It's 9 p.m. on a summer Tuesday, sticky summer heat. I'm slogging my way east from a screening at the Tribeca Film Center, and I'm not sure how I want to get home. Walk a bit in the sticky heat and clear my head, space out on the subway all the way uptown? Maybe hail a taxi. Too tired to decide, so I don't. I meander across Franklin, up West Broadway, across White. I follow the O. Henry method of letting the traffic lights determine my walking pattern. I think about ducking in for Vietnamese food at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, but dismiss the idea and retrace my steps back to the avenue.
This is when being single is monumentally depressing. After a long, crazy day I'm hungry and I really just want to go home, take off my clothes and nest. But there is no one at home to nest with, and no food, either, and the prospect of that silence is keeping me on the streets.
It's not just a matter of finding company. I have a friend who lives nearby, who I know is home this evening; there's always someone around in New York, or someone visiting, to share dinner. Sometimes this sort of casual dining experience is a solution just to kill time. More often these days, it's not. So I wander.
At Canal Street, I head east; it's an eerily quiet night, the kind where New York seems like a Hollywood set, waiting for the crew call. Out of nowhere, cops emerge and rush past me, three squad cars pulling over some New Jersey sport utility vehicle driver for God knows what. I think about crossing to avoid the confrontation, but heck, I'm a New Yorker, I can pass the fray.
All of a sudden, I hear footsteps from behind, but the cops are near me, so I'm not startled the way I might be on a desolate street. The pedestrian overtakes me; I am clopping along in three-inch heels, and I've been on my feet for hours, so I'm a bit slower than usual.
"I have to tell you," says the stranger, kindly, delightedly, as if he was admiring a nice floral display, or perhaps, a big juicy slab of steak. "You've got gorgeous legs."
"Thank you," I say, feeling like an exhibitionist in my bright red tights and gray mini-skirt. It is -- by design (and even though I'm short) -- hard to miss my legs. "Man, you are gorgeous. Won't you have a drink with me?" implores the stranger, eyeing me up and down. He is wearing a suit, a tall man, happy-looking, but not insane, and not, I don't think, drunk. I think about the offer. This could pre-empt my lonely night at home in a way that speaks to my sense of adventure. A drink with a stranger who likes my looks. But I can't deal with the energy a strangerly conversation takes right now; I really am exhausted.
"I really would love to, but I've been up since 5 a.m.," I say, already chastising myself for rushing to decline.
Blowing off a date proposed on the street is something other women would do, in the interest of safety and of propriety. I like to think of myself as different, living a sort of Erica Jong/Helen Gurley Brown/Harriet the Spy anthropological existence, specializing in deciphering the dark underbelly of men. (Thinking of it that way, I've learned, makes it seem less distressing to keep making romantic mistakes.)
"Let me have your card," I say.
The man materializes a business card and hands it to me. "I'm K. ______. I mean it. Please call me. You're gorgeous, and I'd love to buy you a drink." He smiles, and it's rather sweet. There's too much passivity in the world of male-female relationships, even in New York. And K. possesses something even rarer than sheer chutzpah: He has the perfect blend of audacity tempered with kindness.
"You are so nice. But really, this has been an incredibly long day," I say, as if I am apologizing to myself, too.
You may think I must be starved for a compliment, to be so disarmed by this strange suited man. I don't necessarily thrive on external affirmation from the opposite sex, but hell, I'm human.
It's nice when a man stops you and tells you he thinks you're hot, particularly when he appears sane, and appears to mean it.
A cab stops while K. stands there smiling. It appears, from his card, that he works at a very big, important law firm. Even I, not familiar with lawyerly things, know the name. So, wow. I just got hit on by a fat-cat corporate lawyer.
It occurs to me as I pull off that, in my delirium, I didn't look to see if he was wearing a wedding ring.
I wake up at some ungodly hour, as I do every day, in a sort of state of anxiety and panic and rush to maximize the day. And, first thing, like I do every day, I check my e-mail. As it downloads, I stare at the card. As I fixate on its legal plainness, I want to know more. Does K. pay compliments to pretty girls on the street all the time? Does he have lots of takers? Where does he live? And is he or is he not married? Fleetingly, I think something I've thought almost every time I've met a new man since I turned 31 and started getting unduly serious about these things: Could this be The One?
