The first time it happened I was sixteen, and the only part I can really remember is her daughter’s name and the fact that she had a husband who wasn’t around — at least not right then, not that night, which I guess is all that mattered. It went like this: A few days before, my friend Jeff and I were smoking Parliaments in a Roy Rogers parking lot, kicking rocks, talking about nothing, which is what we were always talking about back then, when out of nowhere he said, “I hooked up with a married chick last night.”
“Trust me,” he said. “One, I’m not lying. Two, it sucked.”
I didn’t trust him. Of course I didn’t. For whatever reason, it had been a dominant topic with us. Our clichéd, juvenile fantasy of getting with older women — propagated, no doubt, by those damn Pepsi ads in which a tank-topped Cindy Crawford maliciously teased two prepubescent boys — had eventually transmuted into an acute desire to get with married women. We talked about it constantly. Bounced it around in our overeager minds, picked it apart: The mysteries inherent in the age difference. The things that we, who knew nothing, would learn. The prohibited wants and concealed vulnerabilities, a simmering component to any committed relationship, magnified by marriage, finally going berserk. What could be better?
“Don’t believe me?” Jeff said, tossing his cigarette to the ground, stomping it out. “Come over Friday night. She’ll be there.”
And so I did. I drove up to Baltimore, and, indeed, she was there. Jeff’s parents, who got divorced before he was born, were never home; ten years of friendship and I’ve only met his dad four times, his mom twice, and couldn’t pick either out of a lineup. The place was sterile: industrial Berber carpeting, nothing hanging on the walls, not a piece of furniture except for two top-of-the-line La-Z-Boys (complete with armrest mini-fridges) and a gigantic TV perched atop a milk crate. It felt as if a realtor would be showing the house tomorrow, packaging it up for some other family who would meander in, sink into one of the cushy thrones and proclaim, “I like it, I really like it — I can absolutely see this being our life.” Which, I think, is what eventually happened.
The woman in question — who I’ll call Jane, only because I can’t remember her real name — was a friend of Jeff’s brother, a guy named Tim. Tim lived on a porch in West Virginia four months out of the year so he could go rock climbing at the New River Gorge, a place you’d know if you were serious about climbing, which all of us were. Jane was a climber, crashing there that week because climbers tend to crash where they can, even when they’re married, even when they’re mothers. (In fact, it was on a rock face where, ten years prior, she’d met her husband, a Spanish guy who, that weekend, was away in Europe.)
Was she attractive? No, not really. Late thirties, slim and sinewy, the sort of weathered face that comes from hanging onto cliffs, squinting into the sun, wondering if you’re about to die. Her daughter was named Kayla. That detail was burned into my consciousness because, soon enough, Jane had me alone in a room, on the floor, the common-sense cells in my brain totally corrupted by alcohol. She wove her fingers around my neck, pulling me toward her, muttering something about being married, how it wasn’t what you thought, how it was difficult, how I should stop looking so scared, how I should relax, how no one has to know anything…
And then her daughter walked in.
“Go away, Kayla,” Jane snapped, staring meanly at the elfin five year old suddenly standing right next to us. “Go…play or something.”
Long story short: turned out Jeff wasn’t lying — it most certainly did suck. This had nothing to do with guilt, or fear, or anything remotely profound. It had to do with the fact that Jane was, officially, the World’s Worst Kisser. I remember wincing. Trying to squirm away. Praying for a tear in the space-time continuum that would cause tomorrow to happen right now. Eventually I excused myself and found Jeff, drinking a Beast Ice in the kitchen, who shot me a glance that said: From now on, you will believe every damn word I say. And I’ve never doubted him since.
So I got with a married woman.
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson.
You’d be wrong.
There was the wry woman in the spangled dress, whom I met freshman year of college at some streamlined, self-conscious bar, the one who invited me back to her apartment, showed me photos of her husband, cried and asked me to stay the night. I did. Wrapped my arm around her waist, kissed a little, dozed off on the couch, woke up with an arm tingly and numb, nothing more. Another time — New Year’s Eve a few years back — I found myself in a palatial apartment on Central Park South — hand-carved maple moldings, tasseled velvet furniture, two kitchens, one for cooking, the other just because — wondering what the hell twenty-year-old me was doing with someone in her late forties, six years into her third marriage, and putting in an Eminem CD, of all things — worries that quickly evaporated as she uncorked the second bottle of red and gave me a tour of her house which lasted until six the next night. There were others. The last time it happened, I was in a car kissing a woman who’d been married nine years. Every few minutes she’d pull away and look at me in the eye, her cheeks splotchy, and say, “This isn’t really happening, just so you know.” I couldn’t get enough of that. It was exactly what I was thinking: this isn’t really happening. But probably for different reasons.
Here’s what I mean: It’s not a fetish I’m describing, not exactly. I don’t walk into crowded bars, search out the tipsy woman with the rock on her finger and pounce. I don’t have a chalk tally on my wall. It’s just something that happened, and happened again, and a few times after that, and then maybe one or two times more for good measure, and, well, you start to notice certain trends in your personality, those you’re proud of, those that embarrass, and those that exist in some kind of hazy purgatory between the two. I hate to spoil the fun, but I hardly ever slept with these women — we rolled around, we stripped, we bit, we laughed, we lied about certain things, were uncommonly revealing about others — because, fact is, it takes me a little while to feel comfortable enough to have sex with someone. That’s a whole different essay.
Anyhow, it’s been a few years since I’ve been tangled up with someone who was married. I’m convinced it’s a phase that’s met its end. I remember chatting with Jeff and how we justified the desire as a kind of Forbidden Fruit Complex, a rationale that I now view as bogus. I’m not asking for sympathy when I tell you that I — like Jeff, and seemingly everyone else I knew growing up — had divorced parents. My father was a charming enigma; my mother’s house was a place where strange men floated about, sneering at me as if I were competition. As a result, I grew up thinking that the whole notion of marriage was a sham.
It’s not as cynical as it sounds. My belief in love has always been as zealous as the most trite of pop songs, but my mind refuses to equate love (a kind of private invention between two people that just so happens to be universal) with marriage (something invented by grumpy people sitting around a conference table, or whatever the equivalent was centuries ago). And although I’m not proud to write this next sentence, I think there’s some truth to it: Maybe I was trying to spread this gospel; prove to the world, and to myself, one small illicit affair at a time, that marriage is a silly thing that doesn’t make any sense. That it should be placed under glass in the Museum of Senseless Human Concepts — alongside communism, scientology and Razor scooters — things that seemed logical but are eventually recognized as glitches in the mainframe. Yes, seriously, maybe that’s what I was doing. Trying to shape the world into something that made sense to me, because that way, maybe I’d feel a little less alone.
What I didn’t yet know is that everyone feels alone, all the time. It’s a kind of virus, whether we’re married or not, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We get lonely. We act dumb. There it is. It was Jeff who taught me this, actually, during a recent conversation we had while his beautiful, beautiful wife was in another room, doing who knows what.
David Amsden is the author of Important Things That Don’t Matter. He lives in Brooklyn.