not pretentious or precious. Having read it, I feel cleaner, somehow. Does that make sense? Anyway, well done.

Sep 23 09 - 10:54am
AM

Best article on Nerve in a long time. We so often categorize and label and forget the human side of everything. Thanks for sharing and reminding us that life is bigger than social expectations.

Sep 23 09 - 11:00am
ro

More on the sex please.

Sep 23 09 - 11:02am
da

Not really sure why you consider the 20 year old rudderless and in need of growing up without taking a good look at yourself. If anything, I'd say the old broads are usually the immature, adrift ones in the cougar dynamic. Doesn't it speak to some wise-beyond-their-yearsness that these young bucks can put up with old folks at all? (Don't worry; I'm old!) Still, pretty hot!

Sep 24 09 - 12:31am
yop

To answer the age old question - yes, you are a cougar. You can be a cougar past the age of 27 if you date much younger guys. Period.

Sep 23 09 - 1:35pm
to

So, wait, you threw away love because of a number? Because of what other people might say? He was willing to move to Iowa to be with you and you said no because that's what impulsive 20-year-olds do? 20-year-olds do that sort of thing because they can - they don't have families, jobs, etc. tying them down yet.

When I was 23, I started dating a 35-year-old woman. Our age difference was merely that - a difference. One of the many that any two people will have. I'm now 38 and she's my 50-year-old wife. 15 years on, that age difference doesn't seem so big.

Sep 23 09 - 2:16pm
LF

I'm almost 30 in a relationship with a younger man - he's 22. This was nice to read, but there is nothing to be ashamed of. Men date younger women all the time and nobody says anything. It's just a number. If you care about each other, have fun, communicate openly and have a good relationship, who cares about age?

Sep 23 09 - 4:33pm
KEM

Rachel Yoder is my college roommate and I love her and I love this story. She's the best.

Sep 23 09 - 5:38pm
Nos

I believe what she had to say was entirely justified. We are all confused and trying to learn in this debacle we call life. She followed her heart. Isn't that what really matters in the end?

Sep 23 09 - 6:24pm
ja

I'm 26, recently dated a 22 year old, and still experienced everything she talked about here - being labeled a cougar, feeling like I had to justify it/make fun of myself by calling him "the kid" "the boy" etc...anyway, this was great, really well written and rang true.

Sep 23 09 - 7:31pm
RM

Nerve has officially jumped the cougar

Sep 23 09 - 8:27pm
Kms

Rachel, like KEM said, you are awesomeouTou have such a gift with words (not that this is new to me). I loved every bit and could relate - we all remember skippy, don't we?

Sep 23 09 - 9:13pm
KT

why would you throw away a love like that? You describe it with such this.. detail.. full of life and vibrancy!
Is moving to Iowa only a "20-year-old" thing to do?
I am 19 years old, and i am in love with someone twice my age - yet that is the only difference. I am in love with a man, and nothing more.
so the question begs to ask, did you break up with Connor because of age or because you really did see the relationship as just another summer fling? In the process of worrying over the label "cougar", i think you may have corrupted what could have been.

Sep 23 09 - 11:27pm
jc

This was a wonderful, beautifully written article.

Sep 24 09 - 11:11am
NE

I hate this label for its predatory connotations. I dated a 28-year old man for awhile when I was 48. We would sit up talking all night when we were together and sometimes talk for hours on the phone when we weren't. I knew it couldn't last -- he knew he wanted to get married and have kids, I'm all done with the kid thing -- and it made me weep to think it would soon be over. But we had so much fun together, the sex was amazing, and he was so kind to me. It ended when I met a man my own age, but we are still good friends, and I cherish his friendship. And yeah, at 50-plus now, it makes me feel really great when he pretend-comes-on to me because I know he'd jump my bones in a heartbeat if I let him and every woman needs somebody like that in her life!

Feb 15 11 - 6:08am
Yusuf

I really like your stories. It is fantastic. nice

Sep 24 09 - 6:01pm
ccm

A lovely story to read. I also have a similar one in progress -- me being in my late 30s and my man 11 years younger. Yoder captured all the society induced anxieties accurately, and the irony of it -- it seems that because of the age difference, I also willingly took a chance - to let myself have some 'fun' so to speak, and surprisingly have watched it unfold, revealing something loving, earnest, and yes - tons of fun! Perhaps dropping the tendency to countdown toward an engagement whenever I met a man with 'potential' - right age, employed, etc. etc. - finally allowed a more genuine, non-agenda me to come out. I'm certainly more in the moment as opposed to in anxiety about "where is this going?" Questions still abound, but it seems easier to take it in stride with this one and just let go.

