WHAT MAKES A LOVE affair memorable? If it’s your first? Being caught in bed by your lover’s partner? Your first love dying? In my experience, it was all the above.
At twenty-three, like other recent college graduates, I was hesitant about entering the real world, and burdened with the added stress of coming out in the early nineties. Focused on how to land a full-time position as a writer, falling in love was the last thing on my mind.
But fall I did.
And it was amazing. And horrible. And thrilling. And devastating. And I kept it a secret for three decades. You see, the person I fell in love with was someone I shouldn’t have. Not because she was a woman, but because she was my boss, she had a long-term partner, and she was thirty-four years older.
I had taken a job at my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, working in Admissions and running summer orientation. In the summer of 1993, I developed a crush on my boss Sarah. I never imagined it going anywhere because I was twenty-three and she was fifty-seven. But then, against all odds, it did.
For one solid year my life revolved around her. My worry of where I belonged in the real world took a backseat to thoughts of when I would see Sarah next. I spent my days counting down the hours until our daily 4pm phone calls. I loved how I got that flutter in my stomach when I opened the mailbox and saw her distinctive handwriting on an envelope. I loved waking up on Saturdays, knowing it was our day together. But then we were caught. By her partner. In their bed. In the middle of the night. Her partner was supposed to be away. Her suspicions proved correct.
I got dressed and left. On the drive home, except for a few glassy-eyed raccoons and possums crossing the road, the streets were empty. Who else but rodents and cheaters would be out in the middle of the night? At one point, I pulled over, opened my car door, and threw up on the side of the road. Nauseated as I was, I was also relieved. Now the lies could stop. At least that’s what I thought. Though the affair continued, it became altered, as though the impact of being exposed jostled my mind and set it straight.
This affair went on to shape me in ways that wouldn’t become apparent until years after it ended. Repercussions rippled through each subsequent relationship, keeping me half in, half out, stuck in a dance of Hokey Pokey. I was turned around for sure.
An affair is like a drug that rewires your brain, makes you do stupid things. You hurt people, unintentionally (so you tell yourself) but still, you do. It’s hard to stop doing something that feels good. You wake each day and tell yourself, “Today I will end it.” But you don’t. You can’t. That is until you must. Like when you get caught. Even then it’s hard to quit.
I’m often asked how two people so far apart in age could connect. Looking back, I think the age difference is what made it work and not work. I was unsure of who I was becoming, and she allowed me to be whoever that was. Maybe to her I represented that brass ring for one more chance on her merry-go-round of youth. The point is, it no longer matters how or why it happened, only that after it ended, I was left stuck in the past. Stuck in who I was at twenty-three, unable to let Sarah go and unable to let anyone new in. Stuck I was, until a therapist said, “In order to move on you need to tell your story,” so, I did, and I am.
Felice Cohen’s latest book, Half In: A Coming-of-Age Memoir of Forbidden Love was published this month. She can be reached at https://www.felicecohen.com.