One thing I’ve learned about cheating: The second the thought of it enters your head, it’s pretty much already happened. At least, that’s the way it’s always been for me.
Not that I’ve made a habit of it — prior to the thing with M, my infidelities had been limited to one-night deviations from teenage relationships that were either long-distance or long past their expiration dates — but what I’m saying is this: If you find yourself having a solitary martini in your hotel bar to unwind after a late flight and it suddenly occurs to you that you could probably engage in a little smooch-and-roll with the good-looking suit two stools down without anyone in your real life being any the wiser, congratulations. You’ve just taken the first step down a slope so slippery it might as well be slicked with lube.
Of course, that swift and steep trajectory all but ensures that almost nobody considers the aftermath of that kind of decision until they’re already in the thick of it. I know I didn’t. When I first started falling for M — an old friend of my husband’s whom we’d hired to renovate the tragic red-and-black-tiled bathroom in our otherwise charmingly retro new apartment — being with him was basically the only thing I could think about. Because I work from home as a freelance writer, I was basically present for the entire demolition, and I’d sit in front of my computer, tapping absently at the keys, while, one room away, he swung at the floor with a sledgehammer. (This is not a subtle metaphor, I realize, but facts are facts, and I’m stuck with them.) If it had been anyone else in there, I’d have fled to a nearby coffee shop, but I was already smitten to the point of idiocy; I didn’t want to miss the chance to chat with him on our mutual lunch break.
M was, naturally, your typical bad boy. Or, rather, that’s what I’d thought. J, my husband, had always described him in less-than-glowing terms, making sure to point out his affinity for 23-year-old waitresses. And it had worked: I’d been immune to his considerable charms for a very long time. But when we began to spend time alone together — a cup of coffee before he started for the day, a shared beer from the fridge just after he got off — I saw that there was more to him than I’d been led to believe, and it made me want to find out what else I’d been missing, first about him, and then, not long after, about life in general.
At 34, I’d been with J for a dozen years — we’d been married for seven — and, before I started fooling around with M, I’d genuinely thought that things were fine in our marriage. We had, as I said, just bought an apartment, and, at J’s behest, I’d gone off the pill; we were trying to have a baby. So what if we were, on a fundamental level, completely and utterly bored?
But from the very first time that M and I were together, I knew that I couldn’t keep living that way. Tolerating sex twice a month isn’t the same thing as actually having a real physical connection with someone. The absence of fighting, of disagreements, isn’t the same thing as getting along. And when I looked at a calendar and realized that my period, which is usually as reliable as...well, as J, was almost an entire week late? Like I said: Aftermath, previously unconsidered, until I was smack-dab in the middle of it.
I know what you’re thinking: Of course I made M wear a condom. I mean, except the first time — okay the first two times — when neither of us had one, and he’d, um, withdrawn. But I’d done it with him about fifteen times, stacked up against once with J, so I didn’t exactly love my odds. (I also had no idea which outcome I really wanted. I wasn’t really dying to “start a family” at that moment at all, and especially not with either of the two available options.)
I took a home pregnancy test the next morning after J had gone to work — M was done with the renovation by then, thank god — and once I saw those crosshairs pop up, I knew I had to get moving. When J got home that night, I sat him down on the couch and told him that I didn’t think I wanted to be married anymore. He didn’t seem surprised at all. “Did you sleep with someone?” he asked, and then, when I hesitated, he added, “Never mind. It’s none of my business.”
Did I mention that J’s a lawyer? It’s relevant mostly because he’s the one with all of the money. After seven years, I know that I’m technically entitled to some of it, but it doesn’t feel right to take it, at least not until I find out what’s up with the tiny thing that’s currently occupying my uterus. And, no, I didn’t tell him about that. Not yet. Miscarriages happen all the time, and it didn’t seem worth getting into it until it was clear that whatever’s in there is going to stick.
So, I moved out, leaving him with the nice apartment — and the mortgage — and renting for myself the kind of crappy studio that my friends were living in when we were 26, by which time J and I were already playing house. We’re calling it a separation...we haven’t started divorce proceedings yet. But, for now, I’m more broke than I’ve been in years, since J was in law school and we were living on loans and my then-meager income, which still isn’t anything to write home about. Did I mention I’m a writer? Clearly the situation isn’t sustainable, but I figure that I don’t have to sustain it forever; in about six more months, a baby will pop out, and if it has blue eyes (like M, and my mother) well, that will mean one thing, and if they’re brown (like J, and me) it will mean another. If they’re hazel, I guess I’ll have to suck it up and get a paternity test.
Needless to say, I didn’t plan for any of this. I’m not saying that I necessarily thought that I’d be able to get away with cheating on J — although I think all cheaters, always, are pretty sure that they can get away with it — but I truly didn’t get that I was blowing up my life. My closest friends, the ones that were only mine, are still around, but I can’t really see anyone else, because I don’t want J or M to hear that I’m pregnant. I’m not saying I’m never going to tell the father, just that I can’t tell until I know who it is, and figure out what I can rightfully expect from him. But, truly, I’m not miserable. I’m worried, of course, but I think I was actually less happy half a year ago, before any of this happened. Maybe I’m not quite being honest with either J or M, but I’m being honest with myself, and, as a result, I’m finding myself a lot easier to live with. I guess that’s the point. I mean, that’s another thing that I’ve learned, that’s only kind of about cheating: Sometimes, if you’re stuck in a situation that, on some level, you know isn’t right, your brain will trick you into doing something that really isn’t right, just to get you to pay attention. That’s why the thought of it is the thing that matters most.
For more tales of infidelity and unpredictable aftermath, tune in to Betrayal, premiering on September 29 at 10|9c on ABC.
Chloe Masterson is a freelance writer based in New York.