Our relationship was born of the 21st century. It was new and exciting, living in the glory of the post-Y2K scare. It was composed of wires and motherboards, moving at 100 megabytes a second (we met on Facebook). The first time we met in person was at Stephen’s, a restaurant famous at the time for its large papier-mache art that hung from the ceiling (my favorite was an obese woman swimming in an innertube). We doodled on the paper tablecloth and talked about politics. We drank wine and he paid with a credit card. It felt adult. It felt mature. And it was, for a while, the most mature relationship I had ever been in. It was picnics and movies with subtitles and live jazz shows; it was turbulent nights out at the bars and lazy nights in watching bad movies.
For a while, it was a lot of fun.
Ryan and I had been dating for a few months. He was older. He smoked Camels, and his fingers were yellow and rough from the habit. A gentle wisp of the smell of tobacco followed him everywhere. He was like a well-dressed ashtray. He wore a leather jacket and played the guitar, the piano, and the accordion. He had a special fondness for ragtime and hip-hop, and was currently getting over a nasty coke addiction. My mother didn’t get what I saw inhim. To a nineteen year old, he was perfect.
We were somewhere in rural New York, near the Catskills, where there was still a stubborn layer of snow clinging to the mountainside. The landscape was imposing. Low, jagged mountains squatted against the horizon, huddled under the sky. Their sides threatened to brush against each other and rain rocky debris down upon unsuspecting tourists who dared drive along the narrow road carved haphazardly into the stony wall. Ryan’s little blue Jetta was not fitted for such a road. This Volkswagen was designed for leisurely trips through picturesque villages with clearly defined traffic lanes. If this car were a person, he’d eat too much cake and take long naps every afternoon. This was a car that enjoyed the finer things. It was not luxurious, but contentedly comfortable. It was the Bilbo Baggins of German engineering. And as the Jetta clung desperately to the twisty mountain road, I could almost hear it longing for its pipe and a comfy place to lie down.
He had suggested that, over spring break, we take a vacation, just the two of us. The prospect of a springtime romantic getaway instantly produced images of hot sand and icy tropical drinks and cool sea foam brushing lightly against my toes. I agreed that a vacation was a good idea. The sunny beach in my mind, however, was mercilessly crushed and swept under the rug with one word: skiing.
Now, my mind was flooded with aching calf muscles and snow that ignored the specially-designed pants you tucked carefully over your boots and soaked your socks with icy malice.
“Everyone goes to the beach,” Ryan had said, his voice waxing acid; he emphasized “everyone” like he knew them personally, and just plain didn’t like them. “Let’s do something different. Something special.”¨
Ephebophilia is a sexual attraction to mid to late adolescents experienced by adults; hebephilia is an attraction to younger pubescents. These two terms often get lumped with pedophilia, the sexual attraction to children. Gerontophilia is the quiet, mild-mannered cousin of these forms of chronophilia.—arousal stimulated by persons from a certain age group. Gerontophilia is the sexual preference for the elderly. Pedophiles are intoxicated by the corruptible innocence children embody; ephebophiles and hebephiles are looking for youthful, barely blossoming girls and boys (nymphets, as Nabokov called them). Gerontophiles, on the other hand, have no interest in childish naivete. They are drawn to experience, to aging skin and bodies retreating from fertility and functionality into quiet submission to time. Age is not just wise, but sexy. Desirable. Undeniable.
We were staying with a homeless, middle-aged musician named Peggy. She was house-sitting for an elderly woman who lived just outside of Woodstock. No one told me exactly why she was without a permanent residence, but after meeting her, I assumed it was from an incurable case of eccentric.
“I’ve know Peggy since I was a kid,” Ryan explained to me in the car. “There’s always been a lot of sexual tension between us. But we’ve talked it out.”
This was when I started to suspect I hated my boyfriend.
