Somehow, my twenties have seen a reversal. My previous relationships and escapades tended to involve males of the older sort. Lately, I’ve been attracting fresh faced boys. Graham, my ex-boyfriend, was 23 to my 25. Before we were exclusive, I had flirtations with a few equally younger men. Though cougar jokes were thrown around here and there, I didn’t take it too seriously. For the most part, I’ve always seen age as a relative concept with little difference once eligible to legally drink. And maybe it’s because when my parents got together, my mother was five years older than my dad. For me, that was a sign that age was not a determining factor, but perhaps I should have seen it as a sign that I might take after my mother. Now that I’m dating a 22 year old, fraternity member, I’m accepting my cougar status.
It surprises me that I feel the difference in our age, given that it’s a mere three years. It’s often in small things, like the fact that while I’m teaching my college classes, Rory is in his own college classes on another school’s campus. We text during my office hours and his lunch break. I have meetings with students, he goes to student ambassador meetings. I live with my father to save money during my PhD studies, his parents pay for him to live with three other fraternity guys. Though, I must say, they are all genuinely nice and welcoming fellas.
While I’ve noticed these distinct discrepancies between where we are in our lives, it doesn’t make me like Rory any less. In truth, he’s helped me realize the possible benefit of a younger man. The first being that instead of intimidated by me, he’s impressed. I am a sexually open, intelligent, and ambitious young woman. I know what I want and I go for it. Some men have been put off by this. They feel less accomplished, less in control, and less motivated in comparison, especially if I’m younger than them. I forget how many times I’ve been told by friends or men that I’m hard to approach or be with because of this. With someone younger, I expected it to be an even bigger issue.
“Why on Earth would I be intimidated by you?” Rory asked when I brought it up. We were on our second date, sitting at a booth sharing a plate a sushi.
“It’s just something I’ve been told,” I said, sipping on my half-priced wine. The chardonnay wasn’t bad for the price.
“It’s because I’m just in undergrad, isn’t it?” he teased, “Well, we can’t all be getting our PhDs! I’m just not smart enough to be with you, I guess.” I laughed and he smiled back. If he could make fun of it so quickly, I knew it didn’t bother him. It could be easy to assume that as someone with relatively equal ambition and career focus (he wants to go into broadcasting sales), Rory is just more opened minded. And though probably a contributing factor, I think it helped that he was younger. As I’m someone older, it makes more sense to him that I should be farther ahead. Rather than coming up as competition, my work deserved admiration.
While I used chopsticks to dab more wasabi on my crystal shrimp, he used his fork to pick up another spicy tuna piece. I mocked him once more for being unable to use chopsticks properly. He took it like a gentleman, all exaggerated sighs, with that wide grin transfixed across his thin, angular face.
He would keep teasing about the PhD for the rest of the night, as well as my age a few times when we debated about how much cooler I was for being a 80s baby, even if was the late 80s. His 90s baby ego couldn’t handle it. But everything remained easy and lighthearted. There were no subtle jabs at the truth in the form of humor, no gut kicks as snarky comments to make me feel guilty for being confident and forward. Rory actually seemed to appreciate that side of me.
“It’s nice when the woman makes the move,” he said as we cuddled and discussed our first date foreplay. “Everyone expects the guy to be aggressive. I liked that you did that. It was hot.”
Rory’s experience with women, albeit only a few, consisted primarily of the more demure sort and with girls, who like I remembered from my own undergraduate years, were still discovering their own dominance and desire in sex. He wasn’t just surprised that I blew him on our first date, Rory was awestruck. Where normally I wondered if the guy imagined me too easy or slutty, I found relief. Rory is inclined to be more appreciative when I do exactly what I want, saving him that awkward guess work.
What I also enjoy about being with Rory is the lack of anxiety. On the precipice of graduation, he is all future, and the future looks good. Whereas I had my quarter life crisis even before the actual birthday. A few months before, my grandfather died and, with the heightened stress, my old acid reflux came back in full force. I began to face my mortality in a fresh way as my body betrayed me by breaking down. My writing and my education, my travels and my adventures, suddenly seemed so few and distant. Success and satisfaction were elusive. The transition from drug experimenting, party to the sunrise, think on it tomorrow, O’Hara kinda girl to student loan repayments, staying in with a bottle of wine, and dying metabolism kinda woman had happened without my expressed permission, and in a swift kick to the ass rather than in a graceful progression. Twenty-five is a hard pill to swallow for the ambitious perfectionist, and that pill is Nexium for the unending burping and heartburn, and emergency sedatives tucked away for the unbearable panic attacks. But when I’m around Rory, when I’m texting him, cuddling him, holding his hand during an episode of House (because he was too young to watch the show when it originally came out), I don’t think about any of those things. I don’t think about how lonely I’ve felt or uprooted since Graham and I broke up.
Our talks are long and frivolous. Rory sang to Frozen’s “Let It Go” and told me about how he’s a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and used to help teach little kids. We reminisced on old nickelodeon cartoons, and I hated on him for liking SpongeBob Squarepants, though he was eight when it came out, a much more reasonable age to be a fan, than me at 12 years in middle school. I showed him clapping games that I used to play on the school bus, like Miss Mary Mack and Down Down Baby. He didn’t know any of them. We got into politics, which, rather than become a knock down drag out or ideals after he came out as libertarian and myself as a big ol’ liberal, became another teasing session, where I laughed incredulously at him from liking Bill O’ Reilly.
“But he’s a racist,” I gasped.
“Well…okay, yeah,” Rory said, rolling his eyes wildly. “But before he went crazy, he was a cool personality and I wanted to be on TV like him.” We both continued to laugh. “Can your liberal hippie mentalities handle holding hands with a conservative?” he asked, lacing his fingers tighter with mine as we laid on his bed.
“I think I’ll survive. But they might throw me out of the commune.”
It’s not that I don’t think Rory can do serious conversation. I know that he can because we have discussed a few things, including exes, that were much more tempered conversations and he handled them with an ease that, while baffling, was also impressive. For me, worry goes down to the bones, to the marrow even, it’s a part of my build. For Rory, worry washes off like water against oil. His biggest concerns are embarrassing himself in front of me and that he might not get the perfect job which he already has an interview for just before graduation. And I imagine neither keep him up at night the way my rush hour mind does at night.
He’s good for me this way. I feel comfortable with him, I feel relaxed with him: the blessings of a younger man.
“You’re not a cougar,” Rory assured me near the end of our second date, when the only thing that remained on was his hastily unbuttoned Gap shirt. The rest of him was naked and I laid on his shoulder, catching my breath from coming back up. “Cougars are in their forties and fifties. You’re too young for that. So, you’re just a puma.”
“What about a panther? I always thought I’d make a good black panther.”
“Aren’t they the same?”
I looked it up later. Cougars, panthers, mountain lions…They are all the same—they’re all pumas.