I had always loved being married. What I wanted was a happy home, a happy spouse. I had assumed that after twenty years of marriage that this was true, we were happy. In our way, in a way that suited our unique idiosyncrasies. We seemed to reach an agreement on all decisions; not with difficulty, but with ease. “What should our marriage be like?” was not a question I asked. This was our marriage; this was a mutual process and this was the result we had come to after twenty years together. What I quickly learned was that is only true in a relationship without secrets.
Do secrets reveal themselves suddenly? When the truth emerges, it can seem abrupt. In reality, the signs are there but they remain obscure. “How could you not know your husband was having an affair?” played in my mind again and again in the days following disclosure. Is it because I did not want to face the obvious? No, it is because an affair is not always apparent to the spouse. No late nights. No lipstick on the collar. No unaccounted time. No strange phone calls. Where was I supposed to look? My husband remained conscientious to his routine and to his family.
The routine was broken one day. I walked into his office and he was huddled over the phone, whispering into the mouthpiece with a broad smile on his face. He had forgotten that I was meeting him that morning. He looked up at me while still speaking into the phone and said “I have to go”. The conversation was so friendly; my first thought was why can’t you share with this person that I am here? When he put down the receiver, I asked, “Who were you talking to?” He stumbled, and replied “No one.” I responded “It seemed like you were having a good time.” He then replied, “It was Elise.” My heart dropped. Immediately, I began thinking, Elise? Elise moved away two years ago. She was your secretary. Why would you be talking with her? I flushed with embarrassment and walked out of his office into an adjacent empty office. He followed me and closed the door. Immediately I blurted the words “Did you have an affair with Elise?” “No” he shook his head and said “No” again. I did not believe him, but I also could not conceive that he would lie to me either. He had never lied to me before, why now? What could I do? It seemed so fundamentally wrong to accuse your spouse of having an affair and yet there it was, words hanging in the air between us. All I could do was leave to avoid the discomfort.
My husband called steadily for an hour. When I finally answered the phone, he said that he called Elise back after I left. He told her that it was wrong to keep their friendship out of respect for me. He assured me that there was nothing between them and that he would end any future contact. At that point, I believed him. I did not revisit the incident and I often wonder why. I was on the cusp of discovery and I hesitated. I can only say that the hesitation came from wanting to be married to the person I knew and trusted.
Two weeks passed and the incident did not enter my mind again. Then, I came home late one night and he had left his work e-mail open and the inbox contained a message from Elise. As I looked closer, wait, there were several messages over several months from Elise. I never opened his e-mail before, but I did this time. To discover the truth? No, to look for reassurance that it was just what he had said – a friendship. What I found were not torrid love letters, but messages with clues that were impossible to ignore. A note that ended with “love” and another that talked about how much fun it would be to see each other at a conference.
The slow disassembling process began. I could feel the warmth rise from within my stomach spreading to lightheadedness as the ground seemed to shift. I took several deep swallows and knew that this was not just a friendship. How could I ask him? What would I say? I stayed up for three hours before I finally woke him. Those three hours were interminable. I could hear the clock tick as I tried to think about what I would do. I needed to know. I had to know. I lay down next to him, repeating Elise’s name over and over again while he slumbered. “Please, please, just give me a nocturnal slumbering confession.” I begged in my mind. No such luck. Clearly, there was only one way to get the truth and that was from him. The move from the trusting wife to hapless torturer occurred quickly. At three in the morning, I began crying. He woke and asked what was wrong and I blurted “I know you had an affair with Elise. Just tell me. Tell me now. This is my life and I have a right to know.” Dazed from waking, he quickly responded, “I did. I did.”
I wanted to hit him and I did. I stopped hitting. I didn’t stop because I felt it was wrong. I stopped because I didn’t know what type of violence I was capable of. At what point could you turn from the wife who thought it was unkind to ask if your husband was having an affair to a cunning murderer? I did not know, but certainly this act of confession begged an answer to the question. The more rational part of me gained footing. I needed to have answers. The storm broke and the questions rained down. If you were our neighbor and you happened to be unfortunate enough to be awake you would have heard the angry voices and the screams. We were the couple that you hear late at night when the voices are so loud you don’t know what home it is coming from. The couple so desperate that they don’t care if you hear them fight. If you were our neighbor, you would think only stupid and ignorant people fight like that. We were that couple.
