I knew him from work. He was charming and flirtatious, a gifted
raconteur, an entertaining distraction for the women in the office. And
as one of three men among 25 women, he always had a willing
audience. But more often than not, I was the audience. Storytelling was
not my forte, but listening was, and I listened well and deeply. What I
heard was the sound of a soul unraveling, and it touched off a chord
that reverberated endlessly in my own emptiness.
I became his confidante -- and, eventually, his lover.
Like thousands of others who take vows to be true and one day break them, we crossed over the border into forbidden territory: adultery. We entered into a relationship that excluded from our consciousness my husband, his wife, our five children, our in-laws and our neighbors and friends. We entered a closed, intimate space, a bubble big enough for two, and in that tiny place created a whole universe of longing.
Depending on which study you believe, anywhere from
40 to 60 percent of American marriages are marred by an adulterous
relationship. Most often it's the husband who strays, usually with an
unmarried woman. But more and more married women are seeking solace, or just sex, outside their marital havens.
The same factors that have made it easier for women to leave bad marriages -- increased employment outside the home, greater personal income, fewer children -- are enabling them to wander temporarily from not-
After my affair ended, I spent some time searching the Internet for insight into extramarital affairs. Most of what I found was for married couples trying to rebuild after one of the partners had strayed. Needless to say, the assumptions inherent in these discussions -- that extramarital sex is always, unequivocally wrong; that the violated spouse is the innocent victim of the other's selfish, destructive behavior; that the adulterer must show abject remorse to gain back trust -- just didn't speak to me.
Finally, I found a couple of sites for unabashed, unashamed adulterers, people who were thrilled to be in an affair and were looking for a like-minded community with which to share, as it were, tips and tricks. I found a whole culture of adultery: They discussed all the technological tools for cheaters -- cell phones, e-mail, beepers -- along with advice about how to permanently delete your e-mails and how to disguise your phone number on caller ID boxes. There were endless discussions on foiling *69 calls.
The alphabet soup of illicit relationships -- EMAs (extramarital affairs) with MMs, MWs, SM, SW, OW (Other Woman); my H, my W, and that most
popular of villains, the MM's W (or simply, MMW) -- flowed through the discussions about whether to use a condom (the consensus is yes, always), how to deal with "their anniversary" (meaning, most often, the MM and his W) and which hotel chains offer day rates (surprisingly, many).
But it was the emotional content of these relationships that I found most surprising, and most familiar. The depth of the connection and commitment, as ironic as that may seem given the context of deceit, was uncommonly strong. Many people expressed the same feeling of having found a "soul mate" too late, or at least at a bad time in their lives; but they were determined to make the best of it under the circumstances. A large number of these relationships had withstood years of sneaking around. One MW had been with her MM for 25 years.
After a short while I had to stop reading the posts. It started to feel tawdry rather than affirming. I knew I couldn't share my story with these Holiday Inn Jacuzzi lovers, sisters in sin though we were. It just felt too much like titillating cyber-gossip, all this anonymous confessional rambling, and it finally made me weary and sad -- and it made me suspect that my extraordinary story was, perhaps, just a bit more common than I wanted to believe.
Twenty-five years! My affair lasted almost two, and felt like a lifetime. We both had a gift for mendacity, it seems, a distinct advantage for these kinds of arrangements. Oddly, though I casually tossed out lies to my husband, children, boss and friends, I never lied to my lover. I needed to maintain some zone of integrity, and this was where I drew the line. I never felt guilt. I marveled at that: I'd been exceptionally gifted at feeling guilty about transgressions that I hadn't even committed, until then. Though my life was slowly unraveling around me because of it, my relationship with him felt like the one true thing, besides my children, that mattered.
I found him on a downward spiral. I knew I was his life raft, and for a while the thrill of our affair lifted him above the waves. By the time we became involved, he was no longer working (a development unrelated to our relationship), and was drinking heavily. I didn't know how heavily until I began spending some time with him nearly every day, time that I embezzled from my job and my family, spreading the theft among all my responsibilities like a crooked accountant fixing numbers across several ledgers, hoping to go unnoticed in any one.
His pain was layered and mysterious. He worked at maintaining his mystery, but our intimacy loosened his grip. Whatever his burdens were, at some point our relationship became another one, and he started to sink. I prayed for him to stop drinking. I'd become increasingly alarmed at how much he'd isolated himself from everyone else, how often he spoke of death, how recklessly he could sometimes behave.
One Sunday I prayed again, this time that he would find the strength to live. It seemed to me that he'd fallen into a black hole of No, and even my love wasn't going to change it to Yes. Paradoxically, my religious faith never wavered during this whole affair. In fact, it grew stronger, reinforced by what I saw as a real-life demonstration of the tenet that Jesus loves the sinner more.
Perhaps it was just self-justifying pablum, but I felt that God had somehow put us in each other's path for some sacred purpose -- a notion that was not exactly endorsed by my Episcopal priest, to whom I'd gone for counsel, but wasn't dismissed by her, either.
My prayer that Sunday, Palm Sunday, came from some depth that I didn't even know I had. It felt like I'd tapped a direct line to the Divine and all I had to do was ask. "Let him live," I whispered, and my entire being was filled with what I can only describe as divine light. And in some miracle of redemption that wouldn't read true in fiction, on Easter Sunday he left, boarded a plane for a hospital in the desert where he could get sober and begin to live.
These days, I hover at the edge of understanding for a long time, and then some small breeze of an incident will propel me forward when I least expect it. Last night I stopped at a McDonald's to rush my son into the bathroom, and on the way out caught a glimpse of a woman, well-dressed, alone, staring into a cup of coffee. Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy; she'd obviously been crying. Completely out of the blue, I was electrified by a sharp jolt of recognition. A woman, sitting alone in a well-lit public place, with coffee she doesn't want, crying. I was that woman, three years ago.
I had completely forgotten how it had been for me --- that sometimes I would dread going home so much that I would stop somewhere, anywhere, to pass the time alone. One swift glimpse of a lonely woman set off a domino-line of memories that left me stunned.
That was where he found me, back then -- a place so desolate and featureless that I hadn't even recognized it as a place. I'd been living in a dead marriage and working at a lifeless career and together, they had sucked all the vitality out of me. It had been my reality for so long, I was insensible to it. Somehow, he recognized the better parts of me more readily than I did, took me on a tour of them and introduced me to myself. He made a
different life seem not just possible, but essential.
We were both so broken in those days; it continues to astound me, the miracle of our finding each other, and the even greater miracle of the law of physics that somehow makes the addition of two negatives equal a positive. I healed, and left my marriage. He healed, and stayed in his. I don't know how that is for him, now. We talk sometimes, and
we flirt at the fringes of intimacy but never quite go there.
His wife found out about us and knows who I am; I wonder if I continue to exist
as a ghostly presence in their marriage, echoing in the background of every small disagreement. I know he continues to be a presence for me, the man who gave me back my life when I didn't even know I'd lost it.