A cheating wife, a best friend, It was Sunday. I had borrowed my wife’s car to pick up two new lawn chairs. I was listening to This American Life on NPR and wanted to write down the name of a book mentioned. While steering with one hand, I dug in the center console with the other, feeling under the CD cases for a pen. I pulled out random objects: a Bit-O-Honey wrapper, a folded Starbucks drink jacket, a quarter, a folding hair brush, a rigid circle with a squishy center. Nothing else feels like a condom in its wrapper. I almost ran off the road.
You remember moments like this as though they played in super slow motion, frame by frame – the glance to the left that took in the red Toyota next to you driven by the red haired fat guy with an earring, the speedometer needle hovering at 34 mph, the dust on the dashboard, the light up ahead that you know will stay green, the squashed bug on the lower part of the windshield, the ridges of a CD case scraping your wrist, the moment when you touch the unexpected.
Your thoughts are harder to organize. Though you knew it wasn’t possible, did you think, “Is that mine”? Did you think, “She’s cheating on you”? Thoughts aren’t as neat and clean as images. Was the main thought guilt for having stumbled onto what may be a dark secret? Was it fear? Was it that you did something wrong?
I pulled into a Burger King drive-through and got a medium coke. I parked in front of a “No Game Parking – Burger King Customers Only” sign and held the coke in my right hand, the condom in the left. I blinked. I always blink. Everyone always blinks, but this time I noticed I blinked. The coke tasted like nothing, just fizz with too much ice.
I checked the glove compartment. I checked the trunk. I opened the doors and looked under the seats. I found a small package wrapped in a plastic supermarket bag, stuffed under the passenger seat where it wasn’t visible unless you looked carefully.
In the bag was a notebook, a little spiral bound flip-style notebook. My heart pounded in my chest as I opened it. The first two pages were blank. The next two had lists:
“4/27 – HI – 1:30 5/1 – QI – 11 5/6 – TL – 1 5/11 – TL – 2 (must be out by 5)”
I counted 32 entries, covering 4 months and spaced every 4 or 5 days. The last entry referred to the next day, tomorrow: “8/29 – HI – 1:30”. One of the entries was crossed out.
If I’d found this notebook under other circumstances, I would probably not have noticed the lists or have wondered what they meant. I recognized the pattern: my work travel schedule. I recognized the crossed-out date: when I got sick and had to stay home. The condom told me what to think. Holiday Inn. Quality Inn. Travel Lodge. Holiday Inn tomorrow at 1:30 when I would normally be 125 miles away.
I hoped I was wrong – the condom said no. “OK. Let’s assume she’s cheating on you. This is 4 months. It isn’t a one-time thing. She’s seriously cheating on you. She’s keeping a fucking list. You’re going to lose her. You don’t want her. She’s trash. You love her. You have to confront her. You don’t want to deal with this. How are you going to find someone else?” I shook my head, closed my eyes and realized I was lost. “What if she’s a whore? What if she’s running some side business – but why would she keep that a secret? What if she’s in love with this other guy? What if it’s a woman?”
I scratched the back of my neck. Without knowing more, I didn’t know how to confront her. What would she say? “I’m sorry, honey. I never wanted you to find out. Oh, God! Please forgive me. I’m leaving you. I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m being blackmailed. I need to fuck strange men. I don’t want to lose you. It’s all your fault for leaving me alone. Your cock isn’t big enough. He makes me come. I thought you were cheating and wanted revenge.” She might say anything. “I found out you’re sterile so I’ve been having sex with your brother to get pregnant.” Am I sterile and don’t know it? Why not go all the way: “I’m a vampire and I meet strange men in hotels to drink their blood. I’m a secret agent and what I’m doing is classified, but I want you to know, honey, that I’m only doing this for my country.” I put the condom and the notebook back in their places.
When you’re very sad, the bottom part of your face pulls toward the ground, as if gravity were affecting it more. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to think. I’d read enough about infidelity to know that a woman can fall into an affair because she’s unhappy, which meant that maybe this was in some way, to a certain extent, my fault.
My self-image didn’t crumble. My life didn’t end. I felt hurt, angry, sad, confused, and I seriously questioned in the darkness of those hours whether I’d chosen the wrong path in life, whether I was the wrong kind of person, whether I should change to be someone else.
That evening, I pretended to be normal. When Sherry tried to talk about the book she was reading, I told her I was concentrating on work, that I had a tough week ahead and couldn’t shake the worry. “I’m sorry, baby. I’m feeling a little quiet.” She went into the bedroom to read. I washed the dishes. I threw in a load of whites and fussed around until after she’d gone to sleep.
In the morning, I dressed quickly, left the house and made my morning calls from the car. I was at the local Holiday Inn by 10AM. It’s an older one, the kind where you can park near your room instead of entering only through the lobby.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I’m not a good liar. I have a compulsion to tell the truth. I love to share information. That usually works in my job because I tell people what I know and either that helps them genuinely feel a bond with me or they’re nice to me so they can pick up more stuff. I hope it’s the former but I’ve long given up believing that business contacts are actually friends.
