Kelly and I had been together for 12 years, married for eight. We complemented each other in all the important ways. Neither the happiest nor the unhappiest couple we knew, we believed we’d be together forever.
The problems began the day her friend Emma entered our lives. When we met, about seven years ago, I was overwhelmed by a sense of familiarity, as though we already knew each other.
I was drawn in equal measure to Emma’s dark-haired beauty and striking style — two parts British Vogue, one part Frida Kahlo — and to her wit and intelligence. I thought of her constantly and dreamed of her with alarming frequency. Emma, however, didn’t seem overly impressed with me. She was also, apparently, happily married. That I was too, or thought I was, seemed almost irrelevant.
She and Kelly weren’t actually that different. They shared an area of study — both taught literature — and even looked alike. If someone had told me at the beginning of my marriage that someday I would feel equally drawn to another woman, I would not have believed it. And even now I had not stopped loving Kelly. The problem was simple: I was deeply drawn to both women.
The solution was also simple: I’d cut off all contact with Emma. I avoided situations where we might run into each other. When we did, I’d excuse myself and not return. People assumed I disliked her. I felt I was acting honorably, sacrificing a part of myself for my marriage. But nothing I did alleviated my shame, nor did itenhance the marriage I was trying to protect.
Thinking about Emma made me feel guilty, which, absurdly, made me resent Kelly — and that made me feel even more guilty. Something was clearly wrong with my marriage. Or was it just me?
I began to look at parts of our life I’d never taken the time to analyze. There were problems in the marriage. When we were first together, we used to fight passionately about the things we disagreed on — careers, money. Over time, though, we’d stopped arguing. Fights that had lasted hours or days condensed themselves into brutal one-line battles. Instead of facing our conflicts, we chose to ignore them and hope they’d go away.
Fantasy becomes reality
Meanwhile, Emma still haunted me. I was sure my attraction was more than simply physical. It was, for whatever reason, deep and profound. I told no one, not even my closest friends.
Finally, after a couple of years, I could no longer suppress my feelings for Emma. I was compelled, despite all logical sense, to reach out to her. How could I reveal myself without hurting Kelly and risking our marriage?
I decided to send Emma secret-admirer emails. At the very least, I’d be able to vent some feelings. I emailed her once a week for a month, rerouting the messages through an anonymous remailer. They were simple notes laden with excerpts from poems and declarations about her beauty. If she kept the letters a secret, I decided, I might be able to confess without fear of exposure.
But she didn’t. She told Kelly, and Kelly told me: Emma had a secret admirer. No one could figure out who it was. I stopped sending the emails immediately.
Then, in the spring of 1999, I found a legitimate reason to contact Emma, who had by this time moved with her husband to another town. I had a question about a book I was reviewing, and it was on a subject I knew she’d studied extensively. Soon I managed to turn that single question into an ongoing correspondence. On the surface it seemed innocent, but eventually Emma asked, “I guess I wonder why we’re writing like this.” I took a breath and wrote back, “I don’t know, but I have to confess that I haven’t told Kelly.” Emma admitted that she hadn’t told her husband, either.
Our messages became longer and more philosophical. One day Emma wrote, “Can I ask you an odd question?”
“Go ahead,” I replied.
She wrote: “This may sound stupid, but…a few years ago I received a couple of anonymous secret-admirer emails. I never discovered who sent them. Thing is, a phrasing in one of your recent emails was almost exactly the same as in one of the anonymous ones. Was it you who sent them?”
I thought about it all day. Finally, at 2am, I wrote, “Yes. It was me.”
Instant infidelity. Done.
Emma was stunned. She asked if the admirer emails were a joke. She couldn’t believe I’d sent them; she’d really bought my I-can’t-stand-you act.
I countered by cataloging every time we’d seen each other, what she’d worn, what we’d spoken about. I told her I didn’t know why but since the day we’d been introduced, I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her. Emma confessed how moved she was, and how surprised she was by her own reaction. After a few days of increasingly fervent exchanges, she hit me again: “Can I see
Kelly was going out of town for a week — a week when Emma was coming to town to work at the university. The prospect of physical infidelity suddenly became very real. A part of me, albeit a tiny part, hoped that seeing Emma would ruin everything, that if we so much as kissed it’d be terrible.
