Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“I Am Obsessed With the Woman I Let Get Away”

Love 2

I’m male, 40 years old. At one point several years ago, on an overseas business posting during the final downhill slide of my long marriage (my wife was then back in my home country), I fell in love with a wonderful girl – intelligent, loving, passionate, beautiful. We spent ten months in a clandestine relationship which started as a fling but quickly became serious.

Everything matched perfectly – emotions, cultural tastes, humor, sex, life aspirations. Still, when the time came for me to leave the posting, I went back to patch up my marriage – mainly for fear of “losing” our young children. I launched myself into a terrible, 18-month emotional ordeal which ended up with me losing both the marriage and the girl. She had waited a long time and suffered a lot. Now she’s with another man.

Two more years have passed now since the girl left me, and I have much more perspective on things – which, if anything, has made things worse. My children are older now, my ex and I have an amicable relationship and are successful co-parents, and my fear of losing the children through divorce is long gone. I also now see much more clearly – precisely because my ex and I have since reconciled on a friendly basis – that there was really no realistic way to save the marriage in the long term.

In these two years, I have been meeting women. I even had a six-month relationship with a very beautiful woman, but we broke up because we were too incompatible emotionally. I dated two other women but pulled away from both – one, because she did not stimulate me intellectually, the other because I did not feel physically attracted enough. Right now I am in the process of backing out of a third dating relationship for the same reason. So far, all these experiences have, in the end, only reinforced the terrible grief I feel deep down in my heart for the wonderful relationship I lost because I was ready neither for divorce nor even to really recognize how special the relationship was. Because special she was indeed; I have thought it through so many times, gone through all the mental moves to relativize and demystify her, to “take her down from the pedestal,” and the process doesn’t work. It only keeps making me remember new, precious details from our relationship that I did not fully appreciate when they happened.

My life goes on, I’m successful in my work, I go out and socialize, I spend time with my kids – I feel like I do everything to make the grief go away. But once in a while – usually in some moment of quiet solitude when I see or experience something beautiful – the thought of “if only she were here” passes through my mind. And, once every couple of months, the thought makes me break down crying.

Some say, “happiness must come from within.” Up to a point, perhaps. But I feel like I’m there already; I’ve become much more stable since the most difficult days. Now I feel I can only move further if I find a new, happy relationship.

But it’s hard. I seem to never be much inspired by the women who are interested in me; however, I fear that the fact that they’re “all the wrong women” may mean simply that my standards are unrealistic. I am, after all, getting older. In a few years, I might well reproach myself for the opportunities I’m now so lightly letting pass. My problem is that I simply can’t become close with a woman if she is, either in looks, intelligence or emotional intensity, obviously inferior to the girl I lost. I feel that it would simply be an acknowledgement that the terrible mistake I made is final and irreversible.

More and more, I realize the possibility that I may never be quite as happy again as I was in those magical 10 months. How to deal with this feeling? And more importantly – when I date women, how to find my way between the two opposite pitfalls: one, to subject every woman to impossible comparative standards up front, so as to practically eliminate any chance of opening my heart to her – and the other, to willfully lower my standards to the point that I will jump into a relationship with a woman whom I’m unable to really love, no matter how much she tries? — Earnestly in Love with Her Memory

Of course you aren’t likely to ever be quite as happy again as you were in those magical ten months you were dating the woman you’ve become obsessed with, and it’s not because of her. It’s like when you go on vacation and everything is wonderful: The sun is so warm! The food is so delicious! And the endless time to fritter away doing nothing or whatever you want — it’s all so great. And then you come home to your house that needs a new heating system or a driveway that needs to be re-paved and to your kids and their endless homework and demands and to your widowed mother who hasn’t quite mastered how to take care of herself since your father died and to the weeds, the endless weeds, that threaten to overtake your entire yard. How can you ever be happy in real life when all your problems were delightfully suspended on vacation, at least temporarily?

It’s the same with this woman. She represented to you a respite from the stress and emotional turmoil of a failing marriage and caring for two young children. She may very well have been all the wonderful things you say she was and your relationship may have been super special, but the truth is, when you were with her, you were away from the things causing you stress, and, when you left her, you re-entered at least 18 months of what you call “emotional turmoil” as your marriage collapsed and you then established a new relationship with your ex-wife, figuring out how to co-parent successfully. These are things that will do a number on anyone. It’s natural that you would romanticize a time — and a person — in your life whose existence was free, at least immediately, of the pain and stress that followed upon your return home.

