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This spring, sometime after South Carolina governor Mark Sanford publicly confessed that his soulmate was a woman in Argentina who was not his wife, which was just after the Elizabeth Edwards book tour where she talked about the child that her husband allegedly had with a woman who was not her, which was, of course, right on the heels of Jon and Kate splitting up after reports that he had an affair, which was all before Nevada senator John Ensign admitted paying $96,000 in cash to his former mistress and her husband, after her husband found out about their relationship, a writer named Jessica Pressler noticed something going on in the weddings pages of the New York Times, what the paper calls their Vows section.
She saw that there were couples getting married who cheerfully told the newspaper, in the little write up that they do there, as part of their "meet cute" story, that the way they got together was that one of them cheated on a spouse or longtime partner.
I believe one of them says-- the headline on it is something like, it took awhile but they finally got together, and you're like, because he was having a three-year relationship with another person in the meantime.
Jessica Pressler wrote up her discovery on the New York magazine blog, "Daily Intel." She noted that there was a kind of code language in all these wedding articles.
They always say, like, their road to finding each other was a bumpy road. Or, they had a difficult time, many ups and downs. They encountered some obstacles along the way. And it's like, no, those are people. Those are other lives. They're not speed bumps.
Take, for instance, the married women who, according to a romantic write up on the Vows page of the New York Times, flew to Paris to see another man and stayed with him in a hotel in the Latin quarter for two weeks where they quote "reveled in their Vie Boheme" before she flew back to the US and moved out of the home in New Jersey that she shared with her husband.
I mean, it's just weird because Vows is something that you have to try to get into. You have to lobby to get into that column. So it's like, Mark Sanford, he had to speak publicly about his affair. Most people don't have to go around telling everybody about it.
See, but that's what's so strange about it. Is that somehow, some part of them doesn't think, I shouldn't talk about this. Somehow the notion, I had an affair, is so just nothing to them.
Right. I think it's probably just people, when they cheat on other people, tell themselves that they're doing it because they have to, because fate is involved. And whatever happened, you're better off and probably the person that you broke up with is better off. And this is the way it was meant to be. This is fate.
As for the cheated on ex-partner, when the story appears in the newspaper on the wedding pages, it's almost as if the newspaper is siding with the cheating couple. The ex-partner is just collateral damage on the way to their wedding.
They don't get to say anything for the themselves. It's not their story anymore. It's somebody else's love story.
But that's the thing, if it were any other section of the newspaper, the reporter would go to them too for a comment. To get their side.
I think they should do that.
But because it's the wedding section, it's just like, well, it's not really their story.
Right. Yeah, they have no say for themselves. They're done. This had nothing to do with them. It's very bizarre. It raises all kinds of questions for me. As a reader, I'm very distracted by it.
Well, today on our radio program, we go where the newspaper marriage columns fear to tread. We hear from all parties to the affair, the cheated on, as well as the cheaters, and their different takes on what happened. And, no surprise, they are very different from one another's. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our show: "Infidelity." Stay with us.
Act One. Let Me Kiss Your Stiff Upper Lip.
"Let me kiss your stiff upper lip." We begin with this story from England, which, if you've read any 19th century literature, seems to be an island that is filled entirely with people who are full of submerged and often misplaced passions for other people. Here's Ruby Wright.
Andrew, you've always lived in Dorset?
But why did you end up in this part of Dorset?
I was looking for a house for myself and my two daughters, somewhere to live. I always wanted to live in the countryside, having always lived in the towns in Dorset. And I saw it in the paper. It's as simple as that.
And you didn't know anyone around here?
So how did you know about us?
I was at the pub. And this couple walks in, and the bloke was wearing a leopard-skinned pillbox hat and I thought, I've got to get to know this person. And he had a very attractive wife, I think that was-- I just saw them in the pub and thought, I must know these people.
This guy, Andrew, moved to the village. And he'd met us both together, at the same time, in the pub. And I would say that we both had a closeness to Andrew. My closeness to Andrew was very much about talking about how I felt and how he felt. And he would have various unsuitable girlfriends. He'd have flings with people. And I'd say, come on, then Andrew, tell me about it. I liked it, he was very candid.
I was a single parent at the time, and it just seemed an idyllic situation. A beautiful old cottage with this couple, and their daughter living in it. And it was a home from home, became a home from home for me.
And you became a very good friend. And I remember, you'd come up a lot, and we'd come down and see you. And you were always a very cozy person to have around. It was always a delight when you used to come up and see us.
