I have been wrapped up in an older man since I was about four.
I wasn’t a Barbie kid, but when a relative gave me one, I was happy to abuse them like everyone else. I gave them bitchy voices and made them slap each other. I ripped their dresses off and studied their boobs. I whacked at their waxy hair with a comb until I’d “had it up to here” and then I climbed into my mini-VW, threw them in the backseat, executed a quick twelve-point turn from its spot between the washer and the wall, palming the steering wheel, and drove them across the kitchen to the barbershop, where, with orange-handled Fiskars scissors, I gave them “practical” bowl cuts not unlike the ones I got. And then I promptly forgot about them. But while I could have taken or left Barbies, what I began to want, what I came to want more than anything — though I could not tell you why — was a Ken, which I called a “Man Doll.”
For months, I begged my parents for a Man Doll. My birthday came and went in March, and no Man Doll. When, come December, still no Man Doll had materialized, I took matters into my own hands and brought my request to the boss, the Mall Santa. My transition lenses still semi-dark, I waited in line with the great unwashed — I hated kids — and even though I did not believe and had never believed in Santa, and even though by the age of four I was already pushing six feet, I approached the Mall Santa with what I hoped was appropriate reverence, crawled onto the guy’s lap, and whispered that what I wanted for Christmas, what my heart was really fucking beating for, was a Man Doll.
And when, on Christmas morning, I saw a wrapped present in the shape of a Man Doll box and began to clap myself silly, and then waited patiently until no presents were left, wanting to save the best for last, what I found when I finally ripped it open — I began to blink, trying to get my eyes to focus, my heart free-falling like a brick — was not Ken, but what my mother had deemed more “age-appropriate:” Kevin.
To this day, I have asked: Why Kevin? What did my mother mean by “age-appropriate”? Age appropriate for whom? For Barbie? Or was she, sensing rough seas ahead, simply trying to steer my ship to younger shores?
Instead, I embarked on a series of enduring obsessions with real life Man Dolls. There was the guy who drove the ice cream truck. There was my parents’ plumber — his name was Al, or I just thought it was. There was Bill Nye the Science Guy, whom I watched, rapt, in the dark, on the tiny TV in my parents’ bedroom, as he held a lighter to a huge block of ice. There was that girl’s dad who visited our second grade class each Tuesday to show us cool tricks almost always involving vinegar — we called him The Science Man, i.e. the next best thing to Bill. There was Ben Affleck, whose pictures, which I found in the library magazine archives, I pressed to my face, inhaling the old perfume of adjacent ads that I imagined was his cologne. There was my junior high science teacher — there’s a lot of science in this list, I’m realizing — who was such a nauseating cross between Paul Newman and Kevin Costner that even my mother, understanding the gravity of never seeing Kevin Newman again and also perhaps wanting to undo what had been done that fateful Christmas, snapped a few blurry pictures of him for me at my junior high graduation.
My favorite love stories were the ones with older men. Mr. Knightly, I was well aware, was 16 years older than Emma. I watched the movie, the one with Gwyneth Paltrow, at least once a week for many years. Mr. Rochester, I was well aware, was 17 years older than Jane. I watched and re-watched this French movie, Red Kiss, about, I think, Stalinism, but all I remember is that the teenage girl in it has sex with this journalist in his thirties. In the library, after reading the words “15-year-old girl,” “illicit affair,” and “40-year-old man” on the dust jacket of Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve, I checked that shit out immediately and blew through it in a night.
When I was a freshman in high school, I wanted to date a senior, but when it looked more and more like that wasn’t in the cards for me, I turned my focus on the next best thing, one of the senior’s younger brothers. It took some vision — I used his older brother as a preview of coming attractions — but what I reveled in most was the six months of the year when he was technically two years older.
While they were devastated, I’m not sure my parents were that surprised when, at 22, I finally had my very own affair with my very own Man Doll.
Here’s a funny thing I’ve learned about older men: They have typically been alive longer than I have and have often gotten a head start on life events like marriage and children. And while I might have obsessively imagined, say, unbuttoning a Man Doll’s shirt in his office or a dark stairwell while he’s begging me to run away with him, my fantasies didn’t include the parts where I’m screaming, “You could start by calling your fucking kid!” or finding unopened court documents in the back of his sock drawer, or, four years in, sobbing into a trash bag I’ve just filled with a bunch of those button-down shirts after he’d gone to finalize the divorce I paid for with all my savings and then texted to say that he was so sorry but he’d canceled it and gone home instead.
But I’m smart, I learned my lesson: Stay away from Married Man Dolls. So what I did was I traded up for a younger, hotter Divorced Man Doll.
Here’s another funny thing I’ve learned about older men: They have typically been alive longer than I have and have often gotten a head start on basic life events like children and divorce. And while, when a Divorced Man Doll holds me in his beautiful arms and tells me beautiful things about the beautiful life together that stretches ahead of us, I might have begun to dream about, say, spontaneous weekend trips to Costa Rica to surf, or even just renting an apartment in the city, where I’d never lived before, my fantasies didn’t include the part where I’m screaming, “Getting a babysitter for four hours is not child abuse!” or the part where most weekends are spent at tournaments in pay-for-play sports arenas in towns I’ve never heard of, surrounded by mothers who appear dangerously close to climax each time their child makes contact with a ball, or the part where I can’t live where I want to live because I have to live where the Divorced Man Doll has to live because that is where his ex-wife lives and thus where his child goes to school and also where all of his child’s friends live.
All I know is this: My mother’s instincts weren’t wrong. Or maybe they were. Maybe if she had just given me a Man Doll when I wanted a Man Doll, I could have had my fix and been done with them. Maybe.
Emma Duffy-Comparone is the author of the recently released Love Like That: Stories which is available for purchase, here.