My husband, whom I’ll call Bill, was unfaithful on two occasions that I know about and there were likely more, though it does the heart no good to dwell on possibilities.
I became aware of the first infidelity when Bill’s lover, whom I’ll call Emma, came to me in something of a state, and confessed. I knew Emma a little, we had both been Bill’s students, however, what I hadn’t known was that she’d been in love with Bill all through university, and had for the years since nurtured a deep loathing for me, provoked by our marriage. Which she had attended at Bill’s invitation, and on the day of the confession I remembered, as one remembers the most unlikely things when trapped in situations of intensity, noticing odd hand contact between them at our wedding party. Bill, when I asked him about it later, shamefacedly admitted it involved passing between them a bag of weed, the smoking of which was apparently a ritual they shared in his office from time to time, and one he could not share with me because it made me chuck and weep.
Some months later, after our US honeymoon, in itself an extraordinary experience during which I was welcomed into a large Jewish Russian Polish American family whose matriarch liked to tell people in front of me that I was “just a doll of a girl, even if he has married out,” postcards began arriving for Bill from Emma, who was now in Italy on her honeymoon. “Caro,” the postcards began, which can be dear, beloved or darling, but Italian always sounds deliciously sensual and intimate, and I did ask why she was addressing him thus from her brand new nuptial bed. I don’t know, Bill said, I wish she wouldn’t, it’s embarrassing. After that, I forgot about Emma for years, and if anyone had asked me, would have said I presumed she’d forgotten about us.
It turned out that Emma’s marriage was not successful, hardly surprising since she said she’d never stopped loving Bill. They had been meeting for coffee & cake at the Gelato Bar at Bondi Beach for several months after her marriage collapsed, but as Bill and I had friendships that didn’t necessarily include the other, and he was always meeting with students anyway, their encounters never got a mention, and I conducted my life in blissful ignorance of what was building.
I should say here that Bill loved women, and women loved Bill. He was the smartest man I’d ever met, he was very funny, he had a way of speaking to others as if they were the only people of significance in his universe, and he was very seductive, though he swore he wasn’t on purpose and I think that was probably true. He could have had just about anyone, indeed, I once overheard a successful author wail at a gathering, “I offered myself on a platter and he turned me down.” When he asked me to marry him it went to my head, even though he said he only wanted us to get married so I would have his superannuation. Marriage as a thing in itself was politically and emotionally problematic for both of us, we’d both done it before, unsuccessfully, but him caring about my future without him (he was much older than me) won me over, so we did it.
Emma, it turned out, had sought out Bill after her marriage collapsed for comfort, which he would have given, initially anyway, in the most innocent of ways, because that was another thing about Bill, his empathy with the more difficult experiences of the human condition was legendary, and people sought him out when they needed someone to unconditionally accept them and their personal chaos. This sometimes led to us extending hospitality to characters you could think of as a little unsavoury, if you were feeling judgemental. It also meant having various former girlfriends to stay when they were passing through Sydney, and just wanted to have “a bit of his mind,” as one put it to me.
I don’t know how things escalated from comforting Emma to getting into bed with her, or at least, that isn’t true, I can imagine exactly how that progressed, but even these many years later I don’t want to talk about it, except to say that when one discovers a spouse has been intimately involved with someone else whilst conducting their ordinary life with you, it’s as if that period of time no longer has validity, it is not what you had thought it to be, you believed it to be what it absolutely was not, and that is something like the feeling of clinging desperately to a stair rail on the fortieth floor of a swaying building in a Tokyo earthquake.
The affair went on for several months, until Bill decided he had to end it. He told me he felt too guilty to continue, to which I rather scathingly responded that it had taken quite some time for that guilt to kick in, hadn’t it? Later he admitted he just didn’t desire her anymore and had found himself in the ridiculous situation of desiring his wife more than he desired his lover. In fact he always had, he continued, he’d just been so moved by the powerful combination of her distress and her unflagging long-term desire for him that he’d capitulated to her need. Desire begets desire. Don’t enhance it, I told him. A mercy fuck is a mercy fuck.
And then, because some of us are incapable of protecting ourselves and seek to know what can only cause our hearts to bleed half to death, I asked “Were you very passionate with her?”
There was a long silence.
“What else would you have me be?” he finally answered.
I was breathless at the audacity of his reply, at the excruciating hurt it caused me, and finally, at the truth of it. I would not have had him be a man who dithered about these things. If it is to be done, it ought to be done with feeling, holding nothing back. The man I loved was incapable of acting without passion in all things, and no, I would not have had him be less than passionate about his infidelity either.
