Cougar

It started as a joke, six years ago now… three years before he left us. He made the suggestion after one of those happy weeks when I dragged him into the bedroom eight times in seven days.

“Holly, if I ever die” he said, with a smirk “If I ever die, you will have to find someone younger.”

I laughed and slapped him on the ass. “What are you talking about?”

“Holly” he continued “No one your age or older will be able to keep up with you on the trail and in the bedroom.”

He had a point.

It became a running joke. We would have tons of sex, or I would climb a big mountain, and he would remind me that if anything happened to him, I would have to become a cougar. He made the joke about his death at least a dozen times in those last three years. We giggled and he would pull me in close, manhandling me just the way I wanted him to.

Other times it wasn’t so funny. Repeatedly over our ten year marriage he gravely told me that he had had premonitions that he would die young. He would look guilty when he told me of these fears, as if to say “I’m sorry that I will be leaving you and the girls alone.” We didn’t laugh those times.

Then one day it happened. Not long after he turned 40, he didn’t come home. An avalanche swept him and his team of six off a ridge, 3300 feet straight down onto a glacier. I cooked surf and turf with steak and crab in order to celebrate his successful climb, but his plate went cold. “When does daddy get back?” the girls said. “Soon.” I said nervously, as we ate his special dinner without him. “He’s just a bit late.” The next day the helicopter spotted their gear and an exposed hand sticking out of the snow and we knew they were all dead. They couldn’t safely land the helicopter and it was 3 months before they recovered his body. I was 39 and our daughters were 5 and 9.

++++

About six months after John died I found myself at a bar in Brooklyn with two men – Kevin, age 30, and Almost Lawyer Boy (ALB), age 34. I call him ALB because he “almost passed the bar” a few times before giving up in order to take a cushy job at his father George’s company. In fact, his dad George was a friend of mine whom I had worked with at a software company years ago, and I was in NY at his invitation for the big launch of his company’s first product. George had told me many times that I was the “ultimate woman”, but at 22 years my senior he would not have kept up and I never acknowledged his advances. Apparently the apple did not fall far from the tree.

I sipped a Manhattan and had Kevin and ALBs undivided attention.

“You look so sad.” ALB said.

“I haven’t been touched in forever.” I said. “I have no idea how to get back on the dating scene.”

“Go cougar.” Kevin teased. “Seriously. You look ten years younger than you are. Go cougar.”

“Your skin looks incredible.” ALB said, a bit wistfully, as if it wasn’t the first time he had noticed.

ALB took my hand on the subway back to the hotel but I pulled away with fear and confusion. He spent the next month doggedly pursuing me, under the guise of wanting to help me, be my friend. He told me that he’d had a crush on me for over a year, since before my husband had died. A few times he tried to put his arm around me but my whole body hardened with anxiety. I told myself lies – that I was ready to have a boyfriend, that it would be tense and anxious with anyone new, that I just had to ‘work through it’. In a haze of grief and neediness, I gave in. Though, ALB would turn out to be the needy one.

To be clear, ALB was a mistake. He was insecure, clingy, manipulative, and quickly became obsessed with the idea that I was the love of his life. Within a month he wanted to talk about the future, marriage, moving in together, said he was going to start saving up for a ring. Talking about such things put me into triggered and overwhelmed state just six months after my husband had died. He became angry and belligerent when I shut down talks about long-term commitment.

After two months, I stopped lying to myself. I took ALB out for a beer at Chucks Hop Shop and tried one more time to explain that I cared about him but that I really couldn’t commit to anyone because I was still committed to my dead husband. He began to yell at me in front of about 12 other customers.

“What does that mean?” he said, his eyes squinting. “Does that mean you are going to fuck other dudes?”

“No I’m not going to sleep with anyone else. It’s not about that.”

“So, if you aren’t going to sleep with anyone, why can’t you commit to me?”

“I’m…. floating… I am still so full of pain… I’m not fully present. I’m still with John. Commitment isn’t really possible when you are grieving…”

I was mumbling. I knew I couldn’t make him understand. I wasn’t breaking up with him, just trying to explain why we had to slow down.

“WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT MEAN?” He had stood up and was yelling down at me. “Commitment isn’t possible? That sounds like a bunch of bullshit.”

I began to cry. I hadn’t seen him this bad before. I realized – this is what verbal abuse looks like. It was a new and horrifying experience in my life to be preyed upon while in my weakest state.

I asked him if we could leave because everyone was staring at us. He yelled at me the whole walk home and adopted an aggressive stance that made me feel strangely afraid and exposed, even though I’m strong, fit, capable, even though I have a black belt in Shaolin Kempo. When we arrived at my house I ended our entanglement. He immediately softened and tried to save things but by then I knew that was all part of his act – attack me, make me weak, and then glide in as the sweetheart who would save me.

Instead of continuing to tell myself lies, I admitted the truth – that he was the wrong person and I wasn’t ready. I had let myself be his prey and would not make that mistake again.

ALB pursued me for months after I left him and eventually I cut off all contact.

+++++

Over the coming months I went on first and second dates with a few men but had hardened and didn’t allow myself to open to any of them. I held the power if I remained closed. By then I was 40. My husband had been dead for a year, my children were sad and angry, and the Okanogan wildfires were licking away at the 25 acres of forest John and I had bought together. If I didn’t have children I would have sold everything and climbed mountains until the Mountain Gods had mercy and let me join John up above our favorite snowy peaks. But, I did have children and thus was not allowed to die.

cougarMy sexless rage shape-shifted me into a ferocious feline predator. Cougars are solitary except when they mate. Cougars can jump 18 feet into the air and can run 40 miles per hour. Cougars are cunning, angry, vicious, and powerful. After the transformation was complete I pulled in my retractable claws, padded into my cage, and locked the door. I paced, snarled, and flashed my teeth through seven months of celibacy.

That’s when I met Bear.

Bear was 29 and when he first asked me if I would like to get a drink, I thought maybe he didn’t realize how old I was. ALB had been so immature… why would I date someone even younger than him? But… Bear hit all the right notes. Outdoorsy, into mountains, intelligent, funny, playful, and he had a gorgeous beard. I said –

“Do you usually date older women?”

“No” he responded “But I figured that if you hike, do yoga, rock climb, ice climb, and run, then your age doesn’t really matter. It’s just a number. You seem awesome.”

I told my friend Julie “I’m not going to tell him right away that I’m widowed or that I have kids. He is young and hot. I want to have fun and don’t want to spoil it with all the heavy stuff.” I felt my power growing. I needed sexual release, and an athletic 29 year-old with a gorgeous beard would be my perfect prey.

I got what I wanted. Bear and I proceeded to have enormous amounts of truly phenomenal sex over the coming months. Angels wept. The earth moved. On Bear’s end – he didn’t know sex could be like that.

“Women my age think their only job in bed is to show up and look good.” He said. “But you… you… wow.”

“Oh really?” I smiled.

“Most of them starfish in bed.” He continued.

“Starfish?”

“You know… they lay there like a starfish. They expect the dude to do all the work. You on the other hand… you know how to be on bottom, on top, you respond and moan so enthusiastically… “ He started to shake his head, lost his words, picked me up, and threw me on the bed.

++++

For the first month that Bear and I were together I put up a lot of walls. I was afraid to become attached because of how young he was, so I told myself more lies –

“Oh c’mon” I said to my friend Nika “He’s 29. It won’t be serious. I mean, it’s not like a 29-yr-old is going to become a dad to my kids.”

I decided that the entanglement would never be long term due to our age difference, and so I wouldn’t get attached. I would keep my walls up and that was how I would stay safe.

But… Bear was so warm and loving, I couldn’t help but fall completely in love. I would have followed Bear anywhere, done anything for him. Bear also fell, telling me that he had never fallen for someone so hard and fast, asking me to go get sized for a ring, telling me that he didn’t want to be one of those men who took me for granted, didn’t want to let such an amazing girlfriend slip through his fingers.

