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?
“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?”