It's New Year's Eve and glitter sprinkles the space between my brow and lids. I have two teen boys at home and I'm retiring from a 22-year marriage with their father. I've never glittered in my life. Hell, I haven't worn makeup since I was a teenager!
And I'm staring into his eyes. The first unrestricted crush I've allowed myself since I was 20 years old. A crush I've worked through, journaled about, and ultimately recognized as a healthy response to mutual emotional and physical attraction. A crush I haven't forced myself to subdue, like the others over the married years.
"So, what are you doing tonight?" I ask as I hand him the cash, driven by a desire to feel that intoxicating glow of chemistry—something I've lived without for most of my adult life.
"Going home," his voice flat. "It was way busier tonight than we expected," he smiles tiredly as he takes the money, our fingers grazing, our familiarity understood. But this is the latest in a recent series of increasingly uncomfortable exchanges in which I've begun to admit he's withdrawing the romance.
Which is painful. Because it was hard won, that romance. It is the first guilt-free, swooning-beyond-my-marriage I've ever let myself feel. Ever. And he is younger. Much younger.
One year ago tonight, well before I'd ever noticed this sexy young cashier, my soon-to-be-ex-husband and I were preparing for his major surgery. We'd taken our wedding rings off a year before that. But within days of our decision to formally separate, his surgeon called. Divorce could wait. We were (and remain) close friends, and he needed my support.
But I needed support too. And when I'd run to the grocery store for quick, easy meals during the long, intense recovery, there he'd be, just doing his thing, asking questions of every customer; making them feel at ease.
In the first of his ventures towards me, he dropped hints about his age (I'm not that brave, and I never did tell him my own). He reminded me of snow falling years earlier, in June, when he'd had to call into his old job on that snowy summer day back in 2008…when he was 14.
Staring at him in what was probably unconcealed shock, vertigo hit. He was 22 years old, while I'd unconsciously estimated him to be in his 30s because of his maturity, his integrity, his appearance, his humor. And in that singular moment, he became an immediate, undeniable no-no just as I realized how much I actually liked him.
I took to Google, which illuminated a mass emergence of romance, flings, close friendships, trysts, and committed long-term partnerships between older women and younger men. I saw a rising tolerance generally for love of all stripes—and its many delightful benefits.
So a couple of months after that initial diagnosis—it took me that long to journal my way through it—I carefully let him in on my crush; gently, by sharing a few personal details about what was happening at home, by casually, half-jokingly suggesting a walk in the woods together. By responding to him just a smidge more. Ready to pull back and let it go if he didn't throw a spark.
Instead, things crackled and flared. The powerful eye locks, the focused curiosity and connection he displayed with my kids, the way he remembered my son's soccer night each week and would unfailingly ask him about it, the way he'd be sure to have a register open every time I was ready for check-out and the rush of specific questions back-and-forth. The conversations outside or in the produce aisle, when he'd ask me how things were going for me and the kids during the separation. The helpful, wise insights he offered about his own parents' divorce.
The way he'd lean in as we talked. How he say I've got you, a little gruff, a little quiet—just loud enough for me to hear; when I offered the store membership card he never needed because he'd memorized my stats. The way he immediately suggested a tea date right after I told him of my separation. How, over tea, we'd had the kind of three-hour conversation that leaves you breathless.
During this rising fire, it dawned on me that I trusted him—in a categorically different way than I trusted my husband. My emotions and my heart were safe with this man. He would never dismiss or coerce me, or act as if he knew more or better than I. He would never stonewall or be stony-faced. And all of a sudden it didn't even matter if anything ever came of this. Now I knew something different. The shock ruptured pent up grief, and I cried in disbelief that I'd stayed with my husband for so long.
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I might as well have been handing over my heart to him, rather than a wad of cash. Because by now, this transition is one I'm both ready and hungry for. My nearly-ex-husband and I had tried everything. Everything. But there's no putting back into a marriage something what was never there to begin with.
He smiles at me with a warm direct gaze. "Have a great night Anna," he says. And I know he means it.
"You too," I say, the smile on my face shifting from nervous flirt to relaxed companion. As I identify the new phase of our connection—from potential romance to sweet, easy rapport—I'm humbled by his kindness, his affection, his empathy. I suspect his energy for romance has changed. He's become a friend. And whatever his reason for stepping back from our fledgling romance, we've given each other a great gift. We care about and accept each other to be ourselves, just as we are. However that looks. Even if I'm 44 and he's 22—maybe especially because of that. I dip my head and offer a tiny prayer of gratitude. For a man who's shown me something different.
The attractive guy behind me in line is smiling. He turns to me as I grab my bags to head out, and says, "I really love that glitter you've got on. Happy New Year!"
I grin, then glance once more into my cashier's eyes, and realize he wants to tell me the same thing. The almost imperceptible nod, the raised appreciative eyebrows, the knowing glance at the guy who just spoke. But for whatever reason, and by now I know it has everything to do with his hyper-developed, early-onset integrity, he's refrained.