Turns out – I wasn’t the only one lying to myself. Bear wasn’t ready… he needed to explore, travel, find himself as an individual. Hadn’t I done the same thing when I was his age? Hadn’t I traveled the world solo in my mid-20s, running around India and Thailand, free as a bird, beholden to no one? And… maybe age wasn’t just a number. If it was, Bear would not have insisted that I lie to his parents.

“They saw that movie “This is 40.”” He said. “They have an image of what 40 is and things will go much more smoothly if they think you are 38.”

I agreed to the lies and after meeting his parents, I asked him what they thought of me.

He grinned “”She’s perfect.” They said. “What’s the catch? What’s wrong with her?” they joked.”

Somehow I felt the ickiness of what he was about to say before he said it.

Bear said “I figured they would find out soon enough.” Then he looked away, perhaps realizing that he had just clearly said that my age, widowhood, and children were “the thing that was wrong with me”. Bear damaged me that day.

Bear also insisted that I not tell his friends upon first meeting that I was a widow, that I had kids, or that I was 40. “First impressions matter.” He said. “It will be better if they don’t find out until after they see how awesome you are.” He damaged me that day too.

I told Bear how much his words hurt me. I told him that I wanted to be with someone who was proud of me. He went on and on about how he really was proud of me, how I needed to understand that first impressions were important and that he was doing what was best for our future. He offered to change nothing. That was when I should have realized that Bear wasn’t the one.

After we had been together for five months, I stopped lying to myself and let Bear go. I pined for him for months after our break up and hated that I couldn’t stop loving him, but also knew that living my truth meant not being with him. I swore I would never again let myself fall for someone so much younger, someone who didn’t know what he really wanted, someone who was a boy and not a man.

+++++

Almost exactly one year later I found myself at Poco Wine Room – sitting across from a young Indian man, tense because I had not yet dropped the bomb. When he found out, he would run away from all of my burdens and that would be that.

I had re-entered the singles scene and had been resisting the advances of a new suitor for weeks. Rahul was a Muay Thai loving hyper-intelligent data scientist with deep liquid chocolate-syrup eyes and a soft dark beard. I just couldn’t take his advances seriously, given that I was 42 and he was 30. I was absolutely, positively NOT going to fall in love with another man so many years my junior. What game was he playing? Why did he want me? Maybe he thought it would be a novelty to sleep with someone so old? Eventually Rahul made his final pitch –

“Look Holly, I really think we have a lot in common. Here is my number. Let’s go out. Give me a chance!” I gritted my teeth and agreed to meet him for a drink.

Even though I was pessimistic about the outcome, I primped and preened – penciling on thick smokey eyeliner, pulling on knee-high boots. I always felt so much pressure to look pretty when going out with someone younger, as if I could hide the wrinkles around my eyes and the scars on my heart. Halfway through sipping my Manhattan I went for it.

“Tell me about your longest relationship.” I baited

“I dated a woman for six years before and through college.” He said. “But I knew I needed to explore. I wasn’t ready to get married, settle down, and all that goes with that big package of a life. How about you?”

“I was married for 10 years.”

He wrinkled his forehead. “Um, do… do you have kids?” I could tell he was flustered.

“Yes I have two daughters. I was widowed almost three years ago.”

His eyes squinted. He laughed nervously. He mumbled and tripped over his words. This wasn’t the first date he had expected. Though, he did pull it together and regain his composure as we changed the topic. Later, when we left the bar, I said to him

“I know this is a lot to absorb. Why don’t you think about if you want to keep chatting with me. It’s ok if you don’t. I won’t be offended. It’s ok for this to be too much. You can let me know later.”

I wanted to warn him not to open the cage else he might become my prey. Or… maybe if I took down my walls then I would become his. Either way, it was simpler to push him away.

Immediately he said “I don’t want to just keep chatting with you, I want to keep seeing you. I want to go out again.” Then he looked at my lips as if he wanted to kiss them, but I turned my head and didn’t let him.

