When my marriage collapsed in a cascade of discoveries about my husband, I did what many women before me have done: I fled to a place where I thought I would be able to heal and find clarity. But my elected haven wasn’t a mecca for eating or praying. Instead, I chose to relocate with my two young sons to a country in turmoil, arriving on the bloodiest day in its modern history. On Aug. 14, 2013, the day Egyptian forces killed more than 700 civilian demonstrators — including a British journalist who had been a guest at a dinner party I’d thrown — I moved to Egypt.
While looking for peace there may sound insane, for me, the move was a lifesaver. In Cairo, I resurrected the bold, adventurous woman I’d been two decades earlier, before I’d yielded to the pressures and should-dos of grown-up life.
I’d met my former husband in the then-Soviet Moscow, where I’d moved from Paris in search of a job in journalism. We kissed for the first time on a snow-carpeted Red Square and, after we got married, lived in Hong Kong and London before moving back to the U.S. for what I thought would be a temporary period of career-building before we set off on more adventures.
Twenty years and two kids later, we were still in New York, settled as firmly as if our feet had been cemented there. Don’t get me wrong. I was happy … until my marriage fell apart.
In Cairo — I was working on a book about Egypt, so moving there seemed the logical choice — I found strange comfort in the upheaval. The adrenaline rush of living in the midst of political instability distracted me from my personal turmoil. The pain was still there, but dealing with the trials of daily life in Egypt as a single woman was empowering. I didn’t want to get into another serious relationship any time soon. Or ever. As if anything in my life had gone according to plan…
One night, I noticed a Friend request on Facebook from someone I didn’t know. He was a Tunisian journalist coming to Cairo to start a new job, and he wanted my advice about neighborhoods and rents. I told him what I could. A few days after he arrived, he asked if I’d like to get together.
The age difference took him off the romantic-possibility table in my mind.
We arranged to meet for drinks after work. In the meantime, I checked out his Facebook profile and realized that he was much younger than me. Based on the scant information I saw, I couldn’t devise any calculation that would get him out of his 20s. I was already two decades past that, so the age difference took him off the romantic-possibility table in my mind.
Imagine my surprise then when, over beers, I casually mentioned my kids and was immediately overcome by the desire to pull the words back into my mouth. My chagrin made me realize that, at least on a subconscious level, I was interested in him.
It turned out he was having similar feelings. A few days later, he sent me a message saying he missed me. We met the following week, and I spilled the tale of my failed marriage. Again, I wanted to kick myself. But this time, things went differently. We meandered to a nearby hotel to check out the rooftop bar there. It was under renovation, but we snuck into a dark conference room to admire the stunning Nile view … and he kissed me. It was a great kiss — until a security guard pointed his massive flashlight at us and shooed us away. The last time that had happened to me, I’d been in the back of my high school boyfriend’s car.
It was, as the French say, the coup de foudre. A few days after our kiss, he said he considered us a couple, and a week later, he told me he loved me. And despite the age difference and the fact that we disagreed on everything from movies to ideal vacation spots, I felt the same way. There was something between us that transcended logic.
I’ve learned it’s impossible to be closed-off with a person who is willing to be entirely vulnerable to you, so the tough, emotionally impregnable woman I was has been replaced by someone much softer. I’ve never felt so exposed, and while that’s terrifying, I’m feeling emotions more deeply than ever before.
This is the first time I’ve had a relationship that is both carnal and profoundly emotional.
The intensity extends to our sex life, which is all one might imagine it would be with a hard-bodied, hot man in his 20s (when I mentioned to a friend how kind he was, she said she was too distracted by his looks to notice), and it’s helped me remember the sexually liberated woman I was in mine. But he’s shown me something new. This is the first time I’ve had a relationship that is both carnal and profoundly emotional.
When I step back and take an objective look at us — he’s 26, I’m 48 — I think I must look ridiculous. Then I remind myself that if it were he who was 20 years older, neither I nor anyone else would think twice, and I realize that I’m falling prey to the same sexism I bemoan. While I worry that he’d prefer a woman whose body hasn’t been quite so affected by gravity, he tells me many times a day how beautiful I am — even when I know I am not at my prettiest. Because he is on TV a lot and quite well-known in Tunisia, he’s always had girls throwing themselves at him (and still does). Counterintuitively, that’s reassuring for me. He tells me that of the hundreds of women he’s met, he’s never met anyone like me. I believe he’s sincere. It’s precisely my experience and my different perspective on life that makes me interesting to him.
I’m well aware that one day he may want children and that living with two kids who aren’t his might become more than he wants to deal with. But over the 10 months we’ve been together, his assurances have quieted my neuroses. The occasions when we are gazing into each other’s eyes and I wonder if he sees an old lady have grown far fewer.
I had dinner recently with an old friend I hadn’t seen in many years. She told me she never thought my marriage was the end of my story. She liked my husband, she explained, but he and my married life never quite fit with the person she’d known me to be. “This makes more sense,” she said of the Tunisian.
I think the convention-busting girl I was in my premarital 20s may have had it right. Risk is relative and personal, and sometimes, the socially mandated choices are the most hazardous of all.
This piece was originally published in Cosmopolitan.
Monique El-Faizy is a Paris-based journalist.