Mind the Gap

Elizabeth Bishop and Alice Methfessel in the early 1970s. Courtesy Archives and Special Collections, Vassar College Library.
About a month after Dori and I first meet, fourteen months before we’ll get married on the lawn outside the Santa Barbara courthouse, Facebook’s algorithm—with its remarkable ability to be on-topic and completely off-base at the same time—suggests a listicle of the “most uncomfortable age gaps in cinema” as something I might be interested in. I cringe as I swipe, increasingly pissed off by the catalog of clichés I see before me, and by the lack of distinction between consent and coercion: Humbert Humbert is right there alongside Harold’s Maude.

If the older person is a woman, she will be a stilettoed manipulatrix, deftly ensnaring a clueless babe-in-the-woods in her web. There’s world-weary Mrs. Robinson, flashing her tan lines in a last-ditch mating display; Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard scheming, wheedling, and buying her way into Joe Gillis’s heart. The young partner, meanwhile, tends to be portrayed as a drifter trying things on for size, a lost little lamb with daddy or mommy issues whose winsome naiveté offers a pleasant dalliance, a vacation from grown-up obligations. None of it has anything to do with me and Dori, the real-life, fifty-seven-year-old woman whose neck I’m nestled into as I scroll through these fictional portrayals.

Even the terminology riles me up. “May-December relationship is such a dumbass term,” I complain to Dori. “How do your fifties equate to December? That’s, like, October at the most.”

Still, in the weeks that follow, I watch every movie from the list, mining the genre for glimmers of familiarity. I’m used to having to squint to see the resemblance to my own life: I grew up dreaming of a leading lady and putting myself in Richard Gere’s shoes.

All my life, I’ve been drawn to older people. Precocious and cerebral, I was the kid that loved sitting at the adults’ table. My crushes were no different. Every time another lesbian my age tells me about the best friend she was in love with in middle school—something that seems to be universally acknowledged as a queer rite of passage—I’m secretly bemused. At six, eleven, sixteen years old, I was in love with my teachers, my friends’ parents, my parents’ friends. “When I was a kid, I had crushes on women in their twenties and thirties,” I tell Dori when, somewhere around date three or four, she asks about my history with older people. “I always assumed that as I grew up—once I got to that sort of age myself—it would even itself out. But that’s not what happened.”

Dori scrunches up her eyebrows—she’s gathering her thoughts.

“You like what you like,” she says.

* * *

Three decades older than me, Dori is part of a generation of gay people who grew up knowing their lives would be met with backlash. Through hard-won experience, she became impervious to judgment, determined to chart her own course. When she finally started dating again after ending a decades-long relationship, she realized there was no reason to limit herself to the comparatively small pool of single women her own age.

Her lack of trepidation makes for a refreshing change from my previous partners. When I was twenty, the man I was in love with—twelve years my senior—broke it off, tormented by his attraction to someone so young. When I was twenty-five, an older boyfriend thought his family would judge him for dating “a child.” Each time, finding myself so easily flattened into a category, my heart sank like a bundle of wet rags. At twenty-five I had been living on my own for nine years, was running my own business, had built a life for myself in three different countries. But in a heartbeat, the social stigma surrounding age difference eclipsed the substance of who I was.

With women, it was even more difficult. When I was younger and more femme, I’d felt judged by the older butch lesbians; I thought they didn’t take my queerness seriously, assuming it wouldn’t be long before I’d hop-skip in my ruched skirts back to Boytown. Meanwhile, older straight women would condescend to me, make barbs about me trying to steal their men when I was actually trying to flirt with them. They seemed positively frightened of my youth, like it was the trump card that could upend their whole game.

But I was tangled up in society’s bullshit about women and aging, too. As Dori and I walked down the long hallway to her apartment for the first time, radiant and giddy, I also felt a nagging sense of shame. Of all the people in the world, I was drawn to someone who, if society was to be believed, was “past her prime.” What did that say about me?

Sitting in the restaurant during our date, she was wearing a black bra under a purple lace top and looked luminous. I was so impressed by this person: so subtly provocative, quietly confident, unassailed by the world. Later, watching her get up from the bed naked to walk to the bathroom, I thought: What if I think she’s beautiful?

* * *

In those heady first few months, Dori’s frankness and lack of self-flagellation are a breath of fresh air. I feel seen and free. In some ways, my experience stands in stark contrast to the cultural conversation, which—amid the first stirrings of #MeToo—is homing in on power and abuse, consent, and agency. Every other week, there seems to be a new headline about an older man preying on a young woman. These stories are doing important work, exposing all sorts of under-rug-swept rot: questions of gender and clout, shades of violence, and the inordinate amount of trouble that comes with being an ambitious young woman in the world. At the same time, I’m queasy about some of the generalizations being made, how easily it all veers over into smug moralizing and false dichotomies. Before long, the Twitterati seem to have decided that all age-difference relationships are exploitative and Bad.

