Coupling: Dating Gets Old

For spouse-free boomers, the singles scene is beginning all over again.

Nine o'clock on a Friday night, and two women were sitting at the bar at Georges' in Wayne, drinking cosmopolitans. “Him?” said one, nodding her head unobtrusively across the bar, which is tastefully decorated, with flattering lighting and a roaring fireplace in front of which a bearded man in a blue sweater stood gripping a draft beer and looking confused.

Her friend peered through a curtain of frosted hair, which hung over one eye, like Jessica Rabbit's, and assessed. “Fat,” she declared. They giggled into their pink martinis.

It was all very Sex and the City. Except these women weren't exactly “single,” at least not in the manner of Carrie et al. At 54 and 56, respectively, they already had plenty of people in their lives. They had already had plenty of life — went to Woodstock, had boyfriends, got married, had kids, got divorced — and were now pondering the lives ahead of them. Which, with a little luck, would include someone they could — really this time — spend the rest of their lives with.

And these days, it shouldn't be that hard. The current baby boomer population is full of swinging singles. According to the Census Bureau's most recent figures, 28.6 percent of adults ages 45 to 59 are unattached — more in that age group than any previous generation, ever. They're better-looking, healthier and richer than over-50s of yore, and they're on the prowl: in bars like Georges' and Brasserie Perrier in Center City (which, come to think of it, suggests that the virile pheromones of Perrier, until only recently a single boomer himself, must muskily entreat same-aged singles to his venues), in low-cut tops at dinner parties organized by their married friends, and on just about every Internet dating site you can think of.

“Now that there's no husband, no diapers to change, no colleges to look at,” says Cheryl, 54, a pretty and petite middle-school teacher who lives in Conshohocken and joined JDate after her divorce because “I just want my weekends to be nice.” (We changed her name so as not to cramp her style.) And she isn't going to pick just anyone to spend them with.

The perfect man for women 50 and above, as culled, Zagat-style, from recent interviews: “Five-foot-10 or above.” “Full head of hair — or at least thinning.” “Italian.” “Australian.” “Pudgy but not rotund.” “Worldly.” “Well-_traveled.” “Adventurous.” “Financially secure.” “Thoughtful and sensitive and will think I'm the cat's meow.” “A man — not a little boy I have to train.”

It all sounds very reasonable to me. But then, I'm a woman.

“Women are picky,” grumbles Fred. A 54-year-old contractor from Roxborough with white hair and '70s-style glasses, Fred is actually pretty picky himself (“Five-six to five-eight, no more than 140 pounds, preferably retired”), and he believes, like most boomers, that in the age of South Beach, Pilates and Botox, there's no real excuse for letting yourself go.

“We may gain a few pounds, but the women gain beaucoup pounds,” says the Blue Sweater man who was unknowingly rejected by the ladies at the bar, who have since departed, perhaps heading to the Wooden Iron or 333 Belrose in Radnor, known lairs of the silver fox. Wherever they've gone, it was a good move. Chomping on a fistful of nuts, Blue Sweater has since summed up the deaths of his two marriages like this: “Women. Once you have kids, the sex just dries up.”

I'm watching him rake his fat fingers through the nut bowl and wanting to weep for Womankind when a tall and slender man glides up. “THIS GUY!” says Sweater. “This guy's the one you want to talk to.” He slaps the newcomer on the back and toddles off, dropping sesame sticks as he goes.

This Guy — we'll call him Frank — has an opening line that reveals him to be what my mother would call a smooth operator. “I love women, I love their smell, their essence,” he says. He talks with his hands. “Younger women like me because I'm secure, stable, successful — things they don't find in a younger man,” he flutters. He is wearing a chunky wristwatch the same platinum color as his hair. When it comes to younger women, though, he does draw a line: “She has to be at least two years older than my daughter,” he winks.

Even with that generous allowance, isn't there a disconnect with someone from a completely different generation? Wouldn't it be easier to talk to somebody who grew up listening to the same music, watching the same TV shows?

Frank's tried dating women his age, but they're “too cynical,” he says. “Too jaded.” Plus, the relationships all ended the same way. To explain, he takes my pen and draws a circle in my notebook. “See that?” he says. Then he draws a line down the middle, dividing the circle into half-moon shapes. “That's what my ex-wife took,” he says. He draws another line, so the circle is in quarters, and taps the paper with his pen. “I can't have that happen.” Talk about jaded.

“I always thought women were reckless in love,” he says. “I thought they wanted romance. I thought they wanted Wuthering Heights. But they all want to be married.”

DEBBIE, A DIVORCED 58-year-old in Center City who “never has the same hair color for more than a month at a time,” wants to get married again, although she's not in any rush. “Right now, I'm just having fun,” she says. “It really is the best time of my life. No one's picking at me. I don't have to please anybody but myself.” As if to reflect her fun-having spirit, at the moment Debbie's hair color is blond, though it varies in the photos she's got up on, JDate, JPeopleMeet, Italian_PeopleMeet, Jewish FriendFinder, Senior FriendFinder, JewishAmericanSingles, and uDate.

