What I Told Myself
At the beginning, I told myself that I could have sex with the X even though he was cheating on Anderson, IN, because he had already been cheating on Anderson, IN, for six years: first, briefly, with a woman in his office, then, for the next five years and through the time that he and I first got in touch with one another, with a woman he met online, the same way he first met me in 1996, and the same way he’d met Anderson, IN, in 1997, and the same way he met me again in 2011. He’d been seeing that woman once a year or so, on business trips he took to Georgia especially to meet her. So I was not a homewrecker, I told myself, because in that sense, his home had long been wrecked.
And I was not a cheater, I told myself, because the Husband knew all about the X from the start, knew what I was doing with him, spoke to him on the phone, met him at a diner in New Hampshire with the children for his birthday. On that day, the X brought the children coloring books. He ate some of their leftover pancakes.
Anderson, IN, and the X have no children together. It would be different, I told myself, if they had had children together. There were no children whose lives would be ruined if, because of me, their marriage came undone. And, anyway, the X’s life was not being ruined: He was choosing this for himself. The only life to ruin, I told myself, was that of Anderson, IN, a grown woman who would actually be better off if she learned to take care of herself.
But within a few months, about the same time as that birthday lunch at the diner, I told the X that if he wanted to keep seeing me, he had to tell Anderson, IN, about us. About him. About them. About his long history of cheating. “This can’t go on,” I said. And so he told her.
There are so many clichés: My wife doesn’t understand me. I feel trapped. We haven’t been happy in a long time. He never said any of these.
He told me, at the beginning, that they were comfortable together, and content. That he felt safe with her, and that they were best friends. Even much later, when she had thrown all their photographs in the fireplace and cut his high-school football jersey in two with a pair of scissors, he did not want to hurt her, did not want to harm her, did not want her to dislike him.
Because she knew about me as the girlfriend the X had before she ever came along, the model for a girlfriend the X wished she’d be, she hated me from the start.
Her hatred and fear of me was so intense that she did not want to hear my name, so he did not use my name when he spoke to her. Even before he started having an affair with me, he was not allowed to speak my name, and if there was a show on television with a character who had my name, they had to change the channel.
After she found out about the affair, she called me the Whore. He did not want to call me the Whore, but he was still not allowed to use my name, so he would say, She. On the rare occasions when he speaks to Anderson, IN, by telephone now, I think the X still says She instead of my name, so as to avoid further enraging her.
When the X says us to me, he often means me and Anderson, IN, something they did together in the past, with the dogs or in Hawaii. I do not think he has ever said us to her, meaning himself and me, the Whore. After all, they were married for fourteen years. And she would not like to hear such an us, could not bear it, and so I think he has trained himself not to say it.
A Real Person
One can tell oneself that an affair—especially such an affair, organized so resolutely around sex; with a thinner woman (though not thin), a younger woman (though not young); with a woman who posts pictures of herself wearing shorts on the Internet; with a woman who is married to another man (though openly)—can only end badly.
That it’s a cliché, a mirage, a midlife crisis. That it cannot last, will not be real, will not work out.
These are things people say. And it might make one feel better to think these things.
But some people are with their once-illicit lover, the one they used to meet after work at the cheap motel or late at night at the park ’n’ ride, for the rest of their lives. There are revised in-laws and Tupperware and the dog leash hanging on a hook by the door, and there may also be vacations to nudist resorts and sequined minidresses for going out dancing, even in their sixties.
We’ve met people like this, the X and I: soccer moms and bikers and retired army veterans on their second marriages, blissfully grateful for the choice they made to leave their spouses decades ago for someone shocking or ill-advised or even much like the ex, but about whom all the ex’s friends said, It won’t last, and yet it has lasted, and sometimes, even all these years later, despite the high-school basketball schedule for the youngest and the bald spot and the scars she has from that lumpectomy, the sex is still very, very good.
People fall in love, people break up, people fall in love again. It’s not magic. It’s not even news. And yet every time it happens, we act as if the world has stopped, and all our friends tell us, He’s disgusting. She’s horrible. What a shitface. I can’t believe that. They’re crazy. Good riddance. As if any of us is immune.
I am trying, I suppose, to prove to Anderson, IN, that I am a real person, just me, which is both far less interesting and also maybe far more upsetting than being the magic-cunted Whore of her imaginings.
Anderson, IN, has told me that I’m a bad feminist for sleeping with her husband, for causing him to leave her. What I guess she means by this is that she equates feminism with kindness toward women by other women, and I did the unkind thing of sleeping with her husband while she was married to him—first without her knowledge or consent, and then, after a few months, with her knowledge but still without her consent—and then inspiring or otherwise causing her husband to ultimately choose to be with me and to end his marriage to her.
I think that Anderson, IN, thinks that if I were truly a feminist—as she knows I am deemed on the Internet, and as she knows I say I am—I would not be unkind to other women in this particular whorish way: that I would refrain from fucking or loving married men whose wives didn’t want them to fuck or love other women.
But I do not agree that, at its core, feminism is about interpersonal kindnesses between women. I’m not sure it’s about kindness at all. And I do not think that the act of sleeping with Anderson’s husband was unkind. Nor do I think it was kind. It was something the X and I wanted for ourselves. It made us both happy. It was kind to us, because we felt nourished and delighted by it, and unkind to her, because she was being lied to, and her trust was betrayed. I do not think it had a universal quality of kindness or unkindness. I do think the fact that the X was lying to Anderson, IN, about what was going on was unkind. If it had been up to me, I would have told her earlier.