I’ve met Rahul’s type before. In the moment they want to be the knight in shining armor that saves the bird with the broken wing. They romanticize the idea of helping the damsel in distress, but then when the mystery of it all wears off they run away. As a happy-go-lucky 30 year old, Rahul would forget me and would find someone younger with less baggage. I was stoic but not offended. It wasn’t his fault.

But – He did continue to pursue me. And – I continued to question him. In my hardened state I maintained control.

“But, you looked so uncomfortable when you learned about my kids…” I said.

“Holly” he said solemnly “If I looked nervous, it’s because I was afraid I would screw up a date with such an amazing and beautiful woman.”

On our second date, I found out his father had died of a sudden heart attack when Rahul was 23 and his mother was 56. Rahul understood loss and was able to sit with me in my darkness, as I was able to sit with him in his.

On our third date, Rahul spent over 2 hours cooking me an elaborate Indian meal. He kissed my neck and shoulders repeatedly as he worked the curries on the stove. “This is your night” he said. “Let me take care of you.”

Eventually I let him undress me. With the patience of a seasoned lover he kissed me everywhere – the curve of my low back, the crook of my elbow, the soft undersides of my breasts. Still, for a week afterwards I expected him to disappear. My lies and walls helped me to maintain control – “He doesn’t really care about me, so I’m not going to get attached.”

When I told my friends of my new lover, I smeared bravado over my vulnerability like peanut butter.

“Look at my hot young new lover” I said, showing them pictures.

Don’t you see? I had to erect the fascade over the bloody mess of my wounds. I made it sound like a game because if I didn’t reach for some sort of amusement then I would just be bleeding all the time. And – no one can bleed that much and survive.

My friend Rebecca was surprised that so many young men would be interested in a widowed middle aged single mom. “You must be a phenomenal in bed.” She said, with genuine surprise.

I just smiled, smearing peanut butter yet again.

Rahul left on a planned three week vacation to India to see family, and I assumed he would drift away. I assumed I was a novelty, the shine of which would fade over time. But, that’s not what happened at all. Rahul messaged me many times a day for the entire three weeks… missed me, bought me gifts, told me of all of the Indian dishes he wanted to cook for me and ways he wanted to ravish my body upon his return.

I had a hard time taking down my walls. I still didn’t believe him.

When Rahul returned to America, we snuggled and he told me of his adventures in Mother India – weddings he had been to, childhood chums he had reconnected with. He said

“I told my friends about you.”

“Oh?” I said… wondering if it was like with Bear, wondering if he told them about me but was hiding certain details, hiding my age, hiding my kids.

He continued – “I said to this one friend “She’s so amazing… she is extremely intelligent, super sporty, very pretty, and she does everything. She has a million balls in the air all the time and when something difficult in her life comes up, she just handles it herself…. She doesn’t wait for anyone to do it for her. “”

He laughed a bit, and then said “I want you to meet my friends, and I want to meet yours.”

“Won’t they have a problem with my age?” I asked.

“Oh sure some of them might be juvenile about it.” He laughed easily “But I don’t care.”

That’s when I knew he wasn’t Bear. He really did like me, and maybe just maybe I could take down my walls. I convinced myself – take a risk… open up to him. He has proven himself. Let go. Let go into him.

Unfortunately, a few days later, the universe decided differently.

“Bad news.” He said. “Really terrible news, in fact.”

His company had missed the deadline to extend his H1B visa and he would have to return to India in a few weeks. No exceptions. No recourse.

“Can you get a new H1B visa once you are there?” I asked.

“Theoretically possible but practically impossible.” He responded.
The Trump administration had pledged to reduce the number of new H1B visas offered. In order to get a new one, Rahul would enter a huge pool of candidates and would just be another body in the ocean of 1 billion Indians. I would likely never see him again.

“I wish I could take you to India with me.” He said with true sadness. “I wish we had met sooner.”

“Oh Rahul.” I said. “I would be a scandal in India. An older white woman with kids? A scandal.”

