So This Is What It’s Like To Be a Cougar
On my fourth day in Buenos Aires, I decide to go on a guided tour of the city center. It’s hot out and my attention span generally doesn’t lend itself to guided tours, but wandering solo with no itinerary has gotten boring.
More than thirty tourists are clumped around the meeting point at the National Congress, but my eyes fall on a guy who’s a head taller than everyone else. He’s lanky, with a broad chest and strong, square shoulders. Wide blue eyes. Chiseled jawline. Curly hair just the right amount of messy.
His attractiveness is of a degree that might normally deter me from approaching. But I’m in Buenos Aires alone, and I haven’t met any cool people yet, and tomorrow’s my birthday. And I care about Argentina’s history, but not so much that this three-hour tour isn’t going to suck if I have no one to talk to.
Before I can overthink it and psych myself out, I step toward him and blurt, “Where are you from?”
He smiles, revealing teeth as perfect as the rest of his face. “Sweden,” he says. “You?”
I learn that his name is Oliver, he’s a physical therapist from Stockholm, and he’s two and a half months into a six-month trip around South America. He’s thoughtful and poised, but quick to laugh, and I like his energy immediately.
We comment on the sights and chat about ourselves, repeatedly falling behind the group then rushing to catch up. When the tour ends we decide to go eat together, which turns into wandering new neighborhoods, watching an outdoor opera performance, taking photos of the obelisk at twilight, splitting a giant bottle of beer over dinner, then dancing to 80s music at a crowded bar.
He tries to teach me Swedish words and I try to teach him to salsa (both unsuccessful). I find myself telling him things I normally only tell people I know really well, and feeling totally fine about it. I think my attraction to him can’t get any stronger when he pulls out a pair of glasses and slips them on (nerd alert: I have a thing for men with glasses).
At 3am we exchange numbers and agree to meet again the next day. He texts soon after, asking if I made it home ok.
My birthday is gray and rainy. I spend the morning on the phone, then don my raincoat and trek around to a few last sights.
It’s evening before Oliver and I meet. We play a round of pool, during which I’m hyper-aware of our positioning around the table, every movement an opportunity to invade each other’s personal space, brush arms, catch a glimpse of his shoulders from a new angle. I hope I look more sexy and less awkward than I feel—I no more know how to suavely handle a pool cue than I would a welding iron.
He wins, and we order Stellas and sit at the bar. We’re talking, conversation flowing effortlessly, when the first notes of Maroon 5’s “Sugar” waft through the speakers.
I sit bolt upright, a bit tipsy at this point. “I LOVE this song. I know all the words.”
“Me too,” he laughs. We sing it from start to finish, me using my almost-empty beer bottle as a microphone and shamelessly going for the high notes, him stumbling through the refrains but nailing the chorus.
Then it’s 2:30am and the manager approaches and tells us the bar is closing—there’s no one left but us. Outside it’s drizzling, the deserted street dotted with puddles. I step onto the curb to avoid them, and Oliver says, “Look, now you’re as tall as me.” He stops mid-step and faces me, and for a split second we pretend to compare our heights, then we’re kissing, his hands on my waist, my arms around his neck, and it starts raining harder, and oh my god this moment couldn’t be any more perfect.
“Why are you already leaving tomorrow?” he says softly as we pull apart. I’ve all but forgotten I have a flight to catch in eight hours, and my heart sinks a little, but it also swells with happiness that this sweet, gorgeous creature likes me enough to not want me to leave yet.
We stare at each other. “I’m not sure how I’m going to get back to my hostel,” he says.
I hesitate. Spending the night with strange men isn’t really my thing, and my airbnb doesn’t allow guests.
But Oliver doesn’t feel strange, and I’m basically prepared to sit on the curb in the rain for the next five hours if that’s what it takes to spend more time with him.
“Well, my place is closer,” I venture. “Want to just stay”-
I pull out my phone to order an uber, and Oliver chooses that moment to ask, “How old are you?”
“Uh.” I’m caught off guard. I’d noticed at first glance that he looked younger than me, but had come to assume he was 28 or 29. Also, I’d been enjoying his company so much that I didn’t really care either way.
“How old do you think I am?” I stall.
“A couple years older than me? Like, twenty-six?”
I shake my head as two thoughts fly through it: Sweet, he thinks I’m 26! And: He’s younger than 26. Fuck. My. Life.
“Older or younger?” he presses.
“Are you kidding me?” I hoot. “Older.”
“Over thirty?” He looks nervous now.
I nod, dying a little inside. “I’m thirty-one.” I hadn’t planned to lie, but I do because I’m afraid he’ll be mortified by the truth.
“And you?” I ask.
“I’m twenty-four.” His apprehension is palpable, and I realize he’s as afraid of age-induced rejection as I am.
Even so, my mouth drops open. “Twenty-four?” I screech. “But you’re so… mature!”
Maybe it’s just been too long since I hung out with a 24-year-old, but last time I checked, they weren’t nearly this self-aware, this independent, this, this… worldly and charming, dammit.
Days later I’ll find out he lied, too—he’s not turning 24 until the following week.