Yes. I would argue that I'd fallen in love with the whole family. Including you and Ed, indeed, at that point.
When I started to fall in love with Andrew, it was like my falling in love with him was a direct parallel of my father dying. So as my father was dying at home of cancer, I was falling deeper and deeper in love with this man Andrew. And Andrew would talk to me about my father dying because he'd been with his mother, who died of a brain tumor. He'd actually been beside her bed with her, as she died, and during that period. And I think I valued being with someone. Because George's parents were both still very much alive at that point. I think, for me, it was sort of-- I felt he had an understanding of what it was like. And it was very hard for me not to fall in love with him.
Did you think something was always going to happen?
No. I was convinced nothing would happen. I had fallen in love with her, so probably over the summer after her father's death, I was single at the time, just living with Tams, my younger daughter. And I didn't really want a partner at the time. So falling in love with Lal, I thought, that's OK. I can love somebody from afar, and I don't need to love anyone else. And it had never occurred to me that she might even dream of falling in love with me. It just didn't occur to me that Lal might look at anyone other than George.
How did I know? Well, I'd come back from this trip, and it was Christmas. And Lal said, "We're going to spend Christmas with Andrew." And I was delighted, because I couldn't think of anybody nicer to spend Christmas with. And I remember Andrew coming up the evening I got back. I was going off to get the present for him that I'd bought. I thought, that's odd, Lal and Andrew are not talking to each other. There's silence in the kitchen. And when he left, he kissed her on the back of the head. And I just-- something, I don't know, maybe I was-- one part of me was expecting something to happen one of these days. It was confirmed, because mum has left her diary lying around. And I read it, and there it was.
So it was like she wanted you to find out without having to say it.
I think, yes.
And you actually had to tell me. Were you going to tell me together?
Yes. We were going to tell you-- I don't think we'd even discussed telling you. But what happened was, you had been away on a holiday and had come home. And I picked you up, I think. And you said to me, "Where is mum?" And I thought, what am I going to tell Ruby? I have probably half a minute to decide. Am I going to tell her the truth or am I going to make up some story? And I thought-- I just said to you, "Well, I think she's down at Andrew's." And I didn't have to say any more. You seemed to know.
You were very angry with me, quite rightly. And I think up until that point, we had always had a very close relationship. And your anger manifested itself mostly by you just refusing to see me.
I think people were very shocked by what happened. And I was very shocked. And Dad was very shocked. Were you surprised at yourself? Or were you surprised at the force of your own attraction and actions?
I am shocked now at how incredibly selfishly I acted. And how oblivious I was to your pain and George's pain and Ed's pain. Almost like I deserved this thing, I was on this track and I was heading off on it and nothing was going to deter me. But as to say, almost as if I deserved it. Almost as if I was owed it.
George was tipped off. And I felt-- as soon as I knew, I felt I had to go and face him. So I walked up to Manitoba and I can remember standing outside, in the bottom field, for a good half an hour, summoning up the courage to go and say to George, "This is true." I'd expected, quite literally expected him to hit me or bloody my nose or something like that. Or at least shout at me, or rave. I knocked on the door, he said, "Oh, Andrew. Andrew, come in. Come in. Have a glass of wine."
Five minutes later I was in floods of tears, and George wasn't. It's just very odd. It was all kind of wrong. But what he said to me stayed with me, until now really, he said, "Andrew, I've lost my partner. I don't want to lose my best friend."
I know I have a real problem with anger. I mean, I don't tend to get angry. I find it a very hard emotion to express. But I was angry at that point. I was very angry. I remember standing at the sink doing the drying up and somehow the plates ended up being smashed on the floor. The emotions were very, very odd because I was terribly, terribly fond of Andrew and he was very concerned about my well-being.
At that point I still believed, strongly, that we would all become friends again. I'm looking back and it's all terribly naive, really. But that's what I felt at the time, so I wanted to keep some kind of relationship with George for this future, blissful time when we were all friends again.
I think in my fantasy world, I would have carried on having a passionate, physical, sexual relationship with Andrew and a fond relationship with George. And the two would have somehow run together. I think some couples, through all their anger or hatred or battles, there's this incredible chemistry that still comes back. To your irritation, you can't get rid of this-- and I think with George somehow for me the chemistry disappeared quite early on.
I mean, the one thing we haven't discussed in all of this, you know, the question of sex. I mean, that was really at the heart of our split up. That mum did not-- she was not satisfied in that department. And I knew that I had a part in this. That there was an aspect of our relationship, namely the sexual part of it, that I wasn't facing up to.
