He Wanted to Date Younger Women

In April, I published an essay in Madison Magazine about a meet-up where I asked my date, who was my age, 62, how online dating was going for him. Right to my face, with an open smile, he said that for someone so successful and fit (as he apparently saw himself), he was surprised he wasn’t dating younger women.

Without saying a word, I stood up, gave him a quick smile and walked away. Later, of course, I realized there were all kinds of things I wished I had said. Mostly I wanted to point my finger and call him out as a stone-cold ageist. Which eventually I did by writing that essay.

After it was published, I learned that people on social media had big feelings about love and dating after a certain age. It was thrilling to feel like I had tapped into something, a moment in culture, but it was also disappointing to see how many of the reactions were from people who were worried that I had not found my person. There was a tone of sad-eyed, head-tilted-to-the-side, “Don’t give up hope!” — as if I were battling a disease called singledom instead of a cultural disdain for women over 40.

One reader suggested my “picker” was broken and reminded me that I can’t have everything in one person. Another said I would find my partner as soon as I stopped looking.

“Your soul mate is out there,” one woman wrote. “I just know it.”

Didn’t they see that I was complaining about sexist ageism, not the fact that I wasn’t partnered?

While my phone chirped loudly and often with messages from friends and strangers as I tried to keep up with comments and interactions, my longtime friend, Jim, a carpenter, was in my house building out a closet meant for a generation of people who had only two shirts. Occasionally, he would call out, and I would run upstairs to help balance a shelf while he secured it into place.

“Boy, you’re busy,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone who works as hard as you do.”

I scoffed and said, “You must be joking. Have you met yourself? You are a machine.”

Then I would return to my buzzing phone.

I had known Jim, who is six years my senior, for 15 years. Our children went to school together. We car-pooled to sports events and grumbled about coaches. When my basement flooded or my old windows got stuck shut, he would come over with a bucket or a hammer. For my part, I would try to help by making jokes and keeping my fingers away from things that pinched. Occasionally, we got lunch.

During the first closet renovation Jim did for me last fall, when I was writing the essay, I watched him deftly haul every manner of building supplies into and out of my bedroom. When directed, I held a board in place while he, with the precision of a man who has built too many houses to count, kicked the board perfectly into place. I made fun of his unorthodox carpentry tool, the toe of his boot, and went back to writing.

When my closet was finished, I populated it with hangers, baskets and too many long-sleeved T-shirts for one single chilly woman to own. I counted my shoes, got rid of two pairs, looked at Jim and realized I didn’t want him to go.

This led to a new project, a revamping of an under-the-eaves space. Jim and I worked together to measure and paint. He showed me how to use a table saw.

I noticed he favored one of his legs and asked if he had hurt himself.

“Bone spurs,” he said.

I gave him the number of my friend, an orthopedic surgeon.

I bragged about my new closets to friends, and when they asked if Jim could be hired, I told them what he told me: He is retired and only works when he wants to, and mostly he doesn’t want to.

When Jim asked me if I had seen the Christmas lights at the community gardens near his house, I said no, but they sounded nice. During closet number two, after a Friday of Jim working hard and me hardly working (that’s a Jimism), we walked through the gardens oohing and ahhing at the bright spectacle against the night sky, wondering who climbed the ladders and wrapped the string lights in the branches overhead and who would take them down.

The next time we got together, we went ice skating. I hadn’t skated in more than a decade and was sure I would wipe us both out. Jim, a father of a former high school hockey player, tightened my skate for me. After our first shaky lap, he said, “Look at you. You’re a natural.”

I knew what I looked like: a woman in a red plaid Elmer Fudd hat with no business being anywhere near ice without a crash helmet. Smiling, Jim skimmed ahead, executed a tight turn and said, “I’ll take your picture. Skate toward me.”

He wasn’t flirting, and there was no secondary agenda in his encouragement. We were two people who knew each other well, enjoying ourselves, and I felt how I always feel around Jim: cared for.

“Look at that smile,” he said as he held up his phone.

When he helped me pull my skates off at the end of the night, I noticed his thick hair and how, when he laughed, he looked like an Irish elf but better looking than most elves.

Don’t kid yourself. I felt what was happening. I was eyeing up Jim — and not in the way a woman does when she wants new closets. No, not that way at all.

I told myself to move slowly, to be sure. I didn’t want to ruin our long friendship by turning it into something it wasn’t. That was true, but something else was truer.

Despite my deep understanding of the nonsense of sexist ageism (and what would, six months later, become my viral protest against it), I hesitated. What if I ruined the friendship, made everything awkward between us because Jim thought of me as my date had? A woman of a certain age, the very age the world isn’t interested in, sexually or otherwise.

Let me be clear: When it came to ageism, Jim was not the problem. I was.

I have squinted at my smile lines and thought, smile less? Wondered if I should consider a neck lift. And, worse, I believed that romance had to start with romance — and that a romantic relationship had to begin with a meet-cute, a quick spark.

It had been a long time since I had felt this way about someone, despite dating quite a lot in the years since my marriage ended in 2010. Was it possible I had so many preconceived notions of age, romance and sex that I was blind to what was happening in my own story?

Could it be that I had internalized all that ageism I had taken such a public stand against? I could point a finger at my date, but what about myself? Jim had been there for me for 15 years. Only now did I consider that he might find me interesting and attractive, crow’s feet and all.

On a frigid day in January, he and I drove the two-and-half hours to Chicago to see “Hamilton.” In the car, Jim told me he loved the blues and how important music was to him.

“What kind of music do you like?” he asked and waited for me to tell him. He listened carefully and suggested we go to a concert together.

“We should,” I said.

In the theater, settled into our seats, I snapped a selfie of us and took a moment to inspect it. There he was with his kind eyes. Our temples were touching, and we were grinning from ear to ear.

I saw something else, something mesmerizing. I had captured joy, a shining moment that had zero to do with how old either of us was.

Sometimes, an essay for thousands of strangers has a message for its author. That night, I silenced the chatter and inched in close to Jim. And while the lights dimmed and the orchestra began, we smiled in the darkness and waited for the real show to begin.

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