Right then, shall we begin?
The first time I cheated on my wife was a Thursday. I didn’t know it then, hadn’t planned it of course, but it’s actually easiest to take a girl home on a Thursday. Anecdotal, yes, but how many anecdotes do you need before anecdata become evidence? Ten?
Regardless, two decades of anecdotes are enough for me. It only took a few years for me to start noticing it, really. There’s just something about Thursdays. Close enough to the weekend for thoughts of freedom to bubble up to the surface, but not quite there yet.
That’s been another theme, by the way. Always be moving closer, but never quite there yet. Because once you get there, it’s all over. Game, set, match.
Anyway, where was I?
Ah yes. Thursdays. A girl goes out on a weekend, she knows what she’s looking for. Maybe just a good time with her girlfriends, and maybe she’s open to something more with a charming, confident guy she meets.
Hand on my chest, that’s me.
So she goes out on the weekend and she knows what she wants. She knows what to expect. She gets flirted with by boys and men, shoots some down like the puppy dogs they are, flashes coy smiles at the few that know what they’re doing, the ones that surprise her. As I said, maybe she goes home with one of them, maybe she doesn’t. It’s not important.
What is important is that none of this happens on a Thursday. Instead, she stops and gets a coffee in the morning, grabs a drink at her favorite spot in the early evening, whatever. But she hasn’t been hardened by a night of come-ons, and maybe that leaves her just a little more open.
Of course, if you don’t know what to look for, you end up interrupting a girl who just isn’t interested. And that’s fine. Not everyone is. But if she is interested, and if she isn’t real busy, and if you aren’t a sleaze-ball, if you say the right things, say them honestly, Thursday is your best day.
I didn’t know any of this when it happened. To me, it was just a regular Thursday. I worked in finance at the time, long hours, hard work, good pay. It wasn’t fun work and I didn’t love what I did, which I believe is a great sin. Chasing dreams you don’t love.
But I was good at it. Thirty-five years old, making millions a year, and the days weren’t so long as they’d been ten years before. I often left the office by eight, and twelve-hour days are manageable. Especially when you get some weekends off.
On this particular Thursday, an old friend from high school had emailed me: he was going to be in the city and could I meet him for a drink. Catch up, shoot the shit. We hadn’t spoken in years, but he’d been a real friend, a genuine good guy, and I was looking forward to seeing him again. So I agreed. He met me outside the office around eight-thirty, and we went to a lounge nearby that I liked.
It wasn’t a large place from the outside, but there were two floors, which made it just big enough. They kept their lights dim, but not dark, and the couches and stools were shaped from a comfy black leather. On the weekends it filled up, too many bodies to be anything at all, but on weeknights everything was just right. The drinks came quickly, you got some privacy but never had to feel alone. A couple of the staff knew me, though not as well as they came to later on.
So we got there, took my favorite seats upstairs, by the window, and three hours later we were still there. His name was Gary, and he’d chosen to do what he loved – acting – only he hadn’t had the right look, could never remember his lines, but he soon found his calling in script writing. And now he was just getting into producing, directing. Strictly TV shows, but some big name stuff at the time, I think. I don’t really remember.
So there we were, chatting, having a good time, not drunk because it was a Thursday, but not entirely sober either, just in the sweet spot.
And then she sat down at our table. She was tall, though not as tall as I, long limbed and had dark brown hair that spilled over her arms and onto the table as she leaned forwards.
Was she beautiful?
I don’t know. There are many words for attractive girls, and they each paint a different picture. She wasn’t the most attractive I’d seen, not by a country mile. Open up your Internet browser and I’ll find you hundreds better. But there was nothing passive about her. It was a striking beauty and it took my breath away.
I suppose you should understand, too, that at this point I was thirty-five, and so was my wife. She was really quite good looking still, especially considering the three kids. But…
I pause then, scratch the back of my head, something itching there beneath the skin and the bone, something not quite right.
No, that’s all I’ll say about her. This story isn’t about her, and it’s not fair to include her. She never did a thing but love me, and if the only fault I had with our marriage was that she loved the kids more, that’s only natural, isn’t it?