Sometimes I say, “I did Anderson, IN, a favor.” When I say this, I mean that by being part of the cause—OK, the catalyst; OK, the major cause—of her marriage ending, I was doing her a kindness, because she often said that she did not want to be married to someone who lied to her or cheated on her, and she was married to someone who did both.
Of course, much of the time, there is a lie inherent in anything anyone says, and the lie is simply what we want to be true.
Bit of Strange
How common is it, when people have affairs or otherwise leave monogamous relationships, for the one who is betrayed and left to ask oneself, Was I a good partner?
How common is it for one to answer, No, not really? To say, perhaps, I was good, once, at the beginning, but then I just stopped putting in the effort and forgot most days to touch or even look at her, and my job got really boring and I stopped wanting to do karaoke and started wearing those really unflattering but comfortable pants every day, and mostly ordered takeout from the chicken place instead of making the paella she so enjoyed?
How common is it to see the person who left not as the enemy or as evil incarnate, but as a fellow tired wanderer who seized an opportunity that came along for something different, something with spark?
How common is it to think, Had I been presented with a similar opportunity, the cute guy in the next cubicle offering to go down on me under the desk one late night during inventory, I might have done the same, and betrayed this person I truly love and care about, just because I too have been feeling the need for something else in my life, a bit of strange?
How common is it to think, This does not mean she does or does not love me? That I am or am not a failure? That she is or is not an asshole? Because all of these answers are true? All of the above?
How common is it for the bit of strange to develop into something lasting, familiar?
How common is it for the cycle—the thrill, then the ennui, then the look to the left—to all happen again, and for the new, the strange, to be betrayed and left?
(I tell myself: Sometimes it all happens again but often it does not. Once a cheater, always a cheater, people like to say, but don’t we all know someone who left his wife and kids to be with the goldenvoiced secretary with the calves like apostrophes, and who is still with that secretary decades later, both gray now, and living in a retirement village near Orlando, photographs of grandchildren in braces all over the refrigerator?)
Lana Del Rey
I am walking barefoot on a dirt road through the mountains in the high desert. I am wearing a plum-colored miniskirt and listening to Lana Del Rey in my earbuds. Somewhere someone is shooting off a gun. It’s hot and sunny.
I am thinking about codependence, and about fakery.
Could you leave me? I ask the X later on the phone.
That night, I dream about him leaving me. It’s a horrible dream. I bait him into leaving me, actually, saying an abrupt goodbye as a way to manipulate him into caring more, but it backfires and he indifferently lets me go. I wake up screaming, No, then realize the man in the dream was not the X at all but the emotionally withholding boyfriend I left in my twenties to be with the X in the first place, all those years ago, before either of us ever knew Anderson, IN, existed.
In the morning, I call the X and the minute I hear the dearness in his voice, the vulnerable giddiness he has hearing from me while I am far away, I am OK.
I do not want my life to resemble a moody, pouty pop song. I do not live my life like this dumb lux pop song full of artifice. Quite the opposite: It is hard for me to do anything but tell the truth, except when I’m angry, and then I play that game where I say cruel things and push away push away when all I want is to be pulled close. The X knows this. Every time we fight we talk it through. He is learning to be brave in the face of my viciousness, and hold me down until I take the love he so wants to give me.
I often wake up thinking, I will love him till the end of time.
And then I check: Is that healthy?
I think it’s healthy. It feels healthy. I am barefoot in the mountains, thousands of miles away from him, doing good work while he takes care of the kids and watches baseball playoffs with the husband. He has seen me without mascara, without heels. I have held his heavy head in my arms while he has cried about his fear of being forsaken.
I wonder if Anderson, IN, listens to Lana Del Rey.
Choose Your Own Adventure
If you chose not to tell her and decide to keep lying, keep hiding the receipts, keep bringing home the little bejeweled gifts from the Atlanta airport, go to page 13.
If you chose to tell and took her out to dinner and planned to say it, in public, where hopefully she would not make a scene, but then chickened out and couldn’t do it, couldn’t see her cry, and wanted to spend one more night watching television in bed side by side, go to page 44.
If you chose to tell her and did it because you couldn’t spend one more night lying awake worrying if she was going to figure out the password on your iPad and you were going to come home from the trip to find your belongings scattered on the front lawn where all the neighbors could see, go to page 67.
If you chose to tell her and did it because you were just so fucking done, and you couldn’t even wait to move into the hotel near work and file the papers, go to page 9.
If you chose to tell her and did it because it was really the best thing for both of you, to start saying what you meant to one another, out of respect and a desire to move on, both of you, to something new and potentially rejuvenating, go to page 20.
If you chose to leave without saying a word about any of it, and never do, just keep paying her several hundred dollars a week for the rest of her life and smile at her across the aisle at college graduations and weddings and hope that her drinking doesn’t get any worse, go to page 35.
If you are choosing to pretend for the sake of this exercise to have told her but in fact never told her, not at all, and just kept living the way you were living, and took a new job so you wouldn’t have to follow that person down the hall of the office anymore, and finished off that room in the basement and joined a bowling league, and are now feeling called out by what you are reading but still cannot, will not tell her, go to page 52.