Fighting off fantasies

Encounters with strange musicians, married women and old boyfriends are part of the joys and exquisite frustrations of life.

Published December 11, 2001 8:43PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm 45, getting divorced, and have stopped wearing my wedding ring. I was on business in a Manhattan cafe, drinking coffee and writing. I fell into very pleasant conversation with a pretty woman writing at the next table. It's been 13 years since I saw stars like this, but I thought I saw a twinkle in her eyes. I know I was twinkling all over.

She's a musician. She wrote down the URL for her band and gave me her e-mail address. My question, because my dating skills are out of date, is simple: Is getting an e-mail address at all like getting a phone number? That is, does this indicate romantic interest or just a wildly inefficient one-on-one marketing scheme?

A Fragile E-Mail Ego

Dear Fragile,

Without knowing more, it's hard to tell what she had in mind. The wonderful thing about e-mail is that it's a little less intimate than the phone, and thus one can be a little less discriminating in giving it out. It's much easier to delete a message, or filter it out, than it is to screen phone calls. But it's impossible to know why she gave it to you. Did you give her any reason to believe you might be able to help her in her efforts to market her band?

Oh, heck, it's ridiculous to speculate. If you have her e-mail address, and you want to get to know her, send her a note. Get to know her. Tell her how much you enjoyed meeting her and suggest that you two get together next time you're in the city.

May I make one concrete suggestion? You are probably too sophisticated to do this, but just in case: Do not forward her any funny Internet jokes.

Dear Cary,

A while ago at a reunion party for my prep school I remet a woman I had not known well during school. There was a strong and instant connection between us, and over the course of the night there was some serious flirtation going on. I guess in a way I thought I had found the perfect girl.

The end of the night was sort of odd -- she came back looking for me but I didn't ask her out or anything because of one reason: She's married. I've thought of her since then; we've even e-mailed a couple times back and forth, very formally. And we have said hello to each other through other friends. I'm torn because I do believe in the sanctity of marriage but at the same time it seems like it could be a very good thing.

Recently when I was speaking to some of her friends they have dropped her name, in passing but with emphasis -- like, "You know I talked to X the other day." Should I e-mail her or ask her out to lunch or something? Or do you think she would only want an extramarital screw?

Don't Wanna be a Cheatah

Dear Don't Wanna,

Lunch is the business meal, taken at that hour of maximum daylight when night-blooming buds are tightly rolled. Perhaps that is why a lunchtime quickie has such a delicious air of transgression. It may also be why a meeting with a married woman with whom you are contemplating an affair is best conducted over some soup and a sandwich at an unassuming cafe, perhaps outdoors but nowhere explicitly romantic. You want to preserve the option of innocence. So invite your old prep-school acquaintance to an innocent lunch and ask about her kids and her husband.

You say you believe in the sanctity of marriage but at the same time you think it could be a good thing? So what kind of life do you want to lead? Would you like at age 53 to look back and sigh with relief at all the dangerous passages you negotiated with sure-footed wisdom? Would you like to shake your head and laugh at all the damage you could have caused but which you avoided, all the temptations you were able to resist because more than all other things, more than satisfying your curiosity, you wished to minimize the pain and chaos that you spread in the world?

Or would you like to laugh uproariously at the husbands you cuckolded and the women you slept with and strung along ... or who strung you along with promises that they were leaving their husbands, or -- and this is the most confounding result of all -- who found that having a nooner with you in a little motel out on the access road to the airport gave her a kind of marital renascence; that it was just what she needed to get her life in perspective and renew her hunger for her husband, leaving you -- who thought she was the one -- breathless and shocked, like a man flogged so hard he can't breathe.

With all due respect to a few vocal polyamorists, unless this married woman explains to you how lovely her husband thinks it is that she has the occasional fling with an acquaintance from prep school, I advise you to refrain, and in general to be consciously conservative in your choice of bed partners. You'll have much less explaining to do later.

Dear Cary,

I have been sporadically involved with the same man for over two years. We have a very passionate relationship that seems to heat up too fast at times, causing one or the other to decide that it can't go on.

We recently broke up for five months, but after he moved 800 miles away, he called, things were rekindled, and there have been several visits in just three months. We have not, however, discussed what is going on. There are "I love yous" and "I miss you desperatelys," but no clear commitment to anything.

