Playing With Fire: When You're the One Who's Tempted
I’m not one of those girls who grew up imagining her wedding. I was always a lot more concerned with what being a wife would entail and hoped I could find someone who’d support me without getting in my way. By thirteen, I was well-versed in what a prenuptial agreement entailed and how to negotiate it, what the laws were regarding marriage in my state, and I could easily identify the advantages of such a union. My parents’ marriage was excellent, but I knew its inner workings, too, so I knew firsthand that it was far harder to make a marriage work than it was to put together a wedding for 700 guests, as they had.
I didn’t want marriage for myself any more than I wanted my dream start-up to go public. That’s how I saw it: a public offering where you lose control of a percentage of your dream. I knew it would happen to me the way most start-up founders imagine they’ll one day have to deal with an IPO. But it’s not like I went into life looking for marriage -- I went into life looking for life.
It’s a little dire for a kid, I know. But that’s the kind of kid I’ve always been. Even so, I was amazed and horrified when, a year into my marriage, I found myself attracted to a man that was not my husband. In all my computations of what it would require to keep the marital organism working, I’d completely forgotten that I was a human being, complete with all the wirings that made desire possible. I was shocked at my naiveté -- had I expected my wedding band to act as a sort of amulet against desire?
Photo by Mr. Thomas.
My ex-husband Richard made every effort to introduce me to his friends when we first settled in to life in California. People were always coming and going, but time and time again, Richard noticed I failed to make a connection with executives and people in the mortgage industry, opting instead for the less flamboyant types – his aunt’s partner, Peter, who was a veteran of WWII and history buff, and our neighbor’s uncle, Harry, a mathematician.
Richard was only mildly annoyed by what he called my “little club of intellectuals.” And then one day he reconnected with an old friend of his, Stephen, a genius according to my husband. Richard offered Stephen to me like a prized stamp for a collection -- at last, a contribution! I was as welcoming to Stephen as I was to any of the friends Richard invited to play poker once a week, but I didn’t think my husband really understood what I was looking for in a friend. His circle was composed of honest and not-so-honest hardworking people whose American Dream was best expressed in the cars they drove and the square footage of their various properties. My circle was defined by people who knew that the real toys and most valuable real estate were in the mind.
Life is a funny thing. When Stephen started looking for a writer for some projects, Richard referred him to me. And so Stephen and I finally had a more in-depth conversation.
My ex-husband, it turned out, had been right. Stephen did get me. He was a marginal man, too, living with one foot in suburbia’s expectations and the other firmly planted in the wonderland of his mind. The first time we sat down to discuss the project, we became so sidetracked talking about theoretical physics that we had to schedule a second meeting to actually get around to the project. It’s hard to describe what a big deal this was for me at the time. This level of discussion was completely unheard of in the suburban landscape of SUVs and McMansions.
We started working together. Not long after I’d drafted an initial report for him, Stephen came over one morning to go over some inconsistencies in his data and, as usual, we got off topic when he noticed a book I was reading about the importance of color in dream interpretation.
“Are you familiar with color magic?” he asked.
“No,” I responded, wrinkling my nose. “Stephen, that’s so New Age.”
“No, no,” he responded laughing. “It’s psychology, let me show you.”
“Seriously?” I asked, laughing. “OK.”
“First, what’s the color that comes to mind when you think of creating, like when you’re writing?”
“Yellow,” I responded. I don’t know why I said yellow. But I did and it still seems fitting.
“Stretch out your hand,” he instructed. “Palm up. Imagine yellow in your hand.”
I suppressed my giggles and did as told. Focus on his voice, I told myself. Focus. Give in to the experience. Why not, right? What else is there to do? Even working for him wasn’t really filling up my time.
I focused on the color yellow in my hand as it expanded beyond my palm, larger and larger until it was pressed against me, until it had enveloped me, until it had grown beyond the limits of the room and the house and the city and the country and the world and the universe. Yellow vibrating strings. Yellow gravity, yellow strong, weak, electromagnetic. Yellow as grand unified theory. Every hair on my body was reaching out to the universe, every pore was open, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Somewhere between a meditation game and GUT, this had gone from silly to something else entirely.
