Lying Down With Older Men
Toward the end of my sophomore year in college, a married man twice my age asked me to lie down with him. I didn’t want to — he made me nervous. But also excited, which is why I’d gone to his apartment in the first place.
It was late May, and the day was sluggish and hot. His wife was up in the country, as she usually was. He was on the bed and I sat on the one chair in his Upper West Side studio, drinking a can of Coke and swinging my foot.
For months we’d been dancing around this: in calls he’d place to my New England dorm room from pay phones around the corner, over secret dinners in New York whenever I visited my parents. The first time we talked on the phone he said, “I just want to turn you over and do things to you,” and I gasped. I’d had sex three times with three different men. If any of them had an imagination, they didn’t share it with me.
Although I found him repulsive, he was the first person I ever described as compelling. Handsome, with the most intense pale blue eyes I’d ever seen, he was also fat and ancient, at least to my mind. And his hands were ugly — short, plump fingers with nails that were slightly too long.
But his voice. Deep, rumbling, occasionally growly. Trained, of course, because he was an actor. I watched him switch it with dizzying speed according to his audience. Formal and charming when he met my parents. Indulgent and paternal with his wife and her friends. Low, intimate, and vaguely threatening when he had me alone.
He scared me, but only emotionally. Physically, I felt perfectly safe, because he told me he hadn’t had an erection in years. My last sexual encounter had been a bad one, and I thought I could happily avoid penises for the rest of my life.
But he was also safe because we’d never been alone together. And now I was there, in his apartment, sitting with my legs crossed, kicking the air with my top foot, talking to fill the space. I told him this was fucked up, that I didn’t know what I was doing, that I wanted to take a walk.
“Hush, baby. I’m tired. Can’t you please come to the bed and talk softly?”
Finally I went, telling him my heart was beating so fast that I thought it would jump out of my skin. He said he’d hold it to make it stop. And eventually I did calm down, cradled against him. But all I could think was, I can’t believe this is happening.
I forget the sequence of events that afternoon. What I know is this: he kept his underwear on; I did not. I remember him touching me but me not coming. I remember him going to the bathroom to wash his hands and then seeing blood on my underpants when I got home, mortified that I’d gotten my period in the middle of what he called a “failed hand job.”
I remember him telling me a story about the time he and his school friends set out to dig up some old bones in the middle of a field one summer night, me shivering as he described how scared they were. Then feeling his tongue on my ear, tracing it lightly, and his hand on my leg, sliding my skirt up slowly until it was past my knee and his hand was on the inside of my thigh as my stomach pulled in anticipation.
I remember being face down on the bed with my shirt off, him massaging my back, when the phone rang. I heard his wife’s voice on the greeting, then her voice leaving a message. He picked up the phone and placed his other hand flat on my back. I didn’t move.
The kiss must have come before I undressed. I was sitting on top of him, and he slid his hands along my arms and shoulders until they were around my neck. His fingers ran through my hair until he had my head in a solid hold and drew me to him.
When I felt my mouth being opened, I pulled back and sat up. “This is too close.”
He took my head, firmer this time, and said, “Come here, baby. Just come here.” And then we were kissing. And I thought, I can’t believe this is happening.
At one point we were looking at the picture of him on the wall facing the bed, an old headshot from when he was in his 20s and was cast as the dangerous bad boy as opposed to the drunken corrupt cop he would become later. He said, “Skinny little fucker, wasn’t he?” He was, but I wouldn’t have been in bed with that version of him.
A few months ago I was talking to my cousin about some of the men I’d written about in my memoir. She said, “The grossest of all was that older actor.”
“What I don’t understand is why you kept in touch with him, why you had dinner with him in your 20s. Why you emailed him in your 40s.”
I shook my head. “I don’t have a good answer.”
What was it that made him so gross? Was it that he was married? Twice my age? Open about his desire to tie me up, which seemed shocking to me at the time? Was it the anger that was so close to the surface? The anger that kept me wary about stepping over the line from cheeky amusement to a barbed quip that would make his eyes darken? Was it his claim that he hadn’t gotten it up in a few years? Was it his attachment to young women, of whom I was simply the latest? Was it that in later years, his anger rose to the surface in the form of right-wing, racist rants, and he became the only person I’ve ever blocked on Facebook? That sometimes, when I’m in a dark mood, I’ll find one of his clips on YouTube and feel nothing but revulsion that I ever let this man touch me?
We met early my sophomore year, when I was visiting New York for the weekend and he was the lead in a play at an Off-Broadway theater where my older sister was working.
Before the show he burst into the lobby and demanded that my sister keep him company over an early dinner. She couldn’t leave, so he turned to me and said, “You. Come with me.” She had told me all about him, how he had been trying to seduce her for weeks to no avail.
As soon as we hit the sidewalk, he started asking questions about my life at college, my childhood. And we hadn’t made it farther than a block before he was talking about me as if he knew me. (“Ah, yes, well it must be hard for someone as smart as you…”)
I was nervous, but he smiled and seemed genuinely interested in my thoughts on just about everything. The more I talked, the more I relaxed.
