In my phone he was saved as ROMANIAN JEW. He was enormously tall, so tall he walked at an angle, and he had gray-green eyes of the sort you read about in Gogol. His lips were the size of small bread rolls–fleshy and soft and warm. Alexander Saarsgard would play him in a movie. Only bald. And Romanian. And Jewish. He was 42-years-old. He was a professional-level kisser, one of the best I’d ever encountered—gold medal worthy, I told him. We went on three dates over ten days. But I’m not even sure if the third one counts because that’s the date on which he explained we could never be together.
“I didn’t even mean to match with you,” Romanian Jew told me over mid-week Chinese. He threw up his hands, exhausted by the notion he needed to explain such things.
“I changed my settings. For five minutes. For five minutes I accidentally said age wasn’t a deal breaker. I didn’t even mean to meet you. I’d been with older women before and all they wanted was sex.”
He glanced down at his bowl of sweet and sour soup and sighed, befuddled by the fact that a woman six years older than he was, a divorced woman with two teenage children, could develop actual feelings. This was mind-blowing to Romanian Jew.
“This is so stressful,” he said, twirling lo mein around his fork. “This is so hard. I like you. But my mission is to get married and have kids. My parents, my family–they’re on my case to have a family. And I can’t do that with you. I need someone younger. Not because your age matters. But you know, are you honestly going to…,” he trailed off. “You have, you know—teenagers. It’s fucking weird, man.”
Around us, Chinatown was aglow with its pink and green neon signs. Like a 1940’s romance, like an old Robert Town movie. It was quiet and empty. Save for us, seated across from one another at an outdoor metal table as our waiter filled up our water glasses.
“OK,” I said. “So this is it.”
“But this is not it,” he said.
“So what is it?” I asked.
He sighed again, his bald head glistening under the hot white lights of the Chinese restaurant sign.
“I don’t know.”
We strolled through Chinatown, snapping photos of the Pagoda-style buildings and undulating lanterns in flashing shades of red and gold. Eventually, we sat down on a cold stone bench in the neighborhood’s main plaza and made out under the watchful eye of a dragon mural. Every few minutes, Romanian Jew would look at me and smile. His mouth tasted like Cherry Coke and he opened his eyes as he kissed me. “I like this,” he kept saying. It was both one of the most romantic encounters in recent memory and a fruitless attempt to stave off the inevitable.
“Enjoy your family,” he said before getting into his car, an old beat-up Toyota of the sort cash-strapped post-doctoral students looking for a much younger version of yourself are wont. “Enjoy your kids. You are so lucky to have them. Find somebody with children, too. That makes much more sense!”
There is, of course, nothing richer than a single, fatherless, never-before-married bald man six years your junior sending you out to pasture because you have already procreated on planet earth. Because who would know better than a man who has never sired a child what makes sense for a divorced single full-time working mom raising two teenage children single-handedly at least 75% of the time? How daft to have ever considered otherwise!
“I don’t want you to be sad because of me,” he texted, days later. “I’m not that great of a person.”
He was right, of course. They were all right. None of them had been that great. My ex-husband, he’d been special, but that’s also because our relationship was so traumatic and dramatic and lasted for 15 years. Over 15 years even the dullest of men can reveal something about themselves that’s interesting. But the ones after my marriage? It had been two-and-half years since my ex and I had separated, and the men that came along– they were commas, place holders. None of them amounted to anything so much as ellipses in terms of romantic relationship potential.
Several days later, I was on a plane to Seattle with three teenage kids. The trip had been planned well beforehand–a bat mitzvah for my daughter’s summer camp friend–and I’d offered to chaperone. It was me, my daughter, Tzvia, and son, Sam, and one of my daughter’s bunkmates. It felt good to be part of a squad, if only that it resembled in number the family unit of which my kids and I used to be a part, before their father and I divorced. Within five minutes of takeoff, Sam flipped me the middle finger, Tzvia instructed me to pretend I didn’t know her and it was advised that upon landing I not say anything or do anything or almost do anything that might possibly embarrass any of them. Memories of summers as a camp counselor to discourteous, hormonal teens attempting to ruin my life on canoe trips came rushing back. Still, it felt glorious to get away, especially since we hadn’t traveled for so long due to Covid.
Seattle was rainy and bone-cold, a city of radical juxtapositions, awash in pandemic gloom and emerald-green forest. At the airport, Tzvia and her bunkmate joined their camp friend and her mom, squealing and scurrying off to partake in celebratory bat mitzvah festivities while Sam and I set off to embark on our own mother-son weekend.
The Lotte Hotel was a soaring husk of sparkling glass, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the inky December waters of Elliot Bay. Within minutes of checking in, Sam was standing in front of the window in our 15th floor room, pulling down his pants and mooning the entirety of Seattle.
“What are you doing?” I shouted. “You can’t just flash the Pacific Northwest.”
“I’m pretending to be Kieran Culkin in Succession,” he replied, laughing hysterically as he pressed his bottom against the window pane.
“People fall out of windows. Get back!”
“It’s fine, mommy. The windows are fine.”
“You’re watching Succession?” I asked, yanking him toward the middle of the room. “You’re fifteen.”
“It’s the best show ever,” he said, flopping onto the bed, his arms extended like the wingspan of a bird. “I don’t understand what’s happening, but I love it.”
Sam was small for his age, so when he pretended to be drunk that night at Rocco’s, a pizza place in the Bellevue section of town, it didn’t look like a teenager was sauced, but a 12 year-old. He knocked back his Mexican Coke like he was Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Slapping the bottle down on the counter. Our waitress laughed, and Sam proceeded to fake-slur his way through a monologue from a scene in Euphoria, which I’ve determined is Gen Z’s version of 1990’s Larry Clarke movies. Sam is on the autism spectrum, and over the past couple of years, his special talent appears to be the ability to memorize entire episodes of tv series and films after a single viewing. At the Public Market, where we strolled around looking at tiny shops filled with tchotchkes ranging from antique coins to rose quartz crystals, Sam recited Vito Corleone’s “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” speech from The Godfather. At the Chihuly glass museum, he walked around quoting Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. It was Chanukah, so we indulged in powdered sufganiyot from a local Jewish bakery and Sam reenacted one of his favorite skits from Saturday Night Live, where Bowen Yang plays the iceberg that sank the Titanic.
For two days, we roamed the city, dodging downpours by ducking under restaurant awnings and snapping photos outside the original Starbucks. We navigated the infamous Gum Wall, used chewing gum stuck to the alleyway’s cool brick walls, and Sam pretended to vomit: “I’m like Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses!” On Sunday, we collected Tzvia and her bunkmate and flew back to Los Angeles just in time for Omicron to rear its ugly head and our entire family–vaxxed, boosted, masked–contracting the dreaded Covid.
By the time I heard from Romanian Jew again, I was too sick and exhausted to care. Which, all things considered, wasn’t a bad place to be.
I wished him well and put my dating apps on pause.
Malina Saval is an award-winning features editor at Variety and the author of The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens. Her articles and essays have appeared in Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Glamour, Jerusalem Post, Tablet, and various other publications. She sits on the board of the Los Angeles Press Club and has appeared on such programs as NPR’s Talk of the Nation, CBS Radio, and the Patt Morrison Show.