I look forward to reading the essays in the New York Times’ Modern Love section. There are few things I enjoy more than a good love story. My favorites include a woman who finally discloses her spanking fetish to her ultimately accepting fiance, and a father’s Day tale of one dad’s inspiration–his gay son’s fight for equality. They speak to me.
This week’s edition is told from the perspective of a woman, Anita, who had an almost decade-long crush on a man, Steven, whom she’d only met three times before agreeing to let him move across the country into her home to start a publishing house with her. This is an intriguing story, a true product of modernity, as the internet makes a nine-year connection with another person that you’ve only met in “real life” a handful of times incredibly plausible. However, what’s most interesting about this story is not the long-distance relationship that blossomed into a lifelong romance (if you read the story, you’ll see they end up married with a kid), but what’s left unsaid about these two people’s lives over the course of nine years.
I couldn’t help but feel distracted by the omitted details of this nearly ten-year “friendship”. When Anita and Steven first meet in person, in 2001, Anita admits she’s in a relationship, albeit a “bad” one. She’s faithful to her boyfriend, but she finds herself incredibly attracted to Steven, believes him to be the person she is going to marry (at least initially), and allows him to put his arm around her at a bar. They resume their respective lives, but she has feelings for him, and is thrilled by an email he sends her in which he insults her. If such an email is thrilling, what is the substance of that “bad” relationship with her boyfriend entailed. I was dying to know about that. I couldn’t help but wonder about this boyfriend. Do they live together? If it’s so bad, why doesn’t she dump him?
Undeterred by Steven’s insult, Anita emails him back and defends herself by telling him that 1) she’s attracted to him, 2) she felt uncomfortable because of it, and 3) she has that boyfriend, but if he gets to know her better he’ll change his mind about her. I love any sentence that begins, “I have a boyfriend, but”. We learn little else about the substance of Anita and Steven’s multi-year correspondence except that it happened regularly and involved “books and art”. Steven invites Anita to Chicago to see a Van Gogh exhibit. She declines because she’s already seen that exhibit in Amsterdam, but is that the real reason? Let’s be honest! I mean, you’ve already told Steven that you’re attracted to him and that you have a boyfriend, you might as well say, “Steven, I’m afraid I’ll cheat on my boyfriend if I go to Chicago, and in any case I don’t have a good excuse as to why I’m traveling to Chicago to meet a guy I’ve never mentioned to him before.” Isn’t that what’s really going on here?
Years pass, they email daily, and Steven gets into a relationship of his own. He ultimately moves in with this woman. But before the move he wants to swing by Anita’s place. Anita says: “A flurry of e-mails passed between us to try to arrange a time to meet, but we failed.” Why did you fail? Were you disinterested upon learning that Steven had a girlfriend? Were you worried about what your boyfriend would think?
A year later, both Steven and Anita are finally single and the rest is history. Anita mentions that she was dumped by her boyfriend, but doesn’t explain if this is the same guy from 2001 when she first met Steven, or someone else. What happened? Why did he dump her? And we never learn what happened to the woman Steven moved in with…maybe she found his emails to Anita. Those are the details I want to know.
Why are those details interesting to me? The story is about Anita and Steven’s love, not their respective failed relationships leading up to it, right? Well, sort of. But they clearly had other people in their lives over that nine-year period. The bad boyfriend, the woman Steven moved in with. These were people intimately familiar with Steven and Anita during this nine-year love affair. It was a love affair. Steven’s telling of the story says as much: “that correspondence over those many years bound us together.” Those real people, real lives involved in this, I want to know what they knew. Did the woman Steven moved in with know that he wanted to stop and see Anita? Did Anita’s boyfriend know she wanted to travel to Chicago to meet up with a guy she’d only met one time before? A guy she had feelings for. When we read these stories, we’re expected to cheer and celebrate the outcome, the marriage, the child, the nine-year courtship, but we only get the lovers’ perspective. I don’t know anything more than Anita is willing to tell me. And I’m skeptical.
This American Life aired an episode about infidelity back in 2009. In the prologue, Ira Glass interviewed Jessica Pressler about similar skepticism she shared when reading the Vows section in the New York Times. Pressler said, “They always say, ‘their road to finding each other was a bumpy road..they encountered some obstacles along the way’ and it’s like, no! Those are people, those are other lives. They’re not speed bumps….I think it’s probably people, when they cheat on other people, tell themselves they’re doing it because they have to, because fate is involved. And whatever happened, you’re better off, and the person you broke up with is probably better off, and this is the way it was meant to be. This is fate.”