Torn in two

I love the man I said I would marry, but I'm haunted by a man I had an affair with when I was 21.

By Cary Tennis
Published March 25, 2004 8:09PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

A few weeks ago my boyfriend of five years proposed. We've had an on-again, off-again relationship, spending as much as a year and half "on a break" -- seeing other people, living in different cities. But even during that time, we talked on the phone every day, visited each other, comforted each other. We were apart on 9/11, both seeing other people, but he was the first person I called. Now, we've lived together for a year and a half, and it's been trying and wonderful. So when I returned from a week away on business, and saw him glowing as he waited for me at baggage claim, I wasn't surprised with what followed. I could spend the rest of my life with him and couldn't imagine another man fathering my children. I said yes. What a blissful moment. And now I am completely terrified, afraid that I am still in love with another man.

I haven't seen this man in five years. Our relationship, a summer fling when I was a senior in college and he was a young and newly married instructor, occurred over seven years ago. It ended badly. He's still with his wife, I think they have kids. I know in my heart it was a fling but, my god, I cannot get over what I still believe was the strongest emotional, intellectual and sexual connection I've ever had with another person. We had the same background -- poor smart kids from messed-up homes who fought to get where we were. He wrote me poems and left wildflowers on my doorstep. Together we read continental philosophy and threw popcorn at the screen of pretentious movies. We showed each other all of our scars. If he called me right now and asked me to run away with him I'd be out the door in a flash -- I'd be his mistress, I'd give up my career, my house, my dog. I know that what I had with him was not healthy -- it was one-sided, destructive and obsessive.

I also know my boyfriend is patient, understanding, funny, caring, loyal, forthright and 100 percent in love with me. What complicates matters even more is this is not the first time this has happened. Preceding our longest time apart, my boyfriend and I were about to move in together. I told him about this other man, and about possibly still having feelings for him. My boyfriend took this as a sign that I was opening up to him, that this was something we could work through. I said I needed a break. And I spent a year looking for someone like my old fling, unsuccessfully.

What should I do? For the past five years one man has given me pretty much everything I've needed, and wants to plan a future together. I can see that future and it seems soft, and comfortable and loving. Sometimes the choice seems clear. But how do I give up longing for something I've only known once, when I was 21, something that felt so much like true love? Or should I start searching again? I don't want to end up 35 and divorced from the person I now consider my best friend, I don't want to have affairs, but I don't want to end up 35 and regretting that I threw away my best shot at making a home, a life, a family, and having someone to grow old with.

Torn in Two

Dear Torn in Two,

I think you know what to do. It's natural to be uneasy with such a big decision.

Perhaps it will help if you realize that your experience as a senior in college was a singular event. The very qualities that made it memorable also made it singular. You will never be a senior in college again. You will never stand on the precipice of the world like that. You probably recognized at the time that you were leaving a place, never to return, and that no doubt sharpened your feelings. Nor is it irrelevant that your great lover was a professor there. After all, you were being born into the world, and he was there not just as lover but as midwife to your adulthood, as a guide, as father, peer, teacher and lover all at once. That's a volatile mixture, erotic surrender combined with moral transgression and intellectual enlightenment; perhaps you felt a euphoria of multiple recognition and mirroring: He was you and you were he in so many different ways! But it was a lover's drunkenness, too; if you tried to sustain it, you would pass out and wake up sick.

One of the things addicts do -- and believe me, this is my nature I'm talking about -- is we have a peak experience and we try to stay up there. Instead of letting it pass and contemplating it with awe from a distance, instead of feeling the bittersweetness of the world's fleeting joys, we want to keep eating the candy. But you can't eat that much candy. It gives you a stomachache. Peak experience isn't something you can absorb continuously like a morphine drip. It's a peak: a pointed thing that pierces the clouds, a rarity, a wonder, a place from which you can view the world. It's an amazing place, but you can't stay there; there's nowhere to sit, and nowhere for your friends.

So you take your chances down here on earth with the rest of us. The question is how to live with that memory and the nagging doubt that there's more to life than what you've chosen. But that's one of those huge questions we all live with. You need to decide: Do you want to get married, or do you want to remain single? You have to accept the uncertainty in either choice. You have to accept the destruction of innumerable possible futures with every step toward the actual. That's just the way it works, and I can't tell you which to choose.

The way our society is currently organized, you can either be single or you can be married (or living together, i.e., married but not married). Each choice involves loss. You weigh what you lose and what you gain, and you deal with how you feel. Some of what you lose is impossible to gain -- that is, what you feel you're losing you couldn't have anyway. You feel you're losing a lifetime of what you felt that summer. But you couldn't feel that for a lifetime. You could only feel it that summer.

All these thoughts, and some recent correspondence with a friend in the East, remind me of the spirit of evanescence that is found in Japanese and Chinese poetry. It is a spirit antithetical to the spirit of the industrial West, where we try to capture such experiences and reproduce them at a profit. But you can't bottle what happened to you. You will have other intense, enlightening, mind-bending experiences, but each one will be singular and unforeseen. It's only the addict who thinks you can keep getting that same high. (I suppose therein lies the link between addiction and mass production.)

You have to choose. If such intense, short-lived experiences make your life worth living, then stay single. But keep in mind that whatever you make routine will no longer be spectacular: No sooner do you try to build in such peak experiences then their peaks become rounded. This is true because a good part of the peak experience involves surprise and discovery. That summer with the professor, you discovered things about yourself. Now that you know those things, they will no longer seem new, and you will no longer be drunk with astonishment. Such is the price of knowledge.

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Cary Tennis

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