ure, Rabbi I guess I know what you’re going to tell me. You’ll say it’s exactly for situations like this that we need the halacha—which I translate from Hebrew as the rules of the road. But the rules have to morph. You—you’re no stickler for rules. I know that. You’re not the kind of rabbi to put me down, to dump on me. I know how you talk when you give a sermon. You make it a point to see each human mess as a unique mess. Also, if I talk to my friends, word gets around. If I talk to you, it’s for your ears only.
I might as well admit to you right off—the past year has been one terrible time for me. Separation and divorce, they tangle you into knots. I’ve been like a swimmer cramped and choking, so I clung to Julia—you know her, Rabbi, you’ve been helping her prepare for her Bat Mitzvah—my beautiful daughter, my life line. My ex, Sonia, and I agreed Julia would stay with me during the week, spend weekends with her mother. Sonia, you remember her? She used to be on the board of the synagogue. Not a terrible woman. It’s sad, the breakup of a marriage. Where did it go? Where did she go? She moved in with a rich guy, Barry Abelson, moved to his apartment on Central Park West. Sonia’s not a bad mother. She let me have Julia most of the time so Barry would have a chance to get used to a child little by little. It’s been a year, and I guess he’s still getting used to Julia; so I mostly have her with me.
I know you. You’re going to think this is shameful—after she left, I wanted to get very, very rich so I could prove to Sonia I was worth more than Barry, who was, Jesus, impossibly rich. Now, is that sick or what? Besides, as a TV writer, did I imagine I could really compete with an urban developer? This guy does big urban projects in the zillions. Understand: It’s not that I’m in love with my ex. I’m not pining for her. But it’s as if for fifteen years Sonia produced the air I breathed. Maybe somewhat polluted air, yes, okay, but for years it was the air. Only when she left did I begin to understand.
So here’s the way I live. I need to lay the whole picture on you. Weekdays, I make sure to finish my work by midafternoon—I write scripts for TV—so I can pick Julia up from school. Mostly we go to Central Park on nice days or on rainy days we go straight home—she draws or paints or helps me cook. I’m a pretty good cook. You and your wife should try me out. On in-between days, we walk or take a taxi across Central Park to the Metropolitan and she leads me to paintings she copies into a sketch book. The sketches knock me out. “You’ve really got the feeling of that landscape,” I tell her. “My fingers couldn’t do that in a million years.” And she actually blushes, the way they do in old novels, but she loves to hear me say it. If we go with a friend, Julia leads the friend to a single painting, tries to get her to see what she herself sees. I stand back, listening, caught between the sweetness of the two children and a weight in my chest that never goes completely away.
After a few months I began to see other women. We met at dinner parties meant to throw us together. These were not just pretty faces. A psychologist, a neurologist, a museum director. Each time, I imagined a fabulous life with one of them. We had dinner together, went to see La Bohème or a movie. You asking whether we made love? Well, yes, once, oh, a couple of times; all right, a few times. Did I think this was okay? Of course it wasn’t okay. I don’t need you to confirm this. It wasn’t love we made. The women, like me, had unfinished business going; had, like me, complicated agendas. You know what I think? The sex was proof that we were young, attractive, passionate, worthwhile. Tucked away in our brains were fantasies of self glorification, making the weight of my sadness lighter, letting me breathe a little.
I see you don’t approve—of course not—but at least you understand. Thanks, Rabbi. I don’t approve any more than you. So that’s where I was. Okay? But wait—I haven’t gotten to the real stuff. As I said, it was a terrible year. You know I write scripts for sitcoms. All last year I wrote well. I made decent money. In spite of my suffering, I produced crafted, professional scripts—funny scripts—and working helped: I let my laptop fingers blur my feelings. But, see, while a sitcom has to be funny for the audience, it shouldn’t be funny for the characters. The thing is, I was a character inside a sitcom, and it didn’t feel at all funny.
Now we get to what brings me to you: Belle.
Belle happened to me. “Happened” to me? Exactly! Like being hit by a huge wave—I had that little control. We met at a celebration of the production company—our sitcom had been picked up by the cable channel for another season. She and I, we looked at each other, looked again; then we strolled like dreamers to the bar, where we stared, each at the reflection of the other in the mirror behind the bottles. I’d seen her once before, but this time I was immediately and absolutely dying for her. Dying! I suddenly knew everything about her, though I knew nothing about her.
Before I even knew her name was Belle, I asked, “Are you married?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I think we’re separating.”
“That’s good news for me,” I said. “Sad for you, I know—divorce is tragic, so I’m actually ashamed to be glad. Suppose we meet, you and I, when you’re really separated.” You see, I was trying to come across as righteous, but actually, I knew—I knew—we were going to pretend she was almost separated. I held back to put the burden on her.
She laughed. “Well, I’m separated enough to meet someone for lunch. Are you?”
And I said, “You’re so beautiful.” Could I really say something so stupid? I could. Yes.
