“The hardest part is the guilt,” Glen told her. “Being away from you at night and the weekends.”
“You could do something about it,” Sara replied. This is not the first time she had heard his plaint, for which she had little sympathy. Besides, she had her own ax to grind. She did not like being defined as his mistress, which was the more honest description. She preferred the word “lover” to describe her situation.
And since lovers required—indeed longed for—time together, they had worked out a system that was both practical and geographically convenient. Glen lived with his wife Anne on Park and 68th; Sara lived on Madison and 56th. The law office in which Sara was a paralegal and Glen was a partner was on Fifth and 59th.
The arrangement worked like this: Glen would arrive at Sara’s apartment at six-thirty every morning. The doorman knew him by sight and his arrival was never questioned, especially since both he and Sara were generous tippers and not only at Christmas time. He would crawl beside her in her queen-sized bed and invariably make love to her until eight, when both got dressed and arrived at the office separately.
They congratulated themselves often on their discretion. Except for the doorman and his occasional relief, they assumed that no one, but no one, knew they had been carrying on this red-hot affair unabated for more than a year with little sign of let-up. From her perspective, there was little need for discretion for her own sake, only for his. She was single, twenty-seven years old, tall, willowy, a blonde goddess type, with unlimited opportunities to attract and meet men, but she made a point of turning down all offers. Indeed, she had no desire for other men. Glen, she assured him and herself, was the love of her life and being true to that love was a point of fealty and honor.
Glen’s situation was a bit more complicated. He and Anne had been married for twenty-five years. They had one child who now lived on the West Coast and hoped to have a career as an actress. Anne had inherited a tidy sum from her parents, who were both deceased. She was enormously attractive and popular and spent much of her time on philanthropic boards; she and Glen often appeared in the style section of the New York Times attending one or another charity event. Both enjoyed their large single-floor apartment, their lifestyle, and each other when they were together. They never fought. Glen was proud of his wife, who was an elegant dresser, an excellent speaker, and, he was certain, an honorable and faithful spouse.
Of course, in a long marriage, the sexual part of their lives had become routine, although Glen made certain that he exercised his sexual duties at least once a week, which appeared to be enough of a requirement for Anne, more like a validation of their long marriage, a kind of periodic stamp of approval.
What had happened was that, quite by accident, since they were thrown together in the workplace, both Glen and Sara had fallen in love. Fallen, of course, was the operative word. It was as if both of them, almost simultaneously, had fallen over a cliff together. It had happened quickly, one of those sudden explosions. At first both thought it was simply lust, that disembodied chemical state where their relationship was measured in the number of climaxes each induced in the other, which were considerable.
They continued to be considerable, but there was a lot more to it, the angst, the despair, the discipline required to maintain the secretive nature of their relationship. Sara felt no guilt, only longing and loneliness when he was not with her at night and weekends. Although she had girlfriends from college and the office, she kept them at a distance regarding her personal life, although she suspected that the more perceptive of them might have suspected that she had a secret lover.
At times, when her friends’ curiosity tried to breach her defenses, she parried their thrusts until they gave up their pursuit. On weekends she mostly she stayed home, went to the movies or shows or took long city walks. Glen’s path never crossed hers at night or on the weekends. Glen and Anne’s social life occupied a different strata, and Manhattan life was layered strata by strata.
Since they spent a great deal of time together, encouraging conversation (“quality time” they called it), they were quite candid about their situation, deliberately transparent and revealing. Despite the deep intimacy of their relationship, he had made it clear from the beginning that he had no intention of leaving Anne, both for practical and emotional reasons. He admitted that he loved their lifestyle, was comfortable with it, enjoyed the fruits of her inheritance and, although he was head over heels in love with Sara, under no circumstances would he ever marry her.
“I am a cowardly bastard and I know it,” he told her often. “Worse, I am in love with a beautiful young woman who, if this goes on much longer, will hurt her chances for marriage and a family.” “It’s true,” she would reply. “You are a cowardly bastard. And I am a stupid slave to my passion. Yes, this whole affair could ruin my life and I know it, but I am in love. There is nothing I wouldn’t do to make you happy. Nothing. I am your willing slave, darling. A damned fool.”
“Away from you,” he assured her, “there is this awful void. I try my damnedest not to think of you, try to keep you shut up in another compartment. I succeed maybe one quarter of the time. It is a really painful situation.”
