First post. I won't do this very often, but somehow I wanted to put this out there. Forgive the length.
Committed relationship is not really my strength. I’m terrible at being a girlfriend. I’m worse at being a wife. (I have two ex-husbands who will back me up on this.) I don’t cut a guy a lot of slack, I don’t settle for some mediocre imitation of a marriage, and I really like sleeping alone. I don’t fall in love easily, and I’m not the type to let her guard down. Ever.
Even so, I broke into a clammy sweat one day when I looked across the table during a business meeting and realized I was in love with the married man sitting across from me. I blanched, and immediately tucked that piece of information into a tiny crevice of the “deal with this next year” area of the brain. I looked down at my legal pad and took notes, I tried to listen. I took a long, slow breath. He continued, unaware that my emotional tectonic plates had shifted.
There were so many problems with the situation I hardly knew where to start. There was the fact that if you followed the organizational chart just the right way, he was my boss. There was the fact that I was in a fifteen-year relationship that was – in almost every way – exactly what I (thought I) wanted. There were children, ethics, and emotional angst to be considered. There was the small matter of his wife, and the fact that he was notoriously upstanding and by even Gandhian standards persistently beyond reproach. It was a hopeless cause.
I was head over heels. Totally gone.
Sometimes, when he passed my office on the way to meeting with my supervisor, he stopped to say hello. My heart would pound in my ears as he stood in my doorway, and I would make some friendly comment about how snowy it was or how the Minnesota Twins were doing.
One day he summoned me to his office for an unknown reason. Mimi, his secretary, called and asked if I could come up there immediately. I wondered if my face or manner had betrayed me. I wondered if he was angry. I whispered to Mimi as I walked by her desk, “Am I in trouble?”
“I don’t think so,” she shrugged, and motioned to his door.
He made a gracious gesture toward a chair, and closed the door behind me. We spent an hour on a staffing issue that he wanted me to handle. (Whew! No feelings in sight.) We discussed possible solutions, various possibilities and I thought about what it would be like to unbutton his shirt. As he earnestly suggested some staff changes, or policy adjustments to address the problem, I wondered what it would be like to sit reading by a fire, snuggled on the couch together. I thought about turning the covers down and climbing in with him. (Did I mention that I like to sleep alone?) I thought about hot sex, and I thought about holding hands. I smiled a lot. I nodded. I kept calling my head back to the conversation so I could respond like a smart person.
We ended the meeting with a plan for making some changes to the hiring process that would probably fix the problem. He opened the door and shook my hand, thanking me for coming on so little notice. I did not ask him whether we might elope, and he did not indicate that anything of the sort was on his to-do list. I went back to my own office and tried to work on the plan we had agreed to. I practiced writing my first name with his last name. I was in junior high again. I was so in love I could hardly eat, and sometimes I would forget to breathe. Two months later he took a job across the country.
I wept for weeks. I walked miles, holding my grief a complete secret from friends and especially from my partner. I went listlessly into work every day, widowed in some inarticulable way, never having shared my feelings with him or anyone. Life crept in and filled the cracks, the sadness receded and I marched through the months and years, only occasionally wondering whether I made a mistake in not telling him how much I cared. I moved to Seattle, and there was nothing there to remind me of him.
Fast forward eight years. On a rainy morning getting ready for work, I was vacantly brushing my teeth with CNN on in the bedroom. I heard them say something about the very staffing issue he and I had discussed so many years ago, and then his voice. His voice. I shuffled into the bedroom, pink terry slippers shh-shh-shhing as fast as I could make them. There he was, on that tiny screen. My friend/boss/could-have-been lover. (They were questioning him as an expert on the subtleties of human resources.) His voice filled my ears. It bounced around my head, washed over me and, like that widow suddenly coming across a long forgotten videotape of her husband, I cried. His voice. I reached out and touched his face, leaving toothpaste on the T.V. glass. Then just as quickly as he had appeared, he was replaced on the screen by Donald Rumsfeld who was saying, “… we also know that in conflicts things that shouldn’t happen, do happen.” I sat down hard on the bed. Tears followed my chin and dropped off onto my bathrobe. Some old, forgotten ache seeped into my muscles. I rode the bus staring at my reflection in the dark, rain spattered window. I felt like I had the flu.