I don’t love her, of course, not really. Not the hot, hard kind.
I loved a woman that way once, but it wasn’t my wife. That’s coming later.
So this girl sits down between Gary and I. Doesn’t say a word, just sits down and gives the smallest smile you’ve ever seen. And I’m looking right at her, drinking her in, can’t look anywhere else. And what do I say?
I laugh, shaking my head at my younger self.
I ask Gary what happens next in his script. I’m staring right into this girl’s eyes and all I can say is, “What happens next?” My mind froze and when I called on it to say something it jumped right back in where I’d left it.
Now if you’re looking for someone to blame for what happened, you should blame me and me only. It’s all on me. Gary didn’t know I was married, so none of what happened is his fault. I hadn’t mentioned anything, and we both know I should have, and a man in a dim lounge isn’t going to notice another man’s ring while there’s interesting talk to be had. I was still wearing my ring then, of course.
Anyway, when you’re looking someone right in the eyes and you ask a question, they tend to answer. And “What happens next?” when nothing really even happened yet, turns out to be a pretty good line for the right sort of girl. I’ve used it since.
The brunette – I never did find out her name – was the right sort of girl. She didn’t say anything, just leaned in and kissed me. It was a tiny kiss, barely scraping over the line between kiss and peck. Gary laughed, said he was going to the bar for a minute, reached around her and clapped me once on the shoulder as he left. I should’ve read a goodbye in that clap, anyone would have. But I think you’ll forgive me my lowered awareness.
Gary left me there with her. If he hadn’t-
But he did. She and I tossed small talk back and forth, gentle as a water balloon. Most of the time we talked she was touching me, a hand on the arm, a faux-push on my chest, a knee pressing lightly against mine. Ah, I shouldn’t lie. Half of those were my doing as much as hers.
We left about half an hour later. I was mostly in a daze, but there was a terrible, final willingness to it, sunglasses put on so the light didn’t burn. I chose to be in that daze. In hindsight, she was wonderful, a true master. I thought I was being smooth, but I was just a boy splashing in the shallow end and thinking he’s swimming.
I’m not one to kiss and tell.
I smile at that. What is all this if not kiss and tell?
So I won’t. But when I woke up it was early Friday, and there was a girl naked beside me who wasn’t my wife. You’d think that would shock you, but as I said, I hadn’t been drunk the night before.
A man makes his choices. Sticks by them.
But I did leave quickly and quietly, and if I woke her getting dressed she had the decency to pretend at sleep. We never met again, and that’s a good thing.
I said Gary was a real friend, and I know that for sure. A real friend will keep your dark secrets when he finds out you were married, he won’t mention it to anyone. Not to his wife or his kids, not even to you. He won’t ever mention it, though he knows he should. Even if it eats at him.
It happened again twice more that year. Not quite the same, I never had a girl like that come onto me again anywhere. I had to make my choice beforehand, go out and get it. I did try more times than that, but I was only successful twice. I think the biggest thing that stops you is the fear of it all. The fear of getting caught and losing something valuable, the fear that you’ll feel guilt that just fills you up inside and drowns you.
It’s true. You do feel guilt, and it’s a dark and heavy thing, and it poisons you for weeks. But it passes. And then the fear is gone for good, and the guilt along with it. Working long hours tends to help avoid getting caught too – when all-nighters can happen at work, you’re safe as you’ll ever be.
My wife – ah, I didn’t want to make this about her – I think she’s known for a while now, or at least suspected. Maybe the last five years, maybe as many as seven. And if it’s put some distance between us, well, there was always a little gap there. Worrying at it would only make it bigger.
The next year it happened more often. I actively tried, made it a study of sorts. I’d try different days of the week, different places, sunny, rainy, snowing. None of that stuff really mattered of course, except the Thursday thing, but I did get better. I learned to stop lying. Not big lies, I still told those, but the small lies, the ones boys tell girls to try and slip through their guard.
I say guard, and it is a fight of sorts. But there’s nothing antagonistic about it. If you score enough points and everybody wins.
God, that sounds terrible. Don’t write that part down, people will misunderstand. For all the claims they make, most of them still recoil from the first hint of hedonism.
