Dale Vaughn, leader of men, and Elizabeth Menzel, leader of women, met playing beach volleyball. Vaughn is the founder of the NextGent men's self-accountability hiking group. Menzel is the founder of the Women's Wisdom Community support group. Right away they sensed each other's awesome energy.
According to Menzel, everything in life is about energy and energy frequencies. Her frequencies matched Vaughn's perfectly. That is, with one small exception: She is old enough to be his mother. (Technically speaking, she is five years younger than his mother.) He was 23 at the time they met. She was 42. They have been together five years now. As they see it, the age difference is not the salient aspect of their relationship.
Though for a while it was. For a while, because of it, there almost was no relationship.
Their volleyball group, organized on Meetup.com, would play for hours, until the sun set. Menzel and Vaughn can't remember exactly when they became aware of one another. She thinks she joined the group before he showed up. He thinks he did. "Probably what was happening was that I was there when he wasn't, and he was there when I wasn't," Menzel says.
"Except I was there every week," Vaughn says. He'd just moved to Los Angeles from Dallas by way of London. "I played every single Saturday," he continues. "It was, like, the thing I did."
Some people first notice their beloved's eyes. Vaughn noticed Menzel's pants. They were Capris. Made to fit a slim, leggy woman, they caught Vaughn's attention, as did her orange bikini top, shoulder-length blond hair and ebullient manner.
"So she showed up in her white pants. We had a nice chat about traveling," Vaughn says, rushing along, propelled by directive male energy. "Spent a few hours that night—"
"No," Menzel interrupts. "Uh, uh," she says, settling back, exuding relaxed female energy. What was so great about Vaughn, she continues, was how encouraging he was, no matter how bad Menzel or anyone else sucked. "We could totally lose the game or make horrible plays, and he'd be, like, 'That's OK, you'll get it next time!' or 'Good try!' "
He'd be an awesome boyfriend, she thought. She figured she'd set him up with one of her friends. "I didn't want him to go to waste."
She and Vaughn started hanging out, then dating, though Menzel didn't know it. "He says we were dating. I had no idea," she says.
"When a man and a woman are out together, and there's obvious romantic energy happening, we're on a date," Vaughn counters.
Menzel, however, was dead set against romance with a younger man. Menzel is a holistic healer of the Barbara Brennan Healing Science school of thought. She is not a cougar. She'd once attended a workshop led by David Deida, one of the big names in the healing field, and someone complained about not being able to find "really conscious men." Deida replied that younger men are so much more evolved than men 40 or older. "You might just have to settle for a younger man."
"That's never gonna happen," Menzel said.
"Well, then you might not get anybody," Deida said.
Menzel and Vaughn hung out all summer. One day, at the Third Street Promenade, they sat and talked for five hours. They can't remember when, exactly. They are both bad with time. "We are both timeless creatures," Vaughn says. "Which is obviously why we can never get this story right. We're not quite chronological."
"Because time is just a dimension," Menzel adds.
Perhaps she didn't consider them dates because he wasn't constantly trying to get into her pants. "I don't want to be fucking women unless they're not crazy," Vaughn says, explaining why he likes to get to know someone first. "I'm not a total ponce. I want sex. But I don't want it to suck."
He needn't have worried. She made the first move. "He got me drunk!" she says. "On that claret. Remember? And we drank that whole freaking bottle?"
They were drinking wine by the pool. She sat on his lap and kissed him. Oh, shit, she thought. "It was really great. 'Oh, shit.' "
They kissed more often after that. They sat on the couch watching the Olympics, kissing and feeling like teenagers.
Both were hesitant about the age difference, initially. His family expects marriage and babies. But he didn't want the ghost of some future child to keep him from having an excellent relationship now, in the present.
It was past ghosts, rather than future, that made Menzel hesitate. She had been in abusive relationships before, and lopsided ones, where she was more doormat than girlfriend. "Like any woman, you want your partner to be for life," she says. "And there's never any guarantee."
Vaughn's youth suggested even less of a guarantee.
But Vaughn, as serious, quietly confident and self-composed as any 20-something can be, has always felt older than his age. "I feel more grown-up than most people I meet of any age," he notes.
As the oldest child, he took care of a brother and 12 younger cousins. At 15, he was reading theology. At 19, he was studying abroad in Paris. Instead of going out drinking, he was listening to sad jazz and getting melancholy. Flings are not his cup of tea. Depth is. "I don't really know why I am the way I am. I just kind of roll with it."
Three months into knowing Menzel, Vaughn had made up his mind: "Yup, this girl is going to fit me really well."
If he were to turn away an opportunity to love and be loved because of a silly thing like age, he'd be a fool.
Because they hung out for several months, and because Menzel didn't think they were dating, she wasn't nervous. She was excited each time they met. She was bouncing. She wanted to look at Vaughn and touch him and sit in his Jeep with him. It didn't matter where they were going or what they were doing, so long as she was next to him.
Even that first kiss by the pool wasn't enough to break her resolve. That didn't happen until months later, in Joshua Tree.
A tall slice of a photograph hangs in their living room next to the futon sofa — scrubby land, rocks, night sky, stars, cacti: Joshua Tree. She took him to the desert for his birthday weekend. They shared a hotel room.
