Doing the right thing

So I resisted the affair with the teeth-achingly beautiful young woman. Now I'm miserable!

Published May 15, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

A large flowering crab apple tree stands beside the Blue home, a monumental display of purple petals that suggests Mardi Gras or the Tournament of Roses or Gay Pride Day, and for the aging Stoic who lives here, it's quite a sight every time he comes home. Like a huge float parked on the property, with a band of men in white tuxes playing "Moon River" on saxophones. Now the petals are falling. In the morning, they collect on the windshield of his car, a whole bunch of them down in the recess where the wipers live, and when he drives down the street, the purple petals fly out, as if he is leading a parade of some kind. He lives in F. Scott Fitzgerald's old neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn., and the strewing of purple petals is a Fitzgerald touch, suggesting elation and mortality all at once, but what is the story here? Is it the story of an older man brooding over a lost love and recalling painful scenes from his salad days and feeling powerful remorse, and then a flurry of blossoms flies up in his vision, like the flurry of leaves that movie directors once used to signal flashbacks, but in this case, it's a flash forward, a sort of absolution? Or is it a sign from heaven that his funeral is just around the corner? I prefer the first interpretation. Life is a mess, we agonize over it, and then we get in the car and go someplace to do something we need to do, and we are showered with mercy and forgiveness. What else can purple blossoms mean? We Midwesterners can remember a slight and hold a grudge for as long as anybody else, but trees don't.

Note to Crouching Tigress who wrote to Mr. Blue last week: There are dozens of men out there who think they would be thrilled to know a woman expert in the martial arts, would find her terribly attractive, would date her, dream about her, might even marry her. Unfortunately, they wrote to me, not to you. But they are out there.

And Mr. Blue's jocular response to the Tigress was roundly condemned by every right-thinking woman in the Salon family and I have been sent to Sensitivity School for retraining where I will recant my wrongful views and learn the correct ones.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm not writing because I don't know what to do. I'm writing because I knew exactly what to do, did it and am wondering when I get the reward.

Classic situation: I'm an older married guy with young kids, working with teeth-achingly beautiful young woman. Flirtation. Exchange of intimate secrets. Frank talk of inadequacy in each other's current relationships. The whole textbook preadultery shebang.

But: Temptation was resisted. Frank conversation with co-worker, she reacts graciously, relationship now altered to bring it within Acceptable Norms. Just good friends. No more secrets. She now flirts with somebody else. I am St. Anthony in the desert, and I have passed the test.

And now ... I'm miserable. She's still here. I'm still here. I go home to disagreeable evenings with grumpy wife, exhausted from spending all day fighting with three kids, eager to vent her frustration on me and upset when I'm not receptive. I miss thrill of receiving Tooth Ache's notes, exciting illicitness of our meetings and sharing of secrets. Find myself morbidly curious about her new flirtation partner. Feel like my heart has been broken, and a love affair ended, except I didn't really have one, can't tell anyone about it and the only thing I can look forward to is my feelings slowly deadening about her until I am once again as numb and loveless as I was before all this began.

So. Mr. Blue. What are the rewards of virtue?


Dear Alone,

Clarity, I suppose, and simplicity and the beginning of wisdom, for starters. Your letter breathes clarity. It leaped out of the mail as the Letter Least in Need of Editing. Also the Letter That Defies Easy Response. I doubt that numbness is your fate and I trust that lovelessness isn't either. You had a clear idea of what you should do and your doing it will help you discern more clearly what is to be done at home. The price of going ahead with the affair might have been several years of terrible confusion and complication, causing suffering to your wife, your innocent children and yourself. Now, instead, you're better prepared to deal with your wife's anger. Whatever you do, don't sit idly and accept it.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My sweet wife of almost 30 years has suddenly announced that she is thinking about a separation. I am astonished and heartbroken, but she believes, or says she believes, that people outgrow a partnership and that divorce is natural and that now that the kids (three) are grown and gone, she is ready for something else. She doesn't know exactly what that is, apparently, but she seems to want to find it on her own. I think we have a good marriage. Quiet, but good. It would kill me to see it end this way. I simply have no idea how to live without her. What can I do to hold things together?

