In the decade I lived in California, before I moved back to Britain in 2018, men would sometimes approach me in cafes or the gym, once at the Norton Simon museum, where Eve Babitz had played nude chess with Marcel Duchamp. On the 12-hour flight home from LAX to Heathrow, I lost all appeal. No man ever talked to me again, starting with the customs agent who turned his head as I walked through with the last of my legal weed. When I flew later that year, to take my kid to her dad who was working in Atlanta: lots of attention! When I landed back in England … silence. After a year of this, I caved in to my friends’ demands to join a dating app.
I put up the most me photograph that exists: writing, in a city with a view, wearing a pretty dress that made me feel powerfully “Rita Moreno”. It was literally Rita Moreno’s dress, which I’d bought at a consignment store in Venice Beach. There’s a cat leaning into me and next to my computer you can see Richard Avedon’s photo of Truman Capote, the Julian Opie painting of Blur that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and, at the front, a snapshot of my mother as a college student.
A young man in Hackney, east London, quickly messaged me. When I read it, my stomach lurched. “Is that an Apple iBook? How old is that photo?” He didn’t even see the dress. It hadn’t occurred to me, when I selected my picture, how all of my years had flooded together. The beautiful, burnt-orange dress was 20 years old and so, I realised, was the picture. In selecting my photo, I’d inadvertently committed dating app fraud. I deleted the app. I put aside Rita’s dress for charity.
Soon enough, I lost my humiliation in the rhythm of the day. That’s the gift of the age of responsibilities. But as I write this, I miss that burnt-orange dress. I hope it was picked up. I hope both owner and dress are happy. Maybe it’s been given away again. Maybe it’s landfill now. It had a great life, as have I.
The move home to London was preceded by Donald Trump being elected to office around the time my divorce was filed, around the time I turned 40. His disgust at middle-aged women, and the palpable loathing he and his wife exuded when pictured together, alchemised a feeling I’d been marinating: having been sexually active since the age of 16, I wanted to walk away from it all. On reaching an age when women have to contort themselves, physically and emotionally, to keep getting “chosen for the team”, it felt freeing to say, “I’m not playing.” Don’t you dare judge me for my bikini body – just let me be the ocean.
So, from the moment Trump was inaugurated, I’d stopped having sex and kissing and holding hands, and swore not to relent until he was gone. I needed to know that when the time came, I could let someone inside me – even for a little while, even for some nights – and it wouldn’t take away my power. But getting myself back to that place would take as long as it took. You can’t keep opening the oven door to check.
By the time I got to London and lockdown, I could feel every one of the men who had ever been inside me. When we weren’t allowed to leave the house more than once a day, I revisited the greatest loves in my mind, like a Buddhist practising for their death. I remembered when I had a rash of spots around the side of my mouth and when my breasts were so epic from birth control that I didn’t have to wear a bra. I remembered when I lost weight and they looked to me like bananas when I was in doggy style. I remembered how I’d cup my arms either side of my breasts to disguise the loss of density when my husband was on top of me, and how he looked down and said, without malice – in fact, with real affection – “I know what you’re doing.” Since no one except my child had held my hand since I filed for divorce at Christmas 2016, I started my sensual memory excavation with thoughts of holding hands.
A friend, on hearing my Hackney experience, told me I had been on the wrong dating app. I let her sign me up to hers and connected with I guess who I was meant to connect with algorithmically: a divorced dad in his 50s. He was successful, well dressed, had all of his own hair and teeth. I was furious about having to go and meet him. The night before we met, he’d sent a long letter about how he’d ordered my memoir and read it in one go, and all the ways it had moved him. Just because I’d published a memoir didn’t mean I wanted people to read it before a first date. On meeting him in the park, I was not bored or awkward and I accepted he was, on paper, a good match. I agreed to a second date. But the idea of having sex with him made me cry for the entire cab ride home. I just wanted to get home to my skylight’s dusk view.
“I don’t want anyone to touch me. I feel like I would be betraying the moon,” I whispered to my friend, Indira, down the phone. She took a stage pause.
“Or … maybe you just don’t want to have sex with this particular guy.”
This hadn’t crossed my mind as a solid answer – how quickly we can return to the female factory reset: gratitude to a man for being interested in you. Back home, I figured out how to let him down gently, this divorced father who had bought and read my memoir in one sitting. I didn’t have to send it, as he wrote the next day to say he had quite suddenly met someone else, had strong feelings for her and needed to cancel our next date. I felt absolutely furious, and cursed my mother for giving me too high self-esteem.
