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.”
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?”
Then and there, I began planning my wardrobe (skinny jeans, long-sleeved Petit Bateau cotton crewneck), my deportment (a hug is OK, but nothing lingering) and my pronouns (use weas often as possible).
Stephen was waiting for me outside a café on the Upper East Side. We awkwardly embraced, and I gauged my reaction to him—wary, curious, and yes, my heart was thumping a bit—as though calibrating a terrorism-alert threat level. Over cappuccino (mine virtually untouched), I covered my nervousness by asking about his work, about his now-adult children. He asked if my husband knew about our meeting. (Of course he did.) Didn’t his wife? (“She asked me if it was something I really wanted to do. And I said it was.”) Perhaps he’d like to meet my husband? (“I don’t think I could bear it.”)
I told him I was still an obsessive swimmer and had taken up cooking and gardening with a vengeance, all things I’d written about in various publications.
“Yes, I know,” he said.
“I’ve been following your work for years. I’ll start to read something, and honestly, I can tell it’s you without looking at the name.”
We had never been very good at sitting across a table from each other. Stephen had barely gotten to the bottom of his coffee cup when I suggested we adjourn to Central Park, where we wandered and talked for the next three hours. I learned that he had been in New York several times over the years but hadn’t gotten in touch. He’d done so this time, he said, because “I didn’t want to not see you again.”
Before leaving me in the late afternoon (to meet his wife’s brother for dinner), he spelled out his preferred terms of engagement: OK to the occasional e-mail, but please, no phone calls, “because we know where that has led.” I considered retorting, “Oh, where was that?” But for one of the few times in my life, I shut up. I returned home in the euphoric state so familiar to me from my love-affair days.
I have a long-married friend who sees her college boyfriend for lunch once or twice a year. She has no residual sexual or romantic feelings for him, but she hears his voice and instantly remembers what it felt like to be 18.
Well, I don’t want to remember being in my twenties, hopelessly in love with a married man. I want what I got on that unseasonably warm autumn day: validation that I had mattered to the married man. But it turns out I wanted much more. I wanted to know that I still matter.
And of course now he’ll read this and know that he still matters to me.
JOANNE KAUFMAN writes often for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of More.
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