It began as a typical Saturday night out with my closest women friends. But on that particular evening as we sat, laughed and talked 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.
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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 a freshman 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.
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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 8 years old rather than a woman of 28, I might have had a temper tantrum. Instead, seven years into our marriage, I had an affair.
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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.
All the same, there may be no lonelier social landscape than the one inhabited by two people having an affair. While the illicitness might initially be exciting, it doesn't take long to crash into the inevitable recognition that what you're doing is bad.
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Sharing details with close friends is asking them to bear the burden of a guilt that isn't theirs. And how could I explain to them — let alone myself — that, even as I was pursuing this affair, I was still in love with my husband? I found myself living an isolated life of lies, born out of a love for one too many. The situation made no sense, shame and shamelessness coming hand in hand.
A year into my affair and now chronically exhausted, I realized I could no longer stay in a marriage that caused me to dishonor it so blatantly. When things first began with Alex, I had been panicked that James would find out, or that a mutual friend would see us walking down the street and somehow know we were lovers, though we were never affectionate in public.
But as the months went on and James remained clueless, I began to get angry. For years, I had begged, then battled, for his attention. Now, though I was still in love with him, I quietly ceded a fight I knew I couldn't win.
When my husband came home from a weekend shift at the hospital, I told him we needed to separate. He asked if there was someone else. I told him yes, but that he wasn't the reason for our break. We fell asleep clinging tightly to each other, as though in our dreams we could make it all better.
At 5 a.m., I was awakened by a call from James, already back at the hospital. He wanted to tell me about his terrible nightmare from the night before, in which I had told him our marriage was over and that I was having an affair. I didn't know what to say.
Several days later, James moved out, and I entered the state of acceptance and mourning that I had been circling for years. But as I adjusted to the shock of living by myself for the first time in my life, I did nothing to fast-forward my relationship with Alex.
We would still spend the occasional night together — but without the thrill of illicitness, there simply wasn't a thrill. I was also determined, however tentatively, to touch a toe into the waters of what it was to be alone. To be lonely. And as I did, I began to learn that I was … just fine.
Six months after James and I separated, I remember walking down the street thinking about him. Suddenly, my legs went weak, and within seconds, I found myself weeping on the sidewalk. It had taken this time apart to realize that my husband was a man I could indeed live without. But I sure as hell didn't want to.
And so, with the confidence that Alex had taught me by showing me how valuable I was, I slowly entered back into a relationship with James. We began by having a drink, and then dinners and then a weekend away. I took what I had learned from Alex and his view of the world into my interactions with James. No expectations. Allow the other person to be who they are. Hear it, really hear it, and then accept it or not.
No more punishing James for who he was, or thinking my demands could change him. If I chose to try and live with him again, I vowed to be a responsible party, rather than a victim. And for the first time in my life, I felt the gravitas of being an adult capable of doing just that. Finally, my husband said the words I'd waited so many years to hear. As we lay in bed one evening before he returned to his own apartment, he wrapped his arms around me and whispered: "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
While I moved cautiously back toward my husband, I moved quickly away from my lover. In the park where we had first said we loved each other 18 months before, I told Alex that I was considering reconciling with James.
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We cried and embraced, and I promised him that I would remain his friend if he would allow me to. I knew the chances were slim at best. But love is anything but predictable.
Recently, Alex and I were back in each other's arms — but this time, we stood in broad daylight, and our embrace was one of gratitude. In the eight years since our affair ended, we've become what ex-lovers dream of but seldom achieve: extremely close, unconditionally devoted companions.
We share all of our news, and we call each other on our bad behavior. We are friends with every benefit that matters, no condoms required. And though I keep my relationship with Alex a secret from my husband, it is not out of guilt or shame. It is because I do not wish to remind James of a time when I chose another.
I used to think that if I could combine Alex and James, I would have the perfect man. I wasn't wrong. They do indeed fill in each other's blanks, serving my different needs. Many people in my life can't fathom how I have fulfilling relationships with them both.
But I know the truth. These two very different men have taught me what it is to truly be loved. And in turn, how to love.