He was 38. I was 22. We met at a bar. I had just moved to New York and was celebrating my new zip code with some friends on the Upper West Side. He approached our group with his towering 6 foot 4 frame and a bad pick-up line.
We got to talking. Our mutual interest in theater—I was a writer/director, he was an actor on a soap opera—made us click right away. He touched my arm, looked me in the eye, and asked, “Do you want to go out with me sometime?”
I was shocked. Here was a man asking me out. To my face. No Facebook friend request followed by a Facebook message. No drawn out text exchange. A direct expression of his interest in taking me on a date.
“Uh, sure,” I stammered. We exchanged numbers, and he texted me the next day. Again, I was shocked. Who was this guy who dared to ask me out to my face and follow up immediately with an invitation? To tea, no less. Was he a time traveler from the chivalrous days of yesteryear? A baron? My interest was piqued.
We met on the Upper East Side that week. He told me about his travels abroad, his career shift from acting to yoga instruction, and the inevitable fitness book he was sure he’d write. At the end of our date, he ran his hand down my arm, lingering with the awkward posture of someone who wished he’d done more. I prepared to cross the street away from him and coyly instructed, “You have my number. Use it.”
Like any woman dating in the 21st century, I washed down the butterflies in my stomach with a healthy dose of Internet stalking.
That’s when I found out.
According to his LinkedIn profile, he’d graduated high school in the 90s. I did the math and promptly freaked out. He looked around 28, but this guy was closer to 40. My parents were in their 40s! Could I really date someone that much older than me? I thought it might be a typo and brushed it off, focused on how I felt: Excited. Hopeful. Turned on.
Our second date was less of a date and more of an excuse to get me back to his apartment. We met on St. Mark’s Place at the yoga studio where he’d just taught class. As a triathlete who didn’t think exercise counted unless I was covering large distances, I’d never done yoga and looked down on those who did. Pounding the pavement for six miles was exercise. Inhaling deeply was not.
But I was trying to keep an open mind. Still wearing the scars etched on my skin by a negative ex-boyfriend who accused me of being closed-minded, I craved positivity and enthusiasm in my life. Plus, he changed in front of me, stripping off his yoga clothes down to his boxer briefs to reveal one of the most muscular, lean bodies I’d ever seen. He took me by the hand, and we hailed a taxi.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Want to just hang out at my place?” he said.
“OK,” I answered, disappointed but compliant.
I was noticeably nervous in the elevator as it climbed to the twelfth floor of his building. One afternoon date, and I was already at his place. Wasn’t I supposed to make him work a lot harder to get me here? Maybe he sensed my trepidation. Maybe he just wanted to kiss me. Whatever the reason, he did, there in the elevator as it ascended to the top floor.
Later we lay face to face, and I confessed, “I think you think I’m a lot older than I am.”
“How old are you?” he inquired, guessing I was 25.
“Twenty-two. How old are you?” I asked, hoping that my Internet stalking had led me down a web of middle-aged lies.
“I’m thirty-eight,” he stated calmly, waiting for my reaction.
I buried my face in his sheets, processing this hailstorm of a confirmation before coming back up for air. We looked at each other; our bodies close despite the sixteen years between us. “Let’s just see where it goes,” he proposed. I took a deep breath and agreed. Age was just a number, right? And didn’t I deserve to be with someone older and wiser than the 22-year-old idiots flooding my friends’ inboxes on OkCupid? I deserved a man.
And Eric was a man. He’d abandoned a cushy job as a chemist to pursue a career as an actor in his late twenties, a bold decision I respected for its risk and bravery. He hustled to land an agent. He’d scored roles on television. He taught college acting. He’d figured out how to make it in this crazy city, and I looked up to him for that.
We made bets at a Kentucky Derby party. He laid on my torso in the Coney Island sun. He made his presence known to my creepy landlord. We cooked dinner and picnicked on his roof under the Manhattan stars. I took one of his yoga classes and, to my great surprise, liked it. He came to the shows I was directing at the time. He encouraged and supported me, radiating positivity.
He taught me to insert gratitude into my everyday language, having picked up some tips from a weekly seminar he was taking. Instead of saying “I taught a class today,” he said, “I got to teach a class today.” Instead of recounting, “I worked on a play today,” I learned to say, “I got to work on a play today.” By changing the way we talked about what we did or had to do, Eric taught me to live gratefully, to look at the mundane with newfound appreciation. I loved his positive approach to life. It was intoxicating.
The first red flag: his goals.
I spotted a piece of paper on his desk. On it he’d scribbled goals for the year. I smiled. I was a quintessential goal setter, blessed with a personality of grit and follow-through. I never made birthday wishes; I set goals. I picked up the paper, intrigued to see what Eric wanted to accomplish this year.
First on the list was: Make $6 million from acting projects.
My brow furrowed, and my eyebrows arched upwards.
This was a ludicrous goal. Eric had been on a handful of soap opera episodes. He was nowhere in the realm of becoming a $6 million dollar man. I put the note to the side and decided not to focus on it. But the thought hovered in the back of my mind: Eric was a bit delusional.
