I was 37, single, unemployed and depressed because in a couple of months I was going to be moving out of my studio apartment on West 23rd Street in Manhattan and in with my mother in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Since taking a buyout at my Wall Street firm, I had devoted myself to two activities: searching for a new job and working out. And I spent a lot of time in my apartment.
So did the three recent college graduates next door. At their weekend parties, a loud bass penetrated our shared wall starting at 10:30 p.m. In sweats, no makeup and with my hair piled in a bun, I would go out and ring their bell around 11 p.m. (early, even by my geriatric standards) to ask them to quiet down.
One of them would appear, flush with alcohol and annoyance, and promise to turn it down. Usually they did. When they didn’t, I would call the doorman, the management company and, once, the police. But the noise continued.
My 23rd Street building was near three colleges. When I signed the lease, I didn’t realize the place had so many student renters, people who understandably liked to party. Yet it was the least social time in my life. Most of my friends were married. I had no income, and rent was almost $3,000 a month. I wasn’t dating because I hadn’t figured out how to positively spin my unemployment story.
One afternoon in the elevator, I saw one of the guys from next door in jeans and a T-shirt, his dark hair slightly receding.
“Are you always around in the middle of the day?” he asked.
“For the last few months I have been,” I said. “I’m job searching.”
“I am too,” he said. “It’s my last year of law school.”
“Never leave a job without another,” I told him. People had warned me about this, but it was only after I’d done it that I realized how true it was. As we neared our doors, I said, “I’m moving out, so you guys can blast your music all night long. The mean old lady is leaving.”
“Why?” he asked.
“I can’t afford this any longer. I’m moving in with my mom in Brooklyn.”
“That sucks,” he said, then added: “It’s not me blasting music. It’s my roommates.”
Which made sense. He was always the kindest and most apologetic when I got angry. “How old are you guys?” I said. “Like, 23?”
“Yeah, well, I’m 23,” he said.
“I’m 37. So I hope you get a younger neighbor the next go-round.”
“I never would have guessed 37,” he said. “I thought you were, like, 26.”
Was he sweet-talking me? I looked the same age as my friends, but maybe the dormlike context had fooled him. That afternoon we ran into each other again; he was in a suit headed to an interview. I wished him luck.
Two weeks later, my friend Diana and I were sitting at a nearby bar, drinking vodka sodas and looking at her Tinder app, when my 23-year-old neighbor popped up.
“Swipe right!” I said. “Tell him you’re out with me.”
She swiped, they matched, and she told him I was with her. I followed up with a text, proud to be out on a Saturday night. Here was proof that I, too, was fun. We messaged back and forth; he was on his way home. When I asked if he wanted to join us back at my apartment, he said yes.
Twenty minutes later Diana and I arrived, and he showed up with a bottle of vodka and cans of Diet Coke.
Soon he was laughing, saying, “My roommates can’t stand you. And I was always so confused why a 26-year-old was upset about our parties. I thought you were just an old soul.”
Diana and I danced to “Jump” by the Pointer Sisters, a song he didn’t recognize. Before Diana left at 4 a.m., she whispered to me, “He likes you. Hook up.”
I offered a hushed protest, insisting he was too young. But apparently the neighborly tension had been building, because he and I started kissing right after she left.
When we woke up, hung over, a few hours later, I begged him not to tell his roommates. My transformation from puritanical noise warden to Mrs. Robinson embarrassed me; my dulled brain screamed, “What just happened?”
But I won’t lie: It was also an ego boost. I may not have had a job, a husband or a boyfriend, but at least I could attract an adorable 23-year-old.
Over the next few weeks, we texted constantly and kept getting together to talk about our dating and employment searches and to fool around. When I asked him if I seemed older, he said, “Not really. Mostly because you aren’t working and you’re around all of the time.”
I said: “When I graduated high school, you were 4.”
One Sunday at 5 a.m., he got to experience the pleasure of being woken up in my bed by his roommates’ drunken rendition of “Oops! … I Did It Again.”
“This is really annoying,” he yelled, covering his head with my pillow.
“It’s payback,” I said. “Now you understand.”
With him, my usual romantic anxiety disappeared. Instead of projecting my insecurities onto him and wondering if I was enough, I just had fun because I knew our age gap made a future impossible. And I was moving out soon.
Not that my mind was entirely free of concerns. I worried people would think we were ridiculous. But when I told my coupled-up girlfriends, they said I was living a fantasy.
“At least you’re having fun,” a soon-to-be-divorced friend said. “None of us are. I didn’t even want to touch my husband at the end.”
Even so, the chasm between my new friend and me was no more glaring than when he said, “Dating is fun. I get to meet lots of people.”
Dating, for me, was about as fun as my job search. And that was because I approached both in almost exactly the same way: with a strategy, spreadsheets and a lot of anxiety about presenting my best self and hiding my weaknesses. With him, though, I worried about none of that.
When he admitted he had no idea what he was doing with women and made things up as he went along, I assured him this wouldn’t change — no one knew.
Our honest exchange was so refreshing. Dates my age disguised their fears with arrogance. Within an hour of meeting me, one had boasted about the amount of sex he’d had, and another, on our second date, gave me a heads-up that his large size had caused many of his relationships to end. How considerate of him to warn me!
With appropriate romantic prospects, I had been overly polished and protective. Just like the men, I spun stories broadcasting fake confidence. But I confided in my neighbor about how hard the year had been and how worried I was about finding a job and a man to love. With nothing at stake, I was charmingly vulnerable.
One evening as we cuddled in my apartment, with me droning on about my man troubles and career fears, he said, “We get so fixated on the job we want or the person we’re dating because we don’t think there will be another. But there’s always another.”
I thought that was so true. Even wise. But it’s easier to have that attitude, about jobs or love, at 23 than at 37.
Then one night I came home a little too drunk and encountered him in the hallway. He was the one who almost always decided when we would hang out, and I complained it wasn’t fair that everything seemed to be on his terms. I was pressuring him, reverting to my worst dating default behavior, and he fled into his apartment.
The next day he texted: “maybe we should chill with this. you’ve been a good friend … we complicated it a little though haha.”
I knew “haha” was just his millennial way of keeping it light, but here’s the thing: In our “light” relationship, I had let myself be fully known, revealing all of my imperfections, in a way I normally didn’t. With him I was my true self, and it was a revelation.
And a conundrum. Because I can’t seem to be my true self when I’m seriously looking for love, when all I’m thinking about is the future. To win the person (or the job, for that matter), we think we have to be the most perfect version of ourselves. When our hearts are on the line, vulnerability can feel impossible.
A year later, I finally managed to be just perfect enough to land a job. I’m still working on allowing myself to be imperfect enough to find love.