There is this friend I know—well, okay, a client—and she found herself attracted to a co-worker. She was not-so-happily married and he was having some trouble in his career. Well, it wasn’t just any work, it was at a university, you know, where boundaries like this are crossed all the time, in the name of intellectual freedom and the pursuit of knowledge.
She and this faculty member flirted, how lonesome people do, and they had certain things in common, cultural and social interests, that could have perhaps turned in to productive contributions to the fields that they were in. They were both in their mid-forties. She was an administrator—lower status, higher security, and he was a non-tenured professor—higher status, lower security. Still, it seemed like they could legitimately help each other around campus.
They enjoyed meeting together to discuss projects involving things like literature and film and gender and culturally rich foreign countries and revolutionary times gone by, those humanistic things that are hard to quantify and depend upon taste and intuition more than reason. The conversations and messages sometimes drifted away from the central topics.
At first, she thought that he might be a good match for her newly divorced colleague, and she tried to get them together for coffee, but he avoided. The colleague was offended, and shrugged it off, “maybe he likes you,” which hadn’t really occurred to my client consciously. But once the idea was introduced, it was increasingly hard to ignore.
My client had been feeling neglected in her marriage for some time. She was a caretaker by nature and circumstance, and medical issues had been complicating intimacy with her husband for several years.
The woman and the professor were relatively restrained when physically together. He sometimes hugged and poked at her, rather like a child does to get its mother’s attention, which flattered but annoyed her—she asked him please to stop, which he mostly did. She flirted with him by showing off her outfits and showered him with praise and attention. They talked with lots of energy and emotion about intellectual and social subjects and surprised each other a lot.
Their e-mails held innuendo, but never crossed the line of directly expressing strong feelings for each other. They ended messages with phrases like, “I envy the married life.” “I envy the single life.” “You’re wonderful. I need someone like you.” “I need people like you to tell me I’m wonderful.” Maybe it was scientifically predictable: her biological clock screaming, his fear of a lonely old age attacking. She didn’t allow herself to seriously entertain that the attraction might be mutual. Still, she started re-reading classic literature, theology, and psychology about desire, morality and mortality.
It seemed to her that it was not so much a physical attraction, but an emotional one, perhaps aesthetic, possibly even spiritual. She felt both protective of him and stimulated by his company. They liked sharing books to read and DVDs to watch, and other things to see and do. They shared concerns about their job security and their professional ambitions and their futures. There was always some legitimate action to take to move their projects forward to justify interaction.
Everything might have continued in a manageable way indefinitely, but, of course, complications arose. The professor invited her to some of his academic events, which she attended and enjoyed and felt special and exposed to wonderful things that interested her. He got some internal funding for one of their projects, which shined favorably on their efforts, but they did not get the external funding they applied for. He went away for long periods at a time, and sometimes didn’t return her messages. He seemed to be bored with his work, coasting a bit, and very frustrated with his colleagues, although he claimed when she asked directly that his long-term plans were to stay where he was.
Somewhere along the way, a growing frustration of not being freely pursue the things that really interested her, personally and professionally and artistically and creatively, began to engulf her, along with her feelings for this fellow. She started drinking too much and dwelling on thoughts of him and her frustrated ambitions and this was causing problems in her marriage and distancing her emotionally from her husband.
My client felt that there was a certain fundamental support lacking in her marriage, which involved a long list of past perceived slights, physical and intellectual and emotional. In the dozen years they had been together, these deficiencies weren’t particularly new. They ran like an undercurrent beneath a thick layer of comfort, a commonality of effort to get through the chores of daily life with grace. Eventually, her husband confronted her about her strange behavior. She was self-absorbed, but not particularly selfish, so when she realized how she was hurting her marriage, she backed off. Still, she wondered if her strong feelings for this fellow were all in her head, and kept trying to sort out what exactly it was she did want, what was this desire, and what was it for, and believe that it could possibly be for the good. She wanted to know the truth about how this other fellow felt. She wanted to know what her feelings for him meant.
Suddenly one semester, this non-tenured professor’s contract was not renewed. Officially this was because of economic reasons plaguing many language and humanities programs across the United States. However, ugly campus gossip mentioned something about “professional misconduct.” Maybe it was his drinking, she thought. He loved to boast about how much he could and loved to imbibe. But could it possibly be something about a student? A female student?
They both liked to say outrageously offensive things, but she had taken it mostly for joking: not for some kind of real issue with abusing women. “Women aren’t better, we’re equal.” “No they’re not,” he'd quickly quip. "But don't worry, you're one of the boys."
It was tempting to instantly dismiss him, his credibility in question, but who was she to judge, when she herself was so unfaithful in her thinking and struggled with depression and substances herself? He did not seem violent or predatory: just rebellious and afraid of commitment, and in a strangely compelling way, slightly wounded. She just simply liked him. And missed him. And pitied him. And wanted to take care of him. And wanted to be taken care of, too.