So I learned to tell the small truths, when to smile, when to leave alone, when to leave with her, whoever she was. I was nervous as a kid on the first day of school. Then, when I’d had a bad run, I felt even worse. But I watched and tried and learned, didn’t give up. Why would I?
Why did I keep doing it?
I smiled again, felt the light shine in my eyes.
Because it made me feel alive. It was challenging and new to me, and I loved every second of it. I’ve heard the company of attractive women is its own reward, but I think it’s trying to win them that’s the real thrill. Succeeding gives you this…rush, this high, and it’s unlike anything else. Failing just makes you want to try harder. And really, isn’t that what it means to be alive? Straining in every way to win, outcompete, succeed. Possess, even just for a moment. It’s raw and animalistic. I love it.
It took me the next year and a half to really start to understand what I was doing, how to do it better. But when I did, I realized something important:
You can be anything you want to be.
I know that sounds like nonsense, some pleasant new-age bromide they shill in schools and self-help seminars. But at the heart of it, it’s true. Everyone just forgets to tell you the most important part – you have to try. And if you stop trying for just a second, you start becoming the person you didn’t want to be all over again.
What do I mean? Oh. I suppose this is as good a time as any for it then…I pause for a moment, scratch my eyelids with a knuckle, trying not to see what comes next.
I never really loved my wife, I think I said that earlier. But there was a woman I loved once, completely, mind, body, and soul. She was everything I could ever want and more. Funny, smart, cute, creative and caring and thoughtful and so much more than all that. She had the softest brown hair – sort of a thing for me I suppose – that she wore long, but it had a slight kick in it. Some girls spend hundreds of dollars to look the way she did when she woke up in the morning.
I fell in love with her at the start of college, spent nearly half a year winning her before she fell for me. We dated for eighteen months…
I pause, not sure whether to add the exact number of days. Decide not to.
She was my first, and I was hers. Sex, I mean. I know it’s antiquated, and I know we were both supposed to lose it before then, but it never felt quite right for me. Until her.
But it wasn’t just the physical her that I loved, though it was certainly that. Her eyes just danced when you looked in them – you could almost read her soul there. Except the words never quite made sense, not to me anyway, but they sounded so beautiful. And her laugh…
She understood me too, fell in love with me, dated me, shared her everything with me. But that’s where it all started to go wrong. And at the end, I had to leave her.
What? Because she shared everything with me? No, no. Weren’t you listening? I sigh.
When I saw her, my first true love, and started to fall for her, I knew I could win her. But I had to be worthy of her, so I decided to be a better person. It’s not as hard as it sounds – I was a pretty decent guy to begin with. But I became conscious of my mannerisms so that I could convey what I wanted to, I decided what I believed and held to it firmly, I tried to dress a little better. I never downloaded a thing without paying for it again, never agreed with something that I thought was wrong just to fit in. My grades improved and I picked a career. Learned to dance and make people laugh. Dressed to look good. I started writing music. A hundred little things like that and more.
It was good music, too.
And she fell in love with me, and it was me because I had chosen to be that person. Some people would say she fell in love with a lie, but they just haven't stopped lying to themselves yet. Who doesn’t want to impress the one they love? I might have been more conscious of my approach, but I think we all do it my way on some level.
After we’d been together for about a year, we had our first fight. It was a small thing, and it blew over quickly, but it shocked me. I didn’t notice it then – I was inexperienced – but that was around the time the sex changed too. Before it had been a passionate thing, tame from shyness and naivety yes, but still full of something raw. But now...now there was something frighteningly mechanical about it.
I realize how silly that sounds. Everyone has bad sex. And obviously that was just a symptom, not a cause, but it scared me. Anyway.
We stayed together for another six months. She was my everything, and I tried so hard to get us back to the way we used to be. The way we should have been. But the harder I tried the worse it seemed to get. She said she still loved me, but the soul in her eyes had dimmed – you’d never have noticed it if you didn’t look for it every day, but I did and it stood out like an angry gash to my eyes.
I’ve never been so panicked, so terrified, so hurt and confused as that in my life. Not before, not since. I could feel her sailing away from me, so slowly I could almost tug her back in. The rope was right in front of me. But I couldn’t fight the tide. Who could?
