My nonsexual affair began on the day Linda and I had hot fudge sundaes, in the park, near the fence, where most of the grass was dead and the weeds could not be identified by anyone who was not a trained botanist.
Luckily, Linda was.
“Ambrosia artemisiifolia,” she said. “See the hairy underside of the leaf? Ragweed, people call it. Bad for allergies.”
“Fascinating,” I said.
She smiled to herself in a way I found mysterious. Her fingertips lingered on the underside of the weed’s leaves as she released it, a gesture both sensual and vaguely scientific.
I had never known anyone who could call a weed by its true name. I wanted to hold her brain in my bare hands!
“It doesn’t get any better than this!” I exclaimed. In my excitement, I bit the inside of my lip. I soon tasted blood, and my eyes watered from the pain, but this was the most enthusiasm I’d felt in years.
Linda straightened up yet continued to examine the nearby plants with her hands on her hips. “How’s work?” she finally asked, turning back to me.
I tongued my wound before answering. “For some reason, I had ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ playing in my head all day.”
“Yeah,” I said. “ ‘Gettin’ cards and letters from people I don’t even know.’ ”
“ ‘And offers comin’ over the phone.’ ”
My breath caught slightly as I realized she’d completed the lyric for me.
“Linda,” I said.
“No, I’m listening. Let me know what you’re thinking.” She tilted her head and squinted in her trademark quizzical expression. To an almost violent degree, she invited me to reveal a confidence.
“Well, sometimes I wonder if we’ve gotten to know each other—a little too well.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “You’re definitely a puzzle to me. I definitely don’t understand you.”
“You and my wife both,” I said, and immediately regretted it. It had been an unspoken rule not to mention our partners.
Linda had been sitting with her knees pulled up and her forearms wrapped around her knees, but now she extended her right leg and her right hand fell to her thigh, while she kept her left forearm around her left kneecap. I knew this meant she was extremely upset.
“Kidding,” I said.
“I bet,” she said.
“Kidding,” I said again, more earnestly.
“All right, you clodhopper,” she said, and pushed my shoulder. I swayed as if she had sent me moving like a tire swing. She didn’t seem to notice.
“Good ice cream,” she said. “Gotta get back.” She stood up and brushed off her knees, though they were already clean.
We ambled over to a green trash barrel that smelled rancid from five paces. We tossed in our plastic sundae boats and spoons and napkins, then veered toward the street where our cars were parked a block apart.
“Wow, that was fun,” I said.
“It sure was. Hey,” she said, stopping and making intense eye contact. “You take care?”
“No, you take care.”
“Get out of here!” she said.
As she walked away, I asked, “You watching Lost this week?”
“Of course,” she said. “E-mail me?”
“Maybe.” I winked.
“Sheesh!” she said, waving her hand at me. But she was smiling.
When I got home, Sarah had the lawn mower all taken to pieces in the garage. I left the Camry in the driveway and walked up to her with my hands in my pockets, whistling.
“Jesus Christ,” Sarah said, “is that chocolate sauce down the front of your shirt?”
I looked down. Sure enough. There was a long streak of fudge sauce, slightly thicker where it crossed the bulge of my paunch.
I blushed furiously. Why hadn’t Linda said something?
“Where?” I asked foolishly, on the brink of spilling a confession. “Oh, that,” I said, dabbing at the sauce with a finger. It was still wet and surprisingly thick. My mind flashed again, almost angrily, to Linda. “You know, I got a lot done, so I stopped for a sundae on my way home. It’s bizarre that something can get on you without you even noticing!” In fact, I had no memory of dribbling anything. Was it blood from my lip? I touched my finger to my tongue. Fudge sauce! I tried to laugh and finally looked up to risk Sarah’s gaze, but she was rummaging in her toolbox as if I weren’t even there.
