“Hi,” my best friend Allison answers on the second ring. Her voice feels like a kiss on the forehead.
“I kind of did something stupid,” I start, without as much as a salutation.
“Oh, Jesus. ...
“Well, Chris had this box of videotapes ...”
Allison starts to laugh. “I can already tell where this is going.”
I had offered to help my husband clean out his closet one weekend, recognizing that the mess bothered me more than it did him. On the top shelf I found a box containing an old camcorder and a bunch of matchbox-size cassette tapes.
“What’s this?” I had asked Chris as I lowered the box. Dust fell onto my eyelashes.
“Oh, just old skydiving videos,” he replied after briefly looking up from the bed where he was sorting through old ties. Chris had spent his mid-to-late 20s jumping out of airplanes. 2,500 times to be exact.
“Purge or store?” I asked.
“Definitely keep,” he replied as he meticulously folded dozens of ties that he would likely never wear again.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, I want to convert them to digital and show the kids,” he answered. I could hear our three young children laughing in the other room as they watched the third movie of a very rainy Sunday morning.
“Oh, OK. I can do that this week,” I said, placing the box on top of my dresser, praying the kids wouldn’t be impressed enough to want to jump out of planes themselves.
“Um, no. I want to go through them first,” he replied.
“Why?” I asked. “What’s on them?”
The hairs on my arms stood on end imagining the horrible things that might be inside that dusty cardboard box.
“Porn?” I asked, getting right to the point.
“Oh, God. Sex tapes?”
“Well, there’s one where I kiss Pippa, and I wouldn’t want the kids to see that,” he finally admitted.
What about not wanting your wife to see that, I thought to myself.
“Just kiss?” I asked, not believing it for a second.
“Yes. Just stop. Put the box in the attic, and I’ll deal with it later,” Chris said, as he strategically walked out of the room.
Less than 36 hours later Chris was away on a business trip, and I was in our musty attic rifling through the box.
The camcorder, a relic from the early '90s, was out of battery. While it charged, I took stock of the tapes. Half of them were label-less and missing cases. The few tapes that were labeled meant nothing to me. Tandem. Pond Swoop II. RPM. Likely skydiving speak. Once the camcorder was adequately charged, it took some time to figure out how it worked; Chris handled our family’s technology. A pit was growing in my stomach and my hands shook the way they do whenever I have more than two cups of coffee.
The ease at which I would betray my husband alarmed me, but I was powerless against my drive to see the “kiss.” I justified that most women would be equally as curious. At least my friends would.
I played my first tape. My daughter is singing a Barney song to Chris. Her hair is still wet from a bath and she looks about 4. All R’s are pronounced as W’s.
The second tape was labeled “Pippa Balloon Jump.” Jackpot. I pushed play without a second’s hesitation.
Chris and Pippa (which is not her real name) are standing next to each other holding hands in a hot air balloon. The sky is cornflower blue and cloudless. Pippa looks nervous and much prettier than I had imagined. Chris looks excited. The balloon climbs up, up, up. Chris and Pippa perch on the edge of what I imagine must be the balloon’s basket. Pippa yells, “One, two, three, go!” in an adorable British accent. They start to fly. My heart sinks.
For a nanosecond I consider stopping the tape. But before I can make a decision, Chris and Pippa land on a bright spring grass. The sun catches Pippa’s strawberry blond hair and before their parachutes fully deflate Chris is kissing her. When Pippa smiles back at him there are no wrinkles in the corners of her eyes. I am mesmerized.
Chris continues to kiss Pippa. He puts his arm around her. And then he kisses her again. On the neck. On the cheek. Back to the neck. Pippa just stands there smiling at whoever’s holding the camera. Then Chris really kisses her on the mouth in a way he has not kissed me in some time. He’s the one going after Pippa, while she stands there unfazed, as if he does this on a regular basis. Not just Friday night after a few drinks.
Skydiver Chris looks different than Husband Chris. To start, he is 15 years younger and beaming, the adrenaline from jumping out of a hot air balloon likely still coursing through his veins. He also has more hair and probably is wearing the same size pants that I do now. He radiates happiness and is obviously enamored with this woman. Infatuated? No. I study the tape. And suddenly I understand. Like a punch in the gut, one indisputable fact takes my breath away: Chris is in love with her.
Rationally, I knew that there was nothing wrong with this tape or its contents. Chris had plenty of girlfriends before me. He kissed them and had sex with them and shared experiences with them that I knew nothing about. I had my own tapes, just inside my head where Chris couldn’t find them.
I began to wonder if Chris looked at me now the way he once looked at Pippa. When was the last time we kissed? Like, really kissed with tongues and hands on each others necks, pulling each other closer and closer, unconcerned that our children might be watching or that one of us hadn’t brushed our teeth. Did Chris miss this flavor of passion? I hadn’t realized that I did until I held it in my hands.
Chris and I met freshman year at a tweedy liberal arts college in Vermont, immediately bound by our shared belief that a good life entails working hard and playing harder. For four years we loved each other from afar until graduation came and our ensuing careers literally landed us on different coasts. We reunited 10 years later, having experienced the most exciting decade of our lives with other people.
Chris never knew me as an ambitious, free-spirited 25-year-old, except what I shared with him long-distance over the phone. On our wedding day, I was 32 years old and six months pregnant with our first child. A year and a half later I was pregnant with two more. I quit a job I loved, figured out how to change a diaper and since then had managed to morph into a middle-aged mother who drives a Suburban.
