In the very beginning I believed that we could be great friends. Ever the sunny optimist, even the glaring hints of impropriety failed to impede my naivety. Was I dishonest or simply cruel? I swear I was honest. At least my words were. But I heard what I wanted to hear and he heard what he wanted to hear. To see a thing clearly, one has to push it away. We were both tone-deaf and foolishly blind.
We met at the gym. He was a pleasant guy, twelve years my senior, with beautiful blue eyes and a face that fell naturally into a wide, friendly smile. He worked out intensely every day and was humorously competitive about it. He talked about how much he loved his wife, how the first time he saw her he thought she was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen. I talked about my first failed marriage and the new, happy one. We spent hours together on treadmills talking about our lives, especially mine. As months, then years passed I told him everything about me. He told me I was "The Golden Girl." Oh no, I assured him and told him all my sad, sad Daddy stories; the details of the travelogue that was my childhood; the intellectual uncertainty that discomfited me, the subtle pangs of isolation and insecurity that were my constant companions. He was a clinical psychologist, a shrink, but not my shrink. So I had the best of all possible worlds: working out among the beautiful people in New York City, target heart rate, free therapy, no fear of transference. He would show me that the cold, hard fact that I was a female child of a misogynist had misshapen me. I would become empowered by the clear understanding of another man, I thought. He would teach me that maybe I really was a golden girl (lower case g; it’s oppressive being someone's everything, that would be the upper case G).
In the beginning everything was more interesting with him. He was interested in books and ideas, politics and history. I did not find him attractive and since he was happily married I wouldn’t have to worry about any unwanted advances. Our friendship deepened. Of course it is possible for a man and a woman to have a deep, meaningful, platonic friendship, I thought. A woman needs a friend when her ex-husband doesn’t like to pay her the meager child support she’d unwisely settled for. It’s difficult raising children in Manhattan; I had two young girls in private school and my present husband was not their father. I had burdened him, once a carefree bachelor, with a fully formed, emotionally and physically demanding family. My new friend had two boys, two wonderful boys. He knew the joy and misery of parenting in the City.
A few years into this unique friendship, I was told that my oldest daughter was struggling in math. The school said she needed a tutor. I couldn’t afford a tutor.
“Sweetheart, I can tutor her. Remember, I went to MIT.”
And then things got more interesting, because here’s the dirty little secret: he had money, lots of money. And we were struggling.
My second daughter scored poorly on the Independent School Aptitude Test; it seemed clear that she’d never get into a good high school. She’d already been “counseled out” of one elite academic institution six years earlier. She needed a tutor, like almost every other kid in the city, and my friend helped me pay. My husband was building a law practice. He was continually stressed out, took on too many difficult cases and worked inhuman hours. I don’t know if he ever noticed a tutor. I couldn’t possibly bother him with the details; he was too stressed, too busy.
My daughter was accepted to every school she applied to. All the hours of study and interviews and tours and essays, all the covert aid, the complicity, almost as if she were “our” daughter, all the discomfort with my part in the deception was worth it. So I thought.
My children loved him. He treated them as he did his own sons. Lobster dinners were popular, as were clothes, boxing lessons, laptops and countless hours of talking and understanding. But even without the baubles and threads, he filled the role of surrogate dad/step-dad effortlessly. Their generous step-father was too preoccupied to give them the attention they didn’t know they needed. The surrogate was always there with that wide smile and genuine, understanding heart.
We spent a lot of time together. Who else would go with me to tour the Mormon Tabernacle Church at Lincoln Center and actually enjoy it? Who else had ever cared so much about me? He helped me make sense of my past so that I could have confidence in my future. He sought and trusted my advice on business and parenting issues. He taught me about financial markets and I started to make money. We invested in real estate and made better than respectable profits. I was able to pay for summer camp and dance lessons and speech therapy and European vacations.
The generosity of my friend’s spirit was a revelation to me. When my day-to-day problems grew increasingly intense, he was my rock, always there with a shoulder to cry on, financial help or sensible advice. Of course, I realized he wasn’t totally selfless. I wasn’t that naïve. He wanted something in return, something more than me crying on his shoulder and discussing the latest W.G. Sebald novel. I thought I was being kind. I told him honestly that I loved my husband and could not have a physical relationship. Yet how could I disappoint this man who had meant so much to me? What could I do to make him happy without taking my clothes off? So I did the best thing I could; I pretended everything was okay.
Eventually I could see dark clouds gathering behind his eyes. Disappointment colored his every feature. The sexual tension was too much for him, he finally told me. I guessed then that he probably didn’t love his wife that much after all.
He gave and gave, helped and helped, praised and praised. I gave back, as best I could. He couldn’t have my body, but he believed he had my soul. And other than telling him that wasn’t so, I probably did very little to disabuse him of that notion. Promises of eternal security were compelling, I must admit. If only I would love him. And I did love him. Just never in the way he needed me to. The compensation he needed from me was too dear. I couldn’t pay.
How many times did I scream in frustration, begging him to stop? Stop needing me to talk to him all the time, be with him every minute that I wasn't needed elsewhere. He said over and over again that I was the only person he could be with 24 hours a day, seven days a week and never get bored He believed I felt the same way and thought it was wonderful.
It wasn’t wonderful. It was disturbing.
He believed we belonged together, that he was my boyfriend. He ignored my requests to leave me alone. I would go weeks without speaking to him. He always came back.
I felt as if I was caught in a Chinese finger trap; the more I tried to wriggle out of it, the tighter he held on. He needed to know everything, every sordid detail. Where did you buy those jeans? What did you do for dinner? Where are you going later? Do you have cramps? I told him it was oppressive, suffocating. He was dumbfounded. How could true love be oppressive? He was only trying to make my life better, to give me all I deserved. In passive silence, I rolled my eyes.
“Hi Sweetheart, whatcha doing? Who are you going with? I see you got new mascara, it’s a different color. Your eyes look even greener.” New mascara? Who notices that? What had I allowed to happen? I didn’t know how to stop it. I was afraid to.
As I tried harder to withdraw, he became more possessive and jealous. Some gremlin of doubt had crawled into his consciousness and whispered, “She’s cheating on you.” Was he following me? I would see him everywhere: on the street, in the garage, at the gym, on the instant message screen online. How did he get my e-mail password? Had he read the letter I had sent to an old friend a few days after my father passed away? How had he convinced himself that I was having an affair?
And why hadn’t I think of that before?
Here was the sword I needed to slice through my Gordian knot. Any thread of fear or love that kept me tethered to him suddenly snapped. He’d crossed the boundary of decency, a border I had probably invited him to step over on a treadmill years before. The sullen, familiar fog of confusion evaporated and there was that elusive clarity I so desperately needed. I was free, free of my stale naivety and caustic but undetected pity. But I had also lost something dear, an ideal, an innocence, maybe - a great friend most surely.
I don’t go to the gym any more. Of course I still care about him; years of friendship and affection can’t be erased. Nor can the good memories, and there were plenty of those. A few years have passed. My sadness and anger have subsided. I occasionally feel a twinge of nostalgia for the special camaraderie we once shared. His feelings for me were genuine, I know that. No one will ever, could ever love me that much again.
I’ll make sure of that.