The second red flag: his best friend.
They’d met in the seminar, something that, like yoga, I’d decided to keep an open mind about. I didn’t need to attend a weekly seminar to meet my goals, but wasn’t it good to be with someone who realized he didn’t have the same self-discipline but was still trying to find a path toward success? Signing up for this seminar was an active, forward-thinking decision. That was attractive, even if the seminar seemed a bit New Age-y for my tastes.
Every week, the group members checked in with one another, holding each other accountable to their goals and doing exercises that encouraged an open and positive lifestyle. Eric’s focus was on expanding his private yoga client roster, a much more reasonable goal than “make $6 million.”
Eric’s friend and fellow group member, Paul, was focused on becoming an actor. Eric talked about him frequently with affection. I’ve always been attracted to men with strong friendships. In my mind, a man with the tools to be a good friend has the tools to be a good partner. The warmth and support that Eric and Paul displayed for one another checked an important box.
But then he told me what Paul did for a living. It was a secret. I couldn’t tell anyone. It involved weapons.
“What is he, a pimp?” I mused sarcastically as we walked south on Seventh Avenue.
“No,” said Eric. “He’s a drug dealer.”
I stopped in my tracks.
I do not like drugs. I’ve never used them, and I don’t like to be around them. I don’t even like marijuana, a position I was well aware some of my peers viewed as uptight. In an effort to be more open, I let Eric smoke a joint in my company once. But his best friend was a drug dealer? That was not okay.
It made me question everything.
I decided that this group Eric belonged to was bullshit. If it was actually a positive group, and if Eric was actually looking out for Paul’s best interests, he would have encouraged his friend to earn his keep, honestly. If this group were actually effective, its members would not be funding their goals with drugs and guns.
It was then that I realized something I didn’t want to.
The third red flag: me.
I had been insecure about my age. I wanted to be in my 30s, possessing all the life experience and knowledge of the women that I looked up to. I’d, of course, heard that women in their 30s and 40s viewed women my age as a threat. “The pleasures of young flesh,” as Tracey Letts put it in August: Osage County, meant that our young, tight pussies and taut torsos gave us an advantage over the smarter, more accomplished women in higher age brackets.
I thought this was crap. Surely, a man would rather be with me in ten years than with me now. At 32, I’d be so much more smarter. So much more impressive. So much more everything. I assumed that Eric would have preferred to be with someone his age, and I happened to be a beautiful exception to the rule. A wise-beyond-her-years 20-something that this older man found fascinating. An unlikely equal in maturity and depth.
I was wrong.
As I learned more about his relationship history, I saw a pattern. As he got older, his companions got younger. Before me, he’d been with a woman in her mid-twenties. After me, he ended up with a woman who was 20.
The three red flags added up to a new viewpoint: he was having a mid-life crisis.
But what surprised me the most about this assessment was my reaction. Other than running away with horrified judgment, I felt compassion. Because he was truly wrestling with some big, life-defining struggles:
His career was in flux. He’d been a chemist for years, then an actor, and now a yoga instructor. He was insecure about this restless pattern of change. One night he asked me painfully, earnestly, “Is this going to happen every ten years?” Was his new commitment to yoga his true calling, or another passion that would expire in a decade?
He also knew, as an almost-40-year-old male with an uncertain career path, women his age found him unattractive. He wanted to marry and have children as soon as possible. Early in our relationship, this proclamation made me feel secure. He wouldn’t bother dating me if he wasn’t serious about where the relationship could go, right? “It’s hard,” he whispered with downcast eyes of the judgment he felt from women his age.
A few weeks after we met he took me to his college reunion. A muscular Adonis with a perky 22-year-old on his arm, he introduced me to former classmates with beer bellies and bald heads. On the one hand, Eric was hot shit. On the other, he hadn’t hit the milestones his peers with mortgages and offspring had.
This mid-life crisis was not a superficial thing to be dismissed. It was a challenging time of transition to be treated with dignity and compassion. That’s what he needed. I saw and understood that.
But it didn’t mean we belonged together. We parted ways after six months. In the short term, I was filled with anger. Anger that he wouldn’t commit. Anger that he’d replaced me with an even younger woman. But as the years wore on, I began to look back on this relationship differently. I look back with gratitude for all the things Eric taught me.
He taught me that at the core of any crisis is humanity. What others might call a mid-life crisis was just a man trying to navigate a path to happiness. His feelings were real. They weren’t to be tossed aside as silly or cliché. There was no Ferrari. No discarded spouse. There was only a man doing his best.
He taught me the difference between being closed-minded and knowing myself. Being an open person did not mean I had to accept everything into my life. I could say yes to trying yoga and beets and no to the company of a drug dealer. The latter didn’t make me closed-minded. It made me in tune with my value system.
He taught me that a relationship didn’t have to last for it to be important. Eric was crucial to that period of my life. He supported my work. He took care of me after I fainted. He held me when I was scared. For those six months, he made me feel confident, loved, and positive. He may have been a collection of red flags, but he was my fresh air when I desperately needed to breathe.
And now, five years later, I get to think of him and smile.
*All names have been changed.