For the most part, the judgements are leveled at men and rooted in people’s understanding of hetero dynamics. Sometimes, being gay allows you to side-step foregone conclusions. I’m pleasantly surprised by all the people cooing over the relationship between Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor, how they’re lauded everywhere for defying convention. (Dori, not skipping a beat: “Age gap is the new gay.”) At the same time, there’s a patronizing aw-shucksness to the praise—so cute!—that I find infuriating. Lesbians are less likely to be accused of “grooming” a younger partner, but that’s because relationships between women are seen as sexually toothless to begin with.

The specter of the older male gay predator, meanwhile, has long been a staple of anti-LGBT rhetoric, as James Greig recently pointed out in The Guardian. It’s partly because of these parallels that the age-gap outrage makes me uneasy.

Constantly seeing your experiences framed as doomed or morally questionable also takes its toll. With every “ugh and gross,” every flippant comment, I feel a rumble of anxiety in my stomach. Falling in age-gap love, the world seems ready at every turn to remind you of all the ways your relationship might fail.

And so I look for the exceptions. “Did you know,” I announce triumphantly to Dori one morning, “that Lota de Macedo Soares wasn’t Elizabeth Bishop’s only love? After Lota, she fell in love with a girl half her age—Alice Methfessel—and they stayed together for the rest of her life.”

In bed, while we’re having coffee, I read out long passages from Insomniac City, Bill Hayes’s account of his relationship with the much older Oliver Sacks—how they drink wine and share a carrot for dinner, talking and passing it back and forth until it’s gone. It’s my way of saying, See? This can be real.

So I’m stung when, over dumplings at Peking Tavern, Dori makes an off-handed crack about Nick Cave and his younger, model wife.

“He’s been with her forever, though, right?” I ask.

“Eh, only twenty years or so.”

“I’m sorry, how is that not forever?”

“Forever is since you were both nineteen and just out of high school. He only married her when he was, like, forty.”

Whenever her ex comes up in conversation, Dori talks about “my relationship” and “my breakup.” It’s not until later that she’ll begin to add “with Nicky.” It’s fair enough—they were together for almost thirty years; it was the defining relationship of her life—but I can’t help but wince. It sounds like “my relationship” is all there ever has been, all there ever could be. (“You’re a footnote!” Lily Tomlin shouts at her grad-student lover in Grandma.)

I do the only thing I can do: counter Dori’s caution with the optimism and vehemence of youth. “I disagree,” I tell her. “‘Forever’ is from whenever until one of you dies. I think you have to start counting from the other end.”

* * *

One evening, I introduce Dori to my favorite music videos from childhood, the images from the Nineties and Noughties that left an indelible impression on me. Shania Twain in the desert, making my baby-queer heart beat faster by listing all the men that didn’t impress her much; Janet Jackson singing while a second Janet lies on her chest—love and self-love, both stranger notions to me at the time than the hawk perched on her shoulder, the panther that goes tame at her touch.

That hunger for representation is something many queer people have in common, something that, from the outset, sends us hurtling back through the decades. Growing up, Dori and I both looked for answers in the Paris of Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein, the London of Vita and Virginia.

We compare timelines, laughing at the generation gap between us; laughing at the way we slowly focus in on ourselves and the things we want from life, inching closer to understanding. We watch the video for Me Against the Music in which Madonna plays up the age difference between her and Britney Spears by accessorizing with a cane, and then uses it to pin Britney against a wall. “Of course you loved that,” Dori laughs.

I had a poster of Britney in my bedroom, as an effort to be something resembling a normal teenager, but it was always the last few seconds of that video—Madonna leaning in to kiss Britney before she dissolves into thin air, as if undone by the prospect—that I replayed in my head again and again.

You like what you like. Love chooses us.

* * *

As we try to figure out what we’re going to be to each other, the world seems all too keen to slap a label on us. We head out for French-dip sandwiches one Sunday and a guy at the bus stop compliments my hat. Then he notices Dori by my side. “And you’re out with your mother, that’s so great.”

At brunch I’m quiet, still sore and drifty from sex, but as I sip my Bloody Mary I notice the man next to me at the bar noticing us. When Dori helps me into my leather jacket after we’ve settled our tab, I feel his curiosity bristling like a spiky sea thing: Just what is going on here?

Sometimes, these attempts at categorization make me smug: we go out and the world wonders and marvels at us; we are a sight to behold; we are singularly wonderful. But it’s also exhausting, this double helping of queer invisibility, titillation, or outrage. It’s nice to be an unlikely couple, but it can too easily veer over into feeling that we’re an impossible couple.

A few days later, I’m signing in as a guest when the doorman of her building asks, “So you are her…”

I enjoy letting the ellipses hang in the air, refusing to make it easy for him. “Relative?” he finally asks.

“Friend,” I say, not wanting to out her without her permission.

“Oh,” he says, visibly bewildered by the answer. “I thought you were related.”

I’ve always been bemused by people’s inability to see age difference outside the context of familial hierarchies—by the outraged cries of “But she could be your mother/daughter!” Extending that logic, couldn’t you just as well say, about a lover of the same age, “She could be your sister”?

