What I learned from almost cheating.
by Jennifer Armstrong
He disappointed me on first sight. I had read his novel and fallen in love with it, in lust with it even, and had gone to his reading to sink my eyes into him in the flesh. But what I thought when I walked in and saw him skulking around the podium at the front of the room was, Hmmm, gawkier than his photo. Too bad.
And also: thank God. I was, after all, engaged at the time.
These facts together — his gawkiness, my engagement — made it easier to say yes when he suggested we get drinks together the following week. The pitcher of watermelon margarita we consumed that evening, a perfect, endless June night in a bar's twinkle-lit garden, made it easier to slip past his gawkiness back into lust. Lust with his book, with his knowingly disarrayed hair, with his uncompromising hazel eyes, with his sinewy shoulders, with his powdery smell when he hugged me goodbye for too long. I was almost thirty and should have known better. I was almost thirty and looking for an escape hatch before it was too late.
It wasn't an affair in any technical sense, but it wasn't exactly what pop psychology likes to call an "emotional affair" either. It was not physical, but it was not not physical. And given the author's lack of emotional availability, it could not have possibly been emotional.
I didn't want to spend my life with him. I wanted to sit across from him occasionally at that Mexican restaurant with the watermelon margaritas, enjoying the coating of salt on the tortilla chips as a chaser to the sweetness of the endless drinks. I wanted to accidentally brush his forearm with my hand as it reached for the guacamole, perhaps on a weekly basis or thereabouts. I wanted to enjoy his feigned shock at my being taken — "Oh, is that what that ring means?" — no more often than every seven to ten days. I wanted to linger in those goodbye embraces at the subway station, smelling his laundry-fresh cologne and imagining him stripped of his vintage T-shirt and Diesel jeans, but I only wanted to do that once in a while. That last part, I could've enjoyed every three or four days, admittedly. I thought about it even more often. But the thinking was more than half of the fun.
It wasn't about love, and it was only about imagined sex.
And somehow, through its lack of love and its lack of sex, I learned everything I know about love and sex. It taught me what I wanted in a lover, and what I didn't want. It taught me that I was desirable, of course, as all affairs, even faux-fairs like this one, do. And it taught me how close we all are to becoming cheaters, at any time — this, in particular, is something I love and hate knowing, something that allows me to relate just a little even to the Tiger Woodses and, especially, the Anthony Weiners of our time. There but for the grace of technological advancement — and, of course, the lack of a specific desire to flirt via photos of waxed body parts — go I.
That said, from what I can tell, I handled my situation a bit differently from Tiger and Tony. Just days after I met the author, I sat down on the beige sofa in our New Jersey condo with my fiancé to confess: "I flirted with this guy I met." He nodded, his emotion imperceptible. "I was sort-of attracted to him." He nodded again. "He wants to have drinks with me now." Another nod. "I sort of want to go."
This bout of honesty — my first venture into truthfulness in a relationship wherein I'd routinely swallowed my feelings to broker peace — went over shockingly smoothly. My betrothed just chuckled casually. "You should go if you want to go," was all he said before launching into a jokey monologue about where we'd go. "Will it be a romantic picnic in the park? Will you stroll through bookstores together?"
It was then that I realized the intoxicating power of brutal truth — I'd told my fiancé everything, and nothing bad had happened! This released something inside me that was big and dark and ultimately deadly to our relationship. Once upon a time, I'd avoided even such simple truths as telling him that no, I did not want to spend another Saturday night watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, for fear he would leave me because I had a lower tolerance for sci-fi than he did. Now I embarked on a rampage of acting out, like a teenager, then telling the truth about it, like an adult, all because I'd suddenly discovered that I could.
It didn't occur to me at the time that my fiancé had only accepted my initial truth about being attracted to the author as a mere defense mechanism. I took his reaction to mean he didn't care. I later saw how much he did, but this was after a too-long process of unraveling our decade together, a process that would eventually become too-entwined with the specter of the author, and too hurtful to ever recover from. The author didn't know it at the time, but he had become the source of my power. He thought he was just recklessly flirting with a bored, engaged woman out for a self-esteem boost before submitting to a life of New Jersey townhouses and trips to Home Depot. Instead, he was showing me a secret doorway few of us ever glimpse: the one that leads to our alternate life.
Contrary to my fiance's predictions, the author and I did not, in fact, go on any picnics throughout our many meetings, though there was a great deal of bookstore-strolling. He took me to innumerable author readings, too, in dingy basement bars filled with literary-minded people who eventually became my friends. I suddenly saw myself as a sexy, intelligent woman worthy of flirtation and publication. That was because they saw me that way, and because he saw me that way. He acted as if I should and could and would write a book (almost) as good as his.