Pippa, in all her glory then, was the antithesis of me now: young, single and carefree. She spent her free time skydiving and, if I remember correctly, spent her working hours at VH-1 back when that was cool. No wonder Chris looked at Pippa in that way. When was the last time I did something that turned him on? Last week when I snaked a clog in the washing machine? Or when I bring his cellphone to work because he’s left it on the kitchen counter?
Chris never saw Pippa moan through labor. Chris hadn’t watched Pippa’s body approach menopause, her earning potential plummet and career prospects dwindle after years home with his children. In this captured moment Pippa held everything for Chris that I once — but no longer — did: hope, promise, mystery, potential.
I replayed the tape a few times, developing a minor crush on Pippa and falling even more in love with Chris as I watched him love another woman.
“So ...” Allison interjects, eager to hear how I’ve processed everything.
“Well,” I start, “in an odd way, seeing Chris kiss Pippa made me love him more, like when you notice that a cute guy on the subway is wearing a wedding band. The fact that they love someone so much makes them even more attractive,” I explain. “But I wish he looked at me the way he looks at her in the tape. I’m not sure he looks at me at all anymore. I’m kind of just there,” I add. “In the kitchen.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Allison reassures me. “It’s kind of sweet.”
“Well,” I continue. “There’s more."
In the wake of finding the tape, I had become a woman on a mission, determined to make my husband lust after me with the hormones of a 25-year-old. Who cared that we have three children, a mortgage and need a new furnace?
When Chris got home later that week, after a full day of meetings and travel, I was ready. Legs shaved, hair blown out, makeup applied, wearing my least comfortable bra, boobs squished into a porny cleavage. I’d even unbuttoned my shirt to below the bra line to ensure that Chris didn’t miss anything. I noticed one of my 5-year-old sons staring at my breasts, confused, and quickly shooed him into the playroom to watch a show.
I pounced on Chris the minute he walked in the door. A huge wet kiss on the mouth before his bag had even hit the floor. Dinner was simmering on the stove. The news was turned off, strategic Pandora stations playing in the background instead.
“Um, hi,” he said, pulling back a little with a perplexed look on his face. I let my hand linger on his lower back, sliding it down his leg for good measure.
Chris didn’t appear to notice. But after multiple attempts to get my exhausted husband into the bedroom, he finally caved, I think just to shut me up. I put on what I hoped was a Pippa-worthy performance and Chris appeared to have noticed. He was asleep within 30 seconds. My plan was working!
My pursuit intensified over the next few days and my behavior became increasingly more predatory. I was a desperate cougar, trying to lure a younger, single version of my husband into our marital bed. Short shorts, plunging necklines, lipstick. Explicit sexual offerings that were immediately shut down. Invitations to spend exciting weekends away from our children heli-skiing in British Columbia or scuba diving with whale sharks. Chris wouldn’t bite. The more I pursued, the less receptive Chris became, physically shying away from me and at one point locking himself in the bathroom to escape. I’d straddle Chris on the couch and he would grimace. The rejection stung. Every time Chris said “no,” I saw Pippa smile at me.
I was so hurt by his continued rebuffs, and so unfamiliar with such staunch rejection, that I eventually started to proposition Chris just to piss him off, fully aware that nothing would come of my advances. By the end of the weekend I was depressed and Chris had had enough. We ate most of our Sunday night dinner in awkward silence.
“It feels like we’re pretty disconnected,” he started, marking the first time in our eight-year marriage that Chris had addressed a concern head-on without my prodding first. I was so pleased at his self-awareness and what this meant about our relationship that I momentarily forgot the issue at hand.
“I can tell you why I’m upset,” he continued, pulling me back to reality. “You’re acting all crazy and sex-crazed and it’s making me uncomfortable.”
I felt my face flush and tears fill my eyes. I was mortified. And speechless.
“I mean, really. What’s up? Are you unhappy with our sex life or something? I thought everything was pretty great,” he said staring at me.
I looked away from him, too embarrassed for eye contact. Chris was right. Everything about us and our life together was great, actually.
“No, no. Not that at all,” I stuttered. I was afraid to tell him about the tape, afraid he might focus on the single fact that I had watched it instead of seeing the bigger picture. And would he even understand the bigger picture anyway? Chris saw the world in black and white.
“Well, it sure seems like it. I mean, what’s up with the boobs? Do you think I’m having an affair or something?”
“No, I ... I don’t know what got into me. I just thought I would try something different. Be super-wife,” I muttered. Not realizing that every time I propositioned him and he said “no,” I had inadvertently criticized his manhood.
“Well, it’s not working and you need to stop. I’m not turned on. You’ve absolutely killed my sex drive.”
My stomach somersaulted. What had I done? I was Chris’ wife and the 40-year-old mother of his children. I would never again be his girlfriend. Pippa belonged back in the attic next to my bin of clothes that no longer fit.
Back on the phone, Allison was laughing. “Kate, you realize how funny this is, don’t you?” she asked.
“I guess. Maybe in a self-deprecating way?”
“He has absolutely no idea why you’re acting like this. Just imagine you’re Chris. He’s probably so confused,” Allison laughed. “And keep in mind that he moved heaven and earth to marry you. He chased you for years. He gave up skydiving for you.”
“I want him to chase me now.”
“Kate. He doesn’t have to. He’s already got you. You’re the one he landed.” I could imagine Allison’s smirk thousands of miles away, proud of her play on words.
I hung up the phone knowing I’d have to come clean to Chris. Perhaps I wasn’t giving him enough credit. There was a reason we had a firm don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy when it came to our past relationships. The simple fact that he wanted to protect me from the tape was an act of love. So what if it wasn’t an urgent and obsessive display of affection? Maybe ours was a love too complex for a 30-second clip.