For me, cheating has always been fascinating.
When I was six, my parents got divorced amid a swirling infidelity controversy. They were both married shortly after they split from each other, and who cheated on whom and when and for how long was always up for grabs, jabs and speculation. And the truth was something I could never quite ascertain. Both of my parents took their own sides of course, and my aunts, uncles and grandparents never quite knew enough of the full story to fill in the details of all my burning questions. It became fodder for late-night sleepover conversations with my cousins and those wide-eyed nights when I’d sneak into my older brother’s room and lay on his floor until we both fell asleep. Though my brother and I aren’t as close now as I’d like to be, back then we had a twin-like capacity for knowing when the other couldn’t sleep. “Hey Bryan…?” I’d whisper under the creak of his door and silently, he’d throw me down a blanket from his bed like a life line from a ship.
The memories I have from that time of seeing people on couches or being taken to different houses or meeting people in parking lots were some of the most formative to me about love. Confusing, hidden and passionate, it was something you couldn’t have but couldn’t live without.
I wonder at times if there isn’t something genealogical about it. My mom’s mom was remarried three times, and my mom twice, and I don’t pretend to think there couldn’t have been some infidelity in those cases. I know my brother’s suffered similar foibles, so maybe we got the bug too, eh? Or maybe it’s been some quest by both of us to fill in the gaps we could never understand, however juvenile and Oedipal that may be. Walk a mile in their shoes and heal some of the wounds that never quite closed, right? I would call it a vast underestimation to think we wouldn’t open some of our own.
The first bite of it I ever tasted was a situation in high school that would cause one of my teachers to call me a “floozy” and even five years later, cast her eyes away from me in the grocery store. I was dating a boy who had just gone away to college, and I had a friend who I’d known for years that I suddenly started going to with all of my boredom. It lasted almost an entire year, when I think about it. He was, for so many reasons, the essence of the unattainable: the lips from across the room, the buzzing nervousness, the budding hedonist, the double-edged sword and the forked tongue. The song that sticks with you forever. Those are memories I could paint for days, and maybe I will, but this context wouldn’t do them justice.
This is a situation I would come to term as “emotional cheating,” all due credit to my good friend Caitlin Condit here. So much happened between us, but not so much physically. A fumbled kiss in the rain in a moment when I had broken up with the college boy and some tension after the fact, but it was the emotion that was the hook. A hook that, when our singed bridge finally collapsed, I would try to replicate time and again.
What an awful time for college to start.
There was an all-too-important best friend lost to a brutal boyfriend, and some associated messes that weren’t necessarily cheating. Then the entirety of sophomore year was just ridiculous, and I’m abbreviating things because to tell more than cursory details would make this impossibly longer than it already is. Dating a friend, cheating with a Frenchman, dating the Frenchman, finding myself with another best friend, being cheated on by the Frenchman, and smoking so many cigarettes that I woke up one day with a giant black line on my face. When my hair dresser asked, I said, “It could have gone better.”
If I learned one thing from all of it, it was that I was capable of a lot. By this I mean I was capable of forgoing a lot of my feelings and compassion for an experience. The budding hedonist, remember?
The intensity would peak and curiosities would pique a year later when I tried to relive the high school moments I was nostalgic about. Lying on a couch in a checkered basement with a fish tank and a guitar. This time, I had been dating a guy for about 8 months who was doing his masters at Penn, and I met a wannabe artist who lived next door to me and just wanted to play me a few songs. For about a week I let myself get tangled up, ditched the guy from Penn, and started dating the neighbor.
But I was worn out, or had developed a pattern, or just didn’t care. My mistake was giving in to yet another relationship when I really should have just given myself some time. But in the way that so many things do, my need to “just let go” reared its head, and I let it. Also, I moved to New York.
As if the city isn’t a love affair in and of itself, I just so happened to get in touch with a 30-year-old man-friend who I’d met at a conference in the city during freshman year and had internet-lusted after for three more.
When he held my face and kissed me under the arc of a cathedral one night, I was drunk on biscotti martinis and the languid sense that none of it mattered. I ran away from him down into the light of the subway, laughing, thinking, “Crap, I can’t do this again.”
But I woke up in the morning exceptionally giddy. Like I had won. And I hate to feel like I had that much latent insecurity, but I couldn’t help thinking about myself as a greasy-haired, gap-toothed, overweight sixth grader who thought she would just write undelivered love notes to boys for the rest of her life, and how proud she would be of me then. It was that easy? I could get this dude who I’d thought about for years to kiss me, by just being myself? Maybe I was a floozy…
But as it all continued, we had this conversation:
“Are you gonna tell your boyfriend?”
