Looking back, I cannot believe that I reached out to her in the first place. At the age of 60, I had retired from my career, relocated from the comfortable familiarity of Canada to the Dominican Republic, extinguished most responsibilities to my adult children and been divorced from my ex-wife for over three years.
Having already adopted eight stray dogs from the streets of Puerto Plata, I was browsing an animal rescue page on Facebook that I contributed to when I noticed her post. Though Alex was only 20 and lived in the U.S., I sent her a message. And even though I was 40 years her senior, she replied.
Our online communications eventually turned into all-night-long telephone conversations until one day I invited her to visit me. Before allowing the trip to happen, Alex’s mother, herself almost 10 years my junior, checked me out on Google and agreed on a safe word (“pumpernickel”) for her daughter to use if she was kidnapped and forced into a lifetime of laundry slavery. And so, a few months after first exchanging pleasantries on Facebook, Alex stepped off a plane and into my life. A little more than a year later, having never left the Dominican Republic, she married me.
By the time we exchanged our vows, we had experienced for some time the social discomfort that our union appeared to cause others. My friends, and hers as well, questioned the sanity of our choice to commit to each other. My children ― educated, liberal intellectuals ― did not know how to process the fact that they were both at least six years older than their father’s new bride. My Jewish mother treated the news that I had married a woman 40 years younger than me with the same horror that she would have displayed had I told her that I was about to consider becoming a Scientologist. Alex’s mother, whom I have subsequently learned to adore, was as apprehensive as my family was.
But what caused us both the most angst was the universal impression that we had entered into a “transactional relationship.”
A transactional relationship is one in which both parties are in it only for themselves, and where each partner does things for the other with the expectation of reciprocation. The classical transactional relationship that involves a husband and a wife is one in which one person, usually the man (or the older party), provides financial support in return for the other person, usually the woman (or the younger party), to provide sex. In cases where the man is significantly older and the woman is disproportionately attractive, this impression becomes even more prevalent to the world at large.
The entire foundation of a transactional relationship implies a paucity of love, respect or devotion, as each party seeks not to give but to receive. The irony in our case is that my wife not only comes from a family of means, but after an extraordinarily successful career in her late teens competing in horse-jumping competitions on the world stage, she has her own money. In my case, after years of an unhappy marriage, what I needed was not sex but intimacy and nurturing. The notion of trading away my future happiness for a roll in the hay was an affront to my emotional needs.
I didn’t have to get married for sex and she didn’t have to get married for money, even though that is exactly what everyone thought.
Only the few who know us ― our friends and our close relatives ― truly know the real backstory. My wife is an accomplished painter who studied at the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, where she was accepted on a full scholarship. I retired from a career in real estate at the age of 50 to devote more of my life to writing, a passion that I had nurtured for most of my life but ignored as I strived to raise a family, pay the bills and accumulate the financial security that was expected in the social strata in which I lived.
It is the arts that bind Alex and me, and our mutual love of each other’s craft drives each of us to delve deeper into the creativity that defines our work and incubates our relationship. We love each other on a level that transcends sex or money.
And yet we are still ostracized as a couple. What the outside world sees is not the passion of two creative spirits joined at the heart on a voyage of discovery and growth, but the bleak realities of a transactional relationship. I am viewed as the predatory man with financial means bartering for the physical charms of a much younger woman too unsophisticated in the ways of the world to be able to see the Machiavellian nature of my agenda.
Spend enough time dissecting our marriage, and many will conclude that I must be a garden-variety sociopath intent on marrying an innocent and naïve woman with the IQ of a houseplant.
In reality, by marrying Alex, I have become far more sensitive and conscious of the needs of others. In her case, to suggest that a woman who finished the first two years of university while still in high school and studied both organic chemistry and fine arts on scholarships is intellectually inferior is an insult to the MENSA genius I married.
We have both long ago stopped obsessing over the small indignities that we face each day. There isn’t a restaurant that we eat at that hasn’t at least once asked me what my daughter wants to order. Heaven forbid the times that my wife elects to buy me supper, with her own money, because the server won’t take her seriously when she asks for the bill. As a tall person, I prefer to book the emergency exit row on flights and am tired of the ticketing agent asking me if my daughter is old enough to sit there. The last time we flew back into the United States, the country that issued Alex her passport, the immigration officer questioned the validity of our marriage. When I produced the registered license, the officer appeared surprised that our union hadn’t been arranged.
I love my wife enough that I do not need the approval of others, especially people I do not know. What bothers me is not the assumption that we married to get something from each other but the idea that everyone in an age gap relationship does so as well. When Anna Nicole Smith married the 89-year-old, wheelchair-bound oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, there was no doubt for many people about her motivations.
Ask any of my friends about me, and most will interject into the list of my numerous attributes the fact that I am inordinately clean and tidy. In my previous relationships, the absence of strictly choreographed order drove me crazy; the fights that I have had in my life over the placement of cutlery in a drawer are legendary. And yet, when Alex leaves her paints and brushes and sketch pads all over the house, what I see isn’t a mess, but the subtle fingerprints of the artistic angel who, in her own unique fashion, has found a way to take me from my stressed-out obsessions to a place of tranquil peace.
Our home reverberates with her presence, a quieting symphony of art and form and color that tames my madness and soothes my soul. As a writer who suffers the slings and arrows of writer’s block, in her presence words flow, beckoned out of parts of my consciousness that only she knows how to address.
Alex is also a vegetarian, a lifestyle choice that she made over 10 years ago not for reasons of health but because of her true love of all living things. Her deeply rooted connection to animals has infiltrated our relationship as well. It is not that I now crave meat less, but more that I at least understand the moral implications of my choice to eat meat and how my place in this complex world of other living creatures carries responsibilities.
Alex has made me more empathetic, more understanding and more generous of spirit. What she has done ― after my lifetime of living the life of the narcissistic predator ― is make me more human. In my previous relationships, my significant others made me love them; Alex has taught me to love myself. And for that, I love her even more.
Sometimes at night, while I hold and comfort Alex after a particularly brutal episode of sanctimonious remarks over the legitimacy of our marriage, I find myself telling her the same thing: At the end of the day, success is the best revenge.
After 20 years of marriage, I doubt that anyone will question why we married. In an era in which almost half of all marriages end up in divorce, a long-term union that survives as well as thrives is rarely questioned. I hope that I live long enough to see that.
Jeffrey Oberman has lived full-time in the Dominican Republic since 2007. Since becoming a permanent resident, Jeffrey divides his time between his involvement in nonprofit initiatives to better the local community and real estate development. Jeffrey continues to publish articles on the current state of film and television for In Roads magazine, a Canadian journal of opinion dedicated to multiple points of view that promote dialogue across the political spectrum.
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