Now there is a man that I suspect wants to ask me out, but I don't know if it's fair to the still-burning flame living far away. Should I discuss it with him before accepting a date? Am I obligated to tell him at all? Is it fair to go out with a man when you are deeply in love with another man?

As Confused as a Possum on a Highway at Night

Dear Confused,

I am often baffled and pitched into despair by questions such as yours. But I also want to applaud, because a life without the erotic explosions of terrifying power to which you allude would be bland.

I don't blame you for wondering what is right in such a situation. People may disagree with me, particularly when I say you should have sex first and talk later, but I think telling a lover that you're thinking of going out with another man is a form of covert torture; it also seems dishonest to me. That is, it seems a perversion of the roles you have agreed to play. You are not hot for this guy because he gives good advice. It's not fair to ask him what he thinks you should do. To cast him in that role is disloyal to your passion. It might destroy it. You have to decide this without involving him.

If you decide to go out with the other man, and what happens between you changes the material nature of your relationship with the first man -- for instance, if it changes what he can expect from you, or if it introduces the possibility of your giving him some sexually transmitted disease -- then I think you have some obligation to tell him. But if it changes nothing material in your relationship, and you don't have to tell him bald-faced lies to conceal it, then what obligation could you possibly have to tell him about it? And what good would it do either of you?

You have the right to a private life, and you do not have to explain yourself to others, but you should try not to harm others and not to spread disease.

You have to decide. But bear in mind that some ways of deciding are better than others. Decisions based on long thought and all available information are usually better than decisions based on a thought that alighted on you like a butterfly. One of the great, enobling acts a human can make is to sit in a room -- a church or your bedroom, it doesn't matter -- and take detailed, exhaustive stock of your situation. Do an accounting. It helps to do some writing, make a list, get things on paper: Where in this relationship are you living up to an ideal of yourself, and where are you doing things that make you cringe? Where does the relationship make you soar, and where are you doing things you're ashamed to tell even an advice columnist?

Here are some other things to consider: You say you've ignited a thing that is beyond your control. You say that it heats up too fast sometimes, "causing one or the other to decide that it can't go on." What goes into that feeling that it can't go on? Are you obsessed with each other to the point that you're having sex in public? Do you hit each other and then cry alone in your bed, screaming into a pillow things you could never say to anyone? Are you shooting heroin together? Do you get so drunk that you can't go to work for two days? If you are suffering harm in the course of being with this man, the relationship may be just a blunt instrument you're using to beat yourself senseless.

So, please, assess your relationship carefully and decide what you're going to do. And then do it, and stop driving yourself crazy.

Dear Cary,

Why oh why are old loves so hard to forget? Nearly two years ago my boyfriend, who I had felt sure enough about to dream of marrying, broke up with me. I was devastated of course and spent several unhappy months trying to get over him. I decided to move 2,000 miles away to Seattle (which was actually a dream from childhood). As it turned out, a couple of months before I left we got briefly back together with no intention of carrying on after I moved.

Now, a year later, I am seeing a wonderful man I adore. We have a fantastic time together, are deeply attracted to one another and I have found myself loving the little things: the way he snuggles with me in bed; the way he looks when he dances in the car to music he likes; the moles on his back. Unfortunately, in a month I am going back home for a visit and I find myself thinking about my old boyfriend more and more. We keep in occasional touch and I plan to see him while I am home. I have caught myself fantasizing at work about the first time we kissed, and remembering the happiness I felt when he showed up to see me unexpectedly.

Sometimes I look at my current boyfriend and see only the old one. I feel uncomfortable and upset. Maybe I should not see my ex while I am home (though I am not sure that is possible given our many mutual friends). Obviously I cannot share this with my current boyfriend, who I think fears this very thing, but aren't I being unfair to him by thinking these things in the first place? I am starting to believe that if an intimate occasion arose with my ex then I would jump him without regard for my current relationship. Help! How do I banish these thoughts from my head?

Unfaithful Dreamer

Dear Unfaithful Dreamer,

Why are old loves so hard to forget? That's a good question. Is it in the design of the human nervous system? Is it because it helps to organize societies around child-rearing if people tend to remember who they fucked? Is it because we become physically aroused at memories of good sex?

Neurologists probably have fascinating things to say about this, as do poets. And why should it torture you so? There's nothing wrong with having these thoughts. You don't have to do anything about them.