“Of course, you could always stop the pain,” she would say. But she genuinely feared pressing too hard. Since Anne was wealthy and could sustain herself financially without him and had a busy life, she would wonder out loud why he could not sever that relationship.
“Please, darling,” he would answer. “I haven’t got the guts to hurt her. She has been a wonderful wife. I know it’s totally illogical since I am madly in love with you, but I just haven’t got the character and courage to untie the knot.”
“I’m becoming a nag,” she would counter. “I’ll stop it now.” Then they would make love and that issue would be put aside.
Weighing her options, she could not bear the thought of losing him. As she told herself often, half a loaf is better than none. She forced herself never to fantasize about the future, although she could not help analyzing her situation. She was addicted to him, could not wait for him to wrap his arms around her every weekday morning.
There were, of course, occasional longer absences. Glen and Anne traveled. They visited their daughter on the West Coast, and Sara went home on holidays to visit with her parents who lived in Portland, Maine. Occasionally Glen had to be away for a day or two on business, but they could never take the chance of traveling together. If they were found out and a nasty event ensued, she would never forgive herself and was certain that such a revelation would end their affair forever.
Despite their joyful morning meetings, the angst of separation took its toll on him. Yet he could not stop himself and often would see himself as a victim, caught between a rock and a hard place.
“Leading a double life is not easy,” he told her with increasing frequency. “Of course, in many ways, our life together is my real life.”
“I don’t know how you do it. I couldn’t.”
It was true. It was a lot easier for her to handle the situation. All she had to do was to be discreet in the office. They never went out together at night and there was little opportunity for them to be found out. Getting in and out of her apartment house was about the only risk he ever took, but even that was not much of a risk.
He did buy her gifts, mostly expensive jewelry for which he paid cash. The fact was that she demanded nothing although she lived far above her means. She rented a well-furnished condominium that was far too expensive, but it was necessary to consider both the geographical implications and the matter of ambiance. She thought it demeaning for her lover to come to her in a dumpy and badly appointed apartment.
While she gallantly refused any financial help, he would, knowing her financial situation, contribute sums to her maintenance, which he literally forced upon her. It worried him that she was having a tough time making ends meet.
“I am your lover, not your mistress,” she would contend.
“I fail to see the difference.”
“It’s one of nuance.”
He did not argue the point, fearing that it would open up a path of thinking that he knew she did not wish to confront. There was, of course, a practical consideration. Their affair depended on proximity. It simply would not do to waste time taking a cab or subway to another less expensive place in Manhattan or one of the other boroughs where the rents were considerably cheaper. It was hard enough to get up early and still make it to work on time. Thankfully, Anne never questioned why he left home so early.
“My husband works like a dog,” she would often tell friends. “Especially since there is no need.”
There was no denying, too, that there was a physical toll on him, a man over fifty, however well preserved. Often, a glance in the mirror in the men’s room at the office would show the ashen complexion of a drained man. It was not uncommon for him to offer up his seed, as he characterized his couplings, three times during their nearly two-hour trysts. Hardly more, but never less. He was quite proud of the count and Sara marveled at his stamina.
“I didn’t know what love can do,” he joked.
“Is there an award for such a performance?” she would giggle.
She had no difficulty in matching his release. Indeed, her previous experience had been tepid in that regard. Occasionally it worried him that he would be inhibited in his marital duty, but he had always suspected that his wife often faked her ardor. At times, he had to merely act the part.
Nevertheless, Glen knew he was a man hanging on a thread between guilt and joy. No matter how hard he tried he could not resolve it. As the guilt grew stronger, so did the joy. He had never experienced such passion, although he had been in love before, but that was before his marriage. He was not a philanderer and was always brutally honest with himself, rational, practical, thoughtful.
He did fairly well as a lawyer, specializing in estate planning and issues that concerned death and inheritance. Through his practice, he had learned a great deal about human behavior. Death, he knew, revealed many secret lives that could no longer be hidden. Up until he met Sara, he had always believed himself a proud and moral man. He had never been unfaithful and he made it a point of honor to insist that most of their living expenses came out of his earnings, although he allowed Anne to buy their exquisite apartment, their expensive art work and furnishings.
Upon his insistence, they did not own a country house, a decision that predated his relationship with Sara, but since then, he had considered this decision wonderfully apt. It would have meant losing time away from Sara. Thankfully, Anne never brought it up anymore.