Me, I don’t know. I’m a genderless sort of being and I’ve never been in love. She isn’t really my typical assignment. Although, I have to say, the feminine parts of me were intrigued by her reccurant slumbering dreams about him: of freckles on his shoulder blades, the obscure books stacked by the bedside, the confessions of eternal love during simultaneous orgasm while his face was painted like a tiger from a kid’s birthday party. She dreamed of tumbling together in a commercial dryer, climbing up from murky lily ponds through giant blushing flowers, and a final goodbye smile tossed through revolving library doors.
We all have a basic need to understand and be understood. Even me, I'm no better. Love itself is an infinite mystery, and to call this particular experience love is probably an exaggeration. The two barely even knew each other. Still, she imagined knowing his heart’s true story would be a key to understanding her own unresolved pain, and her untold stories could be the key to solving his. To know fully, and be fully known.
And so, in a seedy campus bar at happy hour, not unlike this one, she met alone with him. He had a pitcher of beer: he poured her a glass; she declined. After some fun and quite witty general banter, she brought up the ugly gossip, to which he quickly gave a protesting-too-much explanation: a female student’s retaliation for a rebuffed offer of sex-for-a-grade that seemed vaguely plausible but suspiciously incomplete. He asked if she believed him, caught like a buck in the headlights. She said she did, although she wasn't sure.
Eventually the professor took the leap. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I want you to run away with me." It hit her like a bullet, the longing for escape, the crazy idea he tossed at her like a bomb was more beautiful and bigger than anything she herself had imagined. Words tumbled out uncontrollably. “If I wasn’t married, I would.”
“In the morning, I will convince you to leave you husband.” “You can’t do that. I love my husband.” She was stubborn. She made a promise. Marriage was her duty. She couldn't live with herself if she left her husband. "He needs me." “Then bring him along,” said the professor, backing off slightly, with a vulnerable, self-deprecating twinkle in his eye, which, even then, made her laugh.
"It’s wrong," she sighed. “It’s fate,” he said, caressing the back of her neck with firm hands. “Fuck fate...fuck God,” she said, and instantly regretted it.
Knowing it was already over, she asked him urgently to tell her who had hurt him so deeply that made him hate women, and he said, “I’ll tell you some other time,” but this would never happen. She would never know the truth. Their pain would never fully be resolved.
The evening ended abruptly. He slipped away when she was in the bathroom, for her to return to make dinner for her husband, yet alone.
At first she was relieved that there might indeed have been a shred of something mutual. But the situation, upon reflection, grew increasingly hopeless, like the swelling feelings of confusion about life and love and marriage that were plaguing her overall. An appealing relationship that seemed mostly constructive and harmless, at the very least simply fun, became something threatening and ridiculous and manipulative and very, very sad. Why does God let love happen when it should not or cannot be expressed? She read Proverbs 31.
She decided to come clean with her husband, with whom she kept no secrets. Oddly, when convinced that nothing physical actually happened, the husband simply said, “it’s no big deal.” They did not discuss it again.
In the weeks that passed, every time she thought of the professor, she imagined releasing a red helium balloon up into space that might someday find its right and proper place, settling on the ground and grow flowers, or candy, or books, or babies. And she prayed for forgiveness for her own failings and frustrations and mistakes. She tries each day to look at her practical, thoughtful, limited husband with compassion. And this is helping her let go.
It was a very common human thing that happened to my client, and indeed, I believe much of it happened only in her imagination, projections and fantasy, as she is the type of person who lives mostly in her head. But I have to say, every time she was with him, she got this kind of youthful excitement that I haven’t seen in her for years. It was useful, I think, for her to realize how trapped she was feeling, and how desperately she wanted to escape from the routine life she was struggling so hard to live with gratitude and humility. And try to learn how to really love.
I want my client to learn to be happy and stay with her husband. I want the husband to be more loving and better loved in return. I want the professor, who despite the warning signs seems basically a decent sort of fellow, to find his dream appointment and a dream woman, too. But he is some other angel’s problem.
Like my client, I want to believe that it was, on some level, a “big deal,” that there is a beautiful and purposeful meaning out of this exchange beyond embarrassment and frustration and pain and suffering. However, that hope itself might be unhealthy, an attachment towards a falsely found positive, so it too, like a red balloon, must be released, with awesome respect for the vast unknown.
I'm only a guardian angel. I’m not omnipotent. At best, influential. But, I wasn't always there for her. I didn’t see this coming, not at all. I was better on the battlefield: you should have seen me, killing demons by the gates of Heaven! With massive human overpopulation, the celestial workload has increased. It's all I can do to record their deeds for the book of Time.
Gimme another drink, will you?
I try to protect them. I really do. But they never listen to a word I say.