The details of this conversation between Ryan and our homeless hostess are vague and particularly well-guarded pieces of dirty laundry. The only soiled information I could steal from the hamper was that Ryan had been fourteen; a budding, youthful boy who was erupting with acne and Oedipal love. I wondered if Peggy actually felt the same way about him at the time, or if she’d been humoring Ryan to avoid hurting him. It wasn’t unreasonable to assume that a naïve woman might lead a young man on so he won’t get his heart broken. A perfectly reasonable explanation.
The temporary apartment was small—a sort of senior citizen bachelorette pad—and mostly cat-themed. There were shiny china cats with thinly-painted eyes, and porcelain plates with kittens sitting calmly in gold-framed white voids Carefully stitched cat eyes stared vacantly from most of the cushions and blankets. If I had been brave enough to go through the dresser drawers, there surely would have been some spectacular cat sweaters, the kind that are framed in daisies. The apartment also featured one live cat: a fat, orange tabby who specialized in looking disinterested. His name was forgettable; one of those cliché, cute animal names, like Sgt. McTubbums or Whoopsy Poopsy.
Peggy greeted us in the gravel parking area as the Jetta came to a thankful stop. My heart sank; she looked fantastic for her age, or, I begrudgingly thought, for anyone’s age. Her hair—gray, courtesy of Father Time—shined in tight, bouncy curls that vaguely reminded me of a silver fox. Her skin was very tan and freckled, and her smile was white and enthusiastic. Her breasts were infuriatingly perky. I noticed glumly as she led us inside that her ass was fabulous.
But that didn’t matter, because looks weren’t everything. Solid relationships were built on compatibility; if your personalities didn’t mesh, it didn’t matter how fabulous your ass was. Unfortunately, Ryan and Peggy were like peanut butter and chocolate. They talked endlessly about music and music culture, about spirituality and happiness and other hippie bullshit. Peggy was not very religious, but very spiritual. This is the mantra often uttered by pseudo-religious types who nervously stand between religion (finding it too dogmatic and restrictive) and atheism (finding it too depressing) and choose a happy middle ground instead. Peggy was one of these. Ryan was visibly comforted by her fluffy, easy-to-swallow ideology. He was often depressed by death, and Peggy easily filled the void with her happy-go-lucky-sunshine-and-lollipops approach to life, conveniently wrapped up in her attractive, maternal body. He completely believed in Peggy’s version of the afterlife: when you die, your mind breaks down and your life flashes before your eyes. That moment, for some reason that I couldn’t extricate from Ryan’s regurgitated psychobabble, lasted for an eternity.
I could not fill this void in the same way. I was everything Peggy wasn’t. I was young, depressing, realistic, an atheist, a couch potato, and about as musical as a sofa. Looking at them, all I saw were similarities. Except, of course, for Peggy’s crow’s feet.
The parents of a girl I went to high school with were born eight years apart. They met when the father—Jerry—was twenty-three, and the mother—Karen—was fifteen. I can imagine her attraction to the older man who pulled up in his old truck outside of the high school, leaning against the bumper, arms crossed, tonguing a cigarette…it probably stemmed from that Jurassic part of the brain, that reptilian desire that lurks in the back of our thoughts, flicking its forked tongue and telling you, “Yes. Go for the Marlon Brando bad-boy. He is strong. He is sexy,” while your better judgment frantically talks about responsibility and long-term commitment in a shrill squeak. She probably wouldn’t even question what a man who was so much older than she was was doing hanging out by a high school.
I can imagine him, too. The wolf in the sheep’s costume, stalking the schoolyard, drooling over barely formed hips and breasts. I can imagine Jim yearning for those young, bony bodies that were still, in so many ways, the bodies of children. But I don’t like to.