I did what any reasonable person with the flu would do – I emailed him. I used my old, “How ‘bout those Twins?” tone and said I saw him on the CNN interview and what a great job he did of summarizing the issue. I asked him how he liked his job; was it what he hoped it would be? I refrained from asking whether he missed chatting with me in the hall, or had he ever considered putting his hands under my skirt. Once again I failed to suggest that perhaps we might elope. I hit ‘send.’ Eight years is a long time. I wondered if he would remember who I was.
He emailed back and said he was delighted to hear from me. He thanked me for my note and asked how things were going for me. He said things were going well for him and he liked his new position very much. He asked whether he could have my office phone number so he could call if he were ever in the area, and we could have coffee.
Coffee!! Wherever I had finally packed away those feelings was no longer holding them. I was suddenly in freefall again as if it were this morning that he had stood in my office doorway. Dammit. Where did that come from? The man mentions coffee and I’m ready to have his children.
He did call, about a week later. He was attending a conference in Vancouver, would I like to have lunch?
I could see him again. Oh. My. God. “Yes,” I said, “I’d love that.” We discussed the details and I put it in my calendar. It was three weeks away. Three weeks of writing my first name with his last name. Three weeks of thinking about what it would be like to have his hands on my face, my neck, my… well, three very long weeks. I was still in the same relationship. He was still married. Lunch. What harm?
I drove to Vancouver shaking. I could hardly answer the questions at the border.
“What are you doing in Canada today?”
Retrieving my heart? “Visiting a friend.”
“How long will you be staying?”
As long as he will tolerate talking about the weather or until I’ve exhausted the dessert menu? “Just for the afternoon.”
For some reason they let me in and I drove on, telling myself I was ridiculous. He hardly knew me even back then. Why would it be different now? We would have lunch and I would leave feeling like an idiot. He is a married man and I am as good as married after all these years with my partner. I am torturing myself in this masochistic fashion for what? To stare at him across the table and discuss baseball? Or maybe the likely weather forecast? What was I doing? Who took my brain?
I pulled up at the restaurant and checked myself out in the rear view mirror. Eight years older. I jabbed at my hair. I put on some lipstick. I closed my eyes and took a breath. What if he didn’t recognize me? What if this were just awkward and we really had nothing to talk about? We had only ever had meetings, all business. He was a man who had never so much as taken a paper clip home from the office, where did I think this could actually lead?
This, I realized, was a very bad idea. It was up there with driving drunk or unprotected sex. I just hadn’t thought about the consequences. Maybe he remembered me as a bright colleague, and now he would see me for the dolt I am. Or maybe he just wanted to talk about hiring patterns, and wanted to use me as a sounding board. It was too late to cancel. Well, there was always the chance that seeing him would actually squelch my crush forever. Yes, perhaps that.
I thought about the time I looked up a college boyfriend and we had lunch after not seeing each other for a decade. I realized by the end of nacho appetizers that he was mean-spirited and really not all that attractive. Then he asked if I was on an expense account and would I be paying the check? I never thought of him again. Maybe this would work that way. Have a little grilled chicken, talk about the Twins sucky season, decide he was supremely undesirable, end of story. Okay, I could do this.
I dropped my keys into my purse and looked up and he was coming toward me. Not the movie star, man-of-your-dreams type that most women go mad for, but a pudgy Italian man with an open, guileless face that was smiling at me as he extended his hand. Oh, dear. Was the car vibrating or was that my heart again. Shit.
“So wonderful to see you!” he was shaking my hand hard, like he was priming a pump. “Did you have trouble finding the place?”
“No,” I said, noticing how warm his hand was in mine. I wondered if my own was clammy again. “Your directions were very good.”