With K., I dismiss this question more quickly than usual. (Typically, I lapse into weird fantasies of fate, like, how The Guy was destined to meet me, how our children might look, what kind of home we'll make together. All before we've seen each other twice.) But in this case, I can't stretch the fantasy to believe this man is The One. It's too soon after the last One for that to happen. For one thing, I've never been a rebound person -- and, it just doesn't have the right vibe.
But, I figure, I need to know the answer to the first four questions, and I'm extremely curious about the answer to the fifth. So I pick up the phone and leave him a voice mail, careful not to blow his cover in case a secretary picks up the message and in case he does happen to be married -- or, as bad, is sleeping with his assistant. Just like me to protect a total stranger.
"Hi, K., this is Jane. I was wondering if you could meet sometime later today so we can talk, since I wasn't available yesterday? I'd love to talk to you." I speak with the perfect blend of detachment -- I don't need you, but purrr, you need me.
I leave my shill phone number, the one that's just a voice mail at the office, and I don't leave my last name or where I work -- just to take some sort of precaution. Little chance of being harassed, that way. Even though this man doesn't seem like the harassing type; it's funny how you can tell. If you're honest, you know the lunatics from the just plain ordinarily troubled.
A few hours later I remember to check the voice mail. There is a message from K. He sounds eager, and pleasant.
"Jane, I got your call. It's so nice to hear from you. What a great way to start the day! Absolutely, I can meet this evening."
He leaves some particulars. I call him back.
"I'll be on the extreme West Side, midtown, around seven-ish," I say. "You'll be near Grand Central? "
"Yes," he said, "I can meet you wherever you like."
"You live on the East Side," I half ask, figuring I'll be accommodating, and taking a stab at the direction he was headed in last night. Perhaps this stranger lives near me?
"No, no, I live in Westchester," he said.
Divorced? No way. No self-respecting man with a decent income would live in the suburbs if he was divorced. Living in Westchester means it's 99 percent sure he's married. Now, I'm even more curious. I want to know what makes a married man from Westchester ask a single woman out. I already have a few ideas.
There comes a point in a woman's life when most of the men who express interest, who would be worth considering as potential partners, are married. It starts to seem epidemic: Married men become almost more plentiful than single ones -- and so, single women are faced with a dilemma. It's one thing to have casual sex with a married man, though of course that has its dangers, too: You might fall for him, he might fall for you, you might be weighted down with guilt, he might even -- gasp -- feel awful.
In her book "Fear of Fifty," Erica Jong recounts her numerous true-life adventures with married men, advocating them as a source of some of the best sex around, because they're so desperate and thankful for adventure. Helen Gurley Brown had a similar opinion, framed in the language of 1962, when she wrote "Sex and the Single Girl": "The solution is not to rule out married men but to keep them as pets. While they are using you to varnish their egos, you use them to add spice to your life. It's a question of taking married men but not taking them seriously. And not taking them home -- too often." (As for my other role model, Harriet the Spy, well, she didn't have any comment on this subject.)
In the course of a year I'd watched several of my dearest friends fall in love with married men. One of the men, during the relationship, even had helped his wife become pregnant with twins -- through the excruciating magic of in-vitro fertilization. The guy told my friend he'd leave home as soon as the kids were born. And my friend believed him. Another was so attached to the man that she repelled available single men because she didn't want to alienate the married man -- who made it clear that she was not to see anyone else. He bullied her with phone calls and pages and harsh language if he even suspected she was out with another man.
As distasteful and frightening as these stories were, watching smart people I respected fall into the hands of men who didn't deserve them, I learned from my own experience just how abysmal a situation like this could be. I had fallen in love with my mentor -- who happened to be married. At first, I believed (even my mother believed) that this man, 15 years older, married for 28 years really loved me, really wanted to be with me, wanted for the right reasons, as he said on our first overtly romantic encounter, to make me pregnant. I had visions of Stieglitz and O'Keefe, muse become lover. What I forgot was that O'Keefe had nervous breakdowns. Another celebrated coup de foudre, in which Henry Luce left his wife after literally bumping into Clare Booth at a party and falling instantly in love, yielded a brief storybook passion, which fizzled with the onset of reality.