To our mutual relief, neither of us changes our mind based on the newly-revealed information. I learn that he sleeps on his right side with his head curled toward his chest, and that his feet hang off the end of the bed, and that one of his long arms can wrap all the way around my waist, making me feel small and delicate in a way I rarely do.
Much too soon, it’s morning and he’s helping me pack, and my airbnb hostess finds out he’s there and fumes that I broke the rules and jeopardized her safety. Oliver and I hurry into the elevator, and we’re on the sidewalk giggling about jeopardized safety when my cab to the airport pulls up.
We embrace, and I take a deep breath. “If we were closer in age…” I say.
He smiles, nods. “Same.”
I kiss him then climb into the car, and he sets off down the street, turning back once to wave.
As the cab merges into traffic I find myself, to my surprise, bursting into tears. I hadn’t even realized I was holding back a tangle of emotions, and now they’re spilling out in the form of breathless, runny-nosed sobs.
Though we agreed to keep in touch, odds are I’ll never see Oliver again. He doesn’t know my real age, and that makes me a liar. I had a blast with him on my birthday, but now it’s just another day and my trip is over and he can’t be my boyfriend because I’m too old.
It feels like a floodgate has opened, and even once I’m at the airport and people are staring, I can’t stop crying. It’s deeper than Oliver. It’s the particular, sharp loneliness that seeps in after short-lived bouts of intimacy. It’s a gnawing fear that those bouts will always end like this, instead of turning into something more. It’s a heavy settling in of the fact that I’m a year older, and apparently none the wiser.
Shortly after landing, a message from Oliver pops up on my phone, asking how my flight was and ending with a kiss emoji. I burst into tears again.
He sends a photo I hadn’t known he’d taken: I’m standing with my back to a fountain, letting its spray cool me as I look to one side, laughing. The photo reflects the mindless happiness I’d felt that day, the kind where there’s so much dopamine sloshing through your brain that a three-hour walking tour in flip flops and ninety-degree heat followed by three more hours of walking feels like floating around on a Prozac-infused cloud.
Back home, hoping for inspiration from the lives of the rich and famous, I google “Age difference between Ashton and Demi.” The first five results are all about 33-year-old Ashton cheating on 48-year-old Demi with a 23-year-old named Sara.
Not to be so easily deterred, I then google “How to determine biological age.” Cuz that’s a thing, right? We have a biological age that can be younger than our physical age if we take good care of ourselves? Maybe I really am 26.
Ooh—there’s a quiz. I click into it and answer a series of questions about my sleep, diet, exercise, and other habits. I wait excitedly as my result is calculated, ready to gloat over how youthful and well-preserved I am.
“Congratulations!” the screen announces. “Your biological age is 44.”
I close the page in a huff. Of course there’s no such thing as biological age.
Why am I so worried about age, anyway, and why did I lie to Oliver about mine? Isn’t it just a number?
I think I’m worried because 35 has always been my Scary Age, the age by which if I wasn’t a wife, mother, and successful career woman, it would surely all be over—my time would be up. I’d check the ‘failed at life’ box, move to an isolated island, and spend my days reading fiction and baking pastries, drowning my depression in sugar and beautiful language.
But now that I’m here—35, single, childless—it turns out it’s not half bad. I have the time, money and energy to travel as much as I want and pursue a myriad of other interests. I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have before. I’m happy with my career and have plenty of space to grow it.
That’s not to say loneliness and anxiety don’t rear their heads; they do. But far from settling for the next handsome dude with a job to come along, it’ll take someone pretty special to pull me from my single life.
And far from clambering to the nearest sperm bank to toss as much money as necessary at assisted conception, I’m in no hurry at all to have babies. In fact, I’d like nothing more than to hit a ‘pause’ button whereby I could insert an extra five years just like this one into my life.
Dating a younger man would be kind of a perfect way to do that. Finding joy in conversation and intense physical attraction with someone who also likes me back is, for me, beyond rare; I can count on both hands the number of times it’s happened in my life. For a connection so special, five years seems like a silly dealbreaker. So why did the idea of a relationship with Oliver go from plausible to absurd when I learned he was five years younger than I’d thought?
If our genders were reversed, no one would bat an eye at the age difference. This irks me. Sure, women mature faster and we have the whole biological clock inconvenience, but we also live longer and reach our sexual peak later. Yet I know of only one couple—who I’ve always admired—where the woman is more than five years older than the man. I hate to think that, by not pursuing Oliver just because of age, I’m letting myself get swept along by patriarchal, sexist conventions.
So why am I not pursuing him?
There’s a twinge of fear of rejection there. A tad of ‘what would people think.’ But mostly, this: I believe love has no age, and that the connection between two people is worth more than the numbers on their birth certificates. But I also believe 24 is, well, really young (just as for Oliver 35 is, well, really old). It’s not the age gap that’s the issue—it’s the stage of life each of us is in.
Our 20s are formative, crucial years. For many of us, it’s the first time we’re really on our own. We make our own money and decide what to do with it. We break hearts and get ours broken. We change jobs, go back to school, figure out what we want and what we don’t. We become our adult selves.
Maybe Oliver and I will meet again, and he’ll be further through his 20s, and we’ll have more time to explore our spark.
Note: A modified version of this content was originally published on Role Reboot