Even though I’m now happily married, I’ve been conjuring up romantic scenarios for so many years that I just launch into them on autopilot.
A web site accepts one of my submissions, for example, and the editor—as I can tell from the suggestive publication agreement I have to sign—clearly burns for me. The two of us are so brilliant that only we can understand each other, so it’s obvious we must run away together. The fantasy is liberating. I don’t vacuum. I don’t pick up dog poop. In fact, I don’t even eat. My beloved sustains me by reading poetry aloud, while I bathe in ethereal light.
Ridiculous, right? But I can’t help myself.
Recently, a young intern at work flashed me a genuine smile, and I flushed with pleasure. He has so far managed to hide his love, I immediately thought, because it wouldn’t be prop—
But before I could get to the “sustained by love and words alone” part of the fantasy, I had a horrifying realization.
When I was his age, he was in middle school.
I spent the next few minutes suspended in a state of cognitive dissonance:
Id: *squeals* Did you see the way he smiled at us?
Id (defensively): What? I’m still young and beautiful.
Superego: No! You’re middle-aged. You have wrinkles, a gut, and a C-section scar. You’re only beautiful to other middle-aged people. And maybe to old people.
Ego: You guys both understand this is a purely hypothetical situation, right? You remember that we’re married, right?
Id (ignoring Ego, dreamily): But he’s so adorable.
Superego (also ignoring Ego): Your knees creak when you take the stairs!
I tried to sort it all out. What would a woman my age even do with a guy that young? My impulse would be to fuck him, but a part of me also felt I should be knitting him a sweater. So what would I do? Fuck him? Knit him the sweater? Meet in the middle and knit him some underwear? (“I knitted you these knickers, sonny! Now take your pants off!”)
DO YOU SEE HOW BIZARRE AND DEPRAVED THIS CAN BECOME?
Maybe I’m just having an identity crisis: if it’s no longer acceptable for me to desire a young man, then I have to redefine myself. Have I finally reached “cougar” status? I’ve never liked the word. Even though I’m sure some “cougars” are in great shape, with killer confidence and badass moves in bed, ”cougar” still seems pejorative. The name conjures up a woman whose lipstick bleeds into the wrinkles around her mouth, who reeks of bad perfume and desperation.
If I were a “cougar,” young men wouldn’t desire me; they’d merely tolerate me. Perhaps they’d even regard me with a mixture of fear and disgust. I’m convinced that if the young intern ever learned of my feelings, he wouldn’t be flattered. He’d be compelled to vomit and take a series of extremely hot showers.
Is this actually how young men see me, or is it just my perception? I find myself helplessly searching for how I came to feel this way—as if by knowing, I could somehow reverse the trend. I’m not looking for a lover. I’m not even looking for sex. I just want to be liberated from a body that is becoming strange to me. I want to believe there is a “me” that is ageless and utterly free, a “me” that can desire any man it wishes without feeling pathetic and worthy of mockery.
There isn’t, of course. A permanent self is illusory. The consciousness I think of as “me” is yoked to this bag of bones, and I have to accept that I’m getting too old for tube tops and skinny jeans. But there are moments, like the few seconds of that intern’s wonderful, genuine smile, through which we glimpse the infinite, and can’t we linger in those moments? Can’t we savor them, not talking ourselves out of them or rushing away with apologies, telling ourselves how old and ugly and undesirable we are?
Yeah, Superego, I get it. Young Intern is gouging out his own eyeballs in Oedipal anguish. Could you stop it with the bloody eye sockets, already?
I’m trying to have a moment here.