Nine-months later and my world has turned over. Once again glitter sprinkles the space between my brow and lids, but this time for a reason I could never have predicted. Not in a million years.
I am sitting with my husband Charles in our little off-grid cabin, a fire glowing in the wood stove. The last time we were here together we took off our wedding rings, more than two years ago.
Charles hands me a card and a glass of the celebratory bottle of wine he's brought. I open the envelope which holds a midnight blue card with a gold-emblazoned sun orbited by dozens of tiny glittering stars—the spitting image of our wedding invitation, handmade by Charles using wood cuts and ink stamps, almost 22 years ago (and no, the irony of who was born the year we married is not lost on me).
The words inside bring tears to my eyes; I still can't believe what's happening:
"And especially to the next two decades," I add. Then he leans into me and we kiss—tender, hot, open; full of fiery heat I've never known. Now, after all this, our kisses send me into fits of sweet delirium. This continues to both astound and exalt us. Because for two-decades I'd believed I wasn't very attracted to Charles. I'd married him because he was such a good man, and figured the sex was good enough. It became one of the great downfalls of our marriage: the discrepancy in our desire.
"Never let us underestimate the power of a well-written letter," Jane Austen famously stated in Persuasion.
It was a morning almost exactly 25 years to the day of our first date on August 1, when his letter ignited our dawn. We'd filed for divorce but hadn't signed the papers. We'd started the settlement. He'd bought me out of my share of our home and was writing support checks.
I'd just returned to my new apartment after a weeklong trek with my older son. It had been both terrific to be with my kid: mountain biking, kayaking, hiking; and excruciating, because I was still in agony over Charles' new "relationship." One I'd learned about three months earlier, after it had been going on in secret for three months before that.
To be clear, right before my tea date with sexy cashier last fall, Charles and I had made an agreement: It was okay to see other people before our divorce was final. We also agreed: No surprises. In our tiny town, the last thing I wanted was a surprise.
We'd done Katherine Woodward Thomas' Conscious Uncoupling class a year earlier, and were respectful and committed to staying friends throughout our divorce. But the agreement exploded in my face the day my husband told me he was sleeping with another woman. It had been going on for months, including her coming to my hometown for a secret tryst with him for a weekend…at my good friend's home just down the road.
That I was surprised is the understatement of my life.
Even so, I tried to be happy for him. This is what we'd wanted. To move on. He never intended to hurt me. He was trying to protect me while we separated. To give himself room to move on with his life. But I was so hurt, so angry, so shocked. No surprises! To have this, after all the work we'd done to stay friends.
But part of me understood, and I told him so. I saw how hard it would be to move forward while closing a marriage. And Charles, for the first time in my memory, apologized like he meant it; he knew he'd made an irretrievable mistake, and owned it.
Meanwhile, earlier in the spring—while Charles' had been secretly seeing the girl—I'd given the cashier a goodbye gift as he left the store for his next job. I'd learned he'd moved in with a woman his own age (whom I knew, and also adored), and I was thrilled for them; privately grateful for the almost year-long window into a safe emotional connection. Able to walk away in peace.
But then, as summer unfurled with the harsh surprise of Charles and the new girl, I boiled over and shut down our divorce proceedings until we saw our counselor again. The one who'd worked with us over the last year, guiding us from marriage to co-parenthood. I began to wonder if I could effectively co-parent with Charles, let alone be his friend.
Yet we were getting a divorce. He needed to move on. So did I.
So while he was seeing her, we resumed counseling. And within the first couple of sessions we confronted 20 years of built-up emotional injuries: the perceived lack of attraction; my sense of being coerced in bed sometimes; our long-term anxiety that something was not right.
Charles listened attentively, and told me in a calm and soothing voice, making direct eye contact, "I want to heal this between us so we can both move on and be good co-parents." Then, with tears rolling down his cheeks, "I never meant to hurt you. It breaks my heart to know you felt anxious in our bed, or anywhere else with me."
And suddenly I was crying in front of my husband.
I'd never cried like this with Charles. Nor he with me. This continued at home. Often. Why is it safe to cry with each other, now? Almost instantly, I recognized the same sense of emotional safety with Charles that I'd found with the cashier. There was no dismissiveness, no rebuttals, no convincing me I was wrong. No contempt. No stonewalling. No criticism or defensiveness.
Maybe it was getting out of our former gridlock, or being faced with losing our friendship and capacity for effective co-parenting. For whatever the reason Charles had changed. In a way I had never imagined he could in all the years of our marriage.
It had never occurred to me because I didn't know any other way…until the cashier. And that changed everything. Because my husband-of-decades was no crush.
