In 2001 I was 51, just returning to the U.S. after 14 years in Hong Kong and Australia, where I’d been a creative director and branding guru for multinational ad agencies and a booming Internet firm.
Hong Kong in the ’90s was one of the hottest places in the universe. In the run-up to the 1997 China handover, every mega-corporation on the planet was scrambling to establish a marketing launchpad there.
I was a high flyer. Work involved limo-luxe travels with blue-chip clients from Delhi to Beijing. There were teak-paneled suites, top-shelf martinis, speaking gigs all over the Pacific Rim and a sweet six-figure income.
When my Internet job collapsed into dot-com rubble, I returned to the U.S. With the promise of an ideal job at AOL, I bought a big house in swanky Chevy Chase, Md.
We were still unpacking on 9/11. Among the casualties: my AOL job.
I spent the next four years fruitlessly searching for work. My wife and I barely kept our heads above water with my sporadic freelance gigs and her helpful, but hardly salvational, income.
She never said it, but I knew she was feeling that her husband — and her marriage — were failures. As our savings hemorrhaged, the tension between us grew predictably intolerable. Communication was infected with disappointment. Old wounds reopened. The glass wasn’t half-full or half-empty. It was drained.
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Love in the Second Half of Life
Desperate for work, I swallowed my pride and attended a holiday party at my old high school, hoping to do some networking. There I met Mel, a woman I’d known at school, although just barely.
We wound up talking. And talking. I found her worldly, intelligent, charming and funny. She told me that she was in the middle of a contentious divorce — and that she ran a small company that writes and edits for the World Bank and similar clients.
I mentioned that I was a writer and asked if there might be any opportunities there.
We arranged to meet for a business (or so I thought) lunch, where we decided I should take her company's editing test. I passed. She gave me work — a hallelujah moment.
Over our next several “business” lunches, I learned that she was multilingual (French, Italian, German, some Russian); owned a house in France and, thanks to an Irish grandparent, had dual citizenship (U.S. and E.U.). In her youth, she’d toured Europe with the U.S.O., singing “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” wearing a paper mini-dress. In short, I was totally knocked out.
At this point, my wife and I were barely speaking, in couples therapy but with little hope of a fix. I was sleeping alone in the basement. I was also beginning to have romantic thoughts about Mel, but figured I wasn’t an attractive option — this was just a work relationship.
After a couple of months of increasingly intimate conversation, Mel confessed that she’d had a crush on me in high school. She’d even “stalked” me (her word), lurking near my house, hoping I’d show up. “And you didn't even know I existed,” she said. I told her I knew she existed and always wanted to get her to kiss me, but was too shy to make it happen.
At the end of the lunch, as we parted ways, I said, “I figured out how to get you to kiss me.” She asked, “How?”
I said, “I kiss you first.”
So I planted a gentle peck on her cheek — and we both experienced a pronounced electric shock.
Next lunch, we held hands under the table. On the way back to her car, she walked into a glass door. Inside the car, we engaged in some hungry smooching.
“Are you sure you want this?” I asked. She replied, “I don't walk into doors for just anyone.”
Backing out of her parking space, she sideswiped a pillar.
Clearly, this was love.
After a year of clandestine meetings, and with my own divorce underway, we moved in together. Love grew, without a single stumble. Last October, we got married — and woke up the next morning with a profound, unexpected sense of contentment. Now we’re together 24/7, joined at the hip, soulmates in a real, and very grown-up, fairy tale.
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The Best Is Yet to Come
Before my divorce was final, two questions haunted me: Was I an unfaithful husband? Was Mel a home-wrecker? To me, both answers were "no." If there’s not really a marriage, what’s there to be faithful to? And my home was no longer a home; my wife and I had already wrecked it. Mel wasn’t a home-wrecker — she was a life-saver.
Over the course of my 63 years, I've had three true loves. This one is the best, and for one simple reason: age. I’ve seen the movie-from-hell that is a failed marriage. I know better than to expect perfection.
Mel says she’s happier at this stage of her life than ever. She had expected life in France as a single, social woman to be about great wine, food and friends — but not romance. She was content with that. She wasn’t searching for a new love.
I was a surprise.
Me, I had felt like an empty shell with nothing to offer. So Mel was also a surprise — a wonderful lady who loved me. It didn’t matter that I was unemployed, going broke and all but homeless. She found the whole, true me inside the shabby shell.
Buddhists would call that an example of “the desireless life.” I call it the expectation-less life. Given our decades of life’s smackdowns, runaway trains and random acts of cruelty and kindness, to expect anything except more of the same would be foolish.
And yet Mel and I took a leap of faith and landed together in passionate contentment and commitment. Being older had made us not only wiser, but more tolerant of our shortcomings (I get lost walking around the block; Mel goes motor-mouth sometimes) and appreciative of our strengths.
Together, we’ve found a new twist to being madly in love: confidence that it will last. Because when you get it right, the one thing you can expect is that tomorrow we’ll still be together, and it will be a madly good day.
Steve Meltzer is the author of Boomer Down: From Fast Lane to Crashed Lane, about a boomer who crashes and burn and finds love in the ashes.