Temptation and vice have been occupying my mind lately. I’ll begin with infidelity, a topic that both terrifies and enrages me. My parents’ seventeen-year marriage ended after a spate of affairs and my mother falling in love with another man. Their divorce was devastating, and to this day I feel the residual pain of a broken family. Many friends and family members have cheated or fallen in love with others, ended marriages both good and bad, and moved on to new life dramas. And I, feeling somewhat like a throwback to another decade or century, cling to my marriage like a baby koala to its mother’s back. Although I adore my husband and am perennially attracted to him, I fear that infidelity lies in wait for us.
A couple of weeks ago I sat in my therapist’s office, ranting about a close friend who confessed to me that she had fallen in love with a married man. “It’s absolutely wrong!” I pounded my clenched fists against my knees. “He has young children. You don’t mess with that.”
Hot rage inflated my chest and belly, like a volcano erupting. My mother always told me to put money and valuables away if I was staying in a hotel rather than leave them out and tempt the maids. Isn’t flirting (or worse yet, falling in love with a married man with young kids) the same thing—offering him a window out of a house full of noise and mess? What couple with kids has enough time for themselves and each other and wouldn’t be tempted by an exciting new romantic escapade? Not many issues are crystal clear to me in life; I often see many points of view at once and sway about in a sea of relativism. But I sensed down to my tendons and bones that falling in love with a married man is unequivocally wrong. I could feel myself astride a high horse, back erect and chin held high, surveying those below me who engage in illicit flirtations.
“I think you need to bring the temptress in here” my therapist mused, pulling me abruptly out of the saddle. I was taken aback. What does she mean? I want nothing to do with temptation and lust for other men. “Tell me something you are enticed by.”
I racked my brain. “Chocolate, I guess. But not really.” I felt noble, yet ridiculous. I must have some vices. “ Well,” I admitted, “I do like online shopping. Not that I do it much, but it’s pretty tempting. I mean, that whole one-click thing on Amazon is just devilish.”
“Okay. Great, perfect,” my therapist smiled and sat forward in her chair. “I want you to embody Amazon, okay?” I nodded reluctantly. “What would you say? Close your eyes and see how your body feels.”
I blushed and sank down into the leather couch. I took a deep breath and tried to take on the attributes of an online shopping site. After years of somatic and gestalt therapy, which once brought on an acute sense of the absurd, I now willingly take leaps into the lesser-known aspects of my psyche. My voice became a creamy whisper. My shoulders began to relax; words ushered forth. “I have everything you could ever want or even think of wanting,” I purred, “in every color, shape and price range you can imagine.” Suddenly I was wrapped in a deep purple, velvet cloak, my body a hidden world of pleasure and gratification. The couch caressed my back, as it would a lover. “And I am so discreet that I won’t even send a receipt to your email account,” I continued in a sultry whisper. “No one will ever have to know about us.” Oh my goodness! I thought. This is so much fun. Much better than playing the pious Protector of Marriage.
“Wow! You are the perfect affair,” my therapist laughed with delight.
“Yes,” I continued, now basking in my power, “and I bring you pleasure twice; once when you make your order and again when you receive the package.” I spent the next half hour being the temptress, a far cry from the straight-laced, risk-averse self I know so well.
Sometimes I wonder about therapy. After my allotted fifty minutes, I left with no strategy on how to confront my friend or make peace with the plague of infidelity around me. Incorporating vice and temptation into an otherwise upstanding life continued to confound me. I did feel lighter, more relaxed, and open to new aspects of myself. Throughout the next week, I carried with me the possibility of being at once seductive and safe, provocative yet ethical. I didn’t make any new online purchases, but I felt the lure of unspoken desire.
And then, as if my Superego had sent me a red-alert telegram, I happened to listen to a Radiolab podcast describing online order fulfillment warehouses. It turns out there is no lovely, well-kept seductress fulfilling wishes both mundane and exquisite. The guest speaker had worked in such a warehouse. Like the underbelly of so many temptations, these places run like sweatshops, with the “pickers” worked to the bone in inhumane conditions. The woman recounted holding her bladder for hours on end, then scarfing down her lunch in minutes before returning to the rat race of filling boxes for online shoppers. A fellow picker was fired after taking a day off for the birth of his daughter. One summer, an Amazon warehouse heated up to the point that some of the pickers were fainting. Instead of installing air conditioners, the manager called paramedics to wait outside in order to spirit away the fallen. Or so the podcast claims.
I listened with resignation. Oh Pomona, is nothing sacred? How can I ever take any pleasure in online shopping now that I know what really lies behind the veil of my temptation? Is there nothing worth lusting after that doesn’t harm an unseen body in its wake?
My friend emailed last night to say that her paramour had decided to work things out with his wife. My heart leapt in my chest; disaster averted, the marriage will remain intact for now. Admiration for the couple grew. Perhaps the brown paper package arrived and the consumer had buyer’s remorse, I thought ruefully. I felt no pity for my friend’s broken heart. Shouldn’t play with what isn’t yours.
And now Pomona, I am back astride my elegant steed. I have vanquished the temptress to the outer reaches of my personality for the time being, though part of me longs to be sinful and coy, or at least to figure out a way to bring those qualities into my life without hurting other people.
For now I content myself with asking the question what is it that I desire most in this moment? Whether or not I can fulfill the desire within my ethical bounds is another question entirely.