Ditto my affair, which I was sure at its start was the love of my life. After nine months of torturing me, telling me I could never really love him, accusing me of running off with ex-boyfriends on the nights when he couldn't lie his way out of his household, he moved in with me. But from the comfort of my home, now our home together, it was clear that while he'd literally left, he figuratively never had. He would toil and stew about finances with his wife, about his wife being alone and how guilty he felt about it, about the kids he rarely bothered to call, about everything but the life before him -- while never actually telling her where he'd moved and confronting the reality he said he so desperately wanted. When I finally got him out of my house, his wife welcomed him back home, and I found out more: He'd lied about his past infidelities. I wasn't the love of his life; I was the latest in the line of mad infatuations. Ours had just gone further than the rest.
His probable marital status is one reason I was intrigued by this enthusiastic invitation by K. It wasn't revenge on the married man that propelled me. It was more a curiosity about this particular man and his particular circumstances. I wondered what I could learn about my failed love affair from the motives of K., what I could understand about the complexity of marriage in general. What I might learn, in my endless struggle to understand, about men, and maybe even myself.
We meet outside the appointed place in midtown and it turns out to be trendy and loud. I'm surprised that I remember him, but in his rumpled suit and with his bulky briefcase, he sort of sticks out in the thicket of self-consciously hip 20-somethings. In the 20 hours since I first saw him, I've definitely overromanticized his looks. It's not that he's awful or anything, and not that I found him remarkably handsome the night before; upon second view, he's just definitely not my type. It is easy to talk to him, but, everyone talks so easily around me, so it's hard to tell whether we have some fabulous chemistry. At least I'm getting more aware in my old age: At least I recognize this, that there's a difference.
We walk for several blocks, searching for the right spot to conduct our get-to-know-you, like we were teenagers looking for a private place to make out. But "illicit" isn't the right descriptive word in this case. I don't feel illicit, at least. And anyone who saw us would think we were colleagues going out for an after-work drink.
Eventually, we duck into a fancy-looking diner with voluptuous pastries in the window and not many people. Everyone else is in the nearby bars. He seems dubious when we find there's no alcohol served, but I assure him I don't care. I want our talk to happen in a quiet place; he wants our talk to happen wherever I want it to. Attentive man, responsive man. We talk about our work. It's as if we are having a social business encounter. It's as if we've known each other from before, not just run into one another on the street. He regales me with tales about his clients, far, wide and exotic. One of them turns out to be someone I know, and well, someone I'd actually written about recently. Two degrees of separation, we marvel. Ha ha ha.
"So it was fate that we met," he says, staring deep into my eyes. We order milkshakes.
Somewhere between that point and the inevitable twist of the conversation to the abjectly personal is when I finally look down and notice the wedding ring, gleaming out from his ring finger. Now that I see it, I can almost swear I didn't see one last night; did he pocket it when he asked me out on the street? That would not only negate his courage for asking me out, but it would put him squarely in the bin marked in large letters, "PATHETIC POSER." (Now there's an ethics question to debate over a round of martinis: Is it better, as a married man, to ask a woman out while wearing your wedding ring -- or not? Discuss.)
It's just about at this point that he sneaks in a mention of his wife, something like, "Of course, my wife would disagree with that, but she disagrees with just about everything."
There is no apparent shame in his voice at admitting he's married. It's more like an admission, an acknowledgement, an entitlement, almost, like, "I am tied down, but not embarrassed to admit it. She's part of who I am, even though I'm not very happy about it." I act blasé in the face of this admission, this confirmation of my suspicion, and, with all the drollness I can muster, I say: "Oh, so you've got yourself a combative spouse."
He rolls his eyes, exasperated, not even appreciating the opening I'd just given him or the irony in my voice. He's just so desperate to say what he's about to say, he forgets he's never met me before, doesn't know me a bit.
"My wife doesn't have the same value system as me. She doesn't have the same interest in sex as me. In fact, we have very, very little in common," he pauses. "Even though I just met you, I can tell you that I wish my wife was more like you."
"What does your wife do for a living? Or does she work now?" I ask, darting the compliment and trying to change the subject, a bit. "She used to be a banker, but she doesn't work now. That's part of the problem. She hasn't for a long time. She's the exact opposite of you. I knew she was a JAP when I married her, but I didn't know just how bad." He paused, about to reveal a secret. "Do you know how much money she just spent to redo the bathroom?"
"I don't know -- $25,000."