Well, she was—she is beautiful. A kind of Persian beauty. It’s not her separate features—her long curly, black hair—flowing, wild, unsophisticated hair—her high, elegant cheekbones like Nefertiti and big dark almond eyes that want and want—want me! What is it makes someone so painfully beautiful, Rabbi? What makes a person willing to give up everything to be with a lover? Did I know her in another life, in another century? No, no. I suppose we were in love, already that evening in love, with the puffed-up image of ourselves seen in the eyes of the other.
Belle’s husband, Mark, was one of our producers, handling budgets and scripts—he had our show and two others going on various channels. I could imagine terrible scenarios where he’d find out about us and I’d get squeezed out of our show and have to actually finish the novel I always threaten to drag from the drawer.
But believe me, it’s not just the danger. I can’t stand the idea of breaking up a family. Look what it’s done to my own family—I mean to Julia. I hear Julia on the phone late nights, when she thinks I don’t know, phoning her mother, whispering to her—because she thinks I’ll mind—about her friends, her life, and I can hear the need she has for her mother. Sonia fell in love, so Julia has to suffer. She comes back from a weekend with her mother and pins to her bulletin board the sketch she’s made of her mama on fine drawing paper—an icon, joining last weekend’s sketch.
Belle, too, has a child, a four-year-old boy. I don’t want Jonah to go through the same thing. Belle’s household is already dysfunctional. Mark, her husband, Jonah’s father, barely around; and Belle barely around—she oversees photography for a fashion magazine. If it works at all, it’s because of their wonderful nanny. Without the nanny, no way could they manage. All she needed in order to make her family totally crazy was an affair.
Yet I knew that’s where we were headed. I knew, though I could pretend to virtue.
I’d never been in love, Rabbi, totally, uncontrollably, in love. Not with girls in college, not with the women I’d been seeing. Not even with my ex, Sonia. I’d felt tenderness toward my pretty wife, imagined we could make a good marriage. But Belle was, in that moment at the bar, each of us facing the mirror image of the other, all I wanted in this world. To be with her would totally remake my life.
She came over for lunch the next day. Lunch—ha!—we forgot to eat until it was too late—she had an afternoon meeting. Excuse me for opening up like this in your office, but from the moment she walked in and shrugged off her coat, we were entangled in one another.
At the beginning we were hungry for each other like greedy children. Later it became even better, not so self-conscious, more intense, our hearts so open that all our flesh became, well, eroticized. We floated in an erotic glow. Her toes and earlobes, the hollow at her clavicle, why, every part of her glowed under my fingers—so that even to touch fingertips was to make love. In theory, we could make intense love just kissing—or without even touching—simply being in the other’s presence. Millimeters away? Feet? Yards? On the other side of the planet? But could we stand the desire?
I know what it says in the Talmud. Here, I’ve transcribed it on this paper: “A man once conceived a passion for a certain woman, and his heart was consumed by his burning desire, so that his life was endangered. When the doctors were consulted, they said: ‘His only cure is that she shall submit.’ Thereupon the sages said: ‘Let him die rather than that she should yield.’” Of course the sages didn’t have to do the dying.
I nudged Belle. “You were planning to separate. Have you given more thought to separating? When might this happen?” I asked this a month after we were first together. You see, I was ready to see this through all the way.
“I’ll love your little boy,” I promised, though I hadn’t yet met him. “You can count on that.”
But I was getting annoyed.
Of course, she told me, she’d thought and thought about it, because she knew what a splendid life we could have, but think, she said, of the cost. If she separated and we married, all the wonder and delight of our affair would dissolve—those magic noontimes—and everything would be trouble, trouble, trouble. Legal troubles, family troubles. And—she was a little embarrassed to say this—they’d just built a house in the Hamptons next to his sister. She’d put so much work into it. It was a gorgeous house. She hated to lose it.
I could smell defeat. I began to wonder if defeat was maybe not the worst thing in the world. After a while, talk of separation stopped. She liked my adoring her. I’d tell her over and over, “You’re so beautiful.”
“You should have seen me in my twenties,” she said. “Already I can see in the mirror the beginning of creases by my eyes.” She sounded as if she’d ruined a painting. As if getting older were her fault.
“Your eyes, I told her—your eyes are beautiful. Especially when they look into mine. Your skin is beautiful. After making love your skin glows. Making love, it’s like a facial,” I kidded. “And it doesn’t cost a thing.”
“Oh, please! Doesn’t cost? It costs a lot,” she tells me.
So why complain? All the entanglements and anxieties of an affair—you wouldn’t know. You should be glad you don’t know. Telephone calls while we’re walking in different parts of the city—she on the East Side to a photography shoot, me in the West 80’s on my way to pick up Julia at school. Romance, romance! But you know, sometimes, I’ll tell you frankly, you just want to plain walk and think. Even if you’re crazy in love! Sometimes it gets tiring. You just want to stop by the gym to play handball at lunchtime. I’m not saying that a love affair isn’t exciting. It’s exciting. By definition. But sometimes she may prefer to go for lunch with a friend. And with an affair like ours, that’s not good enough. I didn’t stop wanting her. But here’s what I began to feel: I am being forced to play the lover. The affair had to get more and more intense, and it was taking a lot out of me. And she, too, was getting exhausted. The role was weighing her down. And if we weren’t insanely passionate, what were we doing? The script asked too much of us. We couldn’t live up to it; and neither of us wanted to cheapen our love, turn it into a casual…dalliance.
