Infidelity for Beginners
Of course I was a narcissist. I was having an affair and would do almost anything to ravage his body for a night and haunt his memories for a lifetime. Sadly, it wasn’t all cocktails and oysters, 500 thread-count sheets at the Four Seasons, or singing along to Eric Clapton records in the middle of the night. Yes, records! We were boomers and what middle-aged woman doesn’t want to be transported back to the days when she was young and pretty?
Obsessed with how best to navigate the cheating landscape, which had become my new full-time job, I prayed that a miscalculation wouldn’t trigger an explosive end to my marriage. Despite lying to my husband with ease, I told myself I was still a good person, merely fulfilling the secret narrative I had developed years ago and had clung to like a Republican with a conspiracy theory: One day I will meet a man who truly sees me. This will give me the strength to divorce my charismatic husband who is oblivious and hostile to my needs.
He considered himself “Mister Sensitive” but often belittled me, making cruel comments that made me cry in public. I didn’t even want you to come! (referring to his goodbye party when we were leaving Minneapolis for Boston). You’re the only reason why she’s having such a hard time. It’s all because of you! (said at a restaurant and referring to our daughter who struggled with emotional issues throughout high school). Rather than share my sadness with those who asked why I was crying, I’d say my tears were symptoms of a cold. I was protecting him, but I was also protecting myself from those close to me, and those not so close to me, those who were dying to “talk.”
My husband was a successful arts administrator who managed nonprofit theaters. I worked as a publicist for a boutique publishing company. I loved my job, and that was even before I started sleeping with my boss, the hot indie publisher who happened to be my friend’s husband. (Could anything be more cliche?) He lavished me with the attention I didn’t know I craved (yet another cliche) and he was well-versed in the art of infidelity. Unlike him, I’d never strayed, nor had I ever wanted to. Before we slept together for the first time, I said, “There is no room for error. We must be meticulous.”
It thrilled me to be intimate with a man other than my husband, a man who delighted in just being near me. I lived for the moments he rejoiced in my mind and body, expecting to be flooded with guilt after every, “You’re so beautiful; you’ve given me a raison d’etre.” Instead, I was surprisingly guilt-free, feeling nothing but jealousy after learning that our affair had reinvigorated whatever glimmer of passion the publisher still had for his wife.. She occasionally peppered our conversations with, “I’m exhausted. He kept me up all night!” Or, “Just when I think we’re done playing, he pulls out the sex toys!” After swallowing my envy, I’d mutter, “Sounds like fun.”
Every marriage counselor preaches that an affair is the symptom of a troubled marriage. They then prescribe a weekly date night as the cure. I knew my marriage sucked, but when I thought about how my husband made me laugh, how we had two amazing kids and a shared history, how despite the shit, I still loved him, I wondered if my marriage was really that bad. Was I just tired of the bullshit and wanting to do something just for myself? (The ultimate cliche!) Was that why I had given myself permission to be receptive to the publisher’s come on, pursuing my own gratification without a care for those I hurt, confident that my happiness was worth any casualty? Was I too selfish to realize that I was being selfish? I refused to consider this final thought. The idea made my stomach shake and rumble.
As my therapist and I worked on exploring my hurt and anger, she kept telling me that I would have an epiphany. This would happen when I listened to my conscience. I thought that I’d banished this thing but its voice was strong, powerful, and undeterred, forcing me to listen as it rammed its way back into my psyche. It manifested as a bossy, sanctimonious bitch who snarled, “Stop! What the hell is wrong with you? You know the affair is a symptom, and you’ve refused to deal with the root cause of that symptom!”
I did my best to silence my conscience. I wanted to be free to bask in that shiver of frisson that lit me up every time the publisher and I were together, either at work or when we executed one of the ridiculous plans we hatched just to see each other. First the grocery store, then the bank, then back to the grocery store, then the local diner to pick up pizza for dinner. Soon, these daily deceptions became natural and reflexive, and we raised the stakes and pushed for more – more talks, more drinks, more dinner, more sex.
But, the bitch snuck her way back into my head, and I knew the only way to protect my new-found joy – which I deserved, damn it – was to smother her out of existence. I fantasized about doing this with one of the fluffy pillows from a downtown hotel we frequented. I convinced myself that my conscience was stuck in the past, mired in a time when I valued my marriage enough to be faithful.
Once she was out of my head, I was liberated, free to tell my husband about the publisher without having to invoke a shred of self-analysis or introspection. I was giddy because my conscience could no longer shame me for refusing to examine the complexities surrounding the affair. By getting rid of my moral compass, I had put myself first for once. My new motto was, Experience everything at face-value. Never delve into the why.
Since I worked in publishing and was living in the world of books, it felt natural to join the publisher in contemplation of our romantic journey as the basis for a book. Because we were both obsessed with the written word, we saw everything through the lens of a single question: Could this story be a book? Was there a market for a manual on how to conduct a successful affair? Based on book sales, we knew that sex really did sell, but we also knew that our infidelity tips – never change your bikini wax regime, have a dedicated cell phone for vigorous phone sex, pack the soap you always use rather than relying on a hotel’s rose and gardenia body wash – were obvious and banal. So, no. We did not have a book.
After my conscience weaseled her way back, her words began to gnaw at my resolve. What a coward! she taunted. Why didn’t you confront your husband and divorce him?
I was furious that she had slithered back into my head, but she was right. The affair was a welcomed escape from the honest conversations I knew would happen if I expressed my true feelings to my husband about the state of our marriage. Each of my precious facades began to erode. Gone was the glamorous seductress, the Oscar-worthy actress, and the savvy editor with the salacious secret. All that was left was the unvarnished me.
My conscience tortured me until I was exposed to the bone. I could do nothing but sob in agreement as she said, Grow some balls, loser. You’ve got to face the scary, the agonizing, the unbearable. Everyone who loves you knows this: It’s time to leave him.
Karen Conner is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. She worked in publishing while in Boston in the early aughts, and has handled marketing and publicity for a variety of arts organizations. Her writing has appeared in the Columbus Dispatch, Huffington Post, ScribeBase, and Modern Loss