"And I'm lost in conflict," she recalls. She realized, "I'm the only one standing in the way of us being romantic." It couldn't happen, she insisted.
In frustration, he walked out of the room into the desert and stared at the sky. She followed.
"Let me love you," he said.
"He was crying," Menzel continues. "He was crying really hard."
Sadness, happiness, hurt; it was all mixed up. He was proud that he'd evolved enough to be open to love. People aren't taught how to love but rather to protect themselves. There was reason to cry.
Then again, who needs a reason? "It felt like the manly thing to do," he says with a shrug.
"Dale bared his soul to me so deeply and so profoundly, it rocked me to my core," Menzel says.
A quiet settles in the room as they remember. Then Vaughn grins: "It ended up being a good night."
She was still in conflict the next day, however, and they drove home in silence. That night, after work, she explained the situation to an old healer friend.
"This man just wants to love you," her friend said. "Are you gonna let him or not?"
She dialed Vaughn's number.
"OK," she said. "I'll be your girlfriend."
Girlfriend. He was in junior high again at that word. Lover, then. Significant other. Partner. Wife. Titles get in the way. He simply calls her "my woman." She calls him "her man." To each other, they are "baby."
Are they married?
"No," Menzel says. "There. I just saved you."
"Appreciate that," Vaughn says sheepishly.
"It's not something we talk about," Menzel explains. "Ever."
She laughs, a small uncomfortable giggle. Marriage, she believes, is "an antiquated energy frequency," born of an era when women were regarded as property.
Vaughn, for his part, prefers to keep the government out of his love life. If his relationship fails, a marriage license shouldn't be what keeps him in it. Marriage is an outdated concept, he knows. Yet he suspects that "all women, at some point, deep down, want a ring on their finger. To be claimed. 'This man wants me.' "
Not that he has commitment phobia. Far from it. He made room for her from the start. He cleared space in his closet, in his bathroom. He welcomed her into his tiny studio in West Hollywood with a view to the ocean.
Each night, she'd leave and drive back to the house she shared with friends in Harvard Heights — she knows it's important to give people space. And each night, he'd call her after she left: "This is stupid. Why aren't you here?"
"Because," Menzel would say. "I'm giving you space."
"Did I ask for space?"
"No, I'm just giving it to you so you don't have to ask."
"Well, maybe I don't want space. Maybe I want you in my space."
A year of sleepovers went by until Menzel broached the question: How much longer were they going to avoid talking about moving in together? Vaughn suggested making a list. He has a knack for exercises. Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper. On the left, note the things you are afraid of about living together; on the right, things to be excited about.
"They were all the same fears," Vaughn says. What if we stop having sex? What if he loses interest in me? What if I don't have personal space? What if I can't work with you around? What if we break up and we have to split our stuff up? Miraculously, none of those fears have come true.
"It's a way station, this hovel," Menzel adds, taking in the cozy one-bedroom they now share in Los Feliz. They love the light but hate the carpet. "We want wood floors," Vaughn says.
"Yes," Menzel says. "We're putting that out to the universe."
She is surprised at how well she and Vaughn get along, at how little the almost-20-year age difference matters.
Of course there are the video games. Those are a generational difference. At first she didn't understand his need to kill aliens or monsters on a computer screen. "I'm cool now," she says. "I get it." It's part of his masculine energy. "Have fun killing stuff, baby!" she'll say when he goes online.
Otherwise, the age gap "feels external" to them.
"She's gorgeous, and that helps," Vaughn says, appraisingly. "It's not like I've got Mrs. Doubtfire here."
The real trick is getting along in bad times, as well as good. Being comfortable with discomfort. Vaughn, Menzel marvels, can "stay present" even when things are hard. He's a natural diplomat, and arguments are about finding the "team goal" rather than the personal goal: "The point is not for me to win. Or for you to lose. The point is for us as a team to get through this."
He doesn't try to fix her emotions. "Guys," he advises, "you'll relieve a lot of tension in yourself and in the relationship if you just let the emotions be. They're not wrong."
Vaughn is honored when somebody shows him full emotion. "Stoicism is for the birds," he declares. "Let's be in communion with each other. As a culture, we kick our children for being emotional. I hate that. Let that kid cry!"
Menzel concurs. When she sees a screaming toddler in a grocery story, she'll tell them, "You're doing a good job at being 2. Let it out!" — much to the parents' dismay.
In the past, she'd be out the door at the first sign of conflict, literally leaving the room. Or go mute. Vaughn has made her a better fighter. "I want you to fight me more," he told her in the beginning.
Asked what their fights are like, Menzel answers: "Short." Reasoned and thoughtful. No yelling. Barely a raised voice. Once her voice got just a tad louder, a tad shriller, and Vaughn wouldn't have it. "Oh no. No, no," he told her. "You've stepped outside the bounds of love. I will not relate with you until you are back inside."
They are not a fighting kind of couple.
They have a lot of gratitude. A lot of harmony. They have a lot of gratitude for the harmony. In Menzel, Vaughn found someone he didn't have to counsel. Someone who was doing her own emotional self-work. He didn't have to be her mentor. She could meet him halfway.