The top of her head is the first thing to come into view, then her face, her face. Her face had a look that I understood before I fully realized I was understanding it.
Image by Max Capacity
I woke that morning as I always did, to the sound of my son Zachary calling out from his bed. It was almost 6:00 a.m., the light still gray and soft in the windows, and as I lay there thinking, listening to Zach asking his stuffed animals for juice, I remembered that Valerie had gone out the night before. I looked over at her side of the bed: the undented pillow, the smooth sheets. I looked at my cell phone, still and silent on the iron stool next to my bed.
I checked for a text message from Valerie, and sure enough, she’d sent one at 3:24 a.m. to say she was safe at her best friend’s apartment, that she’d be home in the morning. The morning, I thought. OK.
Zach sat upright in bed when I walked into his room, his beloved blue bunny tucked under one arm, a satin blanket in hand. “Do you want some orange juice?” I asked, and he smiled.
“Yes!” he answered, drawing out the s sound like the snake in The Jungle Book.
I picked him up and took him into the library adjacent to our room. Zach was old enough now that he’d often watch TV for a half hour or so in the morning before insisting on breakfast. I could get him started on an episode of Dora the Explorer or The Fairly OddParents, whatever happened to be on Nickelodeon, and then sneak back to bed in the next room, where it was easy to hear him laugh or call out. I did my best on weekend mornings to steal another thirty minutes of sleep.
It always seemed a perfectly private moment: my son unaware of my attention, his face an unedited reflection of each emotion passing through his body.
I turned on the TV set and went downstairs to fill a sippy cup. When I came back, Zach was fully focused on SpongeBob, laughing at Patrick, taking in every blue detail of their underwater world. I sat with him in the beanbag chair for a few minutes. Watching him watch TV, the way his face lifted into happiness, his smile softening at the edges as his eyes narrowed in concentration—it always seemed a perfectly private moment: my son unaware of my attention, his face an unedited reflection of each emotion passing through his body.
The TV was loud enough that I hadn’t heard the back door open. I looked up at a creaking sound from the stairs. Valerie was slowly rising with each step, the top of her head the first thing to come into view, then her face, her face. Her face had a look that I understood before I fully realized I was understanding it.
She was clearly still drunk, maybe stoned, her eyes even glassier than they usually were after a night out, her smile sliding from side to side. “Hey,” she said softly. It was a lovely sound, that “Hey,” a sweet sound, and I believed it, though I wasn’t sure what, exactly, I was believing. “I’ll take care of Zach,” she said. “You go back to bed.”
I followed her as she stumbled into our bedroom and pulled off her heels, then set her phone in the bottom drawer of the dresser next to her bed, where she always put it. I watched her catch herself when she leaned over; she nearly fell into the drawer.
She walked back into the library, tripping a bit over a pile of laundry and laughing lightly, the sort of laugh a person makes in private, an embarrassed laugh, though I was watching. I think she’d forgotten I was there.
She pulled another beanbag chair next to the one Zach was sitting in and dragged an afghan from the ottoman. She covered herself and Zach and leaned in close to him. As I watched from the doorway, she fell asleep.
I felt something thick in my throat. I watched her sleep, watched Zach put his hand on her cheek absently, without knowing it, his eyes still glued to the TV. I stared at his hand there, on her cheek, her face, and I knew.
I lay down in bed to try to go back to sleep, but I knew there wasn’t much chance of that. It was her face. We had a name for it in college, the “just fucked face,” the look of sex an hour after the fact, a face framed by disheveled hair, a face recovering from the physics of pleasure, a face still a little baffled by the effects of booze, a face before regret, before the random snapshots of memory begin to cohere into a picture of a long night of drinking, a night of gradually loosening resolve, the slow lubricants of beer and bourbon and pot.