When I got inside, in the home Sarah and I made together with our nine-year-old daughter, Joslyn, I had a flash of guilt: Is this how it’s going to be from now on? Sneaking around? Lying? There was a spot of sticky clamminess on the top of my gut where the chocolate had bled through my shirt, which added to a nagging sense that I was unclean. But that would be what someone having a sexual affair would think, and there was nothing sexual happening with Linda. We had found a special kind of friendship, that’s all.
“This shirt’s a mess!” I exclaimed loudly in the mudroom, hoping my voice would carry into the garage. I removed the shirt, doused it with Spray ’n Wash, and rinsed it in the stationary tub.
Things had begun innocently enough.
The campus where Linda taught was close to the downtown bank where I worked. There was a café, frequented mostly by students, which sold fantastic sandwich wraps. One day our orders came up right at the same time, and we realized we had both purchased the same kind of wrap—spicy Thai chicken! It turned out that we also shared a love for the sun on a warm day. “Great minds think alike,” I said, as we settled within speaking distance on a pair of benches outside the café. I was referring to our common choice of sandwich, but I also could have been referring to our affinity for alfresco dining, which would become a theme in our relationship. “So I see you like your spicy Thai wrap with a little photosynthesis on the side,” I added, nodding up at the sun.
This was how I learned she was a trained botanist.
And just like that, a bond had formed, and we continued to run into each other at the café, sort of randomly, until it started to seem intentional. We had become friends. “You enjoy talking about things in a way others don’t” was how Linda put it one day. I reminded her that I was a CPA, more comfortable with FASB regulations than deep conversation. And when she pshawed that, I told her I’d been a jock, too, back in the day. She looked at me with what I would come to recognize as her quizzical expression, as if she thought I was referring to myself as an actual jockstrap and not as an athlete. I clarified for her that I had played collegiate soccer. “Albeit Division III,” I added modestly. Her laugh was easy and, I thought, musical. Unlike Sarah, she never wore makeup, and that felt like a sort of guiding principle for us.
So we were good random friends, you could say. Casual friends—until today, when we had planned to meet on an otherwise ho-hum Sunday afternoon, under the pretext of “catching up on things” at work. And she had named that weed, and we had crossed a line.
Two weeks later, in early June, Linda and I were walking through a stretch of forest in the state park, heading for the beach. Sarah had taken Joslyn to pick up her new mouth guard and to shop for leotards for her dance class.
“I think I’ll go to a wooded area and journal,” I’d told Sarah.
“Bring me back some nuts and berries,” she had said. “But could you do some dishes before you go, babe?”
Babe was a term of endearment from early in our relationship. Sarah first used the term while affectionately slapping me on the buttocks after we’d had intercourse in the shower in my dormitory at 3:00 a.m. Sarah played volleyball at the liberal arts college in the Midwest where I played soccer. We relished sexual contact early in our relationship to an almost compulsive degree. Every athlete has a teammate with whom there’s an unusual level of intuitive connection—passes always connect, the ball arcs perfectly to set up the spike. Sarah and I had had that connection in bed. It was the foundation upon which we had built our love, eighteen years ago. But as our marriage progressed, it seemed as if we were competing with our old selves or maybe even with each other. Our couplings sometimes felt like tests of endurance or a type of exercise drill. Occasionally, one of us would make anguished cries in the middle of sex, like a weight lifter.
Soon I’d done all the dishes, my teeth just about chattering from nervousness. It took all of my self-discipline to wipe down the cutting boards as well; I didn’t want Sarah to have any reason to think that I’d rushed to get to the state park and journal.
“What’s your biggest fear?” Linda asked me now, as we strolled on the path through the woods.
“You really know how to cut through all of the BS,” I said admiringly.
“Just answer the question.”
“That I’ll love too much,” I said. “Or not enough.” I glanced over at her. Her gaze moved among the many species of flora that surrounded us.
“Look at that,” she said. “Arisaema triphyllum. A jack-in-the-pulpit.” Just off the trail, she knelt down by a small green plant with a few lance-shaped leaves illuminated by dappling sunshine. Her shoulder-length brown hair fell forward and I saw a part of her slender neck I had never seen before. She pushed back a green, overarching hood to reveal an upright flower spike. “He’s pretty proud of himself,” she said.
