“I’m not who you think I am, you know.”
I looked at the woman sitting across from me, the woman I had known for twenty years, the woman whose family shared Christmases with mine, the woman who had been my best friend for as long as I’d known her.
“What? Like you’re a spy or something?” I laughed and took a rather large gulp of the bland Beaujolais I had ordered because she had ordered one. For years she had drunk nothing but tepid Pinot, never cold. I would have to drop ice cubes into my Pinot when we drank in her kitchen or at the picnic table in her backyard. It was just what we did. And she always drank Pinot. But about a year ago she switched to Sauvignon Blanc.
That was when I first suspected she might not be who I thought she was.
And now tonight? Another new wine. Which was why her comment had me suddenly on edge. That and the fact that I had been counseling her for over a year now, ever since the time I asked her straight out if she was having an affair. “Why do you think that?” she had said, taking a deep sip of the Sauvignon Blanc, holding her nose in the glass longer than is proper. “You don’t drink Sauvignon Blanc.” And it was chilled.
Counseling isn’t quite the right word, but I’m not really sure how else to put our weekly get-togethers. She was having an affair, and I listened to her all giddy and glowing, telling me how wonderful it was to suddenly “feel something” again. And “he treats me like a princess.” I wanted to gag at that one, but she was happy, so I kept my reflexes in tact.
She was my best friend. Her marriage was what I and everyone else had thought was solid, friendly, perhaps a bit uneven in intellect, but a good marriage. A boring marriage. A marriage.
I had divorced after thirty years, but my marriage probably should have ended before it even started. My husband and I liked each other, but passion was something I had only ever felt once before in my life, and I knew I would never, ever feel that again. So I got married. My husband was nice enough.
She laughed. “No. I’m not a spy.”
We had been talking about her plans, the plans that she and her paramour were making to divorce their respective spouses. Paramour sounds way more sexy than the guy deserved. He was by his own admission a serial adulterer and had had “hundreds” of affairs throughout the thirty-five years he and his wife had been married. “His wife’s a real bitch,” my friend was fond of saying. “The only way he could stay married to her was to have affairs.”
I remember when she had first told me that, along about the time she first confessed to having the affair, I thought my friend was foolish and naïve. I had been on the receiving end of a serial adulterer’s attention a couple of times and knew most of the lines. I swear, they must have “The Serial Adulterer’s Guide to Attracting Feeble-Hearted Women.” Chapter One? “My Wife’s a Bitch.”
The problem with me is that I am a flaming feminist. When someone calls a woman a bitch, my first response is to ask “Why?” Not “Why?” as in Why do you think that, but “Why?” as in What’s the reason she’s bitchy? There’s usually a reason. No woman is bitchy just for bitchy’s sake. So I would barrel down a list of questions hoping to answer the question of “Why?”
How did you show your wife you loved her, when you did love her?
What is your wife’s favorite color?
How many times a week did you make dinner?
Did you arrange your kids’ after school schedules?
Your wife works a full-time job. What is her boss’s name?
Right. So his wife was a bitch and that was enough to excuse him his affairs. But what was my friend’s excuse? “I’m bored.” Yeah. Marriage can be boring. “He’s just not smart enough.” Yeah, I’ll give her that one, too. I always wondered what she and her husband had to talk about besides the kids and the house and the cars. “He’s not good at sex.” Bingo.
When you’re in your mid-fifties and your kids have left the house and you are staring at another, oh, twenty-five years with a man you really have no feelings for, what do you do? Do you survive on memories of your shared history, or do you become putty in the hands of a man who is an expert at making a woman feel like a princess?
I am a feminist. I said that already. I’m a modern woman. Fairly smart. And I’ve never considered myself to be naïve when it comes to the ways of the world. But maybe my expectations are too high. My thought has always been that if you are in a marriage that you are not satisfied with you do one of two things. You either tell your spouse you are unhappy and want out, or you tell your spouse you are unhappy and you are going to seek happiness outside of the marriage. You ask for your spouses blessing to philander. Some spouses are okay with that last one. Really, I think that last one is kind of an unspoken agreement in many marriages, in most marriages.
“He’s had affairs the entire time he’s been married and his wife doesn’t have a clue,” my friend had said. Really? Doubtful. She knows. She might wish or hope or long for a better marriage, for love, but a bird in the hand and all that.
“She knows,” I had said. “She just puts up with it. It’s an unspoken agreement between them. He gets to sleep around and she has a nice place to live. The family stays intact.”
My friend did not like that.
“Well, not for long.” She half smiled at me over her glass. “We’re going to get married.” This had been when she switched wines the first time. “We’re going to wait for the weddings to be over, and then we’re each getting a divorce. He’s going to buy the house from his wife and we’re going to live there. But first, right after I tell Mike, he’s going to take me away, to Europe.” She had said all of this without taking a breath. “He’s going to treat me like a princess.”
I was losing control of my gag reflexes.
Her son and his daughter were both getting married the following summer, a year from when she and I first spoke about this.
“He wants me to tell Mike first and then he’ll tell his wife.” The hair on the back of my neck stood up. This was freaking Chapter 10 of the serial adulterers handbook. He skipped all of the chapters in between. Ass.
“Why does he want you to do that?” I knew damn well why he wanted her to do that.
“He’s afraid I’ll back out. But I won’t. I love him so much.”
I drained my glass.
