"Want to go get coffee?" he asked.
His young son and mine were taking a music class on Saturday mornings. I'd usually watch for a few minutes while the kids clapped out a rhythm, or banged on tambourines and drums, before going to sit outside with a book or the newspaper—happy for the time to myself. One Saturday, he saw me outside and suggested I join him across the street for a cup of coffee. Sure, I said. Just a couple of parents killing time while our kids marched around making noise.
The following week, we had coffee again. We talked about our jobs (mostly his), grad school (mine) and the other everyday things people talk about with an acquaintance who is not exactly a friend. We talked about our daughters—his was still a baby, mine was getting ready to start first grade. Mild conversation to while away an hour.
Once I'd said yes, it made it harder to say no. I had no other plans on those mornings, and there wasn't any point in going home and coming back. Plus, parking was difficult to find even once on a busy Saturday morning. So, we had coffee. It was just coffee. He wasn't someone I would ever be attracted to; in fact, with his close-set eyes, sharp nose, heavy beard and big teeth, there was a wolfish, almost predatory look about him which I found a little off-putting. But I was no babe in the woods, and certainly wasn't afraid of this wolf.
Over the course of several Saturdays, he learned that I had a part-time position on the campus of the local university. My practicum fulfilled one of the requirements for my graduate degree in counseling. And I learned that he was an instructor on the same campus in a building near where I worked.
He called me at home one afternoon. We'd exchanged numbers in order to arrange play dates for the boys. He wanted to meet me on campus the next day. The tone of his voice sounded different—less casual, more aggressive.
"For coffee?" I asked. "But it's not Saturday." He didn't laugh.
I need to talk to you, he said. Something in his voice and the sense of urgency sent a chill down my spine. I could've said no. I could have. But my curiosity won out against my better judgment. After all, maybe someone in his family had suddenly taken ill with something serious and he wanted to tell me in person. Maybe a crisis came up he wanted to discuss. Once people learned about my counseling program, they often confided in me. I didn't discourage them. It seemed like good practice.
At the appointed hour, I left my office and walked over to a nearby outdoor café. On high alert by then, I wondered if I had made the right decision to meet him outside of our usual situation. He sat hunched over a table in the sun. His whole body seemed tense, his fingers clenching into fists and then releasing, settling flat on the table. He took a deep breath and leaned toward me.
"I love my wife," he began, "but I'm very attracted to you. I want to be with you, and not just for an hour on Saturdays. I think about you all the time."
My heart was already pounding. He kept talking, but all I heard was: "I love my wife, but ..."
"Well?" he said, and waited for an answer.
I thought for a moment before I said, "I'm not looking for ways to complicate my life right now." Why did I try to sound tactful?
"You're not looking for complications?" He sounded incredulous. Was I dismissing his request, just like that? Yes, I was. I don't remember what he said next, but I knew it was time for me to leave. I got up from the table, turned around and walked away.
I dreaded seeing him again at the next class. I couldn't stand the thought of having another conversation with him. But we'd already made plans to get the boys together to play. When I called to cancel with some made-up excuse, his wife answered. I stammered a little as I introduced myself. Had he told her his feelings for me? What if he had? Why did I feel awkward and guilty? I wasn't guilty of anything but bad judgment. I hadn't encouraged him or led him on—I know I hadn't. We just had coffee. But I thought I heard something in her tone that made me uncomfortable. Was I imagining it? Maybe I hadn't been the first woman to hear him say what he said to me.
When the kids' class ended, I thought I'd seen the last of the big bad wolf. But I hadn't. About a year later, his family and mine ended up at the same local restaurant. I saw him before he looked up and saw us: me, my husband, my daughter, my son—and our new baby boy. I watched out of the corner of my eye for a second as he reacted, then busied myself with the kids and the menu, determined not to make eye contact with him or his wife.
A couple of times over the next few years, I saw him again—but dodged away before he could spot me. I'd probably do the same if I saw him today. When I think about what happened now, I can clearly see the red flags I'd ignored all those years ago.
And I have to wonder if there is such a thing as "just coffee" with a guy like that—a married man who says, "I love my wife, but ..."