I knew, his wife told me. I knew from the beginning.
Why didn’t you say something to him? Why did you let it go on for so long?
Because, she said, I didn’t want to deal with it.
By now I’d learned he’d had affairs for much of his marriage. But he’d never, she told me, done anything like he’d done with me. Fallen in love. Increasingly neglected her. Become obsessed, and withdrawn from his daily life.
He’s an honourable man, she protested. I know you don’t think so but he is.
I think, but don’t say, I know there are ways in which he is an honourable man. But if he were my husband, I wouldn’t be interested in those ways if he wasn’t honourable in his dealings with me. I would feel worse, that he took the trouble to be honourable in other areas of his life, but not with me. That hurt would make my soul ache for the rest of my life.
He is a man who cannot not watch a fly drown, without feeling compelled to save its wretched life. While saving the lives of flies he lies and dissembles and promises, and betrays her yet again.
Better to let a billion flies drown than that.
I imagine a woman so exhausted by her husband’s infidelities she can’t deal with one more, even as it unfolds before her eyes. Even as it matures into deep love, and equally deep obsession. Even as he increasingly neglects her, and in her heart she knows the reason.
Why, I want to ask her, do you think so little of yourself that you admire him for his honourable stand towards others, while he dishonours you, and the marriage you’ve made with him?
There is power to be had in knowing things about another, things the other believes he is keeping from you. There is a grim satisfaction to be found in watching another believe he is deceiving you, and knowing all the while he is really deceiving himself. The art of deception finds many and complex expressions, between people who profess intimacy.
You have no secrets, though I will allow you to believe you do. Until I won’t allow it anymore.
What a hard and dead-end road she chose, if it ran in that grim direction.
More than anything, I wish I’d known his history.
Towards the end of our affair he spoke to me of years of drunken fumblings, of awkward breakfasts with women he’d fucked the night before while his wife kept to their home and the children it then sheltered. Did you feel guilty, I asked him. Yes, he replied. Always.
You aren’t very grown up in some ways, are you?
I’ve always been wrapped in cotton wool, he replied with calm satisfaction, as if it was his due.
I gazed at him, taking in this revelation of male entitlement, the like of which I hadn’t in my personal life yet encountered. Women give him what he wants. It just is.
I’ve never seen the purpose of guilt. It doesn’t stop a person doing something, as far as I can tell. It’s a useless emotion that careens around inside a head and stays there. There’s an idea that the capacity to feel guilt is a sign a person is, at heart, good, but surely the feeling is worse than nothing without an action, or the cessation of an action.
I watched him as with sideways looks he told me those things. For the first time I saw his mask slip. He was testing me, I knew, but he wasn’t my husband and never would be, so I didn’t care what he’d done. I laughed at him. I laughed at his admission to drunken fumblings and awkward breakfasts. What fun was there in that, I asked him. He shrugged.
I understood it was his rebellion. It was the act itself that temporarily liberated from whatever he felt imprisoned him, and not the quality of the experience that mattered. It was the freedom of unilateral action, a brief respite from the relentless mutuality of marriage.
He asked me if I, when an academic, had attended conferences and fucked like he did. I gave him two names he recognised who’d put the proposition, but I wasn’t interested in either of them that way, and politely declined. It wasn’t a moral thing, I told him. I had no need of liberation in that way. I only wanted my husband. Nobody could hold a candle to him, I said, singing the line from the country and western song because I knew he disliked country music and I knew too, that he loved me to tease him.
Would you have fucked me if we’d met like that? he asked, putting his hand gently over my mouth to stop my singing.
We’d never have met at a conference, I told him, my words thickened with desire as I spoke them through his fingers, now tracing the outline of my lips. Our disciplines are worlds apart.
My husband was unfaithful once or twice, so I knew a little of how it could be. He never fell in love, and I know if he had that would be more than I could tolerate.
I felt many things. But I see now that one of the worst was how I came to regard the other woman as less than me. As someone unimportant he fucked and discarded, regardless of her feelings. I became complicit in the exploitation of another, relieved that she meant nothing to him.
The way that is said of another human being. She meant nothing to me.
She was an aberration we wanted gone, the better for us to “move on,” “move forward,” “repair our marriage,” and the rest of the bubblegum clichés infidelity experts on morning television prescribe, rapidly, in order to get as many in as possible before their allotted time runs out.
This is what in reality might be in store for a woman when her husband introduces betrayal into their union: it is impossible to live closely with a liar and exploiter, without in part becoming both.
My lover’s wife observed him as he lied, for going on two years. What did she feel as she watched through eyes jaundiced by decades of betrayal? Contempt? Superiority? Power? Exasperation? Rage? Grief? Exhaustion? Despair?
Why didn’t she say anything, I asked him when it all fell to pieces.
I don’t know. She probably thought it would pass.
All that time? She thought it would pass?
I’m cynical about men, she later told me.
You made a choice, I hissed at her, my anger rising in reaction to her threat to prevent me writing what she described as intimate things all over the Internet. Nothing provokes me as much as a threat to silence me.
Every time he fucked another woman you had a decision to make, I snarled. Your decision was always to stay, move past it, put it behind you, focus on your marriage, whatever banal phrases you thought fitted the occasion and lent you the illusion of control. You decided to live a life of uncertainty with a man you knew betrayed you. He wasn’t holding you in place with violence and fear for your fucking life.
I knew I should never have let him meet you alone! she shouted.
A startling revelation of the depth of mistrust in which they lived their daily lives.
Later, I thought long on how a woman must be in relation to a man about whom she uses the words, I knew I should never have let him meet you alone. She should have policed his first meeting with a fellow writer in order to thwart his nascent stirrings of desire?
It was her failure that she hadn’t, and now all this had come to pass?
I should have stopped it sooner, she railed.
You speak as if he’s fifteen, I cruelly observed. The odds were he’d fall in love sooner or later. Inspired by snark I added, no amount of mummy-wife control can prevent people falling in love. He broke the rules, didn’t he? He could no longer tell you, she meant nothing to me.
Take responsibility for your decision to live as the owner/manager of another adult being, I finally shouted. For what that decision has done to your life. For how it has brought you to this, yelling at me, telling me you are waiting for me to die, threatening me you’ll devise some silencing punishment.You think you can stop me writing whatever I want? You do? You just fucking well try.
And don’t blame me for your unfortunate life choices. Sister.
He told me if he lost me he would never write again. You will, he said, but I never will.
No, I protested, no, why would you think that, no!
He sadly shook his head.
And then he kissed the inside of my wrist.
Your skin, he said. Your softness. Your soft, beautiful skin.
Do you love me still? he asked after a bruising argument. In spite of everything?
I love you still, I told him. In spite of everything.