I’m infatuated at work

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Cary’s classic column from  Sunday, Oct 10, 2010

Drawn to a younger woman, I fear I’ll make a fool of myself


Dear Cary,

I am a man in my late 50s. I’ve been married for over 30 years and still love my wife deeply, although our marriage is largely sexless. However, recently I’ve become infatuated with a woman who works where I do. I am a member of a group that meets for lunch daily in the break room in our building. This younger woman (she is in her early 40s) was recently hired and started coming to lunch there.

I’m not sure why, but I find myself constantly thinking about her. This includes some fairly colorful fantasies about her coming to my office and having sexual relations. (My office is private enough that this could be an option.) She is very attractive and pleasant. She has made occasional eye contact at lunch and waved at me one time when I passed her office. She has certainly done nothing beyond the bounds of friendly and appropriate behavior.

I realize that my infatuation is my problem, not hers. However, do I stop attending the lunch group? There is no other public microwave or refrigerator in the building, so I would be confined to cold lunches. Also, I was there first! I’d really like to keep this situation from becoming too creepy.

Infatuated and Conflicted

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Dear Infatuated,

Instead of calling this an infatuation, let’s call it an awakening. Let’s call it a moment of grace, a parting of a curtain, a ray of sunshine, an unexpected gift. Let’s say that like some creature in a fairy tale you have been imprisoned in a cold and gray castle, enduring day after day of drear, monotonous drizzle and shiver, chained to a desk that dwarfs you in size and fills you with fear when you behold it towering over you.

Let’s say that things did not start out this way. You were a boy just yesterday. Life came brightly like a spray of flowers then. It was nothing. Nothing was anything. Nothing was hard. You were green and supple and birds flitted about your head in admiration. The necessities were easy to procure and ample in supply. It never occurred to you that the years would grow long and tiresome and that all the fun would end. But slowly the love drained away from your marriage and what had been merely a way to procure the necessities became the sole focus of your energy. Life was not terrible, but it was not the shining gift of light that it once was.

In youth, you relished everything and tolerated only a little. Then you relished not everything but most things. Then you relished a few things. Bit by bit, you tolerated everything and relished nothing.

I’m just making this up. I don’t know you. I’m just imagining. But say you had reached a point now, in your late 50s, where it’s been this way for a while and you’ve got a routine. You eat in the same lunchroom every day and you have an office where you feel safe and secure. Your life is orderly and sexless. You have made an accommodation to this. It seems that this is the way it’s going to be. This must be the way things get. This must be how adults feel. This must be how they were living when we were kids and looked at them and wondered whether there was any life at all inside them. This must be what happens. You get to this point and there’s no point in sex or adventure anymore; it’s enough to have the same lunch table and a quiet office.

Your mantra when you were a youth was, “What’s next!?”

For a while now, your mantra has been, “This must be enough.”

Again, not saying I know you personally. I’m just imagining what it might be like, to get at how it must feel.

So having resigned yourself to this and gotten comfortable in it, you notice one day a pretty yellow bird fly in the window of the gray-walled castle and alight on your shoulder. And the bird begins talking to you. The bird talks to you of bubbling brooks and sun-dappled shade, of wood nymphs who swim naked in the river and swing from trees, of a meadow where you once ran green and hot as a boy, a meadow where you tumbled in the grass and lay face up immersed in the sky, a meadow that to your young boy’s mind seemed never to end. The yellow bird sits on your shoulder and reminds you.

So let’s just say that this woman who has come into your life is like that yellow bird that sits on your shoulder, reminding you that you are alive, you are a man, you have a drive in you, you want to connect, you want to feel the warm flesh of a stranger against you, you want to find out what she says if you speak to her in Russian or French, you want to fling back the covers and exhaust yourselves in the afternoon, within hearing of traffic and crowds on holiday.

Say that this is all a gift to you, or a kind of reminder. Say that it is a reminder that all the sacrifices you have made to have the regular lunchroom and the safe, quiet office were made at a dear cost. The well-regulated life has its costs. We have to wipe the mud off our shoes. We have to shake the grass out of our hair. We settle in for the long haul, and we haul and haul and haul without complaint because we’ve seen what happens to those who tire and stumble or begin to complain. We’ve seen their bodies on the side of the road. So we do this year after year.

Then that yellow bird comes and sits on your shoulder and says you’ve done enough hauling. You’ve proved yourself. Your wife is beautiful. The new woman at work is beautiful. This yellow bird is beautiful.

So you leave the castle. You leave work and the sun is shining. You notice how automatically you have been living and how long your habits of taking the closest parking space and the quickest route home have run your daily life, and you decide today to take the long way home through the woods. There is a newsstand near the edge of your village and since you are taking the long way you stop and buy a paper. There is a movie advertised in the paper. If you take the long way home through the woods there will still be plenty of time to get home and change clothes and invite your wife to the movies. There will still be time to look at her and remember how beautiful she is. There will still be time to remember why you married her.

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