The Return of Mrs. Robinson

One cool thing about living in Manhattan is that you can imagine you're on "Sex and the City." It doesn't even matter if there are nuns who get more action than you or if you haven't been the same weight as Sarah Jessica Parker since you were 6 years old.

So there we were, four female friends having a drinky brunch in Soho, which is enough to feel like we've escaped into the superior world of HBO. One of us has a copy of Us magazine with pictures of Ashton and Demi, whom we talk about as if we know them, since they've achieved single-name status like Zsa Zsa and Liberace.

I should explain, though, for those who think there is something more intriguing than pop culture, that Ashton is Ashton Kutcher, a 25-year-old Hollywood heartthrob, and Demi is Demi Moore. If you don't know who she is, just go back to your dissertation or whatever it is you do.

If you're old enough to remember when Demi was on General Hospital, which I am, then you should be too old to buy magazines because Ashton is on the cover which I have. But if the 40-year-old Demi can date the 20something Kutcher than 30something me can look, which I won't be able to do in a week when my cataracts kick in.

Anyway, among the magazine's glossy photo spreads we see a family shot well beyond the ken of Sears Portrait Studios. It pictures Demi, ex-husband Bruce Willis, their three kids, and, blending in like a chicken in a fish tank, Ashton. For all my alleged cool it looked weird: mom, dad, the kids and mom's teen idol boyfriend.

But remember those Magic Eye prints that looked like one picture, but if you stared at them long enough, a different picture emerged? That wacky gimmick is a tremendously useful metaphor. Look at any surface long enough, you'll get a different picture. The longer I stared, the more I thought it actually looked pretty healthy. And yes, I had my contacts in.

One weird thing about the photo: You seldom see someone presenting their rough draft and their latest opus at the exact same time. We forget, especially when we're comparing ourselves to other people (mostly unfavorably) just how many rough drafts most of us have in every area of life before we get it right.

I can't tell you how often I've heard friends say, "I'm (pick an age from 18-60) years old and I still don't know what I want" -- as if everyone else does know, as if everyone else's life has followed a tried-and-true formula that stays in place like it was sprayed with Aqua Net. We thought that in stagnation we'd find, not bacteria, but happiness. Heaven, David Byrne sang, is a place where nothing ever happens.

But things do happen, and this photograph shows a lot of life's turns in one pop. It shows that love doesn't always last forever but that doesn't mean the world is ending; that surprises are around every corner; that sometimes your stock is up and sometimes it's down; that you don't always want what you thought you wanted or what everyone thinks you should want. Our backdrop isn't Hollywood, but all of our lives, the healthy ones, are full of change. Someone has probably looked at your life's picture at some time and thought, "That's weird."

It's also a little weird that Demi's eldest daughter in the picture looks about the right age to be entering a "Win a Date with Ashton" contest in some teen magazine, but when I ask myself whether I'd have wanted my mom to have a hot young boyfriend when she was in her middle years the answer is, "Of course." Whatever would have put her in a better mood. Oh yeah, and made her happy. Who wants their tombstone to read, "At least I followed the rules"?

I guess the reason I've scrutinized this photo like it was the Shroud of Turin is that, dammit, I don't want it to be weird. I love the idea of a young man in a romance with an older woman who looks unapologetically happy alongside her evidently cheerful children and serene ex-husband. Not long ago -- a few years before Ashton was born -- women were straightjacketed into getting married and staying that way because their livelihood and motherhood depended on a man.

Our relationship freedom has increased at the same rate as our number of TV channels. How nice to revel in it and to think there might be even more cultural elbow room to look forward to and, most comfortingly, that life can take turns you never, ever imagined. All evolutionary steps look weird at the beginning. To the other apes, the first human beings probably resembled Mr. Bigglesworth.

And then there's the idea that an old girl like me could snag the legendary Younger Man. Who thought evolution would be the thing to prove that there really is a thoughtful and benevolent god?

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in New York.

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