Halfway through dinner his tone changed. He quit smiling and held my gaze until I squirmed. Finally he said, “I think there’s a fair amount of sexual tension between us, don’t you?” No one had ever talked to me like that. I felt delirious.
From then on, I never knew what I was going to get: the protective or the predatory.
A month or so later we were walking around the Central Park reservoir at dusk. When we stopped to look at the sky, he leaned down and kissed me gently on the top of my head. I wondered if I was in love.
He became my imaginary boyfriend that year, chief resident of my head. Even in my private, geeky moments, I pictured myself through his eyes, imagining what he would say about my take on the role of women in 6th-century Frankish society. I wanted to tell him everything — about my work at the local battered women’s shelter and how I was heading up the children’s program even though I had no idea what I was doing. How I was planning to major in Classics and needed to learn Ancient Greek in short order.
His eyes never glazed over when I went on a verbal tear — instead, they sparkled. I don’t know that he actually heard 80% of what I was saying, but my babbling brain seemed to turn him on.
When I was in my 40s and married and watching “Game of Thrones” with my then-husband, I told him that I liked Iain Glen, who played Daenerys Targaryen’s loyal protector. My ex, who knew all about my history with the married actor, said, “I figured as much. He looks like a creeper.”
Yes, the married actor was a creeper, but he wasn’t looking to get off, at least not in the presence of another person. All of the stories he told about the women in his life — and there were many — focused solely on their pleasure.
When he tried to entice my sister into a threesome with a friend of his, he told her, “We would start by brushing your hair.”
In many ways, he was a near-virgin’s fantasy: I could learn all about my body and we could pretend his didn’t exist.
A few decades later, he wrote to me:
“Did I want to caress you to orgasm and look into your eyes as you came? You bet. Did I want to suck your toes while stroking your clit? Guilty. To see you in post orgasm, now that was something devoutly to be wished. To feel your warmth and hear your breathing, relaxed and away from all your feminist chatter, to BE with you like a couple of kids…that was the most I ever wanted.”
After that spring afternoon in his apartment, he left to film a movie and I disappeared into a 10-week boot camp to learn Ancient Greek. In late August, the week before I headed to England for my junior year, I answered the phone to hear his voice. “You! Egghead! I want to take you to lunch.”
Recently my sister texted me about the episode of “Girls” where Hannah goes to the apartment of a famous older writer, a man whom four young women have accused of non-consensual sexual encounters. Hannah’s wary at first, but as he tells her how smart and funny she is, she relaxes and begins to smile and laugh. Eventually he asks her to lie down with him.
My sister said it hurled her back a few decades to the time when the actor asked her to lie down with him in his dressing room. When she protested, he told her she was overreacting, that it wasn’t sexual, that he just needed to feel someone next to him. She felt sorry for him and thought maybe if she complied, it would keep him away from other young women.
I wrote, “Thought I was the only one who crossed that line.”
She said she didn’t realize that lying down with sexually manipulative men was a thing.
Me either. But what struck me the most was how the episode didn’t remind me of him until she mentioned it. I never felt used or degraded or even played, as my sister did. Manipulated, sure, but I was up for that.
After he took me to lunch the week before I left for England, he moved to LA, and we saw each other only a few times over the next decade, the last time when I was 31. We had lunch and then went back to his house, where I said hello to his wife, met his three young children, and then walked with him to my car. As he stood with me, he told me that he wanted to come to New York and meet me in a hotel. As always, he described exactly what he wanted to do with me, only this time he was smiling and waving to his kids as they played in the yard.
After that we lost touch, although I continued to see him in movies and TV shows. By the time I was 43 and tracked him down on Facebook, I was married and had transformed into the kind of grown-up I’d never been when I knew him.
When he responded to my message, it was as though I were standing with him at my car when I was 31 or sitting in the corner booth of Tony’s Italian Restaurant when I was 19: I felt instantly complicit in something secret and wrong and exciting. He wrote that he’d been thinking of me the past month because he’d been shooting a movie in New Orleans — where I’d lived for eight years in my 20s:
“I thought that this must have been the perfect town for a young you: sassy, sultry, smart, sexy and seriously out of whack with most other citizens. I think of you in your stilt house with no AC and how tough and defiant Hunter women could be.”
An older man telling me I’m special: that’s always been my kryptonite.
As my sister and I compared our experiences to the “Girls” episode, I told her that he only ever wanted to touch me, never the other way around. Then I asked, “But does it make a difference?”
What I meant was, Should it make a difference in the way I think about him? No. But it makes a difference in the way I remember what happened. I’ve been with some men who seemed like they were as happy to fuck me as anyone, for whom my pleasure was an afterthought. Men I thought liked me for my brains and personality, but when it came down to it, just wanted to get laid. Men who would have been hard-pressed to come up with a reason they liked me except that I felt good.
Yet 25 years after I met him, he described me with a specificity that made my stomach lurch. I felt seen.
Adapted from the memoir Anyone Who Comes Close: A Year of Tinder, Divorce, and Love in the Age of the Internet.
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