“So, you’re going to tell Mike you want a divorce before he tells his wife he wants a divorce in order to prove your love for him?”
“Yes. He’s so afraid that I’ll back out. But I won’t. I love him so much.”
“Yeah. You already said that.”
Chapter 10 in “The Serial Adulterer’s Guide to Attracting Feeble-Hearted Women” is all about manipulation. You see, serial adulterer’s don’t serial adulterate because they want sex. Well, they do want sex, but not just sex. They want control. They want to control a woman’s affections, emotions. They want the feeble-hearted woman’s every thought to be about them. Which is why they are a serial adulterer, why they have to have affairs with many different women, repeating the process over and over again. No one can hold that much focus on someone else for that long without beginning to want more for themselves. Eventually even the feeble-hearted woman realizes that she is being short-changed emotionally. Chapter 2 in the book outlines the importance of treating the feeble-hearted woman as a princess, the ‘blinding them with love’ effect. Give them the kind of attention they don’t get at home. Show them a sophistication their spouses lack. Promise them the world. In my friend’s case, it was promise her Europe.
“I’m going to tell Mike I want a divorce and then we are leaving immediately for Europe. He’s going to show me the world.”
“So you’re just going to drop the bomb and leave?”
“Yes. He says it’s the best way. We don’t need to stay for the fallout.”
That’s the second time I wondered if she wasn’t who I thought she was.
“That’s kind of unrealistic, don’t you think?” I was trying to get her head out of the clouds. She seemed to be lacking oxygen. “Not to mention unkind?”
“I don’t want to hurt Mike,” she seemed almost genuine, “but there’s no other way.”
“Yeah, there is.” Now the humanist in me was rising up. “You stay for the fallout. You stay to clean up the pieces. You do the hard work you need to do to get what you want. You face the person you are hurting and you help them through it. And another thing …”
I was on a roll.
“… when does he tell his wife that he wants a divorce?”
She looked at her fingers tracing the outline of her glass on the table. “When we get back from Europe.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” The couple at the next table stopped their conversation and stared at me. “Sorry,” I said.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I repeated, perhaps even a bit more loudly than I had the first time. “You are being freaking manipulated! Don’t you see that? He’s making you ask for a divorce first but he has, and I guarantee it, no intention whatsoever of leaving his wife. Nada. Zilch. If he wanted to divorce her he would have done it long ago. Don’t you see that?”
“I know. I know,” she said, her head leaning towards me across the table. “But I’m different, he said. He’s never felt this way before me. I’m different from all of the others. He said.”
Crap. Chapter 6. Tell the Feeble-Hearted Woman about all of your other affairs – Build trust! You’ve confided in her your deepest darkest secrets! And once you’ve hooked her with the truth, explain how lucky you are to have finally found HER, the one you have been looking for after all these years, the love of your life. Tell her “It’s fate!”
Crap and double-crap.
“Listen,” she said. “I know it might not work out. I know he might be … lying to me. But I don’t think he is. He loves me. He does. And I love him. And even if it only lasts for a while, at least I’ve had this time with him. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Right. Talk to me again in a year from now, when you’re divorced, single, and no longer a princess. The future is always bright when you’re in love, even when you know it’s not.
I was fighting a losing battle, so I listened to her tell of fairy tales weekends in the City and early morning rendezvous before work with only the occasional reminders from me to “Be careful.”
“I’m not who you think I am.”
“And you’re not a spy.”
“I’m not naïve,” she said pointedly. “I know what I’m doing.” She waited for me to talk. I had nothing to say. “I have had affairs the entire time I was married.”
I tried to keep my eyes their normal size but it was either have wide eyes or upset the couple at the next table with a very loud “What the fuck?”
“You know Zack?” Yeah, I knew Zack. He was an old friend of hers. His wife had died in a ‘home accident,’ having fallen down the stairs and broken her neck. I didn’t like Zack. “I’ve been having an affair with him since I was 13.” She smiled. “He was my first.”
I swear her face was changing in front of my eyes. Her eyes were narrow. Her smile was … sly.
“And there were others. Lots of others.”
Jesus. “Did you sleep with Bill?” My ex had revealed his own strayings from our marriage vows (what a joke) but sleeping with my best friend he had not mentioned.
“No.” She laughed. I wasn’t sure I believed her.
“You see,” she looked up at the ceiling. I couldn’t tell if she was searching for the right words or doing it for dramatic effect. “It’s just something that I do. I’ve always done it. It’s who I am.” She looked at me. “It’s who he is.”
The paramour. I was beginning to feel sorry for him. “Does he know?”
“Yes. We are alike in so many ways.”
I was a feminist. This equality should have made me happy.
“You see, he’s afraid I won’t divorce Mike because I’ll be tired of him.” She leaned into me again. “He is afraid that he is going to loose me.”
“He might.” Blithe.
I sat there wondering, not about her and what she’d done, but how after twenty years I didn’t know this about her, I didn’t pick up on this. That she hadn’t shared it with me pissed me off; it felt like lying. It felt worse than when I discovered my husband had also been a serial adulterer. She was my friend. How was it that I was so naïve not to have seen it?
Who else had I misjudged in all my years? Who else was lying to me? What ideas, what philosophies did I misconstrue? What beliefs did I hold so dear that were not what I thought they were?
Perhaps I wasn’t the person I thought I was, either.