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Beyond a love for Africa, he shared little

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"Wanna share Sangria?" his text said.

"Sure. Just walked in. Wearing a gold jacket."

"I'm in a white sweat shirt."

I walked into the crowded bar looking for an African man who led a nonprofit promoting social entrepreneurship among people of African descent. That was all I knew about him.

I was deeply in love with Africa, having returned from my first trip there eight months before. I had spent two weeks there, teaching primary school children in a Nairobi slum to write their personal stories. My short visit there changed my life.

Africa was almost all I talked about. I had just launched a program matching Kenyan and U.S. children as pen pals, and I intended to return to Africa many times, helping children across the continent write their personal stories, and sharing those stories across the world.

Friends regularly introduced me to people who shared my passion for Africa, and who were doing work similar to mine. That's how I came to search for the man in the white sweat shirt on a Friday night.

I scanned the bar, my eyes dancing from one man to the next. He could be 30 or 80, for all I knew.

I found him. He had a beautiful, bald head, and a white sweat shirt like none I'd ever seen: casual, yet somehow regal and sexy draped over his lean body. He was in his late 30s, I guessed — mostly because he looked it, but also because I was 36 and he was gorgeous, so I needed it to be true.

I approached him, extended my hand, and groped his for a ring as I shook it. Delighted to feel none, I glanced at his other hand . Jackpot: He was single, or at least not married.

We spoke for hours in that bar, sharing tapas, sangria and our dreams for Africa. Our shop talk was productive and fulfilling, but it was the chemistry between us that led the evening's charge.

We met a friend of his at another bar. We danced close. We changed bars again. He spilled red wine on that white sweat shirt. We kissed on the dance floor.

He tried to go home with me that night, pretending he needed to get me home safely, despite my sobriety and possession of a car. I declined. "I don't move that fast." He laughed. He asked me out for the following night.

He was trouble. But he was everything I'd fallen in love with about Africa: warm, concerned for others and humble. And he was a PhD-level engineer who had made a life for himself here, after moving from Nigeria at 22. He impressed me.

But he was often distant. He refused, repeatedly, to accept my occasional Facebook friend requests. "I don't even add my mom or my sister," he protested.

We fought a lot, whenever I tried to concretize the illusory details of his stories: where he was traveling, why he'd shown up late, whether we were dating or broken up. But every time I asked, he assured me that he was with only me, even though his bellicosity and my mercurial nature combined to switch us more frequently "off" than "on."

On his birthday, 1 1/2 years into our relationship and two months into our latest break, I spied on his forbidden Facebook wall. What I was looking for, I had no idea, but it certainly wasn't this wall post: "Happy birthday my dearest husband. ur children re also proud of their dad."

Punched in the gut, I sat on the floor for 15 minutes, trying to breathe. When my lungs regained sufficient air, I called my friend Liz. Within the hour, our joint, simultaneous, over-the-phone Facebook investigation revealed the following: White Sweat Shirt was in fact married to the woman who had called him her "dearest husband." She lived in Nigeria, where he returned to visit twice per year. Her dearest husband doubled as the father of her three children, ages 8, 6 and 3.

There were photos and loving Facebook posts between them — none of which I'd ever seen, because I hadn't known to look on her page, where all evidence but the birthday note was stored.

I debated my options for months. I could reach out to tell him I knew, but why?

I considered calling her. She had written her phone number on a Facebook post, and I'd recorded it. But the only reason to expose his lies would be to enlighten a wife who was in the dark. And my gut said his philandering was a well-illuminated issue.

Six months later, eight months after my last conversation with him, and a few months after my begrudging acceptance that I'd been a hit and run to this man, I was shocked to receive an email from him.

"Katie, Happy new year to you. Long time, no hear. How are you, your family and job? Let me know you are doing OK."

I responded: "I found out you have a wife and children. Don't ever email, call, text or come near me again."

Eight minutes later, he sent the following reply: "Hey, Even if I do, what's wrong with that? As usual, u have a one-track mind and dictatorial in ur decisions — no surprises. Thought u have grown up but nope — still ur old unchangeable Katie Burke. Goodluck with that attitude. No more emails from me, for sure."

With this email exchange, we formalized the burial of Gold Jacket and White Sweat Shirt. And now my eyes are open for a new man, inside whose chest beats the gentle, strong heart I once thought I saw in one woman's dearest husband.

Burke is a writer, editor and former family law attorney.

L.A. Affairs is a column that chronicles dating, romance and relationships. If you have a story to tell, send it to home@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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