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SIDEBAR THE AFFAIR

How it started, how it ended, how it changed me-one woman’s story.
By CLAIRE JOHNSON |

Crawling out of the trench of a long and disastrous love affair is a painful process. You return to what you hope will be a happier landscape, one that you think you will recognize from the life you lived before your descent. But nothing is quite the same. And you’re not the same either. Now you have to figure out why it happened. Maybe you begin by explaining how.

IT WAS SUMMER, A YEAR AGO, AND IT WAS TOO HOT TO move, at least outside the air-conditioned office. Too hot M to think about crossing the melting asphalt, climbing into an airless oven or’ a car and driving to a crowded restaurant to buy an overpriced sandwich.

So we ate most of our lunches in the lunchroom, and we all got to know each other.

My favorite lunch partner was Luke. He was only 26, right out of the womb of graduate school, and he amused me. Luke liked to have fun, and he reminded me of what life was like before children, before mortgage payments, before nanny taxes, minivans and 10 o’clock bedtimes where I’d stare at the ceiling and worry. I worried a lot that summer-about whether it was time now, in these last few years before I hit 40, to have the third child I thought I might want. About why I though I might want another child when I was finally getting somewhere, though maybe just closer to the glass ceiling, in the big advertising agency where I slaved every day, all day to make the money that seemed to go straight to my nanny. About how my busy investment banker husband and I barely seemed to have time for the two children we already had, much less time for each other.

I had a nice four-bedroom house in Preston Hollow, a closet stuffed with cute clothes, a gold card and a Tolling. Life was easy, but it was not fun anymore.

Luke reminded me of the delicious irresponsibility of life before I had a husband. Luke was, in fact, the great “anti-husband.*’ His career path was uncertain, and not yet encumbered by the duties of pending promotions and partnerships. His biggest problem seemed to be the laundry that spread like algae across his bedroom floor. And he talked a lot about sex. Fun sex. In the beginning, the day-to-day business of his life seemed to have nothing in common with the mind-bending trivialities of mine. He didn’t have to track down baby sitters or wonder if a workaholic spouse would make it home for dinner.

But as we got to know each other, I learned that Luke and I actually had a lot in common. We came from similar backgrounds and had attended well-known, expensive colleges where we had pored over the poetry of William Carlos Williams, learned to tap a keg at parties and developed a certain amount of cynical distrust for the real world. We both loved to talk and loved to laugh. We felt enormously comfortable together from the start. Pretty soon, I was calling my husband and he was calling his girlfriend, and we were telling them about the project that just had to be done and wouldn’t get finished unless we worked on it late-late-late, and then we were staying up together at the office in the quiet and intimate time when the rest of the world was sleeping. and we were curling up on a couch, intended for important clients, talking about a million senseless and oh-so-important things. Like how we loved photography and architecture but hated sushi. Like how maybe people should have to carry IQ cards instead of ID cards. How we felt about our parents, politics and O.J. And why office politics sucked.

Sometimes in our talks Luke would catch my eye and look just a lit-de too long. His brown eyes were soft and deep, and his gaze made me wonder if I had put on too much make-up or not enough, if he liked my new jeans, if he noticed me looking back.

One afternoon, when we left work on time, we were slogging our respective ways through maddening rush-hour traffic. I was worrying about what awaited me at home: hungry kids, tired nanny, messy house. I looked up and saw Luke in the next lane. He smiled and blew me a kiss. It seemed a bold move, and it made me wonder. Was this more than a friendship? Did he want a kiss? Did I?



I’M NOT THE KIND OF PERSON WHO MAKES A LOT OF MISTAKES. I WAS valedictorian of my high school class, captain of the cheerleading squad and homecoming queen. In college, I played intramural field hockey, tutored underprivileged kids every Wednesday and wrote a thesis my advisor loved. I married a smart man with a steady career who I knew loved me as much as any human could, and then I built a strong career myself, while taking time to be homeroom mom for both of my kids, teach Sunday School every week and throw a big party each summer for the handful of Dallas students who in the fall would make their ways to my alma mater as freshmen.

Kissing Luke, I knew, would be a mistake. But pretty soon it was all I could think about. And one day I did kiss him, in the elevator, when I’m not sure he was expecting it. Still, it was a great kiss. His lips were soft but firm and opened just enough so that our tongues lightly touched. It was the awkward and elating kiss of eager adolescents who had grown up and learned how to do it right. As the elevator slowed, we moved apart and I laughed and said I was glad that was over. Now the tension between us could subside.

But it wasn’t over, of course, it was just the beginning. A week later, standing on the melting asphalt of our buildings parking lot, I stood less than one foot from him. My lip began to quiver because I wanted so much to kiss him again. Suddenly I realized I was talking, though I hardly recognized my voice. I told Luke that I wanted him, that I wanted “to make all his fantasies come true.”