That I had a responsibility in it. I wasn't an innocent victim, as it were.
You could say that George loved Lal, he could understand me loving Lal. And whilst that was contrary to his needs or wishes or whatever, he could understand it. In a sense, I think he never blamed me. I think he blamed Lal and not me.
It got very complicated because George and Andrew, far from becoming rivals and having a duel at dawn-- far from George challenging Andrew to a duel at dawn, George kind of welcomed Andrew into the fold, and Andrew became a kind of member of my family, but without me there. And there would be Sunday lunches and Saturday suppers and dances in Evershot. He was part of that. And, of course, I felt like I was living in exile. I felt like I'd been exiled to this foreign country, albeit a beautiful one and it was six miles away. But I felt I couldn't have been further away.
And Andrew was welcomed into the bosom of the family. And I think that caused enormous resentment for me. I know it did. And I don't know whether Andrew ever understood that, what it was like, on a Sunday, to know that he was having lunch with my daughter and my son my ex-partner. And I was here.
What then happened was that mum's relationship with Andrew didn't last. And I still continued to see Andrew because he lived just around the corner. And I know that she found that incredibly hard. That when, despite the fact that she wasn't seeing Andrew, that I still was his friend. And she felt excluded from my new life. I didn't think she had much right.
I've heard people say that it's impossible to have a relationship. You can't say with the person you leave your family for, because there's too much guilt and emotion. Do you think the fact that you left George for Andrew ultimately meant that you couldn't continue this relationship with him?
Yes, I do. I don't think it's impossible. But I think it was, if not inevitable, it was quite likely that those seeds of destruction that were laid right at the beginning, and blame did, in the end, undermine our relationship.
Do you wish that you could turn the clock back?
No, because, at that point, I think I was still completely obsessed with Andrew. This idea that love being a madness. So I don't think at that point I did wish I could -- I think it was much later, I would wake, in the night, with the window on the wrong side of the room, sometime around dawn or before dawn, I think. I'd just think, what am I doing in this place? How have I got here? And it was as if I'd sleepwalked out of my other life, with no explanation, and I'd woken up and here I was. And it was truly terrifying.
And I think that, as long as I was damaging you lot, I was really not aware. But it was when I came to damage myself, that was when I really woke up.
Because I lost you. Effectively, I lost you between the ages of 13 and 18. So my biggest loss was losing you for five years. At puberty. You were 13, you were just about to have your first period. You went off with George to Africa. You came back and you looked different. And, actually, with maternal intuition-- which I obviously didn't have much of-- I remember looking at you and thinking, she's changed. She started her period. She's becoming a young woman. And, sure enough, you told me. And I though, God, George was there for that. Her dad was there for that. Why wasn't I there for that?
And I think during that whole time, we didn't really talk about how we felt, did we?
No. I don't think so.
Ruby Wright. She does a music show called Ruby's Chicky Boil-Ups. It airs every other Sunday on radionowhere.org. Her website is rubywright-- that's W-R-I-G-H-T-- dot com.
Coming up, what to say to your parents about the rich, married guy who set you up in an apartment when you're 22 years old. And what to say to yourself. And other dilemmas of cheaters and the cheated on. In a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two. The Italian Job.
I am sitting on my suitcase in the main train station in Rome next to my girlfriend, Susan, who's sitting on hers. And we're rifling through our Let's Go: Europe, trying to agree on the next destination of our vacation. Susan grew up in Germany, so she'll go basically anyplace. As long as it's sunny. But I need to go to the right place. And I have a pathological terror of going to the wrong place.
So, whenever Susan suggests someplace in particular, I suggest someplace else. Because I can see something wrong with every place. And this is a gift I bring to every area of my life, notably my relationship with Susan. We've been together for about seven years since college, and every time she brings up the subject of commitment-- maybe it's a good time to get married-- I say, I think I need a little more time just to make sure that what we're doing is right.
So, as a result, all of the lights on the arrivals and departures board are blinking. And the man on the public address system keeps saying departione over and over and over again. And Susan is up on her feet, screaming at me, "Make up your mind before all the trains pull out."
While I am kind of hypnotized by the hem of this flower print dress, it's about 10 feet away, fluttering in the breeze each time a train pulls in or out of the station. Which, at this point, is frequently. Which is hanging off what may be the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, who is standing next to her beautiful friend. When Susan says, "Are you looking at those women?" And I say, "Where?"