“Holly,” he said gently and kindly “You are fitter than me. You look younger than me. People would come from near and far to see you.”

I wanted to argue with him. I wanted to remind him of the wrinkles around my eyes and the tough cracked skin on my hands. But I stayed quiet. I let his kind words wash over me, truthful or not.

+++++

I tried to stay open to Rahul after that, so that we could enjoy his last few weeks in the country, but I could not. My walls went back up just as they had begun to come down. I went back to my comfortable and familiar role as the Ice Queen. The best plan would be to close my online dating profile and my heart.

“I’m just going to shut down” I told my closest friends.

“I can’t date any more. It’s too painful.”

“I give up. I’m not going to try again for at least a couple of years. I’m just going to focus on the kids and meditate on turning off my sexual desire.”

What I didn’t say out loud was this – “My heart has too many scars, and if it gets broken again I just might bleed to death. “

I spent every day for the following two weeks hardening. It would be simpler to go it alone. I would be fine. I fell to the bottom of my well as I told myself these lies.

The thing about the bottom of my dark, cold well is this – I’m there alone. And when I’m truly alone, there is nothing to do but face myself and all my infinite flaws. Why was I dating younger men? Why was I choosing candidates who were unlikely to have the emotional capacity to hold space with a widow with two fatherless children? My life was so messy and heavy… why was I dating the men who were the least likely to be able to step up to my very complicated life for the long term?

And although I am infinitely flawed, I am also self-aware. So, I began to tell myself the truth.

I am dating younger men because….

….because youth is the opposite of death, and I’m fucking done with death.
….because younger men are vibrant, open minded, and progressive.
….because sex with these younger boyfreinds satisfied a ferocious predator instinct in me that made me feel like I still had some sort of control in my life.

Yes, that’s the truth. I tried to date younger men and pretend that my life wasn’t as messy and pain-filled as it was, but really I was full of shit – I did get attached, my life is messy, and someone that much younger is unlikely to be experienced or emotionally mature enough to step up. Of course the other truth is – I wasn’t really being fair to these men… making assumptions, preying upon them, putting up walls.

I continued to harden and let various minerals assimilate in my skin like fibers of Kevlar. I meant for this armor to only protect my heart from the pain of love, but of course armor does not discern. I shut off not only to romance but to everything. I stopped reaching out to my friends. I didn’t respond when they reached out to me. I sat at home wooden and sad.

+++++

“Holly, I would like to see you before I leave.” He said sweetly and kindly.
I had been avoiding Rahul for three weeks and he knew it. The truth was, I wanted to see him. I missed him. As much as I had hoped that shutting down would make life easier, it didn’t. And – what about my friends? What would happen to me if I let myself sink down into a pit of isolation? It is true that shutting down made the pain a bit softer. Shutting down also made it harder for me to feel joy. I realized – maybe, if I’m going to keep the spark inside of me alive, I’m just going to have to be willing to take more pain.

“Remind me when you leave?” I asked him.

“Tomorrow, 7pm.” He said heavily. This was our last chance.

“Come over tonight. Spend the night.” I said. “Spend your last night with me.”

I had never before asked Raul to sleep over. I had never allowed that level of intimacy. I had never allowed him to be with me in my most vulnerable place – that place where I cannot sleep and I lie awake at 3am facing my ocean of sadness.

Rahul came over later that evening and made sweet love to me, attending to my every need. Afterwards, I pressed myself against his side and buried my face in his beard while he ran his fingers through my hair.

“I am so sad to not have more time with you.” He said.

“We are over before we got started.” I responded sadly.

“Will you date after I leave?” He asked

“No, It’s too hard. My heart is bleeding too much. And – telling my sad story to new men over and over is fracturing my soul. I can’t do it anymore. It hurts too much. You?”

“I will try but I am unlikely to meet the kind of women that I want over there. I will be miserable.”

I kissed him and ran my fingers through his beard.

“I am trying to work out a deal with my company so that I can come back.” He continued. “I will work remotely for several months while they try to renew the visa. They said it might work, might not. I don’t want to live in India. I want to live here.”

