I think about him often these days, sometimes with an overwhelming intensity. When he enters my mind in a flash I'm sure that he's sitting somewhere in Finland thinking, momentarily, of me. For how else to explain the sudden presence of someone I haven't seen in nearly 20 years? Why, for no apparent reason, does this memory unmoor itself from layers of lived experience?
It was a cliché, of course. Sex with a married man. Why not? I thought. I was in my 20s. One crushing love had walked into my life, wreaked emotional havoc for a few years, and walked out. I'd had my share of fleeting adventures and shaggy-dog boyfriends. Still, I'd never felt true physical passion. I was essentially a good girl, a serious girl, unaware of the weight of marriage; unaware that it was precisely the confines of the box itself, on some level, that made our relationship work.
He made the first move. Which was ballsy, considering we worked for the same company and he was my superior. It was the 1980s and a putative politically correct culture was blooming in companies all over America. He could have easily gotten fired or sued. But he wasn't American. He wasn't hostage to the rules of a Puritanical culture so foreign to his own.
It started this way: We were working late at the office one night. Leaning over a stack of files I said, I'll be in big trouble if I don't finish this project on time. And he said, Not if you're my lover. How impertinent of him, I thought in the moment. But later that night when he invited me to dinner, I accepted despite a flare that had just ignited in a quiet, cautionary burst.
He was the CEO, wore dark suits with impeccable ties, and came from Finland, where men swam in polar seas and held their liquor. There was a remote, appealing otherness about him that was vastly different from the world of jocular good old boys who worked at the office. Until that moment everything separated us -- language (his English was quaint, stilted, continental), age (he was at least 15 years older than me) and a corporate hierarchy that kept him in a world of upper management and me in a world of weary junior executives and aspiring university recruits. Until that moment I was unaware of any sexual interest on his part, though perhaps I was simply too young to interpret the subtle innuendos of a man who'd lived and loved a lot longer than myself.
A slow-brewing seduction played itself out at the dinner table. Here now was a potential new life unfolding for us both, a surprising and private vista of sensual possibility to mitigate the relentless tedium of the corporate grind, a reminder that behind the stage set of management props unexplored personal lives were waiting to be mined. When he escorted me to my car and said, I want to kiss you, a silent battle ensued between brain and body. Do it, body implored. Don't do it, brain reasoned. Yes. No. You only live once. Stop while you're ahead. Feel. Think.
Body won. His mouth, soft and full of promise, was like warm bread.
These things are usually simple. He followed me to my apartment. It was a tiny place near the sea. When I left that morning I didn't think I'd return that night with my boss on my arm. The bed was unmade; there were dishes in the sink. My mind pored over these mundane details as we walked up the stairs and not over the essential facts: that here I was, getting ready to have sex with my boss. Sex with a married man.
At the time wedding bells weren't high on my personal agenda and being married was an abstraction, something a little bit hokey that other people did. Married with kids. Somebody even made a sitcom out of it and a whole nation laughed at the queasy predicaments of marriage and family life. Engulfed by the centrifugal force of our working world -- an all-encompassing universe that dwarfed everything around it -- it was easy for me to forget that somewhere, wearing a nightgown perhaps and reading in bed, his wife was waiting for him; his kids, two blond toddlers who'd occasionally come by the office, were sleeping.
What a body. I reveled. For underneath the ungainly padding of the three-piece suit the man was all raw muscle and animal. He was Harvey Keitel in "The Piano," Charles Atlas without the camp; unfazed and at home in his own nakedness. He was also the first uncircumcised man I'd seen, and his genitals hung there like an exotic fruit, with the startling full-bodied dangle of a horse dick. I was absolutely not ready for this.
It was passion that I'd never known before. It was overwhelming, too. For he was drunk with pleasure in a way that defied the act itself, as if in making love he might siphon something off me: youth, a salve against the imminent waning of his faculties, some sort of deliverance to a place he once knew long ago. It didn't dawn on me until that moment that sex could be more than just carnal pleasure, that it could be laced with longing, steeped in a desire to hold on to lush freedoms that inevitably dissipate with the passing of time.
We did it as often as we could. He got a little reckless. He'd pull me into his office, kick the door shut. His secretary kept her eyes on her keyboard but her eyebrows were raised. She knows. I know she knows. He didn't seem to care. Or at least he denied the possibility. No, she doesn't. She's clueless. He threw me on the table where a pile of annual reports were stacked. They went flying. It was a perfect metaphor for the pressures of the go-go '80s and our manic shareholders: Fuck you. Quite literally.
Familiarity breeds contempt, or so they say. But must it always? We'd been having an affair for several months when I began to wonder: Why the adultery? Had he given up on his wife? Did they still have sex? "Sometimes," he replied, a bit warily. Which meant? I didn't press on. That night he did something that I've never seen since: In a paroxysm of desire he brought himself to pleasure in front of me. I sat there, leaning against a tower of pillows, taken by his total lack of self-consciousness. What was this source of rapacious sexual appetite? Plying the depths of his own capacity for pleasure, how deep was the well? How many women had accompanied him on this carnal journey? I put the questions aside, however, and our relationship continued to sate me in thick, abundant ways.