And she says, "Right there, in the flower print dresses." And I say, "You mean them?" And she says, "Yes. They look interesting, don't they? Like maybe they're going someplace interesting we might want to go. You know what? I think I'll ask them." And before I can tell her what a bad idea that is, she's over there talking to them in French. And they're pointing at me, and a few minutes later she's introducing them to me.
Isabel is the beautiful one and her sister is a gloriously beautiful woman named Franz, who has a face off of one of those French go to war, buy war bonds posters that makes you want to invade. So I'm just staring at her as Susan says, "Guess what, James? They're going to Positano." Which is one of the numerous fishing villages we debated going to. "What do you say we all travel together?"
And two minutes later Franz and I are on the same vacation. Sitting on a train to Naples, and then on a hydrofoil to Positano, and then checking into the same hotel, into adjacent rooms where we're going to change into our swimsuits and meet on the beach. Now, I haven't been in a swimsuit for years, since the last time I was on the beach. And I'm looking in the mirror in the hotel and things have changed since then.
A little Italian bakery opened up around the corner from my office. And I'd been going there every workday, having apricot bear claws. And now I have two apricot bear claws hanging off the sides of my waist, bubbling up over my swimsuit. And it's one thing to decay in front of your girlfriend, there is a kind of mutual decay contract, where you are all going to atrophy at more or less the same rate.
But I don't have that deal with Franz. And there's no way she's seeing my bear claws. So when we meet on the beach, the girls are in French bikinis. And I'm in my shorts and my button down shirt from the train ride, like I forgot to undress half myself. And after a couple hours of them swimming, Franz comes over to me and says, "Do you not swim?" And I say, "Indoors. I burn easily." And she hands me her bottle of sunblock. And I start to shake my head sadly, and point to one of the ingredients, and I say, "I'm allergic."
There are six more days to go. So, the next morning, after an all nighter with Let's Go: Europe, I have a comprehensive understanding of all the cultural high points within a 30-mile radius of the city of Positano. None of which include the beach. There is Mount Vesuvius and the Grottoes of Capri and the Hanging Gardens at Ravenna. And we can go to a beach anywhere, but there's only so many places you can see this kind of culture. That's the position I'm taking.
And the French love culture. And the Germans admire the French. So six days later, we're all just about as pasty as when we stepped off the hydrofoil. My secret waist is still a secret. And I make it to the last night, we have a little farewell dinner at a seaside restaurant and we're walking on the beach one last time, for old time's sake. Saying our goodbyes. Everyone is a little misty. Except me. I can't wait to go home in the morning.
When Franz says, "Does anyone want to go swimming?" And her relatively more modest sister says, "We don't have suits." And fearless, guileless, dramatic Susan says, "That's OK with me." And a couple of minutes later, they're standing on the beach in panties and bras. Which are very different than bikinis. And Franz's are chocolate brown lace. Her skin is the color of milk. She looks like a profiterole. My favorite dessert.
It is agony to keep my eyes open, but I can't close them. And the three of them run into the water, laughing and splashing, and then finally disappearing underneath the surface. So everything is quiet for a moment and then one, two, three, they pop up and start calling at me, like sirens. Who actually lived in Positano 3,000 years ago. "James, come in. It's wonderful."
I haven't been swimming one time, and it's dark. So I make a decision. I'm going to take off my shoes and socks and pants and I put them on a beach chair. And I unbutton my shirt and thread out my arms so that it's just hanging there like a little poncho. And when Franz disappears into the water again, it goes off on the back of a beach chair and I'm in. But I've waited so long to make up my mind that Susan's cold. Franz's sister is ready to go back as well. But Franz is fine, and I just got in, and we're all vacation buddies.
So Susan and the sister go back to the hotel, leaving Franz and I, for first time, alone. In the dark, in our underwear, in the Mediterranean, where they invented the word "philander." And, where it occurs to me, we can have sex without her seeing my body. So I swim around for a little bit, and trying to figure out what's the personal space in the Mediterranean. How close can you swim before you can't swim away?
And whatever that distance is, Franz swims right to the edge of it and says, "The water makes me feel so free." It's not having that effect on me. I got bear claws to hide and promises to keep. And I am so tense that I can't breathe normally, which makes me look abnormal. Which leads Franz to say, "Is everything OK? Maybe we should go back." And she gets out of the water, and stands on the beach dripping in the moonlight, dabbing at herself with her dress.