I gave up and rolled over to her side of the bed. I reached into the bottom drawer of her dresser and found her phone. She hadn’t bothered to plug it in; one end of the charging cord was hidden beneath a sock, the other ran around behind the dresser into an outlet in the wall. It was her routine to plug in her phone whenever she went to bed; she used it so much—the constant texts, the Words With Friends and Facebook posts—that she needed to charge it regularly. I could go days without charging my phone. But she hadn’t been to bed last night, at least not here. She’d been at Megan’s, I said to myself, her best friend’s apartment. She’d slept there.
I sat on the edge of the bed with her phone in my hand. I looked back over my shoulder through the open door into the library: she was still sleeping, Zach still curled up next to her drinking his juice, watching SpongeBob. I looked at her phone in my hand. It was shaking. I realized my hand was shaking. I put both hands on the phone, but they were both shaking, my whole body was shaking, every muscle clenched. It was as if the temperature had suddenly dropped, a winter wind whipping through the room, my body tensing against cold.
I knew Valerie’s phone password not because I’d somehow managed to sneak up behind her one day and secretly watch which numbers she tapped on the keyboard, no: I knew because I’d memorized without intending to the movements of her fingers over the face of her phone; I’d looked up so many times at the sound of a text arriving to see her fingers moving swiftly as they entered the password; I’d watched that action repeatedly to the point that I remembered where her fingers went on the phone; I didn’t need to know the numbers themselves. I had learned her muscle memory.
Valerie had talked about him a lot, felt sorry for him, intrigued by him. He’d asked her one day after class if she thought he was white trash.
And I was right. It was the first time I’d tried to access her phone, and I got right in. And there, facing me, was her final text of the morning, a half hour after her text to me: “Open your door,” she’d typed to someone. I looked at the top of the screen and saw the name. Ed. It seemed impossible, but there it was. Ed: a 21-year-old former student of hers and mine, though he’d become my student only after she urged him to take my class, a self-described redneck with missing teeth and a drug problem, a serious drug problem according to Valerie, a kid really, still trying to graduate from college. Ed. Valerie had talked about him a lot, felt sorry for him, intrigued by him. He’d asked her one day after class if she thought he was white trash. She was amazed by this, by his vulnerability. She’d hired him to paint two rooms in our house while I was out of town on business the previous summer. The newly painted rooms were a surprise for me: she’d had me close my eyes as I walked into the house.
I followed the text thread backward in time so I could start at the beginning. She’d begun the exchange at 4:30 p.m., an offhand text to him that she and her friends would be at a particular bar later that evening. I stopped reading immediately and looked out the window. The dogwood was in full leaf; I couldn’t see past its limbs to the neighbor’s house or the street beyond; it was all green out my window, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t really looking. I was shaking and thinking, remembering back to the previous afternoon. And I realized she’d started texting him while she was putting on her makeup. I’d passed the open bathroom door several times and, as usual, she’d had her earbuds in as she applied powder and mascara, as she carefully brushed and straightened her hair. As usual, she danced a little to whatever private song she was listening to. And, as usual, she periodically stopped everything to text.
As usual, she’d been giddy that she was going out, that she’d be spending the night with friends at the gay bar first, but only for a while: they’d do most of their drinking at one of her friends’ apartments, where they could talk and laugh and be girls. That’s what she’d said, it’s what she’d told me at the back door as she kissed me and thanked me for taking care of Zach, as she turned and walked out to Megan’s car in the driveway. She always thanked me.
I kept reading. An hour would go by, then four or five texts passed quickly between them. Ed seemed to be playing hard to get, not sure he could find a ride downtown. Not sure where his friends were. Valerie made playful fun of him but kept encouraging him, suggesting his friends could drop him off at the next bar they planned to visit, that he was a “fucking loser” for not coming out. But as the night wore on, she began to more overtly seduce him, to suggest what could happen. The tone changed. I could read the alcohol in her texts.
