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Calling Dr. Laura: Old Loves And The Boundaries Of Fidelity

Thankfully, my personal life is not completely dictated by media-based psychology standards, or I'd wind up on Oprah taking the fall for men in mid-life crisis everywhere.
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Dr. Laura would disapprove, of that I'm certain. Most likely Dr. Phil would yell at me too. Thankfully, my personal life is not completely dictated by media-based psychology standards, or I'd wind up on Oprah taking the fall for men in mid-life crisis everywhere.

It began innocently. A group of friends that were freshmen in college together in the fall of 1970 have regrouped as an email list, which we employ solely for the purpose of inane kibitzing and distraction, very similar to how we interacted when we first met. We were living in the first coed dorm at a Midwestern university, and were generally considered by one and all to be a somewhat obnoxious band of idiots and pranksters. Yes, we unscrewed and removed the door to someone's room so that it became more like a living museum of "Early Contemporary University Life." Yes, we had nicknames for everyone in the dorm. The best, arguably, was penned by me: "Pineapple Upside-Down Face," because I was convinced that this girl's face looked exactly the way most faces do when you looked at them upside-down.

My friend Stuart and I eventually posted a classified ad in the university newspaper: "Nickname Village: Call Us, & We'll 'Call' You!" We received one response. Stuart and I promptly donned our dressiest outfits--in my case, a $5 black tuxedo from the Salvation Army that I used when performing with the orchestra--and grabbed our next door neighbor, "Circle" (so named because it looked like someone made his face with a perfectly round cookie cut-out and cut his hair with a bowl on his head). Circle came along as our photographer, with no film in his camera. Once at the clients' house, we interviewed each resident individually, took fake pictures, and told them to look for their new nicknames in the following day's paper. Our announcement read:

"Nickname Village is proud to announce that from here on out, Joseph Viselli of 1479 Sheridan Road, will hereby be known and addressed as 'Moose.' Benjamin Sternberg of the same address will henceforward be called 'Penny Loafer.'"

Hold on Dr. Laura, I'm getting to the point. One of the present-day preoccupations of our email group is straining our brains to come up with obscure, lost and forgotten compatriots who shared that dorm experience with us, and then track them down and make contact; some are delighted to hear from us, some immediately change their email address. We suspect that one among our core group, to remain nameless for obvious reasons, may be a CIA operative, because no matter what name we throw at him--often a person we've already searched for in vain--he'll respond within seconds with an accurate email and complete update on their whereabouts, as if he has access to some top-secret database unavailable to ordinary PC owners.

So there was this woman, Dr. Laura...she was older, a junior, 20 to our 18, beautiful, mysterious, sophisticated, and did not appear to be aware that any of us existed. She was even beyond our nickname capacities. And although she lived in the hallowed 5th floor of single rooms reserved for the elite and unattainable, she did eat in the dorm's cafeteria. One day I noticed she was sitting alone at a long, rectangular table, and in a great leap of faith and sheer bravado, I joined her there, sitting opposite her on the other end. She proceeded to ignore me and eat in silence. I kept glancing up in the event I might catch her eye and establish some sort of contact, but I had no plan beyond that.

Then, a lucky break. Just as I looked up, so did she, and she waved. I waved back, and then, using hand signals because she was in the midst of chewing, she indicated that no, she wasn't waving to me at all, she was greeting a friend of hers who was passing behind me. In one of my best moves ever, I immediately mimed back that I understood she wasn't waving to me, yet I was nevertheless waving to her. So she waved back, to me. Our shared meal continued in silence. When she seemed to be preparing to depart, my mind desperately scrambled to come up with something, anything, to keep the contact alive, for when would this chance ever come again? I managed to squeak out an innocuous comment about the wheat bread she had been eating, in conjunction with my Grandfather's Old-World preference for whole grains, this in the days before health food, and I believe I got a head nod in response, possibly a soft "hmmm" of acknowledgement, as she gathered up her things. In a last ditch effort, I blurted out:

"Shouldn't we at least know each other's names?"
"What's yours?" she replied.
"Vladimir," I told her (my nickname in college, another story). "And yours?"
"Anastasia," she said, without missing a beat, and got up and left.

