While it’s uncommon for me to take spontaneous trips now that I’m saddled with three young children, I jumped at the chance to join my best friend from high school in New York City recently for her 40th birthday celebration.
The celebration was actually for her and her two college roommates – both funny, smart women I’ve gotten to know over the years – who have faced or will face The Big 4-0 this year, too. I was thrilled to be included in their plan.
We spent two nights in the fabulous Gansevoort Hotel in the Meatpacking District, eating, drinking, walking and sleeping very little (nine hours total, unless you count my seconds-long naps during our ModelFit class.)
I expected a jam-packed weekend that would send me home to L.A. with some amusing stories, an exorbitant credit card balance and maybe even a few minor party injuries. I got all that and an unexpected nugget of self-discovery to boot.
In the evenings, as we hopped from dinner to bar to club into the wee hours of the morning, we routinely ended up hanging out with groups of men – nice, professional guys ranging in age from 22 to 50, all single with the exception of one recently divorced gentleman and one betrothed – who graciously paid for bottle service and our drinks. They knew we were married and sometimes even joked that they should be spending their time and money on more promising pursuits of available single women.
However, despite our unanimous agreement with this sentiment and our playful jeers about their bad luck, getting stuck hanging out with four married almost-40 year-olds, they chose to continue spending time with us, talking, dancing and buying us drinks. They were fun and respectful and we were having a great time, so we were happy to be companionable. (For my part, I was also complying with my husband’s exhorting text after our first night: “Nice work on the bottle service. Stay close to the high rollers. Saves money!”)
Curiously, each time we fell into a new group, we were asked the same question: “If you’re happily married, why are you here?”
I ran a series of complicated possible theories by my husband about why this question kept coming up: Was it really so implausible that a couple of married women might want to go out until four in the morning without their husbands? Were we unwittingly giving off an aura of desperation? Are single men still operating under the archaic notion that wives are property and should be tethered to or waiting upon their husbands at home, around the clock? Or have we become so cynical as a culture that we presume a married woman let loose on the town is on the prowl, plotting her divorce and her second marriage? Why all the mystification and suspicion?
After letting me ramble, he answered simply (and with a hint of long-suffering tossed in for good measure), “they’re fishing. That’s all.” As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. When it comes to men, the simplest answer that is most closely connected to his need to get laid is usually going to be the right one. So much for my complicated theories.
Still, the question stayed with me. I knew the fishing was futile. I was not out with my girlfriends in order to be picked up by some random guy. So, why was I there?
I was out to have fun with the girls and celebrate our collective entrance to a new decade with style in a city I love. And while that was technically the one and only to-do on my agenda, I was benefiting from an unsought, but nonetheless enjoyable, consequence in the meantime: the dull, vapid pleasure of an ego lift.
If sex is the elemental motivating force behind a man’s decisions, then vanity is a woman’s. With rare exceptions, our primal need as women to be a suitable mate, worthy of furthering mankind, unconsciously influences many of our behaviors and decisions. Even the most enlightened women – women who shun conventional standards of beauty, have extraordinarily important brains or are strikingly successful in their work – want to be attractive, admired or interesting to at least a handful of people that aren’t their mothers.
I feel healthy and vital. I take measures to try to age gracefully by exercising and taking good care of my skin. I haven’t “let myself go”. I have a full, rich, interesting life that I enjoy deeply and gratefully. I have no desire to cheat on my husband. I love him dearly. He makes me feel sexy. He frequently tells me he’s attracted to me, which makes me feel great. By all accounts, my vanity tip-jar should be overflowing with psychic income.
But the fact is, very soon, I will stop being fertile and start menopause. From a Darwinian perspective, I’m no longer relevant. I’ve successfully replaced myself. I have weaned my babies. I’ve secured my husband’s bloodline. If I was a mare who had birthed a racehorse foal, I’d be put out to pasture, demanding little time, expense or attention from my owner. When seen through this lens, doesn’t it seem natural – compulsory even – that I might seek some validation from handsome strangers?
Quite simply, when a cute guy I’ve never met - an unbiased, objective outsider - flirts with me, it feels good. I may act coquettishly offended to be objectified or appalled by the implication that I would be unfaithful or that I’m out trolling for men. But, in spite of my education, my politics, my fierce belief that a woman’s worth is not defined by her outward appearance, the stone age cavewoman in me is jubilantly pumping her fist, smiling ear to ear, when my ego’s needs are pacified.
Does this mean that, at my core, I’m a shallow, insecure adolescent trapped in a grown woman’s body, stuck in an early stage of development? A Cougar doomed to live a callow midlife, reduced to an old cliché?
I don’t think so and here’s why: unlike when I was younger, my nearly-40 year-old ego can cop to my baser impulses without calling my therapist or beginning an obsessive inner-life overhaul, in a hurry to fix this shameful character flaw. I can recognize it for what it is, laugh at it and coolly press on, relatively unaffected. Likewise, I can accept a flattering encounter – a shiny new quarter tossed into my ego-fountain – as gratifying, but ultimately, inconsequential. Not dissimilar to finding a forgotten $20 bill in your pocket. Happily accepted. Quickly forgotten.