What stunned me most were the final half-dozen texts prior to her arrival at his door. Five minutes after her message to me that she was safe at Megan’s, she’d texted Megan to say she was safe at home and going to bed. Megan thanked her for checking in. It was clear to me that Valerie had suggested to Megan that she was walking the few blocks from her apartment to our house, not a good idea but not completely reckless. The neighborhood between was made up of single-family homes and the grounds of the local high school, a series of quiet streets, not many college students likely to be wandering around throwing up in the bushes or passed out on lawns. No, those things happened on the other side of town.
But as it turned out, Valerie was headed precisely there, to the other side of town. One text read, “You better not be asleep when I get there. I’m not walking all this way for some sleeping asshole.” I didn’t know it then, but Ed lived in Sweetwater, the student ghetto a good mile and a half from Megan’s. Still, I could tell from Valerie’s running narrative of texts exactly where she was as she traveled toward Ed; she kept him posted on her progress along Main Street through the middle of town, past the building we both worked in on campus, down the long, steep hill from the Business College and up the other side into Sweetwater. And she walked the entire distance at 4:00 a.m., up and down several steep hills, all the while drunk and wearing high heels. Along with the text lying to her best friend, this detail astonished me the most. That she would walk all that way. And then again, the final text, “Open your door.”
I put the phone in the drawer and walked back into the library. Valerie roused and looked up, smiled. Then she fell back to sleep. Zach peeled himself away from her and rolled out of the beanbag chair. “Can I have more juice?” he asked. He handed me his sippy cup. I took it, then reached down for him, to pick him up and hold him in my arms.
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s have breakfast.” The two of us went downstairs. I made him instant oatmeal with strawberries. He also wanted an egg. He’d begun to enjoy eggs. I remember thinking how much he reminded me of Will, his big brother. I remember the spatula shaking as I turned the egg over and waited for it to cook.
When Valerie had texted at 3:24 a.m. to say she was “safe,” she’d used the word both reassuringly and sarcastically, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. She knew I was concerned for her. I suppose I should’ve been concerned for me, since my wife had taken to spending two or three nights a week out with friends, girls’ nights, she called them. And I suppose I was concerned for myself, concerned that my wife didn’t want to stay home with me, that I couldn’t keep up with all the new friends passing through her life, couldn’t keep up with the drinking or late nights: Valerie could stay up for hours after I went to bed, drink another glass or two of wine, maybe three, and then rise with the dawn and head off to teach. And though it seemed less urgent somehow, less significant, I didn’t understand how she could spend so much time texting. I’d sit across the living room from her, reading the paper as she texted, her fingers flying then pausing, a laugh or gasp preceding the next flurry of finger taps. I’d started to hate her texting. I felt outside of it, outside of whatever life she lived with all the people she was communicating with. And sure, I’d started pouring over the phone bill, counting the many hundreds of texts she sent or received each week, writing down the phone numbers I didn’t recognize. I’d asked her about all of this. I’d asked her what was going on. Was everything OK?
She’d talked about it often enough, how she needed the nights out, needed an identity separate from the one she had with me.
“Everything’s fine, Jim,” she’d say whenever I brought it up, which was, apparently, too often. If we were on the back porch, where we did most of our talking, she might wave a hand in front of her face as if shooing a gnat or dispersing the smoke of her cigarette. Or maybe she was ridding the air around her of the smell of my question. Whatever the case, she didn’t like defending what seemed to me a new set of priorities. She’d fling one leg over the other and reach across the wrought-iron picnic table for the lighter. “And I’m fine, too, so don’t ask, please.” She emphasized a statement like this with a flick of the lighter and a sharp hit off the cigarette. “I just want some time with my friends. You know that.” And there followed a quiet whistle of smoke.