Maybe the problem isn't what you might do, but how you feel about what you might do. Maybe you could adjust your beliefs about right and wrong to fit the thoughts that go through your mind. Is it wrong to fantasize about an old boyfriend? No. Would it be such a crime if you saw him on your visit? No. Why not enjoy your thoughts, let yourself off the hook and decide what you want to do with your ex once you see him.

Dear Cary,

I have been dating my boyfriend for three years, and we plan to marry. (I am 22 and, though very mature compared to my peers, still young and in no particular hurry. He's 30.) He is a very kind, thoughtful and affectionate man; we get along splendidly and are generally very happy.

The only problem is that his heart was broken many years ago, and he is certain that he'll never be able to really love anyone again (although in the same breath he can say that I'm wonderful and he adores me). This makes me terribly sad. I wonder if I'm cheating myself by staying with a man who I know can't love me.

On the other hand, I think that mutual respect and admiration (which we have in abundance) are just as important for building a lasting relationship. Furthermore, if arranged marriages can work out, I'm sure that we can choose to be happy. On top of it all, I feel guilty for being so upset over this one issue when really I am luckier than most: He is faithful, reliable, considerate, etc.

Thanks for any insight you might have.

Unloved but Comfortable,

Dear Unloved,

The heart does not break like a vase. That the heart is a device capable of love until it is broken and then it never works right again is foolishness. That just doesn't make sense. So what is he really saying? He could be saying that one never feels about anyone the way one feels about that first love. This fact of life may make him sad.

He may be saying that he feels insecure about the intensity of his love, or about his ability to express it. Or he may be saying that he doesn't really love you. If he doesn't love you, it's not because his heart was broken.

Love, the kind that tingles your scalp and makes you want to shout, is worth looking for. It can be found. So I think you are cheating yourself to stay with a man who doesn't love you. I think you have to tell him that though it makes you very sad, you have to leave him, because you know he doesn't love you, and you need to be loved. Maybe you didn't realize that you deserve to be loved, so let me tell you: You do.

Dear Cary,

Is it possible to regain someone's trust once you have lost it? If so, how? See, I've been with the same woman since high school and I love her so much it hurts. But our relationship has had its problems through the years (I'm now 25).

A little more than a year ago, we both had our bouts with infidelity -- me with a co-worker, she with a neighbor. We both felt horrible guilt and eventually admitted our wrongdoing. It was hard, and we struggled, but eventually we both made up our minds never to feel disconnected from each other again, which is what we blamed the whole episode on. I wasn't being attentive; she was aloof and appeared too busy for me. We started communicating more and everything looked bright.

We fell in love again and became engaged, but recently she has made it clear she doesn't trust me and hasn't forgiven me like I have her. She has admitted the fact that I'm much more attentive now, but what can I do? I love this girl and want to marry her, but it is very depressing having her distrust hanging over my head as a constant reminder of what I did. Please help.

Trust Me

Dear Trust Me,

Is trust and forgiveness the only issue here? If she's just still mad at you, that's one thing. But she might be trying to back out. Did she say, "You're the only man I love, I very much want to marry you, I'll always love you but I just need to get over this little trust thing"? Or was it more like, "I don't know if there's a future for us, I just don't trust you anymore"? Could she be saying, "I just don't love you anymore"?

You have to find out which it is. You really have to know if she's still crazy about you. Don't ask her if she wants to break up. Ask her if it would make her happy if you two were married. And then think about what she tells you. Does she have to think about it? Would she tell you the absolute truth, or would she try to spare your feelings? You can't expect people to spell it out for you. Not everybody is that brutal. Try to figure out if she's telling you the absolute truth, or if she's trying to hide the truth from you. If she's hiding the truth from you, if that's what you feel, that can't be good. That means that the real truth is painful.

You have to go over it within yourself to decide. And then you have to come to a decision. If you really feel that it isn't right, you're going to have to move on. You're going to have to face the fact that this great love of yours since high school is over.

But if she really loves you, then you're on probation. You're going to have to rebuild her trust. How do you do that? By being constant as the North Star. By always showing up, by never being late, by making your life an open book. If she's worth waiting for, then it's worth enduring the period of probation. Besides, it's not a bad way to live.

By Cary Tennis

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