The Urban Dictionary defines jam as follows: two or more musicians making music together, but not an official band. It took Peggy and Ryan approximately half an hour to get out their instruments—a fiddle and an accordion, respectively—and begin making vaguely folkish music together. I watched helplessly from the 4×4 dining nook as Mr. Cuddlesnuff rubbed his head against my hand in a way that suggested he was merely bored, and I was the most amusing thing available. My boyfriend and our hostess sat on the couch, running their fingers quickly up and down their instruments, rocking back and forth in time with each others’ bodies, knocking their knees together, sweating with enthusiasm and laughing…
I told them I needed some air.
Karen and Jerry were married while she was still in high school. Her parents told her not to. Her friends probably told her not to. Common sense should have told her not to. But she was experiencing that hyper-love young people often experience, that love that seems to tear at your insides and exists outside of any partner or actual feelings you may have. Like many young girls, I’m sure Karen thought she had found The One, her Knight in Shining Armor who would rescue her and whisk her away into a sunset that never ended; I’m sure she thought she was some kind of country princess or rural Cinderella, and this was her happily ever after.
Two days later, someone suggested we go skiing. “Yes,” I thought, remembering the warm sand and hot sun I was missing, and the forty-eight hour musical interlude I’d just endured. “Why don’t we do that.”
We took Peggy’s SUV, a forest green Jeep from the 90’s. It thundered along the mountainous terrain in a way that would have made the modest Jetta cry. We mostly talked about Old-Time music festivals, which resulted in me staring very sullenly out the window. Ryan enthusiastically fed me a line his mother had used on me several times: “Republicans play Bluegrass, Democrats play Old-Time.” I nodded, not really understanding the difference between the two. Something about how you play the banjo, but to my untrained ears, it was all the same twang. Peggy agreed, then talked endlessly about her Women’s Studies minor she had received sometime in the late 70’s. I wondered if Ryan’s parents had even known each other in the late 70’s.
The resort was mostly deserted, save for the locals—identifiable by their modest, personalized gear—the hardcore enthusiasts—wearing enough neon to dress every teenager from the 1980’s—and ourselves. Ryan wondered out loud where everyone was. I informed him that they’d probably all gone to the beach, adding an edge of iciness to my voice that was excessively inappropriate, but immensely satisfying.
Stuffed into my unflattering ski suit—I resembled a lumpy, burnt marshmallow strapped to skis—Ryan and I were left to practice on the Bunny Hill while Peggy—her body still managing to look trim and sporty—warmed up on the real mountain that towered menacingly behind us. Since we were at the same experience level (zero) I assumed we would both be reasonably bad. This was half true: I was very bad. For the first five minutes, I focused on standing. This endeavor was met with little success. Introducing movement produced horrible results. Meanwhile, my boyfriend whizzed past me in flashy zigzags like he’d been doing it for years. As I attempted to stomp up the slope, toddlers rushing past me in a blur of colorful woolen snow caps, he called down to me from the top:
“Enough practice! Let’s go try the mountain!” He said it with a kind of boyish enthusiasm that only succeeded in filling me with bitter exasperation; not unlike pouring butane on an oil fire. I smiled and called back, “Alright,” and barely saved myself from falling face first into the snow.
We waited by the ski lift Peggy had indicated as our rendezvous. When she came back down, her face was red and gleaming. I tried not to imagine doing things to it with my ski pole.
“Shall we?” she asked, and we lined up and waited for the lifts to scoop us up and carry us to the top. I watched the skiers beneath us, shredding and weaving and appearing to be having a great time, and quietly hated them all.
My performance on the Bunny Hill should have been a huge indication that I was not ready for anything remotely athletic or challenging. There was a voice coming from my Common Sense. It was screaming. When was the last time you did a stretch, let alone played a sport? You’ve never skied before, you have no natural ability, and you’re about to throw yourself down a mountain?! There’s still time to duck out and try to convince the bartender at the lodge that you’re twenty-one! I smothered it under an emotional tumor of jealousy, frustration, and denial. This was my romantic vacation. I was here to have fun. I was going to prove to Ryan, Peggy, and myself that I could have fun.
And then, my misery truly began.