So, how do you deal with the feeling that you may never find that kind of happiness again? How do you date women without comparing them to the incomparable? You do what millions of people do when they get home from vacation: You accept that real life ISN’T comparable to the fantasy world of vacation and you move on. You counter the stresses of your daily life with as much joy and fun as you can find and create. When you are done with your work and your chores and caring for your children for the day, you fill the time that is left with the little things that make you happy: taking photos; watching movies; listening to live music; reading good books; cooking a new recipe; seeing friends; even planning your next vacation. And, yes, you “lower your standards,” though I prefer “shift your expectations,” because it’s unfair to yourself to view your reality through the same lens you view your fantasy world. Reality, with its bills and flu seasons and leaky faucets and imperfect potential love interests will always fall short if you keep comparing. Except for one big, huge, exception: Reality, as much as it can drain your energy and let you down, will always be there for you. It will keep you warm at night while your fantasy life is off galavanting with someone else.

If I were you, I’d take a solid six months and not date anyone. Clean your palate, so to speak. And get used to the idea that the women you’ll date in the future will be imperfect, just like you are. But it’s the imperfections that remind us we are alive and living fully in this world. It’s the imperfections — and the acceptance of those imperfections — that root us in reality. And while reality may never be the white sands and turquoise sea of our vacation memories, there’s great beauty and joy and happiness in what we are able to access more immediately and readily. There’s wonderful gratification in making our everyday worlds as rich and pleasurable as possible so that the re-entry from our occasional escapes isn’t so jarring.

***************

Follow along on Facebook, and Instagram.

If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.

47 comments… add one
  • avatar

    TheRascal November 18, 2014, 8:42 am

    I have nothing to add but….were you really dating a GIRL? I think you mean woman.
    *
    Sorry, pet peeve.

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    • Addie Pray

      Addie Pray November 18, 2014, 9:27 am

      YESSSSS I was thinking the same thing! … But then it dawned on me: she could have very well been a girl. Ewww.

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  • avatar

    Kate November 18, 2014, 8:58 am

    This seems important: “Now I feel I can only move further if I find a new, happy relationship.” Yeah, I think you’re feeling what a lot of people feel who married the wrong person or couldn’t make it work and are now moving on alone and trying to make sense of things. You feel like you failed in a sense, and you need to fix it by finding a successful relationship and proving you can make it work. That’s part of your obsession here.

    And if you’re totally honest with yourself, might you also be buying into the cultural message sent to men, that you get a beautiful, perfect, warm, sexy woman as a “prize” if you’re a “winner” at life? I think the female version of that is women who think the universe owes them a Prince Charming and a fairy tale wedding. Sure, human beings need love and companionship, but nobody “deserves” a wonderful fulfilling committed relationship with a top 1% specimen of the opposite sex. It’s wonderful and amazing if that happens, but it’s not your due.

    And everything Wendy said, as far as advice to you.

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  • avatar

    Laura Hope November 18, 2014, 9:07 am

    Rascal– Once you hit my mother’s age, you become a girl again— as in, last night I played Mahjong with the girls.

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    • avatar

      TheRascal November 18, 2014, 9:20 am

      I see your point, but we are not talking about someone’s mother speaking about her friends….We are speaking about a middle-aged man romanticizing an affair with a younger woman with the language he uses to describe her. The context is entirely different.

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      • FireStar

        FireStar November 18, 2014, 9:52 am

        We don’t know she is younger…my friends and I had a habit of calling all men we were dating “the boy” and most were older than we were.
        and when does middle age start exactly? Damn.

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      • avatar

        TheRascal November 18, 2014, 10:42 am

        I have always thought of middle age as 40.
        *
        This sums up my thoughts — and the multifaceted uses of the word — on referring to women as girls:

        http://jezebel.com/5038268/ladies-lets-be-honest-are-we-girls-or-are-we-women

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      • Addie Pray

        Addie Pray November 18, 2014, 10:59 am

        MIDDLE AGE IS NOT 40! MAYBE 55 OR 60 …. THERASCAL, TO THE TIME OUT CHAIR YOU GO, WENDY DOES NOT TOLERATE SUCH MEAN SPIRITED COMMENTS. WENDY, TELL HER!!!!

