When I was in my twenties, I had an affair with a married man. The two-year romance is minutely chronicled in a black pasteboard sketchbook that I can’t bring myself to read and can’t bring myself to toss. It’s been over for 28 years, but it’s not over.
Stephen* and I worked for the same publishing company, he as a book editor in San Francisco, I as a magazine writer in New York. We met when he came east for meetings and stopped by to visit my officemate, an old friend of his from college.
Stephen was smart, cute and witty and laughed at all my jokes. He had a wry smile, blonde hair and a wife. I was already practicing how I’d billboard the story to my best friend: Oh, Arlene. I met this guy. He’s absolutely perfect—except for this one tiny little thing.
Our first conversation all but outlasted the workday. We were in a bubble, the two of us. Colleagues who tried to jump in soon gave up and went back to their desks and deadlines. I’m a good talker in any case, but something was taking my game up a notch—the way a pretty girl makes an infinitesimal adjustment to her hair or eye makeup and is suddenly beautiful. I was captivating, and he was captivated. The only time Stephen folded in on himself was when I asked about his children, then three and five. “They are called Richard and Tim,” he said distantly.
A few days and several long talks later, he flew home to his family. Meanwhile, I adjusted to my new, stirred-up life and, not entirely coincidentally, ended things with someone I’d recently taken up with mostly to be able to utter the phrase my boyfriend when I found it convenient.
Immediately, Stephen and I became pen pals. In those days before e‑mail, we used the company’s overnight pouch to jet our letters cross--country. And Monday through Friday, for hours at a time, all through that winter and spring, we poured ourselves—our funniest, smartest, best selves—into the telephone. We had read the same books and listened to the same rec-ords; when we hadn’t, we raced out and bought them. We had the same reference points, laughed at the same things, disdained the same people.
We talked about everything, really, except his domestic situation and what was happening between us (which is to say, we avoided all topics of consequence).
As to being in love, well, he said it first, on the phone—punctuating the declaration with a rueful laugh, the way you do when words pop out -unbidden—on a spring night six weeks after we met. I said it back to him. There was another month of increasingly ardent calls before we saw each other again, this time—our first time—in a Chicago hotel room.
By then, we were both in deep; I, for one, was well beyond the reach of dignity or shame or discretion. When a colleague—one of my many, many office confidantes—had business in San Francisco, I begged her to wangle an invitation to Stephen’s house so she could check out his wife. She did, issuing a collect-call on-site report from a phone dragged into a closet.
On vacation with his family, Stephen left a message on my answering machine detailing the beauty of the sunset, expressing misery that I wasn’t there with him to share it and ending the call with an anguished “What are we going to do?”
What were we going to do? That was easy. That was so easy. Leave her. You say you’re in love with me. That you’ve never felt like this, that I’ve changed the way you see the world, the way you see yourself.
By my cockeyed compass, things seemed to be moving in the right direction when, during one of our trysts in the Bay Area, Stephen, perhaps trying to assess my fitness as a stepmother, brought his children to my hotel to meet me. “You’re a stupid-head,” five-year-old Tim cheerfully announced by way of greeting (kid, you have no idea). Soon after, Stephen told his wife about me, told her it wasn’t about the sex, not just about the sex, that I was his soul mate—a disclosure, as he wrote in a letter I still have, “that went down like a ham sandwich at a Seder.”