He made the same gallant gesture toward the restaurant that he had made offering me a chair in his office that day years ago. I stepped ahead of him and up the stairs. It was a sports bar/restaurant and the host was a youngster about my daughter’s age. He was wearing an Oilers jersey, and asked us if he could get us started with drinks. I declined, as did My Colleague, and we were left alone at the table with the hockey game playing across the room. I watched a skater with a large red maple leaf on his jersey slap the puck into the net. Score.
Now if this were a movie My Colleague would reach across the table and take my hand. He would say something like, ‘I’ve waited all these years to tell you something. I have loved you from the first moment that I saw you. I am hoping you are free. I want to elope.”
Well, okay, the dialog would be better, but that would be the gist. I smiled awkwardly and looked at the menu.
“Selke,” he cleared his throat. “Thanks for having lunch with me. I so enjoyed working with you back in St. Paul. And I have to admit that there’s something I want to tell you.”
I looked up. Had I ever noticed before that his eyes were brown? I don’t think so. He was tracing the soccer ball pattern in the napkin.
“I was your boss, and I was married. You were always the picture of professionalism.” He sighed and looked down at his water glass.
“This will seem foolish, I know. But do you remember a day when I called you to my office to talk about, well, I forget what it was about now.”
“It was about how we should advertise and recruit. We disagreed about what to put in the ads, and how soon to let new people work alone.” I was staring now. I couldn’t help myself. What? What?
“God, yes, exactly! How do you remember that after all this time?” He looked quizzically at me.
Maybe because it was the only time I was ever alone with you in your office and because I wanted to elope. Maybe?
He continued, “Anyway. I was not in the habit of calling colleagues into my office. My secretary was a bit surprised when I asked her to call and have you come down.” His hand was playing with his butter knife. He was shaking and the knife was making little tappy noises against his glass. He looked down at it and set it back on the napkin. “Selke, I’m not sure why I am telling you this. It’s just that when I got your email I jumped about six feet out of my chair. I was…”
Uh oh. He was staring at me now. He looked anxious, as though he expected me to bolt. Truthfully I was thinking of it.
“Are we ready?” We both startled at the waiter, his pad poised in hand to take our order.
“Um, do you mind giving us a few more minutes?” I think I smiled. It may have turned into something like a grimace, though, because the waiter squinted and looked at me out of the side of his eyes.
“Suuure...” He tucked the order pad into his black apron and walked toward the big screen TV.
I looked back at my companion. “You were…”
“Oh.” He looked scared. Like a child about to get a shot. “Selke, please don’t hate me.”
“I could never hate you. Were you going to fire me?” Where did that come from?? Shut up, Selke and let the man speak.
“Oh, dear. No. Not at all. No.” he could see I was waiting. Then, in one breath, “It’s just that, well, I wanted to marry you. I was in love with you. I wanted to tell you everything, but I lost my nerve. I mean, I’m a married man. Unhappy, yes, but married."
" I just fell so hard. So fast. What could I do? I wanted to go home with you. I wanted to curl up on the couch with you. I wanted to take you to bed and I wanted to hold you in my arms and I wanted so desperately to …”
I was mesmerized. I thought I might be dreaming. He was actually saying everything I wanted him to say. In the same bad dialog. It was all there.
“Oh... well,” I reached toward him.
“No, let me finish.” He took my hand. He held it tightly and kept time with it, pressing it rhythmically on the table as he spoke, “I loved you. I wanted you. And there was nothing to be done. Nothing. I was a coward. And I am still a coward. But there it is.”
He was crying now. He kept my hand and picked up his napkin with the other hand and wiped his eyes. The creases around his eyes were deeper than years ago. I wondered how old I looked to him.
“I had no idea.” I wasn’t sure what to say. “I loved you too. I still do. But I’m married too. Or at least in a common law sort of way.”
He peered at my face as though it would answer his questions.
I whispered, “Why didn’t you tell me.”
“I was afraid. I was afraid that I would leave my wife. Or that I wouldn’t. Or that you would hate me or find me ridiculous. I don’t know. I called you to my office to tell you, and then we talked about the hiring thing. I wanted to spend every moment with you. I wanted to put my head in your lap and talk for hours about whatever came into our heads.”
