His wife doesn’t understand him. He has never been in love like this before and he will leave his marriage for her, it just takes time. What sort of woman falls for those age-old cheat clichés? Well, me, actually…
As he handed over his credit card, I felt the hotel’s concierge study us. Not quite surreptitiously enough, she took in my partner’s wedding ring and the obvious, almost 20-year age gap between us. ‘Yes,’ I thought, a queasy feeling entering the pit of my stomach as I fixed my eyes on the beige carpet. ‘This is exactly what it looks like.’ What else could it have been? I was about to spend a night in a hotel with a married man 17 years older than me.
What I couldn’t have answered then – what I still struggle with now – is how I’d ended up in this situation. Not long ago, I would have laughed at the idea I’d ever be someone’s mistress. I’m smart, attractive, young – I have options. I have a strong sense of morality, which would once have made the idea of betraying another woman unthinkable.
I’m also rational. I know affairs only ever end in misery for all concerned, especially the other woman. I’d spent my life hoping one day to be someone’s everything – why would I settle for being a bit on the side?
I wish I could say that the moment I first saw him, I fell in love instantly and was swept along by forces beyond my control. In truth, when he turned up as a manager at work, he was just another middle-aged man in a suit – tall, fit and more youthful-looking than most, but no George Clooney.
I was in my early 30s and single, he was approaching 50 and stuck in a sexless marriage with a woman he no longer loved. Or so he said. It was a cliché and yet, somehow, I hoped desperately that it might end differently for me.
It started two years ago, with a string of emails from him, ostensibly about work, but with the odd personal question thrown in. We’d known each other a few months and were friendly in the office, but nothing more. I found him attractive, but that seemed irrelevant. Now he was asking: what had I studied at university? Who were my favourite authors? What kind of music did I like? I was flattered.
One night, a drinking session with colleagues ended with just the two of us, locked in intense conversation. Suddenly, I imagined kissing him. Taken aback, I excused myself. In the bathroom, I stared at the flushed face of the girl in the mirror and asked her what the hell she was thinking? When I returned, I forced myself to ask enthusiastic questions about his wife and young child, ignoring the uncomfortable expression on his face.
After that, emails came thick and fast – throughout the day, evenings and even weekends. For a year, we talked about every conceivable subject, from our childhoods to our shared love of music and film – even relationships. His wife’s name was mostly conspicuous by its absence. One other subject remained out of bounds entirely: our growing bond, which, by anybody’s standards, went far beyond platonic friendship. I knew I was attracted to him but told myself any attraction he had to me was probably a harmless diversion.
Very rarely did his behaviour stray beyond friendly, even when we went for drinks alone, although there were occasions when his desire was uncomfortably clear. Once, in the pub, I absentmindedly applied lip balm as I talked; glancing up, I noticed him staring at me with a look I could only describe as pain. I made a mental note to stop these drinks together. And I did. For a while.
But it was too easy to slip. I’d be out with friends and my phone would beep with a new message from him. They knew about our close friendship and warned me about getting too involved. I insisted they had nothing to worry about. I honestly thought it was true. Meanwhile, even work colleagues made jokes about the way he gazed at me in the office.
I believed his marriage would protect us both. As long as he was unavailable, I wouldn’t allow myself to fall for him and he’d never cross the line. Just as I was far from a typical temptress, he was the world’s least likely player. Quiet and unassuming, he wasn’t even charming, let alone flirtatious. I thought our closeness was his problem, not mine.
Then, suddenly, almost one year ago, everything changed. It dawned on me that his being unavailable was unbearable. The idle questions I’d once pondered about his marriage became all I could think about. I’d lie in bed wondering what his wife was like and if they still loved one another. Then I realised something else. I was in love with him; without us having even kissed. We were already having an affair of sorts. We texted each other last thing at night and first thing every morning. All that remained was the declaration. One night, another drinking session finished with just the two of us, I sensed he wanted to say something and, later that night, he called me, saying, ‘You know my feelings for you aren’t platonic, but I’ve never been unfaithful, so I don’t know what to do.’