My throat became too thick for me to speak.
We walked on another hundred yards, going up the last rise before the trail sloped toward the edge of the woods and the water beyond.
“What’s your biggest fear?” I asked.
She laughed at this, then beamed to herself in a strange, self-satisfied way.
“That I’ll end up somewhere I don’t want to be,” she finally said.
It was hard to parse her tone. Her partner, Miklosh, was an economics professor at the college. He spent most of his free time making mathematical models of the stock market, which he hoped to one day outwit.
We broke through the trees and found ourselves on top of a dune overlooking Lake Michigan.
“Hey, those waves are like wrinkles on a huge forehead,” I observed, feeling inspired.
“Last one in is a rotten egg!” Linda cried, and we took off.
The dune sloped down gently, but the sand was extremely soft and deep, so my feet sank into it a lot, making it hard to run quickly. But I ran as fast as I could toward the water. I tried to take off my shoes while running—to complete the effect of running down the dune and into the water—but I couldn’t and had to stop to remove my shoes. Linda caught up to me, breathing hard, and passed me. Still, it was great.
And the day went from there. We told each other difficult stories about our families of origin—how my father had once thrown a pumpkin at me in anger, how he once doubted whether I had the brains or the fortitude to become a CPA. Linda told me of the time her mother had cracked a raw egg over her head because she wasn’t paying attention in the kitchen while her mother was trying to teach her a recipe. We both admitted that we’d been thinking of each other as a “new dimension” in our lives—the exact same phrase!
“No, let me prove it to you,” I exclaimed. “Let me show you my journal!”
But she told me she didn’t need to read it in my journal. She trusted me.
Things had gone so well that when we made it back to the parking lot, I was tempted, because I felt we could handle it now, to bring up the fudge sauce on my shirt that fateful day and ask Linda why she’d never said anything about it. “I don’t want to judge you,” I had practiced saying, “but that seems like the sort of thing a friend would tell a friend.” Instead, I said, very frankly, “I felt amazingly close to you today.”
“You did,” she said. She smiled, but her tone had a certain careful quality to it.
“Yeah, so close that I didn’t want to tell you how close while we were walking along the beach.”
She said nothing, looked at me blankly.
“What am I doing?” I blurted out. “I’m sorry, this is uncharted territory for me!” My sense of our surroundings seemed to spin 360 degrees.
“What are you trying to say?” Linda asked. “I’ve never seen you so emotional.”
“High on life? I don’t know. Hey, some ice cream? I’m in the mood.”
That quizzical look was back, but all at once it broke, and she smiled hugely. “You know what? You’re nuts! You’re just a really unique person.” Then she lowered her eyes, as if now she was the one who had gone too far.
“Hey, it’s all right,” I said. “You know? We can talk to each other. What the heck!”
As it dawned on her, she smiled again. “What the heck!” she repeated.
When I got home that afternoon, Sarah was just coming upstairs from the basement, where we had an elliptical trainer, an exercise bike, and a weight station. She was drenched in sweat. Her face was flushed and her reddish-brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She toed off her shoes in the mudroom, and then, in a single fluid motion, slipped off her sweaty gym shorts and panties and draped them over the laundry hamper. She was high-waisted, softly muscular, and nearly as tall as me.
“Joslyn’s at Lindsey’s,” she said, stepping by me and heading down the hallway. “Get yourself ready.”
I used the first-floor shower and she used the larger shower, on the second floor. We met in our bedroom and engaged in a wild, heaving sexual act, repeatedly switching positions so that she was on top for a while and then I was on top. Either way, what we were doing reminded me of a bull trying to buck its rider. Still, we persevered until we both came.
After we were finished, I lay on my back and closed my eyes, imagining wave after Lake Michigan wave breaking along a sandy beach.
