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

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.”

First Published October 25, 2011

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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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