And I guess I did know that. She’d talked about it often enough, how she needed the nights out, needed an identity separate from the one she had with me. Our son had stopped nursing a few months before all of this started, all of this texting and partying with the girls and staying out all night; abruptly Zach made the decision himself to be done with his mother’s milk. This had been devastating, Valerie said. And she felt unattractive, still fat from the pregnancy, a failure for not having made more progress as a writer, for having a shitty part-time teaching job: I’d heard this list of grievances a hundred times. And I believed it, except for the fat part; she looked great as far as I was concerned, as far as everyone was concerned. But she needed her friends, needed to get out from under my shadow, the older professor, the “poet,” though from my perspective it wasn’t so much a shadow as a slender sliver of shade a palm tree might cast at noon. And in the months since she’d started her new routine, the baby fat had melted away, what little there was. She’d gotten a new haircut, was dressing like a college girl. And she was going out every chance she could.
And the truth was that I probably preferred some of those nights alone or with the kids, since they meant I didn’t have to contend with her disappointment, her anger at her life, which often ended up directed at me. But that wasn’t why I was concerned for her. She’d arrived home several times in the past month so drunk she couldn’t make it up the stairs. I’d found her asleep sitting upright on the sofa one morning. Another night I’d awakened to a loud thump from my stepdaughter’s room. Thankfully Rose was at her father’s, since I found Valerie on the floor, her pants halfway down her legs. She’d fallen while trying to take off her clothes. She was laughing.
After that night, she promised she wouldn’t get so drunk at bars, that her girls’ nights would end early at friends’ houses, that she wouldn’t stagger around Masonville in the middle of the night, an easy mark for the many male students on the make. And I believed her, though the pace of her social life didn’t change. She soon started a new practice of having sleepovers at Gala’s house. Gala was a relatively new friend, a graduate student, close to ten years younger than Valerie; I knew from the phone bill that on average, the two of them texted each other fifty or sixty times a day. Valerie also began taking weekend trips with Megan to see one of Megan’s old friends in Pittsburgh, a guy named Nate; she described Nate as a closeted homosexual with stereotypical quirks: excessive neatness, a long list of female friends, and an unnatural interest in women’s fashion. Before long, she took trips on her own to visit Nate. I never said a word. I never thought I needed to.
Her text exchange with Ed played across a screen in my mind, subtitles for a silent film I had no trouble providing moving images for.
After breakfast, I left Zach downstairs watching TV and went up to the library. Valerie was still sleeping. Did I nudge her awake, kick the beanbag chair softly until she opened her eyes, yell at her to get up? I don’t remember. What I do remember is a pointless discussion, an attempt on my part to get her to admit to what had happened the night before without admitting myself that I’d looked at her texts. For the first fifteen minutes of our conversation, I seemed to be able to manage just one question, which I repeated in several different ways: “What did you do last night?” And she answered with her own one question, “What are you talking about?” which she didn’t bother to alter or adjust, just repeated. She was still drunk, which meant that she didn’t seem irritated by my line of inquiry, though I normally didn’t quiz her on the events of her nights out. And I don’t know what kept me from confronting her with the actual evidence, shame most likely: the idea of sneaking looks at my wife’s texts made me ill. But I’m glad I didn’t tell her what I knew, because I learned for the first time something I’d be forced to learn again and again in the coming months. Valerie was a liar. And a very good one.
As I stood over her in the library, I felt the shaking return, felt my muscles cramp, so tightly I’d held them clenched for the last hour. Her text exchange with Ed played across a screen in my mind, subtitles for a silent film I had no trouble providing moving images for. In fact, that was the problem: since I’d read the text record of her drunk and debauched night, I’d been unable to think of anything else, and for me, a poet, thinking took the form of imagery. In my mind, on the screen above the texts, I played the movie of her long crawl through the bars and clubs of Masonville. I watched her flirt with men, watched her accept the drinks they bought her, watched her turn on her barstool to text Ed again, or to laugh at his response, or to answer one of her friends’ questions, or to smile at another man whose hand had made its way to the naked strip of skin above her hip-hugging skinny jeans.
