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.
After five years together, Menzel's heart still flutters at the sound of Vaughn's footsteps in the hall. Vaughn is still gentlemanly. He opens doors, pulls out chairs, always walks on the outside on the sidewalk, drapes his coat over her shoulders when she's cold and does most of the driving. When she's walking across the living room, he'll grab her, dip her, then kiss her, as if they were dancing the tango. He enjoys these "classical" trappings of masculinity.
The dance between masculine and feminine energy is one of their favorite subjects. Masculine and feminine, Menzel explains, are like two ends of a battery. A couple must recharge their respective energies in order to stay passionate.
"When you're around someone a lot, your polarity starts to come to the middle. Instead of supercharged masculine, or supercharged feminine, you become friendly instead of romantic," Vaughn says.
So he leads his men's group. She leads her women's group. Menzel's group is bigger — it's up to 300 women these days.
In their relationship, Menzel jokes that she is in charge of nutrition, while Vaughn covers security.
In bed one night, she heard a noise: "Baby, what was that?" Within a heartbeat, he'd leapt across the room, knife in hand. It was hot — and it was exactly what Menzel needed.
Vaughn's supportive, adoring parents have been happily married for more than 30 years. By contrast, Menzel's parents divorced when she was 7. Her dad, a heart surgeon, was away most of the time. When he was around, she was terrified. "He scared the hell out of me," she says quietly. He was a foreboding, callous figure, preachy about responsibility yet "insanely irresponsible." He owned a boat and plane and was the kind of man who'd fly into a closed airport during a storm, or sail through a hurricane. He put the lives of her and her brother in jeopardy many times.
"Omnipotence," Menzel says, "it's common with heart and brain surgeons. You're touching a heart. He's holding someone's life in his hands, day after day."
Raised by an exhausted single mom, Menzel was alone a lot. Always nervous, she barely slept, terrified that if someone broke into the house, her mom wouldn't be able to protect her. "She'd die trying, but she'd die trying," Menzel says with an ironic smile. Vaughn, on the other hand, wouldn't die trying. "He'd kill the fucker."
A lean 5 feet 7 inches, he's not exactly a burly man. But that's only his physical body. A friend of hers met Vaughn after hearing her talk about him for two years. "I thought you were going to be a really big guy," the friend said.
"He is big," Menzel protested. "His body's small. But his energy's huge!"
To Menzel, emotions are an electromagnetic energy frequency. Sadness has a frequency. So does happiness. Whether these frequencies correspond to specific numeric units of, say, hertz or megahertz, Menzel isn't sure. Though, the last time she checked, a way to measure it "was in the works."
For two years before she met Vaughn, Menzel prepared herself for love. She wanted to be "at a really healthy" frequency.
She didn't date. She didn't let herself out of bed in the morning until she could feel her partner beside her. Closing her eyes, she'd envision the two of them out to dinner together, or at the movies, or traveling to Peru. She imagined feeling grounded and safe. She didn't let her feet touch the ground until she was smiling and she felt as if she was "with my man."
Every morning and night for two years without skipping a day, she practiced this. "I really got clear," she says. Guys who didn't match her frequency stopped being attracted to her, and she stopped being attracted to them.
After a year and a half, people were starting to wonder. "You look like you're in love," they'd say.
"I am in love. I just haven't met him yet."
That inner tickle, that giddiness, was percolating inside her six months before she even laid eyes on Vaughn. "The relationship was already happening before we got together," she says.
It's maybe not as crazy as it sounds. Your significant other, Menzel believes, is a representation of what you know as love. If hitting and being hit, or sharing huge meals, or prolonged absence is what you understand as love, that's often what you'll attract. "Until you heal your shit," she says, "you're gonna be sending out a beacon. And you're gonna attract someone who matches that signal."
One January afternoon, Menzel answers the door wrapped only in a towel, hair dripping wet from a shower. Harp music plays in the background. She keeps a flexible schedule. The masculine is structure; feminine is flow and fluidity.
Of course Vaughn was attracted to her from the beginning. Everyone is attracted to her: "It's why she's able to hold giant circles of women together. It's called 'lighting up a room' for a reason," he says. When she walks into a room, "She gives everyone an energy hug."
She feels the same way about him. When he's away, the world "doesn't sparkle and shine" like it does when he's around. Menzel's trust in him is absolute.
She is 46 now. Vaughn is 28. In the beginning, he wondered what their future held: "Ten years down the road, say we get there, what does our relationship look like?"
Today, he dismisses those worries as a silly notion.
Menzel fluffs her wet hair in the mirror, then sits down, a fierce look in her eye. She wants to clarify what she means by trust. It is not a guarantee that they're always going to be together. Rather, it's a guarantee that he will always be honest with her. That he will do his best to be compassionate, to listen, to be present. "It's not about the outcome," she insists.
Their commitment is not to one another. It is to love itself. They are simply choosing to shine that love onto each other. "It's a mistake when people make a commitment to each other," Menzel says, "because humans are so ... " She struggles to find the word and finally settles on "fallible."
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She has no idea if humans are meant to mate for life. And she doesn't know if she'll be with Vaughn forever.
"The mind loves certainty," she says. "It loves to grab onto something. But when you're dedicated to the energy that makes you love, that has less and less of a place. Because it's all about letting go."