I was lying next to the Older Man in bed, our limbs barely touching in the nighttime heat. We'd come back to my place after a hillside party off Mulholland Drive, a raucous bash crowded with his music industry colleagues. Woozy from shots of Bacardi and too much time in the hot tub, I whispered a question that had been swirling in my head for weeks.
"So, what are we?"
The Older Man rolled over and exhaled, his eyes half-closed. It was after 3 a.m., and he was leaving on a business trip the next day.
"Look, I'm going to be in meetings all week," he said, in quiet tones that I mistook for tenderness. "I'm not planning on hooking up while I'm there."
That should have been my breaking point — the utterance that crushed my fantasies of commitment from this charismatic alpha-male. But it wasn't. I was 23 and disillusioned with the guys in my age bracket; he was 37 and redolent of self-assured sophistication. I was convinced he was my perfect match. I just had to convince him I was his.
I'd met the Older Man at a DWP community meeting in February. I was there as a neophyte reporter — he, as a resident concerned about service changes in his neighborhood. Still reeling from the boyish screenwriter who'd cheated on me, I yearned for proof I could be loved again. Preferably by someone emotionally mature enough to appreciate me.
"Aren't you kind of young to be here?" he asked, waiting in line for coffee and doughnuts. I tossed my hair and told him I'd take that as a compliment.
We went to dinner at Birds on Franklin Avenue a few days later. Cruising up Laurel Canyon afterward, he charmed me with morsels of music history (Frank Zappa once lived here, Joni Mitchell there). Suddenly he stopped the car. Through a clearing between pricey chunks of real estate, a brilliant patch of city lights unfurled below, stretching into the night like an endless possibility. We kissed, our eyes twinkling.
Friends balked when I told them the Older Man had 14 years on me. They asked what we could possibly have in common. I waved away their doubts. Why should the year we were born matter? It's just an arbitrary number, I retorted. Plenty of couples with wider age gaps enjoy successful relationships. But privately I wondered if they were right. It didn't seem far-fetched that a man nearing 40 might be on a different wavelength.
At first we saw each other every weekend. Then every few days. I'd spent the past two years swaddled in Sherman Oaks with my screenwriter, hardly venturing beyond our neighborhood since we'd moved to L.A. Now I wanted to break out of my shell, to take in as much of the city as I could with each breath.
I watched for signs I was too youthful for him — more energy past 11 p.m., more stamina on steep hikes above the Griffith Observatory. Yet to my delight, I turned out to be the one struggling to keep up. The Older Man yanked me out of my shell, all right — to lavish parties at private estates, backstage binges at rock concerts, VIP rooms at upscale clubs and TV show tapings. We sipped Pinot Grigio at the Hollywood Bowl and guzzled Guinness at Molly Malone's. We gorged ourselves on 15-course dinners at the home of a chef he knew from who-knows-where.
With the Older Man, I was living a whirlwind life that wallflower-me would never have imagined. The only thing missing was the blissful clincher where we finally call ourselves a couple.
One night in late September we went out for sushi. I was upset because he'd posted a picture of us on Facebook but refused to tag me in it. Something about a stalker ex-girlfriend. I chewed my albacore and crispy onions loudly through his response.
He took a call from a buddy. "I'm just finishing a lovely dinner with my friend Rachel," he told the voice on the other end, tickling my arm with his index finger. He winked.
That's when I realized: We would have no clincher. I was only a "friend" to him — a name to scrawl as his plus-one on guest lists, a convenient excuse for the next girl he'd cart around town when he avoided her on Facebook.
Couldn't he see I was worth more than that?
It wasn't his calendar age that was the problem. Our partnership didn't work because he was an emotional teenager. He didn't want to settle down, and I didn't want to be a friend-with-benefits forever. Despite my youth, I was too mature for him.
I broke it off with the Older Man soon after that. And the next time I hiked in Griffith Park, I strode up the trail at my own speed.
Rachel Heller is a Los Angeles writer and freelance editor
L.A. Affairs chronicles romance and relationships. Past columns are archived at latimes.com/laaffairs. If you have comments to share or a story to tell, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.