At times, he wished fervently that he was not in love with Sara, that he could walk away from this relationship, quit cold turkey. His battle with guilt was debilitating and exhausting. It was a condition within him that ebbed and flowed and he confessed to Sara often that it made him feel weak, indecisive, and ashamed.
“You mustn’t dwell on that part, darling,” she told him.
“It’s making me crazy.”
“Leave it home. Dispense with such feelings when we are together.” She wished she could be more delicate about it, but the idea frightened her and she wanted him to put it aside. She wondered if it was building inside of him and becoming too hard for him to handle.
The conflict was becoming a growing affliction, and, like a virus, ideas to resolve it spread through his mind. Perhaps, he thought, he might find a way to compromise his dilemma, like formalizing the arrangement, confessing all to his wife and attempting to get her to agree to legitimize the relationship with Sara.
Among the French, he had been told, a mistress was quite tolerable. In fact, the former President François Mitterrand’s wife and mistress had publicly attended the man’s funeral, proof positive that such an arrangement was workable.
Knowing Anne, he was certain she could never agree to such a humiliating arrangement. Besides, legitimizing the idea could prompt Anne to take a lover. Certainly she would attract many takers, especially fortune hunters who would take full advantage of the situation. He could imagine a situation where everybody involved would have additional partners, a giant free-for-all of copulation and a dangerous exchange of bacteria and viruses.
Sara ridiculed the idea.
“As a lawyer, think of the complications,” Sara pointed out. “Upon death, who inherits what?”
“Maybe we can put it all on paper. Hell, because I’m a lawyer I could make it contractual.”
“The human heart cannot be contracted,” Sara had responded, believing it implicitly. “It goes its own way.”
“Besides, I would be profoundly jealous if you had another man in your life.”
“How am I supposed to feel?” she responded cautiously. “You have another woman with whom you have sex.”
“That’s different. I am married to that other woman.”
She feared going beyond that argument. Another Pandora’s box would open. She had often wondered if their numerous couplings were psychologically designed to drain him of any desire for sex with Anne. It was a subject he refused to broach.
“Render unto Caesar’s what is his and unto God what is his,” he would joke. His meaning was clear.
There were other ironies that plagued him. Despite the limited time frame of their relationship, their conversations were deep, penetrating, and far more honest and numerous than those he had with Anne. Beyond the sex, there was the absolute, or almost absolute, transparency of their revelations to each other. They were able to transmit their inner thoughts and emotions. Both agreed that in the afterplay, the intermissions to their couplings, they could empty their minds and hearts without inhibition, like a free association session with one’s therapist.
Neither of them had ever been to a therapist. He feared revealing his secret to anyone, not even a therapist who was legally committed to privacy. She did not feel she needed one. What could a therapist possibly tell her? she wondered. That she was a damned fool, a co-dependent or whatever could be defined in the jargon for someone like her, committed to what was most likely to be a hopeless cause? Who needed a therapist to tell her that? Was there a twelve-step program for a committed lover to break her of her addiction?
One favorite topic of their after-play was why they had fallen in love with each other. Why her? Why him? Did he remind her of her father, whom she adored? Was there something in the chemistry of their bodies that stimulated their attraction? Where did this strange all-encompassing feeling come from? For lovers, these were weighty questions. Unfortunately, there were no answers, only more questions.
“We got hit by Cupid’s arrows. Leave it at that,” he would tell her after all aspects of the issue were tackled without resolution. The fact was that they finally concluded that this was one of life’s mysteries and, whatever the consequences, it was the most profound emotional high that each would ever experience in their lives.
Unfortunately, the agony over his guilt began to weaken his resolve. It was becoming too burdensome to sustain. He was losing sleep, becoming disoriented, fixating more and more on the pain of her loneliness when she was away from him.
“As long as I know you will come to me in the morning, I am very content,” she assured him. There was a germ of truth in the assertion but it was not convincing.
“Thinking of you alone is painful, darling,” he would respond. “You’re just a few blocks away, but it seems like the distance of light years.”
“Then don’t think too much about me.”
“Don’t you think of me when you’re not with me?”
“All the time.”
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Very much, but then I know you will arrive in my bed every weekday at precisely six-thirty in the morning. How many women can boast of such a wonderful surprise?”
