When I was thirty and just out of my first marriage I moved with my two children to a teaching and dormitory faculty job at a prep school in New England. I knew that joining a boarding school community meant giving up some privacy, but at the time I thought this would be a good thing. My separation with my ex had been amicable, but I knew I would need a supportive community to help me create a new home for my family.
At first the other new English teacher and I were just friends. I liked how confident he was at new faculty meetings and how friendly he'd been at the opening week gatherings. He'd moved to campus from California and walked loose, like a surfer, like he'd recently seen sunshine. He and his wife had two adorable red-haired daughters, close in age to my kids. It was fun to hang out with all of them.
So it went for almost a year.
I started thinking of him as a man and not just an interesting colleague during the following summer vacation. I'd stopped by his faculty housing to see if I could find anyone from his family to go to the beach with. His back door was unlocked - "come in" he said through the screen - so I did. He was at his desk, in front of his computer, wearing nothing but a pair of gym shorts. He got up to greet me, completely un-self conscious. He had flat abs and long, lean thighs. I was suddenly very conscious.
After that day I decided I would be more careful around him. I had heard the way B's wife talked about him in the school dining hall, and her tone sounded like that of someone who was unhappily married. I backed off, steered away, and kept my mind on my work and my kids.
Then, on a quiet September afternoon a little more than a year after I'd first met him, B shared with me that he and his wife were separating. Suddenly, the books and poems we'd been trading across class-rooms took on a new importance. They, along with the coffees and conversation we'd shared while our kids played in each others backyards, helped turn our friendship into a relationship almost overnight. His separation was all the permission our twin souls needed. It wasn't love at first sight. It was a love assassination.
The result was that I was youthfully, even willfully idealistic and naive, ignoring the most basic social realities. It didn't even occur to me to consider what the conservative, more traditional members of the school might make of a mother and teacher who would jump headlong into a passionate relationship. Nor did it cross my mind that others might expect more than a few weeks to pass between the separation of a man and his soon-to-be ex before you hook up with him. Why should it? When you get to the place of actually separating from your marriage you've already been alone for a long, long time. What I didn't know then is that people who haven't gone through a divorce don't understand this.
One morning early in our relationship I got up at 5 am and rode my bike from my dormitory through the frost and dark to B's dormitory. We were both busy parenting our kids, teaching our students and running dorms - sometimes 5am was our only chance to steal a few hours alone with each other.
As I was rounding the corner to B's back door I ran into a fellow colleague walking her dogs. There was no mistaking where I was coming from.
I'm pretty sure she went straight home and started working the phones.
There was no accusation, and no trial. Coffee dates simply evaporated. School "walkpools" just stopped happening. Suddenly there weren't any spaces free in the faculty side of the dining hall. Then, a student told me that his advisor had shared the idea that I was probably a bad role model. Another asked me if it was uncomfortable for me to teach The Scarlet Letter. Why would it be? I asked her. She shrugged; it was something her advisor had mentioned. It got so the campus felt like one giant pillory.
We tried to tell ourselves it would blow over - soon people would accept us again. Then, a group of faculty hosted a party for B's ex-wife in the house right across the quad from B's dorm apartment. They called it her New Life Party and several of the other English teachers - people who would vote on B's and my tenure - attended it. For the first time I realized our relationship might actually be threatening our job security.
I started to feel a childish panic, a desperation to make people understand. I made an appointment to talk to my Chair and the Dean of Faculty. Both women were evasive. I made a point of going early to pick the kids up from school so that I could try to reconnect with the other mothers while we were waiting. Nothing worked.
I even staged an intervention at the school swimming pool one Sunday afternoon. The kids did cannon balls off the diving board while I forced several women listen to me explain how we had not cheated on B's wife and how shocked and hurt I was that so many people seemed to think that our relationship was inappropriate, even sordid.
You made your choice one of them said finally, not unkindly. The others just nodded.
One night when B was at my dorm, there was a fire drill in his - and he missed it. The School Deans brought him in for a meeting, and when they told him he couldn't spend evenings with me in my dorm housing anymore B got angry. What was he supposed to do if he wanted to have a private life, he asked, how was he supposed to spend time with his lover?
When he told me about the conversation afterwards, I was irate. I didn't like it that he'd referred to me as his lover in front of our boss. It was too much for me, even, this referring to our sexual life so explicitly.
Why was it wrong for a mature adult to choose to have a lover, he asked me. Why was it wrong to call it that?
It's too incendiary, I told him, it sounds illicit. It's too sexual...
But that's what we're doing he said bluntly, we're having sex.
I recoiled at his phrasing. For a good long minute I resented his honesty.
I can see in that moment my own Puritanism, my own squeamishness about sex. I believed deeply in the beauty and validity of being together with B, but my desire to sanctify my sexuality for people in the community betrayed a lack of confidence that I hadn't been in touch with. I didn't want to have different values. I wanted everyone to agree with mine.
It was time to pick a side. Go boldly and live what I believed and give up the safety of conventional community. Or, play by everyday rules and get invited to the annual winter soup party.
Choosing B was easy. The consequences were tough. When tenure review time rolled around I, who had justified and subordinated myself to everyone who would listen, kept my job. B, who had made no apology for his choices, lost his position as well as his house - no small thing for a man with two kids to care for.
It a long time to get our lives and finances back on track, but we were lucky - we found each other - but not before we got our own very painful adult education.