Wednesday, July 8, 2009

An Affair to Reflect on

Everyone is having an affair. This is what I get for reading beach books, even if they were recommended by Janet Maslin in her New York Times feature on junky books for summer. (It turns out that reading NYT-recommended beach books is a little like saying preemptive Hail Marys before sinning all over the place.)

The dust jackets of the beach books feature bare feet or raffia hats or cool, frosted daiquiri glasses someone -or multiple someones- just put down. Full body appearances are reserved for inside (and under) the covers, wherein a host of folks -old and young, pretty and more pretty- are unapologetically or cravenly or delightedly or wretchedly unfaithful.

So what is it about the affair that inspires such voluminous treatment in print? Affairs seem like a lot of work to me, both emotionally and logistically, like taking on a second mortgage when you haven't paid off the first. Americans don't like to expend energy: we're a couch-sitting, mile-driving, moving-walkway-taking nation. Does anyone bother to have affairs in real life?

The answer, of course, is yes, occasionally. Sometimes I even hear about them. My mother's first husband stepped out on her with a sweet-tempered Quaker who eventually became his wife of 35 years. A friend's father waffled for two years between his younger mistress and his older wife. A middle-aged mother of two cavorted with a middle-aged father of two in a small town in the Midwest until two marriages cracked; everyone stayed civil.

Love can be simple, but affairs are always complicated. There's an inherent double narrative, not just the unfolding of passion but a concurrent unfolding of betrayal. Affairs encompass not one relationship but two or even three, and those relationships play off of one another. A strong marriage is rocked by something stronger, or a weak relationship bows to tepid desire.

If courtship is a narrative thread, then an affair is a knot, a nexus of multiple strands of plot and character and place. I understand why it's catnip to authors. And I wonder if real life affair-havers -old and young, pretty and bulbous and gnarled and stooped- aren't just looking for a little story in their lives.

Likely, though, it's more complicated. It's an affair, after all.

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