Panic Man

Dear P.M.,

Those phrases you attribute to her -- about outgrowing a partnership -- suggest to me that your wife may have been reading a book or magazine article by a psychologist that has inspired her to think about her discontent. The phrase "outgrow a partnership" has no relevance to actual life that I am aware of, nor does the idea of the naturalness of divorce: It's all some psychologist's attempt to rationalize something painful and troubled and bloody. But that's just me talking. Your wife feels otherwise, apparently. The good thing is that she's telling you what she thinks and feels. You want to keep her talking to you. So try to be calm and listen, and don't reveal too much of your panic and distress, and let her take the lead. If she suggests counseling, fine. But don't crowd her. If she asks how you feel, tell her, but don't argue. The marriage speaks for itself. There is in each of us a certain rage against the familiar, a yearning to overthrow the old regime and change our surroundings and get a new start under a new flag. Your sweet wife may feel that she has spent the best years of her life trying to fulfill everyone else's expectations and now it's thrilling to even be able to speak of independence. As a functioning adult, she has the power to overthrow the regime and she will have to live with the consequences. I think that sympathy and kindness is your best line of defense.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I need some advice. I am a woman, 26, a computer programmer. Two years ago, my only sibling killed herself. Shortly after, I was raped, violently, by an acquaintance. I moved away, got a job at a company and fell in love with it. This last November my mother killed herself, and my dot-com failed as I watched 11 months of hard intellectual work amount to nothing and the man I had fallen in love with freaked under pressure of actualizing a grown-up relationship and split. I found out three weeks ago that the cancer I had at age 15 has returned. Mr. Blue, I know how to take care of myself and I've gotten a decent new job and I am reasonably cheerful and productive -- but I'm tired, tired, tired. Do you think that human existence is a series of bland, vaguely hopeful intellectual masturbations punctuated with naked trauma and suffering? Or am I inviting bad luck in some way? I know that I cannot control random events and can only control my reaction to said events, but I need some hope or validation here, and am curious. What's the point? I only want averageness to relax into. I want renewal and a solid, reliable platform to stand on. What am I doing wrong? Or rather, what could I be doing better? The statistics seem to indicate a trend.

Waiting for Things to Get Worse

Dear Waiting,

Tired -- I should think so. Most of us would be prostrate after this fusillade, hugging the ground, weeping. You're standing and moving forward. That's bravery, not masturbation. You've done nothing wrong, nothing that warranted these catastrophes, so don't look back. Hope is a daily phenomenon, evidenced by our getting out of bed and brushing our teeth and going to work and extending our hearts to other people, and validation you will find somewhere out there in the future. You'll turn a corner one day and know that your life was worthwhile. Nobody can prove it to you, you'll just know it. So -- onward. Check with a doctor about the tiredness, by all means. You know that it's one symptom of depression, something you're surely entitled to. As for renewal, look around you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My first novel was just accepted for publication by a big publishing house and I'm ecstatic -- I sent this to them direct, not through an agent, and they bought it and I just talked to my (new) editor and she's very complimentary -- so I'm walking on air. But on the other hand, I'm reluctant to announce this good news to my friends who are also writers struggling to get their books written and published, for fear I might lose them. What to do, sir?


Dear Quaking,

Start spreading the news. Tell your best friends and let the others hear about it through the grapevine. No need to put out a press release, just say, "Guess what? My first novel's been accepted." That's enough. Send out the invites to the party and make it a good party. Let your writer friends be gracious and generous to you as you would be to them. Let them feel encouraged by your success. Take the view that it's a rising tide that lifts all ships. Be careful not to be extravagant or buy a new car or start talking in a British accent. Don't change your answering-machine message. Stick with your old clothes. If some cranky friends want to sulk, let them. It ain't your problem, and they'll get over it. Your problem is preparing this book for publication and getting something started on the second book.

