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Ping Zhu
Ping Zhu
Relationships

Older Men Keep Hitting On Me!

(And they’re hard to let down easy.)

“So, how old is he?” my mom asks, by text. I’m barely a sentence into relating a lunch I was invited to with a fellow writer — a man — at a conference. She doesn’t ask me anymore if the men in these circumstances are single. (That’s assumed.) She’s testing her theory: Guys need a few decades on me to overcome intimidation. Already she has had four or five test cases to cackle over — from men waiting in elevators with me to staffers at my local library. “You’re a force, Steen-y,” she purrs, like she’s breaking bad news. “Men your age don’t know what to do with you.”

Do with me? I could give them some ideas, should they ask. But that’s jumping ahead. First, I’m 41, mom to a school-age kid, and newly single after nearly 20 years wedded both to a bad match and a series of successful businesses my ex and I built together. I know my way out of every wormhole a start-up business can create — hiring, firing, customer cultivation, website maintenance, printer networking, banker hand-shaking, spreadsheets. SPREADSHEETS.

And while I don’t embrace numbers naturally, I know that my demographic is the one least populated by (legitimately) eligible partners in this country, anyway. Most eligible? They’re millennials, at nearly 80 percent. However, the idea of propositioning a man whose native love language includes emojis turns me off. That leaves the Silver Fox club (runners-up), of which my friend — I’ll say, “Paul” — is a charter and exemplary member.

It started innocently. Paul and I often sat elbow-to-elbow, hands hovering over our adjacent keyboards, at the counter of the cool coffee shop in town. We’re both writers — though he’s spinning extra floss from his former academic career, while I’m a bona fide freelance hustler. After a few polite exchanges about the submission process — comp titles, editor introductions — it became commonplace to chat briefly each time we ran into each other.

I knew something was up the day he swept in wearing a starched white button-down, cavalierly open at the neck — as dressed to impress as a retiree can get by 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in my small Midwestern town. I wasn’t sitting at the customary counter, and as I glanced up from my laptop, I could see he was willing himself to lounge on his barstool for appearances, before angling for the seat next to me at a nearby table.

He sat down. He remarked on the weather and began eyeing the work I had open on my screen (thankfully, not this essay). Just then, a girlfriend of mine walked into the shop, assessed the situation, and shot me a clear “What-in-the-f@#*” by furrowing her chiseled brows. “Am I … interrupting?” she asked, leaning away a step.

“No, no,” Paul chirped. But he couldn’t resist. “Would you like to have lunch sometime?” he blurted, as soon as my friend turned to order her latte. He was already opening his notebook, pen in hand, to take down my email (not my number, which I would have refused outright).

“Sssure?” I answered slowly, trying to dictate my reservation and confusion. I couldn’t quite make out his intentions. To be polite, I took down the address he was spelling out, but I was already wrestling with the rejection I suspected I’d have to send. Paul is not a bad — or even a bad-looking — guy. I just don’t find anything about dating him appealing.

A patient week went by, and an express invitation arrived. I turned it down, citing legitimate single-primary parenting and travel commitments. A week or so later, Paul invited me to a dinner party, including parent-peers my age — but in whose midst I would obviously be paired with him, as host. I declined, with a firm, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Then a third email landed, spilling backstory on how he’d been agonizing over the cultural appropriateness of his advances. He’d even been debating it with his tennis buddies (also, as small towns are wont, acquaintance-friends of mine).

Enough.

“Paul,” I wrote. “As much as I admire your persistence and am flattered to be the topic of Thursday tennis, I do not want to lead you on: I am not interested in anything more than our coffee acquaintanceship. Thanks, though!” That ended the expectation of correspondence — though I still get an email, which I don’t answer, every now and then. I haven’t seen him in more than two months, as my workspace has shifted from coffee shop to swim gallery. I’m glad for the time. It will carry some measure of grace when we inevitably meet again.

Wiser now, I cut to the chase with my conference-lunch buddy, who was, yes, a Silver. I asked within minutes if he was married — he was — and I used the response to share that I’m not looking. At this point in life, I explained, I’m not anxious to accommodate anyone or anything outside of my own priorities, central to which is my scattershot career as a working writer. He seemed relieved by my frankness. That tension eased, we geeked on pushing our literary projects forward. (My mom would be disappointed by the lack of intrigue, but smug that her theory still holds.)

As it turns out, ladies, there’s one thing about men that doesn’t wither much with age: their inability to hear “No,” unless you say it. And even then, they might be a little deaf.

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