HIGH IN­FI­DELITY Au­thor San­dra Ts­ing Loh re­counts the ex­tra­mar­i­tal tryst that trans­formed her life – for the bet­ter.

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - THE CULTURE -

My spec­tac­u­lar midlife cri­sis be­gan when I was 46, un­der rel­a­tively in­no­cent cir­cum­stances. For a friend’s birth­day, a group of us drove from LA to Burn­ing Man, the week-long arts fes­ti­val in the Ne­vada desert. My pro­duc­tion part­ner of 10 years, a mar­ried dad I’ll call Mr. Y joined as our chauf­feur. His company wasn’t un­usual; he and I were best friends and of­ten shared long days while our spouses were out of town. Our re­la­tion­ship was purely pla­tonic; the lack of sex­ual ten­sion made for com­fort­able com­pan­ion­ship.

And yet strange things hap­pen in the desert. The sim­mer­ing heat, free-flow­ing beer, and surreal en­vi­ron­ment sparked sur­pris­ing ad­mis­sions from some I’d con­sid­ered hap­pily mar­ried. A 49-year-old girl­friend was pur­sued by a 28-year-old in semi-me­dieval garb and a uti­lik­ilt, and we ex­changed tear­ful sto­ries about mini­vans, car seats, and small chil­dren. Since when did it be­come OK for us to spend our evenings eat­ing Pep­peridge Farm Gold­fish crack­ers, washed down with chardonnay? The re­spon­si­ble, work­ing-mum facades we had built felt flimsy and re­mote.

As we watched the 100-foot Burn­ing Man ef­figy col­lapse in flames, I sud­denly had my own re­al­i­sa­tion about Mr. Y: that I loved him and wanted to be with him for the rest of my life. When I blurted out my feel­ings, he ad­mit­ted he felt the same way, adding, “I fig­ured we would end up to­gether, but it would be decades in the fu­ture, when our kids had moved on and our spouses had got­ten sick of us.” I was shocked. Never in my wildest dreams did I ex­pect to have an af­fair.

I had been liv­ing with my hus­band for 20 years. We had a won­der­ful house and two daugh­ters, ages six and eight at the time. We also had ful­fill­ing ca­reers; he was a mu­si­cian, and I was a writer and per­former. His work in­volved lots of travel, leav­ing me alone for weeks on end. At first I’d felt aban­doned when he was gone, but over the years I’d gained enough emo­tional dis­tance to make his ab­sences tol­er­a­ble, which we both con­sid­ered a good de­vel­op­ment. My sin­gle-parenting style of­ten amounted to putting my chil­dren in front of the TV with stale Hal­loween lol­lies as I sat in bed writ­ing on my lap­top, and e-mails be­tween my hus­band and me were grad­u­ally re­duced to home re­pair up­dates and pack­ing lists.

We re­turned to our nor­mal lives, but our af­fair con­tin­ued in se­crecy. After months of sneak­ing around, how­ever, the in­ten­sity of our feel­ings, cou­pled with the hor­ror and guilt we felt, made com­ing clean seem like the best path. We thought if we were calm and loving, the news could be bro­ken gen­tly. Our care­ful plans were shat­tered, though, when the cat was let out of the bag too early. The rev­e­la­tion ex­ploded our house­holds and dev­as­tated our chil­dren.

It was too much for Mr .Y to bear, so he sev­ered ties with me and at­tempted to rec­on­cile with his wife. Mean­while, I se­questered my­self in a shack filled with wine, tears, and Am­bien. I wrote an ar­ti­cle that ques­tioned the in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage. That led to an ill-fated TV ap­pear­ance dur­ing which I was asked, on air, about my af­fair. I stam­mered through an oblique an­swer and left feel­ing dis­graced and guilty.

Yet with that scar­let “A” em­bla­zoned on my fore­head, a whole world opened up. Strangers would con­fess things to me. A woman I met on a plane re­vealed that her suc­cess­ful hus­band was un­bear­ably mean and cold in pri­vate. In fact, she’d had a 48-hour af­fair at a sales con­fer­ence sev­eral months prior and still fan­ta­sised about it ev­ery day. She felt trapped, though, be­cause her chil­dren were preschool age, and their abun­dant life­style was largely thanks to her hus­band.

I came to a new un­der­stand­ing of all this mess and heart­break that, be­hind the masks we cre­ate for our­selves, so many of us silently en­dure. In­clud­ing my girl­friends. They came to my shame-filled hut with food, bed­ding, love, and a to­tal lack of judge­ment. As of­ten as there was pity, though, there was also cu­rios­ity. Many in long-term mar­riages won­der what di­vorce is like, re­gard­less of whether we want to act on it. I was able to state that, at least for me, it wasn’t a magic fix.

The un­ex­pected boon of this full-on soul-and-body “peel” is that I emerged com­pletely re­newed. When I turned 50, I felt like my odome­ter had flipped back to the ze­ros. My birth­day party that year was a riot of Veuve Clic­quot and conga lines. Lead­ing the pack were my daugh­ters, to whom I have be­come a far more joy­ous and present mother.

The cherry on top of my hap­pier life was that Mr. Y had once again be­come part of it. After months of try­ing to mend his mar­riage, he met me for lunch. We were wiser – not to men­tion emotionally ex­hausted – so it was hardly a pas­sion­ate re­union. But it was the be­gin­ning of a joint ac­knowl­edge­ment that our feel­ings for each other were still in­tact. We even­tu­ally got back to­gether, but not as cat­a­clysmi­cally; in­stead, we put time and thought into get­ting it right the sec­ond time.

Mr. Y and I now live to­gether hap­pily. When we look back at all the grief, it feels like a bad dream. But I wouldn’t erase a sin­gle one of those dif­fi­cult mo­ments, any more than I would take back the great mo­ments of my mar­riage. Even at the very rock bot­tom of it all, when Mr. Y was out of my life, I never wished the events of Burn­ing Man could be wiped from the past. Ex­cept, per­haps, that uti­lik­ilt.

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