A writer's engagement unravels -- thanks to a telltale e-mail message.

By Evan Marx
Published April 28, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Until a few months ago, I planned to get married this summer. I felt excited about the upcoming wedding, and I was convinced that Amy and I would be together for life.

Then an e-mail message ruined everything.

My discoveries began one evening in early January. I was checking my e-mail at home while Amy was out doing aerobics at the Y. As my Eudora software downloaded a large batch of e-mail, a message header from "mitch-r" flashed in the dialog box. The message's subject was "Re[3]: Being alone."

Amy and I kept different e-mail boxes, and Eudora filtered Mitch's message to her personal box. I hardly knew Mitch. We had him over for dinner a few months before and I saw him occasionally at parties. Why, I wondered, was Mitch writing to my fiancie about being alone? In the year and a half that I've known Amy, I've never once doubted her. Sometimes she'd go out with friends past 1 in the morning, but the thought that she might cheat never crossed my mind.

As I considered the possibility of infidelity, I pictured the Amy I always envision. In my mind she'll always wear that adorable pale blue dress we bought together while visiting her parents in Canada. Now, doubting Amy and wondering whether I should investigate, I remembered sweet young Faith in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown." Did I dare doubt my love? Would my checking bring about a reality I couldn't handle? I knew that reading Mitch's e-mail would be like Goodman Brown's decision to venture into the forest to test Faith.

Cold sweat dripped down from my armpits and my heart squeezed. I clicked open Mitch's message. In a casual tone, Mitch wrote that he couldn't meet her at the Y but would be at the Golden Lotus restaurant later if she wanted to drop by.

I was suspicious -- doubly so because of the message's subject: "Re[3]: Being alone." In Eudora, if you reply to a message called "Being alone," your response would have the subject "Re: Being alone." If your correspondent answered that e-mail, the response would come back "Re[2]: Being alone." And so on.

So this e-mail was Mitch's response to a series of three "Being alone" e-mails. Yet when I checked Amy's in-box and the out-box, there were no earlier "Being alone" messages. Amy practically never deletes messages; she doesn't even delete spam. Yet she had intentionally erased at least three messages involving Mitch.

Still, Mitch's message was hardly a smoking gun. I had to know what was going on. I used Norton Utilities to explore my hard drive. I tried the basic un-erase, but nothing relevant came up. So I set Norton Utilities to scan the entire hard drive for deleted files that contained the text string "Mitch-r."

Norton churned my hard drive for about a minute, and the deleted files obligingly popped up, one by one. Eight of them. All with personal subjects like, "despairing," "talking" and, of course, the three earlier "Being alone" messages.

Perhaps I violated Amy by reading these messages. But I violated myself, too. As the passion between Mitch and Amy deepened with each e-mail, I felt too shocked and betrayed to weep. Details from the e-mails nauseated me. In one, Amy wrote, "My darling, I hope the soreness in your trapezius is diminishing. Today I consulted a massage book for some tips on working on that part of your body."

Among other things, one penalty for my losing faith became reading my betrothed's offer to massage Mitch's trapezius.

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Two years ago, when Amy and I met, I felt certain that she was "The One." She had perhaps a dozen qualities I had never before found in one person. She was intelligent, vegetarian, well read and, most importantly for me, she didn't want kids. We hit it off beautifully.

After talking for several hours, I excused myself to get something from the car. Walking into the chilly evening air, the full moon overhead, I thought about this woman I had just met. She wasn't the most beautiful woman I had ever spent time with. And she was a few years older than me. In terms of our attractiveness to the other sex, her stock was on the way down (she was 32) while mine was on the way up -- I was 29 and my first book was nearing publication. I knew I'd soon be on a book tour and that I'd probably have a lot of interested younger women giving me their attention.

I write these things only to indicate how little they meant to me, compared to the prospect of being genuinely loved. I thought Amy was remarkable. She was incredibly capable professionally, yet she made substantial financial sacrifices in order to pursue social activism. She was kind and, more than anything, I sensed I could trust her. I decided that, if she would have me, I would give her my heart unconditionally.

I walked back inside and asked Amy if she had a boyfriend. When she told me she had been single for several months, I told her that every time I looked at her, my insides kept saying, "Wow." And I was thrilled to hear her say she felt the same.

Amy's family had traditional values. Her parents considered it an unpardonable sin to live together before marriage. My parents, on the other hand, didn't care. Amy's job was far from where I lived, and after months of letter writing and phone conversations I flew out to live with her. We installed separate telephone lines so I would never pick up the phone when her parents called.

I liked her parents when I went to visit them. Although I didn't like to be taking part in a deception, I decided that overall I was behaving morally. I knew that Amy's father would be ashamed if he found out that we were living together. But I also knew that I loved his daughter with the faithfulness that he loved his wife.

So while her parents' values differed from my values, I believed that everything would be fine in the end. After we were together for a year, Amy's parents began pressuring us to get married. I didn't see the point. To me it's all about being faithful, and keeping your commitments. But since I intended to be faithful for my entire life, and Amy also wanted to be married, I proposed to her.

