I Googled him the next day, and lo and behold, right there on his college athlete stats page, was his birthdate. He was 35.
Suddenly our age spread had widened. Thirteen years apart. Thirteen years. I burst into tears in front of my computer.
I confronted him that evening on the phone. "I didn't want to blurt out how old I was at dinner after you went on and on about what a big age difference eight years was. What was I supposed to say?" Michael protested.
"You were supposed to say your real age, like I did!" I exclaimed.
"I know. I know. I screwed up," he admitted. "I was going to tell you the next time I saw you, I promise. I just… I knew you'd freak if I tacked on five more years, and we were having such a good time. I didn't want to ruin it. I really like you, Vanessa."
"I really like you too," I said meekly, my anger fading. I gave in and let him off the hook, and he was so grateful. He texted me all night from his client dinner, telling me how excited he was to see me again. There weren't any games with him—he was totally upfront about the fact that he thought we would be great together. It was so different from the guys my age I had met in the city, eager for the drunk bar make-out but far less eager to have a girlfriend. My friends couldn't believe how old he was, but they could see how happy I was. But how could it ever work? I agonized over it for days. Did I really want to date an older man? Why couldn't I meet a nice 25-year-old like I was supposed to? But shouldn't my feelings matter more than an arbitrary number?
After all, Michael didn't care. If we like each other it shouldn't matter what age we are, he said. But it never stopped being an issue for me. I lied and told my parents that Michael was 30. I delayed taking him out with my friends because I was worried he wouldn't fit in. And when I finally did, he didn't. We went to a dive bar in the Lower East Side with a bunch of my friends. I cringed as Michael cracked an inappropriate joke about my girlfriend's low-cut shirt—I think it was his attempt at "college humor." The last straw was when he bought a round of Grey Goose shots for everyone. It was obvious to me that he was trying so hard to impress my friends, and it just made him seem even older and more out of touch. Embarrassed and enraged, I dragged him home in a huff.
It wasn't easy for him either. I was young, excited to explore the city, constantly drinking too much and staying out until last call. My roommate and I would routinely go out and try and get guys to buy us drinks, a practice Michael was not entirely fond of, not to mention the fact that after six vodka shots from random guys, I was far from sober. Once after a long night out, I came home and picked a fight with him: I had caught his disapproving look when I stumbled in my three-inch heels, and I was sick of feeling like I'd come home to my mother. So I went into the living room, got a piece of pizza from the pizza box, and threw it at him. "You're too old for me, and this is stupid," I said, and stalked off. The pizza stains that are still on my sheets serve as a constant reminder of my stupidity that night. But Michael forgave me.
In truth, my immaturity—and insecurity about his age—drove us to the verge of breaking up too many times to count. I couldn't relax and accept Michael's age for what it was, especially when we were out in public. I felt like every time we went to a fancy restaurant, the maître d' thought I was Michael's daughter. We would kiss at the table, and I'd catch (or maybe it was my imagination) the waiter's surprised look, and then I felt like he'd pegged me as some kind of gold-digger. My guy friends teased me constantly, calling him "Old Guy," and I felt like I had to make fun of myself for dating Michael before anyone else did. I went out more to prove that I could still act 23, even if I was dating an older man. That only made things with Michael more rocky.
Many times, I thought that the relationship that perhaps was never destined to succeed would finally come to an end. But he stuck with me. And when we were alone, I found myself growing more and more attached to him. Michael treated me so well and I felt like I could really be myself with him—even if that self was silly and immature. Each week got a little easier, as we tried to balance separate friends, living on separate banks of the same river, and totally separate schedules (me in graduate school, him working). It takes a 36-year-old man to have enough patience to endure 30 phone calls, eight text messages and one cryptic note on his apartment door—written in lipstick—just because he didn't text me to say goodnight. I think any man with an ounce of sense would be long gone by now, and that showed me how much Michael did really care about me.