Of course we look for echoes of the familiar in the people we seek out in this world. But love turns us into time travelers. Over a series of months when I’m back home in London, I take to living at night so I can talk to Dori, eight hours behind me, thirty years ahead of me, sending me music from her youth that I’ve never heard. Love resets the clock, I think, as I board another plane out of Greenwich Mean Time to California, from autumn’s bite straight back into summer.

And familiarity is found in unexpected places: in my European-style pancakes that make Dori feel ten years old again because they were her family’s day-before-payday staple, or in the way she watches me read in bed like she used to do with her mother when she was a kid. There’s familiarity, too, in how she catapults me back to my past homes in Cologne and Budapest by letting slip a German or Hungarian phrase, her heritage an uncanny reflection of my journey through the world towards her.

It’s not just age that determines our archetypes, what we like and don’t like. Dori and I howl with laughter at a passage in a lesbian novella in which the younger lover bemoans “all the things they would never do together. They would never go skiing together.” It’s the same tired old stereotypes: old age = pipe and slippers, youth = sports and clubbing. Although her suspicion of the great outdoors is a constant bone of contention between us, it’s Dori who takes me to a queer block party and, fifteen minutes in, sees my stricken face and says, “So we’re done here, right?”

I am young and she is old: I get carded every time we go for a drink. As I wait for her in a diner restroom, a waitress who’s touching up her makeup gives me the once-over in the mirror and says, “Hey cutie,” and I’m not sure whether she’s hitting on me or taking me for a middle-schooler. I look younger than I am, a skinny thing with a bleached-blonde undercut, the same hairstyle as every other dyke in Los Angeles. When a girl my age flirts with me in front of her, Dori thinks it’s hilarious, won’t stop teasing me about having “game.”

But then—I am old and she is young: sitting in her armchair with one knee tucked up, wearing her pale-pink baby tee that says “UNRULY GIRL,” blowing cigar smoke out the window like a schoolgirl sneaking a cigarette. Putting on her old Beatles records: “This one would be worth a lot of money if I hadn’t written my name all over it.” “Why did you?” “Because I was five and it was mine.” I grab the sleeve: her full name over and over again in a childish scrawl, the name I know from business cards, phone calls to doctors, envelopes with plastic windows from the IRS.

We’re all children, still and forever. I sit with my legs drawn up to my chest when I’m upset, still the bullied middle-schooler hiding behind the lockers. When Dori first tells me about how she found out that her ex was having an affair, she twists her fingers, picks at a scab on her thumb until it bleeds. We’re all small.

* * *

I go with Dori when she has to get a wisdom tooth pulled. I feel helpless, watching from the beige mid-century sofa in the waiting room as she walks away with hunched shoulders, her knitted cardigan trailing behind her.

Ultimately, aren’t we discomfited by age because we’re terrified of vulnerability? Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four? The notion that sixty-four qualifies as geriatric-level old seems laughable in this day and age—sixty is the new forty and all that. But still, when you’re in an age-difference relationship, you have to reckon with the possibility that you might find yourself in that situation much sooner. Being needed—or being the one in need. Both are a frightening prospect.

Afterwards, in the Uber home from the dentist, I want to take her hand, but she’s in her own solitary orbit. I look at her profile, her stubborn jaw biting down on a blood-soaked cotton ball. On the radio, a guy sings I wish I knew you when I was young, we could have got so high.

In moments like these, I’m sad that Dori and I never got to be young together. For all the ways in which we might defy genre conventions, there’s one trope that’s inescapable: the sense that we’re scrabbling for time. All the years she has on me are years that I’ll likely spend in this world without her. That disparity makes her cautious, and me impatient.

In time, we’ll make light of all of it—the cremation ad that she gets in the mail one day (“Time Stands Still for No One!”). Her terrible diet—a half-Southerner’s penchant for fried everything—that I try to gently steer her away from, saying, “I’d like you to stick around for at least a little while?” But right now, in this car, I still feel like that little wraith banging on the doors of the adult world. Let me in. Let me love you already.

Later that night, we watch Buffy try to make things work with Angel, her vampire boyfriend more than two centuries her senior. I’ve cooked Dori mashed potatoes and creamed spinach and stirred up salt solution for her to rinse with. For the first time, she is letting me look after her—reluctantly, but it still feels like a victory.

Now she’s on the floor in pajamas, drinking Remy Martin from a shot glass and doing exaggerated mime hands when the angsty piano score comes on.

“Pay attention!” I scold. “You are such a brat!”

“And you are such a mom.”

“Someone’s got to be the grown-up around here.”

She looks up at me. I think of a photo of her that I found the first time she left me by myself in her apartment, her as a little girl in North Carolina. Sometimes, looking at me, she’ll have that exact same expression: earnest, attentive.

I reach out to run my fingers through her hair and she lets her head fall onto my lap, her hair fanning out, red shot through with silver.

I bend over and lightly kiss the top of her head. A child in search of absolution, a mother bestowing her blessing—we’re neither and both. Two women, European and American, young and old—amid all these outward differences, amid the frenzy of the cultural moment, we’re the unlikeliest story: two people trying to be gentle with each other.

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