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      • Addie Pray

        Addie Pray November 18, 2014, 11:00 am

        I turn 40 in 6 days (and 4 years)!

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      • FireStar

        FireStar November 18, 2014, 11:14 am

        I’m with you – pick another number!!!! I’ll allow 50

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      • Addie Pray

        Addie Pray November 18, 2014, 11:23 am

        50, that’s ok, for now.

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      • Addie Pray

        Addie Pray November 18, 2014, 11:03 am

        You are wayyyyyyy out of line, TheRascal. I’m spitting mad.

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      • Addie Pray

        Addie Pray November 18, 2014, 11:04 am

        I mean 40?! FORTY?! WTF take it back!

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      • FireStar

        FireStar November 18, 2014, 11:13 am

        Interesting. For me you can call me a girl or call me a woman – I don’t much care – it’s what you say around those words that matter most. You can call me an intelligent girl who has accomplished a lot or you can call me an insipid woman who has had everything handed to her. The context determines the offence for me.

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      • gigi

        gigi November 18, 2014, 11:18 am

        Agreed, It doesn’t get me fired up to be called a girl. I call grown men boys too sometimes…. the words in themselves are not a big deal. Also AP, 40 is the new 30 …relax! 🙂

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      • Addie Pray

        Addie Pray November 18, 2014, 11:22 am

        hey tell TheRascal – she’s spreading lies – LIES

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      • avatar

        ktfran November 18, 2014, 11:21 am

        I agree with you two. The word “girl” used for an adult female does not bother me in the least. I often say I’m getting together with the girls, or tonight I have plans with my girlfriends. I guess I should be called a woman, I’m 34, but I really could care less.

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      • Addie Pray

        Addie Pray November 18, 2014, 11:23 am

        Yeah but there’s a difference – and this guy referring to his lost love as “the girl” and everyone else as women makes me think ewwww

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      • avatar

        TheRascal November 18, 2014, 11:27 am

        It’s all about context. Language is always about context.
        *
        I would be deeply offended, for example, if my boss referred to me as “a girl.” I would not be offended if my friend came up to me and said, “Hey, girl.”
        *
        I’ll be 33 in two weeks. 40 was always the age I thought of when I thought middle-age, in general. But perhaps we should consider it in mentality and not in number form?

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      • FireStar

        FireStar November 18, 2014, 11:34 am

        I think Addie needs a full retraction and a sincere apology and the promise to never call 40 middle aged again.

        What if your boss said “TheRascal is the best. That girl outshines every employee we have ever had!” Still offensive?

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      • Addie Pray

        Addie Pray November 18, 2014, 11:37 am

        Full retraction, sincere apology, plus covenant containing promise not to offend and non-disparagement clauses.

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      • avatar

        TheRascal November 18, 2014, 11:43 am

        Yes, I would still not want to be referred to as “girl” in that instance. He could easily say, “TheRascal is the best. She outshines every employee we have ever had.”

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      • avatar

        TheRascal November 18, 2014, 11:43 am

        Middle age is not 40. There is no middle age.

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      • avatar

        Sara November 18, 2014, 12:08 pm

        Yes – context is so important when deciding if a word is OK or not. And it’s kind of weird that he uses the word “woman” for every relationship since his relationship with the “girl.” Wouldn’t every female get the same noun? Unless… ew.

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      • avatar

        wobster109 November 18, 2014, 7:51 pm

        LW doesn’t call the women he dates “girls” though. He mentioned other women he dated; they were always “women”.

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    • Addie Pray

      Addie Pray November 18, 2014, 10:30 am

      Haha true. My mother refers to her friends as the girls.

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  • avatar

    Laura Hope November 18, 2014, 9:33 am

    I know. And you’re right.