“Rahul, I am not expecting you to come back to me.”

He pulled his head back and looked at me with wide eyes. “But Holly, I want to! There is so much for us to explore together. I want to hike with you, camp with you, see your cabin. You do so many interesting things and I want to do them with you! I want to come back to you.“

He held me tightly as I was silent. I felt that he meant it but still I stated the obvious “Rahul, the reason I say that is because we both know our time would be finite. You would never marry a white single mother who is so much older. Your family would never accept me.”

We were both silent together. My words weren’t accusatory. I knew he felt pain over the cultural norms that he had to conform to. I knew he longed for the sort of freedom in life that would have allowed him to be with someone like me.
We laid there quietly for a long time, slept in each others arms for hours, then made love again.

I kissed him goodbye, sent him out the door before my children awoke, and then he was gone. I was sad but not broken, because the truth is that I’d never really let him in.

+++++

“Red sneakers, Michael Jackson!” I said delightedly pointing to his feet on the dance floor.

I was at “Toast to Tech”, the big party at the end of my college reunion weekend at MIT. I wasn’t happy to be there… It had been so tiring making small talk all weekend. How could I update people on my life without telling them about my dead husband and fatherless kids? I couldn’t, and the whole experience had wrecked me anew. But – I was almost through it. This party was the last event and then I would be done.

The band was playing “Billy Jean” and I was happy to use dancing as an escape. I moved to the front of the crowd, right in front of the stage, and danced next to a man with a trim beard, sleek black pants, black button down shirt, and red sneakers. When I pointed to his shoes and referenced MJ, he looked confused. Then I looked at his name tag. Class of 2012 – he was here for his 5th reunion, me my 20th. With horror I realized that he was too young to have seen the videos of MJ is his red Reebocks. A baby, 15 years my junior.

Still, he was a fantastic dancer. We began to circle each other, dancing and interacting without touching. Then he grabbed me, twirled me, circled his arms around me before spinning me again.

“What course were you?” I asked, in between beats

“Course 6-3” He hollered over the music. Geek code for Computer Science and Engineering

“Me too!” I responded.

His name was Juliano. He was from San Paulo originally and now worked in NYC at a software company. My retractable claws began to tingle.

Juliano grabbed my hand suddenly and marched right out of the room with me firmly in tow. I knew exactly what he wanted. I felt the sense of power surge inside of me. I had planned to stop cougar-ing but maybe I would make one more exception. Somehow I was going younger and younger – 5 yrs, 11 yrs, 12 years, and now 15 years. My bravado swelled and suddenly I was covered in peanut butter yet again.

Juliano pulled me into an alley, pressed me against a wall, and began kissing my lips, my face, my neck. I fell into him, clenching his hair, dragging my claws down his back. He was about to become my prey or I was about to become his.

But – I didn’t feel anything. The power drained out of me and I felt empty.

Juliano pulled back, grabbed my hand, and started walking again.

“Where are we going?” I said

“To the Marriott” he responded, not breaking stride.

I stopped. “I can’t have sex with you.” I wasn’t tentative. I was clear. No part of me thought it was a good idea.

“Why not?” He said, kissing me again. His hands slid down to my low back. He became frantic.

I tried to make it into a joke and made dumb excuses “Because…because it is never that great the first time. I don’t want to invest in having sex with someone unless I’m going to have a LOT of sex with him. “

“I can have a lot of sex with you.”

“Oh whatever. I will never see you again after tonight.”

“Yes but I could have lots of sex with you *tonight*.” His eyes bore into me. “I can have sex ten times tonight if you want.” He was being literal.

Right. Younger men. They can have sex over and over. Isn’t that one of the reasons I was preying on them?

He kissed me again, sliding his palm along my face and into my sweaty hair.
But – I felt nothing.

“I can’t” I said. I ran back to the party. He chased me, dropped and shattered the his phone as I disappeared into the crowd, never to see him again.

And with that, I stopped lying, went back to my hotel, took a shower, and was done.

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