"Try 28 grand. Unbelievable. She had to have the absolute best of everything. I mean, a $6,000 stall shower? In our bathroom?" He recounted the minutiae of the contracting disasters, and how she refused to relent on her desire to have the very best. And, how there wasn't even a Jacuzzi amid all that capital expenditure. "We have different value systems. We're totally different. Twenty-eight thousand dollars. What kind of message does that send to the kids?" I stared at him. I knew what kind of message it sent. He knew what kind of message it sent. But he was doing that detached reality thing that people, particularly unhappily married men, do, like, if I live in denial, and don't talk about it except maybe once in a while, maybe it won't hurt so bad. Maybe the kids will come out unscathed, after all.
"What she does to the kids is incredible. The girl, she's a little overweight, but not a problem. She's a girl. She's 7, for god's sake. My wife harasses her endlessly about it. The kid is going to turn out anorexic!"
More detached reality. It's certainly not conscious, but it's almost as half-witted a rationale as, "I'm staying for the kids." (Do people really think kids are so stupid that they can't tell that their parents hate each other? The answer is, yes. This is not a question I even need bother asking K. There's no question that kids have something to do with it.) Married men have a fantastic ability, better even than journalists, to detach themselves from reality as if they were not participants in life. This is why married men who are journalists can be particularly dangerous romantically.
"What were you thinking when you got married?"
"I was young. What you want when you're younger is different when you're older. I guess I figured she'd change." He pauses and sips his milkshake through his straw, which makes him seem like a teenager.
"What did you want when you were younger? Or were you just 'madly, passionately in love?'" I can tell by the way he's struggling to answer that he's not really sure.
"Well, to tell the truth, I didn't want to get married. But it was the only way she'd live with me when I got out of law school. We came to the city from upstate, and I couldn't see paying for two separate apartments. But she said no, absolutely not. And she was from a good family and all, so I figured ... I don't know what I figured. We just got married."
He stares at me for a minute, as if he were talking into a mirror. I sip my milkshake, not knowing what to say. Virtually anything I could say would seem trite or condescending.
"Isn't it pathetic? I can't even tell you that I was madly, passionately in love."
It is sad, I admit, but he certainly isn't the first person who wasn't madly, passionately in love when he got married. In fact, some people believe being madly, passionately in love isn't a necessity for marriage, and maintain that it could be a hindrance. Being ready for marriage seemed to me the most necessary ingredient for success. But clearly, he wasn't ready then. And to me, he was clearly just getting ready for what needed to happen now.
He looks at me for what seems like a long time, and I feel like his confessor, the catalyst for a cathartic purge. I felt this way that first night with my married ex-lover, thrilled to hear the secrets but terrified to possess them.
"She hates sex. She always hated sex. She'll say to me, 'OK, get hard and stick it in and get it over with.'" He stops for a second, seeming aware that he is being graphic with a stranger. "Nice, huh? She told me to go see a prostitute, because I was too horny all the time."
"Was she like that in the beginning?"
He makes a face, a grimace, to say yes. "I guess I figured she would learn to like it more. The last time she gave me a blow job was before we were married, and the only reason she did it then was because she wouldn't have sex with me because we weren't married. But she would never do it now. She won't let me go down on her; she thinks it's disgusting. Years ago she would let me do it from time to time but I always had to go brush my teeth afterward. She wouldn't let me kiss her unless I did."
K. sighs. The booth is heavy with his revelations. "I should have known what would happen if I married a virgin."
At this point, I am feeling a strange combination of discomfort and sadness. I want to hear more, but feel like I've heard it all before. What I don't feel is threatened. K. needs to talk, badly.
"I just don't understand why you don't leave," I say, knowing exactly why he didn't. I learned from the man in my life that at a certain point, it became much, much easier to stay, and create a double life, than it was to extract yourself. I realized I had no idea what his life was really like at all. I knew that I didn't really understand the complexity of a long marriage, even though I'd rescued myself from my own bad one years before. But I didn't have kids, or a sense that leaving a marriage was a failure. I somehow knew that feeling trapped was worse.
He sort of stares at me, and sucks through his straw. "I'm just not ready yet. Maybe I'll never be ready."
"You're not waiting till you fall in love to find an escape, are you?" I ask.
"Look. I'm a very successful man. On the face of it, I have everything. Everyone, our families, our friends, thinks we have this amazing life. The kids. The house. To get divorced, I'd be admitting a part of my life is a failure. I can't deal with that. Maybe I can in a few years. It's taken me two years to get to this point, where I realized just how bad things were. That I needed to have someone else in my life. Even though there's no way I'm going to leave."
"What exactly is it you are hoping to do, then? Have an affair?"
