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January 24, 2008

An Affair to Forget

It's dangerous, often dirty, and everybody's doing it. MC looks at the state of the office affair.

woman with her shirt half off touching man's chest

Photo Credit: Goldmund/istock Images

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I had just been hired to work on a brand-new magazine, the brainchild of a publishing tycoon who interviewed me himself in three languages. I had a smart title, a swanky business card, and, for the first time in my life, a respectable salary.

There was a real buzz in the air at the magazine. Our equipment was all state of the art. More journalists arrived daily, many of them big names, wooed personally by the formidable publisher. I was especially looking forward to meeting the incoming news editor — we all were. But I wasn't prepared for the first time I'd actually lay eyes on him, and the extraordinary effect that his sudden, dazzling smile would have on me.

Wasn't I way too smart for such an obvious, tawdry thing — an affair with the boss? Had I really struggled this hard and earned my way here just to jeopardize it for some thrills with a married father of two?

I had a million reasons why it was a bad idea to succumb to what was, by now, a mutual attraction. But once we had crossed the messy Rubicon of our first frantic night together (we had a wee-hours deadline and two nightcaps, and my apartment was just a cab ride away), all reasonable behavior just went by the wayside. We threw ourselves into the kind of blinkered, egocentric, mutual self-absorption that is the hallmark of every illicit liaison.

The job itself was complicit in our relationship. There were scores of very late nights and early mornings as we toiled toward the magazine's launch date — plenty of occasions when he couldn't make it home to the suburbs and "settled" for convenient, anonymous city hotel rooms close by. There were romantic lunches and dinners, all courtesy of the company credit card — we did not pay for a single oyster, flute of champagne, or balloon of XO cognac.

The longer we got away with it, the smarter and more invincible we felt. We grew so blind to our own indiscretions, we didn't realize that the team had bets on how soon after I left the bar beneath the office he would make his excuses and slip off. And what about his wife stuck at home? With a tiny baby and a demanding toddler? I am ashamed to say that I never gave her a single thought. I had my own guilt to deal with, casually lying to my boyfriend of three years about crazy deadlines and imaginary meetings, and trying not to mention Nigel's name too often.

Would I ever wake from the dizzying dream? You bet: When sales went into a free fall, Nigel was one of the first to go. He was summarily fired one Friday night; I didn't hear about it until I came in the following Monday morning. I wandered around in shock — bereft.

He was replaced, and I was moved into the features department. Stuck at home, at the end of a commuter rail line, with his wife and kids and a substantial mortgage, he was desperately trying to find a new job. It became almost impossible to snatch a couple of words on the phone. "You do know how much I love you?" "And you know I love you, too."

But had I ever, really? He found a position at another newspaper, and we were briefly reunited, meeting for drinks during his short evening break, sometimes even managing a quickie, like teenagers, on the cramped seats of his car. But stripped of his former title, his influence, and his company credit card, he suddenly seemed emasculated. The sharp wit that had so charmed me sounded petty; the intelligence I once found so fascinating was now arrogant and irritating. Gradually, the rendezvous, and then the phone calls, tailed off.

At an industry dinner not long ago, I sat next to an editor from the newspaper in which I sometimes saw Nigel's byline, and I couldn't resist asking after him. "Great guy. Excellent writer. Underrated, too," said my companion. "Trouble is, he always has some girl or other in tow. Usually one of the junior journalists or a secretary. I really don't know how his wife puts up with it."

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