So I've got one eye on her, and the other on my shirt, which is fluttering off the back of this chair. And I get closer and closer, spreading my legs wider and wider, so that only my head is visible. Like an alligator. It looks like I'm in about six feet of water, but really it's about 18 inches. My thighs are in agony, and I can't hold out much longer, when Franz lifts her dress, over her head and I spring up on the beach and behind the chair and I am wet but covered when her head pops through the dress hole and steps back in surprise and lets out a little French vowel, "Ah."
And we get dressed and we're walking across the cobblestones, back to the hotel, which are slightly uneven, so the backs of our hands brush. And she takes mine in hers. Which I've read in the Let's Go: Europe is a friendly and warm gesture among European women. Don't get any ideas. So I'm feeling friendly and warm, trying not to have any ideas. When Franz says, "Susan is very lucky to have you." And I say, "Well, thank you very much, but I'm very lucky to have her." Trying to regain a shred of dignity while holding onto this woman's hand.
And Franz smiles the smile of the boyfriendless and yet supremely confident goddess and says, "Why?" And there are all sorts of reasons I'm lucky to have Susan, but I can't think of any of them at the moment. Because my mind is blank. And I say, "Well, why are you friends?" And Franz looks at me and says, "Because she pursued me." And our hips bump at the base of the stairs of the mountain to the hotel, and she puts her arm around my waist. Right above the bear claw.
And all I can think is to hunch down, like I've got osteoporosis, so that her arm slides up my rib cage. But, with each step up the stairs, it slides back down. And then it hits. And she starts laughing, this bubbly French laugh. And she says, "What softage."
I don't speak French, and I don't know want to know that means anyway. So I keep walking. And she says it again. "What softage. You have a life preserver. It's so cute." And she keeps her hand right there. Like a girlfriend. Up the stairs and into the lobby of the hotel and into the elevator, which is too bright and too small to be touching. It's a tiny little hotel, tiny little elevator.
So she's in one corner and I'm in the other, when the doors close and the floors start ringing off one by one. And we just look at each other. And there's not much more time to go. And then the doors open before I can make up my mind what to do and we're standing there, in front of our rooms, and she just looks at me with the most beautiful face I have ever been swimming with, and one that I have never wanted to kiss more. But I just can't do it to Susan. So I kiss Franz on the cheek, three times, which I've learned that week. Which allows you to change your mind, potentially.
But I make it into my room, and I close the door behind me and Susan's up in bed reading Let's Go: Europe, in anticipation of the debate that's probably going to happen tomorrow morning over where to go. And she looks up and says, "How was it?" And I say, "It was hard, Susan. It was really hard." And she looks right at me and says, "I know." Like she does know. Like she really understands why I've avoided the beach for a week, on the beach vacation. And she accepts it. So I take off my shirt, and get in bed next to her, and turn my back.
And suddenly I start crying, these weepy little hide them in your hotel room pillow tears. Which is not the kind of guy I am. I'm a poker-faced, poker-bodied, magical thinker. I've been eating bear claws for a year and thinking I'm in shape. And that I can be faithful and philander at the same time. And it's an overwhelmingly sad and yet strangely comforting relief to lie there and know that I can't. And that I've actually made a choice, that after seven days-- seven years, really most of my adult life-- to lie there, next to Susan, and right or wrong, finally, be me. Thank you.
James Braly. He's touring the country with a one-man show called Life in a Marital Institution, which he's also turning into a book. His website, jamesbraly-- that's B-R-A-L-Y-- dot com. Thanks, as always, to The Moth, which features personal stories told live in front of an audience. For more Moth stories, check out The Moth's great free weekly podcasts at themoth.org. And The Moth has started its own radio show, The Moth Radio Hour, which we welcome onto the scene, now on public radio stations around the country.
[MUSIC -- "MAPS" BY YEAH YEAH YEAHS]
Act Three. How Did I Get Here?
Here, in no particular order, are some things Lenny told me. That he and his wife didn't sleep in the same bed. That they haven't had a real marriage in years. That she was undergoing electroshock treatment in a clinic outside Philadelphia. That he had cancer and had to fly to Houston three days a week for chemotherapy. That his youngest daughter, age three, had a rare form of childhood leukemia. That he could not get a divorce for all of the above reasons. That he was heartbroken that he could not leave his wife and marry me.
For a long time I believed him, with every bone in my body I trusted that Lenny Klein was telling me the truth. When we talked about it, his jaw would tighten and his big brown eyes would fill with tears. His voice would quaver with pent-up, complex feelings that I couldn't possibly begin to understand. Poor Lenny. I marveled that so many bad things could happen to one person. And I vowed to take care of him. I exhorted myself to be a real woman, one who could step up to the plate and be good to her man in his moment of crisis.
