A Date With the Man That Got Away

Even if you don’t want to relive a youthful fling, its memory can still tug at the edges of a happily married here and now. Joanne Kaufman dares to see him one more time.

by Joanne Kaufman
dinner for two photo
Photograph: Aya Brackett

Of course, like all those similarly ensorcelled, I thought for sure I’d be the exception—because I was so exceptional. And because the sex was so off the charts. There I made the mistake so common among the unmarried: wildly overestimating the importance and frequency of married sex, wildly underestimating the durability of shared history and family ties.

Friends who had been down this road before me served as the backup singers—latter-day Shangri-Las, Ronettes, -Shir-elles—to my affair. Every day I’d tell them that my situation was different, that Stephen really loved me, that he was going to leave his wife, that they just didn’t understand. And in response, my friends would shake their heads, wave their arms and chorus, “Yeah, yeah.”

Three months after Stephen came clean to his wife, we made the first of our numerous feeble attempts to definitely, absolutely, this-time-I-really-mean-it end things. This went on for a year and a half. We’d vow not to call each other for a set period: one week, two weeks, three weeks. Invariably one of us picked up the phone.

Finally, he said he needed a month to think. No contact whatsoever, OK?

OK.

“I’ve got to try to keep my family together,” he said in a maddeningly noble (he thought), self-pitying (I thought) declaration 30 days later. I should have known—everyone had warned me—but there I was on the other end of the line, as baffled as a child denied a long-promised treat. I can still hear my voice, thin and quavering and uncomprehending: “But you said you were in love with me.” I got a letter from him a few days later with the postscript “I’ll love you until I die.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said my friends.

On a blind date two years later with the man who would become my husband, I was so anxiety riven and caught up in the conversation that I left my plate of pasta virtually untouched (he still teases me about it). I had a cold on our second date, and just before we said good-night, Michael carefully fastened the top button of my coat. Thinking about him a few days after our third date, I missed my bus stop.

Michael and I married around the same time Stephen and his wife divorced (so I learned through the grapevine, the same way I learned, a few years later, of his remarriage), and in due course we had two children. We acquired couple-friends, private jokes, real estate, a King Charles spaniel, pet names and petty grievances. When I arrive first at a restaurant or movie theater and watch Michael come into view, I can feel my mouth spread into a goofy grin. There he is, familiar and unutterably dear. He belongs to me, I think. I belong to him.

But on the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that run the length of our fronthall, where my complete works of Jane Austen, Elinor Lipman, Nora Ephron and Calvin Trillin stand alongside Michael’s collections of Tracy Kidder, Lee Child and Robert Caro, there are also novels by Julian Barnes, Malcolm Bradbury and Lee Smith, all gifts from Stephen, all inscribed by him. My face still flushes when I read the messages.

The affair hangs on like a dominant seventh chord, haunting and not quite resolved. I have a life that I love and, truly, no regrets. I should move on. I have. And yet. When I nag my husband about his diet, when I’m after my children about their unmade beds, I imagine Stephen overhearing and thinking, Yup, I dodged a bullet there.

Last year, the weekend we took our son to college for the first time, I got an e‑mail with the subject line “Remember me? Your little San Francisco friend.” I read it off my cell phone, hands shaking, as I stood in line at the university bookstore waiting to pay for the desk lamp and fitted sheets my son had forgotten to pack. The moment I’d been dreading for 18 years—my little boy is leaving home—was colliding with the moment I’d been fantasizing about for nearly three decades. “I’ll be in New York in early October,” the message said. “Can I see you?”

First Published October 25, 2011

What’s your reaction?

Comments

Manny Halpern01.03.2012

At 45 years of age I see this sort of behavior all too often among my middle-aged brethren. Not only has infidelity hit the homes of some of my good friends and respected community leaders, but in my own marriage as well.
The author seems to feel that love and devotion is now, as it was in your youth, a game. That the people around her, those she affects with her childish, selfish behavior, are only there as set pieces in her fantasy. The trouble is they are not set pieces. They are real people who feel real pain when infidelity is revealed. Secret rendezvous' are not romantic and adventurous - they show a lack of true character, of maturity, of emotional growth.
And shame on More for condoning (by way of publishing) such behavior.

Ericka Calderon12.30.2011

I think this was beautifully written! Many women experience situations similiar to this one, hopeful that "their" situation is different. Most of the time they end with hostility (between lovers) and the married man continues on with his life. However, no one ever discusses this topic because it's a "no-no". Let's face it, we are human! I applaud the writer for her boldness and honesty!

djhk 12.27.2011

Joanne Kaufman's cavalier and narcissistic attitude toward her affair with a married man is shocking. After marrying, presumably aging and having children of her own she shows not a sliver of remorse nor empathy toward the family she destroyed. The last line of her article proves she still keeps her door open: "Now he'll read this and know he still matters to me." Why is More publishing writers who take whatever they wish, without boundaries or compassion? Her "soulmate" is married with children. That means other lives are involved, yet Mrs. Kaufman offers self-indulgent "epiphanies" and is actually proud of herself for meeting him yet again? Why is this article in a magazine that is about connecting with yourself and strong mature relationships with other women? I thought More was about beauty from within and women of substance and integrity. This is ugly and cliched prattle from a self-obsessed woman who has obviously learned nothing from her mistakes and certainly doesn't think of anyone else's family as she navigates her gigantic ego.

11.16.2011

This is a very familiar story -- I've lived it, except for the part about meeting someone new.

11.03.2011

I'm sure you were waiting for a comment like this one, so I suppose I'll be the first to say it.
I found the piece full of nostalgia and intriguing, and I enjoy good writing. But I had mixed feelings after finishing it, because the source of the material meant that you, the writer, ruined someone's else happiness.
All of us being young at time, we have regrets for doing stupid things. Youthful flings are like that. But I didn't sense a lot of regret...I sensed a lot of lust in the beginning, and lot of 'what if' in the middle, and it ended with a 'to be continued?' question mark.
In the end, I felt like I consumed a lot of sugar. It was a article over-bathed in youthful fantasies and superficality that didn't stick a small toe in the reality and messisess department, where hurt feelings, broken marriages, and other people's feelings reside.
I'd rather not deal with the sludge plaguing life and people today, it's a lot to deal with, the emotional and mental pain around you, but reading about a discretion that collaped a marriage decades, and years later, seeing faint traces of it picking up like it never left off its youthful indiscretion...is a lot to read, or for me, to read into.
It made me wonder if the writer had any present happiness at all.
Both still seem caught in the endless loop of wanting to matter to the other, hopeless in love with a twist, and, I suppose that's how life really is for some people.
I just found it rather unclear, with all boundaries blurred for easy crossing if necessary.

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