I'm 37, but I don't look a day over 36. Gray hair has begun to cluster up front: I could be headed toward a Susan Sontag stripe. My face is as lined as any 20-year smoker's; I gave up cigarettes a year ago, at which point my stomach quit being flat. When I get dolled up, men look at me and people in their 20s are surprised I'm "that old." But invisibility is creeping up.
If I lived in the other Washington, I'd use my fading charms to land a congressman or a GS15 in his 50s, then get my gray touched up at the spa with the other power wives. But my Washington is more like normal cities, where artists, musicians and writers form their tribes, collaborate, gossip and dye their hair primary colors. The hipsters in their 20s may still move to New York; those in their 30s and 40s probably won't.
Power in this sphere is more evanescent than on Capitol Hill. The youngest scenesters, the boys in the bands, wield their beauty and unlimited potential. Middle-aged power is harder to quantify, but everyone at my 20th high school reunion alluded to it. We've taken the world's measure, and we fit in it more comfortably than we did 10 years ago. We own some history and some wisdom. We knew not to buy bell bottoms this time. The distaff half of us also gets to try a new kink: being the older woman.
A few years ago, my jeweler friend, Linda, procured me my first man born in the 1970s. Happily married, cheerfully abrasive, Linda always meets the best-looking man, straight or gay, in any room. One Friday night we went to see our friend's multimedia show and sat surrounded by screens full of video linked to throbbing electronic music. Linda got bored and went to the lobby, but I was entranced. Toward the end of the set, the group laid out a microphone for the audience. I headed toward the stage as devoid of musical talent as ever and yelped into the mike like Yoko Ono. I'd never done anything like that.
After the show, Linda herded me and the cutest guy from the lobby to a new dance club. I congratulated her on her acquisition and she squelched me: "I'm pretty sure he's gay. Hey, Jason, are you gay?" Jason sidestepped the question and started checking me out.
I was wearing my art bra with the doll hands sewed on and was still buzzing from the show. Linda left to bark some orders at the DJ, and Jason and I leaned against the wall of the club. I hunched a little so he'd be taller than me. He was lovely, with pink cheeks and excited eyes, the softest-spoken confident person I'd ever met. I sent "touch me" telepathy and cheered inside when he reached out and ran his hand down my bare side. We both looked down at his hand for a moment, then stared at each other, eyes widening as we figured out we were going to kiss.
I heard Linda snort as she came around the corner and saw us. "What, is this to prove you're not gay?" she drawled. I gave her the finger from behind his back, then tried to wave her away without breaking the kiss.
I'd worn a bra out of the house, I'd yelped with the band, I'd flipped off Linda, and here I was making out with a gorgeous guy at the edge of the thumping dance floor. It was a triumph of high school pleasures that all held up wonderfully. I declined when Jason invited me back to his apartment. I wanted the evening to stay perfect, as full of yearning and promise as a Ronettes song.
Months later my editor at the Washington City Paper asked me to write about an art show Jason curated and was in. I said, "Full disclosure: I made out with him."
My editor pondered whatever journalistic ethic covers that and asked: "When?"
"About a year ago."
"I think that's long enough -- go ahead and write it."
Jason now lived with a willowy 24-year-old who was magazine-beautiful and had a face eerily like his. Envy with a little pride tweaked me whenever these exquisite twins would glide into an event. I handled the journalist's dilemma by focusing less on Jason's so-so work and more on the strengths of the show in my article, anxious to be neither Charles Foster Kane nor a spurned bluestocking.
Jason was the first in a handful of dalliances with men 10 or more years younger than me. Usually I just make out with them, though I've brought a few home. These encounters happen because the young ones carpe diem more often than my "natural" cohort. The in-the-moment kiss never happens with a 40ish bachelor, because he stops to think of the consequences. The young men are a break from consequences and from high-stakes late-30s mating.
The Jasons, Justins and Dylans aren't some sexual holy grail: Old guys are better in bed and more interesting to talk to because they've been around the block. What's fun with the youngsters is how the power dynamic gets bent. They hold the traditionally female object-of-desire cards, and I get to do the courtin'. It's not a total gender switch: These are, after all, horny young men who don't need much cajoling. They are, however, more androgynous and thus better at receiving certain attentions than men of previous generations. The cutest, most "Velvet Goldmine"-looking ones field compliments to their appearance as masterfully as Scarlett O'Hara.
Once in the having-sex realm, however, even the flirts seem relieved to defer to my experience. It's understood I'll set the logistical and emotional terms of the encounter, and I see no reason for a one-night stand to be cold. Young men are more willing to invest their warmth in the very short term: They haven't begun hoarding it yet. They're nicer and less guarded. I was too, 10 years ago.
The last doubt that such dalliances are a power trip was erased when I noticed the size trend. I've always preferred men taller than me, but most of my young guys have been short and slender. One morning after dropping a delicate 23-year-old off at the subway, I had to admit it: I was no different than a balding guy in a red convertible. I liked being in charge, and I liked knowing someone so young desired me, that I had captured him.
I do not generalize here: I know plenty of couples who transcend age gaps and plenty of bright, wonderful people in their 20s. So perhaps I've gotten jiggy with a particularly callow cross-section of Gen Y, and maybe my lechery serves to protect my female ego. Whatever the cause, I recently sank to a new depth, a personal best in cravenness. A blond surfer dude with MTV cheekbones flirted clumsily with me at an outdoor concert, and on my way out I pressed my card leeringly into his hand. A week later his slow voice was on my answering machine, addressing me as "man"; when I called back, his mother answered the phone. In our only phone conversation, he told me he was an actor and had played a tree in a local production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," so I suggested the new movie version for our date. At dinner beforehand I felt like I was drawing out a surly 8-year-old, so I drank too much. Slumped in the movie seat, I ran down the facts: He was 26 and head-turningly handsome; he was a scrub; I would never see him again. Then, I blush to admit, I groped his unresponsive thigh during the Michelle Pfeiffer-Rupert Everett scenes.
I am not proud of copping that unmutual feel; I never thought I could feel so much like cradle-robbing Patsy from "Absolutely Fabulous." I do not consider Patsy or Johnny Carson or the old rich guy who married Anna Nicole Smith role models; I crave emotional connection as much as the next gal. But people of a certain age trading their power, access, confidence, knowledge or money for youth and beauty is as old as the sea. Even as we plunge headlong into age, can't we still wade a bit in the shallows?