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Magnetic Forces: How I Found True Love and Was Branded By A Scarlet Letter At 63

I’m surprised to find myself, at sixty-three, new in town and branded with a scarlet letter: A for Affair.

As I was leaving the YMCA indoor tennis courts in Eugene, Oregon, a few months ago, I encountered my husband Michael’s ex-wife Lisa (not her real name) for the second time here. She planted herself between me and the opening in the green tarp curtains, the exit off the courts.

“You had an affair,” she snapped at me.

woman standing at tennis court
Photo credit AlenaPaulus from Getty Images Signature via Canva Pro

I felt my cheeks burning, tennis players’ eyes on me. “We didn’t have an affair,” I said and left through the green tarp curtain.

A handful of Lisa’s tennis friends avert their eyes when they see me on the Y courts—or anywhere in Eugene. One of them texted me, saying she couldn’t play tennis with me elsewhere, “because the tennis community is small, and rumors spread across town pretty easily.”

High School Crossings

HS photos of Michael and Nancy
Image credit: The Queen Zone & Nancy Levine Stearns

I don’t love being the subject of rumors in my new, small community. And the truth is Michael and I didn’t have an affair. We got married at the end of 2022, after we’d been dating for fourteen months. It was a quick courtship, but the average lifespan in my family is sixty-seven. And even though we didn’t meet until I was sixty, our meeting felt fated.

Michael and I went to high school together, Scarsdale High School in New York, nearly fifty years ago and three thousand miles away, but we never met back then—even though we had the same favorite English teacher and our lockers were just steps apart.

I was a senior when Michael was a freshman, starting in autumn of 1977. We probably passed each other in our locker alcove every day that year. Michael played on the tennis team. I played tennis, too (not on the high school team, but eventually, on my college team). We could have said hello to each other while we were both fishing textbooks out of our lockers or hanging around the red clay tennis courts.

But in high school, I was too scared to even look at a boy, much less talk to a cute boy like Michael. One time, a boy I liked from afar said “Hi” to me in chemistry class. I dropped my beaker, it shattered into a million pieces.

Family Secrets

Nancy and her mother
Image credit: Nancy Levine Stearns

The summer before I started high school, I had been besieged by crippling anxiety.

When I was in eighth grade, my father had a psychotic episode. What started with his sleepless nights and spending sprees at Tiffany’s, buying jewelry and watches that he couldn’t afford, ended with him lying down on railroad tracks at the Bedford station in front of an oncoming train.

A cab driver dragged my father off the tracks. The cabbie was grazed by the train but, somehow, not seriously hurt. When the police arrived, my father punched a cop. They locked him in a straitjacket and carted him off to the psych hospital.

I listened in on the phone call from the police to my mother on the upstairs extension. I placed the black phone receiver down quietly in its cradle and passed out on the pink shag rug.

My father recovered with a boost from lithium and came home after twenty-eight days. We didn’t really talk about his episode or its impact on me. Among my mother’s favorite catch phrases were: “Don’t rock the boat” and “Don’t make waves.” So I learned how to not speak up, not make waves. But I felt permanently seasick, nauseated constantly.

The summer before high school, my parents sent me to tennis camp in Pennsylvania. I was fine while I was on the court, playing. But as soon as I stepped off the court, I was racked by anxiety, nausea. I was too anxious to ride with other camp kids on a bus, a field trip to a local tennis tournament. I told my camp leader I wasn’t feeling well and stayed in my dorm room all day.

When I got home from camp, I stayed in my room for the rest of the summer. Somehow, I made it to high school in the fall. I found ways to cope, mostly by playing tennis, smoking weed and listening to the Grateful Dead with my friends—none of whom knew anything about my father’s breakdown and my anxiety.

Dreams of Love

Still, I had dreams of love. My senior photo in my high school yearbook appears above a quote I chose from a Crosby, Stills & Nash song:

In my dreams

I can see, I can

I can see a love

That could be

I dated a little after college, but my relationships were like bad organ transplants that didn’t really “take.” In my mid-thirties, after a breakup with a gaslighting psychologist, I met Catherine, fell in love and got married. We ended our six-year marriage decades ago and morphed into sister-friends. She’s a single mom, and I’m her teen daughter’s godmother.

Fast forward through a few more brief and broken relationships. During the pandemic, I broke up with Dan (not his real name), my boyfriend of a year, and moved out of the rental home we shared in leafy Marin County.

Catherine and I had been plotting for years to leave California, where I’d moved in my twenties. After Catherine bought a house in Eugene, I did, too—a cozy loft cottage-for-one tucked away on a dead-end street. I was happy to be single, maybe even for the rest of my life.

A New Friend In A New Place

But I did want to forge new friendships in Eugene. Two of my high school friends text-introduced me to Michael, who was living with his wife on a farm outside of town. Michael and I arranged to meet one afternoon at the office of the tech business he owned with his wife in Eugene.

Michael greeted me in front of the building with a wide smile that bloomed into crow’s-feet around his warm eyes. We went for a walk near the Willamette River. He asked me, “What brought you to Eugene?”

“I followed my ex-wife here,” I said.

Michael, I found out later, thought I was a lesbian, understandably. I’m not—more like a one or two on the Kinsey scale (which is to say, mostly hetero). When we passed joggers running toward us, Michael waved a hand to them, and I noticed his gold wedding band. Knowing he was married, I felt at-ease, like we were just old pals from Scarsdale High going for a walk near the Bronx River.

Michael told me, “I’ve been on a healing journey that started when I went to my high school reunion a few years ago. I always felt like an outsider in high school. But at the reunion, I felt a common history and real connections.” He continued, “After the reunion, I traveled around the country, visiting the people I met from high school. Making those connections was so powerful for me. It changed my whole sense of self.”