“Um, no?” I said.
“You know Brittany, cheating’s a serious thing.”
I thought, “Cheating? Who the hell here is cheating?”
In essence, I had devalued my notion of relationships more than the U.S. dollar. And if someone was going to cry over a little spilled milk, it was no skin off my nose. Someone could be hurt by all of this? What a passe thing, sigh. I was young, I wasn’t married, and besides, who the hell was going to know anyway?
I moved back to College Park, inexplicably still dating the neighbor guy. Or was I even? It was as if summer had happened to a different person on a different planet, but I neglected to realize the fact that it had affected me. I just figured I would never do it again. I don’t think I have that serial killer instinct to divide myself into different people in order to commit crimes, but I did have the serial dater instinct: the general malaise that only develops after you realize you’ve let too many stupid boys fall for you. “Does he really matter? Ugh.”
Still with neighbor-boy, I re-met this kid I’d known since freshman year named Jamie. And we were in the same reporting class and he was awfully funny and cute. And he wanted me to come hang out at his apartment. And was sorta dating someone too. But boy he looked good in that blue jumpsuit. (Unintentional rhyming, sorry.) And I told him to meet me at the bar, and meet my friends, and walk me home, and let me sit on his couch instead, and he was happy to!
It wasn’t until January that I told neighbor boyfriend (who was not my neighbor anymore, otherwise this would have never worked, DUH) about even “liking” Jamie, and that maybe I wanted sometime to figure out what I wanted. And neighbor boyfriend freaked out, and walked out on me in a restaurant, and we went on a break. During which time I realized that I was being an idiot, and I was tired of being cried to, and I should just bite the bullet and get back with neighbor boyfriend and not talk to Jamie and stop being such a floozy!
That lasted like a month. And I hate to say it, World, but the second time was the charm. I don’t really believe in signs, but maybe I took it as one that Jamie and I reconciled after I was a total bee-yatch to him, and that we could still be cool with one another. And maybe it was still really fun to hang out, even after a bunch of back-and-forth brouhaha.
So now I sit at home every night after work and Skype little Jame into my heart, and we laugh and roll around just like we used to do, just electronically. And when skeezy dudes and lesbians hit on me at the bar, I puff up my little chest and say, “Well I HAVE a boyfriend… thankyouverymuch. Here’s a picture of him on my phone. Yesterday, he said the FUNNIEST thing to me…”
And I can’t help but wonder why. Maybe I’m just tired of everything else, and this makes it really easy to feel good. Maybe there is something really different about this kid, despite all the other times I thought I’d been “in love,” that makes me not want to think about anybody else. Or maybe I just grew up.
I talked to my mom yesterday and she told me that my brother was getting back together with his baby-mama, the girl he’s been back and forth with since high school, and with whom he has a daughter. Apparently, they want to really give it a go this time, whatever that means. But maybe it’s just that time. Maybe our curiosity’s expired, and now that we’re both big kids living on our own, we just don’t care about figuring out the past anymore.
That doesn’t mean that Jame and I are going to elope, but it feels like a luxury to be able to let myself just be content with somebody, and not worry about what comes next, or when the bottom falls out. Even nine hours away from each other, I just don’t worry. And he knew all of this junk a long time ago, presumably around the time when he told me all of his junk, and when we drink wine and laugh about it together, I don’t think we’re bad people, I just think, “Who knew $3 wine could be so good??”
This isn’t a post for atonement, it isn’t a letter for forgiveness, or a way to assuage some guilt I feel. Because I really don’t. I don’t think that makes me any more of a monster than anyone else. But it does mean that I did hurt some people. Maybe more than I let myself realize at the time. I don’t feel bad about not feeling sorry: most of those guys are happily dating other people now. Maybe I caused them a few sleepless nights, but certainly no astronomical legal fees. And I wasn’t unscathed.
It’s not something I want to do again; I don’t. I don’t know that it’s a thing anyone sets out to do. I wouldn’t recommend it or call it a “fun experience.” I made some teachers and moms hate me, but in the end it’s been just another “thing,” like totaling my car or tripping at graduation. People got hurt in all of those situations, including me. It’s true, cheating is a serious thing, but that doesn’t make it any more difficult to do.
I don’t know that walking a mile in shoes like my parents’ taught me any more or any less about what happened between them. But maybe it taught me this: that the pain and hurt you could feel from someone else’s actions isn’t worth it. The pain they’ll feel is just enough. That love ends, and when it does, you have to let it. You don’t have to stop caring about people. It isn’t the last thing you’ll ever do in your life, but it was something. And if you’re lucky, the next one will make you want to Skype and dance and laugh. Maybe at the same time.