“For me it’s become a risk and reward situation. The greater the risk, the greater the reward.”
As time went on and the glow of their relationship did not diminish, the guilt accelerated. He was losing sleep. At times he became disoriented and his work suffered. The burden of his guilt became too much to bear.
“I am ruining your life,” he would tell her often.
“It’s my life,” she would counter. “By my lights, you’re enhancing it.”
“You won’t say that after a few more years of this.”
“I might say it more so as the years go on.”
“I think you’ve lost your mind. Besides, I’m twice your age.”
“So you say.”
“My birth certificate says it.”
“Your libido is lying.”
“It won’t lie forever.”
“There is always the pill.”
She worried about such subjects dominating their conversation. It indicated that his anxiety about her was accelerating. And it was.
Finally, he did realize that he’d have to take charge of the situation, which, he knew, required great sacrifice on his part. He lit upon a rational solution that he knew would be hurtful to both of them, but it was necessary, especially for her. As a trained lawyer, he always opted for rational solutions of benefit to his clients.
In this case, he tried to imagine her as a client. It was difficult to shake the emotional baggage, but he tried valiantly and finally came up with an idea. It took him months to broach the subject.
“This can’t go anywhere for you, my darling. I can’t live with the guilt. I just can’t.”
“Is your ardor cooling?” she asked, deliberately flippant, but he knew she was stunned by his assertion, although she had always lived in fear that it would come some day.
“You know that’s not true. But someone has to make a move. And that job falls to me.”
She had turned ashen and her eyes had misted, but she quickly gained control of herself.
“I’ve accepted my role, Glen. No need to push the envelope.”
“It’s a lousy role, Sara. You know it and I know it. And there is no way I can find the courage to fix it. I’m on the horns of a dilemma and if I don’t take action you will be the loser over the long haul.”
“How lawyerly. What then do you propose?”
She listened carefully as he laid out his plan, refusing to comment, her mind trying to comprehend his so-called rational solution.
“Here’s what I propose, darling.” He cleared his throat. He had rehearsed the idea over and over again in his mind, had made preparations, had solved the logistics. “I want you to go away from here, to find a new life somewhere else, to forget this episode.”
“Never. But don’t interrupt. This is very hard for me.”
“I want you to accept a million-dollar gift from me.”
“Stop this, please.”
“Just listen. Anne will never know. I have made arrangements to borrow this money on my own. I want you to take this money and start a new life somewhere else. You have a marketable skill and the money will give you the freedom to explore your options.”
Feeling upset and humiliated, she tried to retain her composure.
“I feel like a prostitute. At least leave me my pride.”
“I love you, Sara. I love you with all my heart and soul, but I cannot accept the continuing burden of my own guilt. I know what I’m doing. I’m trying to make you an offer that you cannot refuse. In fact, I urge you to accept it, if only for my sake alone. I cannot sustain this life of guilt. I cannot divorce my wife. I am a coward, I know. There is something ugly about this proposal, but I want you to consider it. I cannot continue this relationship, the lies, the dissimulation. Please do it for my sake. I plead with you. For my sake, Sara.”
She turned her face away, not wishing him to see her contempt. She could not summon up the strength to reply.
“If you don’t take this offer, you will regret it for the rest of your life. I know how you must feel. Sara, I dread the future without you. But if you love me, truly love me, you will understand. Can you imagine how terrible I feel in making such an offer? I hate myself for it, but I know it is the only logical solution. I cannot go on like this. Is it better for us simply to part and leave it at that or for me to make such an offer, if only to give me, selfishly I admit, peace of mind?”
Finally she found her voice.
“So I’m to be bought off, am I? This is what it’s all about. Money. You won’t leave your comfortable life because of money and you think that money will make me happy. I am insulted, Glen. I reject your offer out of hand. I am appalled that you could sink so low.”
“I knew this would be your initial reaction, darling. I’m stuck in a terrible place. Who could possibly understand what I am going through? Think of me as a victim. Think of this money as hush money. Think of it as a payoff for what will certainly be the greatest moments of my life. Think of it, too, as a means of escape for you, a chance to live a normal life without lies and lonely nights. I know. I know. I am trying to buy off my pain. It is my last chance for comfort and peace of mind.”
