I have spent most of my life in love with a married man. The tragic twist? He wasn’t married when I met him. It was 1987, the year of Iran Contra, the Unabomber, and a new miracle drug called Prozac, and I was 23 years old. Meeting him was my first truly spiritual experience: our eyes locked, and my head felt like it was blowing out backwards, stretching time, leaving me breathless and a bit alarmed.
But when he proposed, I said no – what did I know? I was young and clueless, dating someone else, and he lived in another country. So he returned to Europe and married his high school girlfriend; I eventually married another boyfriend. He had a few kids; I had one. We have kept in touch as the years have passed, our lives marching forward, but our hearts, it seems, have stayed still.
Fast forward to a hotel in San Francisco, the city where we started. We go to my room for a nightcap after walking around town all day, our bodies orbiting too close. Although we have not seen each other for several years, the passage of time means nothing. “You know I’m still in love with you, right?” he suddenly blurts out. Hearing this stops my heart. I’m so unhappy with my husband and feel so at home with this man; adored and safe.
We start kissing, wrapped in one another, and it feels like it did 20 years ago, free and sweet and hot. I whimper and try to pull away, but his eyes find mine and I am calm. We hold each other and talk and laugh and I cry. The fondling becomes intense, and I shudder with ecstasy as I experience what feels like every cell in my body flipping over, re-orienting itself towards love. He sees my face and moans, “Oh, you beautiful woman!” in my ear. I am inert.
“I’m so, so sorry,” I say. And I am. Sorry for the life lived apart, sorry for the love wasted, the time lost. “It’s OK,” he says, gruff with unshed tears. “I love you. It’s OK.”
My husband hides in his office when I get home from work; I cook dinner while he broods. We eat quickly, put our son to bed. On good nights, he falls asleep in his living room chair, and I go to bed alone. On bad nights, we have awful fights. I spend hours each day recounting to myself, and to him, what’s going wrong, how to be better, when I felt slighted or when I know I was wrong. I start a “what I love about my husband” list and try to add three new things to it each day. It’s exhausting.
And then one night, it’s over. My husband is in love with someone else, a woman we both know, and he leaves me for her. Shocked, I say nothing of my secret; I am too devastated by this development to talk of my own hopeless heart.
I fly to France for a week, to see how things feel between us. It’s pure bliss. We walk for hours, at one point holding onto rocks at a spot where, we later learn, a couple was once washed out to sea. We endure questions from friendly waiters about how long we’ve been married; one sizes us up on the first night with “Oh, you’re in love!” We laugh, secretly glad that everybody knows. I tell him, “I would marry you now, you know.” He sighs.
Parting is wrenching. We weep as we say goodbye, not knowing what to make of this rekindled love, if or when we will be together again. We can’t regret our respective children, nor disappoint them. Over the next few years it becomes clear that he will not leave his wife while their children are still at home. I try to date because I resent putting my life on hold for any man, even him. But kissing anybody else feels like cheating, and the one guy I manage to sleep with makes me feel sad. Am I stubborn or steadfast? Our visits dwindle, and his emails become less personal. I resolve to move on. I don’t.
He reaches out to see me for the first time in two years. Again, in San Francisco, the city of our beginning. I fear he is going to tell me he has another lover.
Instead, he tells me that his wife suspects I am the other woman. When she accused him, he neither denied nor admitted anything; what I hear is that he didn’t fight even for the right to have our stolen moments. I cry inside. But when I say I’m not dating, his face opens up, and his spirit lightens, so I know he still loves me. I dance inside.
He tells me it takes a lot of self-control not to take me in his arms. I tremble. I lean towards him. It takes a lot of self-control not to fall into him. But I’m restrained by his reticence, by the two years without any real contact.
The wine starts to work its magic over dinner, and we begin to relax. We acknowledge our deep love for each other, our regret at being apart. For a few minutes I feel relief and joy. He says he may divorce his wife, but no new woman is possible, not ever. His children would never forgive him. My heart turns black with despair. Later, I wonder if he ever tells his wife he loves her. I think not. I hope not. I need something of my own.
I beg him to expand his life to find room for me. He says I am “miles above” him, and are those tears in his eyes? I don’t understand; I feel miles below him, drowning and grasping for a lifeline. “But can’t we find a way to spend some time together, even if not all our time?” I ask. “That wouldn’t be enough for me,” he says. I feel cheap, as if it’s enough for me, and I should be ashamed. I don’t scream, “None of this is enough for me!” even though that’s the truth. I’m still trying to be cool.
After he leaves, I make my way back to my room, sobbing. Wracked with grief. Afraid I will wake my neighbors. I run water, wash my face, cry and cry and cry some more. I scream into a towel. Three days later, my physical therapist asks me if I’ve been in a car accident or been kicked in the ribs. I ask, “Can sobbing cause this?” Oh, yes, it can. He looks concerned, does not press me. I submit to the painful treatment. My ribs heal in a couple of days. My heart is still sore.
Why won’t this man, my love, leave his wife? How much of a cliché am I, and how many other women have found themselves in this exact position? A friend advises, leave the door open, but walk away. Date. Find someone else. I know she’s right, but I wonder how far away I have to get before I stop listening for his footsteps.