“Feel yellow move over you and into you,” I could hear Stephen’s voice somewhere in the vast expanse of yellow. It was coming from all around me, like the color. “Feel my voice, yellow, move over your body.”
A shiver shot down my spine and up again. I realized, disconcerted, that I was completely and utterly aroused.
I must have blushed furiously because Stephen stopped talking.
“How did that feel?” he asked, tentatively.
“Almost --” I had to catch my breath, “almost inappropriately good.”
I cleared my throat. “About the, uh, the project. When do you want me… to… give it to you? The project? When do I give you it -- it to you, I mean?”
In the perfect world, you only ever desire the person you marry. But this isn’t the perfect world. No matter how intensely you love, you will desire someone other than your spouse.
“I couldn’t get him out fast enough,” I recounted later. “Shivers still shoot down my spine when I think about it. I know shouldn’t feel bad because I’m not doing anything inappropriate and have no intention of ever doing anything inappropriate but it makes me crazy that I even desire another person. That feature of libido should turn off the second you set foot on the altar. Why didn’t it? Why didn’t anybody tell me?”
“Darling!” my mother exclaimed, laughing. “It’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? You’re married, not dead!”
“Temptation is a structural, cyclical challenge,” commented my journo friend John. “You haven’t done anything wrong. Just be aware of how you feel and know that it’s there, lurking, possibly dangerous, an urge to be managed, not controlled; meditated on and meditated away, not Puritanically, not forcefully stamped out. But really, don’t beat up on yourself.”
“And there is nothing wrong with a little desire, either,” my mother added. “I think it does wonders for a marriage. Self-denial is one of the most erotic acts one could engage in.”
“God, mom, you’re so Catholic sometimes.”
Later that week, Stephen came over with the new project and, as usual, we got sidetracked, discussing my latest trip and an epiphany I’d had relating to the Need for Closure scale.
“Is there really such a thing?” he asked, delighted.
“Yes!” I replied. “Studies show that people with no tolerance for ambiguity or unpredictability require closure more than others. But for me, it’s more than about being rigid because although I, like you, am rigid, I do enjoy ambiguity. I just prefer it on a different plane. In my life plane, I need order.”
“Yes!” he responded. “I need simplicity in my life in order to function. I have too much chaos in my head.”
Is his life simple? I wondered. Is my life simple? Is that what we’re doing? Simplifying everything so we can play in our heads?
“Have you read Kierkegaard’s Fear And Trembling?” he asked me. “It’s like the knight of infinite resignation. The man sees the beautiful woman in the window but he is resigned to never have her, so he keeps her as she is to him…”
It was as though he was reading my mind, outlining the boundaries. I felt comfortable again.
Toward the end of our visit, I asked him whether he had any books about yoga, since he practiced it and our conversations had piqued my interest.
“I have books,” he said. “But they’re not very good. You can’t really learn yoga from a book.”
“So teach me,” I said.
He looked at me. “Now?”
“Okay, get up, I’ll show you a pose.”
He got into position.
“This is fantastic!” I exclaimed. “You should give me lessons!”
“I’m -- I’m not teaching right now -- listen, I’m having a baby, I’m buying a house and I’m -- I’m not sure this is appropriate, I mean, I can’t even tell my wife I’m here and I would just hate to hurt Richard and… well, what do you think?”
I stood wide-eyed, my mouth so wide, I felt my jaw was resting on my perfectly manicured toes. I’d asked him to teach me yoga, right? I questioned myself, all of a sudden uncertain. His disproportionate response made me feel horrifically ashamed, like I’d asked him to engage in a wild, fetishistic sex ritual on the dining room table.
“Stephen, relax!” I responded finally. “We’re the only people who can do anything inappropriate and we won’t. Of course, we can’t help what others perceive and there is always a risk that they might choose to impale themselves on the possibility of impropriety. Measures can be taken to avoid this. But you really have to relax right now, because logic is required to discuss this part and wildly pumping adrenaline into your body is not going to get us there.”
Help! I thought with embarrassment and horror. I’ve fallen into an Edith Wharton novel and I can’t get out!
