Saralee Perel

Award-winning columnist, Saralee Perel, can be reached at 

Her novel, Raw Nerves, is now available as a paperback and an e-book on

My Boyfriend's Back and It's Gonna Be Trouble

“Do you still have that red dress?” the husky voice said on my answering machine.

My husband Bob and I were having dinner. I knew immediately it was James, the stirring charismatic philosophy instructor I was infatuated with 27 years ago.

“Who’s that?” Bob asked.

“I don’t know.” The lying begins.

James finally identified himself in his long seductive message. “Losing you was the biggest mistake of my life,” he went on to say. “I’m living in Seattle. I want to see you.”

I kept eating like nothing was happening.

“Isn’t that the guy you were crazy about?” Bob said. “The teacher with the motorcycle?”

“Oh, is that him?” I couldn’t look up from forkfuls of Thai food.

What do you do when an old flame enters a marriage of 23 years? A marriage based on honesty. You lie about it and ignore it, of course. I didn’t return James’ call.

Two days later he called again. “How could I have let you go?” he murmured on the machine. “Please call me back.” Naturally I was eating this up.

After pacing for an hour I called. I got his answering machine. I spoke slowly, deliberately and with confidence. “Hi,” I said. “It’s James. I mean it’s  . . .  .” Then I forgot my name. I started my nervous habit of building up phlegm and began loud liquidy throat-clearing the way my dad did every morning in his Yiddish accent, “YECH-ACH, ECH, ECH.” I followed this with my hiccups that for some reason always sound like a question. “Sure I have (hic?) the red dress. I  . . .  was wearing it when you called.” I glanced in the mirror. My reflection looked like that painting called The Scream. “I have a  . . .  .” I went blank. “  . . .  person – Bob. We (hic?) do stuff.” Then I hung up.

Later, we took a walk around our favorite pond. Bob was pensive. I knew he felt threatened and upset. I took his hand. He turned to me and sang, “James and Saralee sittin’ in a tree  . . .  ”

“Very funny.” I whisked my hand away. “Aren’t you worried about this?” I asked.

“Of course not.”

We walked further. “Do you ever wonder about the road not taken? Like, if you had married beautiful skinny blonde Jenni-with-an-i?”


“You remember - the one you had pizza with on the lawn at the Tanglewood music theater where you and I have never been together?”

“I remember.”

“  . . .  the one you had lunch with while you wore that madras shirt I gave you?”

He laughed. “I know who you mean.”

“What is THAT supposed to mean? You still think about her, don’t you? You look at my flabby belly and you say, ‘Boy, I bet Jenni doesn’t pack one of those walloping lollapaloozas,’ don’t you?”

He stopped walking and took my face in his hands. “Never,” he said.

That night I couldn’t sleep. Memories washed over me from so many years ago. Miserable times of self-doubt. I was too shy and overshadowed by James to be myself. I believe that the hallmark of a relationship is how you feel about yourself when you’re with the other person. With James, I always questioned how I acted and how I looked.

I nudged Bob’s shoulder and he opened his eyes. I whispered, “Around you, I feel good about myself. I never think I act like a dork.”

Sleepily, he softly touched my cheek and whispered back, “Think again.”

I fell asleep thinking about the roads I didn’t take and the ones I did. So much in life is chance. And so much is our own doing. It was purely luck meeting Bob. But the choice of taking this road with him was mine.