Dear Mr. Blue,

The love of my life asked if we could put our relationship on hold so that he can work full time on getting his 21-year-old son "back on track," meaning into college and out of the menial job the boy's chosen for himself. He has essentially built a Chinese wall between the three of us. We've been together three years, if you include the last four months of this weird relationship purgatory. Prior to this happening, we were talking about getting married -- which I very much want, and he'd said "we're on the road toward that," as if we're Hope & Crosby. Except now there's this weird plot twist where Crosby has an adult son who prefers sloughing off to college or a full-time job, and Crosby is dedicating himself entirely to this sidetracked Hedy Lamarr and abandoning Hope. (OK, the metaphor is getting out of control. Another sign of my impending insanity.) Normally I'm a self-respecting woman and wouldn't tolerate this, but I love this guy dearly. Do I wait or bail out?


Dear Hopeful,

You wait. Because you love him and because he loves his son. Much can be learned through subplots, so stay tuned, and try to keep your metaphors on a shorter leash.

Dear Mr. Blue,

OK. Here's the thing. After much pain and suffering, my boyfriend of two years and I finally broke up because for the past year we've been commuting between two continents and I just couldn't deal with the goodbyes.

Nevertheless, thanks to cheap international phone cards, we still talk twice a day. I just LOVE talking to him. It feels essential that he know my comings and goings. He's my best friend and my colleague and I don't want to lose him.

Meanwhile, since he left two weeks ago, I've jump-started a relationship with a man who, flatteringly enough, has been waiting for the last two months to date me. I like him. We have fun. He's cuddly and a great kisser. The attention feels great. Let's face it, it's spring -- the flowers are blooming and love, or something that looks and smells similar, is in the air.

The problem is that I can't bring myself to tell my sort of ex-boyfriend that I've already started dating someone else after only two weeks. I haven't moved on emotionally and I don't want him to think I have. I realize that most likely what I'm doing is morally reprehensible. I'm having my cake and eating it too, and it could end horribly with just one honest phone call. And to top it off, he'll be living in the States for five months starting in September. Aak! Is it wrong to want it all? Can I eat half the cake, cover the rest and put it on the kitchen table? Can I wait until a month has passed and then tell him, so it won't seem so ... cruel? What to do, Mr. Blue?

Hesitantly Happy

Dear Hesitantly,

I'm not comfortable in the role of moral paragon offering exempla to others. Maybe you should check with the Dalai Lama on this one. Meanwhile, I could cut you a deal, ethically. You go on with your fling and gradually, in the conversations with the semi-ex, as he evinces curiosity about your doings, you can let on that you are dancing, dining, going to movies, with Mr. Sugar Lips. You needn't go into elaborate detail or characterize the fling, just make semi-ex aware that you are not sitting home with your hands folded. Things will be clearer by September, surely.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been in touch with a woman I dated a couple of years ago, a woman I really love and the first woman in a long time that I want to make a life with. I wrote to invite her to come visit me and three days ago she wrote back to say that she met "her other half" in Nepal and was very happy. We never made any promises to each other, but I was really destroyed by this, picturing her with him. But she says that she still wants to come visit me -- that we never know what's going to happen and she has "raw and unresolved" feelings for me that she'd like to find out about. There are other details, but I wanted to ask: Am I setting myself up for disappointment? Am I a doormat? Is there a "healthy" way to be with someone who is torn between you and someone else? Should I just go back to the U.S. without her and make my own way until she decides whether to be with this other guy?


Dear Churning,

She's not utterly happy and he's not quite her other half (maybe her other fifth) if she's still intrigued with you, which clearly she is. "Raw and unresolved" sounds more passionate to me than "other half." Of course you risk disappointment and who can say what "healthy" means here, but a doormat? No, surely not. Make up your mind that you will be going back to the U.S. without her and making your own way, and, if you are intrigued, let her come visit you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My husband and I have been married for nearly four years and live out West. We love each other dearly and are happy in most every way, but we are struggling with an issue that is causing us much angst, and a few arguments: whether or not to return "home" to the Midwest. Mostly, I feel that I have evolved into a person who would not necessarily be happy living back there. This place better suits both our personalities and interests. But we feel a deep hole where family and connectedness are concerned. We grew up in large extended families with lots of people around offering love and support, and we want the same thing for our children. Or are we just romanticizing it all?

Oz or Kansas?