“I feel we have a great connection and would love to be your friend. I do think it’s possible,” I said in closing, as I brushed my hair over my shoulder. I needed something to do with my hands.
“Right, okay,” Stephen responded, his eyes suddenly on my chest. It only lasted a second, but it was enough to drive the point home: we would never really be friends.
“Oh, for crying out loud!” I exclaimed, turning away from him.
He stood in silence. I rearranged my hair and turned back to him tragically. I wanted so much to have a friend like him, but I knew at the same time it would be imprudent to get any closer. Stephen wasn’t like Peter and Harry. Peter and Harry were in their 80s. Stephen was in his early 30s. He may have smelled like Downy and freshly-cut grass, but he gave off a very different kind of scent only I seemed capable of registering, a scent that corroded even my unyielding grip on the reins of my Platonic chariot.
The phone rang.
“Do you need to get that?” Stephen asked.
“Uh,” I hesitated. I knew it was Richard. “Yes.”
I ran to the phone, “Hi, darling!”
“I’m coming over for lunch,” my husband informed me.
“See you soon.”
“I should go,” Stephen said after I hung up.
“Or you could stay,” I replied. “You haven’t come to play poker recently. When was the last time you saw Richard?”
“Either way will be awkward.”
“This is only awkward because you’re making it awkward,” I replied.
Stephen stood lamely at the door. His vibes were so weird and heavy that if Richard had seen him then, I have no doubt in my mind he would have thought he and I were having an affair.
“You’re right,” I said finally. “You better go. But we’re going to talk about this.”
We’d have our chance to talk about things, but in the meantime, I had to sort out what to do with myself. What do you do with desire? You can’t put it in a box. You can’t hide it under the bed or put it in storage, far away from your house. It lives inside you, telling you at every turn that to deny it is to accept a sort of death.
I did the only thing I know how: I wrote. I wrote hoping for an exorcism that would never come.
In retrospect, I smile at my surprise. But at the time, I was furious with society, with the countless religious institutions that supported matrimony and condemned adultery without taking the time to delineate how to avoid it. Faith has a tendency to ignore science -- understandable, given how rarely the former assists the latter -- but you can’t avoid biology in this. You can’t just say humans are blessed with free will and frown upon those that fail to toe the line when we’re wired to be this receptive.
We’re unprepared to deny biology’s drive. We choose instead to see it as a weakness, a gross manifestation of our lack of faith and inner strength. We suffer this almost inevitable fate to eventually -- given enough shame and public penance -- be told it happens to good people and we will get through it if we can find our path again and work together as a couple. There is no prevention, only damage control. There is no script in place that spells out how to avoid it, no sensible dialog, certainly no amulet or potion, and no real guidelines other than: thou shalt not...
My mother is right: just because you’re married doesn’t mean you’re dead. You will desire. And just because you’re attracted to someone physically or intellectually doesn’t invalidate the oath you’ve made.
It’s what you do about desire that defines who you are and what that oath means to you.
After years of grappling with monogamy and marriage, I finally understood it a few months ago when I went to Japan. The answer, deceptively simple and devoid of much romance, came to me while I sat at a Shinto shrine. In the pursuit of clarity, many have embraced various kinds of asceticism – some in seclusion, others within the world – living life with strict discipline to achieve lucidity. This drive to spiritual fullness, as bizarre as the choice to be together with someone forever, suddenly became fused in my mind. Monogamy is a form of asceticism, a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, not because these are inherently evil, but because restraint brings focus.
In the book Musashi, the Zen priest called this striving for discipline a means of achieving balance and becoming a complete human. I like that better than words usually associated with being a decent spouse: good, faithful, loyal. Edith Wharton may have imbued me with the fear of adultery at heart, but she also taught me how wretched a life that strives for extremes can be, even if this extreme is “good.” I would much rather discipline myself in the quest for balance, giving myself room to err and learn, in the hopes of one day being a complete human being. That, in the end, is all we can be.
And in retrospect, this understanding is more valuable than knowing what matrimony legally entails in my state or how to draft a bullet-proof prenup.