Want to be in a book club? Just us?”
Tilting my head, I squinted at David’s* email. We were both in the literary industry and connected on social media, but I’d never met him in person. And based on what I could tell from his online persona, he was married.
“I’m bad at book clubs. I’ve caused the demise of many,” I wrote, declining his offer, and clicked Send.
But he kept writing. A few weeks later, he asked me to lunch.
Sitting in my therapist’s office, I told her about David’s invitation.
“The last thing you need is another literary married man,” she said, referring to my ex, a successful writer whom I hadn’t been able to get over for years. We weren’t in touch anymore, but a few months earlier I’d been devastated when I found out he’d recently gotten married.
“I know,” I said. Never having had an affair with a married man, I did have a history of dating guys with varying degrees of unavailability and knew how painful it was. I had no desire to put myself in that situation again.
But David was persistent and I was curious. Maybe lunch would be professional. Maybe he was going through a separation. I told myself I’d go just to get more information, but if it turned out that he was in fact married, I wasn’t interested.
Sitting in the upscale restaurant waiting for him to arrive, I stared at the same line in the book I was reading over and over again, but the words were swimming in front of my eyes, and I couldn’t focus. When he walked in, the first thing I noticed as he reached to hug me was his wedding ring.
Looking over the menu, we talked about writing as if this was a business lunch, but my heart was pounding.
“You know everything about me and I don’t know anything about you,” I said, because he’d read my writing, so he knew all about my childhood traumas,bad breakups, and struggles with depression, anxiety, and OCD.
“The balance is off,” I said, swirling a French fry in ketchup. “Tell me something personal about you.”
“I’m sober,” he said.
“Like, you used to not be?” I asked.
And that was it: instant intimacy. We’d only just met, but we could already tell each other everything about ourselves. Lunch lasted for three hours and turned into coffee at a café a few blocks away, and then a lingering walk through the Manhattan streets as the sun warmed us on that bright fall day.
After I left David I was in a daze, dizzy from our effortless afternoon together. That night he emailed me, “I don’t feel like pretending I didn’t feel something between us today.”
Reading his words, I couldn’t believe he was so straightforward, and I was relieved. I didn’t feel like pretending either; I could pretend for years, wanting something more but subsisting on the pretense of a friendship with a subtext of sexual attraction, living indefinitely in an unfulfilling fantasy. We agreed to meet for coffee to talk.
Sitting across from him, he pressed his leg into mine under the table. “You’re not going to move?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said, pressing back against him, my eyes locked on his.
“I should tell you,” I confessed, propping my elbows on the table and leaning forward, “I have this pattern with unavailable men.” I told him about the guy I had a fling with who lived with his girlfriend, and my ex I couldn’t get over, who was married when I met him. We’d had a flirtation for a couple of months before his marriage dissolved, and started dating as soon as he got separated.
David told me that he wasn’t happy in his marriage but had children and planned to stay married for his kids, until his youngest—who was eight months old—graduated from high school. Still pressing his leg against mine, he made it clear what I’d be signing on for.
“I don’t care,” I said. “This feels so good I don’t want to walk away. I just want to follow this feeling wherever it goes.” I have such an overactive conscience I couldn’t even take a paperclip from work without being swamped with guilt, but for some reason entering into an affair with a married man didn’t faze me.
“Just so you know,” he wrote to me that night, “I’m not going to be able to keep my hands off you for long.”
A few days later we met for seltzers on a rooftop bar, and I curled up into him.
“Let’s go somewhere,” he said. “The park? Or we could go to my office…”
We wound up kissing on the couch in his office that night, and later that week I found myself back there, but in the middle of the workday, lying naked on the floor with him in front of an open window, his coworkers on the other side of a thin wall. I could hear the shuffle of footsteps and the murmur of voices, desk drawers opening and closing and phones ringing as he slowly traced his fingertips across me and looked at me like he never wanted to stop.
It’s going to be hard to get over you, I thought, closing my eyes trying to freeze this moment at the very beginning that I already knew was catapulting towards an end. Then I leaned in and kissed him, pulling him towards me.
Only a week and a half after meeting him, I was having a full-blown affair with a married man and could no longer recognize my life. I’d been unemployed for almost a year and spent most of my time alone, on top of which I hadn’t dated or had sex in the four years I’d been hung up on my ex. Every day was drudgery as I sank further and further into painful isolation. Left to myself, my depression, anxiety, and OCD had been progressively getting worse, and I’d even started having debilitating panic attacks.
Before meeting David, I felt dead. But suddenly, I was alive, desired, and filled with passion and vitality. My depression, anxiety, and OCD slipped away. Overnight I went from years of celibacy to being naked on the floor of his office in the middle of the afternoon, constantly emailing and sexting, and having late-night dirty chats on Facebook. Consumed with thoughts of him, when we weren’t together I was either lost in memories, reliving every detail of every second with him, or longing for him, trying to figure out the next time we could see each other.