So rather than tear my hands to shreds, I left her.
I left her before she left me, because it was the only thing I could do. They say war is the last argument of kings. Walking away is the last argument of lovers.
When I told her, she smiled the saddest smile and it just broke my heart. I can’t help how I feel, she told me. She thanked me.
Have you ever wanted to die? I can’t say I have for sure. But if you went looking for a time I have in my life, you should start there.
But people cope. They move on, so I moved on, like any good person. Graduate, they said, and I did. Get a job, they said, so I found the highest paying one. That had to count for something, right? But then it was, Get married, so I found a wonderful girl, a nice big house, and we had three kids, and then they stopped telling me what to do. Or maybe I stopped listening.
Anyway, it took me seventeen years to learn the real lesson. I’d been a cheating bastard for two years, enjoying every day of it. And there I was, starting to apply what I’d learned to younger, more attractive girls, consciously deciding to be the man they wanted to sleep with.
Pretty euphemism, that one. I never sleep well with others.
He wasn’t a bad man, this guy whose mask I wore, though he usually wasn’t married. In fact, the more I wore his face, the more I became him, which is all part of the process really. Masks do that to you. And I liked him. He was confident, had a spring in his step, did what he wanted to do and did it better than anyone else. He liked to smile. Not in the arrogant manner of wannabes, just a small, genuine, self-assured smile that started in the eyes and rarely made it down south to the lips.
I quit my job. Switched to writing full time and loved it. I wrote songs, poems, novels, short stories, essays, and editorials. The books on finance I wrote sold well, provided a nice steady stream within a couple years, and I’ve had some real hits with the other stuff. But you know all about that.
So there I was, choosing to become a better man all over again. When it hit me, like a wrecking ball to the gut. I was in my studio – I’d rented a studio in the city for writing, told my wife it helped me, which it did in all sorts of ways – and I remember I just sat on the floor, didn’t move for half an hour as I worked back through it all.
See, I’d blamed her – the girl I loved more than anything else in this world – for losing that spark for me, for falling out of love. Not really fair, but what else could I do? It’s not natural to blame yourself when someone else hurts you. It has to be their fault, you say, and sleep soundly.
But I saw that I’d loved her, become a man she loved, shared something unbreakable with her. But in gaining my heart’s desire, I’d grown a little complacent. Not a lot, but it doesn’t need to be a lot. I started to take her for granted; unbreakable love will do that to you. Nobody can ever break this bond we have, you think, and then you go ahead and walk right through it yourself before you notice. Because you, or I – this is my story, after all – stopped trying so hard to be the man she loves.
So she loved me the whole time, only the “me” she loved was now part-idea, part-reality, and the longer it went on the more it shifted until one day she realized she loved a man that just didn’t exist. Like I’d been killed and a man who looked just like me but with none of the qualities she’d fallen for had taken my place. And who would ever expect a woman to love a body when the man inside had changed.
It was my fault. I think that’s what really changed me, that moment there, alone on my floor. Thirty-seven, living two lives, loving nothing but my writing, and realizing that the responsibility was mine. Had been all along.
You’re a man like me, and I see you looking at me funny, not buying it. But I’ll show you the parallel if you promise not to print it. Enough people hate me as it is, I can’t have any more before the court case. Okay?
Okay. Well. Let’s say you hit it off with this girl, like I described earlier. You love her. She loves you. Sunshine and rainbows. Then a year later she’s put on thirty pounds. Now you don’t leave her just for that, not if you’re most guys. What are you going to say? Besides, there’s more to love than just a body, and thirty pounds really isn’t so much.
But then another eighteen months go by, and now the girl you fell in love with has gained eighty pounds and you just can’t bring yourself to feel the same way. It’s not that you don’t love her personality, she’s still the same inside, but in two and a half years she’s changed completely. It’s such a short period of time, it seems like just yesterday she was someone else. So you start to drift. You start to hate yourself for not being able to love her. It’s not fair, nature never is, it’s just the way it works.
I smile. Not a perfect analogy, I allow, but I can see you understanding, even though you don’t want to.
