My husband, Chris, held my hand was we sped on a train from Amsterdam to Berlin, en route to an engagement I was anticipating with both dread and giddy excitement. We were about to meet Ina, the Other Woman, a Berliner about whom I knew little, but who had generously invited us, sight unseen, to stay at her flat for a few days.
This is not the traditional Other Woman. This isn’t a story about an old girlfriend or new mistress. In fact, Chris himself was meeting Ina for the first time. The standard Other Woman story is a scenario that, while European and sophisticated, is something I think I’d rather avoid.
This was more complicated. Ina was the new best friend of my lifelong best friend, a gay man who, I decided with impregnable logic, had room for only one bestie in his life. I was girded for battle.
Make no mistake, this is a love story. Outside of family, Jonathan has been the most consistent presence is my life. We even met cute. I was a freshman at Bryn Mawr, he was a sophomore at Haverford who, in the spirit of bi-college cooperation, lived in a Bryn Mawr dorm. This was in 1976, when Haverford was still a men’s college, and our telephone calls came through an Eisenhower-era switchboard in the lobby.
During the day, a woman we loved staffed the switchboard, and if we got a call she would sound a chime in our dorm rooms to alert us, and we would then run down the hall and pick up an extension in a tiny booth that stank of cheesesteak and cigarettes.
After working hours, though, from 5:00 to midnight, when we were most likely to get calls from wounded ex-boyfriends or worried parents, we each took a shift at the switchboard—“Bells,” we called it, in honor of the primitive system of chimes—a two-hour shift once per semester.
I met Jonathan the night I had Bells duty. I had an econ exam the next day, and my striped Samuelson textbook was spread out on the desk, but I found it hard to study. My shift was eight to ten, so I’d have a solid couple of hours to cram after I was relieved.
But ten o’clock came around and no relief showed up. Ten-thirty, eleven, nothing. I was now too angry to study, my heart pounding, my imagination firing off ripostes for the smug no-show, who, according to the chart over the switchboard, was some Haverfordian sophomore.
Sure, I knew the type. A sexist jock who figured he could get laid more easily by shacking in a Bryn Mawr dorm, but who was too good to contribute to our collective quality of life. A taker. Well, I had a thing or two to tell him.
He turned up at 11:45, fifteen minutes before his shift was to end. I watched as he went to his mail cubby, pulled out his mail along with the crimson reminder he was up for Bells, and plunge into panic when he realized he had missed his shift.
He was not at all what I expected. He was a little guy, shy, bumbling even, as he sputtered a clearly sincere apology, and pulled crumpled dollars from his pocket in a good-faith offer to pay me for my time.
The bitter speech I’d prepared evaporated, and I assured him it was quite all right, could happen to anyone, etc. etc. His name was Jonathan.
In the nearly 40 years since then we’d rarely been apart. We were separated physically—in fact, except for a couple of glorious years after college when we both lived in Philly, we were always in different cities. But we were always within easy contact. A phone call, an email, a text.
Often we communicated several times a night, right up until we went to bed. And, if I’m honest, we have had patches of a few months when we didn’t speak at all, but we seemed to pick up again right where we left off, sometimes in the middle of a sentence: “So that guy from the gym? He smells like dried creminis.”
We shared a densely populated world of boyfriends, crushes, colleagues, and enemies. Other characters would drift in and out, some of them performing vivid cameos, but he and I remained the main players.
The night he came out, I lay on the floor in a darkened room, phone pressed against my ear, murmuring to him for hours. When he got his dream job, I jumped up and down on my bed and screamed into the receiver. When I published my first book, he bought 20 copies.
When I met Chris, I schlepped him from Newark to Philadelphia for Jonathan’s approval, and Jonathan, who’d made a hobby out of counting the number of men I’d slept with, took me aside after dinner and whispered hoarsely, “I think 20 is a very respectable number and you should stop with this one.” So I did.
And I, it must be admitted, encouraged him to go live in Berlin. He had sabbatical coming up, and he’d always had a fascination with Germany.”Stockholm syndrome!” I crowed, because we are both Jewish.
So he was off. He rented a flat in what used to be East Berlin. We Skyped a couple of times, unsuccessfully, and his emails were few, with odd spelling errors introduced by the German keyboard, as if he were writing with an accent. And when he came back he had acquired a linguistic fluency, a taste for Riesling, and a new best friend.
The funny thing is, I always thought it would be a man who would usurp my position. Some great love, a mature partner who would share Jonathan’s love of music and books, someone with whom he could collect paintings and furniture, someone to grow old with.
I was never threatened by this tableau, because I could imagine inserting myself into it fairly easily. With Chris, the mirror couple, yoked like in-laws by an insurmountable bond. Vacation buddies, four legs of a table.
But it never happened. Jonathan was a little like Buddy in Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” He always had those “Why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-see-you-later blues.” The men he wanted eluded him, and the moment they didn’t, he lost interest.
But another woman, with all that Teutonic mystery he craved, a woman of (by his account) superior intellect, enormous compassion, and psychological complexity—how the hell was I supposed to compete with that?
And, it was serious. She came to the States several times to visit him. He reciprocated. They had romantic outings. I once abjectly called him while he was rowing in the middle of the lake in Central Park, taking Ina for a picturesque boat ride, to which I could only crossly respond, “How come you never took me for a boat ride in Central Park?” And he shrugged with that catch-all excuse: “You never asked.”
So I tried to fake confidence when Chris and I rolled our luggage onto the platform of Berlin’s Hauptbanhof. There was Jonathan, who was growing more suave and continental with each passing year; the stammering boy from the Bryn Mawr dorm was no longer detectable, even as a vestige.
And there she was. Older than I thought, and a little heavier than I expected, but graciously warm. We hugged each other at once.
In the next few days, as our native and near-native hosts led us around Berlin, we looked like two couples. Ina was more physical with Jonathan than I’d ever been, reaching for his hand, rubbing his back.
She pulled him away from us from time to time, although it was unnecessary, since neither Chris nor I understood German. But I think she craved some physical intimacy.
And I understood that he got something from her that he could never get from me. She needed him. I need him too, of course, but not as immediately, and not as exclusively. And when I recognized that, I was suffused with a sense of calm.
In the end, there’s something to be said for a 40-year-friendship. But it has its downsides, too. I still remember the awkward boy at the mailbox. He remembers the militant girl at the switchboard. There are times when we each want to leave behind those personas. When we assume new loves and friends, we shed those old skins. It’s a kind of renewal.
Glad as I am that we went to Berlin and had a chance to demystify the Other Woman, there’s no denying things are different between us now. Sadder, maybe, but not necessarily worse: just an acknowledgment that in relationships that last a lifetime there must be some resilience, a little room, clearance, and growth.
Only now does it occur to me that when I married, 20 years ago, he granted me the same space. It’s the least I could do for him.
Image: Michael Patterson/CC