I was crushed. It was hardly an admission of love – it felt more like the clumsy overture of a man in a midlife crisis. He was guilt-ridden afterwards, for upsetting me and betraying his wife and child, because, he said: ‘It’s not as if my marriage is breaking up.’ So that was that. Except it wasn’t. It’s incredibly hard to forget about someone you see every day, especially when they’re determined not to let go.
A few weeks later, he kissed me. It was a kiss so heavy with unfulfilled desire that I felt I might pass out. Shortly after that, he told me he was never going to leave his family. I’d never asked him to; I never would, although I wanted it more than anything. Morality had become a meaningless concept. All I knew was that if we couldn’t be together properly, I couldn’t be with him at all.
I cut off contact, although seeing him every day at work, looking as deeply unhappy as I felt, was like being tortured. I spent my spare time crying, wondering why, when I finally met the right person, he had to be married. I lost a stone in weight, stopped sleeping and, after going to the doctor in desperation, took the antidepressants offered to me.
For the sake of my sanity, I resigned. At my leaving drinks he watched me from across the room with a look of desperation. Later that night, he told me he loved me. He said he and his wife hadn’t had sex in years and slept in separate rooms, but that until he met me, he’d never thought of leaving because of their child. He told me that ever since he’d first seen me, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about me.
By the end of the evening, we were drinking alone together yet again. By that stage, several of our colleagues knew we were more than friends yet, although I tried to claim otherwise, I was past caring. I loved him and after months of torment, I wasn’t thinking straight.
We booked into a hotel. Part of me hoped the reality of sex with a 50-year-old wouldn’t live up to the fantasy; that it might even help me move on. But it was amazing: passionate but deeply romantic. His open adoration of my body was completely intoxicating.
The few friends I told were supportive, worried for me but taking my feelings seriously and hoping it might work out. I told my mum, who offered love without judgment. I begged her not to tell my dad. Although I wasn’t proud, I couldn’t feel guilty – I had no energy left. Our night together was the most honest thing that had happened in months.
I thought that would be the end, but he told me he’d realised he couldn’t stay with his wife. It took him months before he called to say he’d told her he wanted a separation, without telling her about me. During that time, we spoke every day and spent a couple more nights together. After the second, I told him I couldn’t see him again until he’d sorted out his life. Despite his assurances that we’d be together properly soon, sex in hotels felt seedy and his ring, which he kept on, was a constant reminder that he’d promised to spend eternity with somebody else.
The next time I saw him, four months since we’d slept together for the first time and two years since our strange friendship began, was the last. He hadn’t left home, and he and his wife hadn’t yet told their young child they were splitting up. When I asked the question, he told me he thought it might take months to extricate himself. In that moment, everything disintegrated. All the pain and frustration I’d been bottling up came flooding out. ‘I can’t keep doing this for months,’ I said. ‘How can you think that would be OK?’ He looked at me with an expression I’d never seen before. Like I was just another unreasonable demand. Like he couldn’t be bothered to deal with me.
Afterwards, I got an email saying what I already knew: it was over. He couldn’t take the next step with me, he said. He was sorry for the pain he’d caused but hoped I’d move on. I felt like all the air in my body had escaped; that I was crumpled, empty. The email was perfunctory, bordering on cold. It didn’t sound like the man I’d known.
I’ve asked myself a thousand times if what he told me about the state of his marriage and his intentions was true. But, after all we went through, I choose to believe it was. I’d rather assume he was overwhelmed by the realities of leaving than that he deliberately deceived me. If anything, I think he lied to himself, believing he was capable of actions which, when it came to it, he wasn’t.
He hasn’t contacted me since. My friends and mum promise it’s for the best; that his baggage would have been too much and that I’m still young and will meet someone more suitable. They’re right, of course. If we’d been together in reality, perhaps being with a middle-aged man would have bored me. But I love him – still, in spite of everything. That’s why, when I look back, I feel so bewildered, so bereft.