During the years I'd spent with my husband, these parts had either wilted under the heat of adult responsibility or been flattened by my inaccurate view that my husband—not I—was the one with these qualities. I was the object of his desire. Others saw him as the creative one, the glamorous one, the one with power and prestige. I was the understated wife, the serious psychology devotee, the harried-conscientious mom, the reliable friend. Sexy young clients at his gallery openings usually greeted me with, "So, how are the kids?" looking past me at the artwork, the bar, or my husband. My mojo vanished under the weight of cultural and psychological "shoulds."
My "lover," by contrast, seemed fragile and sensitive—a bit like me. I responded to him viscerally, with great strength and tenderness, venturing into risky new territory. A talented writer, he seduced with words, knowingly providing postmodern legitimacy for our affair with the phrase, "Many seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time." He sent me poems by Rumi: "Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there." He wrote about the chakras, Sufi mysticism, and prayer. In the seemingly unlimited writing time he had at work, he'd ask me questions filled with concern, curiosity, and interest, forcing me to probe places I hadn't gone before. What a perfect blank screen he became for projecting the new movie playing inside my head, in which the irresistible heroine, me, is seen, known, and worshipped. When he told me I represented the lover archetype, a la Carl Jung, I began to shed a few pounds, shop for lingerie, and burn CDs. Still with no plans to see this other man, I felt really good in my own spray-tanned skin.
Then everything changed. Like a junkie, I began to need more to get the high, and sometimes, like a real human being, he just couldn't deliver what I needed. And vice versa. Not getting these needs met caused the fantasy to shatter like a broken mirror, leaving us both disappointed, frustrated, and angry.
I started to notice things about him I didn't like. In reality, my cyber-boyfriend was quite different, and much more flawed, than my projected dream guy. He disclosed shockingly personal details about his wife, which somehow seemed more disloyal than his online affair with me. He had a habit of beginning relationships and then abruptly ending them over imagined slights, which left me diagnosing him with a personality disorder. He drank cheap wine like a fish, which caused me to suggest he "speak to someone" and attend AA. His verbose e-mails turned boring. His sensitive side somehow morphed into impotent self-indulgence. The man I'd envisioned as truly enlightened seemed consumed with unending, dark despair. This portrayal of him is certainly unfair and exaggerated, but when the infatuation that held his image together evaporated, leaving me disillusioned and "alone," this was what I saw. It ended through e-mails as easily as it had started, but not without pain.
Returning to confront the realities of my marriage, I began to understand that, as a couple, my husband and I weren't unassailable. If this other man had all these negative feelings that he was too afraid to express to his wife, or that she was too deaf to hear, might not my husband have his own storehouse of disappointments with me? Was I deaf? If I could be seduced and seducing, couldn't he? Couldn't his heart, almost against his will, alight on another? For the first time in decades, I felt separate from my husband in the way you feel separate from someone you don't take for granted: separate but equal—not enmeshed, not half of something. For the first time in many years, I saw him as unfamiliar; as someone I didn't fully know.