He had been in Los Angeles for a month, but he said he hadn’t seen much. The ocean, a couple of record stores and the stretch of concrete he hiked to get to the library where I happened to work. I lent him my copy of “The Day of the Locust” and offered to show him around.
I was almost 37. He was much younger. How much younger? I was afraid to find out.
A year and a half earlier, I had moved to L.A. with aspirations: to make good on my promise as a screenwriter and to fall in love, get married and have a child. In need of a day job, I took an entry-level position at the research library of a prestigious film academy, imagining I would soon move up. So far, nothing had gone to plan.
Though my work was menial and the paycheck meager, the job had its pleasures: shelves of bound screenplays, troves of Hollywood ephemera and screenings of classic films, luminously restored. So I remained in my post, while at home nights and weekends I made endless revisions to my current script.
Nick turned up at the library in mid-September, with a gaptoothed smile and pale limbs emerging from his shorts and button-up shirt. He had come 6,000 miles, from Edinburgh, to do research for a biography of the ’70s film director Hal Ashby. With a rented room walking distance from the library and a return ticket three months from his arrival, Nick became a fixture in the special collections reading room.
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Day after day, he pored over Ashby’s papers, sidling up to the desk with requests for photocopies or help deciphering the scrawl on a manuscript, but also to chat about movies, culture shock, the antics of his crazy landlady. Our conversations took on a playful intimacy, and when he went back to his table, I found myself watching him.
“Lord, let him be 27,” I thought as he typed up his notes, his tongue tucked between his lips in concentration. If he were more than 10 years younger than me, I had decided, the difference in maturity and experience would be too great.
We started having lunch together on a bench in front of the library, talking about our tastes in books and music and film as if our identities depended on it. I was relieved to learn that “Harold and Maude” — the love story of a boyish 20-year-old and a 79-year-old woman — was not his favorite Ashby film.
Before long, I was taking Nick to Griffith Park and to screenings at the academy. I didn’t ask how old he was. I had decided by then it didn’t matter. He would be gone soon, and that would be the end of it. But at home I listened to Big Star’s ode to adolescent love, “Thirteen,” on repeat with an ardor that suggested it did matter.
On the eve of my 37th birthday, we had our first real date, and as I was driving him home, we admitted our mutual crushes (that was the word). We were on Venice Boulevard, approaching the turnoff to his house in a hush of uncertain anticipation, when the song on the radio changed, and I recognized the first notes of “Thirteen.”
I turned to him, breathless, and said, “I’m going to keep driving.”
He didn’t object as we headed toward the beach, Big Star serenading us: “Won’t you let me walk you home from school? Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?”
Thirteen, I now knew, was not only an age that resonated with the mood of our budding romance; it also turned out to be the difference between our ages. He was not 27. He was barely 24. Before coming to L.A., he had been living with his parents.
It was an age gap I might have found acceptable in a relationship if he were in his 30s and I in my 40s, but for now our only reasonable option was a fling.
On the beach we made out, sand in our shoes and hair. So began our secret romance — secret because I didn’t want to share my love life with my colleagues, much less endure the inevitable “Harold and Maude” jokes.
We spent the Thanksgiving holiday at a friend’s Los Feliz bungalow where I was cat sitting. On walks in the hills, we took in the city with vertiginous wonder, its horizons mirroring the unexpected expansiveness of our feelings.
When I returned to my place, he came with me. On weekdays, we developed a routine of drop-offs and pickups, of knowing looks and secluded lunches, thrilling at the harmless deception that bound us together. Weekends we crisscrossed the city, going to museums and bookstores, diners and taquerias, beaches and trails.
His refrain, squinting at me across the pillows, was: “Aren’t you that girl from the library?”
As his departure neared, the question of the future hung over us, until I laid out plainly what we both already knew: I wanted a family, and if we were to continue our relationship, it would have to be with the intention of exploring that. We spent our last minutes together before his flight sitting at the foot of a flagpole at LAX, clutching each other’s fingers, a terrible tenderness in the air. And then he was gone, with a promise to visit in March.
On his return, we started making plans for him to live with me for a few months, careful not to overcommit, even as we printed out the application for a fiancé visa. Then he accepted a writing residency in Scotland, and we put our plans on hold. We continued to exchange visits, but with each month he grew more distant, and I more anxious.
At Christmas we rendezvoused in New York City. There, as we had once mapped the blossoming of our relationship onto the streets and parks of L.A., we mapped its unspoken dissolution.
On a call, after we had returned to our far-flung homes, he said, “I can’t do this.”
With his book only half written and our combined earning power minimal, the prospect of supporting ourselves, never mind starting a family, was overwhelming to him, and my faith that we would figure it out was unpersuasive. Both of us miserable, we said goodbye.
For a couple of days, I lay in bed, letting my body do the mourning for me. Before we broke up, I had begun to fear that our relationship was doomed from the start, our imagined future a delusion. Now I felt only loss — not of something doomed, but of something that had been almost within reach.
I returned to my routines feeling hollowed out, but gradually I was revived — by sunshine, time and the increasingly pressing problem of my livelihood. Nick’s anxiety about our ability to support ourselves had stayed with me as a challenge to face the fears and resistance that kept me underemployed and unfulfilled. For months I had been considering possible solutions. Now I took action.
Moving to Brooklyn, where I had friends and family, I took a film editing course, and a couple months later I landed my first editing job. It paid little, yet I knew I had found a profession — and a city — in which I could thrive.
I made these changes for myself, on my own path of self-actualization, but in doing so, I had become a more tenable potential partner and arguably a more worthy one. By moving East, I had also cut the physical distance between me and Nick in half.
On his 26th birthday I dropped him a line. We exchanged a few tentative emails, then agreed to talk on the phone. We hadn’t spoken for eight months. When we had warmed up to each other, he blurted, “I want to see you.”
I said no, wary of falling back together without clear intentions.
He was quiet, then something shifted in him: “I want to come live with you.”
He had finished a draft of his Ashby biography that very day. By my old metrics, he was still too young for me, but tracing a life from beginning to end had given him new confidence and clarity. Hearing how I too had changed, he came around.
Nick and I have been married for 13 years and have a 10-year-old daughter. The length of our marriage now matches the difference in our ages, and, as if those years of family life have filled in the age gap, we barely notice it anymore.
Last year, we went back to the library to visit and to show our daughter where we met. Many of the people we knew were still there, but I wasn’t worried about “Harold and Maude” jokes. We had our own story now.
Heather von Rohr is a writer and former film editor in Brooklyn.
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