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  • Lyra

    Lyra November 18, 2014, 9:42 am

    You are putting this “dream woman” on a pedestal. As Wendy said, at the time it may have felt amazing and awesome and great because of the stuff you were going through in your life. So in reality, she wasn’t as “perfect” as you thought she was because the timing was off — which happens in relationships VERY often. If you had met her after you went through those difficult 18 months *maybe* it would have worked. Maybe. But I think it felt so intense because of the fact that it was an “escape” if you will from real life.
    .
    The fact that you mention that you can “only move further” once you’re in a relationship is interesting. A relationship can enhance your life, yes, but ultimately *you* are the one who needs to come to terms and be happy with yourself as you are. Cheesy as it is, happiness should come from within, not from an external source. Being in a relationship won’t magically make you happier.

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  • FireStar

    FireStar November 18, 2014, 10:04 am

    You have extricated the girl from the context. So even if you aren’t romanticising her – you aren’t seeing her clearly. The perfect girl for you cannot be one that doesn’t want you.

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  • avatar

    SasLinna November 18, 2014, 10:22 am

    You say that now you realize that your marriage wasn’t salvageable and that your fear of losing your kids was overblown, so going back to your wife seems like a mistake. But you didn’t know that back when you decided to give your marriage one more try, did you? Would you have the amicable relationship with your ex-wife that you have now if you had left with the ‘girl’? I doubt it. It seems like you made a decision that made sense to you back then, and the outcome actually hasn’t been so bad (you get along with your ex-wife, you stayed close to your children). You sacrificed your new relationship, but it may have been better for you overall (or at least it was reasonable to believe that at the time).
    Also, if things hadn’t worked out with the new woman for another reason you’d move on, right? If she had been the one to dump you, then you’d find acceptance. So start treating this situation as if she made that choice – and in a way she did, she’s with another man and likely doesn’t regret that things didn’t work out with you. If she were given the choice today, she’d dump you in a heartbeat. So start seeing this as something that happened and that’s done, whether or not you believe you made a mistake. You can’t do anything about this now and it’s in the past.

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  • avatar

    Taylor November 18, 2014, 10:40 am

    “But it’s the imperfections that remind us we are alive and living fully in this world. It’s the imperfections — and the acceptance of those imperfections — that root us in reality.”

    I needed to read this today, thanks Wendy!

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  • Raccoon eyes

    Raccoon eyes November 18, 2014, 10:52 am

    WWS.
    *
    My opinion? You are dating too much right now. Chill out. Your dream girl is just that- a dream, not reality.
    *
    The last sentence really irked me, and specifically that a woman would be trying to make him love her. Eh, maybe Im just in a mood today.

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  • avatar

    Wendy_not_Wendy November 18, 2014, 10:56 am

    Creeper alert! I call women “girls” fairly often (I never thought I would do so, but I lived for a while in a small town in the midwest and it became part of my vocabulary), but this guy refers to everyone else as a “woman” and this one particular woman as a “girl”. Makes me wonder what country it is she comes from and what the, er, power dynamic is/was between the two. And did you catch this? “to willfully lower my standards to the point that I will jump into a relationship with a woman whom I’m unable to really love, no matter how much she tries?” How hard she TRIES? Women are falling all over themselves TRYING to make this guy love him? I might cut him a little slack if he’d said “how hard *I* try”. Not that I’d want to be with someone who had to “try” to love me, but at least he’d be seeing himself as the problem. This sounds to me like a middle-aged man who wants badly to be a 21-year-old PUA.

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  • bittergaymark

    bittergaymark November 18, 2014, 11:10 am

    Eh, all this “girl” nonsense is silly. I mean — where was the outcry over GONE GIRL? Where not only is the offending term used, but in the end the disappearance of a “girl” is little more than a plot device? 😉

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    • Addie Pray

      Addie Pray November 18, 2014, 11:41 am

      gurl, with respect to Gone Girl, there were bigger fish to fry, like how the movie sucked balls and i was really looking forward to it being good.

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  • avatar

    snarkymarc November 18, 2014, 12:20 pm

    If you think of relationships as a treasure hunt where everyone is competing for the best prize, then you are doomed to being dissatisfied. People aren’t simply a list of their attributes. Sure, you should be attracted to your partner and find them funny and sexy and smart, but hopefully there is something in their character that heightens these qualities especially to you. Sorry, but you sound immature. Maybe you’re going through midlife crisis. After taking a dating break, maybe you should start looking for a partner rather than a hot little prize.