The fact that he sometimes rubbed up against me when we said goodnight felt almost irrelevant to me. It felt more like the price I paid for inspiration, and not in a sexually harassing way since I didn't mind it. As Tina Fey pointed out in Bossypants, talent may not be sexually transmitted. But I'm not convinced that at least a little of that magic dust isn't passed along via rubbing up against each other after a few too many drinks.
And yes, it occasionally got a little more physical than that, thanks to some increasingly fuzzy boundaries I enacted as my engagement sputtered to an end. See, from my innocent brushes with the author — which had grown ever more frequent, from once every few weeks to weekly — I'd constructed what I thought to be a rational plan for ending my compulsion to see him, to see any other man, to do anything other than marry my fiance. I had this idea about taking "sabbaticals" — I would move out of our New Jersey condo for a week or a month or whatever, and I would sublet an apartment in Manhattan so we could be "on a break" and I could "clear my mind" and "reset my thoughts" and all kinds of other nebulous activities.
I moved myself into a one-bedroom sublet in Manhattan's East Village for nine days. I emailed the author to tell him, and my stomach clenched immediately, not to unclench until I heard back from him a day later, confirming that he could, in fact, grab a drink that week. (What if he'd had other plans, or been away? Would I keep renting strange apartments until I could see him? We'll never know.) When I explained my sabbatical plan in more detail to the author over our now-standard margaritas, he smirked. He knew what I was up to, perhaps more than I did. "Can I see it?" he asked.
"The apartment," he confirmed. "We can take the F train over. It won't take that long." He had already mapped out our route; I wondered what else he'd planned in his head that quickly.
We did take the F train, and he said, with odd significance, "This is the first time we've taken the subway together."
I quipped, "Yes, let's mark our calendars," but secretly I was thrilled that he found this momentous.
Back at the apartment, I showed him around. We looked at the owner's books and were not impressed. We sat on the bed together. We kissed a little, and it was nice, but weird; it was even weirder that our months of extended, very-low-level foreplay had made kissing strange. "We could…" he suggested between kisses of increasing intensity "…do things."
"Aren't we already?" I played it coy.
"You should go," I said, easing back up from horizontal to vertical and leading him toward the door.
He kissed me again at the door, pushing me against the wall and leaning into me. This felt to me like a somewhat convincing argument. "I have no idea if we should do things." Now I was debating it. "I mean, we could. Or could we?"
"I should go," he said. And he did.
What I wanted more than anything was to, as I had been telling my friends, "get the author out of my system." I genuinely thought it was possible — getting someone out of your system. It is not, and my fiancé figured this much out. He was past laughing off the author by this time, and had actually gone to the other extreme: Now he was making way more out of this guy than he deserved, quite frankly — not that I blame him, given the circumstances.
Then again, in some unspeakable way, it was impossible to make too much of this guy. This guy was nothing, and yet he was everything. Things eventually devolved to a strange point wherein my fiancé was begging me to fix our relationship by doing just one thing — swearing off the author — and I was telling him the only way to save our relationship was to not make me swear off the author. I knew I didn't want to be with the guy, in a romantic sense, but I refused to stop seeing him. I said it was a matter of principle. Luckily no one asked me to articulate what that principle was, because I wouldn't have been able to. I knew, in fact, that it was a reasonable request my fiancé was making, at least in the context of moving toward marriage.
I refused to concede this point anyway. Now, what started out as a hard truth to tell — that I wanted to hang out with this guy who wrote a book I liked — became the easier thing to say than the much bigger truth. The truth that I didn't want to get married.
I eventually got to that truth, but it took much longer than I wanted it to or than it should have — months instead of weeks. But I finally admitted it, and I gave back the ring, and I moved out. I never stopped seeing the author.
In fact, we did consummate our bizarre friendship eventually, well after the breakup, when I was finally ready to even contemplate sex with a person who wasn't my ex-fiance. It turned out the author was, in fact, The One perfect for a very specific purpose — totally safe, fun, pleasant getting-back-out-there sex. That, as it turned out, did get him out of my system. No tears, no massive emotional upheaval — more like a really intimate high-five than some violins-and-candles kind of moment. It was, in fact, in daylight, and on my sofa in my pathetic little first studio apartment on my own, and less than an hour before he had to get to a dinner party. Nothing like I imagined it, and yet completely perfect.