“You’re a total mystery to me,” I murmured, and then I drifted off to sleep.
Then one afternoon I got an urgent phone call from Linda. “I’ve got to get out of here,” she said. “Let’s meet at the state park.” I was behind schedule on some regulatory filings, but they could wait.
As was our custom, we parked our cars at different ends of the lot and converged at the trailhead as if we just coincidentally were both headed for a solitary hike. And in fact we barely spoke to each other until we were on the beach, sitting on the warm sand, watching the waves come in.
Apparently, politics in the biology department at the college were brutal. Linda felt disrespected by several things that had been said in a meeting and then alluded to in an e-mail that went out to the whole division. I was so focused on being there for her that I had trouble following everything she said, but I definitely understood the tears she had to wipe from her eyes.
I wanted to put my arm around her, but I knew how embraces sometimes led to sex. Yet I knew our affair was nonsexual, so my embrace would be innocent. But I also feared that, emotionally, I was cheating on my wife already, so none of this was innocent. Finally, I patted her knee and said, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”
“Thanks for listening,” she said. She patted my knee right back. “Miklosh is to the point where he just rolls his eyes when I complain about those people.”
Despite the fact that now she, too, had broken our implicit pact not to mention our partners, I had never felt so close to Linda. To be honest, I wanted to do more than pat her knee. I wanted a gesture that would speak the new, intense, but nonsexual language we were learning.
When I got back to the office, I tried to make progress on those regulatory filings, but my feelings were rising and coalescing and falling in unpredictable ways, like the contents of a lava lamp. Finally, I decided I needed to journal to settle down. My thoughts were awkward and confused, until I wrote: Is it possible to have emotional intercourse?
That evening during family-workout time in the basement, I became engrossed in a CNN segment on the aftermath of the battle between Israel and Hamas. The senseless conflict reminded me of Linda’s difficulties in her biology department. Joslyn was practicing new moves for her modern-dance class in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror, I was taking it easy on the exercise bike, watching the TV, and when Sarah finished on the elliptical, she said something I didn’t catch and went upstairs.
Fifteen minutes later, she came back down to the basement showered but red-faced, wearing her bathrobe with the belt knotted extremely tightly across her waist.
“Where is your head at?” she asked in a low, tense voice. Joslyn was practicing a vaulting leap just a few steps away, and I hoped she hadn’t overheard. Then Sarah turned and left.
At first I thought she was scolding me for easing up on my workout again; she had noted on other occasions that despite exercising regularly I had reached a point where I consumed more calories than I burned. I followed her upstairs, all the way to our bedroom on the second floor. It turned out she was angry that I had not picked up on her cue to finish my workout, shower, and prepare for sex, which we could still accomplish with some assurance of privacy as long as Joslyn was absorbed with perfecting her dance routine.
“I’m sorry, Sarah,” I said, “but I was watching this special report on the Israel-Hamas conflict.”
Sarah sighed and let me use the upstairs shower. While I soaped up, she sat on the toilet lid and asked me about my day.
“Nothing special,” I said, grateful that the sound of water spraying would conceal any awkwardness. “Working on those regulatory filings. How about you?”
“Everything’s peachy,” she said. “I got some reports to run and made some users happy.” Sarah was a computer programmer who faced constant struggles with the clients who relied on her work. “We’re all right,” she added, maybe trying to make up with me. “Joslyn has over twenty minutes of her workout left.”
Still, our sex was lackluster.
I had trouble sleeping that night and slipped out of bed to journal. Something going on with Sarah and me, I wrote. Is Linda the problem or the solution or . . . ????
A few evenings later, I told Sarah I was going back to work for a bit, and instead I went to Linda’s house uninvited. I had two reusable green grocery bags full of things—food, a book, a few DVDs. I felt ready for whatever might happen.
“Hi, it’s me,” I said, when Linda answered the door.
“Allan, what are you doing here?”
“Just stopping by. Just hanging out, I guess.”
“Miklosh is here,” she said, with significance in her voice.