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    • FireStar

      FireStar November 18, 2014, 12:38 pm

      psst….Don’t incur Addie’s wrath – 40 is not middle aged…

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      • bittergaymark

        bittergaymark November 18, 2014, 12:50 pm

        Everybody knows that 60 is the beginning of middle aged. Because loads and loads of people live now to 120… Oh, wait.

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      • FireStar

        FireStar November 18, 2014, 1:48 pm

        :p

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  • sobriquet

    sobriquet November 18, 2014, 12:32 pm

    I really love Wendy’s advice on this one. I’ll add that, as great as this mystical woman-girl may seem compared to other women you date, SHE is the one who falls short. In reality, she lacks one very important quality- arguably the MOST important quality: the desire to be with you.
    .
    LW, come back down to earth. You made the best decision for yourself at the time and you don’t know what kind of nightmare could have happened had you chosen to stay with her instead of your wife. Look back on the affair as something that helped you at the time and be grateful that it did not cause your life to go up in flames like you once feared. You still have your kids and an amicable relationship with your ex. No, you did not get the girl, too, but I’d say you came out a winner. Change your perspective.

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  • avatar

    snoopy128 November 18, 2014, 12:38 pm

    Sobriquet, wonderfully said!

    I also have to say, often in cases where people say they “can’t” get over someone, it’s because they don’t want to. By continually looking for qualities about her in other women and comparing them to her, you aren’t letting her memory fade. Everytime you try to compare someone to her, you are resurrecting her memory and putting her on a pedestal.
    She was great for a specific time in your life. Doesn’t mean she would be great for right now.

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  • mylaray

    mylaray November 18, 2014, 12:38 pm

    I really love your advice on this letter, Wendy. Its relatable to many situations.

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  • bittergaymark

    bittergaymark November 18, 2014, 12:38 pm

    WDWS.

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  • something random

    something random November 18, 2014, 2:07 pm

    I really loved Wendy’s response. Earnestly in love with her memory, Perhaps the reason you can’t move on is because you don’t want to. Reliving the past can be a wonderful distraction to loneliness. You say you have done the work and are ready to move forward with a companion. You have to let go of the past a little to do that. And maybe you just aren’t willing to do that. Because it’s precious to you. Or because if felt so right. Or because whatever. You are holding on tight to a space in you mind and heart for a memory.

    Stop thinking about ways to take her down from a Pedestal. Stop thinking about her period. You say you think about if only she were here. If only she were here what? You wouldn’t feel lonely? You would be in that perfect moment of connection and lust? It would end, too. Life is full of loss. From the moment we are born we are faced with loss. When we hit middle age we have a sense of how fleeting life is and can choose to sulk in a life-time of what-if paths and obsessions. It may seem preferable to a future that feels bleak. But it will only keep you from living a full life in the present. As painful as it is, you have a choice to make.

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    • something random

      something random November 18, 2014, 2:15 pm

      I’ll also add that I wouldn’t over-focus on the future, either. It can also be a distraction from making the most of your life. Your concerns feel theoretical. The only thing that feels present-tense is grief. So face that and experience it. Don’t wallow and pick at scars.

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  • avatar

    wobster109 November 18, 2014, 7:50 pm

    LW, to be honest you sound pretty self-centered. You say you “loved” this woman, and how did you show it? You dragged her around on 18 months of roller coaster. In her memories you were probably a nightmare boyfriend. Then you go around calling other women “inferior”, as if you’re the Lord High Standard or something. Your letter is all complaints about how they don’t stimulate you; nary a concern about whether you’re stimulating them. Just because they’re not right for you, doesn’t make them “inferior”. Women have value as people independent of pleasing you.

    You’re also really creepy. Every other woman you mention in the letter is a “woman”, but she’s a “girl” very time. That’s not cool.

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  • avatar

    rieux November 18, 2014, 8:44 pm

    Honestly? I usually HATE the “girl” thing but I barely even noticed it here because I was sort of disturbed by his attitude towards women. It’s like they’re bottles of fine wine — very valuable, very respected Things To Purchase. He talks like he’s dawdling at some imaginary Female Flesh Market, taking things off the shelf, trying them and being like “hmm, crisp bouquet, but her thighs are way too thick” and putting them back and crying about the girl he once lost who had intellectually stimulating conversations AND shapely thighs. Or whatever — I’m mixing metaphors frightfully, aren’t I.

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