Years later, I hold Lenny's lies up to the light and examine my own reasons for believing what, in retrospect, seems preposterous. I reread my old journals and noticed the way my girlish handwriting deteriorated into a scrawl as I wrote, "I have to be there for Lenny, he needs me, and he's going through so much. I don't know if I can handle it, but I have to be strong." I try to remember that Lenny was a trial lawyer, that he built an international reputation based on his own pathology. That he lied with an almost evangelical conviction. He prided himself on being able to convince anyone of anything.
The lies had small beginnings. Lenny called me from a business trip and told me he was at Montreal airport, waiting to catch a flight to Calgary. I checked with the airline and found out that the flight would take approximately five hours, so when Lenny called an hour later to say he had landed in Calgary, I very calmly asked him where he really was. "Calgary," he said. "No, Lenny. Really." He stuck to his story. In the time that I knew him, he never, ever changed his story midstream.
I hung up on him and called his family's house in Westchester. When the maid answered the phone, I asked to speak with Mr. Klein. And when he picked up the extension, and I heard his rough, craggy, "Hello," I screamed so hard into his ear that he dropped the receiver. He raced into the city, he let himself into my apartment and found me curled up in bed. He scooped me up and held me to his chest. His wife wasn't home, he told me. She was having shock treatment. And someone had to take care of his daughter.
He hadn't wanted to tell me because he wanted to spare me, to protect me from the horror of his life. Surely I understood. "Shush, sweetheart," he murmured into the top of my head as I wept, my face beet red like a little girl's. "So many people need me," he said. "But I love you best of all."
Two years have passed, and something has gone wrong, terribly wrong with my life. I don't, in fact, think of my life as my life, but rather as a series of random events that have no logical connection. I'm no longer a student. I dropped out of Sarah Lawrence after my junior year, supposedly to pursue acting. And I'm actually doing a pretty good imitation of an actress. But I'm doing an even better imitation of a mistress.
Lenny's been busy buying me things. I don't particularly want these things, but they seem to be what Lenny is offering in lieu of himself. So quite suddenly, overnight really, I find myself driving a black Mercedes convertible. And just in case I might be mistaken for anything other than a kept woman, I wear a mink coat, a Cartier watch, a Bulgari necklace with an ancient coin at its center. The Mercedes is a step down from the first car Lenny gave me, when we had been going out for a month. A leased Ferrari. I don't know how to drive a stick shift, so the Ferrari was a bit of a problem. What I must have looked like, a 20-year-old blonde, dressed like Ivana Trump, stalled in traffic, grinding gears, trying to find the point on the clutch to hold that ridiculous car in place.
Lenny rented an apartment on a pretty little street in Greenwich Village. A furnished triplex with a garden, a fireplace, and a bedroom with a four-poster bed. He called it "our house," as if he didn't have another home with a whole family in it an hour north of the city. He kept half a dozen suits in the bedroom closet, and a brand new silk robe hung behind the bathroom door. There was an entire floor we didn't use, a large airy children's nursery.
My parents knew that something was up. They knew I was going out with somebody, but they had no idea who. I was drifting away from them, and they were letting me go. One night I invited them over for dinner. I pushed all traces of Lenny out of sight, but, of course, there were clues. A glossy brochure for Italian yachts. A humidor in the center of the coffee table.
I cooked up a storm and the place was filled with homey smells. Garlic, basil, coriander. It was winter, and the snow was piled up on the sills. Spotlights in the backyard shone on the landscaped garden, the redwood table, the Adirondack chairs. I had my father's favorite music, Dvorak's Symphony for the New World, playing on the stereo system.
My parents rang the doorbell. They looked so solid standing on my front stoop, their cold, red noses poking out from above their mufflers. If nothing else, they looked like they belonged together. They were elegant and rangy, similarly proportioned. Unlike Lenny and me. Lenny as thick as a linebacker, and I had become so delicate, the wind could have picked me up and blown me away.
My mother strode into the brownstone as if it wasn't the weirdest thing in the world to be visiting her daughter in a lavish apartment with no name on the outside buzzer. My father trailed behind her wearily, as if setting foot on another planet. My mother entered the living room, flung her arms wide, and did an impromptu dance to Dvorak. "Tra-la-la-la," she trilled. My father and I hung back and watched, our faces crumpled into awkward smiles. It didn't occur to me that she was frightened. That this was a lot for her to take in, her college dropout daughter living in the lap of luxury.
All I could see was her outsized self, twirling around my living room in her fur coat and boots. I wanted a drink.
