How an illicit relationship saved my marriage.
IT BEGAN AS A TYPICAL SATURDAY NIGHT, out with my closest women friends. But on that particular evening, as we sat, laughing and talking in a popular New York restaurant, acquaintances were seated nearby celebrating their friend Alex’s* birthday. They invited us to join their table for a toast, which turned into several. When the house music came on and everyone headed for the bar, Alex— handsome and playful—took my hand and led me to the dance floor.
In the time it took for his fingers to encircle mine, what had been a quiet attraction became an all-consuming need. I heard the warning voice in my head reminding me that this was dangerous territory: however alone I might feel, I was, in fact, married. And then, for the first time in 10 years, I silenced it. As Alex placed his hands on my hips, I knew with absolute clarity that I was about to have an affair. I knew it was a decision that could unravel even the strongest of unions. I never could have guessed that it would save mine.
I had felt this kind of passion only once before, when I first encountered the man who would be my husband. I was wandering my college campus, terrified, when a gorgeous man walked confidently up the hill. He saw me, and asked if he could help me find my way. “Well, yes,” I wanted to respond. “How about for forever? Does forever work for you?” James* was indeed confident, as well as wry, brilliant, fearless, and inspiring. While I was literally without a sense of direction, still searching for my dorm room, he was planning his future as a doctor. Two years later, I selected a major that would help ensure my future as a writer; James signed up to study black history and South Africa, knowing it was his last chance to pursue other interests before his medical training.
I slept in on weekends while he got up to tutor underprivileged children. I gained, and kept, the freshman 15. James competed in two varsity sports. And while I continued to feel uncomfortable in the world, there was nowhere James wasn’t at home. I put away my SOS flares. I had been rescued. When we decided to get married right after graduation, it was easy to ignore those who were concerned that we were too young. The naysayers, I reasoned, were simply amazed that I had this love thing all wrapped up by the age of 21. And for the first few years of marriage, that reasoning held water.
Sure, James worked nonstop. But I, too, had found a career that I excelled at. My job called for me to travel to glamorous destinations and meet with influential people; I was promoted at a record pace. But every weekend, every stolen vacation, reminded me that we were in this together. We cooked extravagant meals for each other and for friends. We hopped flights to Rome or Paris for a few days; we spent weeks tracking lions in Africa, trekking through Southeast Asia, or making love on empty Caribbean beaches.
Then came the four years of James’s residency and a subsequent fellowship. His schedule required him to be gone most weekends; when he was home, he was somnambulant. Because I was passionate about my job and my friends, my needs when it came to James were fairly minimal compared with those of other spouses I knew. All the same, he wasn’t close to meeting them. Chronically exhausted, he would spend our occasional vacations face-planted on the beach while I restlessly paced the low tide line.
Being with James was no longer a solution to feeling lost and anxious, and I lacked the skill set to comfort myself. I was so immature I didn’t know it was a skill set. I tried reminding myself that here was a man willing to sacrifice everything for his deep belief that he could help others.
Sure, I was among the sacrificed, but at least I got to stand next to a person who was making a difference. But the more people commented on how “perfect” he was, the more trapped and angry I felt. What about me? Had I been a child of eight rather than a woman of 28, I might have had a temper tantrum. Instead, seven years into our marriage, I had an affair.
Several days after meeting Alex, I attended a party I knew he would be at. As I had hoped, he asked me to have dinner with him afterwards. We talked for hours. He was vivacious. He was interesting and interested in me. He was awake! And he was nothing like James. When he kissed me goodbye, I felt high. Then I ran for the bathroom and vomited until there was nothing left. Still, I was convinced that Alex was my path to happiness. We had lunch, we had dinner, we finally made love. And a month after that, as we lay in his bed watching the first snowfall, we threw on our clothes and ran for the park to make snow angels. There, lying on the cold ground and looking up at the stars, we whispered that we loved each other.
We weren’t an obvious match, and not only because I was married. Alex was from a boisterous, family-focused clan who believed no time apart could be of any quality. I was an only child, accustomed to empty spaces filled comfortably with my own silence. Professionally, I was ambitious and filled with energy, tearing into each day like a dervish; Alex, on the other hand, was mellow and observant. He was nothing like James and the men I had been drawn to in the past: passive instead of ferocious, content instead of constantly conquering. But he was a respite from James’s force field, as well as a center of calm for me.
After feeling so deserted by my husband, I suddenly found myself nurtured. Not infrequently, during a demanding day at work, I would find a deliveryman standing in my office with a boxed lunch Alex had ordered for me, to make sure I remembered to eat. Flowers arrived frequently, for good reasons and for no reason. And he was a wonderful playmate, up for any adventure. From making reservations at a new restaurant we were both interested in, to hopping a plane at the last minute to meet me wherever my job had sent me, Alex was 100 percent available: an unflinching, loving companion.
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