Younger men contact youthful-looking, busty Debbie all the time, but she doesn't respond; she married a younger man the first time around, she says, and now she's done with “tadpoling.” For the potential dates in her demographic, Debbie has a system: The first date is always in the day, and always at Starbucks. “Most of my dates last between 45 minutes and an hour,” she says. “Why waste your time with someone obnoxious?”

Similarly, Fred, who eschews dating websites for the more egalitarian website _Craigslist, whittles down the 50 or so responses he gets monthly by talking to women over the phone. “To see what we have in common,” he says.

Cheryl in Conshohocken puts it more bluntly: “That's how you find out if they're pathetic or not,” she says.

Cheryl's been on a number of JDates and had two relationships since her divorce in 2001, and she has become something of an expert. “There are three weird parts on a date,” she says, ticking them off on her fingers: “Saying hello — because they always look different from their profile, and you don't want to look too surprised, or disgusted.” Two: “When the bill comes, because if they don't at least offer to pay, I know I'm never seeing them again,” and three, “Saying goodnight. I went out with this one man — I won't say his name because he's a well-known news personality — and he — he kind of lunged. Can you believe it? At our age.”

Lately, Cheryl has suffered some setbacks. This past year, she was seeing a guy she liked, a developer, but he ended up going back to his ex-girlfriend. Which didn't preclude him, of course, from sending her the exact sort of lovelorn, solipsistic I-will-never-stop-loving-you e-mails that 20-year-old guys usually send to their exes (with notable differences; for instance, the 55-year-old referenced Doctor Zhivago and the pain he'd been having in his lumbar nerve, where a younger man would be more likely to talk about High Fidelity and a skateboarding injury). This of course led Barbara to perform the cathartic action that women of all ages do when they receive such e-mails: She forwarded them to all of her friends.

In many ways, dating when you're older is not so different from when you're young — there's the physical scrutiny, the confusion over who pays, the timeless indignity of getting dumped. Oh, and also this (a warning to children of dating boomers: You might want to skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid being scarred for life): “All the men want to do is f-u-c-k,” says Susan, 55, from Willow Grove, “and none of them want to use condoms.” They might want to start. As it happens, the rates of STDs among older people are increasing rapidly.

There is, however, one big difference. Younger daters don't have enough experience to know, not really, how truly soul-sucking, humiliating and ruinous relationships can become. At 30, the worst things that have happened to you are that your college boyfriend, say, ran off with a waitress from the Royal Tavern, and that this magazine writer you dated who cried all the time keeps whining to your friends about what a bitch you are.

Um, anyway. These sorts of things pale in comparison to the breakups people have when they've been married for 15, 20, 30 years, which more often than not involve children and almost always involve lawyers. This is why, on most baby boomer dating profiles, you'll find qualities like “supportive,” “trustworthy” and “honest” alongside the age and physical preferences, as though everybody's in recovery from post-marriage stress disorder.

“I think we're all a little battle-weary at this point,” says Nancy, 56, from Society Hill. Nancy had a date the other night with a man she met on Senior FriendFinder, also divorced. “He was a dull man with no vision or particular interests,” she says. “His tone was just short of a whine. I know what it's like to be married for a long time, but come on. It is tough sledding out here.”

Tellingly, even the toughest of climates, like the most brutal of battle scars, can't keep people off the dating front. After her breakup with the developer, Cheryl is back to JDating. “It's scary,” she shrugs. “But it's like public speaking. The more you do it, the easier it is.”

But what's really scary is this: Dating — _always regarded as unfortunate but necessary, the reward being that eventually you were supposed to be able to stop doing it — is now something a growing percentage of people will do intermittently into their golden and platinum years and, potentially, for the rest of their lives.

Halloween is long over, but here's a spooky tale. Debbie, the 58-year-old who's listed on multiple dating sites, doesn't use eHarmony anymore. Here's why: “One man e-mailed me,” she says. “He was 80-something, and he said, 'I'm not looking for a long-term relationship, because I'm dying. I just want someone to be with me and settle my affairs.' I did e-mail him back,” she says, “but then I never heard from him again.”

Ladies and gentlemen, are you hearing this? The man died on an Internet dating site. His desire to find the perfect romantic partner was so strong that he searched for her until he died.

“I had a woman in here the other day,” Miriam, my dental hygienist, said a couple of weeks ago while thoughtfully scraping my teeth. “She's 72. One leg. Diabetic. You've got to start flossing. And she's got a guy with her. Her husband died a few years ago. So I said, is that your boyfriend? And she says, 'Who? Him? He's not my boyfriend. He's just a man I'm seeing.'”

“Ar?” I said, because my mouth was in that cotton-padded lockjaw position.

“She met him online,” said Miriam, who is 58 and never imagined she'd get divorced from her college sweetheart after 30 years of marriage, never mind be dating on the Internets. But, “I thought, if this woman can find people to be with,” she said. And then Miriam went home and reactivated her JDate profile.