I poured two glasses of chardonnay for my parents and a large vodka for myself. I figured that if the vodka was in a water glass they wouldn't know the difference, especially if I drank it like it was water. My drinking had taken on a new urgency in the past few months. It was no longer a question of desire, but of need. I could not get through an evening like this without the armor of booze. I handed them their wine and directed them to the couch.
On the coffee table, I had put out a plate crudites and a bowl of olives. "Quite a place," my mother said brightly, her gaze darting around the room at the white brick fireplace with its wrought iron tools, the glass wall overlooking the garden, the soaring ceiling. My father stared at the fringe of the rug, glassy eyed. He needed to be as numbed as I did to get through this night. "Thanks," I murmured, as if she was paying me a compliment.
I checked on dinner, using the opportunity to gulp some wine from the open bottle in the fridge. Vodka and white wine was a combination I knew worked for me. If I stuck with the formula, things shouldn't be too bad in the morning. Especially if I wasn't eating, and I couldn't see myself eating. The music had stopped by the time we all sat at the dining room table, but I didn't notice then. If I had I would certainly have changed the tape, filled the air with something other than the tinny, lonely sound of our three forks scraping against plates.
I pushed my chicken from one side of my plate to the other. My stomach clenched and growled in protest. It seemed that my parents and I, after 22 years in each other's company, had run out of things to say. I already knew their views on the political situation in Israel, and we couldn't discuss my school work, I was no longer in school. My father pressed a corner of his napkin to his lips and murmured something about the food being delicious. My mother agreed.
"My wonderful daughter," she said, shaking her head. "You've turned into such a little homemaker." I looked at my parents across the table. Is that what they really thought? How could they just sit there? Some small piece of me wanted my father to fling me over his shoulder and carry me kicking and screaming to the car he had parked outside. I secretly wished that they would drive me home, deposit me in my childhood bedroom, and feed me chicken soup and Saltines. I wanted to start my life over again, but I didn't know how.
In the face of the most tangible proof that Lenny had been lying to me all these years, I remained with him. "My little girl is dying," he would say whenever I noticed the discrepancies in his stories. Or "My children's mother is having electroshock therapy." When I couldn't take my own confusion anymore-- Was Lenny lying to me? Was I going crazy?-- I decided to hire a detective to get to the bottom of it.
By this time, my parents knew all about me and Lenny in theory, but it wasn't something we could talk about. When I think back to my younger self rifling through the New York City yellow pages in search of a private investigator, I feel like I'm watching a movie about someone else. A girl so clueless she really didn't know that her desire to hire a detective was all the answer she needed. I chose a detective agency based on nothing more than its good address, in the East 60s, a neighborhood filled with private schools and shrinks.
"This isn't what you think," I told the detective. "I'm in a relationship with a married man, and I want you to find out if my boyfriend is cheating on me with his wife." At this, his eyebrows shot up. "Come again?" "He claims his wife is in a mental hospital. He told me he hasn't been with her in years." "And you think he might be lying?" said the investigator. Did I see the laughter behind his eyes or is my memory supplying it now? Because I simply cannot imagine a middle-aged man listening to an earnest, over-dressed 22-year-old girl tell them that she thinks her boyfriend might still be sleeping with his wife. "Yes," I said.
Days later, I got the proof about Lenny's lies. In tears, I called my mother. "Oh, darling. I'm so sorry. Is there anything I can do?" "I don't think so." A pause. "Do you want to me to call his wife?"
My mother and Mrs. Klein had met each other at a few school functions back when none of this could have struck anyone as a remote possibility. "Yes," I said. "Call her." "I'll do it right now," my mother said.
I sat by the phone and watched the minutes tick by. I pictured Lenny's wife answering the phone with a chirpy hello, and my mother's slow, steady explanation of why she was calling. I had set in motion a chain of events which was now unstoppable. More than 20 minutes passed before my mother called me back. "Well, I did it," she said. "You talked to her?" The world felt unreal, hallucinatory.
"Yes. She called me a liar. She told me she has a happy marriage to a man who travels a lot. That he's on his way to California. And I said, 'No, he's on his way to see my daughter.'" My mother sounded proud of herself, immersed in the drama of the moment. "How did she seem?" I asked. "What do you mean?" "Lenny's wife, was she angry?" "No," my mother said slowly. "She just didn't believe me, Dani."