Somewhere in south London, a 28-year-old man who had set his age limit for prospective dates at 35, was surprised to find that I had eluded his settings. He was even more surprised that, on matching, I immediately sent him a picture of a cat that looked like the actor Ron Perlman. I’d considered sending it to my ex-husband, Ben, but willed myself not to, since he never checks texts or emails and because we were not technically in a relationship. Though I had been celibate by choice for four years, I’d been overwhelmed for the last year by having no one I could send this photo to, just occasionally taking out my phone and looking at it, mournfully, by myself. That was the sign that perhaps I might want to consider dating someone. The picture burned in my pocket, quite separate from a desire for sexual congress. It was there so long that in that period even Ron Perlman got divorced and began a new relationship.
The man I texted it to appreciated it. He wasn’t beside himself with delight, he did not split his sides, but he seemed amused enough. We wrote back and forth, and it was easy. I’ll call him “Q” as he was a clever, fussy Englishman as opposed to Bond suave. Q made me smile and sometimes laugh. I liked his profile picture a lot, in which he grinned beside a stabled horse. I enjoyed talking to him enough that I mentioned him to Ben, who studied the profile picture and approved.
“Clever boy: he’s telling the world he’s got a big cock.”
“He is not saying that! He’s telling the world that he likes animals.”
“No,” said my ex-husband, in the same decisive tone he’d use as he handed a bewildered grocery store worker an orange he considered overripe.
Q was a lot younger than me, but it was an age gap that meant, while I could technically be his mother, I’d be such a young mum, it would cause a great deal of family strife and societal judgment.
I believe I was the one to make the suggestion. We were going to meet outside on a park bench, but then we didn’t because it was raining. Two mothers from school helped me, one by watching my kid and another by coming over to let me take my clothes off in front of her so she could check whether or not my body had become disgusting in the years since anyone had seen it.
When he opened the door, he looked displeased to see me, and I thought: fuck you – now I’m going to kiss you. A “fuck you” kiss is very different from a “hate fuck”. It’s a means of taking control of a situation, not dissimilar from directing. Then I realised he was just slightly anxious so, after I’d kissed him, I sat beside him and waited for him to gain the courage to look at me. Once he looked, he didn’t look away. It wasn’t long before he overcame any anxiety he might have harboured and removed my underwear with his teeth.
Later, I rode home in a black taxi, crossing the bridge as the sun was beginning to set.
The next time I left the house to meet Q, my daughter had become alert to something happening that she wasn’t in on. As I exited, she made a point of saying, “You look horrible.” “Thanks,” I said. “And you smell bad.” “Cool!” I tried to hug her, but she turned away. “And you are a very bad writer. The children at school all laugh at your terrible writing.” I was touched she knew how much my writing matters to me.
During the week, I was astounded by Q’s sexts, parsing them like symbols from alien life. I also noticed, with him on my mind, that I’d started buying clothes again, specifically because I could imagine them being removed.
But I also felt resentment towards him for being able to go out whenever he wanted to go out, whereas for me it was a complex arrangement reliant on generous sleepover invites or babysitter fees. It was easy for him to cancel, too, which was not done with any malice; though nor was it done with thoughtfulness. When I sent Q my first ever nude selfies, he hadn’t asked for them and responded with the same polite good cheer as he did the photograph of the Ron Perlman cat. But I liked to see myself in curious positions. Like fantasising about your own funeral, or giving yourself your own nickname, the nude selfie goes against reason: because you are you, these are not your photographs to take. I wanted to ask him for a WhatsApp of his dick, with a newspaper showing the date so I knew it was taken for me – but then it might look like his penis was being held to ransom.
One morning, we woke in a hotel room overlooking a charming garden, watching the rain like cats. I felt quite calm. The Covid vaccine rollout had finally reached Q’s age group. I told him how, in that first lockdown, I’d had sex dreams about Boris Johnson. “I imagine they were about death,” I said. He sighed. “In the first lockdown, every girl I’d ever dated wanted phone sex and to send me nudes. It was overwhelming. I could have opened a gallery. I wouldn’t – that would be revenge porn. But I eventually stopped looking. I had sex with so many women at the start of the pandemic, it’s like the Band Aid song: I couldn’t tell you who did which part.”
Internally, I recoiled. I knew who sang each line of that song. Of course – this was generational. What was new frontier for a woman in her 40s was yesterday’s repetitive news to a man in his 20s. After he left for work, I made a point of taking more photos, just for me, in the hotel mirror, the crumpled sheets visible in the frame. I could recoil at his sangfroid all I liked, but that did not undo last night’s multiple orgasm.