Magnetic Pull

Nancy and Michael playing music
Photo Credit: Nancy Levine Stearns

I was struck by Michael’s mention of his healing journey and told him, “I’ve also been on a healing journey.”

After our walk, as we were saying goodbye in the parking lot at his office, Michael showed me a special magnet from his childhood, a tiny black bar that he kept in a clear plastic bag with the children’s picture book it accompanied, Mickey’s Magnet.

We had texted about stories we’d written (my dog books, his kids’ plays). He said he had a good story about a magnet and brought it with him to show me. He thought I’d enjoy the story, and I did.

He had lost the magnet as a little boy, hidden it in his house in Scarsdale, affixed it inside of a metal plate in a door jamb. When Michael found out the house was to be razed, he wrote to the owner, a man in his nineties who had recently lost his wife. The man sent the magnet to Michael with a note, which he showed me. “Found it!” the man had written to Michael, with a diagram of where the magnet had been hidden for fifty years.

Over the next four months, Michael and I went on two more walks and played tennis once on the outdoor courts near South Eugene High School. We texted and sometimes chatted on the phone, laughed about things like our English teacher Mr. Maloney’s mannerisms (“Ms. Lev-eeene?”).

What Michael and I didn’t text or chat about were his challenges with his marriage and our feelings for each other. When he told me about a duck on their farm who followed him and his wife around like a dog, I imagined Michael’s idyllic home life, like a Norman Rockwell painting.

But my ex-wife Catherine noticed my face light up when my phone buzzed with a text message from Michael. “Seems like you really like your friend,” she said.

“Yeah, I do,” I told her. “But we’re just friends, he’s married. I’ve had crushes on friends before. It’ll go away.”

True Confessions

But, on a snowy walk in February in Alton Baker Park, Michael said, “I like you.”

“I like you, too,” I said and wondered if he meant he liked liked me.

“I love my wife,” he said, “I’m devoted to my marriage. But I think about you all the time.”

My heart leaped—he liked me! Then it sank when he spoke his next words. “We can’t be friends anymore.”

“I understand,” I said. “I’ll miss you.”

We said goodbye in the parking lot. As I drove away, and we waved to each other, my throat clenched. Michael had become a comfort to me, like my childhood favorite blanket. And even though I felt a romantic tug on my heartstrings, I accepted the fact that Michael was devoted to his marriage. I didn’t want to have an affair, and I didn’t want to hurt his marriage. I hoped, somehow, we could be friends again someday.

Over the next eight months, I missed Michael fiercely. I’d go for walks by the river and have constant conversations with him in my head. His magnet story lingered. A magnet had been activated inside me. Magnets don’t lose their charge for a hundred years, their gravitational pull. We don’t control our hearts’ magnetic longings.

During those months, Michael and I spoke on the phone a few times, briefly, about impersonal things, like Hurricane Ida in New York. Hearing his voice made my toes wiggle. But none of those calls included any personal revelations. And I had no idea that his marriage was disintegrating during this time.

Finding Our Way To Each Other

Michael and Nancy Weddin
Michael and Nancy Wedding – Photo Credit: Nancy Levine Stearns

Then Michael called me one day in the fall, soon after he had separated from Lisa. He had moved out of their house and was staying in a hotel room. Michael and Lisa told their three adult kids that they were getting divorced, and they engaged a divorce mediator.

Michael and I kissed for the first time in the kitchen of my cottage, surrendering to the magnetic pull between us, the gravitational force that keeps planets in orbit. Since all of my previous relationships had crash landed soon after liftoff, I thought this one might, too.

But over the next few months, my relationship with Michael reached cruising altitude. And seven months after his divorce was finalized, Michael and I got married in a sweet civil ceremony at the Lane County Public Service Building. We exchanged rings and vows we’d written. I sold my cottage-for-one, and Michael and I bought a house nearby in Eugene. A painting of historic downtown Scarsdale hangs in our front hallway, a giclee print by the mother of one of our high school friends.

My Mulligan

I saw a faded wedding photo of Michael and Lisa hanging in a guest bedroom at his parents’ house when he first brought me there a few years ago. She was iridescent, with golden flax hair that reflected sunlight, shining light eyes, dewy skin, a pearly white smile – a twenty-something beauty in love with handsome, dark-haired Michael.

I can only imagine the enormity of Lisa’s anguish, the gaping loss of her marriage of nearly thirty-four years. When I looked at the photo, I choked back tears, imagining their heartbreak, disappointment and grief. But I can’t really know the arc of Michael’s marriage to Lisa, the sequence of moments, like frames on celluloid film, that led to their divorce.

I was too wobbly in high school to smile at Michael in our locker alcove. But I got a mulligan, a re-do. I found the kind of true love I longed for as a teenager. Who can really say what mysterious forces brought us together nearly fifty years later and three thousand miles away. Somehow, our journeys converged, like rivers pulled together on their way out to sea. I don’t really know how magnets work, but I’m glad they do.


  • Nancy Levine Stearns

    Nancy Levine Stearns is author of the four-book series starting with The Tao of Pug (Penguin Books / Skyhorse Publishing). As a freelance journalist, her bylines include Sports Illustrated, the Hill Reporter, Rantt Media and Grateful Web. Her reporting has been cited by The New York Times, NBC News, Forbes, and others. For more than twenty years, she was an executive recruiter, starting at American Express Company in New York. Her one-woman show Leaving Scarsdale workshopped at the HBO Workspace in Los Angeles a long time ago.

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