On a cold, gray November day, we spent the afternoon in bed together at my apartment. “I think I could get divorced,” he said, his hand resting on my hip. “Now, not in eighteen years. I think I could do it. Move out, get an apartment…”
In that moment, lying next to him in the post-orgasmic glow of the most incredible, tender, sensual experience we’d ever had together, something shifted inside of me.
Up until that point, I was pretty much OK with the way things were. I’d long ago identified that the reason I was magnetically drawn to unavailable men was that I myself was emotionally unavailable. So having a married boyfriend was perfect for me—it was passionate and exciting, and there was built-in distance so I didn’t feel suffocated, trapped, and in danger of actual intimacy. I thought I’d hang in this extramarital limbo until it got too painful, and then I could just opt out.
But in the muted light of my apartment that day, I made a decision that I was in for the long haul. I decided that I’d stand by him through his separation and divorce, no matter how painful, emotionally trying, and financially draining it was. I’d be by his side regardless of how many friends’ couches he had to crash on, and through a shitty first apartment in a crappy neighborhood with no furniture and bare walls. Warmth spread out from my heart and across my chest and I knew; I was going to make this work, and we were going to be able to have a legitimate relationship.
I love you, I thought, running my hands over his back, but I didn’t say it.
The next week, he emailed me the night before he left to visit his parents with his wife and children for Thanksgiving, “The rest of my life pales in comparison to being with you.”
He was usually in touch every day, many times a day, but over Thanksgiving I didn’t hear from him at all. After dinner with my family on Thursday night, I rushed to my Mom’s computer and stared at the screen, refreshing and refreshing and refreshing as my stomach tightened more and more. I soothed myself by thinking that it was probably hard for him to get a minute alone to contact me when he was surrounded by his extended family, and convinced myself that he’d definitely be in touch when he got back into town on Saturday.
But Saturday night I sat at the table of the bridal shower I was throwing for my younger sister, sneaking glances at my phone the whole night. There was still no word for him, and as soon as I got home I collapsed into bed crying. Terrified, I knew that something was really wrong.
On Monday afternoon he finally messaged me on Facebook. After a few minutes of, “How was your Thanksgiving?” back-and-forth, he wrote, “I can’t do this anymore.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach and I couldn’t breathe. “Can you call me?” I wrote. “Can we not do this on Facebook?”
“I was at home, staying in the room I grew up in,” he said, “and I realized, I don’t want to be that guy. I never thought I’d be that guy. That guy who cheats, the one who has an affair. I can’t do this anymore, Jen.”
Hanging up the phone, I was spinning from shock, and couldn’t understand how he’d gone from, I could get a divorce and The rest of my life pales in comparison to being with you, to I can’t do this anymore in only one week. I couldn’t believe I’d never see him again, never spend another afternoon lying in bed next to him.
Part of me, a small part, felt relieved, though. I’d never have to experience that sick, nauseous feeling waiting for David to write me back or call, petrified that he changed his mind and it was over. I’d never have to miss out on Thanksgiving dinner with my family or my sister’s wedding planning because I was too checked out worrying about when I’d hear from him to be present. I’d never have to lose days I should be writing or looking for a job to intoxicating fantasies of him. I could have myself and my life back.
Blasting Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” on my iPod, I bounded out to my favorite neighborhood burger place and felt lighter already, free from my attachment to him.
“I just got dumped,” I told the manager as I ordered a cheeseburger and milkshake. “This is my consolation meal.”
“You’ll be fine,” she said, “I can already tell.”
I thought so, too, but the next day the shock wore off and it hit me. All I could do was lie in bed and wail in pain.
That week, my bathroom sink clogged, then my kitchen sink backed up, then the heating pipe in my bathroom burst, and then I broke my toe because I was thinking of David instead of paying attention to where I was going and slammed my foot into the bathroom door. My depression, anxiety, and OCD that had been eased when I was with him came back with a vengeance.
Now I was really terrified. I was unemployed and the little money I had left in savings was running out fast. I couldn’t eat or sleep and I could barely function, let alone try to find work. How was I going to take care of myself?
Once again, I couldn’t recognize my life, and I didn’t know what had happened to me. What I did know was that this was it—I’d hit rock bottom. Whatever it took, I had to build myself up and put my crumbling life back together. And on that cold, dark December day something else shifted in me. In my excruciating agony, I knew with complete certainty that my destructive pattern of having relationships with unavailable men was finally broken, and if I wanted to survive I could never, ever, do this again.
*Name has been changed