I could have had celebrity sex -- but I stuck to my principles

I fell hard for a high-level business leader -- until she abruptly turned off the charm.

By Cary Tennis
Published January 8, 2007 12:12PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am a career chief of staff to university presidents. As a "profession," we're an interesting group of folks who, in various colleges, hold Ph.D.s, MBAs, law degrees and a variety of other professional credentials, and come from within universities, government and industry, but strive to serve the logistical, organizational (and sometimes lobbying, advocacy, diplomacy, etc.) needs of college chief executives. (I'm a middle-aged man if this makes any difference.)

One of my duties is to manage visits of high-profile visitors to our campus. Throughout my career, I've met dozens (maybe more than 100 or so) of world leaders, celebrity executives, heads of state, and have had fleeting conversations with them, enjoyed their presence while they were on campus. I don't think, however, that I've ever been star-struck ... until last year.

In the course of my professional duties, I hosted a midlevel business leader and newsmaker, someone who's not a celebrity, exactly, but whose name and accomplishments most Americans would know, or know of. This woman was on our campus for all of eight hours, and by the end of the day, the conversation between us (between her meetings, main remarks, classroom visits) became rather personal and intimate (in a destiny/fate/meaning-of-life sort of way). I almost never step out of my professional box, and somehow this woman disarmed me. As soon as I realized it was happening, I tried to withdraw, to remain professional ... And then she asked me out to dinner. And I probably shouldn't have said yes. But I did.

And there were several bottles of wine at dinner, and we had a great time, and at the end of the evening she invited me up to her room. And I politely declined. There was a kiss goodnight, and up to the elevators she went.

The next day, I got a witty and charming e-mail from her. And the witty banter ensued for months, even a year. And in that year, she started dating someone seriously (another high-profile newsmaker), and I started dating someone seriously, and we shared stories, and had a failed attempt to get together when we were both visiting the same city.

And then the e-mails stopped.

A great, almost-year-long chain of witty, fun, flirty, intellectual e-mails about life, dreams and goals (not for us, but just in general), and discussions of law, academia, the government ... and they stopped.

And I e-mailed her a couple times, over a few months, and no responses. And then a one-line: "Lots going on. Hope you're well. <>"

And here I am, a middle-aged professional male with a great job, a great life and a great significant other, and I'm completely crushed. Crushed because I was enjoying the conversation. Crushed because I thought I got to see the real "inner self" of someone who was in the media constantly. Crushed because, even though I loathe Paris Hilton, I proved to myself that celebrities (or famous non-celebrities) can be real people, and can relate to the rest of us. Crushed because I feel like I lost a friend. But mostly crushed because I'm disappointed in myself for thinking it was a friendship and disappointed in myself for believing that I could sustain it. Crushed because I got a [platonic?] crush on a near-celebrity.

So, with a great job, great life, great significant other, how do I move on from my celebrity e-mail crush/friend?

Crushed

Dear Crushed,

First: You handled it marvelously well. You could have made a real mess of things, but you were a gentleman and a professional, and you made the right call. Your actions reflect well upon the institution and, if your superiors were to learn of this, I would hope they would be pleased.

But the ongoing flirtation itself had to end as well.

Perhaps aided in her reflections on corporate ethics by last year's Hewlett-Packard scandal she realized that no executive could take her privacy for granted. So she did a coldhearted inventory. She looked for anything that would reflect poorly on her, or could be misconstrued or used against her. She saw that her e-mail flirtations with you had to end.

Not only was it potentially damaging to her corporate image, but she may also have decided that, professional or not, it was disloyal to her significant other.

In breaking it off, she could not explain why it had to end; such an explanation itself, if it came to light, might indicate there was more to it than there was. The only thing to do was adopt a suddenly aloof posture and pretend nothing had ever even almost happened.

It would be reasonable for her to expect that you, accustomed to working with people in the public eye, will decode her actions and understand them.

My guess is that she too has regrets. These regrets you and she can share in silence, knowing that each one understands what had to happen.

Getting over such a loss is hard work regardless. I hope you will avoid self-recrimination, as you behaved well. Of course you miss her. Of course it will take time. It was a friendship; you are not wrong there. But it was not sustainable. Allowing yourself to believe that it was sustainable may have been your only error.

Interestingly, had you slept with her, it might have ended right away, brutal and cold. As it is, you had a year of marvelous correspondence.

In one similar instance, I advised quite boldly: "Go to her. Go to her and find out for sure. Get an answer." That would not be appropriate here. There's no mystery. She has someone and you have someone. It was more than a friendly correspondence: It was a romantic flirtation.

I also have addressed the question of how to deal with the feeling of loss that follows when a love can seems to switch off so abruptly. I argued that the healing process involves coming to revere what you had: "Some people never have it," I wrote. "You had it. ... That fact will never change. And when the hurt begins to subside, as it will, no matter what else happens, you will still have it, this memory, this priceless thing that belongs to you."

That's what I'm thinking in this case.

I also once said this: "Something died," I wrote. "What died is this thing that you and he had been keeping alive, this wonderful thing that was not you or he but a luminous third being, whose breath was your breath, whose blood was your blood, whose being was like filtered starlight that came through your bones, a twinkling thing that would catch your eye, a twinkling thing that came with a tune, like a tune you hear in a dream that seems to mean everything."

And what I advised her to do, and what I would advise you to do, is what you pretty much already know: You had an amazing thing happen. Stuff like that doesn't happen every day. Cherish it.

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