I can’t say for sure whether I would have fallen in love with my ex if he hadn’t been married at the time, but I do know that his status as taken gave him a unique allure. Unlike other people I’d dated, he wasn’t free—his time was constrained, how we could communicate was constrained, and the extent of how far our relationship, such as it were, could go, was clearly drawn. There was no grand future with him—at least, not the happily ever after, introducing him to my friends, building a life together kind of future.
Yet even though there were red flags waving all over the place, I was drawn to him. That was seven years ago, and in hindsight, I know the attraction was based on personal chemistry, whatever mysterious mix of compatibility and connection any two people can share. But the other part was the very thing that might have kept other women away: his marriage.
The fact that he could be with his wife—for companionship, for discussion, for dates, for sex—but chose to be with me, brought out something I’m not proud of, but that I can’t deny: it made me feel special. I didn’t call or text him, lest she see our communication, so when his name popped up on my phone, it was even more thrilling because I knew he was alone. I knew he’d taken the time specifically to go wherever he needed to go to get in touch with me. Even while I was jealous over how much time she got to spend with him, it still meant that the time carved away just for me, limited as it was, I valued higher than attention paid to me by those who were totally unencumbered.
All this to say: I understand the allure of being pursued by someone who’s taken. On the surface, they’re seemingly off limits; to the wider world, they are officially ensconced in a happy relationship. If you look on their Facebook page, it probably says they’re in a relationship with someone, and photos of the two of them are likely plastered all over it. You might find their wedding announcement in the paper if they’re married, or references to them as a pair, from their friends. Maybe they have a cutesy couple nickname like Kimye, or are simply thought of in one breath, as if they are literally inseparable. They are a unit—yet you are the one who knows something that the rest of the world doesn’t.
That’s why the toe sucking in Julia Anne Miller’s recent New York Times Modern Love essay makes perfect sense to me. In it, she writes of sharing a taxi cab with a coworker, who announces that he’s engaged, then confesses to her:
“There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.
“My fiancée won’t allow it.”
“What is it?”
And then he unveiled his heart’s desire: to suck a woman’s toes before he resigned himself to a life without quirk. He spoke of toes in general with reverence and earnest passion. He spoke of my toes in particular: their contours, shapeliness and perfection.
She goes on to detail said toe sucking, a blissful, rapturous encounter for him, which didn’t do much for her. What stood out to me was that even though she hardly knew this guy and having him suck “on each toe as if it were the leg of a tiny crustacean and he was after the meat” wasn’t her fetish, she went along with it. Why? Because he played on her heartstrings. He made her feel they had something in common—she was going for what she truly wanted in life by living in her dream city, New York, and so was he, by asking to suck her toes. No, in this case it wasn’t a mad, rip-their-clothes-off attraction, but it was, perhaps, something more universal: that he was misunderstood. His grand erotic dream was being denied at home, but she, out of all the other women in New York, might understand, or at least, not judge.
Miller writes of the proposition, “I thought of all the times in my life I had said no. All the roads I had never hitched, all the chances I had never taken, all the lips I had never kissed. And I thought: New York is not about no. New York is about yes!”
Miller saw something of herself in her coworker, but to my reading, she also saw herself elevated in his eyes. When he told her of his “one thing I’ve always wanted to do,” he was including her in something that, presumably, was deeply personal, not something he told just anyone (although we find out later in the essay that wasn’t exactly the case).
He successfully beckoned her into a seemingly us against them vision of the world, or at least, of their stolen moment in the cab. She alone held the key to giving him what he most wanted in the world; who amongst us wouldn’t feel a rush of pride and power at being presented with such an opportunity? Indeed, Miller states, “I knew that if this were to be his final act, he would die happy.” That’s quite a potent aphrodisiac indeed. He was offering her the power to gift him with a level of erotic fulfillment even the woman he intended to spend his entire life with would not concede to provide.
Her decision to let him suck her toes, to be the one to help fulfill his long-time fantasy, is the converse of why those in relationships have affairs—physical or emotional. Betty Andrews detailed her reasons for going on cheating hookup website Ashley Madison as a married woman—and they weren’t about getting laid. The banter she engaged in with someone new led to feeling “little bursts of dopamine activate my neurons during our online chats when I should have been working, playing a game with my son, or going to bed on time.” For her, it wasn’t about sex, but “the novelty of someone else. The intensity. The escape. The possibility. The falling …” She got off, virtually speaking, on the rush of doing something forbidden, and therefore risqué because it was forbidden.
Similarly, for me, and I imagine, for Miller, there was an element of being put on some kind of pedestal, especially one I wasn’t, by official standards, supposed to be standing on. There was never a single sex act that drove our affair, or a specific request or action I was told he was being denied in his marriage, but the sensation of feeling gifted with his furtive attention, helped fuel my own perception of myself. Just as Miller’s coworker was choosing her, selecting her out for reasons known only to him, so too was I being chosen.
Maybe it sounds obvious to say we all want to feel desired, to feel unique, to feel like we can give our lovers, temporary or permanent, something they can’t get from anyone else. But that doesn’t mean we don’t fall for it, even from someone the world tells us is off limits. (Modern Love spoiler alert ahead.) Why else would the kicker to Miller’s tale be that any lingering sense of specialness wore off the moment she found out that not only did the toe fetishist’s fiancée not exist, but also that he’d gained access to another coworker’s feet to suck on?
Even though Miller insists that she didn’t feel duped, that instead, she “felt a tiny bud of admiration bloom in my heart” because he’d been so audacious as to work his lusty line on another woman, this revelation made his con utterly fall apart. In his case, there was no pedestal; but it was a verbal mirage that clearly worked, more than once. He was able to get women who otherwise wouldn’t have been interested to slip off their shoes and slide their feet between his lips because he made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: the chance to be the most special woman in his woe-is-me world. I imagine that in the right circumstances, many of us, even those who’d like to think we’d never cheat (or engage with a cheater), would fall for such a plea.