Holy Mother of God. Where’s a good script writer when you need one? Right about then I wanted to be Meg Ryan. I wanted to tell him that I was free now, that we could be together. I wanted to take him back to my hotel and undress him. I wanted to climb into his arms and never leave, not even to pee. I suppose that would have gotten disgusting after awhile, but I wanted to cling to him like that famous rhesus monkey clung to the terrycloth monkey mannequin. I probably looked just as forlorn.
I took his other hand. He was sobbing now. I nodded as though I understood, which I did, mostly. I said, “Why are you telling me now?”
“I had to. I don’t know. Your email unhinged me. I still think about you all the time. And when you emailed me it all came back. It was too much. I wanted you to know.”
“Do you want to be together?”
“We can’t. Or rather I can’t. I know that’s not fair, but I just can’t. I want you more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my life, and I can’t. I’ve been so unhappy. For years it was okay. Sad, a little, but okay. And then I met you and it seemed as though maybe I could be happy. I thought, ‘maybe I could have twenty years with this woman.’ But I was basing it on nothing. We never so much as had coffee together in all those years of working together."
"Selke, I have never cheated on my wife. Never. Never so much as a flirtation. But then, this. You. God, what could I do? I would arrange meetings with your supervisor just so I could go by your office and say hello to you. I started watching Twins games so we could talk about them.”
He stopped to get his breath. I watched his fingers interlaced with mine. I squeezed them.
I said, “So let me see if I get this. You are telling me this after all these years so that I can know you loved me? You don’t want to be with me, or see each other or something?”
I was trying to process his ‘confession.’
“I can’t. I want to, but I can’t. I know it’s unkind. I offer nothing in all this. I can’t leave my wife. I could never do that. I am a coward. But I love you.”
I closed my eyes. Oh, man, this was hard. “I love you too. I have since the first time I met you, and I will until I get Alzheimer’s.” I took his left hand in both of mine. “Would you like to get drunk and have one evening of, well, whatever?”
“No. I’m not a drinker. And as for, um, I don’t want one evening of, well, whatever because I would not be able to leave. I would not be able to go back to her and look her in the eye. It’s hard enough to ache every day and not be able to talk to you.”
“Yeah. I get that.”
The waiter, seeing all the crying and hand holding and desperate whispering was wise enough to keep his distance.
Eventually, though, we ordered something. We ate off each other’s plates, we held hands, we talked about all the ways we had tried to see each other at work without being obvious.
He told me about his job. He told me about his marriage – all of it. The good, the sad, the lonely; the children, and the longing. I told him about my partner, my girls, my medical writing work, and what it was like to love someone who was barely a fantasy, and yet so much more.
He got that.
We talked for five hours straight. Right through the dinner rush. He never let my hand go. Or maybe I never let his go. I’m not sure.
In the end he walked me to the car. He kissed me on the mouth. A sweet, gentle prolonged kiss. He cried again. He thanked me for driving up. I thanked him for inviting me. And for telling me. I said that I hadn’t been sure how much of the conversation I could have held up with baseball chat. He laughed. Or sobbed. I’m not sure.
We emailed desperately for a couple of years. I still have about a thousand of them in a “Him” folder. There were several eager, heartbroken phone calls. He never changed his mind. He apologized for telling me that he loved me. He said he just needed to tell me, but he thought it was harder on me than he expected. Harder on him too.
We have stopped emailing. We do not call each other. We both think about reading on the couch with each other. We both think about making love and holding hands and waking up entangled in each other’s arms. We never tell each other these things, but we know the fantasy belongs to both.
I suppose he is right. I suppose this is the best way. I feel like Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County when he watched Meryl Streep turn that corner in the red pickup, sitting next to her husband. I know I won’t see him again. And I know we belong together.
I cry in the shower usually. And I walk for miles whenever I can. I still like to sleep alone, and I’m still not much of a girlfriend. I still think we should have gotten drunk and had an evening of, well, whatever. He and I disagree on that one for the same reason – we might never have been able to let go.