So the affair would have ended—ended sweetly, sadly, by itself—if one morning Mark hadn’t said at breakfast—he was fixing Jonah’s cereal, not looking at Belle, “Tell me. Are you having an affair?” And Belle tells me she respected Mark too much to lie. “For a couple of months, yes,” she says casually. With a writer, Steve Mandel—you know him.”
Of course he knows me! I work for him.
Now…if Mark had yelled, made demands, done what any decent husband is supposed to do, what I myself did when Sonia gave me the news about Barry Abelson, Belle would have called me and wept, we would have brought the relationship to a sweet end. But Mark didn’t get angry. She tells me he grew a little “distant.” That’s all. And do you know why?
Right! Exactly! Rabbi! You’re more worldly than I’ve given you credit for. Yes! Her husband Mark, my producer Mark Feingold, he was in the middle of his own affair. This is awful, isn’t it! I know, I know. But stick with me, Rabbi. So Sonia with Barry, Belle with me, Mark with an actress from the show. How, tell me please, are we going to live even a slightly holy life? It’s not “burning desire” that will stop us. It’s the need to imagine that our foolish, longing selves can be glorified.
Next I get a call from Mark. He wants to meet. So I take a cab across town to his office and of course I’m feeling more than a little anxious. Will this be man-to-man or mano a mano? There’s an intern at the desk, a pretty young girl straight out of NYU—Tisch School of the Arts. She waves me through, and there’s Mark Feingold standing at the window like a Michael Douglas powerhouse. Maybe that’s my anxiety speaking, but I do believe he was posturing for an invisible camera. And he says, “Sit down, sit, let’s talk.” I worry that what he’s going to say next is, “You and I can no longer work together.” But instead he puts a condescending hand on a pile of bound scripts, which I realize are all mine, and he says, “We’re going to keep our family lives and work lives separate. Am I right, Steve? Okay, then. I realize you’ve not been getting nearly enough recompense”—don’t you love the word?—“for your funny, funny scripts. From now on…” From now on, I’ll get more per script, and more say.
It’s like I’m dreaming.
I get it. He wants me to keep Belle happy so he can frolic with his ladylove, and, by the way, would I begin, in the next season’s storyline, to build up her part?
“I already had her win a lottery,” I told him.
He nodded. “Yes. That was good. That’s what I mean. She appreciated that script. And I hope you realize, she’s one terrific comedienne.”
“Oh, yes, I do realize,” I told him. What I didn’t tell him is that Belle is not happy about this “terrific comedienne.” No. In fact she’s very disgruntled, Rabbi, and when we meet for our usual lunchtime or when we talk on the phone at night, she suggests that I “use my own judgment” in writing scripts. Meaning use her judgment. It seems we talk more about Mark and his ladylove than about us, or about Julia or Jonah. But maybe it’s not so bad.
What do I mean, not so bad? Here’s what I’m getting at. The Talmud tells us that partners in adultery are not permitted to marry even once there’s been a divorce. Is that true, Rabbi?
What do you mean? Do I love her? Of course I love her. Are you suggesting I’m using you to let me slip out of the consequences of my actions? Are you suggesting I’m talking to you in order to get a negative opinion of such a marriage? Now that’s a lousy thing to say. Frankly, Rabbi, it sounds a little bit pompous and judgmental. Let’s get this straight: Do I love Belle? Sure, I’m crazy for Belle. But there are ancient rules, you know it better than I. There’s halacha to take into consideration.
I know, I know, I just said you were no stickler for rules. But sometimes rules come from wisdom, wisdom from experience. Think about it: Should Belle and I get entangled in custody battles and child support, not to mention the shuffling of apartments? And then, too, I can’t help but wonder: Does Belle really love me, or is she just getting back at Mark? And what will happen in a year, in five years? Will there be someone else? You want to know what Julia thinks? She says she can “entirely do without a stepmom.”
What do you mean, I seem to have made up my mind? No! No, I haven’t. I go back and forth! And you’ve been a big help just by listening, Rabbi. What do you mean I should pray? For what? You say, not “that kind of prayer”? Are you being snide? What kind of prayer do you mean? Oh! I get it. A prayer to be simple, to act with a full heart? Something like that? The thing is, me, Steve Mandel, I got plenty of heart, but I’m a complicated character. Not everybody is so passionate inside. You, for instance. You’re just a plain, good man. That’s probably better—less exciting but better. Me? There’s a war going on in my brain. A drama in my innards. Who knows? Maybe I’ll ignore the rules and marry Belle. For love! But lately, I have to admit, love is something I’ve begun to wonder about.