“That’s fine. Does he want to hang out as well?”
“Who is it?” Miklosh said, coming to the door. Linda’s partner was a small man, maybe ten years older than Linda. They refused to marry because they believed marriage to be a corrupt institution. I don’t wish to criticize anyone’s appearance, but Miklosh was not what is commonly considered handsome or even average. Linda was pretty, with her bright eyes and pert chin, but she was beyond any superficial concern with appearances.
“I’m a friend of Linda’s,” I said. I blushed furiously. At this point I knew I had made a horrible mistake, and yet a part of me insisted that what I was doing was okay, that the awkwardness I felt was a necessary consequence of personal growth, which was always uncomfortable. “I was in the neighborhood, so I just dropped by to see if you guys wanted to hang out. I brought some bagels, some cherries, and some chips and salsa, plus some DVDs—Slumdog Millionaire and the third season of The Office, the American version. What are you guys up to?”
Linda had a queasy expression on her face, as if she’d just tasted spoiled food. “Hey, wow, Allan, thanks for stopping by,” she managed. “This is great stuff. But we’re busy tonight. Sorry!”
“No problem,” I said.
Walking back to my car, I wondered what I had been thinking. Had I been recklessly insisting on our innocence or madly expressing our guilt? I admit I was not entirely myself.
When I returned home, Sarah confronted me in the kitchen. “What’s all this?” she asked, gesturing at the reusable green grocery bags. “You go shopping?”
There was something about her tone. I didn’t have the energy to explain myself, to lie, to do anything. There were a million ways out of the situation, but it was as if I wanted to get caught.
“What’s wrong?” Sarah asked, drawn further into suspicion, no doubt, by my stymied expression.
“I was at a friend’s.” It was only after I said this that I remembered I had told her I was going back to work.
“Miklosh,” I said.
“Yes, he teaches at the college.”
“And then you went shopping?”
“Yes. And I picked up some DVDs.”
Later that night, in bed, it seemed that something was troubling Sarah.
“What’s up?” I asked, lying next to her.
She stared at the ceiling. Her mouth was sour, sullen.
“We’re a total mismatch, Allan,” she said softly. “I don’t love you anymore.”
“What are you talking about?”
But all of a sudden I knew that my worst fear had come true: I was in a loveless marriage. She bit her lip and wouldn’t answer.
“It’s my fault,” I said. “I haven’t been giving enough to us. I’ve been distracted, sort of. Can you feel it?”
“I am such an idiot,” Sarah said to herself. “Blind as a fucking bat.”
Sarah withdrew from me, but she didn’t leave. After a few days she said we should try counseling. I agreed but was worried that our sessions would inevitably lead me to confess my nonsexual affair.
Maybe Sarah was right. Maybe we were mismatched after all. Some might say Sarah was rough on me, that her manner with me had evolved to the point where she was more like a domineering coach than a trusted teammate, but I knew that all of the real love she had ever experienced in her life before we met was from hard-ass coaches. We are all doomed to love the way we’re taught to love. And who was I to criticize her? I was having an affair. I had put my family unit in jeopardy, yet I still couldn’t deny myself the heady draught of intense friendship that was tearing my life apart. Though Linda had forgiven my surprise visit to her house, I had to know where I stood with her—at any cost.
“I guess the word special is overused,” I said to Linda. “It’s just that I feel the need to, I don’t know, consecrate what we’re doing.”
She gave me that quizzical look. “Where are you going with this, Allan?”
We were at the beach again, both of us playing hooky, midweek. There was no point sitting at my desk—I didn’t know a credit from a debit, a receivable from a payable. A few dozen yards away, another couple stretched out reading on their towels, and there were a few scattered families closer to the water, but otherwise the beach was fairly empty on this coolish overcast day.
“I got you this.” From my shirt pocket I pulled out a simple silver band, very thin, and held it in my palm. She could put it on any finger and no one would know what it meant.
“It’s a friendship ring.”
