Despite a 16-year age difference, Leah and Vanessa make it work. When Rachel Swirsky, a college friend of Leah’s—who was 19 when she met a 35-year-old Vanessa—visits the couple in Orlando, she’s reminded that desire is a weird and individual thing, and relationships don’t always make sense.
We were all in college together, 19 years old and naïve as hell (call it equal parts ignorant and innocent) when our friend Leah met this girl.
This older girl.
“She’s how old?” we asked.
Presumably, some individual one of us asked, but it’s not worth distinguishing; our incredulity was unanimous.
She fidgeted uncomfortably. “35.”
“Thirty-five? Vanessa is 35? And you made out with her?”
“I thought she was 30!” she protested. “She told me she was 30. Then we made out. Then she admitted she was really 35.”
We narrowed our eyes at Leah and glared. Vanessa lied about her age was not making it seem like Leah’s new love affair was a better idea than we’d previously thought.
“I really like her,” Leah said. “She’s awesome.” She giggled. “And sexy.”
It was at this point that our unanimous “we” began to fracture. Several people continued to frown. I softened a bit. And made a concession.
“Well, do it if it’s fun, then. But don’t get attached.” I crossed my arms to make it clear that I hadn’t gone completely soft on her. “And for fuck’s sake, Leah, use dental dams.”
Ten years later, there I am in the Orlando airport. Leah and I have been in Internet contact, but we haven’t seen each other in years. Leah’s walking toward the luggage rack, squealing and running toward me with her arms outstretched. I turn away from the bags, emit my own squeal, and hug her back.
Behind her, Vanessa stands, car keys still in hand, expression indulgent, waiting for us to stop making a scene.
Now I should explain a couple things. First, Leah is baby-faced like whoa. When we were 19, she looked 13. She tried to buy cigarettes once and was turned out of the store even after she showed her ID. It wasn’t just the all-elbows, gawky adolescent thing, it was the blushy cheeks and doe eyes and just a hint of baby fat.
So when Leah was like “there’s this 35-year-old who wants to go to town on me,” it wasn’t just like “that’s creepy, she’s 16 years older than you,” it was also, “what the hell, she’s in her mid-30s and you look like a kid, is she like a pedophile or something?”
And then there was the fact that when we were in college, Leah was well-read, intelligent, sweet as a sugar packet—yet still noticeably behind in the maturity department. She got fired from a work-study job for never showing up on time; she shop-lifted small items recreationally from the school store; she once went an entire semester without turning in a single assignment on time.
Our concerns for Leah were not without foundation. The whole situation read like bad news.
Back to Orlando. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant by the pool while I explained what I was doing in the city—a science fiction convention? Do they dress up in Star Trek uniforms?—and sipped some fruity, iced froth of a drink. Leah and I traded anecdotes, indulged nostalgia, and exclaimed as we recalled hilarious old stories. Vanessa sat back, watching the light over the pool, much like someone’s indulgent-but-slightly-exasperated mother.
She got up to go to the bathroom and I leaned over the table. “Oh my God,” I said to Leah. “I had no idea. I’m not sure what I was expecting. But I wasn’t expecting her!”
Leah smirked. “What do you mean?”
“She looks so young.”
It was true—Leah was baby-faced, but so was Vanessa. They both could have passed for high school students except that Vanessa wore confidence the way few 16-year-olds can. Her speech was direct and minimal; her bearing strong; her affection for Leah expressed by the way she angled herself as they walked side by side so that their shoulders and hands brushed against each other, gently.
“Yeah.” Leah’s smirk became smugger. “She’s hot.”
“That wasn’t really my point,” I said.
Leah added, “Super hot.”
One thing I have to keep relearning in my life is that desire is weird and individual. It has jagged edges and sharp points. Sometimes it cuts. Sometimes it catches the light and becomes as brilliant as a star. At other times, it’s not jagged or sharp, just something soft and subtle, rugose and round.
Rules are a useful tool. Most of the time, they can divide This from That. But out at the boundaries, where This and That bleed into each other, rules aren’t always so helpful.
Theory: Relationships where there are massive power differentials are a bad idea.
Observation: Mostly, they are.
This could be the story of the 19-year-old submissive boy I knew who hooked up with an older domme for a 24/7 lifestyle which included non-consensual bruises and broken bones. It could be the story of a girl I know who married her teacher and ended up flat broke and broken-hearted before she turned 20.
It could be a lot of stories.
But instead, it’s the story of Leah and Vanessa.
Vanessa had gone off to call someone from work. Leah and I lay stretched out by the pool, the cold air raising goosebumps on our arms and skimming the night-dark water.
“Ten years,” I said. “Is anyone else still together with whoever they were dating when they were 19?”
“Jose and Meredith?” she suggests.
“They broke up. Two…three years ago now.”
Leah nods. She looks a little sad. I know how she feels. Jose and Meredith were iconic to us back then. They seemed so much in love. They seemed unbreakable.
“Did you think it would be you two?” I ask.
She shrugs. “No. Not really. No.” She gazes up at the stars, searching. “College? I was kind of a mess. I was set to be in a lot of trouble. Not just academically. It’s probably a good thing they kicked me out. I got a lot more out of going to college when I was older. Financially, though. I was doing some stupid shit. Vanessa cleaned it up. She put me on a budget.”
“She kind of seems”—I pause, trying to figure out the least offensive way to say this—“Well, your mom was never really helpful with that stuff…“
“Vanessa filled in sometimes. Sometimes you need an adult.”
“Isn’t that kind of creepy?”
She shrugs again, the same shrug. “It works.”
This could be the story of another relationship that began with a lie: one that began when a man told a woman that his ex-wife was a bitch because she wouldn’t let him see their kids, and ended when the woman discovered the restraining order that recorded incidents of sexual and physical assault.
It could be the story of another relationship where one partner looked to the other to solve his problems: a relationship that ended when the younger man found the older one dead on their bed with a gun in his hand because however many of the younger man’s problems the older one could solve, he could never solve his own.
It could be a lot of stories, but it’s this one.
Rules make sense. They’re useful guides to describe normal conditions. If you’re a baby-faced 19-year-old, the 35-year-old with the dashing smile is probably hiding shark’s teeth. If you’re young and immature and someone lies to you in order to steal a kiss, they’ll probably try to steal a lot more from you.
And if I could go back in time, I’d still tell Leah, have fun, not get attached, and for fuck’s sake, use a dental dam.
But the most important thing is Vanessa’s smile when she returns from her business call; the way she reaches for Leah’s hand, gently, naturally, and squeezes it; the way that Leah’s whole body turns subtly toward her, as if she is a plant turning toward the sun. It’s an immature girl who learned what she needed to know from the adult who was there for her. It’s 10 years, passed in a closeness like their 10 fingers clasping.
The most important thing is it works.
Rachel Swirsky writes short stories some of which you can find online. For readers interested in sex roles, she recommends “Defiled Imagination” which was published in the queer issue of PANK Magazine and begins with the question, “Would you kiss a dead dog?”