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I Was Cougar Bait

Sexually confident older women in search of younger men? Nick Santoro explores the scene at a Danville singles party.

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It wasn't easy telling my wife about the singles party. This wasn't your average singles mixer, either, but a "cougar" party where middle-age women and much younger men would pursue one another in affirmation of their mutual attraction. I, being a younger man, would play the role of forbidden fruit. I simply had to convince my loving wife that it was all in the name of good journalism.

She took it surprisingly well, perhaps seeing the occasion for what it really was: a chance to watch me squirm. Even with three weeks to go, I was far more nervous about the party than she was. I'd never been to a singles mixer before, had limited dating experience, and hardly knew how to flirt with a woman of my own age, let alone one twenty-plus years older. Nope, she wasn't worried a bit.

The whole thing started when a press release arrived in my inbox: "Single Cougars Aim to Break the Age Taboo." Opening the e-mail, I learned that the Society of Single Professionals, a San Rafael-based nonprofit singles organization — it claims to be the world's largest, no less — was announcing the East Bay's first-ever cougar party. "A cougar is the new breed of single, older woman­ — confident, sophisticated, desirable, and sexy," read a teaser from Canadian author Valerie Gibson's bible on the subject, Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men. "What she wants is younger men and lots of great sex. What she doesn't want is children, cohabitation, or commitment."

The party was scheduled for the second Thursday in January, then a full month away, at an upscale Mediterranean restaurant called Faz — which, conveniently, is located in my hometown of Danville. The opportunity was too good to pass up, or so my colleagues assured me, and I was promptly put on the case.

When the night finally arrived, my nerves had yet to subside. My experience with the cougar phenomenon had thus far amounted to little more than catching Saturday Night Live's "Cougar Den" skits and tabloid coverage of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. All month long I'd been stalked by images of women twice my age in low-cut leopard-print tops who winked excessively and offered to buy me drinks. I feared I'd be way out of my element. This concern was substantiated when I had to ask my wife what "dress to impress" meant. She reminded me to remove my wedding ring and I was out the door with a "Well, here goes nothin.'"

But first I had to pick up my friend Paul, who I'd convinced to come along — ostensibly for his enjoyment but really because I needed the support. Not that he needed much convincing; single, four years older, and seemingly at ease in all social situations, he looked forward to the challenge of attracting an older woman. To seal the deal, I'd even promised to be his wingman. Not that I knew what that meant.

After a fifty-minute rush-hour drive from Oakland to Danville, we reached Faz's front door fifteen minutes late and a few seconds ahead of a group of three younger men. "There's our competition," Paul announced under his breath, helping me ease into character. But competition for whom, I wondered?

"Hi, we're here for the singles party," I declared to the hostess. The words sounded funny coming from my mouth. She gestured toward the adjacent bar area, which was already bustling. At the registration table we paid our $10 and donned nametags. On mine I wrote "Nick." I was officially no longer Nate the newspaper reporter, but Nick the easygoing, fun-loving bachelor. In short, cougar bait.

We took a collective deep breath, ordered whiskeys, clinked our glasses, and sipped in the scene. At least seventy men and women were eagerly mingling, although attendance would later swell past 100. The men, slightly outnumbered, ranged in age from their late twenties to their mid-fifties, while the women seemed to be concentrated between 40 and 55. At 26, I was probably the youngest person there. I figured this meant I'd be getting more than my share of attention. If I only knew.

Not more than fifteen minutes after we entered, a woman in her early fifties, but passable for considerably younger, appeared by my side like an old friend. She wore shoulder-length blond hair and a tight-fitting black dress with a conveniently placed keyhole that showcased her ample cleavage. Her nametag read Melanie. "You're cuuuuute," Melanie cooed — sounding nothing like an aunt might sound while pinching your cheeks, although she was probably old enough. She leaned in as she said it, her lips inches from my ear. It wasn't that loud in here.

Woefully unprepared for the situation, I made a lame attempt at a witty reply: "I know, aren't I adorable?" Perhaps she'd get a kick out of the bashfulness. Evidently she did, leaning in close again and, for a brief moment, pressing her body up against mine. Her tall stature and intense, communicative eyes became all the more intimidating. I may have looked cool and collected outside, but inside was squirming with all my might. "So, have you come to one of these before?" she asked.

I hadn't. She said she hadn't either, explaining that she'd driven all the way from the Sacramento area for the party. After batting her eyelashes a bit longer, she repeated her assessment, this time for anyone else who cared to hear: "Nick's cuuuuute." Then, without warning, in a manner both seductive and utterly matter-of-fact, she raised the possibility of me ending the night at her place. My alter-ego reveled in the accomplishment, as the real me (my altar ego?) scrambled for a way out. Luckily, I didn't have to say anything; Melanie turned and departed for the other end of the bar, letting me know exactly where I could find her. I never did.

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