Suddenly it all stopped. “How long was the affair?” to which he responded “Four years.” The room began to swim and I began to falter. I was falling down, but I was still standing. It is not unlike that moment in Alice in Wonderland where she is poised to chase the White Rabbit and you are not sure if she is dreaming or still awake as she falls into the rabbit hole. Alice screams in terror at falling, but she begins to realize that the fall is so slow and ridiculously long that she can’t sustain the fear. Soon she begins to experience the event as simply falling and wondering when she is going to land. Hours seem to pass and she spends her time looking at the walls as she passes downward. There are jars of jam on the shelves, plates, teacups, and books. She sees them all, but she continues to fall so she can’t comprehend why they are there.
When you discover that your spouse has been unfaithful, you don’t ever land. You travel down the hole believing that there are days that you have landed on the bottom of the well. You tell yourself that you feel so horrible, that surely it could not get worse than this? Surely, this must be the bottom? You want the bottom. You crave the bottom of the hole just to land somewhere. Like Alice, if you land, you can discover where you are rather than wonder where you are going. Once you land, then can’t you plan the journey back?
With infidelity, there is no landing to begin your journey back to what was. What you knew is gone. Imagine suddenly becoming homeless without a friend or a destination in mind to help you. You look for a place to sleep, for a bite to eat, a place to shower, but it is never enough to restore you. You are never clean enough, you are never rested enough, and the food doesn’t seem to fill the hunger within you. You want more, but even after just a few nights of being homeless, you can’t quite remember what it feels like to live inside of a house any longer. The memories of security can’t sustain you because if it was all taken from you, how can you feel secure knowing that?
Death was in my dreams. I opened doors and no one was there. Glass broke but no one was there to hear it. I looked for my children, but I could not find them. There was never anyone there in my dreams. I was alone, searching, and on the verge of some violent death. If I did find someone, it was usually Elise, the other woman. I woke from the dreams as if I had not slept and my body would throb from the aches. I faced the day but I could not do anything. I would do what I must, but no more. I fed the children, I did the household chores, I went to work, but each activity took me away from the thoughts that I did not want to leave. My work was dealing with this deception even if dealing with it amounted to absolutely nothing. It occupied my whole being and it pushed everything out of my mind.
I wanted to kill her. I had known her. She had known my children. She had attended parties in my home. I had sympathized with her stories. I defended her when my husband complained of her work performance. She had moved 2000 miles away, but I loitered by her old home. Crying and wishing that I could knock on her door just to knock in her face. As I drove, could she just cross the street and I would hit her with my car? “Officer, I never saw her cross the road. She was jaywalking.” Surely, this is why insanity defenses were devised?
Drawers and more drawers filled with scraps of paper, coins, match books, old numbers began to take on new meaning. They were troves of possible clues to the past I had never known. My children would ask me what I was doing, and would snap that I was cleaning. Yes, cleaning that was it. I was trying to clean the past, make sense of it, and make sense of everything that I had missed. I hadn’t lived those years really. Oh, I thought I had, but you can’t when there is a lie this large. I was scrambling under and over walls of memories to fill in those gaps with this information. Knowledge came just like fragments in the discarded junk drawer. In the middle of innocuous conversations, I would ask my husband questions that just would not rest. “Did you drive on the freeway with her? Did you ever eat together? Did she make you breakfast?” Unrelenting, pointless questions but the balance of my emotional state rested on the answer. If I could only pull the pieces together, I could pull myself together.
The answers came, but they weren’t enough. The holes and gaps in those years remained. In between the arguments, we sat down and ate, we watched television, we slept together. We were passionate. We proclaimed our love and our commitment. I was dying. Days turned into months and eventually we reached the point that was past anger and disappointment. It was past the arguments. It was peaceful for my husband and he welcomed these days, hard earned after months of my tumult. Peace can seem like calm, but it is also despair. Anger was life and it was a way of trying to seize my life and reshape it. Twist it, bend it, get it back to something that I knew and understood.
I did not know where things stood for my husband and me. I thought I knew on most days. He was the remorseful spouse saving this marriage. I was the one who had reached the edge of sanity, but was making my way back. I could forgive, but I could not forget. That seemed absurd. How does one forget? Would someone forget that they had cancer? Would they forget a car wreck? My husband and I had lost touch over the years; something I now know, but couldn’t understand without his confession. The rabbit hole seemed to have light at the end of the tunnel. I wasn’t going to land, but perhaps begin to walk out of it myself; exploring the contents of the tunnel along the way.