The next Saturday morning, I told my husband I had to work. I drove to Luke’s apartment, and we made love.

It was, as Dickens once wrote about more important events, the best of times and the worst of times. The age of darkness and the age of light. We were falling in love. Passionately.

When I wasn’t with Luke, he was all I could think about. I lay awake at night longing for his firm, warm body that wrapped so beautifully around mine. I borrowed one of his T-shirts, and I slept in it because I wanted to smell him, to feel him near me.

The sex was good right from the beginning. But then it became incredible. When I was with him alone 1 felt, simply, unleashed, We made love once on die floor of the office after everyone had gone home. We did it during the day, standing up and with all of our clothes on, less than 100 yards from our co-workers in one of our building’s empty offices. We did it one night in my car, in a parking lot while a vagrant watched from across the way. We began to meet every Saturday morning at his place while his girlfriend went to a class. He started sending me notes during the day telling me that he wanted me- and how he wanted me.

One Saturday, we made a vow. This was fun, but it wasn’1 serious, If it ever got serious, it was over. That was one of the first big lies we told each other. Because it got a lot more serious, and quickly. I fell in love not only with Luke but with being in love again, with the level of intimacy we shared, I realized that I had fallen out of love with my husband, and in one teary moment, when he asked, 1 told Luke that I was lonely at home, that 1 was jealous of wives who were in love with their husbands.

Luke reminded mc of the best girlfriend I’d ever had, who would lie awake with me half-dressed on summer nights in her backyard tent and talk about bow, school and sex. Luke and I spent hours even’ day just talking, and if my husband was working late, we’d talk all night. We became best friends and told each other all our secrets. One day. he even took me to the house where he grew up and he showed me where he’d learned to masturbate on the bathroom floor. And on Saturday mornings or early evenings, while my husband, or more often the nanny, watched my children, we’d meet at his place, take off our clothes and make love for hours at a time. Then we’d hold each other, watching college football on television, reading magazines and exploring every tiny cell of our bodies.

Somewhere along the way, lie broke up with his girlfriend. And I became completely hooked. It got to the point where every time I heard his voice it made my hear! beat a little faster, and when I saw him 1 felt like someone suddenly grabbed my lungs. We felt like we existed on a special plane, so that we could be in a room full of people and feel just us. One day I drew a picture, a diagram of our lives. It was a kind of New Age thought about force fields and energies that tried to explain why this all felt so good and hurt so much. When I first thought of it, it seemed to make sense, but when I showed Luke the scribbly page in my notebook, I was embarrassed by how silly it looked, He didn’t laugh, though…he grabbed my pen and continued the drawing as if he’d already thought this through. He knew exactly what I meant. He always did.

I felt more alive than I’d ever been. I remembered the girl I was before I got married. I low much I loved to stay out late, act a little dangerous and believe in silly stuff. like astrology and ecology. One day I remembered that in my first years of college I actually had campaigned for a Democrat.

But while everything was going great, it was also getting horrible. Luke and I felt oceans of guilt between us. Once at work I heard him tell a friend over the phone that his affair just wasn’t fun anymore because it was too serious, and I felt like someone punched me hard in the stomach, even though I knew he was right. I ran to the bathroom and started crying, just like it was seventh grade all over again. This was getting serious, we weren’t stopping and the strains of a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship were taking up more and more of our time together.

We also spent a lot of energy hiding the relationship from all the people that mattered to us, and this hurt. I told a million lies to my husband and countless half-truths to my friends. The more I got away with my lies, the more I justified using them. If you haven’t lived with someone who works constantly, it’s probably hard to imagine how easy it is to slip away from his or her life. My husband hadn’t even noticed the T-shirt that I started sleeping in, or maybe he just didn’t say anything, He didn’t question me when I said I was going to the grocery store one Saturday and came back three hours later with the $100 worth of food that I had managed to stuff in the cart in exactly 20 minutes. He didn’t ask when I came home at 4 a.m. after a night out with my “girlfriends.”

I made up stories about after-work happy hours. I pretended to go to aerobics. When he was home, I’d send my husband out for coffee or a newspaper and then get in a quick call to Luke. On weekends, I’d tell my husband that I needed a break from the kids and that I had to go to the mall and shop for a dress for a patty, or run errands. And there was always die work excuse, something my husband understood because work had taken over his own life.

But all the lies were making me sick. My relationship with Luke involved extreme highs but stomach-turning lows. By Christmastime, I couldn’t take it anymore, and Luke and I “broke up ” one night when my husband was out of town. I cried all night while Luke kissed me. Every inch of me. We made love three times that night. He told me in hushed tones that it would all be OK, and that he loved me. That week, I had a long talk with my sister, who was glowing about her new husband. “We’re soul mates,” she told me. I had to tell someone, so I fold her. “I’ve found my soul mate, too,” I said, “but it’s over.”