We became friends. I felt like the luckiest kid on the block, the envy of all my cellmates who couldn't believe this perfect Goddess of a girl was even giving me the time of day, let alone joining me for afternoon walks to the beach, hanging out in her room, going on off-campus outings to hear Debussy in concert halls. Never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that she'd be interested in me as anything but a friend, in addition to which I knew she had a steady boyfriend. (The fact that I learned from my roommate, some 20 years later, to whom I had introduced her, that they in fact had done the deed together, annoyed the hell out of me. He always got the girl.)

So that was more or less that. I left school in sophomore year, and we had no further contact for 40 years, until I tracked her down a few weeks ago and sent an email, not at all sure she would remember me. I heard back instantly, and learned, to my shock, delight, and astonishment, that not only did she remember me, but that she had "wanted me" back then but "you never asked" and that "we probably would have exploded with delight." After I roused myself from a mild fainting spell, I saw there was more: she learned I had moved to New York when I left school and said she had come looking for me there, without success. Furthermore, she had read several of my books, knew where I had been living the previous 15 years, and that I had "always been a wild and joyous presence in her sunny life."

And the kicker perhaps, "Ah well, I guess we'll just have to settle for being soul-lovers."

To which I responded, "I could do a lot worse than being your soul-lover."

Now Dr. Laura, Phil baby, am I cheating on my wife yet? Marriage ref, whattaya think? What's the call here? You see how this has unfolded, without forethought or malice, and loaded with such a significant, symbolic rewriting of the history of my own development as a desirable man. Rather than seeing all this merely as a festering seed of adultery, Docs, I assert that it could also be interpreted as a minor miracle from God, sending His Angel of Mercy to heal these mid-life crisis wounds, the primordial base of my very maleness--for why else do some 55-year-olds buy the Corvette, or trade their wives in for a younger model? Our manhood obviously needs some sort of affirmation or pat on the back (or elsewhere). Enter Anastasia, 40 years later, to make things right, to repair the damage. To do some re-wiring.

Then the math kicked in: Whoa, this person I'm writing to is in all likelihood not still the 20-year-old beauty in my head; in fact, how does "60-year-old mother of three, grandmother of four" sound? "If you want to get over this obsession," a female friend advised, "Ask her for a naked picture." And she might be right. Given my conditioning, which I'm not proud of, to primarily desire only young, slim, Victoria Secret models under 30, and also given that I have never actually felt sexually attracted to a 60-year-old woman in my life, it is quite possible that an actual, in-the-flesh meeting would quickly quell what has become a sort of cyber-love affair with a 'soul lover.'

We exchange Yeats and Cummings poems, Variations by Elgar and Dinu Lipatti playing Bach. She stimulates a place within me, call it the "Lover Archetype," like the troubadours of medieval times, who pour out their love songs and poetry to the unattainable object of their affections -- the ones they never actually get to be with physically. The history of romantic love makes it clear that the insistence on combining these two energies--Eros and Agape-- into a single relationship of marriage is a relatively recent phenomenon, historically speaking, and if we go by the divorce rates, not a particularly successful one.

So is this okay or not, Dr. Laura? How about if I add that I've already told my wife everything, all of it, even shared some of the more risque and edgy emails, and that she appears to remain safe, secure and happy in our bond? She only mentioned, as an afterthought, that were I to actually act on any of this physically, I should do so only while reciting the following phrase to myself: "Meat cleaver to the back of the head. Meat cleaver to the back of the head." That's my wife for you. She has infinite room for me to be me, while making her boundaries pretty damn clear.

Do I get the go ahead Dr. Laura? Phil, my man? Can I continue to explore a connection with someone while remaining true and faithful to my wife? Don't all men need this? Or is it true, as I can imagine you responding, that we're all just big babies in arrested development, and it's high time we turned off the Internet porn, stopped messing around with cyber-penpals-in-heat, and took responsibility for being real men and real husbands?

The only problem being, I've never been either, and that's the guy my wife loves, adores and married. I have a feeling that instead of addressing myself to Dr.'s Laura and Phil, I should have been writing all this to D.H. Lawrence. He'd know what to do:

If you copulate with the finest woman on earth
there's no relief, only a moment's sullen respite.

You're a caged monkey again in five minutes.
Therefore be prepared to tackle the cage.