“Hi,” I said to the desk clerk. “I think my wife is meeting someone here at 1:30.” He barely reacted. “I think she’s having an affair. I want to see who she’s with.” He looked doubtful. “I just want to watch the security cameras.”
“I can’t do that, sir. All due respect, but you may be a crazy person. This hotel is responsible for guests, not for you. You may try to harm this woman. And I do not know she is even your wife.”
All good points. My first boss had taught me that when you’re going to do something new, when you’re covering new ground, give yourself extra time because nothing happens as planned.
If my life were a detective novel, I’d have slipped him 20 bucks. But I’m not a tough guy. I’m a negotiator and manager and I’m very good at both. We talked, the desk clerk and I, and he soon understood that it was better for the hotel if I watched the monitors in his presence, where he could see what I was doing. If I left, I could be watching outside and he would have no way of preventing any crazy act. The hotel would still be sued, so the best way to minimize his risk was to keep me in sight. I love coming to an agreement when both sides get what they want.
I bought us lunch at Subway – a Classic Tuna sub for me and a Chicken Bacon Ranch for him – parked my car across the street and walked back to the hotel. We watched the noon local news. I shared information with him, told him about the notebook and the condom. He told me about his family, about his nephew in prison, about his father’s bad heart. We ate our sandwiches and talked about fat calories and diets. He’d tried Atkins. We agreed the hardest part is keeping the weight off. We were fast becoming friends who would never meet again.
She arrived at 1:25. She sat in her car next to the entrance around the back, the one furthest from the street. I could see her clearly on the monitor, talking on her phone. She hung up and fiddled with her hair in the rear view mirror. At 1:33, a blue BMW parked next to her driver’s side. A tall man with brown hair got out and walked to the hotel door. He swiped his room key, opened the door and looked back at my wife. Sherry opened her car door, took one last look in the mirror, got out and walked toward the man. As she passed him, he put his arm around her hips and squeezed her to his body. The door closed.
I have never used the word “cuckold”. Not in conversation, not in reference to any guy whose wife has cheated on him. The word never existed in my consciousness. It derives from the cuckoo bird, which lays its eggs in another bird’s nest so that bird will hatch and raise the cuckoo chick – which then grows bigger than the other chicks and takes over. As far as I knew, Sherry wasn’t pregnant, so I wasn’t raising a cuckoo bird’s egg, but I still felt like a cuckold.
The best case would have been that she was meeting a guy I didn’t know, someone she’d met at her gym or through a friend, a casual affair that had become more intense with time but which maybe just maybe was running out of steam – and which was never based in love. It’s not hard to understand the concept of a fling; we’ve all been tempted. You can recover from that kind of affair. With work and time, after you recognize the hurt and understand the reasons, you can recommit.
The worst case would have been that she was fucking my worst enemy. That would have been the kind of betrayal that says “I want to hurt you so badly you feel like the dirt I wipe off my shoe.” You can’t recover from that. The knife has been stuck in your back straight through to your heart. If it’s the worst case, you have to wonder whether your judgement is fatally flawed, whether you’re naturally attracted to vipers or if you were misled by this Delilah who cooed in your ear while conspiring to bring you down.
This was not the best case and it was not the worst case. This was the middle case, not a stranger and not an enemy. The middle case is tough because it includes two betrayals, that of your wife and that of the other guy. If the other guy is a golfing buddy or some Joe who’s just the husband of one of your wife’s friends, then his betrayal isn’t worth much. He’s just another shithead. If the other guy is your father or your brother, a close blood relative, then his betrayal may be worse than hers. A wife is not blood. I might beat the living hell out of my brother but in the end I’d probably stick with the blood and can the woman. You can replace a wife.
Tom was betraying our friendship with my wife. He was best man at my wedding and, at his wedding, I shared that job with his younger brother. I’d know Sherry for four and a half years, but I’d known Tom for twenty, since we were seven years old. He knew what Sherry meant to me. He knew what marriage and commitment and trust meant to me. That hurt.
My new friend, the desk clerk, understood. We shook hands, our friendship never to be diminished by petty misunderstandings and never to be enlarged by late night drinks and basketball. I walked across the street, got in my car and went to the driving range. I hit two large buckets of balls. By the middle of the second bucket, my mid-irons were drawing nicely. My woods were crisp. I crushed a 4-iron, absolutely crushed it. I held my follow through, watching the ball soar, enjoying the moment of perfection. Golf is a damned hard game, enlivened by acts of absolute clarity.
On the spur of the moment, I called Tom’s house. “Hey Peg. How you doing? That’s great. I’m on my way back a little early and was wondering if you guys would want to get together for dinner. When? Tonight, tomorrow, your call. Right . . . so why don’t we do it tonight? No, I think we should go out . . . OK. . . Sure. Seven at Ciro’s would be good. Yeah . . . Bye.” I’d crushed that call just like the 4-iron.
I called the house and left a message, “Honey, I’m going to get home early today, so I called Peg and arranged for us to meet them at Ciro’s at 7. I’ll call you on your cell.” I left the same message on her cell phone.