San Antonio We met at a work conference in Texas. I was the only person from my company at the event, so I had no one to pass the time with and no one to explain myself to. I wanted to meet someone. I didn’t care that it was trite to pick up someone at a conference, I was in an open marriage and opportunities like these didn’t present themselves often.
I had my eyes out for attractive men but non-profits always seem to draw women– endowed as we are with the altruism gene– and what men I found were rather uninspiring.
In my hotel room I put on my smartest business-lady outfit and headed down to the networking floor, snatching a bracelet on my way out the door. I approached a nice looking scruffy-bearded man standing at a cocktail table. I asked him to help me put the bracelet on, he did, we talked. He was appealing, if not generically attractive. I asked him what he was doing for the presidential debate later, and we made plans to meet in front of the Alamo later and find someplace to watch it together. What the heck. His name was Ben.
When we met that night I wondered how it could be the same person I had met earlier. In a tattered t-shirt and jeans, he looked very different than he had in his suit. He was tiny, all of 140 pounds, thin and strong like a gymnast or a jockey. His hair was thinning, dark and offset from his large forehead, then continuing into his scruffy beard. He smelled like off-brand all-natural products, probably one who brushes with peroxide who claims not to need deodorant. Basically, he was not the type of guy I would have pictured myself having a romantic fling with. I wasn’t wearing my ring but I was thankful for the platonic political pretext of our gathering- no lines had been crossed, barely even hinted at.
Perhaps because Ben was so unassuming I let myself be completely comfortable with him. At the bar we ordered crappy food and whatever beers. We had a measured but exciting debate with the bartender about Mit Romney. Public discourse!
Outside the bar, he didn’t want the night to end and I was willing to be swayed. He pointed to the roof of a nearby building and asked if I wanted to go. We more or less broke into the roof of a historical San Antonio hotel. Looking down at the city below, we laughed to see people mill around the Alamo trying to act interested in what they were seeing. And in that moment, I began to see Ben with new eyes. Under the spell of adrenaline, spontaneity and altitude, we kissed.
Ben and I shared a wonderful couple of days together. I came to realize that, more so than anyone I’d ever met before, Ben was alive. He was completely himself, totally unrestrained by self-consciousness or social pressures. He radiated a beam of energy and I loved to bask in it. On our last night in town we had a proper date. We had dinner and wine and a lightheaded walk along the riverfront. We kissed openly, publicly, passionately. Back in his hotel room later, I told him I wasn’t sure if I should have sex with him or not. We had no future so it seemed an unnecessary risk, but then again, I had the feeling that sex with him would be somehow different. I was intensely curious. It was, indeed, different.
I never told him that I was married. I left for New York City and he for San Francisco. I almost missed my flight with our prolonged goodbyes but when we finally parted ways, I never thought I’d see him again.
New York City
To my surprise, Ben called me later that week when the next presidential debate was on. Hearing his eager voice on the phone, it became clear that this relationship was bigger than the isolated timeframe of the conference so I had to come clean– “Ben, I’m married.” I explained everything: “it wasn’t cheating because it was technically allowed, my husband knows everything but I should have told you, I’m so sorry.” Ben was understandably surprised but open-minded. He made no judgements. He professed no expectations and we carried on with our friendship.
Not long after, my husband went on a business trip of his own right when Ben had a trip to New York. Sometimes I try to remember if I orchestrated it that way or if it just worked out- is such a coincidence even possible? Anyway, Ben and I had a wonderful time. There was one day in particular I know I’ll never forget- we spent hours exploring the city together having miniature adventures. We were so happy and content in each other’s presence and so conspicuous in our joy that on multiple occasions that day, children actually approached us or smiled or acknowledged us in some way. It was as if they could sense our wholeness and they approved.