For close to a year, she’d been spending nearly as many nights away from me as with me, and yet I’d never gone to this place in my imagination. I suppose I knew what would happen if I kept watching the movie in my mind, if I began to imagine what my wife was doing in the bars and nightclubs of our college town, a town infamous for its party scene. And what I saw was a door open on an apartment littered with drug paraphernalia and empty beer cans, the camera turning toward Valerie standing in the doorway holding her high heels in two fingers, her bare feet red and raw at the threshold. I watched a drug-addled man-boy close the door behind her. And after each of them, Valerie and Ed, took turns on a bong, I watched them begin to kiss, to pull each others’ clothes off, and to fuck. It turned out the silent film wasn’t so silent. I knew what Valerie sounded like when she was being fucked, and though I didn’t want to, I watched and listened.
I might not have had trouble imagining the pornographic movie at the end of Valerie’s night out, but I still couldn’t find the words to confront her about the texts. I managed to add a new statement to my interrogation: “You have to tell me what’s going on, please tell me what’s going on.” My voice shook as much as my hands. She was still lying on the beanbag chair, still weirdly half-smiling, looking up at me, her trembling husband standing over her like a little boy on the beach watching his sandcastle wash away.
I reached out for a nearby bookcase to steady myself. I remember some of the books on the shelf: Jayne Anne Phillips’s Black Tickets, Light Years by James Salter, my friend Lisa’s latest novel, which I’d just finished and put away.
“What are you talking about?” she said again. She sat up awkwardly in the beanbag chair but didn’t try to stand. She was stoned as well as drunk, I was sure now. Her voice was slow, even sweet, and she cocked her head just slightly to punctuate her question. Her blithe response pissed me off and quieted my panic for a second. I was mad enough suddenly to spit out a direct statement.
“I know you’re seeing someone,” I said. “Tell me what happened last night.” I gripped the bookshelf tighter; I felt as if I might fall, that the floor was miles away, that if I lost my balance, it might take me hours to hit the hardwood beneath my feet. Even Valerie seemed smaller, as if she were close to some new horizon on the other side of the room. But her voice, when she spoke, was steady and slow.
“What are you talking about?” she said for what seemed the twentieth time. I wondered if she was too drunk to say anything else, if perhaps that one question was all she had left of the English language, at least until the buzz wore off. Still, I wanted her to confess what she’d done after Ed opened his door. I wanted her to explain how she could be with someone she’d described as a pathetic loser. But I didn’t want to mention the texts.
She wouldn’t admit to anything. I suspect she assumed I was just angry that she’d stayed out all night, that I would fold back into my trust of her if she held tightly to her narrative. She finally managed to answer, with her own accusation: “How could you say something like that?” she asked. “What are you trying to suggest?”
But I couldn’t respond. Or at least not well. I moved behind a chair as if to hide or protect myself; I tried to talk, to say I was certain she wasn’t being truthful with me. But it didn’t matter what I said: she wouldn’t take the bait.
I gave up in frustration and went downstairs to check on Zach. A couple of hours later I left for my office, left Zach in the care of a now hungover and very quiet Valerie. And though supposedly I was going to the office in order to prepare for an upcoming department meeting, I spent the entire time on the phone with my sister and my best friend Joseph. Both seemed to understand the situation completely, to see in full what the one text exchange I’d discovered actually meant. I, on the other hand, refused to see anything clearly, to believe what was rapidly assembling in front of my eyes. I paced my office like a panther as I talked, from window to window, looking out at the empty sidewalks, the quiet streets; it was Sunday, and most students were still sleeping off their long nights or studying for the week’s coming tests. I kept pausing to wipe the sweat off my cell phone. My ear felt sore; I realized I was clamping the damn thing too hard against the side of my face.