I spent the rest of that day in a state of awful excitement. Something was going to happen. And when Lenny showed up that evening at the apartment we were still sharing in the West Village, I was ready. He put his bags down and gave me a hug. The phone rang. My mother had given Mrs. Klein the number at the apartment and suggested she find out for herself what her husband was up to. Lenny picked up the phone on the kitchen well. "Hello?"
I watched him. And for the first and only time in the years I knew him, he looked genuinely surprised. He didn't say a word. He just listened for a few minutes, then hung up the phone. "That was my wife," he said. I was silent. "How did she get this number?" I shrugged. "I have to go." "I'd imagine," I said faintly.
When Lenny slammed out of the apartment, I was certain I would never see him again. I knew the truth now. It was staring me in the face in the concrete form of flight lists and photos. And he knew that I knew. And besides, the whistle was blown. What could he possibly tell his wife? This was it, I told myself. Absolutely, positively the end.
It wasn't the end. Lenny still called 10, 12 times a day. He left messages on my answering machine. "Hello?" His voice filled my bedroom. "Fox, are you there?" Sometimes he didn't say a word. He would stay on the line for as long as five minutes, just breathing. Eventually he did get to me again. And for the next year that we were together, three days here, four days there, my life became unrecognizable to me. I idly wondered what it would take to get me to leave him.
I wondered about this over bottles of chilled white wine, or heavy glasses half-filled with scotch. I was still wondering about it when I went to stay for a while at a health spa in California. The phone rang in my room one day. There had been a car crash on a snowy highway. My mother had 80 broken bones. My father was in a coma. They were lying in hospital 3,000 miles away. And suddenly, in ways I could not have imagined seconds earlier, nothing else mattered. As I packed my bags, I remembered my mother twirling, dancing to Dvorak, through the doors of Lenny's brownstone. And the glassy look in my father's eyes.
I prayed that my father wouldn't die disappointed in me, and I knew then what I had to do.
Dani Shapiro. That story is in her memoir, Slow Motion. She has another book, Devotion, coming out in February.
Act Four. The Man Who Knew What I Was About To Say.
The man who knew what I about to say sat next to me on the plane, a stupid smile plastered across his face. That's what's so nerve wracking about him. Smart, he wasn't. Or sensitive either. But still, he knew those lines and managed to say them. All the lines I meant to say, three seconds before me. "Do you sell Guerlain Mystique?" he asked the flight attendant, a minute before I could. And she gave him an orthodontic smile and said, "There's just one last bottle left." "My wife goes crazy for that perfume," he said. "She's positively addicted. If I come back from a trip without a bottle of Mystique from the duty free, she says I don't love her anymore. If I dare come into the house without at least one of these, I'm in deep [BLEEP]."
That was supposed to be my line, but the man who knew what I was about to say stole it from me, without missing a beat. As soon as the wheels touched the ground, he switched on his mobile, a second before I did, and called his wife. "I just landed," he told her. "I'm sorry. I know it was supposed to be yesterday, flight was canceled. You don't believe me? Check it out yourself. Call Eric. I know you don't. I can give his number right now."
I also have a travel agent call Eric. He'd lie for me, too.
When the plane reached the gate he was still talking on his mobile, giving all the answers I would have given, without a trace of emotion. Like a parrot in a world where time flows backwards, repeating whatever is about to be said instead of what's been said already. His answers were the best ones, under the circumstances. His circumstances weren't too hot, not too hot at all. Mine weren't either. Nobody was answering my call.
But just listening to the man who knew what I was about to say made me stop trying. Just listening to him, I could tell that this was a hole that even if I dug my way out of, it would be to a different reality. She'd never forgive me. She'd never trust me. Ever. All my coming trips would be hell on earth, and the time in between would be even worse. He went on talking and talking and talking. All those sentences that I'd thought up and hasn't said yet. It just kept flowing.
He stepped it up, changing the intonation, like a drowning man struggling desperately to stay afloat. People began getting off. He got up, still talking, scooped up his laptop in the other hand and headed for the exit. I could see him forgetting it behind, the bag he had put in the overhead compartment. I could see him forgetting it. I didn't say anything. I just stayed put.
Gradually everyone walked out, till the only ones still there were an overweight religious woman with a million children and me. I got up and opened the overhead compartment above me, as if nothing. I took out the duty free bag like it had always been mine. Inside were the receipt and the bottle of Guerlain Mystique. My wife goes crazy for that perfume. She's positively addicted. If I come back from a trip without a bottle of Mystique from the duty free, she says I don't love her anymore.
Matt Malloy, reading a story by Etgar Keret, who is the author of several books of very, very short stories, most recently The Girl on the Fridge.
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