A year into our relationship I finally met her. His wife. We were at a corporate retreat. Spouses welcome. She was tall and pleasant. With lederhosen and braids she would have been a buxom Heidi. I said hello, shook her hand. For a moment I imagined them both in bed, intertwined. I didn't feel jealousy; instead, I felt a discomforting intimacy as if, in making love to her husband I had, by extension, made love with her.
And in some ways I had. We were sharing the same man and the same body, never mind that there are multiple versions of the self that we parade in public or reveal in privacy: Husband. Lover. CEO. Father. It wasn't until I had seen him in his own domestic habitat for the first time -- an immaculate place filled with big windows, matching furniture, photos of wistful family moments -- that I felt the pull of marriage. While I couldn't articulate it at the moment, I realized that in anchoring him to its comforts and constraints, his domestic life gave him the very energy he needed to defy it.
Without the sex, what were we? We were lovers but not in love. We were intimate friends and co-conspirators in an illicit life that could not exist in the full light of day. When I walked into his house for the first time, my love for him was annulled by the family love inhabiting his place -- an enduring love jumbled with kids, shopping lists, vacation plans, the stuff of life. And so when he led me outside to a lounge chair in his backyard and unbuckled his belt, I felt bereft. Of what? Years later I understood that I felt bereft of the very hearth and sense of home he seemed to have here; of this place he disappeared to on weekends while I wandered in my apartment, trying to have a life without him. He stood there, looking dismayed. What's wrong? I made something up. We spent the afternoon drinking iced tea in tall glasses and didn't say much.
Was this the beginning of the end? We had been together more than two years, but all things come in cycles like weather. And so, bundled in the atmosphere now, were the first intimations of change; the slow realization that no matter how much one can surrender oneself in the act of merging sexually with another person, inevitably we all return here: two people, divided by domestic lives and personal circumstance.
Shortly after visiting his home I grew tired of living the life of an impostor; months later in a tempestuous moment of restlessness, I left the job. We kept in touch by phone while I established myself as a freelancer. More rapidly than I would have imagined, the corporate world faded away. When we met at a bar weeks later I saw him for the first time in a new light: An older married man, trapped in a life with his corporate baggage, his big libido, his wife and kids. There was a sadness in the man that I hadn't sensed before. Had it always been there, eclipsed by our sexual encounters, masked by the longing to transcend the constraints of domestic life and corporate pressures?
He wanted to resume our relationship, to pick up where we'd left off. After all, we were lovers but we were also close friends, confidants. Nothing had changed for him. But I'd set my wheels in motion and even as he sat there, leaning over a cocktail and straining for a sense of connection, a part of me had already departed for good. I felt both heartless and heartsick and said goodbye, not knowing if I'd ever see him again. And then a strange thing happened: In the blink of an eye, 20 years passed.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Our relationship lived, quite literally, in another century. I'm married now with two kids of my own -- two luscious creatures who are, in some respects, the glue that keeps our marriage together. My husband and I are no longer green with youth, and our relationship, like most other marriages of 10-plus years, is underscored by both love and compromise. My libido is largely subservient to this enterprise called marriage, with all its far-reaching tentacles. I want to want it -- sex with strangers, the thrill of new encounters -- and yet do I have the sang-froid to handle the emotional havoc it might create? Is there something wrong with me? Should I be pining away for renewed lusts and extreme sensations? After all, an entire industry is dedicated to helping an aging nation keep it up. In all these questions, the simple, basic fear prevails: that my marriage and family life might fall apart like a house of cards if I let the floodgates of passion break open with another man. That there would be nothing left but a rickety foundation on which to rebuild any semblance of what was before.
It's been two decades since I was what some might call a mistress (though the very word evokes a grown-up sophistication that belies my youth at the time), and yet the seamless way he navigated between the world of marriage and adultery will always stay with me -- a reminder that things are often not what they appear to be and that in our quests for new passions we're willing to take extraordinary risks with familiar and steadfast relations. There's also, on the fringes of memory, the sobering thought that perhaps I will never experience that same level of passion we shared so long ago, in a world that seems almost picturesque in retrospect.
These days I sometimes yearn for the delicious freedoms of youth and am struck with the poignancy of how fleeting everything is, despite how family life pins one to the wheel of life. Is it any surprise, then, that the memory of him should hit me now? He must be pushing 60; his kids are all grown up. What is he like? Does he still have affairs? Is he feeling the same poignancy of time passing swiftly, of passions reassembled as age asserts itself, with or without grace? I wonder if this very second he's looking out a window at a frozen Finnish lake thinking momentarily of me, as I wheel down a sun-scorched canyon in California with a wagon-full of kids thinking, momentarily, of him.