Joseph had been hearing me talk about my concerns for months, had offered suggestions for getting Valerie to pay more attention to me and the family. But now he was blunt: he listed the other men she was probably sleeping with, a list he had handy based on our many phone conversations, my panicked calls to him after I’d encountered yet another cell number I didn’t recognize on the phone bill, a number texted and repeated hundreds of times over the course of a few weeks. He knew the names because I knew the names, because Valerie talked about everything, about everyone, and especially about her students, whom she seemed to run into without fail whenever she was out with friends. Joseph knew what I’d been contending with. I should kick her out immediately, he said. If there was a marriage to be saved, it couldn’t happen while she was still in the house.
My sister Holly was gentler but just as convinced that Valerie wasn’t the person I thought she was. She had been worried for some time, struck by Valerie’s strange priorities, her need to go out partying all the time, her playful but very public preoccupation with sex. Holly had heard all about Valerie’s new life, her new clothes, and her new haircut. She’d heard me describe her strange obsessions, though I never made them out to be odd or distressing. I didn’t complain about Valerie to Holly; I didn’t want my family to think poorly of her, or, perhaps, to think poorly of me for letting my marriage spiral out of control, though it hadn’t felt as though that was what was happening. But Holly understood me better than anyone, better than I understood myself; she had a way of being able to hear in what I told her things I didn’t even know I was feeling. And at that moment, as we talked about the text exchange I’d read just a few hours before, she could hear the panic in my voice. She asked out of the blue if I’d eaten anything that day. I suddenly imagined her at her home in California, probably out by the pool watering plants as she talked to me. All my life she’d been the calm center, the steady presence. But I could tell from the anger at the edge of her voice that she’d lost completely her faith in my wife. She’d never revealed any concern to me in the past, any alarm or suspicion. But Holly had heard Valerie talk about her nights out, about her adoring students and the crazy things they said. She’d seen the Facebook posts, the hundreds of photos of Valerie with friends, clearly drunk in some, often in lurid poses with bar stools in the background. The context of those posts was presumably camaraderie, the fun times of kindred spirits, but the subtext was sex and drinking. Even an idiot like me could see that.
After two hours of nonstop talk with Joseph and Holly, and after nearly draining my cell phone’s battery for the first time in my life, I realized I needed to go home, to confront Valerie with her texts and demand an explanation. No, Joseph said. Not an explanation. An apology from her knees and a date by which she’d be moved out. Holly just wanted to see how she’d react.
What started then was a slow dance with confession, a dance we never finished. Valerie told me that she went to Ed’s apartment every now and then to smoke pot, that he was always up for sharing his drugs.
When I got home from the office, Valerie confronted me before I could confront her. “How am I supposed to feel about your accusations?” she asked. She was waiting for me, sitting on the couch in the living room with her cell phone on the coffee table in front of her. If she was still hungover, she was managing to conceal it; showered and put together, she seemed genuinely pissed off.
“Where’s Zach?” I asked.
“Good,” I said. I pointed at her phone. I hadn’t put down my briefcase. I could feel myself starting to shake again. “I read your texts,” I said. “And Ed’s.”
Valerie’s face revealed no obvious emotion. It didn’t so much harden into a mask of resolve or relax into recognizable resignation as maintain a sense of composure. Later, much later, I realized what had happened in that moment: she’d been caught in a lie and was calculating her options. Behind the steady gaze she directed at me were a million neurons firing. She sat perfectly still. She didn’t reach for her phone.
“Nothing happened,” she said. She might have crossed her legs at that point. I exploded.
“I read the texts,” I yelled at her. “There’s no way nothing happened.” Valerie glanced toward the stairs, a gesture that was meant to suggest I quiet down without actually saying it, since nothing was more authentic or earned at that moment than the volume of my anger. But Zach was asleep. And if we were to continue this conversation, he’d need to continue to sleep. I lowered my voice. “Quit lying to me,” I said. I dropped my briefcase to the floor and walked around to the other side of the coffee table. I knew if I stayed still I wouldn’t be able to control the shaking, that she would notice it. But I didn’t close the distance between us, and I didn’t sit down next to her. “You have to tell me the truth,” I said, “all of it. We don’t have a chance unless you tell me everything.”