Back at my apartment that night, Ben pulled out his journal and read to me, it was a line he’d written down from an radio show I had recommended: “When we made love, we knew how to forget ourselves. That, I’m convinced, is passion. To kiss and hold so hard that the act itself it forgotten and all that is remembered is skin and hair and warmth, is a gift.” Lying side by side on the couch, my body smooshed up against his, Ben finished reading. With those words echoing in our ears, we shared one of those profound silences that so defined our relationship. Until, gazing at his journal, he read it again. Listening to those words for a second time, I lost myself. I couldn’t say everything I was feeling so I just cried. It came down to this: not only had this man listened to me talk about some radio show I liked, he took the time to listen to it himself; and not only did he listen to it, he wrote down his favorite part; and not only did he write it down, he read it aloud to me; and for god’s sake, not only did he read it aloud, he read it twice, just to show me he meant it.
Later, I wrote in my own journal for the first time in months: “What a week. A vision into what I have longed for. Clarity into the question I didn’t know I was asking: “does it exist?” It does. And it feels wonderful.”
This beautiful realization was charged with overwhelming implications. I was married, after all. And I actually thought I was happy in my marriage so what did this all mean? When my husband returned from his trip, I explained that I was having doubts about our relationship. I still loved him and was committed to him but everything was confused now. We had played with fire for years with our permissive relationship and the strain was starting to surface.
My marriage didn’t last much longer. I needed change that my husband couldn’t or wouldn’t give. It was about he and I and no one else, but we both knew that Ben had been a catalyst, driving our issues to the forefront. After 8 years together and over 5 years of marriage, I moved out of the home I shared with the man I had spent my entire adult life with and never moved back.
Almost immediately, Ben and I started talking every day. I thought he was incredible and I loved the way I looked in his eyes. It felt wonderful not only to be cared for but to be understood as well. We were in love and we knew it! But we didn’t say it. It was too soon. This was especially sad because in his 30 years, Ben had never exchanged “I love you’s” with another woman.
Just weeks after separating with my husband, I headed to Los Angeles for an annual New Year’s gathering with friends. Driving down Highway 1 on our way to the party, the car I was riding in struck another vehicle. Everything stopped. I couldn’t breathe. The seat belt broke my sternum, which in turn broke four ribs and damaged a lung.
Ben drove nearly 400 miles from Oakland to take care of me. He called me his “fallen angel” and covered me with kisses. He gave me exactly what I wanted but to my surprise I found I couldn’t accept it. The sadness I was feeling was not the kind to be comforted by another man.
That shocking pain of those injuries snapped me out of the facade I’d been living under that everything was alright. I mourned the loss of my marriage, my best friend, our past and our future. With my broken bones, my body wouldn’t even allow me to sneeze, so when I cried for my failed marriage, my body filled with stabbing pain in a vicious cycle that made it impossible to cry and impossible not to.
One night, Ben told me he loved me and I didn’t respond. I told him I needed a lot more time than I had realized.
Now I don’t really know how to feel about Ben. Sometimes I feel something approaching aversion when I think of him– he is so directly connected to such a painful time in my life that I have an urge to run away from it and I don’t feel that glow of love that was once my biggest truth. But just as often, I plan our future together. In those moments, I think that he is the only man who can really understand and challenge me, thereby giving me everything thing I ever wanted.
That this unassuming man who I met by chance at a conference has become such a critical element of my past is something I can hardly fathom. He is a central figure in my life and I don’t even have any photos of the two of us together. I thought I was in control- I picked him up, I was the unavailable one, I set the rules. But he pulled me under– not by force but by the sheer magnetism of his goodness. Ben showed me a new kind of love that I always wanted to believe in, and I was powerless to resist it.
If it weren’t for Ben, who knows what would have happened? I still question whether it was right to end my marriage. I still doubt if Ben and I have any future. I wonder if I let my marriage go for something that I’ll never have. This doubt is the most painful part of the whole experience. But despite all the hurt it caused, what Ben and I shared was so true and so real that I have to think that I can only be better for it.
So, without any expectations, I’d like to say something to him, wherever he is. And I’ll say it twice, just to prove that I mean it: “I loved you Ben, I loved you.”