It started in Houston. I was 35, in flight from corporate America and the maze of gray-walled office cubes that had begun to leach the color from my soul, when I decided to transform myself into a graduate student in Texas. I was also in flight from a particular stereotype that I'd sworn never to become: the overanxious, time's a-tickin', neurotic single woman over 35 living in New York. By moving halfway across the country I thought I could save myself from that fate. I'll be that woman elsewhere, I said to myself, but I won't be her in Manhattan. So I found myself in Texas, cruising a football-field-size supermarket whose aisles all seemed to lead to a troughlike freezer that ran the length of the store, packed with enormous piles of shrink-wrapped meat.
I'd spot a woman halfway down the aisle and notice the flash of a diamond on her left hand as she stacked cereal boxes around the kids playing in her cart. She must be around my age, I'd think, but then as she drew closer, I'd realize, no, she's not, she's younger. And she was not, as I initially guessed, a year or two younger. She was more like seven or eight, or even 10, years younger. During my first week in Texas, when a barely post-pubescent-looking clerk checked out my videocassette, I found myself staring at the huge gold circle engulfing his thin finger. "Are you married?" I blurted out. "You look so young!" He took it in stride. "I am young," he said. I mentioned that I had recently moved from New York City, where getting married under age 30 was the equivalent of being a child bride. "Why didn't you just decide to live together?" I asked naively. He smiled. "You're in the Bible Belt now; we don't do that down here." I sighed. In time, I grew used to hearing the female undergraduates I taught gleefully refer to newly changing their names and find excuses to say "my husband" to one another. These were girls, who when I referred to them as "women" in class, seemed to not know whom I was talking about.
The year before, a long-distance relationship I had been in for five years had finally cratered and sunk. Besides the graduate students in my program, a motley group of all ages, everyone I met in Houston in his mid-30s was already married, or divorced with two kids and didn't want more. So I did what most stranded people do. I turned to the Internet and logged on. I'd heard the range of stories: Everyone either knew someone who married a person they met online or had a story of meeting a person who seemed to be a distant cousin to the image posted, hailing from 10 years past and 15 pounds back. I was cautious, but curious enough to give it a try.
I found the best picture I had and put my creative writing skills to use and wrote ad copy for myself. Since I knew I was just in Texas temporarily for school, I decided to canvas the country and see what I found. Soon enough, my in box was flooded. I was thrilled. Quickly, however, a pattern emerged. For every hit from men within my age range came many more from men seven to 15 years older. "Finally ready to settle down," wrote a 45-year-old in Miami. "Worked too hard for too long and now eager to do the wife and kids thing," said a 47-year-old in New Mexico. "This should be a no-brainer," insisted a 52-year-old academic in Utah, who claimed I was the only woman in the pool he'd found who had studied beyond a master's degree. "Except that I'm looking for a peer," I wrote back, "someone around my own age and at a similar place in his life. I think a 17-year age difference would be too much." His reply was chilly. Apparently, it had never crossed his mind that I might perceive us to be mismatched.
At first I attributed my dates' decade-plus age gap to male swagger and the desire for a midlife ego boost. But after asking a 42-year-old man directly why he listed only women up to age 35 as within his "desired age range," I got the forthright reply I had begun to suspect. "Because I don't want to throw away the condoms on the second date," he said. "I want to be with someone who still has a few years left on her clock" was his unapologetic response. "So you're looking for the next available womb," I countered, "someone you think is still fertile enough to incubate your offspring, rather than a partner." "No, no, no, of course not!" he insisted. He wasn't that utilitarian; he only wanted someone who was still within a certain window.
These were Type A types, bursting with accomplishment and professional swagger. They had climbed the ladder and were now at its top, stunned to realize the narrow platform they ascended so doggedly held room for only one. "Meet wife, have children" was something they'd thought would just happen along the way -- but it hadn't. Now that they'd set the goal of getting married, they seemed more than a little surprised (bewildered, in fact) that this was one goal they couldn't make happen by simply applying their will. Often their opening monologues included the recent loss of a parent, or the revelation that they were staring down 50, which seemed to have galvanized their efforts to spawn. And with their eyes now on their rearview mirrors, many seemed to regret their noncommittal 20s and 30s, when driving to the top of their fields seemed to be the only thing on their minds.
"But you're 48," I would say. "How old will you be when your kids are in high school?" "Do you think you'll live to see your grandchildren?" I asked one man, who maintained it was just the next generation that mattered to him. "Did you ever consider," I said to a 47-year-old who disavowed adoption, "that if you're with a partner who is too old to have kids, then that means you can't have children either? That your partner's limitations are your limitations, because you love her?" Apparently not was the answer; his biology meant endless possibility, but hers was an obstacle. In my barrage of 10-years-plus suitors, I finally recognized a mix of both male hubris and underlying pathos. How could so many men have woken up to a desire for a family at an astonishingly and woundingly late point?
Some men told me -- and I believed them -- that they found themselves in a position they had never intended, that they had wanted families when younger but hadn't found the right woman or the right time. They'd heard the ticking of their "social clock," as I came to call it, but things didn't coalesce, and again, they had always assumed (at least biologically) they had time on their side. But when I pressed them on their dismissal of women who fell above their chosen age limit, I realized that -- despite their liberal stances, staunch commitment to equality, "never a sexist phrase would pass their lips" attitudes -- these men were reducing women to their utility, specifically, their fertility, in service of their own delayed desires to have a child. I understood that once I had passed a predetermined number of years, I would no longer be of use -- an objectification that left me stunned.