What started then was a slow dance with confession, a dance we never finished. Valerie told me that she went to Ed’s apartment every now and then to smoke pot, that he was always up for sharing his drugs. And I refused to believe her. I’d read the texts and their subtext, and marijuana wasn’t the point of her long, pre-dawn walk across town.
“How could you fuck Ed?” I asked again. “He’s a fucking loser.” Even as I said this, I knew how pathetic it sounded. And how completely clueless I was and had been. But I didn’t know much more than that. I looked around our living room, the framed pictures on the mantel, half of my family, half of Valerie’s. Our friend Kristin’s painting of the Beatles hung above the fireplace, Paul lighting a cigarette, eyes focused on the match, George looking back over a shoulder at something in the distance, something frightening by the look on his face, though John stared too and seemed nonplussed, almost amused at whatever had alarmed George. As for Ringo, Kristin hadn’t included him, a statement of some sort I’m sure; I’d never asked her.
Valerie could see my panic, could register how close I was to ending our marriage right then and there, that learning about Ed was a curtain drawn back: I’d been walking around the house of our life like a shut-in; I’d almost forgotten there was an outside to all this, all this strange isolation. Over the course of a single morning, I’d come to see how weirdly alone I’d been for the past year. Still, it took another two hours of my insistence that she tell me everything for her to admit that she had, in fact, slept with Ed, though not the night before. She’d had sex with him once, months ago, she said, and she’d known what a terrible and inexcusable mistake it had been. Nothing else had ever happened, she swore it.
I felt in that moment as if a bandage the size of my entire body had been ripped off me. Though I’d been thinking about it all day, imagining her fucking Ed, it still overwhelmed me to hear her say it. I remember bending over, hands on my knees; I nearly retched right there in front of her, my breath accelerating to the point that I thought I might hyperventilate. We were on the back deck, and I could see the pattern of swirls in the wood beneath my feet, the spots I’d missed when I’d refinished it a few weeks before. I think I could see through the wood, through the dirt beneath it, could see straight through the earth to something molten and boiling. I suppose, somehow, I was looking inside myself. I’d never been so surprised by a feeling in my life. And I think it scared Valerie to see me that way.
So why did she confess? She must have known she was starting to erode my doubt, that at the very least I wanted to believe her. But I think now she realized she was stuck, that I knew enough to never completely trust her again, and that unless she could walk me back a few miles, back to some place where I might begin again to think she was capable of telling the truth, there was still a chance I’d end it all. And she was right: by admitting to one indiscretion and putting it safely in the past, months ago, and then dissolving into tears, by begging me not to kick her out, not to end the marriage, she convinced me almost immediately to forgive her (I even said an hour or so later: “I forgive you”), to imagine we might be able to get through this awful reality, that this was an isolated event. And that was what I believed, what we started doing.
As soon as she saw that she had an opening, that I really didn’t want to end the marriage (and there was nothing I wanted less than to end my marriage to Valerie), she began to fix all that had gone wrong over the past year. I made demands and she capitulated. She wouldn’t go out anymore, she would find her happiness at home, she would invite friends over instead of meeting them at bars, she would get back to focusing on the family, to weekend activities involving all of us. She lit another cigarette, asked me to sit down beside her. I hadn’t stopped walking the deck since she’d confessed; back and forth in front of her I paced, again a caged panther; I’m sure I thought of Rilke’s poem, of what it might feel like to suddenly have absolute knowledge rush into my body, a body contained by the circumstances of its life and unable to do anything with the knowledge.
