As I walked up to the hotel bar, I realized the only two available spots were on either side of a woman I assumed was a stunningly beautiful escort. She held my eye as I entered the room with a directness that felt like an agenda. This surprised me as I’m not used to women this lovely being quite so aggressive.
My friend had asked me to meet him for a drink but he hadn’t yet arrived, so I settled in at the bar for a cocktail while I waited. I sat down to her left and, keeping to myself, causally ordered a whiskey. After a short pause, she spoke.
“Are you waiting for someone?” I heard her ask in a soothing voice from over my right shoulder. I turned slightly and replied hesitantly.
“Yes, but my phone is having trouble finding a signal and I’m not sure where my friend is.” I’m not usually awkward speaking with women, but I was intimidated by her looks and also unsure of how to engage with an escort in a friendly way while not leading her into thinking I was a potential client. “So for the moment, I’m on my own. How about you?” I regretted asking the question immediately. I was newly and happily married to an exceptional woman and had no interest in chatting up another one. Replying with a question just perpetuated the conversation.
“I’m here working.” She said. I was pretty sure I knew what she meant and it made me a little uncomfortable. I nodded. “I’m in from Cincinnati for a Christian book conference.”
This surprised me. It was certainly a different kind of work than I expected.
“Really?” I said and turned to look more directly at her. She had a warm and strangely familiar glint in her eye. The light was low but she was obviously lovely. She wore a pearl necklace, a very short black skirt, and a white shirt under a black blazer. Aside from the length of her skirt, it was a pretty conservative outfit. She had smokey eyes gazing at me from behind wisps of strawberry blonde hair. “I’m Sam.” I extended my hand.
“Portia.” She replied.
“Portia.” I repeated, thinking this sounded too much like a pseudonym. I second guessed myself once again for engaging with her.
Suddenly, I felt a spasm in my stomach and out of pure reflex my arm shot out and grabbed her shoulder. It was a feeling like I had been punched. I felt on the verge of breaking into a sweat. I hunched and stared into her face, dizzy. My grip on her shoulder was tight and my composure was temporarily in a tailspin. She seemed slightly startled but remained calm and collected. Meanwhile, I sputtered and could feel my heart pulsing in my fingers and toes. I blushed and felt beads of sweat forming on my forehead. I was a jittery mess.
“Oh my God!” I exclaimed.
I had been sitting there speaking with this woman for about a minute and had only just realized it was my wife wearing a wig. She wore an outfit I had never seen, her makeup was different, and her wedding ring was not the one from our marriage. I sat there stammering in shock.
She didn’t break character for a second. Without batting a fake eyelash, she glanced at my hand still clutching her shoulder.
“My goodness, you’re very forward.” She said. Somehow, she was still Portia. She hadn’t cracked even a tad.
“I’m sorry.” I didn’t really know what to think but was able to pull myself together a bit. “I just realized, you look so much like my wife.” It came out like something between a question and a comment.
“Let’s not talk about partners right now.” She twisted a strand of hair in her fingertips and narrowed her eyes.
“Okay.” I said. But I couldn’t let that go. “Just to be clear though, are you married?”
“I am. I have a husband and two boys. I met Richard in high school and had Ricky and Jared when I was quite young. They’re 13 and 11.” She whipped out her iPhone (which displayed a background I’d never seen), opened her Facebook app (this woman had a Facebook page!), and showed me photos of her boys playing on the banks of the Ohio River. I was stunned. “If it wasn’t for them, I’d probably have left Richard a long time ago.”
My wife had become this character. She was brilliant, playful, beautiful, and encouraged me to engage with her and play along. I bit.
“So, you’re not really into Richard I take it?”
“I hate Richard.” She let her hand graze mine, “but I love Dick.” I melted and she let that sink in for a moment. “What do you do, Sam?” She asked removing her hand from mine.
It was hypnotic. I was lost in this character. Portia had me wrapped around her finger. I gave her the short version of what I do and reached in my back pocket to hand her a business card.
“How about you Portia?” I said as I placed my card on the bar in front of her.
She unsnapped her clutch and slid her own business card toward me.
“I work two to three days a week at a local Christian bookstore just to fill my time. But mostly,” she paused, “I’m just a very lonely housewife.”
I’m not sure how to describe what it is like to be speaking with the person you know better than anyone else in the world and to remain certain that this is indeed them, while being almost unable to recognize them in the moment. It was like going to a movie and watching an actor whose face you’d recognize anywhere but whose acting was so spellbinding you forget you’ve ever seen them somewhere else. This was definitely my wife, but in that moment I was being seduced by Portia and couldn’t do anything about it. I didn’t want to do anything about it. There was a sense of trust and permission granting that whatever was happening was okay. We were playing together.
“Email me anytime.” She said. I looked at her business card. ‘Portia Lynn Cox’ worked for the ‘Christian Education Ministries of Ohio’. There was a website for the bookstore that I later discovered said “Happy Birthday, Sam!”
She opened her purse again and pulled out a pen. Then she plucked the card from my fingers.
“Sam,” she looked me directly in the eyes again. It was that same look that I had encountered when I entered the bar. That look that said there was an agenda. “I wouldn’t normally do this, but it’s my first time visiting New York and I’ve really enjoyed meeting you.” She smiled and wrote something on the card. “If you’d like to stop somewhere and pick up a bottle of Champagne, you’re welcome to join me this evening.” She slipped the business card back into my hand with another card on top of it. “That’s my room number. And here’s a key.”
With that, Portia stood up, adjusted her skirt, and pointed to her drink, “This is on you.” She turned and walked out of the bar without looking back.
I took a very deep breath and pinched myself. Then, I paid for the drinks and went out to find a liquor store.
When I entered the hotel room, Portia was sprawled across the bed in unfamiliar lingerie. She read a paperback mystery novel from a drugstore while sipping a cherry Pepsi (neither of which my wife would enjoy). We didn’t do much more talking.
That night, Portia became a medium for my wife and me. I could tell Portia things I wasn’t sure how to tell my wife. We could act in ways we might not have otherwise felt comfortable acting. This character was a healthy go-between. She let us play games with each other and experiment and explore. I hope every couple can experience something like this level of trust and permission.
Later, we sat in bed and debriefed. She said she’d considered kicking me out in the middle of the night and telling me to go home to my wife. She planned on beating me home and never acknowledging anything had happened. Ultimately though, she decided it would be much more fun to talk about our experience and share the story with friends. Pretending nothing happened meant keeping it a secret. She also mentioned that when she sat at the bar watching me walk in and out of the room looking for my friend, she told the bartender she was a little nervous because she was wearing a wig and her husband might not recognize her. He smiled and told her it wasn’t the first time.
Hearing that this one bartender at a random Midtown hotel had witnessed other couples engage in ‘extramarital staycations’ made me happy. It’s good to remember to stay playful. I fell more in love with my wife that night. She created a safe fantasy in which we could break down barriers and get closer to each other. Just knowing these kinds of relationships are happening around me everyday is wonderful and thrilling. It gives me certain sense of hope for humanity in a way. I’ll never look at strangers in a bar the same way and I’ll certainly never assume something about a beautiful woman sitting alone. There is so much creativity buried in each of us and I am so lucky to have a wife who can express it so playfully. May we all be more playful with each other everyday.