She watched him make his plea and felt herself calming. She knew he was taking an even greater risk. A loan from a bank was certainly something that couldn’t be kept hidden for long, especially since it had to be paid back. It would be hard to justify a payback schedule that he could meet, even though he made a handsome salary at the firm. Still, she could not react at that moment.
“Just think about it, darling. This is hard. I know it’s the right course for you.”
When the offer was made, they were still in bed. He rose, kissed her on the forehead, got dressed, and left for the office. She did not appear that day, which filled him with anxiety and dire thoughts. Nor did she answer her phone. He knew that he had given her a real blow and terrible thoughts went through his mind. He imagined flight, disappearance, even suicide. Especially suicide. Just deserts, he thought, for his selfishness and his cowardice.
As the day wore on he grew more and more panicked. Toward the end of the day he feigned illness, rescheduled all his appointments, and rushed to her apartment.
“Gone,” the doorman said.
He opened a drawer at the reception desk and handed Glen a sealed envelope.
“Left this for you.”
He hadn’t given the doorman his correct name and when he was handed the envelope he noted gratefully that there was no name on the envelope. There seemed to be an expectation of a tip, as if money was required to keep the matter quiet between them. He handed the doorman a twenty-dollar bill, took the envelope and walked down the street to a Starbucks where he ordered a latté, then found an empty seat at a corner table.
For a long time, he looked at the unopened envelope while he concocted dire scenarios. Was this a suicide note? Had she mailed a letter to Anne informing her of the entire affair? Had she written to his law partners confessing their involvement and threatening a sexual harassment suit, a common occurrence these days? Was she planning some terrible circumstance that would impact negatively on his life?
He let the coffee concoction slide tastelessly down his throat, once again confronting his cowardice and lack of character. Time passed as he looked at the envelope, touched it, slid his thumb along its edges, sniffed at it for any sign of perfume, as if the scent would offer an optimistic preview of what the letter contained. No smell was evident.
He felt devastated and empty, but mostly fearful that the letter contained something ominous. Had she fled, really fled? Of one thing he was certain, this had to be the end of it. Surely a bad ending. When he had revealed his idea he thought he had been more than magnanimous, wildly and extravagantly generous. He was taking a giant risk. Worse, he had forged Anne’s name and worked out a repayment plan directing all correspondence to come to his office.
The debt would require the use of his 401(k) from which he would release periodic payments. He had even concocted a fallback plan in case Anne found out about what he had done. He would tell her he had gambled in stocks and lost heavily. He would be contrite, beg her forgiveness, admit his folly, surrender to her mercy. After all, he had become an expert in dissimulation, a master of lies.
If only she hadn’t confessed the whole affair to Anne. In that case he would be scot-free. She would have left of her own volition, cut the strings, her memories of their affair spoiled by his crass action to buy her off. Thankfully, she had taken strict precautions and had not become pregnant. But suppose she had. A new thought intruded. The old cliché, the tired plot point of a thousand novels, plays, and movies. Would her letter suddenly reveal that new twist and provide yet more fodder for his guilt? A film of sweat broke out on his body. Perspiration soaked his shirt.
In time she would get over the affair, her love for him would fade away, along with his guilt. Never again would he allow himself to get entangled in such a disruptive situation. Never again would he allow himself to “fall” in love. Fall was the operative word.
He toyed with the idea of not opening the letter, assuming it was, after all, merely a letter of farewell, a dear John, which he roundly deserved. But the idea of a hanging loose end seemed worse than the revelation that would be contained there. Then he concluded that it was his ticket to freedom, the key to his unburdening.
With shaking fingers he carefully tore the end off the envelope, blew it open and removed the letter. For some reason, he looked around him furtively as if what he was doing was subject to surveillance.
“Dear Glen,” the letter began. “I have decided to accept your offer. I am leaving town as of today. I have sent a letter of resignation to the firm and have packed up and given notice that I will be leaving the apartment. I’m not sure where I am going, probably to the West Coast. As you say, my skills are easily transferable. I will send a note to you at the firm and inform you where you can wire the funds, which I will require to settle up the rent and replace some items that I have left behind. Everything that could be said has been said. Please don’t ever try to contact me. Sara.”
He read the letter twice. It struck him as a form letter, cold and businesslike. Inexplicably he felt a growing anger. Then he threw the letter in the trash receptacle along with the half-drunk cup of latté. He hoped the guilt was gone, but he wasn’t sure.