I said no. I wouldn’t sit. I couldn’t: to sit still would allow the shaking to begin again. She admitted she had checked out on me, on the kids, that she was drinking too much and letting herself believe it was all OK, her need for male attention, for the thrill of nightlife, that it was all a part of her issues with Low Self-Esteem, which was the working title of her memoir-in-progress. And she started planning our new life. Within minutes she was reciting a list of things we’d be doing as a family, a list of changes she’d be making, that we’d be making. She ran inside the house to find a pad of paper and a pen, was back in an instant, the screen door slamming behind her as she sat down again at the picnic table and began to write out our plans for a new life, our survival guide. She brushed her bangs back out of her eyes and looked at me, though she seemed to be looking through me, imagining what daily changes would save us.
And I believed her. And I knew then I wouldn’t ask her to leave, even as I heard Joseph’s voice in my head (What the fuck are you doing? Kick her out!), even if I also knew that what we probably needed most was time apart, time to think about what all this meant. But I didn’t want time apart from Valerie. I’d had enough of that the last year. And what she was telling me then, at that moment, the air still singed by her confession, was that all of that was about to change. And that she was coming home.
I should have known. Believing a liar is like giving money to the guy on the corner wearing the sombrero: he’ll still be there tomorrow, and he’ll ask again. And again. And again. Until eventually you’re out of spare change. Out of every possible belief.
Even then, before I knew much of anything, I couldn’t keep the list of names out of my head, the men and women—no, boys and girls—she’d talked about right there on our back porch, those nights after the kids were in bed when we smoked and drank and talked and talked and talked. And what we talked about was her life, her various writing projects, her classes, but mostly her students, their funny or pathetic stories, their lives, which she seemed to know so well. But there was a shorter list beginning with Ed, a roster of young men she’d admitted to hanging out with outside of class, sharing beers with one, Dave, while she waited for her daughter (my stepdaughter) to finish her karate class, meeting another, Brian, for coffee to talk about his latest botched love affair… I knew all about them. I’d known all about Ed. And then there was Lukas, the fat Peruvian buffoon. “He just keeps getting fatter,” she said once, giggling, “and he can’t quite figure out why.” She playfully ridiculed Lukas in some way each time his name came up, which was nearly every day, Lukas, who had become over the past year a regular presence in her life, in our life, first her student in an English Composition class, then her unofficial Spanish tutor, since learning Spanish had become her new obsession. Lukas was a friend in need, who seemed to call on her for everything: rides to the airport, to the grocery store, to the furniture outlet to buy a new bed. A new bed. She’d told me all about it, what an amazing bed it was. I never questioned the hours she spent with him, when she stopped answering texts or phone calls from me: he tutored her in the library, she said; the reception there was lousy. I never questioned his presence on my calendar, his name there twice a week at 2:00 p.m., standing tutoring hours, how often she was late getting home from her tutoring sessions. I never questioned a thing.
And yet without fully admitting it to myself that afternoon while she wept and begged and confessed to one infidelity, that first day of my new life with Valerie, when our relationship moved from the recognizable realm of marriage to cuckoldry, I lost my trust, the thing I’d given to Valerie fearlessly a few years before, certain that it was in good hands. Do all cuckolds start out fearless and end up foolish? Perhaps. What is certain is that we end up at the wrong end of the telescope, looking back at the life we thought we were leading and seeing a new landscape, wide and weirdly proportioned, and suddenly filled at the edges with men we always knew were there but never really noticed: the fat, the pathetic, and the stupid, all ten feet tall now and growing larger by the second. The cuckold knows betrayal as a form of revision: here is the life you thought you were living; now here is what really happened. For months, even years, he will have moments of pure recognition; he will meet a stranger’s eyes on the street, eyes that widen then quickly look away, and he’ll turn and stare, remembering the one time he met the man behind the eyes, and realizing suddenly, yes: he is another one. Or passing a bar he’ll remember her late-night phone call, her voice saying she was there, that all was well, the laughter in the background. It is like living twice. And who, really, wants to live twice? Everyone. Everyone but the cuckold.
James Harms is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Comet Scar (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2012).
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