For almost a year, I was the other woman.
I didn’t feel like the other woman. If you knew me, you wouldn’t think of me as the type. I had a husband, house in the suburbs, college degree, and a Dalmatian. I grew up in a home unbroken by divorce; I was never abused, sexually or otherwise, by any family members. My father and I have an excellent relationship. I have no more self-confidence issues than anyone else I know; I may actually have less. My IQ falls somewhere slightly above the “genius” level, and I’ve worked steadily in my chosen field since before I graduated from college. I have kept a small but close circle of male and female friends since high school. Before I had an affair, I could boast that I had never cheated on a boyfriend or stolen someone else’s. The thrill of an affair held no appeal to me.
But I fell in love with a married man anyway. Apparently, I AM the type. My only defense? It was an accident; I never saw it coming.
In a scenario similar to what you may read in Ann Landers, I fell in love with a man I worked with. Before we got –ahem- intimate, we couldn’t stand the sight of each other. A palpable animosity colored every project we worked on together. Many nights I would come home furious at something he had done or unable to sleep because we’d exchanged nasty words. Only later did I see the irony of how much time I spent thinking about him. It also never struck me as odd that fighting with him bothered me more than fighting with my husband. Hate and love, I’ve heard, are two sides of the same coin and it’s a short journey from one to the other. In our case, we went from hate to tolerance to a business trip.
A little wine and some time alone proved enough on that trip. The details matter greatly to me but probably not much to you. After a few days of working together at a conference, we found ourselves sitting across from each other, talking as friends, not merely coworkers who grudgingly accepted we were stuck with each other for the weekend. It hit me out of nowhere: I wanted this man with a wild passion completely foreign to me.
The next night we admitted our mutual attraction. We both told each other we had good marriages and didn’t want to have an affair. Nonetheless, I had this crazy idea that if he kissed me, I could get him out of my system. I reasoned that it was better to cheat with a kiss that broke the illusion than with unfulfilled fantasies playing themselves out over and over in my head. I rationalized the idea of kissing him, telling myself it would hurt me less to find out my husband had kissed or even made love to someone than it would to hear he had fallen in love with someone else.
So I kissed him, although who kissed who doesn’t matter. He would have kissed me if I hadn’t. We didn’t have sex that night; a decision I made not on lofty moral grounds but rather on practical ones- I had my period. I didn’t know If he liked me that much.
From the moment we kissed, I stepped onto a roller coaster ride unparalleled by anything at Six Flags. Anyone who’s ever loved someone they shouldn’t knows what happened next- lunches, moments before work, stolen kisses in a storage room. But even though I had the hottest sex of my life in the back of his minivan, it only scratched the surface of everything that made the deceit worth the aftermath. I felt alive with him, felt like I could do anything, go anywhere, as long as I had this one amazing person by my side who believed in me, who saw the real me and liked me more because of who I was.
Almost four months after that fateful business trip, I told my husband I had fallen in love with someone else. He called my father, kicked me out, and showed up at my job the next morning to confront the object of my affection.
None of it mattered- my husband’s agony, the looks I got from coworkers, my parents unrelenting shock at my behavior- I was in love. He loved me. It would all work out.
Four months after I left my husband, he had left his wife. Twice. And gone back. Twice. Every time he left, my heart soared. Each time he went back, I felt the bottom fall out of my stomach. He quit his job, not the least of his reasons to try and make his marriage work out without seeing me every day. Within a month, I had quit- ushered out by a boss eager to have him there instead of me. He did not go back.
His efforts not to see me failed supremely. About once a month, his guilt would mount and he would end things. Not once did I call him, e-mail him, or try to see him; I would not, I resolved, turn into one of those desperate, needy women. He always came back. In the midst of a divorce- and not a pleasant one- I was willing stay on the ride a while longer. I couldn’t change how I felt, regardless of what I did.
I know the therap-ese explanations for why women take up with married men; he didn’t appeal to me because he was “forbidden”. He appealed to me because I had fallen in love with someone who saw me, the me I felt I was inside, not what the rest of the world saw. It was ok to be me, he would say. Do you think after all this time I don’t know you?
With the enormity of his love behind me, I saw my life for the first time with unvarnished perspective and relentless honesty. Once I accepted who and where I was, I could change what I didn’t like. I realized that I had married someone I wasn’t in love with, had settled for a job and lifestyle that everyone seemed to think I should have but I didn’t want, and had started to replace the experience of living with the temporary gratification of things. Had I not fallen in love with him, I believe I would still be there. I felt alive; I wanted a life that would let me keep living.
As I fell in love with him, I remembered my long-ago self: a teenager with a passion for life. I had found her again. I took SCUBA diving lessons, became a freelance writer, moved to a little beach town, and learned to rely on my gut instead of what other people said I should do.
With both of us freelancing for a living, we now filled our days with bike rides, trips to the beach, windsurfing, and each other. At night, when he went home to his wife, I would write, see my friends, and fantasize about our life together. Because I knew he would leave; there was no way he and I would not grow old together, probably on a boat or on an island somewhere. I just had to be patient.
One night, exactly eleven months and two weeks after that business trip, he called me; he had told his wife that despite his best intentions he couldn’t seem to stop seeing me. He had to get his marriage worked out. We couldn’t see each other anymore. As we hung up, I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye. I choked out a “’Night” and hung up the phone, not waiting for his response. I couldn’t bear to hear him tell me goodbye.
For the next few days, I waited for a phone call or e-mail that never came. I checked his web site for some sign he was thinking of, missing me. I stopped eating. I cried. I screamed. I took cold medicine just to sleep and get some relief from the pain in my gut. My dog and my downstairs neighbor were the only living creatures I saw. My dog licked my face when I cried and wouldn’t let me out of her sight; my neighbor force-fed me pork chops and homemade mashed potatoes.
He did not call. He did not e-mail me. After four years of working with him and one year of loving him, he had simply vanished from my life.
But he said he loved me, screamed a voice in my head.
You knew he was married. What did you expect? Scolded another.
While I don’t suggest an affair as a way to bolster your self-esteem or win friends, it will show you who your friends are. It surprised me; people I thought would support me no matter what turned on me with vehemence that left me speechless. I didn’t need or want kudos for my behavior; I held no illusions about the morality of my actions. What I did want was the same thing I would have given them: an opinion only when asked and knowledge that they loved me no matter what I did. Worrying that a friend will get hurt is one thing; berating them for their choices is another.
People I had thought of as friends had all kinds of judgment for me. I didn’t want to hear it; I knew from the start messing around with a married man was stupid and falling in love with him worse. But the surprise went both ways- a coworker I thought would give me an earful turned out as my biggest source of support. To this day, she remains one of the few people I would gladly empty my bank account for. When it all crashed down, she called me every day, sometimes two or three times, I think just to make sure I was still breathing.
And I did. In less than eight months, I had lost a husband, a house, a job, and several friends. Then I lost him. And I kept sucking breath in and pushing it out again. Slowly, I started getting on with my life.
After the initial pain subsided, my life after my affair has been the happiest time of my adult life. Before the bizarre carnival ride I was on screeched to a halt, I told people who asked that if it all ended at that very moment it would be worth it, and never once did I waver from that. How could I ever want to trade what I gained for a different path, even one that didn’t tear me apart? I found this amazing love and, more importantly, I found the strength to be myself.
That one thing was worth the ride.
For almost a year, I was the other woman.