At the same time, I had to admit to myself that there were ways in which a 10-year gap could benefit both parties. Many an anxious 35-year-old woman might be thrilled to meet up with an affluent and also eager 45-year-old, since the likelihood was greater she could take time off from working through his largess. He might even be (as one 53-year-old man reasoned to me) semiretired, therefore more available for diaper duty. But though still holding open the possibility of falling wildly in love, I sensed that scenario wasn't likely for me. What I wanted, above all else, was to be with a peer: someone within a few years of my age and, more significantly, at a similar place in life.
I didn't disavow that someone 10 years older might have something in common with me, but when I met these men, it was rarely the case. Their grizzled hair (or what was left of it), paunchy bellies and lined faces placed them in a life stage that seemed distant from mine -- still finding my way into a new career, longing to start down the path to family with someone also navigating the way for the first time. The subtle (and often not so subtle) message I sensed was that it was fine to be above 45 and starting a family as a man, but not as a woman.
Listening to my female friends talk of going it alone, bypassing a partner in favor of a few vials of sperm, deliberately separating mating from procreating, and how much simpler it seemed once the two were specifically unjoined, the idea began to fix itself in my head. I asked one 49-year-old man, who claimed a peripatetic academic path and a bad mustache had kept him from a serious relationship over the past 15 years, what he would do if he turned the corner on 50 and was still unattached. He didn't know, he said, but all he did know was, he suddenly desperately needed to have a wife and a child. When I pressed him further -- how old was too old? -- he nearly wept as he admitted how crushing it would be to let his dream die. One clock ticked out how old he would be when he had his imagined toddlers, while another calculated how much younger down the age scale he'd have to reach for a partner. When I later saw his profile posted on a new dating site, with five years shaved off his age, the poignancy of his plight only confused my sympathies once again.
I found myself suddenly realizing, and saying, that I would never let that become my fate. If I turned 40 alone, I would make the decision to have a child on my own or forgo the dream, but it would be an active choice. And for a brief moment, I felt a surge of empowerment. I realized that as a woman, I could make it all happen directly, if needed. If a child became my sole goal, that was closer to my grasp than it would ever be for him, and I couldn't help feeling a schadenfreude-like sense of temporary relief.
In Houston, my students, some 21 and pregnant, some 21 and already parents, seemed as fumbling and awkward as puppies. Many, I knew, were bound never to finish their college degrees. Many, I knew, were equally bound for divorce or partnerships that reflected naive choices. They would have bad matches, damaging marriages, relationships that set them up for trouble it might take years, or even a lifetime, to undo. I wondered how many of them would even know what they didn't know about love when they picked a spouse at 21. Or, when they had ever been only with a high school boyfriend, if they would realize how dramatically different sex can be with each new partner. They weren't ever going to be able to choose a relationship from column A to suit one mood, column B for another. But, I had to admit, they might also dance at their 50th wedding anniversary party, something a few calculations forced me to realize I was unlikely to do. It was an awareness that came with wave of pity -- and a twinge of envy.
They were married. They had jumped through the window even though it had opened just a crack, as I e-mailed my panoply of men who seemed to be reaching out to catch the last light streaming in. When I moved from Eastern Time to Central, I never imagined I'd be entering another zone altogether when it came to pacing out my life's milestones. And I'd never thought that at 35 I would suddenly be so aware of my perceived staleness, while so many men, 10 years farther down the line, ached for what youth I still had.
Two years later, degree in my still unringed hand, I left for the left coast and moved another time zone earlier. It was easy enough to change my "geographical preferences" online and start over again -- the pool was larger, as was the state -- but I was still romantically adrift. I found yet more men in their 30s wallowing in the suspended seek-your-bliss attenuation of their just-out-of-college years, who claimed they could never dream of starting families until they had established their careers -- but wouldn't suffer women who'd also invested in a decade or more of soul-searching and wandering before wanting a family. And I started to believe that the consumerlike aspects of online dating only exacerbated the sense of entitlement that browsers felt as they scrolled past mug shots and catchy phrases, waiting for a flicker of something real to break through their stats.
The snap judgments I made, and that I knew were made of me, left me tense and anxious. During one heated discussion, a 43-year-old told me he refused contact with women above age 36, and claimed that women also screened strictly by numbers: height and perceived income. I wouldn't be a baby machine for the solitary man who suddenly needed a family; but so too I knew I likely wouldn't make a love match gauging partner potential by the number of spelling errors a writer made.
I began asking friends to set me up, to help me meet someone "the old-fashioned way," and I curtailed how often I let the encapsulated life histories march across my screen. A few months after a string of disappointing "go sees," as I came to call the Starbucks size-up in which each party had 30 minutes to audition for the role of actual date, I signed off on online dating for good. Then, one night soon after, on a whim I went to meet an old friend who was in town for a conference.
That friend brought along another friend, and though the restaurant was loud and our table filled with unexpected guests, I sensed in him compatibility -- not only in our ages but also in our values, education, careers and curiosity. After dinner everyone scattered to different obligations and disparate cities, but when I received an e-mail from the man a few weeks later I was glad to continue the conversation.
E-mail pings kept our connection alive, and then led to an epistolary spark, quickly followed by a romantic visit. First I met the busy traveler at a chaotic dinner meeting, then I grew to care for the easy wit and graceful charm revealed in his erudite letters. And when finally, at our airport reunion, I saw the cleft chin and hazel eyes, I remembered: Here was a whole person, not a profile.