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” I said. “Things aren’t great at home right now, and it’s made me really think about everything, everything that’s been going on, and why people need to be with other people, and what does it all mean, you know? No one understands what we’re doing. But I believe in what we have, and I want to know how much you believe in it. Are we friends?”
“Of course we are, you clodhopper,” she said, trying to affect our old camaraderie, but her face was showing signs of distress.
“Then accept this special ring from me.”
“Well, all right.”
“Go ahead, put it on.”
She picked it out of my palm. She put it on the index finger of her right hand. “Ta-da,” she said, trying to make light of it. “It’s cool. Thanks, Allan.”
“And now, with the ring on your hand, I’d like us to do something to consecrate and prove what we have. It may sound a little weird, but bear with me.”
“All right.” She winced slightly, but unmistakably, yet I knew I had to go through with it.
“I’d like us to sit here together on this beautiful beach and sort of, well, through our clothes, cup each other’s genitals with one hand—but wait, wait, it won’t be anything sexual. I want us to do it like a handshake, like something that signifies how we’re not sexual at all. It’ll be honoring what we have with our partners and honoring what we have together. Can you do that with me, right now?”
“Allan . . .” Her lower lip trembled. “Allan, I don’t know what to say.”
I couldn’t bear to look at her. My eyes went to the water. The nearby couple had gotten up from their towels and decided to brave the chilly lake. They were stepping tentatively in the ankle-deep surf.
“You don’t have to speak,” I said.
“Allan, I’m sorry but you’re freaking me out right now.”
A prickly, cold sensation crawled up my spine. When the waves began to break a few yards out, they made rippling, splashing sounds, like distant applause; then when they reached the shore they pounded a roar of deeper notes, like something happening underground.
“You’ve never been committed like I have,” I said quietly. I heard the bitterness in my voice, and I knew my weaker nature had temporarily assumed the upper hand, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. “This has all been just a game to you. A lark.”
“That’s not fair, Allan. That’s mean!” She was about to cry.
“Well then, what about the time I had chocolate sauce down my front and you didn’t say anything?”
“When we had the sundaes in the park!”
“What does that matter?”
“Did you even notice?”
“Yes, of course I did.”
“Then why didn’t you say something?”
Tears spilled down her face. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know.” She was really thinking. Finally she said, “Because I didn’t know how to tell you what was happening! I didn’t know what was happening!”
With this, she got up and strode away. I watched her all the way up the dune, until she disappeared into the woods. I didn’t know how to go after her, in that moment.
I turned back to the lake. The couple had been making progress, wading in water up to their crotches. Then, suddenly, at some signal between the two of them—maybe a count?—they dove in at the same time. When they surfaced, he flipped his hair expertly to the side, sending a spray of water. She pulled on the straps of her bikini top and cried out at the coldness of the water. He said something to her.
She laughed, but then replied, “No, you didn’t!”
Which surprised me.
Sarah and I are still together. Counseling has been good for us, or at least it’s kept everything from coming completely apart. We’ve talked about the coach-player dynamic. We’ve talked about friendship within marriage. “Why is everything so goddamn lonely all the time?” Sarah blurted out the other day. And neither the therapist nor I ventured an answer. Honestly, I sit on the couch with her once a week because I’m afraid she will leave me, or she won’t and we’ll still hurt Joslyn in some subtle way we won’t ever be able to understand, much less heal.
I’ve never confessed to Sarah the nonsexual affair, in therapy or in any other context. And though I know how dangerous and destructive my affair proved to be, a crazy question will sometimes occur to me out of the blue: Should Linda and I have done more to express our love? Should we have gone sexual? There is a natural progression to things, which, you could say, we resisted, but I believe our adventure was singular, and as a result it is something to be cherished. Now when I see Linda on the sidewalk or at a convenience store (never at our café, which I still frequent), I nod at her and say a solemn hello. She ignores me, of course, but so thoroughly that I can’t forget how much we once meant to each other.