The Affair I Didn’t Have
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The Affair I Didn’t Have
Instead of cheating, I decided to make myself into more of what I desired
I’d been married eight years when Brian sat next to me at a writers’ workshop. I didn’t know his name was Brian then… I didn’t know him at all. Being new to the workshop, I’d taken my own seat in the circle of writers, and busied myself by reading through the stack of writing samples I’d been given when I walked in. With my eyes down, I saw his cowboy boots first. That caused me to look up slightly at this man who, staying true to form, also wore some kind of jacket that I guessed was called a duster. His face, again in character — handsome and weathered. Improbably, no cowboy hat, but a full head of good hair. I felt heat coming off him.
Could that be heat be coming off him?
Hold on. What was happening? It felt like a bubble of heat between us.
“Howdy, ma’am,” he said.
No, he didn’t say that. That’s what he said in my imagination. But, he did make eye contact and smile hello. And if a gut feeling could speak a sentence, the sentence in me in that moment would have been, “Katy, it looks like you might be in trouble.”
I’d only experienced instant attraction like that once before. I’d gotten into an elevator with a man who lived in my building. We were young enough that I still have the urge to call him a boy. I looked at him and thought things like “fate” and “lips.” It turned out to be just as big a mess as you’d think it would be because I had a boyfriend at the time. Whatever this thing is called — lust or attraction — it was too alluring for me to skip out on in my twenties.
That’s part of the reason why I’d never fool myself into believing I could never have an affair. I didn’t want to have an affair. I had a lot of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and even judgments around extramarital affairs, but I never thought I was too good for one. Given the right circumstances, most people are capable of betrayal. I figured I should be honest with myself always and try to avoid “the right circumstances.”
In the middle of the workshop, Brian wrote a note on his packet of papers, tore it off, and handed it to me. His note said, “If Nancy corrects one more comma, it’s going to get ugly.” Nancy’s pious, bordering-on-sadistic devotion to grammar wore thin. I wrote back, “Who’s throwing the first punch?” Nancy was pretty elderly, but it still might take two of us to take her down because you could see she was tough.
I can’t help flirting, I thought. It’s okay to flirt.
When I was a newlywed, I had to go to a work conference in Kansas City with a single colleague. At night after the conference, we got a beer at a honky-tonk and a man there asked me to dance.
“I’m married,” I said.
“It’s just a dance,” he replied, and he took me by the hand to the dance floor. I didn’t feel attracted to that man, but I thought later about how he was older and he probably knew better than I did about how to put certain interactions in their proper perspective. We danced one dance. He was respectful and just having a nice time.
I could flirt with this cowboy in a writing workshop, and it was a harmless, adult interaction I told myself.
But then again, I really wanted to see him at the next workshop. I spent the next several weeks thinking a surprising amount about that. Would I see him again? Maybe I would see him again.
Spoiler alert: I never had an affair. I never cheated on my husband in our 16 years of marriage. Not with Brian, not with anyone else. I saw Brian quite a bit in the writing community, and we even developed a friendship that started out for me as a little breathless and dangerous. I don’t know how he felt because I never asked. There were certain doors I did not want to knock on.
What I did instead was talk to a trusted friend and mentor, Laurie. A dear woman who is like an older sister to me — who’d been twice married — once divorced, once widowed. She knew (and knows) more than anyone else in my life about love and desire and the parts of ourselves that we cannot see but that have a lot of energy and exert great influence on us.
I told her about Brian, and she listened without judging. She was curious about the aspects of him that I admired. I admired what I saw as his boldness, his lack of caring if he pissed people off, his ruthless honesty, and even something in him that felt like rage. She asked me to consider if these weren’t aspects of myself that I either wanted to develop or to stop hiding or know more about. She said, “When you know more about these parts in yourself, the energy of the attraction will dissipate.”
That was pretty eye-opening. Maybe the current of electricity running through me was partly my own desire to embody some of those characteristics. Maybe it wasn’t inevitable or destiny or even necessary that I make that desire concrete by cheating on my husband. Instead, I could make it concrete by seeing it in myself or developing myself to be more like what I desired.
It took me some time to work through those feelings. The pain of longing is real; understanding where I was vulnerable and tender and why… that took time. What would draw me to a sense of rage? Why would I crave boldness and honesty?
I channeled all that tension, and wondering, and confusion as creatively as I could — through poetry at that time in my life — this poem was a direct result and appeared in a journal called Margie in 2009.
Living Up to Your Potential
needs air to breathe.
Next, it takes
a fuel supply.
leaves and sticks.
to add speed —
In the end,
is what ignites.
to tease things
out in parts.
before they start.
The funny thing is, it wasn’t me that cheated in my marriage. Eventually, it came to light that the person I was married to was unfaithful often and over many years. Perhaps honesty, even ruthless honesty, felt like such a draw for me because dishonesty percolated under the surface of my marriage like poison in a mad scientist’s lab.
There was a time period after I discovered my husband’s infidelities when I hoped to mend our marriage. People in our lives who knew our situation said, “You have a hall pass! Don’t you just want to go for it? How will you ever be able to not resent him if you don’t have sex with somebody else?”
I never did. And though it’s said that people regret what they don’t do in life more than what they do, I can honestly say I don’t regret never having an affair. I’d already felt what it felt like to cheat when I was in my twenties. It didn’t feel good.
As long as there is marriage, as long as people pair up and pledge faithfulness to one another, there will be affairs. I am not so pious as to say all affairs are wrong or the destruction that comes from affairs never has a silver lining. I believe that we are human, we make mistakes, we hurt people and are messy, and we also need love and connection.
In the end, I feel grateful for my “missed opportunities.” I feel grateful to have had a friend like Laurie, who gave me the questions to ask about being attracted to someone outside my marriage. I am grateful she didn’t judge me. She made the time for me and encouraged me to take the time to understand what I could about the unfulfilled or unseen places in me. As I discovered more about those places, I grew into a more full version of myself. I’m grateful I know myself to be bold and honest. I’m grateful I know how to channel my rage and express it creatively.
I still like to tease things out in parts. I like things best both before and after they start, but now, I trust myself to get the timing right.
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