Before my week away with our son, our counselor suggested Charles write me a letter. So on that morning in late July, newly returned from my trek and on the verge of signing divorce papers, my soon-to-be-ex sleeping with someone else, my single life looming on the immediate horizon; I woke up in my new bed, in my new apartment, made tea, and read the heartfelt, non-blaming, unconditionally-accepting, loving letter Charles had emailed that morning.
"Where have you been all my life?" I responded. And it was in that singular, open-hearted thump of my own heart, and its unmitigated vulnerability to Charles, that I began to melt into him forever.
In the days that followed I fell madly in love with him. In a way I'd never thought possible.
The moment he fostered the emotional intimacy and safety we'd been missing, I had a quantum-shift into a trust so epic, so life-altering that (among other things) it ignited a mystical, almost spiritual eroticism. And I immediately began fantasizing about him. Every day. This had never happened before, not in two decades. (I learned later that I experienced what researchers refer to as a shift from "anxious" into "secure" attachment.)
For the next few weeks, it possessed me: the intense desire and affection for my husband. I told him everything: my vulnerability, the fantasies, and the flood of electrifying romantic love. Emboldened, I think, by having allowed myself a crush on man half my age. It took fervent grit to let go of a two-year divorce trajectory and speak it to my husband, while in the same breaths, being fully aware he could walk away.
Yet, it was not bravery. It was self-evident. I had to.
Charles was wary. So wary. But he also knows me better than anyone in the world, and saw the changes. This is what we'd both wanted for more than 20 years.
He cooled things off with her—fewer calls, deferring plans, withholding what we were doing for a very short time—while we had a series of the most pivotal, emotionally intimate, breakthrough conversations of our lives.
To his everlasting credit, he'd kept her informed all along, from day one, that he was married-getting-divorced, fully believing it. As I had. Then kept her abreast of the ensuing drama and our counseling. She was well aware of how involved he still was with me; of our care, affection and respect for each other. He was not her first either: having previously chosen another otherwise-emotionally-bonded man, she knew the risks.
Within days he told her things were seriously shifting at home.
Two weeks after that—exactly four months after he told me about her—he called her, told her it was over, hung up, and came straight to my apartment where we f*cked most of the night in the most ecstatic, joyful communion I'd ever experienced. It was our first union in more than two years but in many ways, our first true coupling. We were seeing each other—vulnerable, open, filled with trust—for the first time.
We linger a long time in the kiss, savoring each other in front of the fire.
We haven't gotten nearly enough of each other. After decades of starvation for emotional closeness, we've had more sex in the last two months than in the last 10, possibly 20 years. The best sex of our lives. Transmuted by our chemistry. I'm more feminine, more vulnerable, more open and happy than I've ever been in my life. He's more expressive, embracing, caring, and attentive than I've ever known him to be. I want, crave, yearn to be taken by him; the man I, for so long, thought I was not very attracted to.
Neither of us realized that emotional distance was the only thing driving us apart. Now when any of our vicious old habits appear (and they still do, but they're fading fast!), we handle them in ways that bring us closer. I no longer escalate with frustration and anger, and he makes ridiculous jokes that crack me up rather than walk away. Our day-to-day interactions are radically different, and so fun.
Our marriage was the catch 22: we'd come to believe that there was no putting back into it something that was never there to begin with. That the only escape was divorce.
But now I'm dreaming new dreams. Stagnant, repetitive night dreams that had gone on for 20 years—of finding other men, men who felt more available, sexier than my husband—those dreams are gone. Now I'm dreaming of Charles, our life's work together, our ecstatic sex, and our new world. A world unleashed by this flood of trust in him and in myself.
And now—finally—I get it. Why the adorable young cashier stepped back. It had nothing to do with our age difference. During our three-hour tea, he'd told me how his life turned over when he was a child, when his mother met another man. How he never gotten over it.
As he'd navigated our nascent closeness, he'd also confronted what he was getting himself—and me, and Charles, and my kids—into. Even though I said I was getting divorced, I was still clearly married.
And with that fierce wise virtue I'd seen in him all along, he'd gently stepped back. Giving me the life-changing gift of encountering safe, unconditional intimacy; an ongoing capacity for real friendship with him and his lovely new girlfriend; and freedom (for us both) from the agony of spurious, irreversible action involving every member of my family, at the worst possible time.
Here, Charles finally pulls back from our kiss, looks at me more deeply than I've ever been—or will ever be—seen by anyone.
"You've got glitter on your eyelids," he says a bit gruffly, his eyebrows raised in a sexy flirt, the supernova of our erotic communion saturating all points of our connection. He recognizes the glitter as a testament to my unleashed feminine energy. My sacred yin to his potent yang.
Our enduring shared life, our family and friends, our sons…and the knowledge that we're spending the rest of our lives together—truly together—flash before my glittered eyes. I see the same things flicker across his face. We know what we've almost lost. And now, what we've gained.
I give him an impish grin and whisper, "I do."
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