Karen had six children by the time she was in her mid-thirties. Two of them miscarried. There were two girls: Sara, the oldest and my peer, and Lisa, the youngest. People often muttered quietly about Jerry and his daughters. He was always a little too close to them, always touching them a little too much, joking about their bodies and their sexualities in ways that were inappropriate for a father. They found bruises on Lisa’s thighs once, I heard, but nothing came of it. I don’t think anyone wanted to believe that this man had married this girl to make more girls for himself. No one wanted to think about his incestuous harem, his pre-pubescent farm, his chronophile paradise. Maybe that’s why I could find out so little about Peggy and Ryan’s relationship. When an older person takes a younger person as their lover, there’s a sense that someone is at a disadvantage: he doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into, she’s using him, why can’t they find someone their own age, etc. The age difference, even without the inbred connotations, gives your skin the creepy crawlies. The idea of the old and the new co-mingling their bodies, the thought of the near-death and the near-birth uniting in carnal bliss, of that snake of existence coiling in on itself and eating its tail, is too profound and disturbing for most well-adjusted people to contemplate for too long.
Turning resulted in falling. Getting up resulted in falling. Downward movement resulted in falling. It took a matter of minutes for me to become the very likeness of Dan Akroyd at the end of Ghostbusters when he’s covered in a fresh coat of Staypuft. I could feel my legs and hips throbbing with fresh bruises. Ryan and Peggy, patient at first, quickly forged ahead and out of sight, and I was left to the mercy of the skiers. They didn’t even attempt to feign pity; they openly snickered at the sweaty, marshmallow girl with damp hair barely avoiding a tree, only to fly into a snowdrift.
Three runs later, there wasn’t a part of my body that didn’t ache, and the skiers were playing hacky-sack with my pride somewhere on the trail. I attempted to play it cool when I asked if we could leave:
“I hurt. Everywhere. I don’t want to ski anymore.” I tried not to whimper.
“Oh…” Ryan and Peggy looked at each other, both disappointed. “One more run? Then we’ll go.” I attempted to adhere to this seemingly innocent request, but my body refused to cooperate and demanded to sit down every few minutes. My companions were gone almost immediately, and as I vainly tried to catch up, it dawned on me that at this pace, it could take hours to reach the bottom, and my energy was waning fast. I decided to adopt a “fuck it” attitude and chucked what was left of my tattered dignity into the pine trees. Ignoring the confused faces that normally flew past me, but had taken the time to slow down and watch, I took off my skis and slid down on the sled God gave me: my cold, bruised ass. People called from the lifts and watched in amusement as I slid by, legs stretched out ahead and skis resting in my lap. I waved at a few of them, a genuine smile on my face.
At the bottom, people raised their eyebrows at me as I hoisted my battered body off the ground with the grace of a drunken gazelle. I dumped my skis in the depository by the deck, where the more glamorous looking resort patrons nursed brightly colored cocktails and laughed at nothing in particular, and promised myself a hot bath and something really unhealthy to eat.
It was about this time that I noticed Peggy and Ryan were not on the deck. I couldn’t have beaten them down the mountain; my rump was not designed to out-slide skis. At least not on snow. I searched the patio, checking all the sunbathers’ faces before looking in the changing room and cafeteria. No Ryan. No Peggy. Beyond exhausted, beyond upset, I slumped into an armchair, and waited.
Half an hour passed.
They came from the ski lifts. They were sweaty and smiling. They looked happy. I thought it resembled the kind of happy that you feel when you’ve done something you’ve been waiting to try. Maybe I was imagining it.
“Sorry,” Ryan said, standing with his skis. “We decided to go a couple more times.”
“Oh,” I replied quietly, noting the glances and barely hidden looks, their bodies so close as they stared at each other across the generations’ gap. I didn’t know if I believed him.
This story was the winner of the New Delta Review’s Creative Nonfiction contest. E.E.W. Christman‘s other work, “We’re Not Killing Mockingbirds Anymore,” is also fabulous.