Last week I attended an academic conference to which I'd invited a longtime friend I know mostly through correspondence. We met in the flesh once, three years ago, but have kept up a warm, if intermittent, conversation by e-mail. She is married, with children, and I am married, but no kids. Right at the beginning of the week she confided to me that her marriage was drifting, that her husband seemed increasingly alienated and indifferent to her. I commiserated with her over this, offering mostly useless advice. As the week progressed we spent as much time together as we could, at lectures and over dinners and lunches. A definite erotic tension was building between us that was as bewildering as it was unexpected.
We have a lot in common, since our academic work focuses on the same subject. It's not an enthusiasm either of our spouses share and they often complain about it so that each of us feels lonely and frustrated in our relationships.
Midway through the week I decided I needed to see less of her. However, I found that I could not stop thinking about her and by Friday, when I saw her again, I felt fairly smitten. We attended a conference-ending party on Saturday, our last night together, and when I dropped her at her motel I kissed her, but was unable to bring myself to say what I was feeling. It was a profoundly bittersweet, confusing and ecstatic moment and now that we're both back in the safety of our domestic situations we have written to each other more openly about how we feel.
We've agreed in principle to keep the status quo and let this blossom into a beautiful friendship, but nothing more, which is certainly the smart thing to do. I'm afraid I may not be able to hold up my end of the bargain, though. She tends to be more cautious than I am in this discussion, wanting, quite rightly, to protect herself. But I recognize as well the need not to blurt out every feeling I have about her since the last thing I want to do is ruin our friendship or drive myself insane. I'm also aware that the more we talk about it the bigger it threatens to grow, whatever this "it" is. We're both afraid to put a name on it, it's so new and powerful. It just feels incredibly right to be with her, even though it's impossible just now, but I don't know if it's love at work here, or just the byplay of erotic imagination and the intense exchange of shared concerns and ideas (themselves erotic) in a hothouse conference setting.
I've been married for 13 years and have never been in this situation before. It's deeply troubling and painful. I keep thinking it will burn itself out, but I find it impossible so far not to keep thinking about her in a romantic way. How do I keep the friendship I cherish so much without falling headlong down the rabbit hole?
Confused and Forlorn
Dear Confused and Forlorn,
Right after Alice went down the rabbit hole, they put a handrail around it to keep people from falling headlong into it. You have to grab the handrail firmly because when you look down into that rabbit hole it makes you a little dizzy, which is maybe how Alice fell in to begin with. It's dizzying, how the room beneath the earth expands into a space of intoxicating luminosity, and you can hear that crazy red queen screaming, "Off with her head." You don't want to go down the rabbit hole. So you grab the handrail and hold on for dear life as you feel the pull of the underworld.
The handrail is made of inflexible decisions harvested especially for that purpose. It feels rather rigid and uncomfortable at first, but understand that it has to be that way; more flexible materials don't work. People feel the flexibility and get lulled into relaxation and next thing you know they're letting go and disappearing down the hole. So the surface of the handrail around the rabbit hole is dry and almost like sandpaper; it's a little painful to grip it tightly, but you'll get used to it.
It's rather crazy the way this next part of it works. You'd almost think you'd already gone down the rabbit hole when I tell you this paradox: There's only one handrail, and yet the handrail for each person is different -- it's made of different materials for each person. For instance, for a gambler who doesn't want to go down the rabbit hole, the handrail is made of the firm and absolute decision not to ever gamble on anything.
For the man who doesn't want to wreck a mother's marriage, the handrail is made of the firm and absolute decision not to kiss her again. Maybe we'd better make that: not to touch her again, not even a handshake. So much electricity can travel through a handshake: She could get a shock and be temporarily blinded and then you'd both tumble into the rabbit hole and you'd never know what hit you until you woke up in a motel outside Cleveland.
Once you've got a grip on the handrail, you don't have to worry: You can have storms, floods, ice, snow, rain, wind and you'll get through it all. After it passes, you and she will be like two people who went through a blizzard together at the airport, playing cards all night on the floor at Gate 13, getting to know each other but not in any kind of dangerous way, she knowing she's got these kids to get back to, you knowing you've got this wife you don't want to dishonor. Just hold on, even though the handrail is dry and sandpapery and hurts a little bit at first.
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