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That evening in January, as I pored through Mitch and Amy's correspondence, I had to quickly decide how to respond. Amy would return home any minute from the Y. I prayed for help, concentrated on my breathing and tried to feel forgiveness. Then I went into the bathroom, took out the electric razor, and began shaving. The front door creaked open and Amy called inside, "Darling, I'm home." I had no idea what to say. She came into the bathroom. I stared at her mutely and finally managed to say, "I know. It's over." I walked away from her.

Amy followed me into the living room. She acknowledged the affair but promised it would never happen again. She begged me to re-open the relationship. She wanted us to get counseling. I told her that without trust, I didn't see the point in trying to work through our other problems. I told Amy that the relationship was over; she should call her parents and cancel the wedding. I said that I would move out at the beginning of my book tour and that I would not be back.

But Amy and I spent a lot of time together as I prepared to move out. She assured me that her relationship with Mitch was "dead." Nearly every day, she asked me if I would ever want to re-open our relationship. Perhaps I would have eventually caved in from her persistence. But I was not going to reconsider without knowing exactly what was happening in her life. I couldn't take her word anymore.

Privacy is very important to me, and I would feel angry and violated if somebody looked at my e-mail. At the same time, I think I had a moral basis to take my snooping to the next level. I believe that when Amy lied to me about her faithfulness, she lost some of her rights to privacy. With my knowledge that I had already been lied to, I had to make a choice: Would I give Amy total privacy or would I take a chance on marrying a woman who is having an ongoing affair? I decided that my right to have honest answers on which to base lifetime decisions outweighed Amy's right to privacy.

Amy kept a second e-mail account with her old university. Since I knew the password, I logged in and found that she had concealed a subdirectory of messages at that account in which she stored her correspondence with Mitch. And every couple of days they continued to write to each other.

It soon became obvious that, despite her pledge to me, Amy had not broken off things with Mitch. On the contrary, the messages got more and more sexual as time went by. Amy was sending him long passages by Simone de Beauvoir about orgasms. She typed and then e-mailed lengthy passages from "The English Patient" about drawn-out marital affairs. I was past the point of being sickened. But with less than three weeks until I moved out, I kept my silence.

Still, I wanted to throw a monkey wrench into Amy's plans with Mitch whenever possible. She still had no idea how I found out about her affair, nor did she know that I was reading her e-mail every day. Last week, the day before I left for an out-of-town book-signing, Amy wrote to Mitch that she planned to take the opportunity of my absence to see him. A few hours before my book-signing, I told Amy that I needed some assistance with my trip and I asked her to come along. With some reluctance, she agreed to come with me. Shortly before I left, while Amy busied herself cooking lunch in the kitchen, I logged onto her account and read her e-mail to him: "Know that, even though I have to be with Evan tonight, my loyalty is totally with you. Could we perhaps do something tomorrow evening instead?"

That was it for me. It was time to stop spying on Amy and show her all my cards. I walked into the kitchen and brought her to the computer room. I showed her the message. And I asked her how she could spend the past month trying to get me to recommit while continuing her affair. The words I chose were some of the most hurtful I've ever uttered. I said, "Why did you go on deceiving me? Didn't I beg you for the truth? You are a whore."

Amy justified her deception, telling me that honesty would have been rubbing salt in my wounds. I asked her to find another place to sleep until I left for the tour, at which time she could take over our lease.

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As communication over the Internet grows commonplace, it's likely that my experience will be repeated -- that many more people will learn of lovers' infidelity via e-mail. But when these affairs are discovered, it will be from a lack of basic precautions, not because it's difficult to keep things confidential on the Net. Indeed, if you're having an affair, e-mail is by far the safest way to communicate -- much safer than phone calls, letters or personal meetings.

If Amy had taken minimal security measures, she could have communicated with Mitch in absolute safety. All she needed to do was to obtain one of those browser-based "freemail" accounts available through Yahoo, Excite and countless other providers. Under browser-based accounts, E-mails to and from Mitch would not have been downloaded to our hard drive, so good old Peter Norton would have come up empty-handed. These accounts are totally confidential and privacy is promised; you don't even get billed. Amy could have used such an account whenever she wanted without my even knowing it existed.

But since Amy didn't even take basic steps to conceal her affair, it was a relatively simple matter for me to uncover the truth. I'm not saying I feel comfortable with what I did. I feel like a snoop, and I don't ever want to feel that way again. Perhaps next time, the moment I feel any suspicion about my partner, I will end the relationship. Anyway, given the Internet's ability to allow totally private communication, there now may be no way to know for sure about the fidelity of your partner.

Being cheated on can do some funny things to your head. I try to be as forgiving as possible, but my mind keeps coming back to what went on -- and how I almost didn't catch it. Had it not been for my glimpsing a chance e-mail header being filtered into Amy's box, I believe we would have been married this summer.

I wonder how this will affect my next relationship. With my computer knowledge, I could easily add some system extensions to secretly record every message my next partner sends. For a couple hundred bucks, I could bug the telephone with tape recorders. Short of these measures, how will I ever know for sure that my mate is honest?

But I could never violate someone with this kind of surveillance. It's bad enough what I already stooped to in order to discover the truth about Amy. I'll get over this breakup. Someday, I'll even be ready to make a commitment to somebody else. But given the Internet's power to conceal communication, I don't know how I can ever feel absolute trust again.

Author's note: I changed the names of the people involved and used a pen name for this article.
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Evan Marx


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