"I don't want to have an affair. I want to be in love. With someone smart, someone passionate, someone accomplished. I want to take bubble baths and drink good red wine. I want to spoon after making love. She hates that because she's all wet and thinks it's disgusting. I want to buy a woman beautiful lingerie and have her love it. I've spent thousands of dollars on gorgeous lingerie -- tasteful things, you know, and she doesn't wear any of it. I want to be able to have long conversations, and enjoy the city. My wife is so caught up in being a member of the country club and she doesn't even like to go. There or anywhere. She hates to come into Manhattan, even."
"Where do you expect to find that woman?" I ask. He doesn't seem to understand how falling in love could be contradictory to maintaining his marriage.
"Well, I've been looking on AOL, and I've met several married women. I always figured the woman would be married, like me. But frankly, when I saw them in person, they either didn't look good enough or weren't smart enough. I know that sounds really shallow, and I suppose it is. I guess I'm not evolved enough not to care about looks, but at least I admit that. But, I can tell you this. What I've wanted is someone exactly like you."
I look at him, and stop to formulate my words carefully. For some reason I feel protective over this stranger for revealing so much to me. And I also feel deeply sorry for him. But I also know there is nothing I want to do to help him.
"Look," I say. "If I said, let's go make wild passionate love and drink wine in the tub, and we did, I can promise you something. You would go home and your life would never be the same. You might think you can do that -- with me, or someone -- and just step back into the old reality as if nothing had changed. But the truth is, it would have changed unalterably. Your situation is awful now. It would be a thousand times worse if you fell in love."
He looks at me, wanting to understand, but understandably skeptical.
"Because if you knew there was something better out there, living the lie you've been living wouldn't be so easy any more. It would be excruciating. It's one thing now: You can complain about it, and have this fantasy about how great it would be to get away. But if you found some meaningful release, the fantasy would have a whole different context."
I drink a bit of my milkshake and think about the relative merits of living a half-life versus admitting a problem, confronting it and getting on with it. I'd thought about this a lot when I examined the life of the married man I'd loved. It never computed to me that he'd crept around all those years in search of the soul mate, sticking it out until he found her.
"I don't understand why you're not married," he says. "If I wasn't married, I'd marry you in minute. Any other guy I know would want to marry you, too."
Yes, I think. "That's nice. But the problem is: You are married. And so are most of the other guys who say things like this."
"You're everything I ever dreamed about in a woman," he says, completely sincerely, almost as if he was reciting lines he'd rehearsed in an inner monologue, waiting for the moment when he'd meet the right woman to say it to. "I was attracted to you on the street because of the way you looked. But now I find out you're so incredibly smart, too. It's incredible."
For a minute, I start to lapse into self-pity. Here I am, 34, the object of yet another married man's affections, completely unattached. What has my life come to? Maybe I should have stayed married, stayed put in North Carolina, not tried to look for more. Was I going to spend the next years of my life hoping for the right man and instead keep meeting married men who saw me as an out clause?
Then he starts slurping. Something about the milkshake and the noise and the circumstance snap me into reality. Maybe I am 34, rapidly approaching 35, and I don't have a husband or a baby. But I have my dignity. I try to imagine being this man's wife. Thirty-eight. "From a good family." The mother of two kids. The member of a country club. The owner of a $28,000 bathroom. The hater of sex. The hater of my husband, who at this moment was sitting with a single woman whom he met on the street, confiding their marital troubles.
Suddenly there is no question that being alone is the more acceptable fate. In fact, this woman sounds more alone than anyone I know who is single. I file away this realization for future reference.
It is time to move on to my next evening appointment, and I say so. K. pays the bill and we walked out to Lexington Avenue together so I can hail a cab.
"We can really help each other a lot," he says cheerily, as if the dark side of his suburban paradise that he had just revealed to me did not exist. "We should be friends. I really love talking to you. Can we get together?"
"I don't think getting together is a good idea, but if I can help you with something, you should call. You're right. We can have a little brain trust." I try to flatter him, feeling bad that we can't be friends. He is a nice guy, and he does know a lot of people I should probably know.
But suddenly, I am anxious to get away, afraid that if I don't maybe I'll say something suggestive that could get me into trouble. A cab pulls up, and we shake hands quickly, exchange pleasantries and I am on my way.
The next day, K. calls my voice mail to thank me for a wonderful evening. He asks if we can get together the coming Monday. I don't return the call. At least one of us has learned something.