“Yes,” I said, “you can see me whenever you want.”
I should have asked myself “What am I doing?” But I didn’t. I’d convinced myself that this had nothing to do with Kelly. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but at the time it made sense.
When Emma arrived, we laughed and embraced awkwardly. She pushed into me with such force that I had to brace myself. The chemistry was unimaginable. I could smell the sweetness of her skin and hair, feel the wetness of her breath against my neck and the warmth of her breasts against my chest. She and I had barely even touched before. And now here she was, pressing the length of her beautiful, trembling body against mine. And for a moment that silent embrace was enough.
She stayed into the middle of the night; our ease with each other was profound and immediate. On Monday, Emma asked if she could see me Tuesday. We spent the entire day talking. She rang my bell early Wednesday morning, less than six hours after she’d left. I was overjoyed. By the end of that night it was clear we’d spend every minute possible together.
We finally made love on Friday, and spent the last two days in constant fervor. Being with Emma was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. My attraction to her was absolute, and I realized that my desire for her was inexhaustible.
To this point I had convinced myself that the only reason I’d been able to cheat so easily was that Kelly was out of town. It felt as though Emma and I had created another reality, where only she and I existed. The infidelity, as long as it lasted, would be a physical extension of that. Nothing more.
Deeper into Betrayal
The day Emma left town, I spent a few hours feeling miserable and then readied myself for reimmersion into “real” life. The cheating was over, or so I believed. But I was wrong: The real cheating was about to begin.
Within a week Emma emailed that she was coming to spend the summer in my city. “Don’t get excited,” she said. “I’m coming to work on my thesis.” I got excited anyway. This meant she and I could spend more time together. It also meant that my betrayal was about to take on a whole new dimension: the sneaking-around dimension.
Emma and I tried to see each other every day. I spent hours planning when and how we could meet. Though it sounds crazy, there simply wasn’t time to consider the consequences of what we were doing. When I was with Kelly, I thought about Kelly. When I was with Emma, I thought about Emma. When we were all together, I thought about something else: baseball, the novel I should have been working on. This wasn’t, as some would suggest, “male compartmentalization.” It was survival, pure and simple. To handle it any other way would have driven me insane.
Emma and I would be getting dressed after an afternoon in a hotel. “This is awful,” she’d say, fastening her bra. “I know,” I’d reply, taking a last swig of champagne. Yet there we were, trying to figure out when we could do it again.
In retrospect it’s so clear-cut: Just don’t do it. But while it’s happening, it seems much more complicated. I never actively thought I was getting away with something. It was as though each betrayal were license for the next: the first embrace, the first kiss, the first hotel-room bed. I told myself I was limiting the scope of these betrayals. I needed to believe this so I wouldn’t feel like the personification of evil.
As our relationship became more intimate, it was increasingly difficult for Emma and me to live our real lives. Though neither of us had intended to change everything, that’s what we did. After seeing each other on the sly for three months, we left our partners to be together.
Our new life lasted precisely 18 days, at which point we revealed to our spouses why we’d left. All hell broke loose. Emma was stigmatized as a cheating spouse and a disloyal friend. People reacted less violently to my betrayal. The fact that I was a man seemed to make it easier to understand. But the societal condemnation of Emma, the woman, was brutal. It was too much for her. She went back to her husband.
Kelly and I separated.
I tried to explain to Kelly what had happened. In my mind it had virtually nothing to do with the two of us. Nothing she’d done had made me want to be with Emma. Though Kelly and I had avoided conflict in our marriage to the point where we’d seriously undermined our relationship, I hadn’t been looking for an Emma to come and turn my life upside down. Not surprisingly, Kelly couldn’t comprehend any of this.
I apologized to Kelly until she was sick of hearing it. I moved out of the city, but we’re still friendly. Whereas the gravity of my actions took months to register with me, it hit her all at once; consequently, she moved past it faster than I did. We’d had no children. She was able to get on with her new life relatively quickly.
In time, I expect, everyone will get over it. Even me.