It was my third month working at one of New York’s top media companies. We were introduced at the company holiday party. “You two will get along well,” my PR crony nudged while sipping her hot pink cocktail. “He’s a good guy.”
She signaled to the sports coat of an older man, and when he turned, his eyes caught me off guard. Frank Sinatra’s Christmas album was the perfect soundtrack to his entrance. At the bar, we bonded over Mad Men, Cary Grant movies, and a shared love of Nora Ephron. He said I reminded him of Amy Adams. I said I preferred Mia Farrow. He told me I gave up acting too soon. I told him to mind his own business.
The next morning, I replayed our ping pong match over and over: What was his name again? How much older was he? Was he married? Was I crazy? The holidays passed. My desk phone rang. He requested I bring him a copy of a press packet I was working on. Again, our conversation moved quick and easy, like an exciting game of tennis. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.
Twenty minutes later, I left his office and got lost on the way back to my cube. He wore a wedding band. I had a boyfriend. He was in his 40s. I was 20 years his junior.
The next time he called, I ignored him. The time after that, I picked up.
I hesitated. “Fine, but we get it to go.”
On his birthday, we went to a bar after work and I bought him a journal for a gift. When we left the bar, I asked him what his plans were for the rest of the evening. He said he was going to dinner with his parents. I suddenly realized how badly I wanted to go with him.
Stories whirled back and forth between us on the six-block walk to Starbucks. Email next. Witty banter. Office observations. Theater reviews. I’d never experienced such lightning attraction to a person before. An inherent understanding existed, communicated through our brisk conversation, cool humor, and sharp delivery. I broke up with my boyfriend two months after we met, vowing never to settle again.
Though I knew better than to have an affair with him, I’d seen enough movies to know that my break-up with my boyfriend was an ominous sign. My coworkers began questioning our relationship, too. Every time I’d pass my cubemate with a Starbucks cup, she’d serenade me with a sing-songy “Uh-oh,” under her breath.
“We’re just friends!” I blustered.
But on second thought, I suspected we weren't.
I ended our confusing non-affair abruptly; overnight, as if turning off a light switch. Lights off, cut to black. I emailed that we shouldn’t speak anymore and I asked that he not attend the happy hour my colleagues were throwing me for my birthday.
He showed up anyway.
Storming to the bar doorway I asked why he’d come (to wish you a happy birthday), how long he’d been married (not very long), and if he had any children (yes). Then I asked if he understood why I was curious — and concerned (yes — and yes). Many more questions ran through my head, but I stayed silent, deciding, in that moment, that we could remain friends, but with boundaries. Rather, one boundary: that we not become physical.
As the months ticked by, I no longer worried what my colleagues thought. Some nights, he’d walk me home after work. We discussed essays I was working on in night school. I mocked his screen play ideas and came up with new ones. He’d hug me under the awning of my building and then continue on to his train. I often made up errands to run just so we could spend more time together.
My friends had strong opinions about our relationship.
“You need to ask about his personal life.” they said.
“You can’t ask about his personal life.” they said.
One thing everyone agreed on: “You’re falling in love.”
I didn't listen to any of them.
A year into our non-courtship, I left for a friend’s wedding in another state and arrived at my hotel to find a lush orchid with a note that read "From a co-worker." My girlfriend, with whom I was sharing the room, gave me the stink eye.
“Just friends, huh?”
When I returned to New York, I asked if we could take a lunchtime walk to the Central Park Zoo. We sat on a park bench.
“What are we doing? What are your intentions here?”
“I don’t have intentions. We’re just friends.”
“Were a gift.”
I didn't believe him, so I persisted, asking more pointed questions slowly and deliberately. I needed to understand what was going on.
I asked if he felt guilty about our friendship (sometimes), if he ever thought of me as more than a friend (yes), and if he wanted me to become more than a friend (it’s complicated). Then I asked if he understood the message he’d sent by delivering flowers to a hotel room halfway across the country (I’m sorry) and I told him that needed to stop (you’re right).
After an eternity of interrogation and one-word responses, he breathed deeply and dropped his head into his palms. We both sat quietly for a very long time.
Finally, he broke the silence. He looked me square in the face, said he was conflicted, and that it was “terrifying.” He suddenly looked terrified, too. I knew he was telling the truth; unlike when he’d said, We’re just friends.
The more he spoke, the more I understood. I’d grown up in a household similar to the one he was describing. My own parents were not compatible. I was perceptive to it as a child, and it made it hard for me to be in relationships as an adult. I was funny around men. I didn't really know how to behave. I tried too hard. I felt nervous. Untrusting of love.
I wanted to help him so badly.
I mentioned that I’d gone to support groups when my parents had separated a few years before, and that I continued to go whenever I felt lost. He mentioned that he was doing the same, and from then on, every so often, we left work separately and met at meetings. We sat next to each other and listened as people revealed their pasts and their hopes for the future. I often spoke about my own life. Sometimes, I’d cry and he’d pat me on the back. When the meetings concluded, everyone held hands and he’d squeeze mine extra tightly. I felt safe talking in front of him, not funny or nervous at all.
He rarely spoke in the meetings.
I found out information on the Internet. Scrolling through pictures of his smiling family, I remembered all the pictures my family took on a Caribbean cruise, just weeks before my parents filed for divorce. I thought of us standing on the grand, whirling staircase, looking like The Brady Brunch. My parents were holding each other. My sisters and I were laughing. What a happy family we appeared to be.
When I stumbled across a picture that included a little child, however, it crumpled my heart. I left my desk and sobbed silently in a corner bathroom stall until my body shook. I wanted to run and wrap my arms around that child. I wanted to wrap my arms around everyone. I said nothing.
Time passed. On his birthday, we went to a bar after work and I bought him a journal for a gift. When we left the bar, I asked him what his plans were for the rest of the evening. He said he was going to dinner with his parents. I suddenly realized how badly I wanted to go with him.
"Will your wife be there?" I asked.
When he nodded “yes” I wished I could disappear into the cracks of the sidewalk. I wished I could take back his journal and un-buy his scotch. I felt so foolish.
More time went by. We continued going to meetings, he continued walking me home, and I continued to remain steadfast in my commitment to help save him from a life I thought he needed saving from. Meanwhile, I continued to hope he’d realize that I needed to be loved, too.
This odd devotion went on for far too long.
Eventually, I left my job. He came to my new office and walked me home. We still laughed a lot; we still talked about Cary Grant movies and screenplay ideas and people we knew and what we had for lunch and what we did at work that day. He was still the first man I let know me. But after some time, I stopped going with him to meetings. I started realizing that perhaps I wasn’t helping him. Perhaps I was making things harder for him. And perhaps he was making things harder for me, too. Another birthday rolled around, and we went for another drink. It was then that he told me he was taking a vacation with his family. Maybe this would help them, he said.
I said I understood.
That night I went home to write in my own journal, the journal I’d scrawled in furiously for nearly three years. I was embarrassed and I was betrayed and I was angry and I was heartbroken. I tried to put my feelings into words yet again, but I was exhausted and I was ashamed and I was hurt and I was paralyzed with sadness. This romance wasn't at all like a Cary Grant movie. My feelings were real and complicated, unscripted and messy.
That was the night I said goodbye.