Sep 24 09 - 6:18pm
hkc

when i was 25 i met the love of my life. he was 18, and we spent the next six years together. when we split, it wasn't because of the age difference, or "what people were saying", it was because of normal long term relationship complications that can clog shit up no matter how in love you are. four years later, he's still one of my best friends. i liked this article a lot, but i have to say...sometimes it really is just a number, and there's no need to attach silly labels.

Sep 24 09 - 7:37pm
dmt

makes me want to cry

Sep 24 09 - 9:18pm
ME

Great writing Rachel! I enjoyed the story. My dad is 18 year older than my mom. Everyone said it wouldn't work but 36 years later... Side note: The Subaru lasted a year and thinking back I prob owe you a 100 bucks.

Sep 26 09 - 3:47am
sxa

I don't think the term cougar should apply to the author. I feel like the cougar phenomenom is about older women chasing after young men/boys in a pathetic attept to recapture their youth. This post reads as a love story with the author deciding that her love for her boyfriend was not strong enough to include him in it as her life changed.

Sep 28 09 - 5:12pm
EM

I would love to see women reacting to a guy justifying a relationship with a younger girl by saying he was "hovering between a conception of" himself as a "boy or man". Hahaha. It's men that are made to justify themselves every time they get an erection - in the States.

Mar 04 10 - 12:13pm
Vinn

I totally understand! I've been thinking about this guy who's just a year younger than me, and already people are talking.

Mar 23 10 - 3:43pm
BR

Thanks to "to" and "KT" for your comments. It really bothered me too how it seemed that she dumped him just because of his age. It

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Your writing is simple great, Especially for beginners!

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That's very thought-provoking point of view. I intend to return to this site very soon.

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moriah

Are you know mr Donovan?

Feb 27 11 - 4:17pm
Kit Kat

This is just society's way of keeping us women "in our place. I'm in my 30's my boyfriend is late 20's. We look the same age and if the age difference is not mentioned there are no assumptions made.

It's interesting that you have men in their late 40's and 50's who will not date women their age and that is socially acceptable. Well, just like some of them want younger women, not all of us want old men either. I find it hilarious when a 50 plus year old man says a 40 year old is too "mature" for him. I'm like what makes you think the 40 year old wants you when you are like 15 years older than her? They sound silly and it's is why they usually cannot get the younger women they're after, unless the younger woman is looking for a sugar daddy. No woman of any age wants to deal with that midlife crisis crap. Bottom line is that age is just a number but if you date people based only on their age and how they make you look, you have some underlying insecurities going on. Be with someone because you actually care for them and get along. Age should be the last thing two consenting adults should be thinking of if they are on the same page as to what they want from a relationship.

Feb 27 11 - 4:31pm
Kit Kat

Also the whole cougar thing is a put down of women too. Just for the record there are a lot of not so cute 25 year olds in the world, too. It's like saying for example that Kelsey Grammer's or Jesse Jame's new fiance' are more attractive than Angelina Jolie or Monicca Bellucci. The latter women would have to be deceased for these younger women to be deemed more beautiful. Thus, beauty is beauty no matter how old you are and age is just a number. Society needs to stop with the labels. This is why so many women have issues with loving themselves and the "mean girls" growing up into mean women phenomenon, is so prevalent.

Apr 23 11 - 3:08pm
cloud 11

Follow your heart, not your head. I was with this magnificent, Jesus like man, he died eight years ago, he was much older than me but age did not matter if it was your destiny. This time, I am with a man 14 years younger than me, it felt so right in my heart. I am so glad that I can run into love again.

Jun 02 11 - 1:35pm
Kuuipo

I've been single for a while and a much younger, very handsome man has become interested in me. My head says, "don't go there" and my heart says, "isn't it nice to find someone who is kind, respectful, sweet, fun, good-looking, etc. I could go on and on about all of his endearing qualities, and we have great fun together. So far, we haven't ventured past friendship, other than long, sensuous hugs, but I am feeling weak. Men my age don't seem interested in me, but this young man does.
The word cougar implies that the woman is the predator, and I find that very demeaning. In my case, there seems to be mutual interest.
I don't know where this will go. So far, I have only disclosed this with one close friend and her advice to me was to keep it as a great fantasy. And that's what I am going to do for now. Sigh.