I was a that time involved in a family court matter with my first husband to do with property and child maintenance and all the detritus of a broken-down marriage. I had a lawyer. This lawyer made it obvious to me, by rubbing his leg against mine under the table as we sat in front of a magistrate hammering out details of the settlement, and with various other attentions I hadn’t known were included in his fees and that I ignored, that he fancied me as a potential sexual partner. I was about as uninterested as anyone can be, my preferred mode of relationship being serial monogamy, and being as deeply in love with my husband as it’s possible to get. Sam didn’t stand a chance. But after Emma’s confession, everything changed. My hurt was a constant dark companion that made me feel quite maddened. I’d smashed up the kitchen, broken every thing I could break, started smoking, and in the most bizarre expression of grief I can ever recall in my life, shaved my head. All my long blonde hair, so loved by Bill, lay in a tangled slippery mess on the bathroom floor, and I refused to clean it up. Every time he brushed his teeth he tried to avoid treading in it but would always come to bed with strands of my hair between his toes.
“I can’t believe you’ve done this,” he moaned the first night, and tried to stroke and kiss my head, but I swatted him away in a fury and removed myself to sleep in my study.
My newly bald look did not deter the lawyer. This was before the time bald immediately made everyone think of chemotherapy, when it was still exotic. I made up my mind. I would fuck the lawyer. If Bill could do it, so could I.
I cared not a fig for the lawyer, the sex was terrible, I cried the whole time and then I did it again. The affair was brief, over a couple of weeks, and I told Bill straight away, otherwise what would have been the point of it? This caused an explosion I could never have foreseen. It was, apparently, one thing for Bill to fuck around, but quite another if I did it. He didn’t smash anything because there was nothing left to smash, but he did insist on meeting with Sam to “discuss” the “situation.” They met at the Gelato Bar. Sam’s contact lens fell out into his coffee, he said Bill was better looking than him, and he felt at a disadvantage. They agreed if I wanted both of them, they would learn to share me with as little acrimony as possible.
I heard that news from both parties initially with bemusement, and then rage. I could not believe the arrogance and stupidity of men. And Emma wouldn’t leave me alone.
Bill had, it turned out, made promises. He’d led her to believe he was in something with her for the long haul. She had offered him what she called an “unconventional” relationship, in which she would be his mistress, she accepted that he would stay with me, and he had agreed to the arrangement. I said I couldn’t think of anything more conventional than being some man’s mistress, and I let them both know I very much did not appreciate finding myself in such a fucking cliché.
“She isn’t going to let this go,” Bill told me, trembling, after another long, fraught phone call.
“Why should she? You gave her your word. You let her think it was a long-term thing. Is she now to think that either she’s a fool, or you’re an opportunistic liar? You knew she’d been in love with you forever. What do you expect?”
“I changed my mind, surely a man can be allowed to change his mind?”
“You really have to be careful about “changing your mind” when it involves relations with another human heart. Did you think she’d say OK, and thanks for all the fish?”
I’ve since noticed, listening to others describe their affairs with married men, that there seems to be an assumption on the part of those men that the words they say to their mistresses don’t carry the same weight and gravitas as the words they say to anyone else. In general, these men are amazed when their lover protests, but you said…and repeats back to them the undertakings they have made. There seems to be an assumption on almost everyone’s part except the women involved, that married men are not to be held to anything they say when they are involved in an extra marital affair. The woman, it’s generally thought, is a fool to believe them, and ought to behave graciously when he wants to return to the safety of his marriage, and should not remind him of what have become for him embarrassing promises and declarations of love.
This has never seemed quite right to me. I felt a certain sympathy for Emma. I felt furious with Bill for behaving like any other boring stupid married man who thought for a while he could have a wife and a mistress and then when it got complicated ditch the mistress, and then have the temerity to complain when she didn’t shut up and go away and instead held him to his words, and let her messy broken heart bleed all over his life. I didn’t care how much trouble she caused him. Bring it on, was what I thought. I never got annoyed if I answered the phone and it was Emma asking for Bill, even in the middle of the night. Of course, I’d say, he’s right here. Then I would sit, glowering at him, listening to his uncomfortable side of the conversation while he made helpless shrugging gestures at me, as if to say, I can’t get away, she won’t shut up. Good, I’d mouth. Serves you fucking well right.
Eventually, Emma did give up and I have no idea what became of her.
I count myself as fortunate to have loved and desired Bill to the degree that I never wanted anyone else, so I didn’t have to struggle with what is, in Western culture, forbidden desire. Though I never managed it, I would like to have been able to deal with his infidelities with more equilibrium, because I don’t think there is anything wrong with desire, and I think it’s probably much better to act on it than to attempt to repress and deny it. I tend to agree with William Blake:
Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restrain’d it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence
When Bill asked me, in response to my tortured question about his passion with Emma, “What else would you have me be?” I understood that a human being can never be enslaved by another, and though his infidelity was like death to me at the time, I could not have wished him to do it in any other way.
I don’t think Blake is suggesting I act on every whim, like a rude child selfishly doing whatever I want with no thought for anyone else. But desire isn’t whim. I think Blake is saying that desire is a powerful force, and to be reckoned with, that it is transgressive, that it will break down all my boundaries and lead me into the unknown, and if I turn away, if I refuse desire, I will be the lesser for it in the end. Desire is perhaps incompatible with convention and fidelity. Perhaps this is why cultures are so anxious to restrain it, and the infidelity that so frequently accompanies it, whenever it so subversively appears.