Lately, I've been thinking a lot about my days as a cad-whisperer, an odd period about 10 years ago when I found myself counseling various friends through their first tentative forays into adultery. I didn't seek this out. My wife and I had been exploring the wonders of consensual infidelity ourselves, a dangerous adventure that had the positive effect, as dangerous adventures tend to do, of breathing new life through our too-settled existence. I couldn't help blabbering about this exciting new discovery to all my friends. Before long, some of them began quietly approaching me for advice.
One was a friend I'll call "Murray." The other day, I called him up to ask him if he remembered what we talked about.
"First, you encouraged me to talk to that waitress at that café," he says.
Ah yes, the gorgeous Bolivian with the golden hair who seemed to like Murray even though he was short and bearded and given to dressing like a 19th century transcendentalist in thick khakis and billowy shirts.
I know for a fact, however, that I told him—I gave this advice to everyone at the time—to talk to his wife honestly and go to therapy if necessary. But failing that, I didn't believe he should be miserable in his one life.
"I don't remember that part of it," he says. "I thought you were just encouraging me to be bad."
At the time, Murray was in a classic horrible first marriage. He met his first wife when he was young and insecure and trying to make his way in the big city. She was much more confident and polished. "She seemed like an adult," he remembers. "She helped me get my act together. I always thought she knew everything and I didn't—and she was happy with that."
Sixteen years later, his inadequacy had become the central theme of their relationship. If he got loud or cracked too many jokes at a party, she would turn to ice and tell him he was acting like a fool. Because he's one of the funniest people in my social set, my wife was especially put off by his wife's behavior. "She never laughs at his jokes," she told me more than once.
"We had different sensibilities," Murray says now. "There was no shortage of stuff that didn't work."
Another big problem was money. She wanted a big fancy house, which he didn't, but he gave in to make her happy. She spent nearly half a million dollars on decorating alone, and wasn't shy about talking about it.
And, of course, sex. "I remember we went to a therapist probably 15 years ago," he tells me. "The therapist asked about our sex life and my wife said, 'Neither of us are particularly interested in sex.' I didn't say anything. I thought, Maybe she's right."
Murray was a demoralized man. And their son was starting to act out, too, sensing the tension as kids always do. No matter how many statistics pundits marshal to defend marriage, I firmly believe that living in secret misery doesn't do your kids any favors. And I bet most people think the same when it comes to actual personal experience. So I encouraged Murray at least to talk to the Bolivian bombshell. I didn't think he had a chance in hell, but maybe it would help break him out of his rut.
It turns out that was the critical move. "Once I went through with trying to talk to that woman and realized I could do it, it made me realize it was over," he says.
Sometime after the bombshell shot him down, Murray spent a week at my house so he could work in peace while his new house was being renovated, which was basically an excuse to get away from his wife. During that time he was trying to decide if he should get in touch with his high-school girlfriend. (Let's call her "Gloria.") She was the tragic first love who had cheated on him and broken his heart. He got her e-mail address from a friend months earlier and still hadn't gotten up the nerve to contact her.
What did I tell him back then? Probably "I never regret the women I have slept with, only the ones I didn't sleep with." I used to say that a lot. Carpe the fuckin' diem, bro.
This turned out to be another critical moment. "I don't think I would have done it otherwise," he says. "I had been married for 16 years or so, and I hadn't come close to doing anything like that. So yeah, I think you were directly responsible."
He sent the e-mail to Gloria from my sofa. I was as proud as a young father. Go forth and cad around, my child.
He heard back right away. She said she was coming to New York to do some research for her job. They met in front of the Dalton School. He was still pretty sure he wouldn't have the guts to do anything.
He was wrong. "It was a runaway train," he remembered. "It was a barn on fire. It was nuts." They hugged on the street and then went to Central Park, where—just as Murray was getting up the nerve to kiss her—I appeared to them in the form of a mirage.
"We were sitting on the grass and some bald guy walked by, I said, 'There's Richardson.'"
Demonic apparition or friendly spirit? I report, you decide.
When the dream Richardson passed, Murray leaned in for the kiss. Then they went to the Museum of Modern Art and made out some more, this time in the cloakroom. History doesn't record whether they made it past the lobby. But he told her she was his "fixed star in the sky, his first love, the ideal woman."
In the background—she's been listening in on our conversation—Gloria throws out an addition: "Plus, I'm a sex beast."
On one of her visits to New York, Gloria and Murray spent a night or two at my apartment and—remember, he's a short, bearded 19th century transcendentalist and Gloria is a pretty, slender, rock 'n' roll brunette—I actually saw her lean into his air space and take a deep breath just to inhale the wonder that is Murray.
Love, it is a mystery.
But from here, the story deepens. "You said there were certain rules of adultery," Murray reminds me. "I could only sleep with her eight times, after that you break up because you don't want to get attached."
He couldn't do that. He was so much happier, so "much more alive." But he also couldn't take the rest of my advice and fess up to his wife. This went on for two years. "I don't think I had the guts to leave," he says now.
Then Gloria was diagnosed with cancer. Finally, Murray had to choose, and he chose Gloria—the little adventure had turned into a goddamn Nicholas Sparks novel. There were still years of delays and negotiations and lawyers and counselors and tears to come, but eventually, he got a divorce and moved in with Gloria. Even then, he worried about money and especially about his son. "I don't see him as much as I want to," he told me during the early stages of his divorce.
But over time, he firmed up. "Ultimately, I think it's been a good thing for him to see a truthful version of what's going on and not some repressed fake version."
Exactly. This is why all the pundits make exceptions for people who are like the people they know. Because we all want happy, stable marriages—I'm proud to have made it through the ups and downs to 26 years (and counting) myself. Nobody really wants the "repressed fake version" for themselves or their children or their friends, only for people who are sociological categories and not real people. In real life, in our hearts, we all know that sometimes it takes more than one try to get something right.
Speaking of which, Murray and Gloria got married last week. Her brother gave her away via Skype.
Are they happy?
"So far," Murray tells me.
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