Of course, it wasn’t over, and it just kept getting better and worse. I think we called it off about half a dozen rimes over the next six months. Neither of us liked who we’d become. We both knew this was not what we really wanted, this wasn’t who we really were. We weren’t liars or cheaters. We believed in love and marriage, and we both believed in God and being good. Somehow, in some twisted way, though, the thought that we were good people who were simply caught in a bad situation seemed to justify our actions. We were sure what we had was love.

One weekend in the Spring, I watched The Bridges of Madison County and cried for two days after the movie because I had suddenly and finally gotten the point about Luke: He was a free spirit who needed to pursue his own course in life. This relationship with a married woman with children was taking away the carefree sense of self that had made me fall in love with him in the first place. Luke had been telling me for weeks how he wanted a more “normal” life and how he wanted to start dating and acting like the single 26-year-old that he was.

In some ways I could understand what he was saying, but the truth is that I’m not a character in a made-for-the-big-screen romance. I couldn’t just walk away and trust our relationship to some eternal, otherworldly bliss. In the last few months we were together, Luke did start to date, and I slowly felt my heart breaking. I wondered why he couldn’t have a “normal” life, but with me.

I’d do whatever I could to give him a normal relationship, I told him. We’d go out on dates. We’d shop for groceries, and clean bathrooms together. We’d tell all our friends how we felt about each other. I’d leave my husband. I became fairly desperate at the end. I sent him notes, I called him on the phone. I even begged him in all-too-public places-restaurants, parties, parking lots-to make me a part of his life. Luke said no,

I READ AN ESSAY RECENTLY BY A WOMAN WHO THINKS THAT IN ITS early stages, marriage is like a mirror, reflecting back one’s “carefully constructed, easily shattered conceit.” While Luke and I shared only an affair, not a marriage, we saw each other closely in the reflection of each others mirrors. In the beginning, I liked what I saw. I saw myself as fun, funny, pretty and desirable. But as we moved steadily into a relationship built on lies-told toothers and told to ourselves–I found it harder to look into that mirror. When Luke said no, I looked straight into the mirror and cried. I was a mess. I was weak, self-absorbed- and alone, because I had let Luke become my world. I knew that it was time to leave this relationship, this trench, and go back into the world I had left. But I also knew it wouldn’t and couldn’t be the same.

I started by telling my husband the truth-about how I felt about his work and how I had felt about Luke. We started a series of counseling sessions and began to remember what marriage was supposed to be about. I knew I was lucky because I found the love we had was still there. Bruised, battered, but breathing.

I quit my job, and took a part-time position that would leave me more time for my family and keep me away from the places that Luke and I had shared. I poured all my energy into finding new- outlets for my imagination. I found personal and professional help and started talking about the secrets I had held for so long. It was a tremendous relief, and while some of my friends will never understand what happened, I found others who could. And they helped me find new perspectives and truths. “You haven’t been the same,” they told me. “You’ve let him determine how you feel for too long.” And this: “Luke doesn’t love your children.”

When I heard this the first time 1 felt like I had run full-tilt into a brick wall. I couldn’t say anything or feel anything for a minute. And then my mothering instincts, suffocating from months of unintentional denial, began to roar back to life. This wasn’t just about me, this was about diem, too, and suddenly I was mad at myself and sick to my stomach. This wasn’t the kind of mother or life they deserved. I needed to make my children safe again. I needed to find a way to make my love and strength their refuge. I needed to stop making mistakes and stop being a mess. And I knew 1 could still do it. It wouldn’t be easy, but it wasn’t too late.



WHEN I WAS 8 OR 9, MY PARENTS DROPPED ME OFF AT SUMMER CAMP and I watched their station wagon drive away down a long dirt road. I felt homesick, and I wanted to run screaming into the dusty air and beg them to come back and take me with them. But then I turned to my little sister, and saw she really was running down the road. I ran to get her and told her we’d both be fine. She stayed a little homesick that summer, but I was fine. More than fine. I loved camp life and absorbed its rituals, camphres, songs, hikes, games and starlit nights, until they became a part of me that wouldn’t let go. I returned to camp each summer until I was too old to come back. And then I moved on, always looking forward.

A lot of die time these days, I feel like I’m watching red taillights bob down that country road. I feel homesick. I miss Luke. Deep down I think I know I’ll be OK, that I’ll be stronger and better every day and that I’ll keep looking and moving forward. But I’ll also know that what Luke and I had was exceptional and I’ll wonder if maybe Luke wasn’t- isn’t-the right one for me after all. Maybe we were just star-crossed, Maybe we just found each other at the wrong time,

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