I was darker after I realized that. Not dark like the guilt I felt after cheating the first time. I just laughed less. Then I stopped altogether. My wife noticed, of course, and it wasn’t easy on the kids, but I wasn’t around a lot anyway and I was writing so much, I blamed it on the work and we stepped around it neatly, just let it sit there undisturbed.
God, sometimes I think she’s the only good person in this whole affair.
I started to go after girls more often, then. Four, five, maybe more nights a week. It was a lot harder. I think girls can read men pretty easily. It’s why cutting out the small lies had worked so well for me. But I couldn’t cut the darkness out.
Thankfully I’d learned enough in my two years to do well for myself, despite my handicap. Eventually I realized a different sort of girl was more attracted to me now, and I wasn’t sure they were the right sort anymore. The chase, the dance, even lost some of its glamour, and I stopped caring as much. Didn’t stop trying though.
Anyway, you know most of what happens next. I make more money from my writing now than I ever did in finance, which is a grand joke as far as I’m concerned. But writing to the lowest common denominator is entertaining, in its own way. Like playing games with the bad kids. The minor celebrity doesn’t hurt either, though the girls I have sex with rarely read my books. They’ve heard the songs though.
Well it’s a silly little thing really. Though I suppose that’s why you’re here.
I wince at the discomfort of having to talk about it. Better to get it done with, I suppose.
You remember when I talked about becoming a better man earlier? Choosing to be who I wanted to be? Well a small part of that, just a few notes in the melody really, was confidence. I’d been bullied when I was younger, and I’d never gotten over that nagging fucking anxiety, the worrying, the constant threat of imminent pain. I wanted to, though. I wanted to feel confident again. Not just run-of-the-mill confidence. Anyone can fake that long enough to feel the real thing. I’m talking the confidence to walk the small streets of my city in the small hours of the night. To speak up when I saw something bad happen on the sidewalk. To not be an onlooker. So I carry a gun, concealed permit for the city here in New York.
Quite hard to get, you might imagine. But not impossible. I’m quite a good shot you know, I practice when I can. There’s a range two blocks from here, the only one in Manhattan. I’m not saying it makes me safer, and it certainly never made anyone else safer, quite the opposite. But it’s not about the politics and it’s certainly not about safety. It’s just about confidence.
So it’s late one night, and I met this girl. I’d met her twice a year before, and I think the sex had been good, so I’d pinged her again and. You know. Her room was on the twenty-third floor. The building was quite fancy, I’m still not sure how a college student could afford it. Maybe rich parents.
Afterwards, I dressed and excused myself. She asked me to stay, but she didn’t mean it and I wouldn’t do that to her even if she did. So I left. I closed her door behind me, and as I did the door across the hall opened.
A tiny thing really. Just another piece of someone else’s song. But there she was. Clear as anything. We were, are now, both fifty-five, but she looked maybe forty. Just a few extra wrinkles, a little tightness around the eyes. She recognized me, of course, and we stood staring at each other for maybe a heartbeat. No more than that. But that was all I needed.
There was no soul, no light in her eyes. Not a spark, not a dying ember.
Just a hint, barely recognizable, only in the corners, of a nagging anxiety. A familiar worry.
A man’s voice shouted from her apartment, but neither of us really heard him. Then he came to the door, and I heard him call her a dumb whore-bitch, and I shot him between the eyes.
Pulling my gun?
No, I don’t remember it. I don’t remember how tall he was or what he was wearing. I remember what the bridge of his nose used to look like, before the bullet erased it, but that’s about it. I think maybe he had a beard.
Anyway, that’s all there is to it. My wife can’t pretend to ignore my excursions now, so I suppose something will need to be done about that too. Which is a shame. But the kids have grown up, and she has enough of my money to take care of herself so it’s not that bad.
I smile at the interviewer.
The way it is and the way they’re telling it in the papers aren’t so different. But it wasn’t her I was sleeping with, just some stranger across the hall. I did sleep with her, once. And I did love her, once.
I still do.
But I didn’t tell him that last bit. I can’t tell anyone that part. Not even myself.
I’m a real friend.