Dear Oz,

My wife and I faced this quandary when our daughter was born and we chose to leave New York, which both of us love, and live in Minnesota, where I feel more at home and where most of our relatives live. We wanted her to grow up with aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, and I think we did the right thing. Though the extended family is not so strong a notion as it was 40 years ago. People are so much busier, even in Kansas, trying to make ends meet, and families don't cluster in the same way: Family occasions seem more arranged, less spontaneous. It's a noble idea but not as many people subscribe to it. I think that if you consider the Midwest your home in quotation marks, and feel the West suits you better, then you're answering your own question.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have a very close friend (24, same age as me) whose impending marriage is, I feel, doomed to failure. He's created an elaborate web of lies to conceal the extent of an affair he had, which requires daily fabrications on his part. He's admitted that he's marrying her to prove his faithfulness. I feel their codependent relationship is dragging him down. Basically, he can't go anywhere or do anything without her. I fear that he's ruining his life at a young age.

I would normally NEVER consider interfering in a friend's relationship. But close friends of his and mine have urged me, as his closest friend, to intervene. Should I say something? What?


Dear Conflicted,

If the relationship is as you describe it, then your friendship probably isn't going to survive this marriage, so what do you have to lose? Get some allies and take him for a long walk and tell him you think this marriage is a disastrous idea. Tell him that you hate to jeopardize your friendship but that you feel you owe him the truth. And then assume that the friendship is broken, and let him decide what he wants to do.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a freshman in college. One of my classes -- basic writing and argument -- has started a gradual transformation in me and jump-started me out of a depression, made me more mature and able to express myself more clearly. I found my passion, music, again. And now I am thinking about contacting my girlfriend who I broke up with two months ago when I was paranoid, sick, depressed and generally not fun to be around. We parted on good terms. I would like to call her up and apologize for some past actions and see if she would like us to catch up on each other's lives. I wonder if this would be wise. If I do call her, I'm not sure exactly how to go about rebuilding our friendship. What should I do?


Dear Unsure,

Of course you should call her and try to make amends. Start with the apology and then tell her what you've been up to lately and ask her about her life, and it'll soon be clear to both of you whether there's a friendship there to be rebuilt or if the waves washed it entirely away.

Dear Mr. Blue,

At the age of 19, I became involved with a recently divorced man with a wonderful 2-year-old son. My boyfriend had custody, so I put off attending college so I could help raise the boy the way we felt was appropriate. I took off work for doctor visits, waved goodbye on his first day of school, attended parent-teacher conferences and classmates' birthday parties, made snacks, kissed scrapes, read stories, tucked him in every night and became very attached.

Fast-forward four years. The boy's father and I have ended our relationship, and we are each with someone else. He has transferred custody back to his ex-wife because he travels so much, and she does not want me to maintain a relationship with the boy. When I call the boy at his mother's I get a very potent cold shoulder. I can only see him on weekends when his father is in town. I've managed to remain on civil terms with my ex, in order to facilitate this, but that could end at any moment. It's also making getting over our breakup more difficult, because every time I see the boy I miss the family we had. Am I doing the right thing by trying to remain involved in this child's life? I was his primary caretaker for a large part of his young life, and I love him dearly. I don't want him to think that I've stopped caring because his father and I are no longer together. At the same time, I'm not sure how involved I should be in his life, or how much he should see of my new one. I'm not arrogant enough to think that the boy won't grow up OK without my involvement, but I would feel like I was copping out of a commitment I made if I just stopped seeing him.

Lost Mom

Dear Lost,

It's sweet and good of you to want to keep this attachment, but the key person is the boy's mother, not the father. Were you able to become the mother's best friend, then you could maintain a natural involvement in his life. As things stand, you are manipulating your ex in order to hold onto some slight role in the boy's life, and I don't think this is sustainable. And though you have strong feelings for the boy, I frankly doubt that he has such feelings for you. In the brave new world of shifting families and ex-stepmoms and ex-second-stepmoms, the loyalty of small children to the Departed Beloved tends to be rather slender. Your commitment was to his father, and that's over, and where the boy is concerned, you are on a very thin branch. And there's nothing you can do about that.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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