In the following weeks, I recognised my liberal use of the WhatsApp “mute” function (setting my phone so it wouldn’t ping when he contacted me), then going into it to check if he had anyway. It reminded me of all the times I had ever covered a plate of chips with a napkin to try to shield myself from temptation.
One afternoon, a day after he’d cancelled on me late, I sat across his lap and leaned in to kiss him. The afternoon light in his bedroom did different things. Over the course of a month, it had changed, and instead of making me feel like we made our own time, it made me feel inspected and exposed and chivvied. My breath tasted awful from the sleeping pills that didn’t make me sleep, so imagine how I tasted to him … I hated that afternoon. He felt cold and the wrong kind of strange – and I hadn’t had more than two hours’ sleep a night in 10 days.
I left and sat on his doorstep, waiting for a cab. By the time I got home, I was in a state. I had to hold it together because I’m a mum. I had to make my daughter dinner and bathe her, put her pyjamas on, read her a story and put her to bed. Once she was asleep, I wanted to talk to him, but I couldn’t because it was too early to let myself be broken with someone. Why did this young man have this hold on me, if I knew it couldn’t possibly be real love between us?
I felt very sad once I accepted that I was falling in love with Q and that he was not particularly available to me. So I did what men often do when they’re overwhelmed by the feeling of being blown away by a woman. They have a one-night stand with someone new. After we’d connected on the app, the message came: “Floored. Your playlist. You are cool as fuck.” Like Q, this young man seemed as drawn by my music as by me, which made me feel like an erotic Pied Piper.
The weather was lovely at the park where we met and he was almost instantly his own person, very distinct from the one on whom I was trying not to fixate. It wasn’t right to call either a boy, as both had more self-confidence than any of the middle-aged men I’d known. As we walked, I was already calculating how many kinds of ice-cream I was allowed. Because I really wanted Q. I wanted him so bad I couldn’t sleep. But now I wanted this one, too.
After paying our respects to Karl Marx at Highgate cemetery, we walked up to Parliament Hill, where we lay on a blanket, vaping weed and stealing glances at each other’s real-life profiles. As we talked, finally, I could smell him. That would be the next vanguard of apps – if you could know their scent before you clicked. We kissed until secondary-school children pointed and laughed at us. (I remember being their age and wanting both to be kissed and to make fun of people for kissing. I, too, am conflicted – amused by them and a little scared of them, because I can hear their voices but not see their faces.) We decided to go back to my old flat, which would be empty for one week before renters arrived. I’d given it up to rent a place where my kid could have a garden. Q was meant to come to see it before I handed over the keys, but he cancelled.
We could only make it to the first landing before falling into each other. Single motherhood is often hard and sometimes sad, and it was an enormous relief to be devoured. I think because he was so hungry, it spilled over and, the night and morning I was with him, I wanted to cook for him, which I never want to do, as my cooking is tied to implications of domestic failure and inability to be an obedient or successful housewife.
“What do you want me to do to you?” he asked after the sun had gone down. These young men, gauging your sexual pleasure! The men I dated at his age never asked you what you wanted or how to please you. You were just meant to be pleased to be chosen, validated that it was you on whom their gaze had, for now, fallen.
Q was busy self-actualising that weekend, which is precisely the right thing to do not only in your 20s, but also in your 40s. And that’s why I felt he would understand what I was doing, too, tied to the staircase at my own request, by a stranger I’d never see again. My plan had been to let this new boy screw the crazy out of me so I could go back to Q without holding my breath for each text and muting WhatsApp messages that I’d then retrieve from the bin to eat. Though I found him difficult, diffident and confusing, he also fascinated me – maybe we might end up boyfriend and girlfriend. Maybe that wouldn’t be possible.
But this boy, this one in my flat, I wasn’t scared of this boy: I loved him that night as I fell asleep in his arms, Tom Petty’s Wildflowers playing. For that night, I loved him as much as I’d loved my husband.
Only, this time you don’t have to choose each other. You don’t have to find out down the line that you chose wrongly, or watch helplessly as things fall apart. You never have to remember how passionate you were for each other and how far apart you now are in the bed. You can just obliterate each other, clean yourself up and, very gently, with the morning light moving across the street, walk him to the underground, kiss him, watch him descend. And with the sky still above you and the pavement still beneath you, you can just let go.